LONDON: Britain must back deeper integration of the European Union or quit altogether, Francois Hollande, the French president, declared last night (Wednesday).
During furious exchanges with Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, Mr Hollande said British voters who do not like the idea of a "strengthened" EU must take the "logical path" and leave the union.
It came as he spelled out France's support for a series of radical new institutions to cope with the continent's multiple crises, including a common defence policy and a shared asylum system and coast guard.
The president was speaking a day after Theresa May, the Home Secretary, attacked the Schengen system of free movement and said she would "not in a thousand years" participate in an EU asylum programme.
It is a direct clash with David Cameron's insistence that Europe can be a "flexible network" with some countries playing a far looser role than others.
Mr Hollande said: "We've been going through this for years. If we don't want to strengthen Europe, then there's only one road and I heard what Mr Farage said: that the only road is for those who are not convinced of Europe to leave Europe.
"There is no other way. It's a horrible path, but it's a logical path. Leave Europe, leave Schengen and leave democracy.
"Do you really want to participate in a common state? That's the question."
The outburst is the first time a European leader has acknowledged, albeit grudgingly, that there is a "logical" case for Britain to quit the bloc.
It reflects mounting frustration in Paris at Mr Cameron's determination to get an "a la carte" Europe. Many French government officials think Britain already holds more than enough opt-outs on key pieces of policy and are exasperated by its demands for more.
Mr Hollande was speaking alongside Angela Merkel in a rare joint appearance designed to reaffirm the Franco-German core that has held together the crisis-riven bloc for 60 years.
Mr Farage said that France was "little more than a pipsqueak" in a "totally German-dominated Europe".
"I think a bright star is on the horizon. It's called the British referendum and given that none of you want to concede Britain the ability to take back control of her own borders a Brexit now looks more likely than at any point in modern times," he said.
Mrs Merkel is to meet Mr Cameron at Chequers tomorrow to discuss the British renegotiation.
However, heralding a looming row for Britain, she said that the Dublin system that obliges asylum seekers to stay in the first EU country they reach is "obsolete" and there needs to be a more "fair" distribution.
Britain is a major beneficiary of the scheme, allowing it to remove more than 1,000 failed asylum seekers a year. The European Commission is reviewing the system, which has buckled under the mass influx of refugees and migrants into the bloc.
Yesterday an EU naval taskforce began an operation to intercept smugglers in the Mediterranean.
Operation Sophia aims to intercept craft on international waters sent to sea by smuggling gangs and arrest their crews. HMS Richmond, a Royal Navy frigate, will soon join the group.