THE UK is “ready to quit” the European Union, education secretary Michael Gove has said in one of the clearest threats yet by a senior cabinet minister that the coalition could cut Britain’s ties with Brussels.
Mr Gove issued a stark warning that the Conservative-led government will “walk out” of the EU unless Westminster is handed back its sovereignty from Europe.
The education secretary’s Euro sceptic stance was backed by the UK’s Defence Secretary Philip Hammond who yesterday insisted that his Conservative colleague was reflecting “what many of us feel” in the party.
Mr Gove was reported to have told friends that, if there was a referendum today on whether the UK remain part of the EU, he would vote for Britain to leave the union.
The intervention will be seen as dramatically increasing the chance of the UK leaving the EU, with Mr Gove saying that he had discussed his views with the Prime Minister.
Mr Gove claims the UK could prosper as a free trading nation on its own, like other non-EU countries in Europe such as Norway and Switzerland.
The Scottish-born cabinet minister said that he had changed his view on EU membership partly as a result of his fury at what he claims is Brussels attempting to disrupt his controversial education reforms which include making it easier to sack failing teachers.
Mr Gove wants the UK government to give other EU nations a stark ultimatum: “Give us back our sovereignty or we will walk out.”
The warning to other EU member states comes as Mr Cameron is set to formally announce plans later this month to claw back major powers from Brussels.
Mr Cameron, who earlier this year vetoed changes in the EU Treaty, is expected to set out how he plans to withdraw Britain from key areas of Anglo-EU legal co-operation such as the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), access to police databases and prisoner transfers.
However, Mr Gove, backed by other Eurosceptic ministers including Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Environment Secretary Owen Paterson, wants Mr Cameron to examine the possibility of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. in more detail.
Mr Hammond yesterday said that “the balance of” powers was currently not right between the UK and EU in an apparent hardening of views on Europe among senior Conservatives.
He said that there was not going to be an “in or out” referendum now, but the “mood has changed”.
“What Michael is reflecting, and many of us feel, is that we are not satisfied with the current relationship between the EU and the UK,” he said. “The balance of competencies is not right.”
The Defence Secretary said the fact that the eurozone members would be having to change their relationship meant that for the “first time in a decade” there was an opportunity to renegotiate powers.
Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps said the UK wanted powers returned to the British Parliament, with the public to vote to approve such a return of powers either at the next General Election, or in a referendum “shortly afterwards”.
A Conservative source, yesterday set out Mr Gove’s position, saying: “Michael thinks it is about time we spelled it out, in simple words that even Brussels bureaucrats can understand, that we won’t tolerate this any longer.
“We have to tell them if they don’t return some of the important powers they have snaffled from us, we will leave. We have nothing to be scared of and he wants them to know that.”