Putin could 'drive wedge' between UK and EU, warns Merkel ally

Russian president Vladimir Putin would be "happy" if Britain left the EU and may even fund eurosceptic projects in the UK, a key ally of German chancellor Angela Merkel told Sky News.

Britain is in the process of preparing a referendum on its membership of the EU which is set to take place before the end of 2017. Although British prime minister David cameron hopes Britons will vote to stay in the EU and is currently attempting to negotiate reforming the terms of the UK's membership as opposed to opting to leave, his party is not unanimous in opposing a 'Brexit'.

A number of Tories have joined an inter-party eurosceptic group called Conservatives for Britain. The group have not ruled out working with the UK independence party (Ukip) in a bid to drum up support for Britain leaving the EU.

Norbert Röttgen, who chairs Germany's Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee and served as minister of the environment in Chancellor Merkel's cabinet, said that anti-EU initiatives in Britain would be welcomed by the Kremlin.

"[There is] no doubt about that, yes he would be happy about that,no doubt about this, because everything which weakens the West and the Europeans is very much appreciated by Russia and Putin" Röttgen said.

The German official accused accused Putin of being personally involved in deals which have seen notable pro-Kremlin and eurosceptic politicians in Europe receive financial backing from Russian companies, such as the €9m loan to the French nationalist party Front National from a Moscow-based bank.

"This is the reason, for example, he finances Marine Le Pen and the Front National because he wants to do everything he can to drive a wedge between the Europeans and between the US and the Europeans," Röttgen added.

Front National leader Le Pen has publicly endorsed numerous controversial actions by Russia including the Crimean annexation and has also promised to hold a referendum on France's membership in the EU if she is elected president in 2017. Earlier this week Le Pen also said that she did not consider the US a "friend or ally" to France, labelling her country's role in Nato's integrated command a "strategic mistake".

Russia is also bankrolling a €10bn nuclear plant project in Hungary and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban has previously praised Putin's rule in Russia, claiming last summer that he believed Hungary should follow in its footsteps and become an "illiberal state".

Recently ex-Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged the West to weed out Russian attempts to sow disunion in Europe by backing the nationalistic Right-wing and far-Left in countries such as Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria and France.

Röttgen says that Putin could fund anti-EU attempts in the UK ahead of the referendum to the same ends. "If he could contribute to driving a wedge between Britain and others he would do that certainly," he added.

Earlier this month the European parliament voted in favour of banning parties from receiving funding from Russia, however this was opposed by Front National, Ukip and other eurosceptic parties. The resolution is non-binding.

Subsequently Front National announced it was creating a new parliamentary group with one former Ukip member and members of European far-Right parties such as the Netherlands' Freedom Party and Italy's Northern League.