Like so many others in this fiercely independent island nation, Steve Baker, a dashing English engineer, is fed up with the long hand of the European Union in British life.
The E.U., 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 tens of thousands of British bikers and becoming the latest symbol here of continental authority run amok.
Baker is also the wrong biker to mess with. An elected member of the British Parliament, he is part of a growing rank of furious politicians ratcheting up the pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a national referendum on a once unthinkable notion here: leaving the E.U.
“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 Baker, one of 100 Conservative lawmakers demanding a referendum — a proposal gaining a measure of 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.”
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 region weighs more radical steps toward integration, popular unease is spreading. Nowhere, however, is the resistance stronger than in Britain, which has withdrawn its name from a host of proposed integration initiatives and whose opposition could throw up hurdles for the rest of Europe as it seeks to forge a common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. Indeed, a frustrated Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, lashed out this month at the anti-Europe forces in London, saying, “You seem to delight in the difficulties of the euro area.”
To be sure, Britain has long looked askew 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 one in every two Britons want to exit the E.U. With public fury growing, Cameron seemed to open the door to a referendum last month. But he has also sought to resist pressure to quickly set a date, something observers say may be increasingly hard for him to fend off in the coming months.
Fueling the angst
Cameron’s Conservatives have sought to make an E.U. referendum an early centerpiece of the next general election in 2015 — with an anti-Europe platform already proving to be worth its weight in gold here.
Cameron’s biggest surge in opinion polls came in December, for instance, after he refused to join a new E.U. pact giving Brussels more power over national budgets. His move forced other European nations in favor of the agreement — a bloc led by Germany — to forge their own, separate pact leaving Britain out.
Since then, a litany of E.U. laws and rulings have only seemed to fuel more British angst. Earlier this year, many here seethed when the European Court of Human Rights blocked Britain’s attempt to deport Abu Qatada, a radical Muslim cleric deemed a national security risk. The court insisted that Britain first receive assurances from his native Jordan that he would receive a fair trial.
British women, meanwhile, 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 is growing over a proposed 6.8 percent increase in the budget of the European Commission — the executive branch of the E.U. — even as Britain and other nations in the region undergo painful rounds of austerity.
With the unemployment rate here rising, Britons have increasingly blamed waves of immigrants from E.U. countries such as Poland and Spain, who, under existing regionwide treaties, have the same rights to work here as British citizens.
Conservatives such as Liam Fox, Cameron’s former defense minister and still an influential lawmaker, argue the benefits of E.U. membership have been grossly overstated. He cites Britain’s trade deficit with the rest of E.U., which clocks in at $200 billion.
Yet Fox and others say a referendum should not be a simple yes or no to membership, and instead include a question on whether Britain should engage in renegotiations with Brussels to win back some powers.