LONDON — As an escalating debt crisis forces Europe to forge closer ties or risk breaking apart, no nation is drifting further from the fold than the one that was always the most skittish about the region’s steady march toward integration: Britain.
The 27-nation European Union — and within it the subgroup of 17 countries that share the euro currency — has aspired for years to build the world’s single-largest integrated economy bound by common laws and open borders. By jealously safeguarding the British pound and eschewing the euro, Britain has toed a middle ground, becoming a card-carrying E.U. member while also adhering to Winston Churchill’s old adage of being “with Europe, but not of it.”
Yet, even by British standards, the debt chaos on the continent in recent weeks has fanned a remarkable surge in anti-E.U. sentiment. For the Europeans, the deepening divisions here suggest the bigger problem sparked by the crisis, with a rash of finger-pointing, bitter disagreements and mounting distrust among neighbors threatening to revive old animosities and reverse years of gains toward regional integration.
A recent opinion poll shows that 49 percent of Britons would vote to leave the European Union while 40 percent would vote to stay in it. Decrying the clear rise during the crisis of economically mighty Germany as the region’s dominant power, Richard Littlejohn — a columnist and former talk-show host who is considered the Rush Limbaugh of Britain — warned readers last month of a coming “Fourth Reich.”
Under Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, Britain appears to be trying to leverage the debt crisis to regain powers it previously surrendered to bureaucrats in the European Union’s administrative capital, Brussels. It has even suggested that Britain might support a grand E.U. plan to manage the crisis only if it is first excluded from regional rules such as one mandating that the length of the European workweek be no more than 48 hours.
At the same time, Cameron has launched calls for a reinvented European Union, one that is less an integrated bloc and more a “network” of nations free from a central authority’s “pointless interference, rules and regulations.”
A surprisingly large group of lawmakers from Cameron’s Conservative Party recently went even further, trying to force a referendum on whether Britain should exit the bloc, Although the bold rebellion was ultimately quashed, it has escalated pressure on Cameron to adopt an even tougher line with Brussels.
A growing rift
As a nation separated from the rest of Europe by its treasured English Channel, Britain has always bristled at the notion of ceding authority to E.U. bodies widely seen here as culturally different and laden with continental bureaucrats sharing different work ethics, social outlooks and economic objectives. Yet, as a member of the bloc, Britain has agreed to bind itself to regional regulations, employment laws and legal rulings, in exchange for a stronger voice in European affairs and privileged access to hundreds of millions of continental consumers.