Should Brits make their 'Brexit? Cameron says deal on EU is near

Brits are divided 50-50 on whether to leave the European Union's political and economic sphere. But hardly any say they feel European. 

Jeff Overs/ BBC via Reuters
British Prime Minister David Cameron speaks on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on January 10, 2016. Cameron said that he hopes to reach a deal on the UK's membership in the European Union next month, followed by a national vote next year.

British Prime Minister David Cameron will "work around the clock" to bring home a deal on European Union membership next month, he promised Sunday, bringing the UK closer to the decision its been wrestling with for years: whether to stay in or leave the EU. 

But the question of whether Brits feel European has been shaping the "island nation's" mentality and policies for centuries, long before Mr. Cameron, bowing to pressure from his own Conservative Party, pledged to hold a referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017. The national vote is now anticipated sooner, likely in the summer or fall of 2016, he said on the BBC's "Andrew Mars Show."

"The best answer for Britain is staying in a reformed European Union," he told Mr. Marr, saying that his recent bargaining with EU leaders will likely produce a deal by February, followed by the national referendum. 

Cameron has made no secret of his own preference to stay with the 28-member nation bloc, which it joined in 1973, if the Conservative Party's conditions are met. (It was then called the European Economic Community). He has spent recent weeks campaigning for other European leaders to accept a list of demands, such as limiting the UK's work benefits for recent immigrants, and protecting member countries that do not use the euro, like Britain. The UK has also asked to be excluded from any moves towards an EU "super state."

"If we can deal with the things that drive us up the wall about Europe, we can get the best of both worlds," Cameron told the BBC host. "It’s a massive prize for Britain if we can get this right." However, he has vowed to remain Prime Minister regardless of Brits' vote.

Polls put pro- and anti-EU positions almost neck and neck, with some recent surveys giving the edge to the "Brexit," as Britain's potential exit has been nicknamed. One poll commissioned by the anti-EU Vote Leave Campaign recorded 42 percent who wanted to stay in the bloc, 41 percent who wanted to leave, and another 17 percent undecided. If the deal did not include limits on immigration, one of the conditions most prized by Brits, but least loved by other Europeans, support for EU membership would fall to 40 percent, while support for leaving would rise to 45 percent.

What is indisputable, for now, is that Brits feel less European than any other EU member state, reflected decades ago in Winston Churchill's desire to "be with Europe, but not of it" – an attitude that French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius complained was like ordering Europe "à la carte."

The United Kingdom is the only member state whose people believe the EU does them more harm than good, according to 2011 polls. But higher numbers say they have a positive view of the Union; they just don't necessarily think it's right for them. 

Only 15 percent of the UK feels "European," according to NatCen Social Research. Four percent feel European above all else, while 44 percent feel primarily British, and 35 percent feel primarily English. Six percent say they're mostly Scottish, and 3 percent, mostly Welsh.

But the EU debate has revived anxieties in a dramatically changing Britain about what exactly it means to be "British" or "English," anyway. Cameron himself has tried to rally his countrymen behind a revived patriotism. He used the 799th anniversary of the Magna Carta to argue that the English are wont to be "a bit squeamish about our achievements, even bashful about our Britishness."

"We shouldn't be," he wrote in the Mail on Sunday, pointing to the country's respect for tolerance and the rule of law. "To me they’re as British as the Union Flag, as football, as fish and chips."

The search for a pan-European identity has proven even trickier. "I think the problem with many of these attempts to make people feel European is that they've often been either very general and abstract, focusing on democracy and human rights and other things, which are important but they're not exclusively European values," European Council on Foreign Relations co-founder Mark Leonard told the BBC. 

As the UK becomes increasingly diverse, some are eager to emphasize distinct cultural factors, like the English language itself. Ninety-five percent say speaking English is required for being "truly British," up from 85 percent in 1995. But other traditional markers have become less important: Only one quarter say that Christianity is key to national belonging, for instance, and 40 percent of those born after the mid-60s define British identity solely using civic factors, not cultural ones. 

In 2013, announcing plans for the EU referendum, the Prime Minister declared "We have the character of an island nation – independent, forthright, passionate in defense of our sovereignty.... We can no more change this British sensibility than we can drain the English Channel."

According to Lord Neuberger, president of the UK's Supreme Court, that Channel – just 20 miles wide at its narrowest point – does help explain Brits' particularly stubborn reluctance to cede independence. As he reminded students at Cambridge University, England has not been invaded for nearly 1,000 years – a far more stable past than most other European countries have enjoyed. That history makes Brits less likely to accept international authority for the sake of peace, he said in 2014.

Lord Neuberger added that England's "loss of premier league status" had "caused problems to the national psyche." To accept a role as just one EU member at the crowded table would take "an almost superhuman attitudinal adjustment."

But for most of the UK, the stay-or-go dilemma comes down to politics and economics, not identity. Half of those who don't feel European still believe in sticking with the EU, according to the NatCen report.

Others say history, and the UK, will take care of itself with or without its neighbors.

"Britain was all right without Europe and we're all right with them, as history will tell us," a London produce seller told Al Jazeera's Barbara McCarthy

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