EU and Britons: In and out of love?

A YouGov poll just showed 43% of Britons would vote to stay in the EU, while 37% would vote to leave. It seems it is not a bad number for the support of the EU if we take into account virtually perpetual debate about Brexit, referendum and the rise of UKIP. On the continent we pay a lot of attention to what British politician are saying regarding the EU. But my question is what in fact ordinary Britons expect from the EU in your opinion, what would you say is the biggest incentive for them for saying yes to the EU?

Robert Ackrill, Professor, Division of Economics, Nottingham Business School, Nottingham Trent University

The fundamental problem with the EU non-debate in the UK is the extent to which UK citizens do not understand the EU…at all.

Part of the problem is the language used. People talk of ‘Brussels’ as if it is a living entity. But Brussels does not make legislation – people do. And those people include UK MEPs in the European Parliament, and British government ministers (or their civil servant representatives), via the Council of the European Union. So when British people criticise EU legislation, they usually fail to grasp the fact that they had representatives who were there doing the legislating.

We then have a media that is dominated by anti-EU sentiment. As a result, there are lots of examples where tabloid newspapers (for example) knowingly lie to the British people. This might sound strong, but there are cases where journalists have been to briefings where an EU policy has been explained to them, and they have then reported the exact opposite. Or they distort the facts to such an extent that the truth gets lost. A good recent example was the limit on vacuum cleaner power ratings. EU legislation meant less electricity would be used, saving on household bills, whilst the lower power ratings would have no meaningful impact on the suction and performance of vacuum cleaners. Yet all we heard from some quarters was Brussels meddling again.

I could say a lot more about these issues, but I shall resist the temptation!

So, moving on, you are right – despite the hard-core of support for UKIP, and the strength of anti-EU sentiment in some quarters, support for EU membership is still holding up reasonably well. I do not think that there is a single explanation for this. One interesting point is that some sections of the population are much more likely to be pro-EU than others. Young people, maybe, are more favourably inclined towards the EU because they have grown up in a country with the Channel Tunnel, with ease of movement around the whole continent of Europe, in a world that they see as inter-connected through technology, as a result of which the idea of trying to separate and isolate countries politically simply feels wrong.

Also, we need to contrast opinion polls and elections. Quite simply, young people are less likely to vote. The same also goes for another section of the population – women – who are also more favourably inclined towards the EU. Thus there is a fundamental question over the extent to which electoral support for UKIP in particular, and anti-EU sentiment in general, is truly reflective of British society as a whole.

I cannot help but feel that the issue here is not what citizens expect from the EU, but what they understand about the EU. Travel, reductions in mobile telephone roaming charges, the European Health Insurance Card are concrete examples that people experience first hand. On a related issue, UKIP and Nigel Farage are very divisive politically. This will put some people against their anti-EU rhetoric straight away, without even needing to know fully that the EU is not the monster they claim it is.

When Nigel Farage has been asked about the ‘hypocrisy’ of talking EU money as an MEP, when he opposes the EU, his response has been to say he is using the devil’s money to do the Lord’s work. Except that he is not using the devil’s money – but ours, as EU citizens and taxpayers who contribute to the EU Budget and therefore his salary. Nor is he doing the Lord’s work. In fact, given that in his three years as an MEP on the Fisheries Committee he only went to one out of 42 meetings, he is not doing any work at all.

In the meantime, increasingly more and more voices from within the business community are speaking out about the importance to the UK economy of remaining in the EU. This will, undoubtedly, be an important feature of any ‘in’ campaign should a referendum be called.

Bill JonesAdjunct Professor of  Politics,  Liverpool Hope University

Yes, those poll figures have varied quite a bit over the last few years with those in favour often in the majority. It seems the British voters are a bit bewildered by the question of staying in or pulling out. David Cameron is well aware that the ‘withdrawal party’, UKIP, are taking lots of votes off his party- twice as many as than it takes from Labour- so he has desperately been trying to appear as tough on the EU. He hopes his promise to hold an ‘in-out referendum in 2017 will insulate him from UKIP’s threat but he further suggests he will renegotiate UK’s terms of membership to make it compatible with voters’ opinions. Given that the EU has 28 members who are unlikely to look kindly on a member who tries to be treated with exceptional generosity, this seems a strategy not likely to prove successful.

Cameron claims that IF he renegotiates terms to his satisfaction, he will support continued membership, something which further confuses the situation. Even more confusing is the fact that Labour is for continued membership and not in favour of Cameron’s referendum. Interestingly Labour is accused of being ‘anti-business’ by the Conservatives but business is hotly in favour of continued membership: over half UK trade is with the EU and millions of jobs depend on its continuance.

One of the key factors in the debate is immigration, with its minefield of potential racist sentiment. UKIP has allowed racist feelings about immigrants to appear ‘respectable’ and this probably explains a proportion of its recent remarkable support- currently around 15% in the polls. However studies suggest that racist views are very much in the minority and that most UK citizens recognise that immigrants are an asset to the economy.

My own feeling is that anti-EU feeling in the UK is the result of anger at the austerity policies caused by the 2008-9 recession. People blame the government and the EU and are receptive to the ideas that immigrants are coming over here to steal British jobs and live off our relatively generous benefits. I think in a referendum it would be quite close but that business support would tip the balance in favour of staying in.

William PatersonHonorary Professor of German and European Politics, Aston University

Public opinion polls do go up and down a bit.As you indicate it is certainly not as hard against the EU as some public statements and the popular press suggest. If we assume Cameron wins then the key driver will be whether he leads a yes campaign in the referendum. Public opinion here finds immigration and benefits especially neuralgic. Germany will not support checks on free movement but is sympathetic on benefits so a deal might be done.That might be enough.

Anthony ZitoProfessor of European Public Policy, Co-director of the Jean Monnet Centre, Newcastle University, Newcastle University

A large percentage of the British public opinion have no strong view on EU membership and therefore cannot isolate benefits. Therefore there is no expectation. A percentage see the EU as a negative force that is complex and takes money and power from Britain; they do not see any benefits to themselves although perhaps, they feel, some benefits go to British elites – UKIP taps into this view strongly. The YouGov poll taps into the fact that a percentage do see benefits or at least the cost of exit. There is a very strong relationship between age and level of education in these attitudes; younger, more educated respondents may see material or symbolic benefits while other, older respondents may fear the negative consequences of an exit.

Christopher Gifford, Head of Department of Behavioural and Social Sciences, University of Huddersfield

The British population is pretty divide on Europe as the poll indicates. Older voters, both on the left and right, are likely to be more Eurosceptic. There is a particular generational group who feel that Britain has changed for the worse over the years and are very disillusioned with mainstream politicians, these are the groups that UKIP appeal to, and are likely to be vehemently Eurosceptic. For these people, there is anxiety about British society, and immigration and the EU have come to symbolise there concerns. For educated, younger Brits, I think Europe is seen as a fact of life and part of their everyday worlds (travel, wine etc) so they are more likely to be pro-European reflecting more cosmopolitan identities. However, there is large section of the British population that lacks basic knowledge about the EU – in some question testing for a referendum some did not even know the UK was a member! So for a large section it is just no salient, which means that a referendum outcome is uncertain. There does seem to be some support for the Cameron position – that the UK should remain in the EU if it is reformed. So you could say there are four groups:

Hard Eurosceptics who really want to out and view the EU as a threat
Soft Eurosceptics who don’t like the EU much but recognise that it is an economic necessity and would not want out
Cosmopolitans – younger, urbanites who are pro-European
Don’t knows – for whom it barely registers as an issue.

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