Sat, Feb 02, 2013 - Page 9 News List

British anti-EU party leader sees exit from bloc ‘in few years’

By Andrew Osborn and Guy Faulconbridge  /  Reuters, LONDON

Britain’s withdrawal from the EU “within a few years” is a certainty as no government will be able to resist demands for an exit from a population incensed by the arrival of low-wage migrants, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) said.

Nigel Farage, who is siphoning off voters from British Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives by attacking EU bureaucracy and immigration from eastern Europe, said it was the dramatic rise of his own party that had pressured the premier into promising last week what would be a historic EU referendum.

“Cameron’s speech was the moment when the debate on Europe changed,” a combative Farage said, calling it UKIP’s “greatest victory to date.”

Dismissing the idea that Cameron had outflanked the anti-EU lobby, he said the reverse was true: Cameron had “let the genie out of the bottle,” making “Brexit” — the EU exit of the world’s sixth-largest economy — certain.

Speaking days after Cameron promised to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s 40-year-old membership of the bloc and to hold an “in-out” referendum if re-elected in 2015, Farage said Cameron would probably lose office and, even if he won, would be unable to persuade other EU leaders to amend treaty agreements.

“There is no substantial renegotiation to be had,” Farage said. “He’ll get nowhere.”

In any event, the prime minister, who says he wants to stay in a revamped EU, could not be trusted to keep his referendum promise, he added, noting abandoned talk of a vote on the Lisbon Treaty of 2007.

However, with polls showing a slim majority wants to cut Britain loose from an expanding European political system, a referendum was not far off, Farage forecast.

Even the British Labour Party, which opposes Cameron’s in-out referendum, would, if it took power, be forced by the public to let Britons vote to leave, he argued.

It is a prospect that clearly enthuses Farage, a 48-year-old former metals trader in the City of London who has seen UKIP multiply its support in the six years since Cameron dismissed it as “a bunch of ... fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists.”

“I see opportunity. We would have the potential to do so much more for this country,” he said at the central London headquarters of a party which has lately polled as much as 16 percent, up from 3 percent at the last election in 2010.

“We’d have the opportunity — through winning back the right to have global trade agreements — to make us much more of a global player than a European player,” he said.

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Farage’s sharp tongue — pro-EU evangelists were “idiots,” he said — and a populist touch that includes a fondness for a smoke and a drink, have made him a familiar figure to voters.

He is credited with bringing a new professionalism to a 20-year-old party long dismissed as part of a chaotic, far-right fringe.

Attacked from the left as a “dangerous man” and “political poison,” he imagines a Britain thriving outside the EU, a picture that has struck a chord with voters alarmed by the way the debt crisis in the eurozone has hobbled their own economy and at poor immigrants arriving freely from eastern Europe.

EU red tape, Farage said, could be junked along with the bloc’s social market model, heavy on regulation and welfare provision. That, he said, would make Britain a more attractive destination for manufacturers. It would also be free to strike bilateral trade deals and to deregulate its own economy.

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