M. Continuo

British EU exit could lead to UK break-up, warns Hague

LONDON (Reuters) - The United Kingdom could disintegrate if Britons vote to leave the European Union as it would give succour to the cause of Scottish nationalists, former Foreign Secretary William Hague said on Wednesday.

Hague, a former leader of Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party and considered to be a Eurosceptic, said he would back Britain remaining in the bloc despite his own great misgivings about the EU when an in/out referendum is held before the end of 2017.

"We will have to ask, disliking so many aspects of it as we do, whether we really want to weaken it, and at the same time increase the chances, if the UK left the EU, of Scotland leaving the UK," Hague wrote in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Hague spoke out after Cameron met fellow European leaders in Brussels last week to try to drum up support for his reform of Britain's relationship with the EU.

Critics in his party, which has been deeply divided over Europe for decades, say his negotiations are likely to achieve little of any substance, with former Defence Secretary Liam Fox saying on Sunday it was time to "end the pretence" that Europe would change to accommodate Britain.

Hague said despite the EU's many failings, it provided stability for fragile democracies in central Europe and it would not be in Britain's interests for the bloc to fall apart with such volatility in the Middle East and the world economies.

He said Scottish nationalists, who strongly support staying in the EU, would use a vote for exit as grounds to hold another referendum on independence, something Scots rejected by 55-45 percent in September last year.

Hague said a second vote in such circumstances would be too close to call.

"To end up destroying the United Kingdom and gravely weakening the European Union would not be a very clever day's work," Hague said. "So, even as a longstanding critic of so much of that struggling organisation, I am unlikely in 2016 to vote to leave it."

(Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Ralph boulton)