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Politics & Law Series: EU Referendum

City Perspectives: Is Britain ready to leave the EU?

Rory Fitzgerald, Director of European Social Survey, housed in the Centre for Comparative Social Surveys, discusses what the European Social Survey tells us about British attitudes to the EU.
by Ben Sawtell

nullBy Rory Fitzgerald, Director of European Social Survey, housed in the Centre for Comparative Social Surveys at City University London.

As David Cameron announces an 'in or out' referendum on the UK's membership of the EU after the next general election, public opinion on the topic has never been more important. Rory Fitzgerald, the Director of the European Social Survey (ESS), housed in the Centre for Comparative Social Surveys at City University London, draws on data from the ESS and a range of other sources to describe the 'state of the nation' on this key political topic.

Ipsos-MORI data from the end of last year suggests that the result could be too close to call, with Britons fairly evenly split on this issue. 44% say they would vote to stay in and 48% want to leave. With the remaining 8% still undecided, the result is therefore probably too close to call. It is of note too that older and lower social class voters are the most likely to want to leave.

Historical data going back to 1977 highlights how views on EU membership have changed dramatically. In 1979, as many as 60% of those in the UK said they would vote to leave the EU in a referendum. This proportion declined throughout much of the Thatcher era and by June 1991 only 27% said they would vote to leave, marking the most positive point in Britons attitudes towards the EU.

Ben Page, from Ipsos-MORI, has pointed out that whilst the majority of those questioned favour holding a referendum on EU membership, respondents often say that a referendum should be held on any issue. In addition just 6% say that Europe is one of the most important issues facing the country compared to 55% who mention the economy, 30% unemployment and 22% race and immigration. For Cameron, ensuring that Eurosceptics vote Tory may well be reason enough to keep this issue high on the political agenda, with the Tories receiving a boost in their support following Cameron's announcement largely at the expense of UKIP.

However there are warning signs for Cameron's approach too. A recent ComRes poll for instance suggests that a large proportion (43%) of voters think that Cameron's decision to announce a referendum now on Europe will cause 'years of uncertainty which will be bad for the British economy', with many also concerned that leaving the EU will lead to a loss of jobs and trade. If the economy fails to improve such fears may increase, with attention drawn to Cameron's position on this issue.

Data from the European Social Survey shows that Britons have a more Eurosceptic outlook than other EU countries. Across a range of areas from agriculture, fighting organised crime, setting interest rates and environmental policies, Britons are the least likely to say these issues should be handled at a European level. In addition the UK has the lowest levels of support for further EU unification of any EU country and the lowest levels of trust in the European Parliament of any country other than Greece.

Perhaps part of the explanation for higher Europscepticism in Britain compared to other EU countries is lower awareness and knowledge about the role of the EU. Eurobarometer findings show that 56% of Britons say they do not understand how the EU works, higher than the average in the 'EU27' of just 46%. In addition those in the UK admit to lower awareness of EU institutions like the European Parliament, Commission and the Central Bank than any other country included in the poll.

So are Britons radically different from their European counterparts from whom they may wish to split politically? Eurosceptic arguments are often fuelled by the perception that there are fundamental cultural differences between Britain and the rest of Europe. However data provides some food for thought on this issue. Although a higher than average proportion of Britons associate the EU with a loss of cultural identity (22% compared to an EU average of 12%) ESS data suggest that attitudes in a number of domains are remarkably similar to those across the EU.

Data on attitudes towards welfare, trust in political institutions, tolerance of homosexuality, political orientation, immigration and moral issues relating to family life, clearly position the UK alongside the EU average.

It s clear that Britain has a sizeable group of Eurosceptics, with a small majority currently favouring leaving the EU. However data clearly shows that the public's attitudes on this issue fluctuate, that awareness of what the EU does is low and that fears about the economic impact of leaving are clearly present. In the short term the Conservatives have benefited from calling this referendum. In the longer term there is much uncertainty and still everything to play for.

Rory Fitzgerald, Lizzy Gatrell and Yvette Prestage. Centre for comparative Social Surveys, City University London. The article uses data from the European Social Survey (Rounds 1-5), Ipsos-MORI polls and the Eurobarometer.

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