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Europe: It's Back

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One in twenty. That's the proportion of Brits who single out Europe as one of the most important issues facing Britain. Its 5% score places it 16th on the Ipsos MORI/Economist Issues Index, way behind the "big issues" of the economy (52%) and unemployment (32%).

At Westminster, however, this week's vote puts Europe right back at the heart of things. And it looks unlikely to go away.

A glance at Ipsos MORI's annual survey of MPs sheds a light on why things are taking off in parliament, despite not being a particular talking point back in their constituencies.

For Labour MPs, it is really not so top of mind - at least when there is no prospect of a Commons vote and the opportunity to defeat the government. One in seven - 13% - say Europe is one of the big issues facing the country.

On the Conservative benches, it is a rather different picture, with 31% of Tory MPs singling out Europe as a key issue, second only to the economy.

No doubt many of these MPs would go further and say we should not be focusing just on who is worried about Europe as an issue per se, but look more at the impact of EU policies and laws on the bigger picture, notably the economy and unemployment.

Certainly it's the case that the British public have shown little enthusiasm for anything that might be seen as expanding the European 'project', although they have actually been quite positive about broader 'cooperation', for example in relation to military campaigns.

During the period when euro membership looked a concrete option for Britain, we used to poll extensively on the subject for our media clients. The answer was always an emphatic 'no'. Attitudes towards whether Britain should stay in or get out of the EU have tended to be more positive, although the last time we asked this question we had more wanting to leave than stay - the first time for a decade.

As we watch all this unfold, two things for EU-watchers to bear in mind.

The first is that very few people know anything about the subject. I am still recovering from a focus group we ran on the European Parliament many years ago. We prepared a carefully structured topic guide, designed to take our discussions through a range of issues, from the role of their MEP through to how they received information. It was all very well thought-through. Once our respondents arrived, however, it was immediately apparent that our topic guides needed to be trashed, and that we would need to start from scratch. People had simply forgotten (if they ever knew) what the European Parliament actually was, and were utterly un-equipped to go through a 90-minute discussion on the subject.

The second thing we need to watch is the party leaders. MORI founder Sir Robert Worcester used to always remind people that Europe was an 'image issue', rather than an 'issue issue'. And we saw this most profoundly during the 1990s, where Europe was widely seen as the reason for the Conservative party being seen as 'divided', at the heart of John Major's inability to make progress with the electorate.

For much of that period John Major was up against two popular party leaders, in the form of Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown, both putting forward a very different argument to Conservative sceptics on the backbenches.

What we have today is three leaders who, in their different ways, are not having the best time of it, whether we look at public opinion (none has particularly good scores), or their relationship with their party. It all feels very fluid and uncertain, not least given we have a coalition government here in Britain, and governments under such pressure on the other side of The Channel.

Europe is back, and it looks like it's going to be quite a ride.