Conservative eurosceptics and Labour tacticians should beware. British hostility to the European Union is not as simple or complete as some of them think. YouGov’s latest survey for the Sunday Times suggests a nuanced set of attitudes, even to the current EU budget negotiations.
Two weeks ago, after the House of Commons vote on the budget, when Labour MPs joined with a number of Tory backbenchers to demand cuts in EU spending over the next seven years, slightly more voters (42%) wanted the EU budget cut rather than maintained or increased (39%). Today, 46% are prepared to see the figure held (25%) or increased (21%), while the number wanting spending reduced is fractionally down, at 40%. And 51% of the public think that Cameron is either right to demand a real-terms freeze (41%) or think he should accept a compromise with other countries that includes some rise in EU spending (10%). Just 35% agree with the majority of MPs who want Cameron to continue demanding an overall cut.
Tory voters divide 55-41% in favour of Cameron taking a tougher line, but by 55-30% Labour voters oppose this approach.
When we asked our standard referendum question, we obtained a result in line with most polls in recent years, with 49% favouring withdrawal and 32% favouring remaining in the EU. But when we offer three options instead of just two, the proportion favouring total withdrawal falls to just 26%. The biggest number, 46%, favour ‘Britain remaining in the European Union, but having a more detached relationship that is little more than a free trade agreement’. A further 19% want Britain to stay in the EU as it is. Among Tory voters, the proportion favouring complete withdrawal nosedives from 64% when asked a straight in-out question to just 24% if they have the option of a loose relationship.
These figures confirm what other YouGov polls have suggested in recent months: that were David Cameron in due course to declare that he has protected British interests in the EU, he could carry the country, and most Tory voters, with him in urging Britain to remain a member.
What kind of looser relationship might voters back? We tested seven areas in which the EU operates. In the case of five – crime, economy, employment, farming and fishing – clear majorities want the EU to do less. But with the other two, the environment and foreign policy beyond the EU, opinion is more divided, as the following table shows:
Below is a list of areas, for each one please say whether you think the European Union should have more powers, should have fewer powers or whether the balance is about right
Total more + balance right
Justice and crime
Farming and agriculture
Employment rights and regulations
Relations with foreign countries outside the EU
That is not a comprehensive list. Were we to add immigration, I’m certain it would show that most people would like Britain to reclaim the right to limit entry to other EU nationals. On the other hand, I suspect most people would also like to retain some of the specific benefits of shared EU-wide decision-taking, such as our right to free, or nearly free, health care when we travel in the EU, cheaper EU-wide mobile phone roaming charges, and our (and our children’s) rights to live and work anywhere we want in the EU.
These practical issues are missing from most debates about the benefits and drawbacks of British membership, which is precisely why it is worth reminding ourselves of the old truth, that polls measure attitudes at a moment in time. Views may change as events and the debate unfold.
I have discussed in past blogs how views have shifted in the past on Europe. But consider, too, what happened in the run-up to last year’s referendum on Britain’s voting system. Months before the vote, YouGov found a majority in favour of change. But the closer we got to the referendum, and the more ferociously the ‘no’ campaign warned of the dangers of a ‘yes’ vote, the faster the public appetite for a new voting system ebbed away.
Could the same happen over the EU, with its supporters stressing the dangers of withdrawal? Some of the EU’s most notable backers in the past, leaders of British business, have been notably silent in making the case against withdrawal – or were, until the Confederation of British Industry started to stir last week. Perhaps they thought the prospect too remote to require them to speak out. But if an in-out referendum becomes likely, then they are likely to find their voice. Should they do so, and warn loudly of an exodus of jobs and investment, then the public mood could well shift.
That is, unless the eurozone crisis causes the foundations of the whole European project to crumble, and/or the dynamics of Britain’s relationship with Brussels propel us with such momentum towards the exit door that we are out of the EU before its supporters wake up.