The victory of the Conservatives in the 2015 UK parliamentary election has paved the way for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership by 2017.
British prime minister David Cameron has a mandate to hold the referendum on the question of whether Britain should remain a member of the EU.
Prior to the referendum, Cameron is expected to renegotiate the UK’s place in the EU on a number of key issues, which include giving greater powers to national parliaments, cutting red tape, an opt-out for Britain from the principle of ever-closer union, and restrictions to welfare entitlements of EU migrants.
Britain’s place in the EU is now one of the most important questions in British politics. The result of this referendum will determine not only Britain’s future in the EU but also its international status more broadly.
Given the nature of this type of public consultation, the debate has been structured in binary terms: should the UK stay in or leave the EU?
Discussions have taken a predominantly economic angle, focusing on an economic cost-benefit analysis of the country’s EU membership.
Specific debates relate to the cost of red tape and regulation to UK businesses, and the financial impact of EU migration on the welfare state and ultimately UK political independence.
Other important issues, however, such as the role of public opinion, have not yet entered the UK political debate. What are the different aspects of UK citizens’ attitudes towards the EU? What are the sources of UK Euroscepticism? What type of renegotiation do UK citizens want?
This paper revisits the debate on British attitudes towards the EU. Going beyond existing evaluations of public attitudes, which focus on the EU project in general terms, the paper examines public opinion on specific policy areas and from a socio-demographic perspective.
Using data from an original survey of 3,000 respondents conducted two weeks prior to the 2015 general election, it provides a nuanced picture of British public opinion on the EU.
Findings indicate that there is great variation not only on the level of power that Britons want to give to the EU but also in their support for specific policy areas. Somewhat against expectation, there is a substantive section of the population that supports a greater role for the EU in all EU policy areas.
About a quarter of respondents on average also neither agree nor disagree with the statement that the EU should have more authority over the EU member states in specific policy areas, which suggests that they are broadly happy with the current levels of integration.
The British public tends to support a greater role for the EU in policies that are perceived to be optimal for all countries involved, such as trade and the digital economy. They also support integration in policies such as environment and climate change, which by their nature require international cooperation.
They tend to oppose further integration in social policies, such as labour market, employment and social affairs, education and health, as well as economic and monetary policies, which are perceived to belong to the realm of the nation state.
Britons are reluctant to support policies that entail a level of redistribution across the EU that goes beyond traditional EU funding, such as EU citizens’ right to work and access to the welfare state of another EU country. This is problematic as opposition to free labour movement infringes upon a fundamental EU principle. Changing this may require a full EU treaty change, which is unlikely to occur by 2017.
Consistent with previous research, opposition to EU citizens’ right to work in another EU country derives primarily from older, less educated and working-class citizens, who may feel threatened by such mobility. UK Independence party and Conservative party supporters tend to be less supportive of free movement of labour within the EU.
Britons tend to have a utilitarian perspective on their country’s EU membership as they support policies where no one is perceived to be worse off as a result of European integration, and they tend to agree that Britain has benefited from being a member of the EU.
Yet, the EU also provokes emotive reactions among British citizens, which range from uneasiness to hopefulness and to indifference. This suggests that there is a clash between interest-based rational thinking and emotional attitudes to Britain’s EU membership. Beyond economic calculations, emotional reactions may be central to determining the outcome of the forthcoming referendum.
This paper starts with a historical overview of British attitudes to European integration. It proceeds with an analysis of the British public’s attitudes on specific EU policy areas as well as their emotional reactions towards the country’s EU membership. It then provides an in-depth focus on Britons’ attitudes towards EU migration, including EU citizens’ right to work and access the welfare state of another EU country. It ends with some concluding remarks on the relevance of these attitudes to the referendum debate.
Read ‘Mixed Feelings: Britons’ conflicted attitudes to the EU before the referendum’ a special briefing by Dr Sofia Vasilopoulou in conjunction with The UK in a Changing Europe, Policy Network and The University of York.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.