BRUSSELS—Highlighting the European Union’s love-hate relationship with Britain, major groups in the EU legislature on Wednesday urged Britons to vote to remain in the EU but chided their prime minister for hijacking the bloc with a local “glorified cockfight” that could fundamentally undermine its unity.
EU President Donald Tusk insisted that an “out” vote in the June 23 British referendum on EU membership would “change Europe forever. And it will be a change for the worse.”
His comments were echoed by many legislators from across the 28-nation bloc as they assessed one of the biggest votes in the 58-year-history of the EU.
Tusk oversaw the EU reform deal that British Prime Minister David Cameron brokered with the other 27 EU leaders last weekend, which defined a new relationship for Britain in the bloc. With all the challenges facing the West now, it was not the time for Britain to split away from the bloc, Tusk declared.
Many legislators criticized Britain for forcing Europeans to focus on what they saw as a one-nation, even one-party debate while the continent was struggling with more fundamental issues like a massive migration crisis.
EPP Christian Democrat leader Manfred Weber listed some of the top problems facing the bloc, citing everything from the wars in Syria and Ukraine to high unemployment in the EU and the bloc’s tense relations with Vladimir Putin’s Russian government.
“Despite all these difficulties, the welfare benefits for migrants and the problems of the City of London were the top priorities” at an EU summit last week, Weber said. “Is this the right priority?”
ALDE Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt had the answer.
“This deal is not about Europe, it is a deal to reunite the Tory party,” he said.
The referendum in Britain is expected to be hard-fought, especially within Cameron’s own divided Conservative party. The stakes rose after popular London Mayor Boris Johnson, a fellow Conservative and possible future prime minister, announced last weekend that he would join the campaign urging voters to back leaving the EU.
Cameron is the top politician promoting the “stay” side.
“What I am seeing is a glorified cockfight,” said Verhofstadt, claiming that Britain is disregarding the common European good to focus on domestic concerns.
Seen from the continent, it has often been thus. After Britain joined in 1973, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was soon campaigning to get “a very large amount of our own money back.”
Continental nations like Britain for its military clout, its diplomatic prowess and its powerful economy. EU countries like the Netherlands and Sweden have also embraced Britain’s free-market approach.
But Britain’s lack of commitment to Europe has remained a sore point to this day.
“May I give also an advice: Don’t think that after a ‘no’ you can come back,” Verhofstadt said, despite expressing a wish for Britain not to leave in the first place.
British businesses are also fearful of a departure from the world’s largest trading bloc.
The pound was hovering at seven-year lows against the dollar Wednesday as investors tried to hedge bets ahead of the upcoming vote on EU membership
The currency fell to $1.3930, the lowest level since March 2009. The pound first began to drop after Johnson announced his “out” stance.
The currency pressure comes as Britain’s former military chiefs argued in a letter in the Telegraph newspaper Wednesday that Britain would be in a stronger position to deal with security threats from within the EU.
The former Royal Navy, Army and Air Force leaders says they were worried about the rise of the Islamic State group, instability in the Middle East and Russian nationalism.
Budget airline Ryanair also came out in support of continued EU membership, with chief executive Michael O’Leary saying “the U.K. economy and its future growth prospects are stronger as a member of the European Union.”
O’Leary said Ryanair would “invest less in the U.K. if it’s not part of the European Union” and would focus more on central European countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
The airline plans to runs pro-EU newspaper ads and is considering printing pro-EU messages on its aircraft.