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Britain needs to jump from EU's 'sinking ship': UK lawmaker

The European Union's economy is a "sinking ship" and Britain would be better off "detaching itself" from the bloc, Michael Gove, the U.K.'s Justice Secretary and prominent leave campaigner told CNBC on Tuesday.

"By voting to leave we can not only take back control of hundreds of millions of pounds that we send to the European Union, we will also be detaching ourselves from the sinking ship that is the European Union economy," Gove, who is hoping for a Brexit vote on Thursday's referendum, said.

The leave campaign has urged voters in the referendum to "take back control" and it has argued that Britain would be able to control its trade, borders, immigration and economy more effectively outside the EU. The opposition remain camp say that Britain is "stronger in Europe" and that a Brexit risks jobs, the economy, trade and security, among other elements of British life.

Gove said he was wary of making economic forecasts about the future "as they have so often proved to be wrong, whether it's from our own Treasury or from organizations like the IMF (International Monetary Fund)" but said that the EU would not, as feared if a Brexit occurs, impose trade tariffs that could harm British businesses.

"If you're making an economic judgment, one of the things to do is to look at facts and fundamentals and the facts are that Britain has a trade deficit with the EU so it wouldn't be in the EU's interest to erect any trade barriers," he said.

Global markets surged on Monday after several opinion polls over the weekend showed that the remain camp was regaining momentum ahead of the vote.


People hold Union Flags and the EU flag at a kiss chain event organised by pro-Europe 'remain' campaigners seeking to avoid a Brexit in the EU referendum in Parliament Square in front of the Houses of Parliament in central London on June 19, 2016.
Daniel Leal-Olivas | AFP | Getty Images
People hold Union Flags and the EU flag at a kiss chain event organised by pro-Europe 'remain' campaigners seeking to avoid a Brexit in the EU referendum in Parliament Square in front of the Houses of Parliament in central London on June 19, 2016.

Polls released Monday evening for The Telegraph newspaper and The Times showed conflicting voter intentions, however. The pound was trading higher at $1.4736 on Tuesday morning, up from levels of around $1.40 last week.

Influential investor George Soros, who famously made a fortune betting against the currency in 1992, said in a newspaper op-ed on Tuesday, that a Brexit would likely trigger a big sell-off in the pound.

Gove dismissed that concern, however, saying that Soros had made calls in the past that had proved wrong and said the investor wasn't "thinking about what was primarily in Britain's interest" and criticized what he called negative campaigning tactics.

"On Thursday I think people will be voting on the basis of arguments and one of the arguments I've tried to make throughout (the campaign) is that if people vote to leave they're voting to have confidence in this country, in its institutions and in its people."

"It is a significant decision and will change this country's path for a generation. Both sides have made their arguments with passion and with force and with fluency. But, our side I believe has been optimistic about Britain's potential, whereas I fear that too often those arguing that we should remain have been too fearful and surprisingly pessimistic about Britain's potential outside (the EU)."

Part of the shift in momentum back towards the remain camp was seen as a reaction against a Brexit campaign poster deployed by Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party who has long campaigned for Britain to leave the EU. The poster depicted a long line of refugees with the words "breaking point," although Farage has since moved to defend the content of the poster in a TV interview on Monday.

Farage is well-known for his outspoken views and the poster has proved equally as controversial with even fellow Brexit campaigner Gove saying during a BBC interview this weekend that the poster had made him "shudder." Pro-EU campaigner and U.K. Finance Minister George Osborne compared the poster to Nazi propaganda.

Farage made for an awkward bedfellow in the Brexit camp, Gove conceded. "There have been occasions when Nigel Farage has said and done things with which I disagree but I've tried very hard not to single out any individual in this campaign for criticism and it's important to bring it back to the arguments. There are legitimate public concerns over migration that I think are best-addressed if we vote to leave the EU."

He insisted he was not opposed to migration and it had benefitted the U.K.'s culture and economy "but people need to feel that the numbers are being controlled and we can't do that in the EU."

Meanwhile, the U.K.'s Secretary of State for Health Jeremy Hunt dismissed Gove's claims that the U.K. could be as successful economically on leaving the EU, telling CNBC that Britain "will survive, it is one of the great countries in the world, but will it thrive?"

"At the moment we have tariff-free access to the largest single market in the world with 500 million consumers, it's bigger even that the U.S. market, it's hugely important for the U.K. market and in the period we've been a member of the EU, our GDP (gross domestic product) per capita has increased by a faster rate than even that of the U.S. So this ability to trade, which has been at the heart of our success, would we want to throw that away?"

He also countered Gove's notion that there would be no barrier to trade with the EU if the U.K. left the bloc. "If we were to leave the EU, the deal that we would get in terms of trade would be more barriers and higher tariffs that we have at the moment," he added.

One of the claims made by Brexit campaigners is that the U.K. will be forced to be a part of "ever-closer integration" in Europe, even though Prime Minister David Cameron extracted assurances from other EU leaders that they recognized that the U.K. did not intend to integrate further.

William Hague, former British foreign secretary and another member of the remain camp, told CNBC that Britain had a "uniquely advantageous" position in Europe and would not have to get closer to the EU if voters chose to remain in the bloc.

"Britain succeeded in staying out of the euro and nobody in Europe or in Britain now expects us ever to join the euro, that is settled, and we've won similar battles not to be a part of the Schengen zone (the border-free area in Europe), to reduce the EU budget," he said. "So Britain is in a good position, we have this uniquely advantageous position in the EU."

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