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EU: Britain Drifting Further Away

An opinion poll commissioned by the European Commission shows only one in four Britons views European Union membership as a good thing. Always "euro-skeptics," the British now seem to be moving still further away from Europe. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke has the story.

Prague, 26 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Let's sketch a little scene from the days before Britain was a member of the European Union.

The time is October 1971. The place is an English pub in the main street of a southern town called Tonbridge. Rising above the pub, behind some trees, are the massive stone walls of a 14th century fortress, partly in ruins. It's a scene filled with traditional English atmosphere.

Enter a group of men in business suits, who approach the bar and order drinks. Conversation turns to the apparent inevitability that Britain will enter the Common Market -- as the EU was then known. The main sentiments are reluctance and regret. "Oh well", sighs one of the men, "At least then we'll be able to teach them about democracy".

Britain did join the EU two years later, in 1973. Now, nearly 30 years afterwards, the same reluctance, regret and desire to lecture is still evident. A new poll issued this week by the European Commission in Brussels shows British public support for EU membership plunging. Only one in four Britons now has a favorable view of the EU -- an all-time low.

And, even more damaging in real terms, is that support for joining the EU's euro common currency has fallen to barely more than a fifth of the British. Britain will soon be only one of three EU members -- along with Sweden and Denmark -- not to be part of the euro-zone. As a headline in the German paper Die Welt (25 July ) puts it, "The time is coming when the continental part of the EU will have to start earnestly worrying about Great Britain."

In the long run, can Britain even contemplate staying in the Union when its people obviously believe that the country's destiny lies elsewhere? A senior analyst with the European Policy Center in Brussels, John Whyles, says it's up to the avowedly pro-European Labour government of Prime Minister Tony Blair to tackle the problem in the first instance:

"It represents obviously a clear and present danger and a political problem for the government unless the government is able to mount a much stronger political leadership. This stronger leadership should not just favor the euro but also explain the benefits of membership of the European Union. The government should stop trying to pretend that Britain can and should be a leader on everything, but it should recognize that Britain is involved in a political process which involves 15 countries doing things together, and doing more together every day than they did the day before".

Much of the British media, particularly the mass circulation press, has long been hostile to the Union and is seen as being a key factor in stimulating anti-EU sentiment. Senior analyst Ben Hall of the London-based Center for European Reform told our correspondent:

"On the euro issue in particular, they have played a particularly important role in feeding a sense of distrust in this country towards the European Union. There are not that many sources of information about what happens inside the EU, how decisions are made, what policies are actually implemented, and the only way people get that information is largely through newspapers. So it is not surprising that their views are rather distorted by the frankly rather mendacious and distorting news coverage that you get in many newspapers these days."

Hall said the British political and economic leaders should take a more active role in challenging biased, populist reporting. But neither of the two analysts see vote-conscious Prime Minister Blair as wanting to risk too much at the moment by espousing an unpopular cause like the EU. Analyst John Whyles says:

"My impression is that he is not going to take any risks on this issue -- meaning the issue of the euro -- or indeed he is not going to become an ardent campaigner for the European Union this side of the next election. Once he has got his famous second term and maybe he is liberated from this obsession with the next election, perhaps we will see a bit more of what he is made of in terms of political leadership".

For the moment, the British government is sticking to its policy that, provided economic conditions are right, it will recommend a 'yes' vote at a referendum on the euro early in the life of the next parliament -- therefore, possibly next year. British euro supporters, who include most of the big corporations burdened with the unfavorable exchange rates of the strong pound, are telling Blair this policy is not active enough.

Certainly, if the referendum were to be held now, it would likely produce a resounding 'no' to the euro. That in turn would further weaken overall British bonds with the EU.

But analyst Hall says that the field work for the EU opinion poll was done several months ago, and that there's a more recent upswing in support of the euro as British workers, as well as employers, realize that jobs are being lost because of the pound's high value.

In the end, it will be up to the British people to decide whether they want to be 'in' or 'out'. It's hard to believe they can drag along reluctantly forever.