British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks during a news conference at… (Julien Warnan /, European…)
RAMSEY, England — Looking at Europe from this side of the English Channel, Peter Reeve doesn't see a "cuddly" continent of biscotti, Burgundy and BMWs. He sees the evil specter of Soviet Russia.
Only this time, it's Brussels, not Moscow, at the center of an expanding, metastasizing super-government bent on turning independent nations like France and Germany into vassal states. Instead of the Soviet Union, it's the European Union that scares him.
Reeve, a local councilor with the UK Independence Party, wants Britain to pull out of the EU while it still can, before it's trapped in such a thick web of European regulation and control that escape becomes impossible and the country winds up as an offshore outpost of a totalitarian EU regime.
"I genuinely believe this is a Marxist revolution happening," said Reeve. "This country is part of it, but balking on it" — an impulse he heartily encourages.
Reeve's dystopian view lies on the more extreme end of "Euroskepticism" here in Britain. But dissatisfaction and downright hostility toward the European Union is undeniably on the rise, making British withdrawal from the 27-nation club a more real prospect than it has been for years and creating a massive headache for the Conservative-led government.
Upset at EU court rulings that trump British ones, health-and-safety regulations viewed as ridiculously onerous and Eastern European migrants "stealing" local jobs, many Britons feel that EU membership is now more a liability than an asset. At best, they say, Britain is being held back from achieving its economic potential; at worst, it's been stripped of sovereignty and placed at the mercy of unfriendly, unelected "Eurocrats" at EU headquarters in Brussels.
Polls increasingly show more Britons in favor of leaving the EU than staying in. Anti-EU sentiment pervades British politics, with some Cabinet ministers openly calling for Britain to pull out, or at least for the question to be put to voters in a referendum.
All this has thrown the government of Prime Minister David Cameron into a tricky position. He must weigh growing public disenchantment with the EU against the pro-Europe interests of big business, a natural constituency of his Conservative Party, which fears being shut out of the EU's single market.
Some political analysts warn that outside the EU, Britain's global influence would sharply diminish, especially its role as a transatlantic bridge for the U.S.
"The Americans have always told the Brits that 'you guys are important for us because you have a big influence in Europe,'" said Philip Whyte, a research fellow at the London-based Center for European Reform. "If Britain left the EU, you [in the U.S.] won't be necessarily picking up the phone to London. Britain won't be the first country you'd be calling; the first country you'd be calling would be Germany."
With so much at stake, Cameron has continually put off setting out his vision on Britain's relationship with the EU. He is acutely aware that the last two Conservative prime ministers, John Major and Margaret Thatcher, were both toppled from power amid disputes over Europe, and he doesn't want to make it three in a row.
But there is growing clamor for him to take a stand, particularly from his own backbenchers, among whom "Euroskepticism" runs strong. Analysts say Cameron will have to make a decision soon on whether to call a referendum.
The pressures on him were on full display last week at a tense summit of European leaders in Brussels. Fury at home over a proposed increase to the EU's budget, which is funded by member states, obliged Cameron to take a hard line against any deal that he said amounted to "picking the pockets" of British taxpayers. The meeting ended in collapse.
Finance ministers from the 17 countries that use the euro currency are to meet Monday to talk about Greece, the epicenter of Europe's debt crisis, but the next full meeting of all 27 EU nation leaders is not until December.
Further distancing itself from the rest of Europe, Cameron's government has declared its intention to opt out of some of the EU's unpopular legal and judicial agreements, which critics say handcuff Britain's own law-enforcement system. A government report is due to be completed in 2014 that will spell out other powers that London ought to "repatriate," or take back from the EU.
That kind of cherry-picking irritates Britain's continental partners, many of which are drawing closer economically and politically to save the euro just as Britain, which has clung to the pound as its currency, pulls in the opposite direction. Some EU countries are beginning to wonder why they don't simply show the door to such an uncooperative club member that seems determined to go its own way anyway.
Ironically, the British backlash against the EU comes at a time when Britons are better traveled than ever before, cosmopolitan enough to know "the difference between a latte and a macchiato," as Whyte put it.