Britain’s continental drift away from the European Union


France's President Francois Hollande (L) and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron arrive at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in central London on July 10, 2012. (Pool/Reuters)

Like so many others in this fiercely independent island nation, Steve Baker, a dashing English engineer, is fed up with the long hand of the European Union in British life.

The E.U., he said, has meddled for years in Britain’s legal affairs and labor laws. But this time the 27-nation body had gone too far by interfering with his pride and joy: the retrofitted KTM 950 motorcycle he rides on the country lanes of Buckinghamshire. Proposed pan-European rules would forbid motorcycle owners from doctoring bikes themselves, outraging tens of thousands of British bikers and becoming the latest symbol here of continental authority run amok.

Baker is also the wrong biker to mess with. An elected member of Parliament, he is part of a growing rank of furious politicians ratcheting up the pressure on British Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a national referendum on a once-unthinkable notion here: leaving the E.U.

“We’re dealing with the tyranny of the nursery, a pathetic nanny state of Europe that now wants to even tell us how we can and cannot modify our motorcycles,” said Baker, one of 100 Conservative lawmakers demanding a referendum — a proposal that is gaining a measure of support even within the opposition Labor Party. “Britain has reached the point where almost no one wants to continue with the way things are, less consider deeper integration with Europe.”

To save the dream of a united Europe in the face of a destructive debt crisis, leaders on the other side of the English Channel are moving to surrender sovereignty over their banks, even talking about an elected regionwide president.

But as the region weighs more radical steps toward integration, popular unease is spreading. Nowhere, however, is the resistance stronger than in Britain, which has withdrawn its name from a host of proposed integration initiatives and whose opposition could throw up hurdles for the rest of Europe as it seeks to forge a common future.

The barrage of British vitriol aimed at Europe is fraying ties, setting up what many are calling a “two-speed Europe,” with a cluster of nations moving closer together even as Britain seems to drift toward countries such as Norway and Switzerland that want no formal part of a united Europe. Indeed, a frustrated Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, lashed out this month at the anti-Europe forces in London, saying, “You seem to delight in the difficulties of the euro area.”

To be sure, Britain has long looked askew at the traditions and bureaucracy of the continent just 21 miles from the white cliffs of Dover, seeing Europe mostly as a thing apart. Even as London signed away a host of powers over the past four decades — largely in the name of winning tax-free trade with the region’s largest economies, Germany and France — it jealously guarded the British pound and eschewed the euro currency while never seeming to fully trust its European partners.

Opinion polls show that almost one in every two Britons want to exit the E.U. With public fury growing, Cameron seemed to open the door to a referendum last month. But he has also sought to resist pressure to quickly set a date, something observers say may be increasingly difficult for him to fend off in the coming months.

Fueling the angst

Cameron’s Conservatives have sought to make an E.U. referendum an early centerpiece of the next general election, in 2015 — with an anti-Europe platform already proving to be worth its weight in gold here.

Cameron’s biggest surge in opinion polls came in December, for instance, after he refused to join a new E.U. pact giving Brussels more power over national budgets. His move forced other European nations in favor of the agreement — a bloc led by Germany — to forge their own separate pact, leaving Britain out.

Since then, a slew of E.U. laws and rulings has seemed to fuel more British angst. Earlier this year, many here seethed when the European Court of Human Rights blocked Britain’s attempt to deport Abu Qatada, a radical Muslim cleric deemed a national security risk. The court insisted that Britain first receive assurances from Qatada’s native Jordan that he would receive a fair trial.

British women, meanwhile, are up in arms over new European laws forcing insurance companies to end sex-based pricing, sending their premiums way up. At the same time, indignation is growing over a proposed 6.8 percent increase in the budget of the European Commission — the executive branch of the E.U. — even as Britain and other nations in the region undergo painful rounds of austerity.

With the unemployment rate here rising, Britons have increasingly blamed waves of immigrants from E.U. countries such as Poland and Spain, who, under regionwide treaties, have the same rights to work here as British citizens.

Conservatives such as Liam Fox, Cameron’s former defense minister and an influential lawmaker, argue that the benefits of E.U. membership have been grossly overstated. He cites Britain’s trade deficit with the rest of the bloc, which clocks in at $200 billion.

Yet Fox and others say a referendum should not be a simple yes or no to membership and instead should include a question on whether Britain should engage in renegotiations with Brussels to win back some powers.

The outlook of Conservatives marks an evolution for the party. Britain was ushered into the precursor of the modern E.U. — the European Economic Community — in 1973 by one of its own, then-Prime Minister Edward Heath. But Fox and others say the formerly narrow focus on economics and trade has gotten “out of hand,” with the E.U.’s authority over Britain’s legal system, labor laws and fishing rights, among other things, turning the union into something that early Conservatives who supported membership never quite envisioned.

If a referendum is held, it would mark the first on Europe since 1975, when Britons overwhelming voted in favor of continued membership to the EEC.

“What British people voted for in 1975 was access to a common market, not the dictates on health, labor, law, safety and business standards we see today,” Fox said. “This is not what Britain wants.”

Risks involved

Still, critics say bucking European integration is bad for Britain and for Europe. A British withdrawal from the E.U., or even a renegotiated “second class” membership, would rob the union of its third-largest economy and arguably its most influential military power.

But London also risks losing the stronger voice in world affairs it gains through Brussels. Pro-E.U. Britons cite the new E.U. free-trade agreement with South Korea, reached on favorable terms that Britain alone may never have been able to negotiate. In addition, Britain risks losing billions in direct foreign investment by European, U.S. and Asian companies that have seen this nation as a gateway to the E.U. — the world’s largest network of consumers, with a population of 500 million.

“There is a growing fear in the U.K. political class, especially Conservatives, that Europe is now something we never would have joined,” said Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “But what are the alternatives? America is pivoting toward Asia, politically and emotionally, and let’s face it, we’re not going to join [the North American Free Trade Agreement]. So if the U.K. moves away from Europe, it could find itself quite exposed.”

Anthony Faiola is The Post's Berlin bureau chief. Faiola joined the Post in 1994, since then reporting for the paper from six continents and serving as bureau chief in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, New York and London.
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