LONDON, UK — Breaking up is hard to do. However, tough economic times appear to be encouraging people to try. Catalans are trying to break up with Spain. Scots want to ditch England. And the British are trying to leave the EU.
Only the last group is likely to succeed. According to a poll in The Observer newspaper, 56 percent of British voters want to leave the EU.
Pressure is growing on Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a referendum on the issue.
He’s avoiding discussing a vote because the poll is accurate. Given a free choice, the Brits would go. And the odds are that even more will want to go by the end of this week, after European leaders hold a summit to discuss the EU's budget for the rest of the decade.
Britain is demanding a reduction in its contribution. It won't get it. That will be the cue for more EU bashing in Britain's overwhelmingly right-wing press. The demands for a referendum will grow increasingly shrill.
The whys and wherefores of that antipathy are partly historical, but also driven by propaganda.
History first: After World War II, Winston Churchill first mooted the idea of a more united Europe in a 1946 speech in Zurich, where he said, "We must build a kind of United States of Europe. In this way only will hundreds of millions of toilers be able to regain the simple joys and hopes which make life worth living."
Churchill made clear at the conclusion of his speech that he didn’t see Britain as part of this US of E. Britain had its own empire to oversee.
In the event, the empire didn't last much longer and by the time the UK was ready to find a new supra-national grouping to join. The European Economic Community — as the EU was called back then — had been set up, driven by France and Germany. French president Charles De Gaulle vetoed Britain's initial attempt to join and it wasn't until 1975 that UK voters approved joining by a margin of two to one.
Fast forward to today and everything is reversing. In 1975, the Conservative Party was the most pro-European. The trade union-dominated Labour Party thought the EU was a capitalist's club.
Today, only a quarter of Conservative voters want to stay in the EU because they regard it as the last bastion of socialism. Not that Labour voters are much more enthused. Only 40 percent say they’d vote to stay in the union.
The Conservative's coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, are the most pro-European. Their public opinion ratings are consistently below those of the UK Independence Party, an anti-EU group that has a similar approach to politics as the American Tea Party. It’s a wrecker of the established order.
The reversal of fortunes was encouraged by a decades-long campaign against the EU by Britain's right-wing media. That segment of the press is kind of like Fox News for people who can read, and it’s been relentless in railing against the European Commission, the EU's administrative arm.
"Big business and the City need to accept that the UK and EU are heading for a divorce — and learn to make the most of it," wrote Allister Heath, editor of a financial newspaper called City AM, in the Daily Telegraph this week.
The commission has made itself an easy target by paying lavish salaries to its senior figures and bureaucratizing common areas of EU policy to the point of absurdity. It’s remembered in Britain chiefly for its rules on how much bananas and cucumbers are allowed to bend. Really. That’s a story from 10 years ago, but that’s what people think of when they think of the commission.
As with Fox News and American politics, the truth about the EU is somewhere beyond the propaganda machine. Poland's Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski tried to bring the argument back to reality in an article in The Guardian this week.
"Britain has influenced the shape of the EU probably more than any other country," he wrote. "The single market was a British idea. English is the most-used language in EU institutions."
"Most importantly,” he added, “the British have brought to the EU a pragmatic approach and policy-making realism."
Flattery will get you everywhere — except in this debate. So Sikorski pointed out some basic economic truths. The UK’s contribution to the EU budget is around $240 per citizen a year. However, the government estimates that each British household receives between $2,400 and $5,500 in economic benefits from EU membership each year.
Sikorski's words carry a bit more weight than others. He was a refugee from communism who represents a conservative government. More than that, Sikorski attended Oxford University around the same time as Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, and, like them, was a member of the notorious Bullingdon Club, the rich students’ dining and restaurant-trashing society.
He’s also married to the transatlantic neo-conservative historian and columnist Anne Applebaum.
In other words, he’s no socialist.
But the mood here in Britain won't be changed by one well-reasoned article by someone of impeccable conservative credentials. It’s almost impossible to undo the weight of propaganda. With the euro zone in perpetual crisis, blamed for Britain's poor economic performance, attitudes against it will probably harden.
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Cameron is being outflanked on the right as the demands for a referendum grow louder. To preserve his position, he may have to sign a pledge granting Britons an in-or-out vote on EU membership.
That’s simply not a vote he could win — if he wanted to.
It's a remarkable irony that analysts have been discussing a “Grexit” for more than a year: Greece leaving the euro zone and, quite possibly, the EU. But Greece struggles on in the euro. Now Britain, which never joined the currency zone, is recognized as the country most likely to leave.
Brixit. It’s a word you’ll hear more and more between now and the next British election scheduled for 2015.