“BRITAIN does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community,” asserted Margaret Thatcher in 1988. Now, increasingly, it does. Opinion polls show that most Britons are in favour of leaving the European Union. Baroness Thatcher’s Conservative Party, which took Britain into Europe four decades ago, is divided between those who long for an arm’s-length relationship and those who want to walk out. The second camp is swelling.
Even the fiercest British critics of the EU are astonished by the speed at which things are moving. Parliamentary rebellions over Europe are becoming easier and easier to organise. Euroscepticism is hardening in the Conservative Party, in much the same way as social conservatism has gone from being a powerful current in America’s Republican Party to an intolerant orthodoxy. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which wants to leave the EU, has abruptly moved from the political margins to the mainstream. A referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU now seems a matter of timing.
Continental Europeans are surprised too—and annoyed. They are bewildered that the British should be talking of leaving a club that many believe has shifted decisively in a free-trading, Anglo-Saxon direction in the past two decades. They also resent the way Britain seems to be using the threat of an exit as a bargaining tool, especially at a time when the euro is in crisis. As they see it, Britain wants to carve out a privileged place for itself in the European club, where it can enjoy free trade without any of the other membership rules. In Berlin and Rome, political leaders argue that Britain needs to make up its mind once and for all: does it want to be in or out?