Four years after Brexit, what future forms of relationship with the EU would Britons support?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
January 04, 2024, 10:25 AM GMT+0

In the years following the EU referendum, several YouGov studies were dedicated to exploring what kind of Brexit Britons most wanted to see.

Now, almost four years after Brexit has happened, and with attitudes to exiting the EU having soured significantly, the future nature of our relationship with the EU is still a key issue.

While Keir Starmer has pledged that Labour will not return the UK to the EU fold, or even the Single Market, there is clear desire on the continent – most prominently Emmanuel Macron – to bring the UK closer into the EU’s orbit.

For their part, some Conservatives are calling for a further loosening of ties with Europe – while not an EU institution, the desire to leave the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that politicians like Suella Braverman have suggested would mark a significant step away from the legal norms binding the continent together.

So what scenarios would Britons support? We put four to the public: rejoining the EU; joining the Single Market; the status quo; and further loosening ties with the EU.

The most favoured proves to be the first on the list: rejoining the EU. Around half of Britons (51%) say they would support overturning the 2016 referendum result, including 33% who “strongly” support doing so, making it by far the most passionately supported of the four options.

A third of Britons (36%) say they would oppose rejoining the EU, including 25% who are strongly opposed.

This survey finds that 42% would support the lesser step of joining the Single Market, although just 23% “strongly” support doing so. By contrast, 22% are opposed, and as many as a third are unsure (36%).

Eagle-eyed readers will note that these figures differ markedly from a separate recent YouGov survey, which found that 57% of Britons would back joining the single market (although the number opposed was the same, at 22%).

Two factors likely account for the majority of this difference. First is that the more recent survey implicitly sets the Single Market option against an option which Remain voters will find more appealing – rejoining the EU itself. Answering with that comparison in mind may dampen enthusiasm for the Single Market option among the pro-European section of the public.

The second is that the previous survey more explicitly highlighted the consequences of Single Market membership on immigration policy – namely that it would mean EU citizens would have the right to live and work in the UK, and vice versa. It is likely that many pro-migration respondents who otherwise don’t understand much about Single Market membership nevertheless backed the idea on this basis. That “don’t know” responses were lower in the older survey suggests this may have been the case.

Given the disparity between the older and more recent survey, this raises the question: what do people think joining the Single Market entails? A separate question looked at this issue, which can be found in this sister article.

Maintaining Britain’s current relationship with the EU proves a relatively unpopular option. Three in ten (31%) say they support the status quo, although only 6% strongly support this approach, making it the option that enthuses the smallest number of people. By contrast, 44% oppose keeping things as they are.

Further loosening ties with the EU is supported by 28% of Britons, including 11% strongly. This is, however, also the most opposed option, both overall (54%) and strongly (33%).

Most Leave and Conservative voters would support further loosening ties with the EU

Unsurprisingly, the results differ substantially depending on how Britons voted at the EU referendum and the last general election.

More than eight in ten 2019 Labour voters (81%), as well as Remain voters (86%), support rejoining the EU, and about the same number oppose loosening ties with the EU further (79-83%).

While 74% of Leave voters and 69% of 2019 Tories oppose rejoining the EU, support for loosening ties further is less substantial – although it is still the majority opinion at 56% of Leave voters and 53% of Conservatives.

Loosening ties with the EU proves to be a more popular option for Leave and Conservative voters than keeping things as they are, however, with the status quo being supported among the former by a reduced rate of 46% to 33%, and among the latter by 39% to 31%.

When it comes to joining the Single Market, 60-65% of Labour and Remain voters would support doing so, while Leave and Conservative voters are much more divided. Those who voted for Brexit in 2016 oppose Single Market membership by 39% to 28%, while 2019 Tory voters do so by 39% to 31%.

Cross-policy attitudes

If we look at the crossover support for different policies, we see that most who support EU membership also back joining the Single Market, and vice versa. Those who support the status quo or loosening ties further oppose both forms of closer relationship with the EU.

There is lower crossover support between the status quo and looser ties, however. Among those who want to keep things as they are, support for loosening ties further stands at 49% (with 35% opposed).

Among those who want to loosen ties with the EU further than has already been done, whether or not the status quo is acceptable divides opinion. Approaching half (45%) say they would also support keeping things as they are, but an almost identical 44% are opposed.

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