London, 9 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Britain's official position is clear. The country wants to continue playing a major part in the process of deepening European integration.
Prime Minister Tony Blair, while acknowledging some opposition, declared as much at the last Labour Party conference in September: "Britain must be at the center of a Europe, now 25 nations reunited after centuries of conflict -- the biggest economic market, the most powerful political union in the world. And I know that to retreat from its councils now would be utterly self-defeating folly."
"We have convinced most of the public that Britain will be better out of the European Union."
The majority of Britain's population does not seem to share Blair's enthusiasm, however.
According to a survey by Britain's ICM polling institute, conducted for the European Foundation, 58 percent of Britons would like to see European Union treaties renegotiated, reducing them to simply trade and association agreements. The sentiment is even higher -- 68 percent -- among those aged 18-24 years.
It seems most of Britain's population shares the view of the leader of the Conservative opposition, Michael Howard, who has promised to renegotiate the terms of Britain's membership in the European Union: "If you want to bring powers back from Brussels to Britain, whatever party you are from, come and join us."
Observers say Howard is trying to lure back Conservative voters who deserted the party in the last elections to the European Parliament. Many of them voted for a more radical Euroskeptic party, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), helping it to gain 12 seats in Strasbourg. The UKIP also made some gains in the last local government elections in Britain.
Quentin Williamson is a press spokesman for the UKIP: "People are more dissatisfied, and the amount of people joining our party is growing greatly, particularly in the last year or year-and-a-half. We have convinced most of the public that Britain will be better out of the European Union."
But many Euroskeptics in Britain, while sympathetic to the UKIP's aims, are choosing to remain within their own parties, hoping to steer them in a more anti-EU direction. Malcolm Pearson is an independent Conservative member of the House of Lords, Britain's upper house of parliament: "I think the European project was an honorable project at the time. I think the people who invented it thought they were doing the best thing to prevent war in Europe. But it excludes the people from the decision-making process, and I think you are beginning to see signs of great discontent. The whole European project should be abandoned. Europe should be a Europe of collaborating democracies, trading freely and linked through NATO. That way lays peace and prosperity."
Pearson says he has opposed the European project since he read the text of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, the pact that created the European Economic Community. He calls it a "terrifying and very misguided project."
He says the worst thing is the loss of sovereignty suffered by the British Parliament: "All of our industry and commerce, all of our social and labor policy, all of our environment, agriculture, fish, and foreign aid, are already decided in Brussels, completely bypassing the national parliaments. The national parliaments are a rubber stamp for all those areas. And, furthermore, if the governments agree unanimously a new law in Brussels, in common foreign and security policy, and in justice and home affairs, Parliament again has to rubber-stamp it."
Pearson believes the recent wrangling over the makeup of the new European Commission exposed the EU's corruptibility:
"The project continues to go in the wrong direction. You have a new [European] Commission with six former communists [and] two former fraudsters. A lady from Latvia [Ingrida Udre] who's in favor of national countries retaining their tax systems being blackballed from the new commission. A decent Roman Catholic [Rocco Buttiglione] blackballed from the new commission. I see absolutely no prospect of the new commission taking the project in the right direction."
Pearson is referring to the new EU commissioner for transport and tourism, Jacques Barrot of France, who was convicted for embezzling party funds, but it was erased from his record by a presidential amnesty. Estonian Commissioner Siim Kallas pleaded not guilty to charges that he was responsible for the disappearance of $10 million from the Bank of Estonia when he was chairman. He was acquitted.
Pearson says political elites in the new member countries have "betrayed their own people's sovereignty," attracted by the enormous salaries in Brussels.
As for Britain, Pearson says the ICM survey clearly shows what needs to be done: "There isn't a European Union that we could accept for the United Kingdom. What we could do is renegotiate our relationship with the single market, down to a free-trade arrangement. Which is what we all thought we were voting for in [the referendum of] 1975 anyway."
In 1975, British voters overwhelming supported the country's continued membership in the European Economic Community.
The UKIP's Williamson agrees that no renegotiation is possible -- other than down to a free-trade agreement -- because the other member countries would oppose it. But an opportunity exists, he feels, if voters say "no" in the planned referendum on the new European Constitution: "Britain is the fourth-largest economy in the world, and the continent makes a profit on their trade with us. So they're not likely to erect trade barriers against us in the event of us withdrawing from the EU. And we can still trade with them."
Pearson says the referendums planned across Europe on the new constitution should reveal the extent of Euroskepticism across the continent.
"Maybe," he says, "more countries will see that building a bureaucratic superstate is not quite the same as the original aim of a prosperous community of free-trading, democratic states."