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.
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.
But by opting out of the euro, the currency adopted by 17 nations and anchored by Germany and France, Britain also has maintained something that countries such as Italy and Spain have not: monetary independence, such as the ability to set its own interest rates and decide when to print cash — and how much.
Increasingly, Britain’s complaints are being echoed by others.
In France, the far-right National Front under Marine Le Pen is sensing the anti-E.U. shift and is promising to pull out of the euro and curtail broader integration as part of its platform for elections next year. In Denmark, which like Britain is an E.U. member but has opted out of the euro, a poll released this week showed anti-euro sentiment at an all-time high, with about 65 percent of Danes rejecting any future adoption of the common currency.
At the same time, fears are rising that the debt crisis might complicate plans to expand the European Union to include countries such as Serbia and Turkey.
It highlights what observers call the paradox of the crisis. On one hand, nations that share the euro are racing to put together a plan to more deeply integrate into a fiscal union led by Germany, reassuring investors that Berlin will be the watchdog of more profligate nations, including Greece, Italy and Spain. But even as they try to forge deeper ties on paper, the electorates, political parties and pundits across the European Union appear to be drifting further apart.
“Even in Germany, you have parliamentarians talking about ‘lazy’ Greeks and Italians in terms that would have been unthinkable a few years ago,” said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a pan-European think tank. “The euro-zone crisis may be forcing Europe to try to move closer together institutionally. But economically, culturally and politically, it is driving Europe apart.”
With the possible exception of embittered Greece — where the public is furious about the austerity being heaped on it as the price of a euro-zone bailout — nowhere are anti-European feelings running higher than in Britain.
Cameron has become a leading critic of the way the crisis is being managed by the euro-zone countries, expressing dismay over Germany’s resistance to massive aid for countries such as Italy to restore market confidence.
Yet Cameron has strongly opposed at least one possible big fix for the crisis — a “Robin Hood” tax on banks that would hit hard London’s lucrative financial district, all in the name of propping up a currency, the euro, this nation does not share.
Even Britain’s opposition Labor Party has had a change of heart. Reversing a longtime stance, Labor’s point person on foreign policy, Douglas Alexander, said recently that the party no longer envisioned adopting the euro and suggested that it might not be wise to surrender any more power to Brussels.
British stubbornness could force Germany, France and other nations trying to tackle the euro-zone crisis to be more creative in their attempt to craft a new fiscal union, with those countries reportedly pursuing a potentially messy series of bilateral treaties that could work around nations such as Britain.
Cameron’s blunt critiques have escalated tensions. Ahead of a meeting in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last month, Germany’s Bild newspaper asked, “What is England still doing in the E.U.?” Die Welt bannered a headline asserting that the “British are furious about German dominance in Europe.” One of Merkel’s closest allies, Volker Kauder, accused the British of “just looking for their own advantage and not being prepared to contribute.”
Special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.