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How a group of English eccentrics could change the face of Europe.
BRUSSELS, Belgium — The vanguard of the drive to pull Britain out of the European Union includes an earl, a Rhodesian army veteran and a disgruntled former leading EU official.
Their websites are filled with references to Churchill, cricket and the virtues of country pubs. When not vilifying the EU, they rail against feminists, environmentalists, Argentina, immigrants and, at times, each other.
The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) has 12 representatives elected by British voters to seats in the European Parliament. All 12 are white, only one is female and more than half are over 60.
They may come across as a bunch of blimpish eccentrics detached from the modern, multi-cultural Cool Britannia on show at last year's London Olympics, but it would be unwise to underestimate them. UKIP has an oversized influence on British politics that could be about to change the face of Europe.
Party leader Nigel Farage says it was UKIP pressure that forced British Prime Minister David Cameron into calling a referendum on EU membership by 2017.
"The very fact that we are talking about the possibility of Britain leaving the European Union is UKIP’s biggest victory to date," Farage said after Cameron's Jan. 23 announcement. "Five years ago, the thought of this issue being even discussed was an anathema and it is a great triumph for the tens of thousands of UKIP members."
Equipped with his trademark pinstriped suits and acerbic speechifying, Farage has built the party into a major force for protest among Britons who criticize the European Union for undermining national sovereignty.
UKIP came second to Cameron's Conservatives in the 2009 elections to the European Parliament with 16 percent, ahead of the long-established Labour and Liberal Democratic parties. Current opinion polls suggest UKIP will do even better in the next European vote in 2014.
The party fares less well in national elections, having scored just over 3 percent in the 2010 vote that brought Cameron to power.
However, its growing influence instills fear into many Conservative lawmakers — in much the same way the Tea Party scares Republicans in the United States — and has pushed Cameron into taking a harder line on Europe.
"I would say there are some similarities," says Stuart Agnew, one of UKIP's members of the European Parliament. "The Tea Party there, they wanted to influence the way the Republican Party thought, I see a similar thing in that we are altering the behavior of the Tory Party."
Hermann Kelly, the group's director of communications in Brussels, says its members don't agree with some of the Tea Party's more "off the wall" ideas, but "UKIP is for small state, low taxation, personal responsibility and freedom."
UKIP lawmakers speak out against abortion, gay marriage and women's rights campaigners.
Climate change is a particular bugbear.
"A little bit of warming would do the planet a world of good, it would bring huge areas of Russia and Canada into agricultural production," says Agnew, a Norfolk farmer who served in the Rhodesian army. "I have no shame at all in being a denier."
Farage has said he's not unhappy about the group’s oddball image, but there are concerns about a darker side. Since 2009, UKIP has sat in a political faction within European Parliament that parties on the wilder side of the European right.
Among them, the UKIP teamed up with Mario Borghezio of Italy's Northern League party, who made headlines with a radio interview about President Obama's re-election in November.
"They've chosen one of their own,” he said. “Multiracial America has won, which I can't f***king stand, to use a diplomatic term." Borghezio added that Obama was "a good boy" who had become the puppet of international secret societies. "Behind Romney you could see a beautiful, white, Christian America," Borghezio’s party is running in a coalition with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in this month's Italian elections.
Other allies sitting with UKIP in the Europe of Freedom and Democracy Group include the Slovak National Party whose leader Jan Slota drew criticism for his verbal attacks on the country's Roma and Hungarian minorities as well as for praising the WWII-era pro-Nazi leader as "one of the greatest sons of the Slovak nation." Danish, Belgian and Greek members of the group have also faced accusations of racism and extremist views.
UKIP has sought to minimize its ties with its Freedom and Democracy partners.
"This is a marriage of convenience," says Kelly, explaining that inclusion in a multinational group in the European Parliament has given the party more funding, staff and speaking time.
"There is no commonality of policy," he adds, noting that Farage has taken a strong line against racist parties in Britain and elsewhere in Europe. "UKIP is a party that believes and practices and encourages diversity."
The party's success pushing its anti-EU agenda has raised concerns in the United States, which is worried Washington could lose an important ally within the European Union should Britain pull out. Public expression of those concerns last month provoked an angry response from UKIP.
"President Obama should keep his nose out of our affairs," said Gerard Batten, another of the party's European lawmakers. "The US government couldn’t care less about our national interests or democratic rights."
However, UKIP insists that Britain would remain a close ally without becoming dependent on the United States.
"We've always regarded them [Americans] as a very old ally, a special relationship," Agnew said in an interview. "We want the relationship with the United States that we had 40 years ago."
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That may not be so easy, given how Britain's place in the world has changed since it joined the EU in 1973.
Forty years ago, Britain spent 5.5 percent of its gross domestic product on defense, including a 367,000-strong military. Today it's 2.6 percent on armed forces that total 186,000 and continue to shrink.
At the same time, the UK’s trade with EU countries has doubled over the past 40 years and now accounts for more than 50 percent of exports.
But as UKIP continues its ascent, those who believe leaving the EU will weaken Britain’s security and undermine its prosperity are finding theirs a harder argument to make.