Making social science accessible

13 Dec 2023

Public Opinion

UK-EU Relations

Jake Puddle summarises British Future’s new report examining public attitudes towards a closer relationship with the EU, which finds that voters support a closer relationship with Europe but that there is an aversion among voters to re-opening Brexit divisions.

President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen raised eyebrows recently by claiming that the UK is on a ‘direction of travel’ toward re-joining the EU, though it would be up to young people to reverse Brexit. It remains to be seen whether the children of today will grow up to become Generation Rejoin. Nevertheless, new attitudes research from British Future indicates that the public have, since Brexit, begun to favour ‘a closer relationship’ with the EU.

A survey of 2,000 respondents and a series of 12 focus groups for our new report, ‘Beyond Brexit: Public perspectives on the future UK-EU relationship,’ finds that 52% of the public would like the UK to have a closer relationship with the EU. Just 12% said that they would prefer a more distant relationship, whereas 27% would keep the status quo.

Chart showing that a majority of the British public is in favour of a closer relationship with the EU

In a similar vein to recent analysis by John Curtice, the research found that 68% of Labour supporters would prefer closer ties. This is potentially an important consideration for Keir Starmer, should he become the next Prime Minister. But across parties, the waters of opinion have muddied in the years since Brexit. Conservative supporters are split, with few (17%) wanting to see more divergence from the EU, and similar numbers supporting the status quo (41%) and a closer relationship (38%). Even among 2016 referendum voters, only a quarter (24%) of Leave voters would like the relationship with the EU to be more distant than it currently is, and slightly more (26%) would like the relationship to be closer.

Yet the public hold nuanced opinions about where exactly they would like to see Britain stand in closer alignment with Europe. On issues such as counter terrorism (68%), trade (61%), science/research co-operation (61%), defence (57%), customs (57%), international health (57%) and climate policy (56%), there is majority support for working with Europe, across the ‘Leave/Remain’ divide. Indeed, on the issues mentioned, more Leave voters wanted closer cooperation with the EU than preferred the status quo or further divergence.

Chart showing the public is more open to collaboration with the EU in some policy areas than in others

Yet on other issues, public attitudes are more complex. More research is needed to test public preferences when presented with the trade-offs between potential benefits and conditions of closer alignment. For example, on immigration, most survey respondents (61%) supported cooperation on migration for work and study. However, it remains to be seen if this equates to support for free movement – unlikely, given previous research consistently finds that people place importance on controlling immigration over reducing numbers. The survey also found the public were more divided on working with the EU on refugee resettlement. Asylum debates featured strongly in our focus groups, with many participants conflating the EU with the ECHR. Some felt aggrieved by a perceived meddling from Europe in UK home affairs.

Chart showing voters are more open to cooperating with the EU on travel for work or study than they are on refugee resettlement

Despite such reservations, this research finds overall support for a more pragmatic closeness with the EU, where collaboration is seen to take place around specific issues of mutual self-interest. To some extent, recent developments such as the Windsor Framework, and the decision to rejoin Horizon, may therefore reflect a more gradual, practical ‘direction of travel’ than that suggested by Von der Leyen.

Indeed, politicians in London and Brussels should proceed with caution if they think that a call to ‘rejoin’ might win over the public in the near future. Support for collaboration with Europe is rooted firmly in the practical interest described above, rather than any growing sense of European identity. Less than one in ten survey respondents (9%) identified as European, with this figure falling even lower among ethnic minorities. Similarly, the public struggled to engage with notions of holding shared European values, and few saw this as a foundation for any future relationship.

Chart showing that few respondents identify as European

Disinterest in any discussion of ‘rejoin’ may also come from the strong aversion among voters to re-opening Brexit divisions and disputes seen in recent years, both in Parliament and at family dinner tables. Six in ten (59%) say they would welcome a less heated debate about the UK’s future relationship with the EU in our politics and our society, including majorities of Conservatives (61%) and Labour supporters (68%).

Chart showing few respondents want a return to heated debates around Brexit

The UK and EU are also confronting major challenges at home and abroad, from the cost-of-living crisis to the war in Ukraine, which leaves little space for discussion about the future relationship.

These findings suggest that, should the current or future government wish to build a new relationship with the EU based on public support, there are a set of clear starting points. The public is open toward closer collaboration on issues of mutual interest, with few significant trade-offs.  What we don’t yet know is how far the public would support closer ties overall, and at what point aversion to re-igniting toxic Brexit debates will win out.

Attitudes have moved toward more balanced perspectives and preferences on how we work together with our neighbours across the Channel. With an election looming, Sunak and Starmer will now both have to consider how their future governments could work with Brussels.

By Jake Puddle, Researcher, British Future.

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