TUNBRIDGE WELLS, England (Reuters) - In Tunbridge Wells, a typically English small town south of London, workers and shoppers around the modern shopping mall talk readily about their frustrations with the EU and their desire for a referendum that could lead Britain to the exit.
Alarm over the euro zone debt crisis has driven hostility to the European Union to new heights in Britain, where voters in the rural heartlands are increasingly ready to say they want to leave the 27-nation bloc after a difficult 38 years.
Shop worker Jenny Davis, 55, backed a referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
“I would vote to come out of it because I think they are just dragging us down,” she said.
Dominic Budgen, a 33-year-old operations manager, feared Britain could be liable for bailing out members of the euro’s single currency zone even though it is not part of the 17-member bloc and he was in favor of a referendum.
“I would probably vote to leave,” he said.
Despite public fears, finance minister George Osborne has insisted Britain will not contribute to any euro zone bailout fund and Prime Minister David Cameron believes it is in Britain’s interest to remain in the EU’s single market where it conducts more than half of its trade.
Unhappiness with Britain’s weak economy may be finding an outlet in criticism of the EU. Unemployment is rising, inflation high and growth stagnant as the coalition government slashes public spending to rein in a big budget deficit.
The historic spa town of around 55,000 people, popular with London commuters, is a stronghold of Cameron’s Conservative Party, many of whose legislators feel equally strongly that Britain needs to radically rethink its ties with the EU or quit.
About 80 Conservative lawmakers — more than a quarter of the total — defied Cameron this week by voting for a referendum that could have opened the way for Britain leaving or renegotiating the terms of its membership of the EU.
Although the referendum proposal was easily defeated in parliament, the clamor for a public vote in Britain is only going to get stronger after euro zone leaders agreed this week to look at “limited” changes to the EU treaty to strengthen fiscal integration in response to the debt crisis.
Many Britons have long been suspicious of the EU, worrying that Britain’s independence and identity risks being drowned by an ever more powerful European super-state, but recent polls indicate that the hostility has reached new highs.
A Guardian/ICM poll this week found that some 70 percent of people want a vote on Britain’s EU membership. Forty-nine percent would vote to get Britain out of Europe, against just 40 percent who prefer to stay in, it found.
“Traditionally, you have a quarter or a third of the electorate who are hostile to Europe. We’ve never before conducted a poll showing more people want us to leave the EU than stay in it,” ICM research director Martin Boon told Reuters.
“People are suddenly realizing that financial concerns happening elsewhere — Greece, Italy and Spain — could potentially hurt British people in the pocket.”
The European Commission’s Eurobarometer surveys regularly find that Britons have the most negative view of Europe among the 27 member nations. In its latest survey, only 35 percent of Britons thought EU membership was beneficial.
Hugo Brady, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform thinktank, said the overwhelming popular feeling in Britain was that Europe was a hindrance and the country would be freer and better able to compete globally without the link.
“The reality is that Britain would be far less able to wield its influence (outside the EU). The EU, flawed as it is, is the only game in town in Europe,” said Brady, a former Irish government official.
Britain still has strong economic and cultural ties with other English-speaking countries, such as the United States, Canada and Australia.
But it now conducts more than half of its trade within the EU and would suffered economically if it lost its privileged access to the vast single market.
Cameron, a self-described “practical eurosceptic,” is concerned that Britain is not left out of key decisions as the euro zone integrates further.
He has sought to placate more hardline eurosceptics in his party by passing a law requiring a referendum if significant new powers are transferred to Brussels.
But his room for maneuver is limited because he depends on the support of the pro-European Liberal Democrats, his junior coalition partner.
Speaking in Australia Friday, Cameron said the government had begun looking at the “balance of powers” between London and Brussels, as the coalition agreed to do in its initial pact, but he has not said clearly what powers Britain wants back.
Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who used to work at EU headquarters in Brussels, has already said there will be no “smash and grab” raid to bring back powers from the EU.
The reasons for Britons’ deep-seated suspicions about Europe are many. It is an island nation with an insular mentality that resents outside interference.
Traditionally a maritime power, it looked outside Europe in the 19th century to build a huge global empire. When it has intervened in European crises, they have been traumatic times such as the two world wars.
After initially refusing to join the EU’s forerunner, Britain twice had its application to join the common market blocked by France in the 1960s before finally joining in 1973.
Former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher resisted greater European integration in the 1980s and the Conservative Party was almost torn apart by feuding over Europe under her successor John Major, who also presided over the British pound’s humiliating ejection from the European exchange rate mechanism on “Black Wednesday” in September 1992.
Britain has stayed out of European projects such as the euro and the Schengen passport-free travel zone, clinging doggedly to the pound and to idiosyncrasies such as driving on the left and serving beer by the pint, instead of the liter.
But many Britons have a deep-rooted fear that their national identity is under threat from a bloated Brussels bureaucracy which churns out burdensome regulations.
Attitudes are also influenced by the fact Britain pays more into the EU budget than it directly gets back.
A largely eurosceptic British press reinforces prejudice with reports about European “fat cats” and stories, often unfounded, about EU attacks on the British way of life, such as mythical bans on curved cucumbers, “mushy” peas or prawn cocktail crisps.
In recent years, Britain has been transformed by large-scale immigration from new eastern European member states, leading to complaints that immigrants are beating locals in the competition for jobs or driving down wage rates.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith