Polling on Europe

Anthony WellsHead of European Political and Social Research
October 24, 2011, 5:09 PM GMT+0

Our recent polls on the issue of Europe show just how much results can differ when measuring an issue's 'importance'

The issue of Europe is a classic example of where polls asking about support for an issue, and polls measuring the importance of an issue give very different pictures. People who support changing Britain’s relationship with the EU can easily point to polls showing that the majority of the British public are similarly unhappy with Britain’s relationship with Europe, while those opposed can equally well point to polls showing that for most people, Europe is really not an important issue. Both are correct.

Support is the most basic and simple to measure level of public opinion, and in the case of Europe is relatively straightforward. The British public tend to have a negative impression of the European Union - when we asked them to rate their feelings towards it on a scale of 0 to 10, 38% said 0-3, 33% 4-6, 19% 7-10.

Almost half (45%) of people think that Britain's membership of the EU is a bad thing, compared to 22% thinking it is a good thing.

50% think membership has had a negative effect on the UK, 29% a positive effect. While the figures are different depending on the questions asked, the same rough pattern normally emerges - around a quarter of people are generally positive towards the EU, around half are suspicious or negative towards it.

When we have asked people directly about Britain's relationship with Europe we've found around 10% of people who support a more integrated Europe, 13-17% happy with the status quo, 33-40% supporting a less integrated Europe with more powers returned to the UK, 23-29% in support of total withdrawal from the EU.

On a forced choice between staying in or getting out, those who support a less integrated Europe tend to come down on the side of get out, meaning straight YES/NO polls on British membership of the EU tend to show much higher figures in favour of withdrawal - around 50% - and questions on how people would vote in a referendum on EU membership tend to show a big lead for withdrawal (for example, 27% stay, 51% go.)

Asked how people would vote in a three option referendum however, people prefer renegotiation to withdrawal - 15% would stay, 47% renegotiate, 28% go.

Finally, polls nearly always show a large majority in favour of a referendum on the EU, but it’s worth remembering that polls normally show support for referendums on any subject. Asking if there should be a referendum on an issue is essentially asking if politicians should decide an issue, or whether the respondent should be allowed a say. That said, a referendum on EU membership is more popular than referenda on some other issues – in a poll for the Constitution Society last Sept we asked which of a list of various constitutional issues people would like to see a referendum on, and the EU came top with 43%.

That brings us onto salience. We know that far more British people are negative than positive towards the EU, but do they actually care? People saying they support or oppose something when a pollster intrudes into their lives and asks about it is entirely different to them thinking about it the rest of time. If we hadn't have asked, perhaps it would never have even crossed their mind.

Polling people on whether they support an issue is relatively straightforward. Polling on whether an issue is important or not is tricky. You cannot ask 'do you think issue X is important', as unless the issue is obviously trivial people will tend to say yes because they feel they should consider these issues important. The real question is whether issue X is important when compared to issues A, B and C.

In YouGov’s fortnightly poll asking what the three most important issues are facing the country, 18% of people picked Europe from a list, trailing behind the economy, immigration, health, pensions and crime.

Asked what issues were important for them and their families it registered even lower, picked by just 7% of people. Polling by Ipsos MORI, who ask a similar question but without any prompting, finds just 3% of people mentioning Europe as an important issue. When placed alongside issues like the economy, immigration, crime and health people simply do not care very much about Europe.

However, it is also important to note that while very few people care about Europe presently it is not incapable of being a salient issue. Looking back at MORI’s results from the 1990s they used to regularly find around a third of people thought that relations with the EU were one of the most important issues facing the country. So, in summary, the British public are generally hostile towards the EU if asked, but will tend to favour renegotiation or repatriation of powers over withdrawal if given the choice. Secondly, while Europe has the potential to be a big issue that swings votes, right now it is seen as far less important than issues like the economy, health and immigration.