RAMSEY, England — Looking at Europe from this side of the English Channel, Peter Reeve doesn’t see a “cuddly” continent of biscotti, Burgundy and BMWs. He sees the evil specter of Soviet Russia.
Only this time, it’s Brussels, not Moscow, at the center of an expanding, metastasizing super-government bent on turning independent nations like France and Germany into vassal states. Instead of the Soviet Union, it’s the European Union that scares him.
Reeve, a local councilor with the UK Independence Party, wants Britain to pull out of the EU while it still can, before it’s trapped in such a thick web of European regulation and control that escape becomes impossible and the country winds up as an offshore outpost of a totalitarian EU regime.
“I genuinely believe this is a Marxist revolution happening,” said Reeve. “This country is part of it, but balking on it” — an impulse he heartily encourages.
Reeve’s dystopian view lies on the more extreme end of “Euroskepticism” here in Britain. But dissatisfaction and downright hostility toward the European Union is undeniably on the rise, making British withdrawal from the 27-nation club a more real prospect than it has been for years and creating a massive headache for the Conservative-led government.
Upset at EU court rulings that trump British ones, health-and-safety regulations viewed as ridiculously onerous and Eastern European migrants “stealing” local jobs, many Britons feel that EU membership is now more a liability than an asset. At best, they say, Britain is being held back from achieving its economic potential; at worst, it’s been stripped of sovereignty and placed at the mercy of unfriendly, unelected “Eurocrats” at EU headquarters in Brussels.
Polls increasingly show more Britons in favor of leaving the EU than staying in. Anti-EU sentiment pervades British politics, with some Cabinet ministers openly calling for Britain to pull out, or at least for the question to be put to voters in a referendum.
All this has thrown the government of Prime Minister David Cameron into a tricky position. He must weigh growing public disenchantment with the EU against the pro-Europe interests of big business, a natural constituency of his Conservative Party, which fears being shut out of the EU’s single market.
Some political analysts warn that outside the EU, Britain’s global influence would sharply diminish, especially its role as a transatlantic bridge for the U.S.
“The Americans have always told the Brits that ‘you guys are important for us because you have a big influence in Europe,’” said Philip Whyte, a research fellow at the London-based Center for European Reform. “If Britain left the EU, you [in the U.S.] won’t be necessarily picking up the phone to London. Britain won’t be the first country you’d be calling; the first country you’d be calling would be Germany.”
With so much at stake, Cameron has continually put off setting out his vision on Britain’s relationship with the EU. He is acutely aware that the last two Conservative prime ministers, John Major and Margaret Thatcher, were both toppled from power amid disputes over Europe, and he doesn’t want to make it three in a row.
But there is growing clamor for him to take a stand, particularly from his own backbenchers, among whom “Euroskepticism” runs strong. Analysts say Cameron will have to make a decision soon on whether to call a referendum.
The pressures on him were on full display last week at a tense summit of European leaders in Brussels. Fury at home over a proposed increase to the EU’s budget, which is funded by member states, obliged Cameron to take a hard line against any deal that he said amounted to “picking the pockets” of British taxpayers. The meeting ended in collapse.
Finance ministers from the 17 countries that use the euro currency are to meet Monday to talk about Greece, the epicenter of Europe’s debt crisis, but the next full meeting of all 27 EU nation leaders is not until December.
Further distancing itself from the rest of Europe, Cameron’s government has declared its intention to opt out of some of the EU’s unpopular legal and judicial agreements, which critics say handcuff Britain’s own law-enforcement system. A government report is due to be completed in 2014 that will spell out other powers that London ought to “repatriate,” or take back from the EU.
That kind of cherry-picking irritates Britain’s continental partners, many of which are drawing closer economically and politically to save the euro just as Britain, which has clung to the pound as its currency, pulls in the opposite direction. Some EU countries are beginning to wonder why they don’t simply show the door to such an uncooperative club member that seems determined to go its own way anyway.
Ironically, the British backlash against the EU comes at a time when Britons are better traveled than ever before, cosmopolitan enough to know “the difference between a latte and a macchiato,” as Whyte put it.
“When people think about Europe, they think in a lot less parochial way than probably 25 years ago,” he said. “The paradox is that the growth of that feeling has coincided with a growth of hostility to the Brussels institutions. It’s not that people hate the French more than they did 25 years ago; it’s that they’re more hostile to Brussels institutions than 25 years ago.”
That’s how Reeve feels.
The local councilman here in the town of Ramsey, in eastern England, says he enjoys visits to Paris and sampling other cultures. He vigorously denies that his UK Independence Party, or UKIP, is xenophobic. It just doesn’t want Britain to be under the thumb of EU overlords in far-off Brussels, though the Belgian capital is actually closer to Ramsey, as the crow flies, than the northern reaches of Britain.
“We’re not anti-the EU because it’s foreign. We’re anti-the EU because it’s undemocratic,” Reeve said. “What’s emerged is a political union that no one’s ever signed up to.”
The Ramsey town council illustrates another of Cameron’s problems: the rise of UKIP and its potential for siphoning away votes from his Conservative Party. In elections last year, UKIP candidates won nine of the 17 seats in Ramsey, making it the first UKIP-controlled town council in Britain.
UKIP members also occupy 12 of Britain’s 78 slots in the European Parliament, where they are seen as something of a fifth column inside an institution they openly despise.
The party has yet to win a seat in Britain’s own Parliament. Yet its colorful leader, Nigel Farage, has high hopes that UKIP will eclipse the tanking Liberal Democrats to become Britain’s third-strongest political force, behind the Conservatives and Labor.
To broaden its appeal, UKIP has begun preaching a libertarian message of self-help and small government. But at its core remains the drive to remove Britain from the clutches of an EU monster state that, by Farage’s reckoning, now accounts for 75% of the laws that Britons must obey.
“You can always argue that dictators do the odd good thing. Whether the EU makes a good law or a bad law, the fact is that the electors of this country cannot do a single thing to change any of it,” said Farage.
He is adamant that the government call an “in-or-out” plebiscite on the EU, which would probably decide the question for at least a generation.
“If a majority of my fellow electors in a free and fair referendum opt for us to become Province 17 of the European Union, I won’t be happy about it,” Farage said. “But at least it’ll be the decision of the British people.”