The perils of perception and the EU

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The public have a number of significant misperceptions about the EU and how it affects life in the UK, new research by UK in a Changing Europe and Ipsos MORI shows.

We get some things right, but we’re more often very wrong on some of the key issues fundamental to the debate – including immigration, Britain’s contribution to the EU budget, the amount of Child Benefit that goes abroad and investment into the UK.

Some of the key things we get wrong (and right) are:

  • EU immigrants: we massively overestimate how many EU-born people now live in the UK. On average we think EU citizens make up 15% of the total UK population (which would be around 10.5m people), when in reality it’s 5%[i] (around 3.5m people). Those who intend to vote to leave overestimate EU immigration more: they think 20% of the UK population are EU immigrants, compared with the average guess of 10% among those who intend to vote “remain”.
  • Proportion of immigrants who were born in an EU country: but at the same time we underestimate the proportion of all immigrants who were born in the EU. The average person guesses that a quarter (25%) of all immigrants were born in an EU member state, when the reality is 37%[ii]. This suggests that it’s immigration as a whole that we overestimate, rather than EU-specific immigration (as we’ve seen in previous studies).
  • Barmaid cleavages and other regulations from the EU: The EU doesn’t always get credit for some of our laws they’re responsible for – like statutory holiday (37% correctly guessed) and two year guarantees on products (21% correctly guessed).  On the other hand, we’re generally pretty good at spotting more ridiculous “Euro-myths”, but still 1 in 7 of us (15%) believe at least one Euro-myth – including bans on barmaids showing too much cleavage and forcibly renaming the snack “Bombay Mix” to “Mumbai Mix” (neither of which are real EU laws[iii]).  But EU law is complex– it’s no wonder there’s confusion. A quarter (24%) of us think bananas that are “too bendy” are banned from being imported into the UK. This is a long-standing favourite used as an example of excessive EU bureaucracy – most recently re-surfacing from Boris Johnson[iv]. But is it a Euro-myth? Yes and no: the EU does have a regulation to stop malformed bananas being imported into the UK, but it’s a stretch to say the EU’s banned “bendy” bananas.
  • How much the UK pays in: The majority of us (67%) correctly say the UK annually pays more into the EU’s budget than it gets back – but we overestimate how much we pay compared with other countries. 84% of us put Britain in the top 3 contributors to the EU’s c.€140bn annual budget (the same proportion that picks Germany as a top contributor) and nearly a quarter of us (23%) think the UK is the single top contributor to the EU. In reality, Germany paid in twice as much as us in 2014 (21% of total EU income), followed by France (16%) then Italy (12%), with the UK in fourth place (11%)[v].
  • How much the UK directly gets back: the majority of us are also correct that we get less back than other large countries. Three in five correctly (58%) rank the UK as one of the lower gross recipients from the EU budget: in 2014, the UK received less than other Western European countries like Germany, Italy, Spain and France[vi].
  • Child Benefit: we massively overestimate the proportion of Child Benefit awards given to families in other European countries. The actual proportion of UK Child Benefit awards going on children living abroad in Europe is 0.3%[vii], but 14% of us think that 30% of UK Child Benefit goes to children abroad and 23% of us think 13% does. This means that nearly 4 in 10 of us think the number of children in EU countries receiving Child Benefit from the UK is 40 to 100 times the actual level.
  • EU democracy: only 6 in 10 know that members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are elected by the citizens of each member state. One in five (18%) think that MEPs are not elected and a quarter (25%) say they don’t know whether they are or not.
  • Who our MEPs are: Unsurprisingly then, just 5% can correctly name at least one of the MEPs representing their region. This is much lower than the number who can name their local MP (41%).
  • The EU’s administration bill: we massively overestimate how much of the EU’s budget is spent on administration. The average guess is that 27% of the overall budget is spent on staff, admin and maintenance costs, when in reality it’s 6%[viii]. If this estimate were accurate the EU would be spending €38.5bn on admin each year, instead of €8.5bn.
  • Inward investment from EU countries: we underestimate how much investment into the UK comes from EU countries. The average guess is that they contribute 30% of total investment into the UK, when it actually makes up almost half (48%). This perception gap is mirrored by an overestimation of investment from China, which people think makes up 19% of inward investment but actually only accounts for 1%[ix].

The Perils of Predictions

The survey also asked people to make a series of predictions around the referendum.  Despite the fairly even race in the polls and the negative views towards many aspects of the EU seen in this survey, people are twice as likely to predict that we will vote to remain in the EU than to leave: 51% say that Britain will vote to remain and only 23% say we’ll vote to leave.

The public are also in line with the bookies on likely turnout levels: on average, we think the turnout will be 60%, when bookies’ odds imply a likely turnout of c63-64%.

But our predictions on the impact of a leave vote highlights the main challenge for the Remain campaign.  We are pretty certain that leaving will reduce immigration (63% believe that).  But while we are nearly as certain that it will also reduce investment from EU countries (57% believe that), only 25% of us think it will reduce our own living standards, with 13% thinking it will increase them and the remainder saying it will make no difference or they don’t know.

Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos MORI Social Research Institute, said:

The public have been calling for the “facts” to help them make up their minds on how to vote – but this survey shows that many of us are still very shaky on fundamental aspects of our relationship with the EU.  This is not surprising, given that the facts on the EU are often complex and contested.  In that messy and heated context, these misperceptions are more of an indicator of what’s worrying us than a careful assessment of the evidence – that’s why we’re most wrong on things like immigration, benefit payments going abroad and what the EU spends on bureaucracy.

But the survey also points to some key communication challenges and opportunities for the campaigns.  In particular, it seems that while the Remain camp may be winning on the macro-economic case, people are not convinced this will have any impact on their own standard of living.

So, despite the Remain campaign’s focus on us each being £4,300 worse off if we leave, we’re not making the connection or not believing it. “Project fear” will be much less effective if we think it’s only happening to someone else.”

Professor Anand Menon, Director of the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative and Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King’s College London said:

“There are obviously still high levels of ignorance about the EU, which is troubling so close to the referendum. However, it is not so surprising, given the lack of accurate information provided to the public, as well as the mistruths, exaggerations, and scaremongering that have taken place during this campaign. It’s now more imperative than ever that the public can be provided with as much factual information about the EU as possible before they cast their vote”

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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