Academic Director, YouGov

Control versus cooperation: understanding British sensibilities towards Europe

Since the Greek economy received its first bail-out package in 2010, significant currents of national debate in the UK have encouraged a sense that British voters might be ready for a generational chance to withdraw from much of the Brussels policy-process into a looser, outer Europe that functions less like a union and more like an amplified free-trade area.

There’s little question that British public opinion indicates high levels of disenchantment with the European project across various fields economic, political and social (see below). But it’s important to understand what these figures say – and what they don’t.

On one hand, survey results reflect the desire, at least to some extent, to renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership with the European Union (EU). But they also emphasise continued support for cooperation across a range of policy-areas that go beyond the limited ‘Swiss vision’ of free-trade agreements and bilateral accords.

Doubtless there’s a clear fissure in European public opinion that mirrors broader diplomatic trends, as European summitry circumvents the British veto with its own ad hoc velocity towards some kind of Euro-federalism. Accordingly, research by YouGov recently showed that attitudes in Britain and the big Eurozone economies are seemingly moving in markedly different directions on questions of integration.Looking at Britain and the Franco-German core, for example:

  • when asked to what extent they would support the introduction of a democratically elected EU president as Chief Executive in the same manner as the President of the United States of America, 41% of Germans and 46% of French supported the idea (versus 28% and 23% who opposed respectively). In comparison, 25% of Brits supported it.
  • where 41% of Germans and 43% of French said they support the creation of a single European military with an elected civilian authority to decide when European nations take military action, just 18% of Brits said the same.
  • nearly 40% of French and over 1/3 of Germans said they support turning the EU into a fully integrated “United States of Europe”, while 10% of Brits said likewise.
  • 44% of Germans and 42% of French said it would be a good thing for their country if major reforms were made that led to greater economic and political integration, including new, strictly enforced rules on how much national governments can tax and spend for their own economies (versus 16% and 20% ‘a bad thing’ respectively). Among British respondents, only 20% supported the concept versus 41% who opposed.
  • German and French respondents were largely split between support and opposition towards the idea of a single seat to represent the entire EU at the United Nations, instead of individual seats for each member, with 34% of Germans in support versus 34% in opposition and 34% of French in support versus 32% in opposition. Meanwhile, 11% of Brits showed support versus 57% who opposed.

In analysis undertaken for E!Sharp, whose Editor-in-Chief, Paul Adamson, sits on the external YouGov/Cambridge Advisory Board and advises on its research, survey data also provide plenty grist for the pessimistic mill in British attitudes to ‘Brand-EU’. Bashing and hugging Brussels has always been a theatrically divisive past-time in the British public space, but voters from the three major parties show notable common ground in basic impressions of the Union as a whole. In a list of words and phrases about “what the EU means to you personally”, the top five items chosen by respondents overall were “a lot of bureaucracy” (56%), “a waste of money” (39%), “loss of national sovereignty” (38%), “lack of national border security” (36%) and “losing our national culture” (35%). Positive items scored notably lower, such as “a way to protect citizen’s rights” (12%), “democracy” (10%), “better quality of life” (6%), “peace and security” (13%), “a way to create jobs” (10%) and “cultural diversity” (16%). Cutting these results by political identity was hardly a game-changer. The five most common responses for Labour voters were, “a lot of bureaucracy” (54%), “a waste of money” (34%), “losing our national culture” (34%) and “lack of national border security” (33%), along with the positive addition of “freedom to study/work/live anywhere in the EU” (34%). Even with Liberal Democrat voters, the top choices included “a lot of bureaucracy” (55%), “loss of national sovereignty” (31%) and “lack of national border security” (30%), along with the positive labels of “freedom to study/work/live anywhere in the EU” (43%) and “a stronger say in the world” (25%).

Interestingly, these figures further highlight another trend regarding age. Apparently, the older you are as a British voter, the less positively you view the EU. 37% of 18 to 24 year-olds associate the EU with “a lot of bureaucracy”, which increases to 43% for 25 to 34 year-olds, then to 49% for 35 to 44 year-olds, then to 63% for 45 to 54 year-olds and up to 68% for the age bracket of 55 plus. Each negative item on the list shows a similar pattern. Where 11% of 18 to 24 year-olds associate the EU with “corruption”, this rises to 19% for 25 to 34 year-olds, 20% for 35 to 44 year-olds, 32% for 45 to 54 year-olds and 40% for 55 plus. The reverse applies in positive associations. Where 21% of 18 to 24 year-olds associate the EU with “a way to protect citizens’ rights”, this eventually falls to 7% for the bracket of 55 plus. Where 20% of 18 to 24 year-olds associate the EU with “a stronger say in the world”, this falls through the age-brackets to 10% for the oldest respondents.

Regardless of any and various theories for these kinds of attitudinal variance in age, whether they infer links between political maturity and cynicism or older age and perceptions of economic vulnerability, these results draw further attention to an increasingly ingrained and generalised British disenchantment spanning political and social divides.

Notwithstanding, however, British opinion trends still don’t equal broader national aspirations to become a Switzerland or Norway. Perhaps the clearest indication of public will on this issue lies in differences between attitudes to ‘control’ and ‘cooperation’. YouGov-Cambridge posed a similar question to two nationally representative samples of the British population in slightly different ways. In the first instance, respondents were asked whether they thought a list of specific policy-areas  should be controlled by the EU as a whole or by national governments each deciding for themselves.

In this context, a majority of respondents strongly opposed European control in almost all policy-areas, such as immigration (79%), agriculture (74%), rights for workers (66%), regulating banks/financial institutions (68%), military action (69%), relations with non-Euro countries (60%), tax rates and national budgets (89%), trade links with other countries (60%), reducing poverty (62%), weights and measures (67%), crime and justice (85%), deciding laws on trade unions/strikes (80%) and recovering from recession (74%). This stands in contrast to the three largest Eurozone economics of France, Germany and Italy, where respondents showed majority support for allowing various of these policy-areas to be controlled by Brussels and the EU as a whole, such as the regulation of financial institutions, military action and recovering from recession.

In the second instance, respondents were asked to look at the same list of policy-areas and say whether they thought countries in Europe should cooperate more closely together, or should loosen their links and handle the issue more at the national level, or if the present balance was about right. In this case, results showed a preference for more cooperation in nine out of sixteen policy-areas. In seven of these, notions of control and cooperation indicated trends in different directions, with a majority calling for national control in the first question and a majority or plurality calling for more cooperation in the second. For example:

  • while 79% of respondents said immigration should be controlled by national governments, 45% said European countries should cooperate more closely on the issue, versus 34% saying they should loosen their links and 6% saying the current balance is about right;
  • while 62% of respondents said reducing poverty should be controlled by national governments, 51% said European countries should cooperate more closely, versus 21% saying they should loosen their links and 11% saying the current balance is about right;
  • while 60% of respondents said trade links with other countries should be controlled by national governments, 41% said European countries should cooperate more closely, versus 26% saying they should loosen their links and 15% saying the current balance is about right;
  • while 60% of respondents said diplomatic relations with non-European countries should be controlled by national governments, 36% said European countries should cooperate more closely, versus 28% saying they should loosen their links and 17% saying the current balance is about right;
  • while 74% of respondents said recovering from the recession should be controlled by national governments, 41% said European countries should cooperate more closely, versus 34% saying they should loosen their links and 9% saying the current balance is about right;
  • while 69% of respondents said military action should be controlled by national governments, 39% said European countries should cooperate more closely, versus 28% saying they should loosen their links and 16% saying the current balance is about right.

It should also be noted that the results from both question-frames highlighted key areas of statecraft where overall public desire lent towards both national control and less cooperation, namely crime and justice, national budgets and the basic means of national production. For example:

  • 66% of respondents said rights for workers should be controlled by national governments, alongside 40% who said European countries should loosen their links on this issue (versus 30% saying they should cooperate more closely);
  • 89% said national budgets should be controlled by national governments, alongside 57% who said European countries should loosen their links on this issue (versus 13% saying they should cooperate more closely);
  • 85% said crime and justice should be controlled by national governments, alongside 44% who said European countries should loosen their links on this issue (versus 30% saying they should cooperate more closely);
  • 74% said agriculture should be controlled by national governments, alongside 47% who said European countries should loosen their links on this issue (versus 23% saying they should cooperate more closely);
  • 80% say deciding laws on trade unions/strikes should be controlled by national governments, alongside 54% who said European countries should loosen their links on this issue (versus 15% saying they should cooperate more closely).

Overall, these results help to portray two key features of British public opinion on Europe.

First, Britain requires a serious national debate on its fundamental relationship with Brussels, as survey results imply sufficient public appetite for at least some form of change to how Britain approaches involvement with Europe vis-à-vis the balance of control in key policy-areas.

Second, while opinion-data might reflect a significant inclination for revisions to the degree and process via which certain types of Union-wide directives and regulations apply to Britain, they also present little evidence of a fortress-Britain mentality, or an appetite to reduce British-EU relations to mere terms of trade. Majority public preference in Britain appears to lean towards a new kind of association-agreement, but still rooted in Union membership and continued cooperation across numerous social, economic and political areas.

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