Richard Rose sets out the findings of a recent European Security survey of public opinion in the UK, Germany, Sweden, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Croatia looking at the extent to which people see the global economy, climate change, immigration, military action and terrorism as risks to their security.
The UK public sees the country’s national security as insecure. The proportion of the public viewing the global economy as a threat to national security is as high as 92%, whilst five-sixths see climate change as a long-term risk. Terrorism appears as a big or fair-sized risk to four-fifths of Britons and immigration as a threat to 70%. However, in spite of being asked as the war in Ukraine was raging in December, only 51% see military threats as posing a big risk to British security.
Threats to national security are common across Europe but the perception of these threats is not. In an eight-country European security survey, the British are consistently more fearful of all five types of threats mentioned above. For example, Germans are eight percentage points less likely to see the global economy as a risk to security, and a majority do not see their country facing military threats.
By contrast, in Poland and Romania, which share borders with the former Soviet Union, more than two-thirds see their country as threatened by military action.
Brexit campaigners assumed that leaving the European Union would create a ‘global Britain’, able to advance the country’s interests independently. The British public tends to agree that the EU does not offer much help in dealing with national security. Only 18% on average think the country should ally with the EU to deal with threats to security. The proportion falls as low as 6% for military threats; it is less than 15% for climate change and terrorism; 23% for immigration and 24% for the global economy.
Public opinion in EU member states is different. The percentage turning to the EU for help in dealing with security threats is always significantly higher.
However, most Britons still think the country needs allies. An average of 56% see the country as needing help from allies to deal with security threats. Notwithstanding being a nuclear power, only 23% think it can go it alone if faced with a military threat. However, the preferred ally differs with the nature of the threat to security.
The war in Ukraine has revived awareness that European countries, including Britain, look across the Atlantic for military security. To guard against any tendency to anti-Americanism, the Security Survey offered respondents a choice of naming NATO or its dominant power, the United States, as its preferred military ally.
Notwithstanding the special priority that British prime ministers give to talking with the White House, only 14% explicitly name the United States as an ally compared to 52% naming NATO. In European countries an average of 55% look to NATO for military support and 8% to the US. Even though the EU has no army, 11% see it as a prime ally for protecting their military security.
The UK is internationalist when asked about the challenge of climate change: 41% look to the United Nations for help, double the proportion in EU member states. This is consistent with the UK having a permanent seat in the Security Council while the European Union has only observer status. Only 9% of Britons think the UN is the best ally in dealing with the four other threats to national security.
Immigration reflects both push factors – the desire of people to leave a poor or strife-torn country – and pull factors, the attraction of settling in a freer and more prosperous Britain. The British public do not appear to accept that allying with others to reduce poverty and political repression in countries that immigrants flee from is the best way to reduce immigration. Instead, more than three-fifths want the British government to deal with immigration on its own. This leaves open how the government deals with immigration.
While a plurality of Britons think it is sufficient for the government to deal with terrorism on its own, an additional 24% think NATO can be a useful ally in combatting terrorism.
The views of the British public are more nuanced than politicians who respond to challenges with a one-size-fits-all response, whether it is to turn to the EU for help or go it alone in dealing with diverse challenges to security.
Neither alternative is an adequate response to climate change, which is primarily due to what happens on other continents. And to defend against a military threat from Russia, Britain is stronger as part of a NATO alliance than going it alone.
When making decisions about various national security challenges, politicians should be mindful that public attitudes towards who the UK should cooperate with and on what are far from homogenous.
By Richard Rose, Professor of Public Policy, University of Strathclyde and a visiting scholar at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin.
The National Security Survey interviewed 12,685 people in Britain, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Italy, Hungary, Romania and Croatia between 19 November and 18 December 2022. It was organised by a consortium of Berlin social science institutes and financed by the German Ministry of Science.