BRUSSELS – Britain's policy towards Europe is becoming harder to understand and there is a sense the country is slowly waving goodbye to the European Union, Finland's Europe minister said on Thursday.
Speaking at an EU summit, Alex Stubb said Britain appeared to be purposefully putting itself at odds with its partners. Finland allies closely with Germany on a range of EU issues and has a substantial voice in EU policymaking.
"It's almost as if it's 26 plus 1, to be very honest," he said when asked if the push for deeper integration among the 17 euro zone countries risked leaving Britain and the other nine EU member states in a second-tier group.
"I think Britain is right now, voluntarily, by its own will, putting itself in the margins," he told Reuters in an interview.
"We see it in foreign policy, we see it in economic policy, we see it linked to the single currency. And I, as someone who advocates the single market and free trade, find that very unfortunate, very unfortunate.
"It's almost as if the boat is pulling away and one of our best friends is somehow saying 'bye bye' and there's not really that much we can do about it."
British officials insist their government wants to remain part of the EU but over the past year Prime Minister David Cameron has taken an increasingly tough line, partly in an effort to assuage Eurosceptical backbenchers in his Conservative party and partly because of innate differences with the EU over where it is headed.
Cameron said earlier this month that a referendum on Britain's ties with the European Union would be the best way of agreeing a fresh settlement with the 27-member bloc.
Arriving at the summit, he called on Europe to encourage enterprise, cut regulation and complete the bloc's single market, which was launched in 1992.
"It is its 20th anniversary right now, but it still isn't finished, in digital, in services, in energy, and that is the agenda I'll be pushing very hard at this council," he said.
As well as refusing to sign up to a "fiscal compact" that 25 EU countries agreed last year, Cameron has threatened to veto the EU's long-term budget if Britain's positions aren't respected, and this week announced he was pulling out of EU cooperation on policing and justice issues.
Some EU diplomats are concerned that Britain is now on a slippery slope towards a "velvet divorce" from the EU, which it joined in 1973.
Asked if he could envisage Britain pulling out, Stubb said he didn't see things going that far yet, but all countries needed to keep domestic political undercurrents in check.
"There is a lot of pressure on the British government at home from its Eurosceptic wing," said Stubb, who is married to a British lawyer.
"I of course hope that the current government holds steadfast as a fully-fledged member of the European Union and doesn't start marginalizing itself voluntarily because I think that would be to the detriment of both Britain and the EU."
In the past two months, 11 euro zone countries have decided to push ahead with their own financial transactions tax, proposals have been made for a banking union among the euro zone countries and others that want to join, and there has been a proposal to set up a single budget for the euro zone.
All three moves have created tensions among states and made Britain's position more complicated and less comfortable.
"We have to be careful not to make proposals that make a permanent split between the euro zone countries and the non-eurozone countries," said Stubb, a former foreign minister.
"It sort of breaks my heart to be honest because we're losing a liberal country," he said of Britain's increasing isolation. "The UK is a special case."
(Writing by Luke Baker, editing by Mike Peacock)