Britain made a “colossal mistake” by leaving the European Union, former prime minister Sir John Major told a Westminster committee.

Sir John said that while he was not a “huge Europhile”, he believed the UK was stronger in the EU.

The former prime minister appeared before the Northern Ireland Affairs Commission, which is investigating the effectiveness of the institutions of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Stephen Farry, deputy leader of the Alliance Party, asked whether it was beneficial for the UK to be in the EU in the early days of the Northern Ireland peace process in the 1990s.

Sir John, who campaigned to remain in the EU before the 2016 Brexit referendum, said the bloc’s membership paved the way for many of the deals reached early in the process.

He said that many deals are done on the sidelines of EU meetings. He said: “It was a very comfortable tent in which we could operate discreetly. We made full use of the tent.”

Sir John added: “Ireland is our nearest neighbour. That relationship with Ireland was important then and it is important today. We are of the European Union and you are in it.

“This is one of the ways we can reach out and take back some of the things we so willfully threw away when we left the EU.”

Sir John said he did not think the EU was anywhere near perfect.

“Because I negotiated the Maastricht Treaty, the ultra-Brexiteers see me as a big Europhile.

“That’s actually not true. I am a very practical European. There are many things I don’t like. But I look at the packaging and I say: ‘Would the people of my country be better off and safer if we were inside or outside the European Union?’

“I came to the conclusion that we would be better off indoors. There are three major power blocs in the world today. The UK is not one of them. There is America, there is China and there is the European Union.

“Europe faces enormous economic competition from both America and China. It may face military insecurity issues with China. Is Europe better able to represent its citizens if the UK strengthens it internally or weakens it externally? I think not only us, but the whole of Europe is stronger with Britain.”

He added: “When I look at the interests of my children and grandchildren, I think their future looks better if they are part of a very large block that can work with us when we are in trouble.

“Suppose we had a big fight with China. Britain decided to impose sanctions on China; China would not suffer much. If the European Union did it because we were mistreated, they would think very differently.

“It is these strategic issues that make me believe we need to be in Europe and that we have made a colossal mistake in leaving. I understand the sovereignty arguments, although many of these are more semantic than real. No country, not even the United States, has pure sovereignty.

“Who has pure sovereignty in NATO? We all join NATO; no one complains about it. I wonder how many of the cuts we’ve had, or shortfalls in our public services, wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the loss of GDP because we left the European Union?

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