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British getting comfortable with idea of leaving the European Union

As Cameron dallies on talks, voters and businesses warming up to Brexit

BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images
British Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech on 'the future of the European Union and Britain's role within it' in January 2013.

As Prime Minister David Cameron plays coy about what terms he is seeking for Britain to stay in the European Union, a willingness to exit the bloc is gaining momentum among British voters.

Polls for a referendum on EU membership to be held sometime in the next two years now show a statistical tie, with “leave” and “remain” voters at the same level within the margin of error.

A YouGov poll last month, for instance, showed 40% would vote to leave the EU and 38% would vote to stay, with 22% in the don’t know/abstain category.

Other polls still have the “stay” votes ahead, but the margins are narrowing and the tide seems to be shifting after previous polling showed a clear majority in favor of staying in the EU.

London-based CNBC anchor Wilfred Frost said he thought talk of “Brexit,” as it is known, was overblown when Cameron was swept back into government in last May’s election.

But in a blog post this week titled “Threat of Brexit is now very real,” he cited the YouGov poll and said “what a difference a few months have made.”

The migrant crisis is one of the developments making British voters less enamored of the EU, says Frost, but the Greek crisis is having even more of an impact, he believes.

“The crisis in Greece itself is also not the main issue on U.K. voters’ minds, but rather how Athens was treated by Germany and the rest of the eurozone that has struck home,” he wrote. “The negotiations painted the EU and its biggest economic power as controlling and unforgiving.”

The hard line against Greece taken by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU leaders shows that Cameron will meet strong resistance in trying to renegotiate terms of British membership ahead of the referendum, he says.

Cameron hosted Merkel last week at the prime minister’s country retreat, Chequers, ahead of the EU summit in Brussels this week in an attempt to move negotiations for a British deal forward.

But the British demands have reportedly been taken off the summit agenda this week because Cameron has not submitted anything in writing, evidently wanting to keep the situation fluid and preserve his options.

The Telegraph reported last week that Cameron will focus on four main issues: Removing the goal of “ever closer union” from EU treaties to keep Britain out of a superstate; an explicit declaration that the EU is a “multi-currency” union so that Britain can keep the pound GBPEUR, +0.1323% ; a return of some sovereignty to national parliaments so they can veto Brussels’ directives and scrap some existing rules; and a restructuring of the bloc so that eurozone countries cannot impose their will on the noneuro countries.

Cameron wants Britain to stay in the EU, subject to the changes he is demanding, but the longer he dallies in getting a deal, the more comfortable British voters, and even British business leaders, are getting with the idea of an exit from the bloc.

The head of Lloyds Bank, Norman Blackwell, speaking in his personal capacity as a member of the House of Lords, said he was confident Britain would remain an attractive partner for trade and investment even if it exited the EU.

“I don’t agree that remaining in the European Union without a significant change in the current arrangements is ultimately sustainable from a political and constitutional perspective,” British newspaper reports quoted him as saying in Parliament, “nor do I believe that there is a compelling economic argument to overcome those reasons.”

Business has generally favored staying in the EU and the former chairman of Marks & Spencer, Stuart Rose, is heading up a campaign for staying that was launched this week.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker added to the controversy when he reported to the European Parliament that he “can’t say that huge progress has been achieved” in the British talks.

He then apparently said that while the EU needs Britain, “personally I don’t think Britain needs the European Union.” The audio is not completely clear and his office insisted afterwards that he said “do” and not “don’t.”

English is not the former Luxembourg prime minister’s first language, as he demonstrated in the same speech when he said, “To tango it takes two,” by way of encouraging Britain to start negotiating in earnest. And at another point he lapsed briefly into French.

Whether Juncker meant “do” or “don’t,” however, there seems to be a growing feeling in Britain that in fact the country really doesn’t need the European Union.

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