EU-Lite and Britain's leading role in Europe

Dr Joel Rogers de WaalAcademic Director, YouGov
December 17, 2012, 12:00 PM GMT+0

Many Brits prefer ‘EU-lite’, but still want a leading role in Brussels

David Cameron got an apparent boost for the ‘cake and eat it’ approach to Europe last week, when finance ministers of the European Union (EU) agreed on the terms of an embryonic Eurozone Banking Union.

The agreement could be more important historically than the recondite details suggest: it affords greater power to the European Central Bank (ECB) in supervising some two hundred of the largest banks in the Eurozone (in the first instance), and makes a step towards facilitating direct capitalisation of struggling banks, therefore hopefully circumventing the European crisis-cycle of national-debt-leads-to-weak-growth-leads-to-more-borrowing and so on.

Crucially for the UK, it introduces a double-majority voting system allowing EU members beyond the single currency zone to block new banking rules that don’t suit them.

Thus the agreement is being claimed by some as a tangible example that it might be possible, even while the Eurozone core pushes for ever deeper union, to move towards a looser arrangement in the outer ring of a two-tier European concert, where the UK retains the economic benefits of the single market, but avoids marginalisation from key decisions affecting economic interests and competitiveness.

This proposal was the highlight of a recent speech by London Mayor Boris Johnson when he told reporters earlier in December that what the UK needs, and what many of its voters allegedly want, is a pared-down form of membership, where the UK stays in the single market but pulls out of deeper union, along with various common European commitments. He further called for a specific kind of UK referendum, using a question such as “Do you want to stay in the single market as renegotiated? (Yes or No?)”.

Johnson has a good feel for the public pulse, it seems, at least on British attitudes to the EU. As polling research suggests, a significant portion of British public opinion now leans towards the notion of ‘EU lite’. It also retains great expectations, however, of keeping a seat at the European leaders’ table.

Europe and the importance of question wording

Few subjects in public polling have emphasised the importance of question wording as much as Europe. In the UK’s first ever referendum in 1975, voters were given the chance to decide whether the country should stay in or leave the ‘European Community’, as the European project was then called.

The build-up to referendum saw a vigorous debate among pollsters, with some warning about the known tendency for survey respondents to agree with offered propositions rather than disagree, meaning that a question like “Should Britain stay in the Common Market” was potentially biased in favour of staying in, while a question asking “Should Britain leave” could be similarly biased towards leaving.

Some method-puritans went as far as arguing that the only way to ask the question in a truly non-leading way would be a ballot of just two words, saying:



YouGov has conducted various surveys exploring the challenges and pitfalls of framing public opinion on Europe.

In November, for example, we asked a nationally representative sample of 1812 British adults how they would vote in a referendum on EU membership, with the answer-options being: vote to remain a member; vote to leave the Union; or would not vote. (The survey was latest run of an-going tracking question)

According to this kind of question, roughly half of the British public (49%) would choose to leave versus 32% who would vote to stay. (19% chose either “would not vote” or “Don’t know”.)

These results further show predictable, political break-downs:

  • 64% of those intending to vote Conservative would vote to leave versus 21% choosing to stay. - In approximate reverse, 60% of those intending to vote Liberal Democrat would vote to stay versus 26% choosing to leave. - Labour voters were more evenly split, with 39% choosing to leave versus 45% to remain.

The British electorate as a whole also stands out on this question next to various EU neighbours for their apparent preference towards an EU exit. When asked the same question in a separate survey of European public opinion, only 28% in Germany chose “vote to leave” versus 52% choosing “vote to remain a member”. Smaller but still significant pluralities in France (41%), Denmark (54%) and Finland (44%) chose ” vote to remain” versus 35%, 30% and 35% respectively choosing “vote to leave”.

Support for EU-lite spans the major party divides

However, according to results from a different question fielded to the same British sample cited above, the strongest preference among British voters is actually to remain within the Union.

Respondents were asked which one of four options they would most prefer for the UK’s relationship with Europe.

  • This time, only 26% overall said they preferred “Britain leaving the European Union completely”. - 46% said they preferred “Britain remaining in the European Union, but having a more detached relationship that is little more than a free trade agreement”. - 19% preferred “Britain remaining in the European Union as it is”, with 9% choosing either “None of these” or “Don’t know”.

Political break-downs in this case also show a cross-party preference for staying in:

  • Only 24% of those intending to vote Conservative supported Britain leaving the Union completely in this context, versus 63% supporting the pared-down option for staying in. - 40% of those intending to vote Labour supported the pared-down option versus 26% supporting continued membership as it is and 25% preferring to leave. - 43% of those intending to vote Liberal Democrat chose the pared-down option versus 38% preferring continued membership as it is and 14% preferring to leave.

In other words, there’s a strong pull in the British electorate towards EU-lite, but not EU-exit, which spans the party divide and includes a significant portion of Conservative voters. These opinion-trends also sits at odds with the headline answer that comes from a straightforward stay/leave question, as some propose for the basis for a referendum.

Little appetite to be a Switzerland or Norway

Separate YouGov research supports the idea that British public opinion leans towards greater independence from Europe, but not to the extent of becoming a Switzerland or Norway. Earlier this year, we posed a similar question in slightly different ways to two nationally representative samples of the British population. In the first instance, respondents were shown a list of policy-areas and asked whether these should be controlled by the EU or by national governments, producing strong, cross-party opposition to EU control in most areas, including: rights for workers (with 66% overall in favour of national control); military action (69%); relations with non-Euro countries (60%); tax rates and national budgets (89%); crime and justice (85%); reducing poverty (62%); deciding laws on trade unions and strikes (80%); recovering from recession (74%); regulating banks and financial institutions (68%); weights and measures (67%); immigration (79%) and agriculture (74%).

In the second instance, a different sample of respondents was shown the same list of policy-areas, but asked in each case if they thought European countries should cooperate more closely, or should loosen links and handle the issue more at the national level. Conversely, results in the second survey showed strong preference for more cooperation in nine out of sixteen policy-areas, including seven where preferences for control and cooperation went in different directions, meaning that a majority or plurality wanted national control in the first survey, while calling for more cooperation at the European level in the second.

Brits still want a seat at the leaders’ table (even in Europe), but minus the price tag

The picture becomes more layered still on British attitudes to Europe if we include concepts of influence and leading-power status.

In pilot research for its on-going collaboration with the House of Commons on UK national strategy, YouGov recently questioned a nationally representative sample of 1854 British adults on attitudes to the UK’s wider role in the world.

63% of British people, according to results, believe it’s important to national interests for the UK to remain “a leading voice in the European Union”, versus only 28% who say it’s unimportant. Political, social and demographic variance leaves majority-trends essentially unchanged.

Results further show that this preference belongs to a wider, prevailing belief in the British electorate that the UK should still seek to play a leading role across numerous areas of the world stage for the sake of national interests:

  • 74% of British people agree with the statement that the UK needs a major role in the world in order “to protect its economic interests”, versus 8% who disagree.
  • 63% agree the UK needs a major role in the world “to protect its national security”, versus 14% who disagree.
  • 74% say it’s important to UK national interests to be “a leading voice in NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation)”, versus 17% who say it’s unimportant.
  • 79% say it’s important to UK national interests to be “a leading voice on the United Nations Security Council” as one of the Big Five Permanent Members, versus 12% who disagree.
  • 66% say it’s important to UK national interests to have aircraft carriers to send our Armed Forces anywhere in the world, versus 25% who disagree.
  • A slightly lower but still significant 59% also said it’s important to UK national interests to act as a bridge for communication between the United States and Europe.

Interestingly, the British public shows significantly less support in four key areas of international engagement that directly imply cost.

  • Only 36% said that “sending financial aid to the developing world” was important to UK national interests, versus 56% who said it was unimportant.
  • 40% said using military force to protect human rights in other countries was important to UK national interests, versus 48% saying it was unimportant.
  • 52% said it was important to UK national interests to help finance international efforts to tackle global warming, versus 39% who said it was unimportant.
  • 47% said it was important to UK national interests to have our own nuclear weapons, versus 42% who said it was unimportant.

These figures duly add context to the trend-lines of British attitudes towards EU membership.

Recession, outsourcing, immigration and other by-products of globalisation may have boosted the British appetite for detachment from the measures and momentum of European integration. But they are failing to galvanise a significant draw-bridge mentality, even in Europe.

On the contrary, mainstream public opinion in Britain still aspires to a UK seat at the international leaders’ table, and views the maintenance of leading-power status in numerous areas to be fundamental to the UK’s national interests. Crucially, this includes retaining significant influence in the European concert, as well as notably less public support for key expenses of foreign influence, such as foreign aid, independent nuclear deterrence, humanitarian intervention or investment in climate change mitigation.

From Europe to the global south to the high seas, therefore, the spokespeople of UK foreign policy could likely face repeated challenges over the coming decade in balancing the great British expectations of both retrenchment and influence.

See the recent YouGov British sample survey results

See the YouGov EuroTrack survey results

See the recent YouGov-Cambridge survey results on the UK's role in the world

See more information about YouGov-Cambridge research on EU co-operation