Friday, Oct 19, 2018
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Britain weighs vote on euro zone

Radical steps toward integration causes unease


A woman protests against evictions and banks Thursday inside of a Barclays bank office in Barcelona, Spain. An elected member of the British Parliament, Steve Baker is part of a growing rank of furious politicians increasing the pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a national referendum on a once unthinkable notion here: Leaving the European Union.


LONDON — Like so many others in the fiercely independent island nation of Britain, Steve Baker is fed up with the long hand of the European Union in British life.

The European Union, he said, has meddled for years in British legal affairs and labor laws.

But now 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 new pan-European rules would forbid motorcycle owners from doctoring bikes themselves, outraging thousands of British bikers and becoming the latest symbol of continental authority run amok.

Mr. Baker is the wrong biker to mess with. An elected member of the British Parliament, he is part of a growing rank of furious politicians increasing the pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a national referendum on a once unthinkable notion here: leaving the European Union.

"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 Mr. Baker, one of 100 Conservative lawmakers demanding a referendum — a proposal gaining 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," Mr. Baker said.

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 euro zone weighs more radical steps toward integration, unease spreads.

Nowhere is the resistance stronger than in Britain, which has withdrawn its name from a host of proposed integration initiatives and whose opposition could create hurdles for the rest of Europe as it seeks to forge a common future.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 closer to countries such as Norway and Switzerland that want no formal part of a united Europe.

A frustrated Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission's president, lashed out this month at the anti-Europe forces in London. "You seem to delight in the difficulties of the euro area," he said.

To be sure, Britain has long looked askance 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 while never seeming to fully trust its European partners.

Opinion polls show almost 50 percent of Britons want to exit the European Union.

With public fury growing, Mr. Cameron last month seemed to open the door to a referendum. But he has sought to resist pressure to quickly set a date, something observers say may be increasingly hard for him to fend off.

Mr. Cameron's Conservatives have sought to make a European Union referendum an early centerpiece of the next general election in 2015 — with an anti-Europe platform proving to be worth its weight in gold in Britain.

Mr. Cameron's biggest surge in opinion polls occurred in December after he refused to join an E.U. pact giving Brussels more power over national budgets.

Since then, E.U. laws and rulings have seemed to fuel more British angst.

For instance, British women are up in arms over new European laws forcing insurance companies to end gender-based pricing, sending their premiums way up.

At the same time, indignation grows over a proposed 6.8 percent boost in the budget of the European Commission — the E.U.'s executive branch — even as Britain and other nations in the region undergo painful rounds of austerity.

With Britain's jobless rate rising, Britons have blamed waves of immigrants from E.U. countries such as Poland and Spain, who, under existing regionwide treaties, have the same rights to work in Britain as do British citizens.

If a referendum is held, it would be the first on Europe since 1975, when Britons overwhelming voted in favor of membership in the European Economic Community, a precursor to the European Union.

"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," said Liam Fox, a Conservative who formerly was Mr. Cameron's defense minister. "This is not what Britain wants."

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