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UK’s anti-Europe party seeks gains in EU election

March 1, 2014

LONDON (AP) — Fruitcake-free and ready to roll: That was the message from the upstart United Kingdom Independence Party as it finished a two-day conference Saturday focused on winning more seats in the European Parliament.

Consider the irony. A party that wants to pull Britain out of the European Union, and fortify its borders against migrants from Europe, is seeking increased leverage in a parliament based in Belgium and France.

But UKIP leader Nigel Farage, a politician happy to admit he is uncomfortable with the multitude of foreign languages heard on London public transportation, sees May’s vote as a mischief-making prospect too rich to pass up.

“These elections, in many ways, will be an opportunity for us to tell the political class where to go,” Farage told his followers.

UKIP already has 13 members in the 766-seat European Parliament, with hopes of gaining more of the United Kingdom’s 73 spots. The May 22 election comes roughly a year before elections to the UK’s own House of Commons, where UKIP has yet to win any seats.

Farage is banking on anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment among voters who believe that Britain has ceded too many decision-making powers to European bureaucrats.

Citing new official figures showing that the number of migrants arriving in Britain has far exceeded targets set by the Conservative-led government, Farage predicted that the country’s largest-ever “migratory wave” was still to come and charged that Britain’s three main political parties were doing nothing to prevent it.

Previous UKIP conferences have been overshadowed by distinctly off-message comments: the parliamentarian who described some women in the party as “sluts,” or another who blamed the legalization of gay marriage for causing Britain’s epic flooding. This year’s event proved gaffe-free.

The change has not gone unnoticed. Political analyst Ann Treneman wrote in The Times of London that the conference constituted “UKIP’s first post-fruitcake” gathering. She made it sound as if the party was sailing into the mainstream.

And the Conservative-friendly Daily Telegraph used its lead editorial to assert that events seemed to be boosting Farage at the expense of Prime Minister David Cameron, the Conservative leader. Under the headline “Cameron can’t match Farage’s simple message,” the newspaper envisioned panic in British political circles should UKIP top the vote in May.

The Daily Telegraph said Cameron’s hopes of renegotiating significant aspects of Britain’s relationship with the EU — a cornerstone of his 2015 re-election strategy — suffered a blow when German leader Angela Merkel told British lawmakers this week that fundamental agreements would not be altered.

It said the latest migration figures supported Farage’s case and described his message that “you cannot control your own borders and remain a member of the EU” as extremely clear.

Back in 2006, Cameron dismissed UKIP as a collection of “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists,” but he appears to be taking the party more seriously as the 2015 vote looms.

Seeking to steal UKIP’s thunder, he has pledged to hold a 2017 referendum on Britain’s EU membership if the Conservatives retain power.

Cameron’s government also has introduced a series of bills to make it tougher for immigrants to access British welfare benefits. Payments for unemployment, housing and health care all will be harder to get if the proposals become law, although some EU officials have cautioned that some of the proposed new rules would be discrimatory and violate EU law.

Yet UKIP’s popularity is rising in recent polling. At a by-election last month for an empty parliamentary seat in northern England, the UKIP candidate finished second — ahead of the Conservatives.