English malaise stirs yearning for divorce from European Union

Thu May 5, 2016 2:05am EDT
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By Estelle Shirbon

GILLINGHAM, England (Reuters) - With a tattoo of Winston Churchill's face on his right forearm and a poem about English pride on his t-shirt, Michael Clarkson is not shy about his patriotism or his disdain for a Europe that lies "miles away, over the sea".

Even his little dog, Elsa, was sporting England's flag of St George, a red cross on a white background, around her neck to celebrate the feast of the nation's patron saint at an "English Festival" on the outskirts of Gillingham, southeast of London.

With displays of sheep-shearing skills and vintage tractors, donkey rides for children and stalls selling old-fashioned foods like jellied eel, this was a nostalgic vision of England.

For Clarkson, it was a welcome opportunity to show his love for his country. In his view, English identity is being eroded as immigration rises, Scotland asserts itself and the government bows to diktats from the European Union in Brussels.

This sentiment is widespread in some parts of England that are struggling economically, and polling data shows that people who feel that way about England are most likely to vote to leave the EU in a referendum on June 23.

"I've always said I'd like to leave," said Clarkson, 35, a chemicals salesman from Chatham, a town neighboring Gillingham. "We're part of an establishment of bureaucrats in Brussels that make up rules for us."

The poem on the back of his t-shirt made his feelings about this very clear, with a line about telling Brussels "we want our England back" and a verse that read "We are not Europeans, how can we be? Europe is miles away, over the sea".

England lies 21 miles (34 km) from continental Europe, with the French coast visible from Dover on a clear day.   Continued...

Michael Clarkson holds his dog Elsa wearing a scarf of England flags, as he poses for a photograph at an English Festival to celebrate St George's Day on the outskirts of Gillingham, in Britain, April 23, 2016. Picture taken April 23, 2016. REUTERS/Estelle Shirbon