The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

20 Dec 2022

Public Opinion

Relationship with the EU

John Curtice analyses the latest Redfield and Wilton Strategies/UK in a Changing Europe Brexit tracker poll, examining public attitudes towards different forms of closer relationship with the European Union. 

A month ago, The Sunday Times ran a front-page story in which it claimed that ‘senior government figures are planning to put Britain on the path towards a Swiss-style relationship with the European Union’. Although the story has since been denied by Downing Street, this has not stopped opinion polls from making an attempt to ascertain whether the public would welcome the UK having a closer relationship, one similar to the kind that Switzerland has with the EU.

However, the results of the polling have varied. In a poll conducted for GB News by People Polling, respondents were evenly divided between 32% who were in favour of a Swiss-style relationship and 28% who were opposed. In contrast, in a poll for The Observer, Opinium found as many as 55% in favour of the idea while only 21% were opposed. Similarly, in a poll for The Times, YouGov found 54% in favour while 24% were opposed.

These results suggest that the prospect of a closer relationship is potentially not unattractive to voters, but that the tone of how it is described, which differed between these polls, has the potential to make a difference to the pattern of response.

Meanwhile, voters may be keener on some potential ways of softening the UK’s current trade deal with the EU than others. Second, any closer relationship would entail the UK gaining closer access to the EU single market in return for giving the EU greater access to the UK and its market. This suggests that what matters is whether the likely trade-offs in any renegotiation would or would not be acceptable to voters.

In its latest poll for UK in a Changing Europe, Redfield & Wilton Strategies asked whether people would support or oppose the following four distinct ways in which the current Brexit deal might be softened:

The UK adopting EU laws and regulations on food and agriculture in exchange for the EU not implementing border checks or tariffs on food products produced in the UK?

The UK adopting EU laws and regulations on the manufacturing of goods in exchange for the EU not implementing border checks or tariffs on goods produced in the UK?

The UK allowing EU citizens to freely travel, study, work, and immigrate to the UK in exchange for the EU allowing UK citizens to freely travel, study, work, and immigrate to the EU?

The UK accepting EU professional qualifications (for instance, for nursing, engineering, etc.) in exchange for the EU accepting UK professional qualifications?

Table 1 reveals that all four were relatively popular. Nearly two-thirds are in favour of the mutual acceptance of professional qualifications. Just over a half back allowing freedom of movement, and a little below half following EU regulations to ease trade with the EU. Meanwhile, even in the case of the least popular of the four, only one in six said they were opposed.

These figures present a picture not dissimilar to that obtained by Opinium and YouGov. Apparently, there might well be relatively widespread support for a closer relationship with the EU.

Should we be surprised? One reason why not is how voters have responded when asked how close or distant the UK’s relationship with the EU should be. In Redfield & Wilton’s latest poll, 55% say the UK should have a close relationship, while just 9% say the relationship should be distant. These figures have varied little over the course of this year. In contrast, only 32% think that that the UK currently has a close relationship, while 24% believe the relationship is distant. In other words, on balance people say they want a closer relationship than currently exists.

Still, we might wonder what voters might mean by a close relationship. Would it necessarily extend to backing the details of a possible ‘Swiss-style’ relationship?

The first two columns of Table 2 reveal that those who say the UK should have a close relationship with the EU are more likely than those who do not to support each of our propositions. Only a minority of those who do not want a close relationship with the EU support most of our propositions, although even among this group, just over half (53%) support the mutual recognition of professional qualifications.

However, we can also see from the last two columns of Table 2 that those who would vote to join the EU in another referendum are markedly more likely than those who want to stay out to express support. And given that those who want to be part of the EU (70%) are more likely than those who wish to stay out (41%) to say that the UK should have a close relationship, perhaps the pattern in the first two columns of Table 2 is simply a consequence of the division between those who want to re-join and those who wish to stay out?

In practice this is not the case – and especially among those who wish to stay out of the EU. For example, among this group 59% of those who would like the UK to have a close relationship with the EU support freedom of movement, compared with just 29% of those who do not want a close relationship. There are similar if somewhat smaller differences on our other propositions, though even among Leave voters who do not want a close relationship over half (52%) support the mutual recognition of professional qualifications.

Voters have regularly been telling Redfield & Wilton that the UK’s relationship with the EU should be closer than at present. What can now also be said is that that mood is reflected in how people respond to specific proposals for softening the UK’s relationship with the EU. There might be a better reception among voters for a softer Brexit than perhaps politicians realise.

By John Curtice, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe, Senior Research Fellow, National Centre for Social Research, and Professor of Politics, University of Strathclyde.

A longer version of this post is available at the What UK Thinks website.

You can access the data tables for the latest Redfield & Wilton Strategies/UK in a Changing Europe Brexit Tracker here.

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