Prime Minister David Cameron's promise of a referendum on his country's membership of the European Union is a "huge distraction" that risks reducing Britain's influence in the bloc to that of Norway, Danny Alexander warned.
In an interview that highlights deep divisions within Britain's two-party coalition over Europe, Alexander, the number two at Britain's finance ministry and a member of the Liberal Democrat party, the junior coalition partner, said a British EU exit would be "catastrophic at every level".
Losing a say over how the world's largest single market is regulated would be particularly damaging, he warned.
"Look at the Norwegians for example, where in order to maintain access to the single market they basically receive the new rules on the fax machine from Brussels and they have to implement them without changing them," Alexander told Reuters.
Norway is not an EU member but has access to the bloc's single market in return for adopting most laws related to it.