UK heart EU


British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks about the UK's relationship with the EU in January in London.


Oli Scarff

BRUSSELS, Belgium — On his trips back home to southeast England, the European Union's foreign policy spokesman likes to have a quiet beer or two in his local pub.

However, Michael Mann knows it’s never long before he's in for a tongue-lashing from fellow drinkers. "They usually stay polite for the first pint," he explains. "After that, they'll start to let me know what they feel about the EU."

For many Brits, fondness for the EU and its goal of ever-greater unity between Europeans has become a love that dares not speak its name. Euroskepticism is Britain's default setting in relations with its EU neighbors.

The union, with its headquarters in Brussels, is blamed for drowning business in red tape, flooding the UK with immigrants, undermining justice and democracy, and threatening the British way of life with attacks on cherished traditions from bingo to bulldogs and bagpipes.

Support is surging for the UK Independence Party, which campaigns to pull Britain out of the bloc. It pushed the ruling Conservatives into third place in a recent local election.

"The idea of a happy, harmonious Europe has been ground into the dust, it just doesn’t work," UKIP leader Nigel Farage told the Scottish news magazine Holyrood just before the vote.

Britain is the only one of the EU's 27 members in which a majority — 54 percent — believes the country would be better off outside the union, according to a pan-European poll carried out last November.

Asked what the EU means to them, 45 percent of Germans said "peace," and 42 percent of French picked "freedom to travel, study and work." The post popular British response was "waste of money."

Under pressure from Euroskeptics in his own party, Prime Minister David Cameron in January called for a referendum by 2017 on whether Britain should pull out.

Amid the surge of skepticism, British europhiles have become a voice in the wilderness. Pro-European politicians tend to keep silent about their views. Those who put their heads above the parapet risk ridicule.

"Europhile lords are shown up as a bunch of buffoons," said Patrick O'Flynn, chief political commentator of The Daily Express.

"It is too much to hope that these pro-EU fanatics will take off their blinkers and see what is really happening to their country," he wrote in response to criticism of his skeptical newspaper from a "coven" within the upper house of parliament.

Since Cameron's referendum call, however, the europhiles have begun fighting back.

"Pro-European groups have been propelled to come out of the closet and to make the case for Europe," says David Gow, a consultant for British Influence, a pro-European advocacy group launched in January.

Senior figures from the governing Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties have joined members of the Labour opposition to throw their support behind the new group.

"For far too long, those who want to destroy Britain’s interests and influence in Europe have been allowed to get away with murder with the lies and false propaganda they have poured out about the European Union and what it represents for our country," Peter Mandelson, business secretary in the last Labour government, said at the group's launch. "This cannot go unchallenged anymore."

Business leaders are also speaking out in favor of Britain's EU membership.

Many fear exclusion from the EU's market of 500 million consumers, or the need to swallow European rules without retaining the power to shape them as the price for market access.

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson is emerging as a pro-Europe figurehead.

"The EU remains home to half our exports and is the most powerful trading bloc in the world," he wrote in a letter in the Financial Times co-signed by nine other leading businessmen. "We need a strong reformed EU with Britain at the heart of it."

Labor unions have also denounced Cameron's decision to call a referendum. They warn that talk of pulling out of the EU puts jobs at risk.

"Trade with the European Union contributes directly to over 3 million jobs in the UK," stated a recent paper from the Trade Union Congress. "That alone should inform an enthusiastic, positive view of the benefits of EU membership."

Despite the revitalization efforts, the pro-Europe camp faces formidable challenges to overturning deep-seated anti-EU sentiment.

"The tabloid press especially remains hostile to pro-Europe sentiment,” contends Petros Fassoulas, chairman of the European Movement UK. "Their attacks discourage more people from coming forward and speaking out. The EU is constantly being portrayed as something alien, something abroad, far away, rather than us being part of the EU."

Just in the past few days, headlines in British national newspapers have proclaimed "alarm at new EU bid to seize control of our justice system" and claimed "a deadly TB superbug will sweep into the UK when we open our doors to Romanians" under EU free-movement laws.

Others recent stories fumed that Brussels is undermining the content of British jam, plans to ban milk jugs and is attempting "to brainwash children with sinister Soviet-style propaganda."

The stories are among dozens rebutted on the Euromyth Buster Facebook page set up in November by Catherine Bearder, a British Liberal Democrat member of the European Parliament.

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Despite the media bombardment and growing political support for the Euroskeptics, the pro-European camp is convinced Brits will vote to stay when the referendum is held — as they did when last asked about EU membership in 1975.

"Opinion about this is quite volatile," Gow said. He predicts traditional British pragmatism will eventually win out over the impassioned debates about national sovereignty or European unity.

"In a globalized world, being a small island declining in economic power would also mean frankly a very hasty and rapid decline in any political and diplomatic clout that you had, and that message has gotten through to people," he said in a telephone interview from London.

"In order to maintain power and influence, both economically and politically, you need to be part of a wider whole."