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British Voters Closer Than Ever To Voting To Quit EU


British voters are closer than they've ever been to quitting the European Union. The European debt crisis has fueled British skepticism and so has the continent's refugee crisis. A referendum on British membership in the European Union is planned by the end of 2017. And many people in Britain say they want out. NPR's Leila Fadel reports.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: When the European Union approved a plan on Tuesday to force member states to share responsibility for the resettlement of 120,000 people, the United Kingdom said no. It has a separate plan to resettle 20,000 Syrian refugees over a period of five years. It's one indication of Britain's growing resistance to being part of the European Union.

MATTHEW GOODWIN: In a nutshell, the British have never particularly warmed to being members of the European Union.

FADEL: That's Matthew Goodwin of the think tank, Chatham House.

GOODWIN: We've always been known as the so-called awkward partners in Europe. As Winston Churchill once said, the British were with their European neighbors but not of their European neighbors.

FADEL: And today, polls show that more and more British people are ready to walk away from the Union.

GOODWIN: In broad terms, a majority of British voters have been openly skeptical of their membership of the EU but have never really come close to seriously considering leaving the EU. And for the first time, really in a few years, that now has become more of a possibility.

FADEL: Goodwin says there are a few reasons for this. There's the refugee crisis and the widespread belief that a flood of immigrants will come to the U.K., take jobs and change the culture. A recent poll showed immigration was a top concern for voters above the economy and healthcare. And skepticism of the EU is growing across the political spectrum. Up until now, it was mostly people from the right wing of politics pushing for an exit. But now, many people on the left are changing their opinions about the EU because of growing concern over workers' rights and anger over the treatment of Greece by the European Union. For people like Joe Oliviert, who works in IT in central London, it's about accountability.

JOE OLIVIERT: I just find that it's unaccountable to - we have no control over them.

FADEL: He didn't vote for the European Commission, he says, and he doesn't want them regulating his country's economic policies. Nearby, 27-year-old Lauren Irons is taking a break from work.

LAUREN IRONS: I think being a united front is better than everyone just breaking off into their own little sections.

FADEL: This is just panic, she says, over foreigners coming to the U.K. when British people are struggling to find jobs. She would know, she says. She works in recruitment. There are other major factors at play here. The U.S. doesn't want the U.K. to leave the Union, businessmen worry it'll hurt investment, and there's concern that it would isolate Britain. But Goodwin says those aren't the deciding factors for British voters.

GOODWIN: Primarily, when we run the numbers on, you know, what is likely to influence this vote, it really does come down to those cultural and immigration anxieties which have been fueled by the recent refugee crisis, and secondly, a big feeling of uncertainty over the economics of all of this.

FADEL: The latest polls show support for and against Britain staying in the EU is almost equal. Leila Fadel, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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