Reuters International

Sweden's Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist speaks at a news conference in Baghdad, Iraq, November 2, 2015. REUTERS/Khalid al-Mousily

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By Tim Hepher

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - A British exit from the European Union would weaken European security, Sweden's defence minister said on Tuesday, adding to growing calls from international politicians and organisations for Britain to vote to remain in the bloc.

Britain is one of Sweden's closest allies in the European Union, with both opting out of the single currency.

"We need them deeply as a partner in the European Union and it will be a split in European Union and that is very bad," Defence Minister Peter Hultqvist told reporters in Stockholm.

When asked if "Brexit" would weaken Europe security, Hultqvist replied, "Yes".

A row over whether the EU contributes to keeping Britain and Europe safe has provoked some of the fiercest clashes ahead of a referendum on membership of the EU on June 23.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who leads the "In" campaign, has argued Britain's membership makes the country more secure and that it needs the EU to help fight Islamic State and rebuff a more assertive Russia.

Former mayor of London Boris Johnson, the de facto leader of the "Out" campaign, has accused Cameron of scare-mongering over Britain's security and suggested the bloc is trying to create a damaging European superstate.

Hultqvist expressed concerns that a decision by British voters to leave the EU could encourage other countries to review their ties with the 28-nation bloc at a time when Europe faces new external security threats.

"I think that a ‘No’ to the European Union from the British side can start negative processes in other countries in Europe. What we definitely need now is unity and acting together because that is something that makes the situation more stabilised," he said.

He nonetheless reiterated Sweden's opposition to joining NATO and said Sweden was deepening ties with several countries including Finland, the United States and Britain.

Among other overseas interventions, the International Monetary Fund has said Brexit would deal a blow to the global economy. U.S. President Barack Obama has warned that if Britain left, it would be at "the back of the queue" for a U.S. trade deal.

Sweden's Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom was quoted by Swedish daily Svenska Dagbladet as telling parliament on Tuesday that Sweden and Britain were about to sign an agreement on closer defence co-operation.

The ministers were speaking ahead of the unveiling of a new Saab Gripen E fighter as Sweden reverses part of a post-Cold War decline in defence spending.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Dickson; Writing by Johan Ahlander and Tim Hepher; Editing by Alison Williams)

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