Japanese firms such as Nissan have told the Deputy Prime Minister thousands of North East jobs will be put at risk if the country leaves the European Union.
Nick Clegg told The Journal that on several occasions, major Japanese companies have made it clear to him they need the UK in the EU to guarantee further investment.
His comments have been dismissed as unsubstantiated by the UK Independence Party, who said Nissan knew the changing political landscape and still chose to invest hundreds of millions of pounds in the region.
Mr Clegg was speaking after it emerged the Japanese government had warned London that many of its firms are only in the UK because of its access to the European single market.
Last month, a memo from Tokyo revealed concerns that manufacturers such as Nissan, which employs more than 6,000 in the North East, or Durham’s new train-building firm Hitachi, could be put off if a referendum on EU membership brought a ‘no’ vote.
The Conservatives have promised to hold the poll in 2017, after UKIP enjoyed periods of electoral success on the back of growing anti-EU sentiment.
Now, Mr Clegg has warned his coalition colleagues and UKIP that their “dogmatic” dislike of the EU will put North East jobs at risk.
He said: “The Japanese warning could not have been clearer. Continued membership of the EU is, for them, essential to their continued investment in the UK and their employment of thousands of people in the North East. The North East will suffer very seriously if the Conservatives and UKIP can just yank us out of the EU.”
Mr Clegg added: “I think the warning from the Japanese car manufacturers should be a real wake-up call to UKIP and the Conservatives that they are playing politics with people’s jobs.
“This isn’t a game any more. The major Japanese manufacturers have told me privately for a long time now that the reason they have made significant investment in the car industry in the UK is largely because so much of what they sell is imported into the European single market.
“If they have no guarantee that their access will continue to be available, why would they make further multimillion-pound investments?
“There are up to 3.5 million jobs either directly or indirectly linked to our membership of the world’s biggest single market, and yet, because of political dogma, UKIP and the Conservatives want to put that at risk.
“Yes, the EU needs to reform, but people should remember this is about people’s jobs, their monthly pay packet, and they shouldn’t play around with that.”
Richard Elvin, the UKIP North East chairman, said: “When Nissan announced its ï¿½250m investment in the Sunderland plant last December, it gave as its reasons for the investment that Sunderland was awarded the model thanks to its reputation for efficiency, both in terms of quality and cost as well as ability to deliver. It was a vote of confidence in Sunderland’s workforce.
“The plant exports to 97 countries, including our friends in the EU. But to suggest that Nissan wouldn’t have invested in Sunderland without our EU membership shows how little Mr Clegg regards the local workforce.
“It is a shame the Deputy Prime Minister has a lower regard for them than Nissan’s senior management in Japan. Maybe that is because they are more interested in the North East than he is.”
The North East will suffer if the Conservatives and UKIP can just yank us out of the EU