Amid Europe's crisis, UK skeptics seek looser ties

October 4, 2011 - 12:05 PM
Britain Conservative Party Conference

British Home Secretary Theresa May speaks at Britain's Conservative Party Conference, Manchester, England, Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011. (AP Photo/Jon Super).

MANCHESTER, England (AP) — It shunned the euro to keep its cherished pound. Now could Europe's deepening debt crisis see Britain turn its back entirely on its struggling neighbors?

Delegates at an annual rally of the governing Conservative Party this week are looking to the continent's economic woes as an opportunity to revive old debates about Britain's relationship with Europe.

Costly bailouts and meddling judges are cited as new evidence to support the long cherished goal of Britain's skeptics: Leaving the European Union.

"The tide is moving irrevocably towards a referendum, regardless of whether or not the prime minister wants one," Conservative Party lawmaker Douglas Carswell told a meeting on the sidelines of the annual rally.

In a debate in Britain's Parliament expected to take place next month, legislators will demand a national vote on whether to join nations like Norway and Switzerland outside the bloc.

It would be the first poll on ties to Europe since 1975, when the U.K. voted in favor of remaining in the then European Economic Community.

Critics sense that Europe's financial gloom gives them their best chance of leading Britain away from the Brussels-based EU, which they accuse of imposing regulations that often contradict the wishes of the country's elected lawmakers.

"Skepticism toward the European Union has never been as popular as it is today," Timo Soini, leader of Finland's deeply euroskeptic party The Finns — previously known as True Finns — told a sideline meeting at the rally. Like-minded legislators from other nations often travel to Britain's political conventions to discuss strategy and debate ideas.

Britain's role in Europe was once a bitterly divisive issue for Prime Minister David Cameron's Tories, with the 1980s and 1990s marked by internal conflicts between those advocating closer links with the EU and legislators who favored leaving the now-27 nation bloc.

Former Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher famously railed against a "European superstate exercising a new dominance from Brussels," but found herself at odds with many pro-European Cabinet ministers.

Now Cameron finds himself under pressure from a young generation of skeptical lawmakers, who accuse him of doing too little to challenge EU legislation or European court rulings.

European human rights law has recently forced British courts to halt the deportation of foreign terror suspects to countries where they may be mistreated.

In a ruling on Tuesday, the EU's highest court said England's soccer Premier League could no longer sell exclusive television contracts to each EU nation — a decision likely to have a huge impact on broadcasting rights deals.

Last year, in a change which Cameron said had made him feel "physically ill," Britain was ordered by a European court to overturn a centuries-old law and allow prisoners to vote in national elections.

It's prompted Cameron to pledge a new British bill of rights, which he suggests could help Britain to win back sovereignty over similar legal issues in the future.

Home Secretary Theresa May told the convention on Tuesday that European human rights legislation was being manipulated by criminals to allow them to escape deportation, and said a new rights bill would address the issue.

May claimed that a court had recently blocked the deportation of a Bolivian criminal on human rights grounds, in part because he would be separated from his pet cat.

In an embarrassment for May, judges later disputed her account. "The cat had nothing to do with the decision," Britain's Judicial Office said in a statement.

For skeptical legislators hoping to seize the crisis to overhaul European ties, promises to curtail the influence of the continent's courts don't go far enough.

"The Eurozone crisis is an opportunity, so we must present an alternative in a consistent and convincing way. Some politicians won't listen, but the people will," said Soini.

Soini's party made strong gains in April elections to become Finland's third largest political group, in part by raising questions over whether Europeans should continue to contribute to bailout funds for debt-savaged EU members.

Carswell and other anti-EU lawmakers in Britain hope the planned Parliamentary debate will endorse calls for a national vote, pressuring Cameron into action.

However, the British leader insists the country's priority must be to solve Europe's debt crisis.

"I'm sure there will be a bigger debate about Europe down the track, but right now let's deal with the problems," Cameron told BBC television Tuesday.