BRUSSELS: People and governments across Europe are watching Britain’s elections nervously, with the continent sending the message: we want you in the family but not at any price.
From Paris to Palermo and Berlin to Brussels, David Cameron’s promise to hold an EU membership referendum if he is re-elected on May 7 has caused jitters.
Willingness to compromise on Britain’s treaty change demands goes only so far, especially when it comes to free movement, a key principle of the 28-nation bloc.
“I would never sacrifice freedom of movement for them,” Anna Norris Dzugosova, a 54-year-old Slovak woman married to a British man, told Agence France-Presse.
Her husband Ted Norris, a former clerk in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Britain’s parliament, said he was “appalled” by the growing “little islander” mentality in his homeland.
“If Britain wants to leave the EU then let them go their own way.”
Britain’s election is being particularly closely watched in the EU’s newer eastern nations, from which hundreds of thousands of people have moved to Britain to find work since the bloc’s immigration rules were relaxed a decade ago.
Cameron wants to change the rules governing both migration and the benefits that EU citizens living in Britain are entitled to receive.
But there is growing skepticism that Britons would actually vote for a so-called Brexit if Cameron holds his referendum as planned in 2017.
“We think that even if there is a referendum the British won’t accept leaving the EU,” said Pawel Machala, 43, a Polish technician who has worked as a railway maintenance worker in Britain since 2005.
He splits his time between Britain and Jaroslaw, southeast Poland, where his wife and child live and said fellow Poles working in Britain did not expect major restrictions on movement even if the UK does leave the EU.
There is also skepticism in Germany, Europe’s political and economic powerhouse.
“I don’t think the British will go through with this plan to the end. You mustn’t underestimate Britain’s dependence on continental Europe,” said Ingo Speich, 38, an investment fund manager sitting at a Frankfurt restaurant.
Frankfurt and Paris are the cities that could benefit most if London’s status as a financial hub suffered from an EU exit.
Speich travels to London twice a month for work and said that “if there were extra barriers for entry I would go to London less often.”
The prospect of a British exit is being taken very seriously in Brussels itself.
However, annoying Britain has proved itself recently, there is general recognition that it is a key EU nation: the bloc’s second biggest economy, one of its main military powers, a UN Security Council member and nuclear-armed NATO state.