People in Britain may still be particularly sceptical about the EU, but opinions have softened in the past year at the same time that many on the Continent have been feeling increasingly negative about Europe
The United Kingdom's relationship with the European Union has made British headlines numerous times since the beginning of 2013, in particular after Prime Minister David Cameron's January 23 announcement that the Conservative Party would hold an In-Out referendum on the nation's EU membership by 2017 if his party won a majority at the 2015 general election.
Since the announcement Britain's eurosceptic party, UKIP, has seen a surge in public support; prominent Conservatives like Education Secretary Michael Gove have said they would personally vote to leave the EU; and David Cameron himself has faced a Tory rebellion over the ommission of a EU Referendum Bill from the Queen's Speech, which sets out the year's legislative agenda.
Tracking data from YouGov’s Eurotrack poll reveals that the British public, while remaining particularly sceptical, has emerged from the period of debate over the issue feeling somewhat better about the European project. In comparison, public opinion about Europe in the other Western and Northern EU member states polled - France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Finland - has, when taken together, changed little or become more negative.
One of the sharpest and most dramatic changes in British attitudes to Europe has come in voting intentions for a hypothetical In-Out EU membership referendum like the one Cameron has proposed.
Before Cameron’s announcement that the vote might actually occur, 46% of Britons said they would vote “to leave the European Union”; when the question was asked several days after the announcement, that number dropped to 38%, before recovering slightly to around 43%.
Among the other European nations polled, the number of those who say they would vote to leave the EU has actually been on the rise, on average. When the questions were first asked about leaving the EU in March 2012 the average stood at just under a third (30%), and it has since risen steadily to just over a third (35%, as of May 2013).
The averaging of the European polls masks some variation amongst these nations, but not much: in March 2012 “Out” voters made up between 25% and 31% of voters of the population in four out of the five nations and between 30% and 35% of voters for the same four nations in May 2013. The single outlier among non-GB nations is Sweden, which for four months in 2013 (January to April) had a higher proportion of “Out” voters than Britain.
Optimism about the EU
A similar trend is reflected in optimism about the future of the European Union.
Again, the public in other EU member nations polled tend to be more optimistic than the British public. But while the gap between the net optimism rating (the total percentage who say they are “optimistic” minus the percentage who say they are “pessimistic”) of Great Britain and the Non-GB European average stood at 24 points in July 2012, it has been no more than 13 points since January (it now stands at 11 points).
There is greater variation in the optimism of the respective non-GB states over the last 13 months than there is on the issue of an EU referendum. People in Germany, Denmark and Finland are all about as optimistic or slightly more optimistic than they were in Spring 2012, while Sweden has become slightly more pessimistic and France much more pessimistic. However, while Britons were the least optimistic people of all by a margin of 2 to 20 points between March and October 2012, they are now 9 points more optimistic than the French and only 8 points less optimistic than both the Swedes (which was tied in optimism with Great Britain in March) and the Finnish.
Perceived Influence in Europe
Members of the British public are also feeling that they are more influential when it comes to the affairs of Europe, whereas feelings of influence have changed little, if at all, among those living in the other five EU nations.
As a net rating (the percentage who agree Great Britain is influential in Europe minus the percentage who disagree), British adults now feel more influential than they did in February 2012 by a margin of 16 points. In comparison, the European average has change little over the course of the year, from a net rating of +8% in March 2012 (the first month all five were asked the question) to 0%.
Whereas Great Britain was virtually tied with Sweden and Finland in feelings of influence throughout 2012, people in Britain now feel more influential than both those nations and feel almost as influential as the French, whose net score has dropped about 30 points year-on-year.
Finland, France and Germany – where feelings of influence remain very high but have changed little since 2012 – are the nations included in the EuroTrack poll that use the Euro, but their feelings of influence vary greatly (standing at -30%, -3% and +49%, respectively, in May 2013).
The recent unrest in the Conservative Party over EU membership earlier this year culminated with the publishing of a draft bill in May, which states that a referendum on the United Kingdom's EU membership will be held by December 31 2017.