Just a third of Britons want to stay in European Union - poll

LONDON Mon Feb 18, 2013 6:45pm IST

The EU and the Union flags fly outside The European Commission Representation in the United Kingdom in central London January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth

The EU and the Union flags fly outside The European Commission Representation in the United Kingdom in central London January 23, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

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LONDON (Reuters) - Only a third of Britons would vote to stay in the European Union in a proposed referendum, a poll showed on Monday, underlining the scale of Prime Minister David Cameron's task in persuading voters to back his flagship EU policy.

In one of the biggest gambles of his premiership, Cameron promised last month to win back powers from Brussels and hold a vote on Britain's 40-year EU membership.

Cameron would campaign to stay in the EU, provided he can reform Britain's ties with Brussels in the face of opposition from European allies and he secures a second term in an election due in 2015.

Just 33 percent of voters would support his call to remain in the bloc, with 50 percent wanting to leave and 17 percent not planning to vote, according to the Harris Interactive poll in the Financial Times.

Cameron's pledge to win back powers and hold a vote by the end of 2017 upset France and Germany and was criticised by the United States, which wants Britain to hold on to its membership.

The last time Britain held a vote on staying in Europe was in a 1975 referendum when the "Yes" campaign came from behind to win by a wide margin, with 67.2 percent in favour of European membership and 32.8 percent against.

That result failed to take the sting out of an issue that has divided the main British parties for years and helped to bring down two of Cameron's predecessors, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

'HEART AND SOUL'

Cameron said in January he would campaign for Britain to remain in the EU "with all my heart and soul", as long as he repatriates powers. That would set him against "Eurosceptics" in his Conservatives and the many voters who see the EU as a threat to their sovereignty.

However, The Harris poll suggested Cameron could still win round many doubters.

Twelve percent of those planning to vote to leave the EU said they would definitely change their minds if Cameron clawed back powers. Another 47 percent would "possibly" rethink their opposition.

As in 1975, the "Yes" campaign would be well funded by business leaders warning of the economic dangers of Britain walking away from a single market of 500 million people.

Cameron would also have the support of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, his junior coalition government partner, and the main opposition Labour Party, which supports Britain's membership.

Labour leader Ed Miliband, ahead of Cameron in the polls, visits Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands this week to discuss Britain's EU ties.

While British politicians have long had a feverish debate about Europe, the poll said voters do not share their obsession. Europe came 14th in a list of 15 priorities, far behind health, education and the economy. (Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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