By politics.co.uk staff
Britain's interests would have been better defended had David Cameron not decided to leave the centre-right European People's party (EPP) grouping, Chris Huhne has claimed.
The Liberal Democrat Cabinet minister's comments came in an interview with the Independent newspaper in which he called on the prime minister to do more to take on Tory eurosceptics who want a "semi-detached" relationship with the continent.
Key decisions are believed to have been made at the meeting of the EPP's leaders in Marseille on the eve of the Brussels summit earlier this month.
"If you are not at the table when things are being decided, you can't defend your interests," Mr Huhne said.
"The phrase in Brussels is very clear: if you are not at the table, you are on the menu."
Negotiations ended when Britain attempted to veto fiscal integration measures, but saw all the other EU member states press ahead with the reforms without it.
Mr Huhne's criticism echoes those made repeatedly by the opposition, which has blamed the Tory decision to leave the EPP in 2009 for the summit's acrimonious outcome.
He said Mr Cameron needed to act now to tackle the views of his backbenchers seeking to build on the veto to seek a more fundamental renegotiation of Britain's position in Europe.
"I am worried there is a tendency on the Conservative right wing, a significant part of its parliamentary party, that does not appreciate the importance of being at the table in Brussels when it comes to negotiating the rules for the single market – and does not understand the strength the EU gives us globally in tackling problems like climate change," the energy and climate change secretary said.
"We need to make that case more positively. The case for our membership of the EU is not a case for ending national sovereignty but for delivering an age-old, historic objective of our foreign policy."
He added: "A lot of the Conservative right pine for some semi-detached status where we would be like Norway or Switzerland – enjoying the benefits of the single market without being a member of the EU."
The case for Britain adopting a similar relationship to Europe as that currently held by Switzerland was made by Conservative MP John Baron in a comment piece for politics.co.uk published yesterday.
He argued that the prime minister's veto should lead to the establishment of a new relationship with Europe "based upon free trade, competitiveness and growth, moving away from political union and deadweight regulation".
Mr Baron wrote: "This is not some grand utopian vision – it exists today.
"Switzerland in particular enjoys easy access to the EU's markets, without its burdensome regulation, and prospers as a result.
"This kind of new relationship with Europe would recognise that we want good relations with our neighbours - but that we also want to better engage with the faster-growing world outside the EU."
Mr Huhne conceded that reform of the EU is needed but added that it would be achieved more easily if Britain remains closely involved in its processes.
"That reform is much better argued from a position where you passionately believe in the benefits that can arise from EU membership than if your counterparts believe you have a hidden agenda which is essentially to destroy the EU and all its works," he said.