Will Britain leave EU? How lessons from Greece could sway voters.

Horror over the Greek crisis is fueling left-of-center British euroskepticism – for decades largely the preserve of Conservatives. A referendum on the EU has been promised for next year.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP/File
The Union flag and the European Union flag fly outside Europe House, The European Commission Representation in London, June 9, 2015. Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership in 2016. A poll conducted for the Independent newspaper said 55 percent of respondents want to stay in the EU, with 45 wishing to leave altogether.

Euroskepticism in the UK was for decades the preserve of Conservatives, with pro- and anti-EU divisions tearing the party asunder in the 1990s. But the recent showdown between EU officials and Greece may be shifting that dynamic – with implications for Britain’s vote next year on whether to remain in the European Union.

The Labour Party has been more prominently associated with favorable sentiment toward the European Union. Pro-Europe liberals and labor unions long saw European law as a way of achieving their objectives by the back door, says Pawel Swidlicki, a policy analyst with Open Europe, a London think-tank seeking EU reform.

Less well remembered is a strong strain of euroskepticism among prominent people on the far left – a camp whose thinking past may be gaining new voice.

“That [group] has been resuscitated by the eurozone’s response to [the Greek crisis] and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership,” he says, referring to the proposed US-EU free trade zone that critics say could lead to fewer jobs and lower wages.

Is referendum playing with fire?

Labour is in the middle of a leadership election after losing the May general election, and Jeremy Corbyn, a candidate from the left, is outpolling centrists, not unlike the surge of support for Bernie Sanders in the US. Mr. Corbyn, a euroskeptic, wrote in the Morning Star, a small-circulation Communist newspaper, that the EU’s “central goal” is to be “a place where big business has free rein to operate.”

Prime Minister David Cameron has promised a referendum on EU membership in 2016. A poll conducted for the Independent newspaper said 55 percent of respondents want to stay in the EU, with 45 wishing to leave altogether. 

The numbers could – and are likely to – change, of course: Mr. Cameron is currently renegotiating the UK’s relationship with Europe, hoping to mollify fervent anti-Europeans in his Conservative party, as well as see off the threat from the insurgent United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

George Magnus, a prominent economist with UBS,​  says he knows formerly ardent europhiles who have been pushed toward skepticism by events in Greece, and argues that Cameron is playing with fire.

“It was an ill-thought-out political ploy. The danger now is that hard core of UKIP voters being joined by a significant number of Labour voters,” he says.

The business sector is divided

According to government figures, three million jobs depend on continued EU membership. Open Europe predicts a 19 percent chance of Britain quitting Europe – unlikely, but not impossible. The business sector is divided, with finance in particular opposed to “Brexit.”

Deutsche Bank confirmed in March that it was considering quitting Britain if the country exits the EU. Others, including Credit Suisse and ING, have also expressed concern, and countries such as Germany and even Ireland are more than happy to take in any banks and investment houses looking for a new home should Britain bite the bullet and leave.

Post-Greece, however, the needs of finance aren’t the only consideration, and giving banks one in the eye may be seen as a positive move now that liberal dreams of a “social Europe” have been diminished by austerity.

Rob Oxley of Business for Britain, a campaign group seeking an EU exit, says there is no single “business view” on whether or not Britain should remain in the EU.

“To some degree, what type of business you are defines your approach to the EU [but] it’s absurd to suggest factories would suddenly shut if Britain left. A trade deal would be done,” he says.

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