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The European Union created a huge single market and stability for a continent that was ravaged by terrible wars during the 20th century. Now, in the 21st century, the European debt crisis has some eurozone members pushing to get out of the club. This all came to a head in Britain yesterday, where Parliament voted on whether to hold a public referendum on leaving the union.
As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the debate illustrated a changing mood in London.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Britain's so-called euro-skeptics are back on the center-stage.
(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)
REEVES: Outside Parliament yesterday, a gaggle of protestors urged Britain's politicians to agree to a referendum.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: We support the British people.
REEVES: Inside the chamber, Conservative parliamentarian Bill Cash did the same, with some scathing words about the E.U.
BILL CASH: The reality is that this is a failed project. It is an undemocratic project. This vote, this motion is in the national interest, because it is for democracy, for trust in politics, and for the integrity of this House.
MEMBERS OF PARLIAMENT: Yeah.
REEVES: The debate was about whether Britain should hold a referendum asking voters whether they want to stay in the E.U. or leave, or renegotiate membership terms. Euro-skeptics think too much power's been transferred to Brussels, the headquarters of the E.U.
Prime Minister David Cameron argued that with the eurozone in crisis, a referendum is an issue for another day.
DAVID CAMERON: When your neighbor's house in on fire, your first impulse should be to help them to put out the flames, not least to stop the flames reaching your own house. This is not the time - this is not the time to argue about walking away.
REEVES: Cameron is against leaving the E.U. He says that the single market is a huge benefit to Britain, but he wants to overhaul Britain's relationship with Europe.
CAMERON: I want to refashion our membership of the E.U. so that it better serves our nations interest. The time for reform is coming. That is the prize. Let us not be distracted from seizing it.
REEVES: Cameron failed to convince his fellow conservative, Charles Walker, who delivered one of the shortest speeches ever made in the long history of the British Parliament.
CHARLES WALKER: If not now, when?
PARLIAMENT: Hear, hear.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hear, hear.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You have to keep an eye on the honorable gentleman, he has very succinct speeches.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
REEVES: Britain's economy is becalmed. Unemployment is rising. Huge public spending cuts are being enforced. Cameron's coalition government has begun to blame its economic problems on the eurozone's debt crisis that's causing havoc in Greece and is now spreading.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague says holding a referendum would actually make matters worse.
WILLIAM HAGUE: The eurozone is clearly in crisis. To pile upon that uncertainty, the further uncertainty of a referendum on leaving the European Union - when half the foreign direct investment coming into Britain comes from the rest of the European Union, and half our exports go out to rest of the European Union - I say, frankly, is not a responsible action for Her Majesty's government to take.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: The aye's to the right, 111. The no's to the left, 483.
REEVES: In the end, the referendum proposal was overwhelmingly defeated. That was expected all along. But the vote was significant. Britain's Conservative Party has a long history of internal division over membership of the European Union. In Parliament yesterday, 79 members of Cameron's party defied orders and voted in favor of referendum. This was the biggest rebellion on Europe by British conservative parliamentarians ever, and a big embarrassment for Cameron.
The eurozone crisis is playing a role in this. Some Britons worry the crisis will propel the E.U. towards closer political and fiscal union. That means its member nations will lose more sovereignty.
A Guardian newspaper poll this week showed almost half Britain's voters would now vote to get out of the E.U. altogether, if they had a chance. With the British in this mood, this issue will surely not go away.
Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.