Page last updated at 08:44 GMT, Thursday, 14 May 2009 09:44 UK

In search of Europe: UK

Euroscepticism is alive and kicking in England, the BBC's Jonny Dymond reports, as he roams across EU member states, gauging opinion ahead of next month's European elections.

In the leafy lanes around West Kirby, in the Wirral in north-west England, Conservative candidate for the European Parliament Jacqueline Foster is doing her best.

BBC correspondent Jonny Dymond

I'm Jonny Dymond and I've said goodbye to the BBC Brussels bureau for the next few weeks. I'll be taking the temperature in nine EU member states before the European Parliament elections on 4-7 June. I'm going to ask voters what they think of the EU and what their priorities are. Join me on the trip!

At door after door that she and her energetic team try, there is no response. "Has the football started?" she asks one young assistant. "That'll stop them coming out."

In Abbey Road she finally finds a willing victim.

"Hello," she starts off, brightly, "I'm Jacqueline Foster, one of the Euro-candidates… I was an MEP for five-and-a-half years…"

The woman in the doorway listens for a moment and starts to catalogue the ills that plague her life - potholes, the failures of social services, the sign at the top of the road that lists traffic accidents, the closure of local libraries.

Jacqueline Foster nods, listens, nods a lot more, agrees with nearly everything and after about five minutes, and after taking a key ring with the voter's husband's phone number on it (in case she needs any advice in the future about transport policy), secures a promise of a vote.

All politics, it is often said, is local. Never more so, it seems, than when Britain is going to the polls for a European election.

Travelling east across England the search is on for one person who has anything good to say about Europe. It is surprisingly tough.

Merrie England

In the rolling Cheshire hills, the village of Marbury is celebrating a Marbury Merry Day.

English Civil War re-enactment in Marbury
An English Civil War re-enactment: Fertile ground for Eurosceptics

It is difficult to find anything more delightful, or closer to the spirit of that mythical place, Middle England. There is a coconut shy, a tractor parade, a vintage car display and even a re-enactment of a battle from the English Civil War.

Sitting next to her partner, who is in full Royalist battle dress, is Marie Pickstock, a public servant. She blames a lack of education and a highly critical media for the negativity that now surrounds the EU in Britain.

"I actually feel European," she says. "The first time that I voted was in the election that got us into the European Union, the referendum. The political statement that it was making was about working together as a continent.

"I think we've got caught up now in the whole economic thing and the whole process of 'what's this doing for our businesses and our money,' rather than thinking about it in terms of bringing us all together."

National pride

But Marie is the lone EU-enthusiast I speak to. Instead it is criticism that comes from nearly every quarter of the Merry Day fields - about Brussels interfering too much, about the perceived threat to British identity, about the financial cost of British membership.

Lyn and Roger at Marbury Merry Day
Lyn and Roger feel remote from Brussels - and proud to be British

There are the usual Euro-myths knocking about, but most of the comments are driven by a sense that something about Britain - for which you can generally read England - is under threat from a centralising, homogenising EU.

"I don't mind being part of Europe," says Lyn Bailey, sipping fizz in the spring sunshine, "but I do think that we should have our individuality as well."

Standing next to the five-inch-gauge railway, the men and women camping out in the style of the 17th Century and the dog-dressing competition, I ask whether English eccentricities are really under threat?

"No," she replies firmly. "But I think if they [Brussels] had their way they would be."

"We are being stifled," picks up her husband, Roger, "because European legislation is taking over from our English legislation and we don't want to be ruled by a bunch of people who don't understand us."

I leave Marbury with the roar of cannon in my ears and head east to the coast. The final stop is Cleethorpes and the golf club, which one bright and blustery morning is hosting a match between Grimsby Seniors and their Cleethorpes counterparts. Cleethorpes takes the day, and over a fish lunch I ask what these wise souls make of the EU these days.

The response is resoundingly negative. No-one has a good word to say about the EU.

Jonny Dymond reports from the UK's largest fish market

The most common refrain is that the British were conned - that we thought we were joining a trading organisation, but it's gone so much further than that.

And there are some strong words about identity, too. Do you feel European, I asked one table of golfers?

"No, no," came one response. "British, British," came another. "Definitely not a European, no," says a third. "I'm a patriot, I'm English, I'm English through and through," rounds off a fourth.

At other tables, one or two people said that being English and European might be possible.

But the contrast with those who live on the continent was striking across the breadth of England that I had traversed.

Where continentals wear their Europeanness like a second skin, from Liverpool to Grimsby people told me that they didn't feel anything other than English.

And the hostility towards the EU in this admittedly unscientific cross-section of English society was clear and undeniable.

"We've burnt our boats now, we're in, we can't go back," one golfer told me.

That won't stop many in Britain hoping.

Jonny Dymond's route across Europe
4 May - France
8 May - Ireland
12 May - UK
16 May - Sweden
21 May - Latvia
25 May - Poland
29 May - Austria
2 June - Italy
5 June - Germany

Jonny's response to your comments:

Let me start with the "British" issue brought up by Andrew Brown, Hugh and Ian Edwards.

I am sure it must be infuriating to some that the English use the words "British" and "English" interchangeably. On one level it is clearly wrong to do so. It places the BBC in a difficult position though; who am I to correct English people when they call themselves British? I'm not sure I would even be right to do so. I'm English. I'm British.

What I think is terminologically important is to make sure that at some point in an article it's made clear that it is an English (or English-British?) point of view, rather than a UK-wide one, and I did this at various points. I apologise if I didn't make it clear enough.

Have I represented the UK fairly, not going to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? Not as comprehensively as I would have wished, since a quick look at the voting figures shows lower levels of support for withdrawalist or Eurosceptic parties in the other parts of the UK.

That said, England is by far the most populous part of the UK. If I was writing about any other country, could only go to one part of it, and chose to go to a devolved part with only a small proportion of the population, I think it would be pretty odd. And, to include the point that Arthur Waters of Barcelona made about Spain, Portugal, Greece et al, there is only so much time. I'd like to do more. I'd also like to see my (currently quite small and very sweet) children before they graduate.

As for the "universally bland population" of Europe that Michael Watters of Austin, Texas writes about: no offence Michael, but have you ever been to Europe? National stereotypes and wild regional variations are alive and kicking across the EU, uncrushed by the technocrats of Brussels. And since when did a powerful federal government destroy regional variations anyway? When I travelled across the US I seem to remember Texans being very, very different from New Yorkers, Californians and Illinoians (there must be a right word for that…)

David Landt in Chicago writes about Britain maximising its influence in Brussels despite a sceptical population. This chimes very much with my experience. The British negotiating team (called UKRep in Brussels-speak) is widely thought to be amongst the best. The political complexion of the Commission is much more Anglo-Saxon free market than it was, and the flow of statist and interventionist legislation has slowed to a trickle.

Battles such as the right to opt out of an average 48-hour working week are of course still being fought (and 'won' in the eyes of the British government). But the Working Time Directive dates from 1993, and seems to me like something from a different age.

Finally, my own thoughts on the "European" question. It does seem odd that a country like Britain, a key player in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, home to Adam Smith and Karl Marx, for centuries a country that looked to Rome for religious guidance, that owned a great chunk of France, that imported its monarchies from the Netherlands and Germany and its Jews from the across Continent, could somehow not be part of "Europe". This is of course very different from whether you see yourself as European or whether Britons feel comfortable within the EU. But let's not make the Channel too wide.

As ever, I am deeply grateful for your thoughts. Onward to the elections!

Here are some of your comments on Jonny's feature:

What's up with you interchanging between England and Britain, you should have given some viewpoint from Wales or Scotland as well.
Huw, U.K

My personal belief is that the EU needs to do more to help the everyday man understand what it actually does. Which is a lot of use. A transnational currency that once was thought of as an experiment is now a major reserve currency, is one of the examples.

I find it amusing that an American entry supports moving away from the EU despite the United States itself being a collection of states, many of which were suspicious of the creation of the USA after the declaration of independence, but nevertheless found it works. Check the history.

As for losing British or even English identity, it hasn't happened in all the time that the UK has been in the EU and is quite simply impossible. The Germans are not less German. The French are no less French. And so we remain. Cooperation is not losing sovereignty.

I say let's get further in the EU so we can take our rightful place and run the show.
Kas Iqbal, London

It always strikes me as odd to hear the English complain about the EU when their country has done a phenomenal job of maximizing their voice in the union while not fully participating. No other country has done half so well in getting what they want from the EU while opting out of what they don't. If I were English, I would be gloating.
David Landt, Chicago, USA

Brits are not Europeans, you only have to visit Europe to see the similarities between all the European countries but come to Britain and it is very different. I think being a separate island has helped Britain remain very much its own country and I like it. Britain does not need Europe, we have just joined by default. Most Europeans don't even consider us as part of it; Britain is the absent country of the EU and personally I am proud of that fact.

I will be voting UKIP this year, it's about time we saved the £55bn for our own country and develop our already strong relationships with America and the Commonwealth even further. Rule Britannia!
Alex, Dorset

As an American, I say there is nothing wrong at all about wanting to remain British/English. Brits have a long and storied history and are showing their national pride and perhaps some disdain for the Euros. Bravo! Please remain British, and don't give in to the transnationals, who want a universally bland population. I'm happy to see some of that renowned British fortitude still remains.
Michael Watters, Austin, Texas, USA

I am pro-British any day! Britain does not need Europe 100%. By her mere location, the EU relationship is a must by default and by the fact that the Brits are Europeans, but they can be sure to forfeit the rest of her ex-colonies and share their markets if they decide to embrace EU fully. Britain can still be sufficient with her English and Commonwealth markets and a bit of mandatory links in trade with mainstream EU countries. I am from Africa and have travelled quite a bit within the EU and am comfortable to be an English speaker from Africa.
Sam Kanja, Finland

I feel you should have canvassed views in your article from Scotland, Wales and Ireland too, not just England, as the title of your article is "In search of Europe: UK".
Ian Edwards, Holyhead

People seem to forget so quickly. The European Union is a huge success in making the European countries work together. Sure often the discussion is long and boring, but at least they are talking!

Gone are the days of trade protectionism between European countries, military build-up between Germany and the rest. We can now go somewhere without visas, passports, fifteen different currencies. Working or studying in another country still brings a lot of red tape, but nothing compared to what it would have been without the EU.

The dream of a united, free Europe that would never have a war again, is not popular anymore. But the EU as an institution seems to have been succesful in implementing much of that idea, albeit in a bureaucratic, liberal way.

Also the EU is really bad at Public Relations. If something good comes out of European discussions (consumer protection, environment, ..) individual governments like to take the praise, but when 'bad' things have to be decided (fishing quotas, stopping government support of companies,...) it is always the EU that took that decision.
Hicham Vanborm, Brussels, Belgium

Your column on the English view of the EU mirrors my own. English and Islander first, Continental, not at all. I believe the fault can be laid at the door of successive governments, both Tory and Labour, which have failed to ask the people what they want. Now it is in my mind too late to go to the country. It is time the UK withdrew from full EU membership and moved towards an arrangement similar to the Swiss model, where EU legislation does not apply.
Michael Harding, Penshurst, UK

Sounds more like a sounding board for English Nationalism. Comments like "I'm English, not British" from an English Nationalist will help speed up the break of these Islands. This will make us easier to be absorbed bit by bit by the EU. After all, if Britain can't be united where is the hope? Seems not so long ago we all fought as a BRITISH nation against the Nazis. Now we are divided, no-one wants to be British any more, just English. It's only if we stand together that we can fend off the takeover of our BRITISH nation by the EU. English nationalism will destroy this country.
Brian Davies, Verwood, Dorset, UK

This sad appraisal reflects the fact that it is very much a case of the blind leading the blind. Where there is no leadership, it is hardly surprising that the uninformed have only negative attitudes.
Hugh McLean, Newton Mearns, SCOTLAND

How our memories fail us, Marie Pickstock said in your article: "I actually feel European. The first time that I voted was in the election that got us into the European Union, the referendum". An interesting quote, but the facts, at least my memories are somewhat different. The actual vote was not to join the "EU" but to either remain in it or not. The Government having broken faith with the Commonwealth and many longstanding trading partners then asked us if we wanted to now break faith with our new European partners or not - some choice!
John, Moscow, Russia

The English have every reason to be sceptical about the EU, as one of the EU's goals is to balkanise England into the English regions. We have had no vote on the EU - just the common market years ago and we've had no vote on the English regions but we get them anyway. The EU is interested in power not democracy. For as long as that is true the English must fight the EU all the way. The best thing that could happen to England is the re-establishment of the English Parliament.
J D Asher, Birmingham, England

Such a wonderfully parochial, insular reflection on England and the media there. No wonder the UK is the worst country hit by the finance crisis. Instead of being positive, engaging with Europe, exporting to Europe there is just negativity. I live out in the Czech Republic and just about anything I can think of to do with home renovation just doesn't exist here. Compression fittings for water, damp proof injection DIY kits, cheap anti-corrosion or water-proof paint. There is a FORTUNE to be made, yet every website I visit, company I talk to will deliver practically free in the UK but cross that water - No Thanks matey! Instead of leading, Britain is following and losing - it makes me weep with frustration.
Rod McLeod, Ostrava, Czech Republic

It sounds like you spoke to a lot of old people rather than the youths of today. People who preach about sovereignty are rarely in their 20-40s and those are the people who are raising the next generation with their own beliefs. Having said that, I really don't think enough is done to explain what these elections mean.
Mike Newlad, Lincoln

We had this problem too. Our original constitution allowed too much power to the Federal Government. We created the Bill of Rights, of which the 10th amendment is the last part. Here was our solution: Amendment 10 - Powers of the States and People. Ratified 12/15/1791. Note The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Richard E. Taney, Collegeville/Pennsylvania U.S.A

I don't feel European and don't want to be part of Europe. I am English and wish to continue to feel English and be proud of being English. The European Union is bleeding us dry and trying to take over, by making us all abide by the European Rules they make, which do not necessarily benefit us in Great Britain.
Linda, Eltham

I note from the map that the farthest south you'll get is Verona - skipping most of Italy, and all of Greece, Spain and Portugal. Do you really think this will allow you to report comprehensively about Europe?
Arthur Waters, Barcelona

I have lived in Europe for 9 years, my oldest daughter was born in Germany, BUT, I am English first, British second & NOT European at all. I am more than happy to work with the Europeans but I do not want to be such an integrated part whereby we lose our identity as we are doing. Why does England not show as a country in Europe, but Scotland does? Just another chip at our way of life.
Peter, Basingstoke

This might have been a decent piece if it didn't ignore the non-English British voters completely. How interesting it might have been to hear the views of those who are already ruled by a government in another country. Perhaps they welcome the recognition of differences that the EU offers? What I took away from this, however, is there are still far too many English people who think British and English are interchangeable.
Andrew Brown, Tokyo, Japan

I now live in much-maligned Brussels but originally I come from another European country. It took me a long time to realize that the locals did NOT really think of me as a foreigner (that's the Turks and Moroccans), just a provincial with some funny habits. I guess the good people of Marbury would quickly realize how European they are if one could parachute them into the deepest Congo, Laos, or Oregon.
P Raman, Brussels, Belgium

What a profoundly depressing picture this presents of our country. These people don't understand the issues - how can you have a trading area without common laws and standards? It's self-evident nonsense - they're just reacting with narrow-minded prejudice against anything "foreign". "We don't want to be ruled by a bunch of people who don't understand us," says Roger. Why must he split Europe up into "us and them"? We are Europeans, and we are ruling ourselves. How sad this is.
Mark, London

Spot on Jonny. The British were conned into the EU and anyone who thinks that the conned can grow to love the conmen is a fool. The re-enactors are wise to be EU-sceptic. They play out what happens when some people think they have a divine right to rule.
Tony Sweeting, Leicester, UK

And then those same people criticise American patriotism. If these people are not European, then what are they? African? The problem with Euroscepticism is that it is either based on a total ignorance of the functioning of the EU, or on an outdated nationalistic attitude. Valid critique is non-existent, but sycophantic xenophobia and nationalism are rife. Case in point: UKIP
Nicholas Corbett, Slough

Hello Jonny I fully empathise with your problems in finding someone in England who supports the EU. I myself belief strongly in the EU and what it stands for, as I personally feel that without a strong EU there is no way of competing with trading blocks such as China and India, nor competing against aggressive Russian foreign policy or developing a coherent regional peacekeeping organisation. It's a sad state of affairs that people near where I live (Wirral) are short-sighted as to the point of the EU.
Adam Hall, St. Helens

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MEP Seats

  Votes MEPs
Party % +/- % Total +/-
EPP 33.4 -1.4 264 -18
Socialists 23.2 -4.1 183 -26
Liberal 11.0 +1.6 84 +5
Green 7.4 +1.3 50 +9
Left 5.3 -0.6 34 -2
UEN 3.4 +1.6 28 +2
Ind/Dem 2.7 -1.8 21 -15
No Group 13.6 +3.4 72 +3.4
0 of 27 countries declared.

UK Total MEP Seats

Party Votes MEPs
% +/- % Total +/-
CON 27.7 1.0 *26 1
UKIP 16.5 0.3 13 1
LAB 15.7 -6.9 13 -5
LD 13.7 -1.2 11 1
GRN 8.6 2.4 2 0
BNP 6.2 1.3 2 2
SNP 2.1 0.7 2 0
PC 0.8 -0.1 1 0
OTH 8.5 2.4 0 0
SF 1 0
DUP 1 0
72 of 72 seats declared. Vote share figures exclude Northern Ireland as it has a separate electoral system to the rest of the UK
* Includes UCUNF MEP elected in Northern Ireland
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Steve Rosenberg Berlin voters celebrate at party

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