The EU: What does Britain really think?

The political rumpus about whether the UK should remain in the European Union continues. Obama thinks Britain should ‘fix’ the relationship. But what do ordinary Britons believe?

Q: Why is the European Union in the news?

A: Ten days ago the United Kingdom Independence Party, which wants Britain to leave the EU, shocked the main political parties with unprecedented success in the local council elections being held in England and a part of Wales. It also came a good second to Labour in a contest to choose the new MP for South Shields. This has hugely increased the pressure on David Cameron, the prime minister, from within his own Conservative Party – many of his MPs and party members are themselves hostile to the EU.

Q: So the Tories also want the UK out?

A: Some do. These want Cameron to hold a referendum now, and are trying to force him into such a move. Others back the PM’s compromise position: he wants to renegotiate the UK’s commitments to the EU and then put the new settlement to the people, recommending they vote in favour. He promises that this will happen after the 2015 general election (if he wins).

Q: Don’t the Tory rebels speak for the British people on this?

A: It’s complicated. Just over half of the population say they would vote to leave the EU if asked directly. But if they are asked in more detail, only 23% want to leave. Roughly even numbers want to keep the relationship broadly as it is or pull back to a purely economic relationship (28% to 29%) and 13% even want closer union, Ipsos Mori found. ‘We’ve never been in love with the EU, we’re very pragmatic about it, most people would go for Europe-lite,’ said Ben Page, who runs the polling organisation.

Q: Aha! So they back Cameron’s position?

A: So the PM hopes. When he became Conservative leader he was worried about the Eurosceptic wing of the party having too loud a voice. First, splits within the Conservative Party on this issue have damaged its showing in previous elections. Second, he believes it distracts attention from more important priorities. Third, he knows that the wider public do not share his party’s over-riding anxiety about Britain’s relationship with the EU.

Q: So what does the public care about?

A: Surveys show that the state of the economy is by far the most important issue to the electorate. UKIP supporters see immigration as the area of most concern, followed by the economy and then Europe. But some of those people – and parts of the wider voting public – believe that the EU is the source of the problems they believe beset Britain in those other areas of policy.

Q: How so?

A: Well, some anti-EU commentators say Britain should concentrate on trade links with the rest of the world to boost the economy. And those who profess support for UKIP because of immigration believe the arrival of hundreds of thousands of EU citizens from Eastern Europe has undercut wages and reduced employment opportunities for British working people.

Q: Are they right?

A: Again, it’s complicated. Overall, free movement of labour helps EU countries grow their economies, because businesses can find employees quickly even when the jobs they need to fill aren’t attractive to locals. So economists tend to favour a relaxed approach to immigration. But there are losers, and some sections of society feel they have not shared in the benefits: political analysts say that many traditional Labour voters in South Shields turned to UKIP last week because they don’t feel their party stood up for working class interests.

Q: What about other trade links?

A: Well, being inside the EU doesn’t stop the UK exploring other markets. And foreign companies may be more attracted to investing in Britain if it gives them a base inside the European trading bloc. But it does mean British companies are bound by regulations on employment and other matters that some deeply resent, and see as a block to greater economic growth.

You Decide

  1. Should there be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU? Now?
  2. Should a voter decide who to support based on which issues affect them or their family, or on broader principles?

Activities

  1. Can you draw a Venn diagram of the different shades of opinion about the EU in the Conservative Party and then map them onto the shades of opinion in the UK as a whole?
  2. Which three issues facing the country do you think are most important? Each make a list then compare the class results and make a report on your ‘opinion poll’.

Some People Say...

“A strong nation has no need to co-operate with others.”

What do you think?

Word Watch

Referendum
A vote to decide a major question of national importance, also more unusually called a plebiscite. This rather purist form of democracy is rarely used in Britain, however a referendum on Britain’s place in Europe was held in 1975 and a vote on adopting the Alternative Vote in general elections was held in 2011.
Previous elections
In the years of John Major’s premiership, anti-European Conservative MPs voted against their own Government, undermining the PM’s authority and limiting his ability to pass legislation without the support of other parties. The most dramatic moments were during ratification of the Maastricht treaty, where at one point 22 Conservative rebels deprived Major of his 18 seat majority in the Commons.
Eastern Europe
In 2014 Bulgarians and Romanians will gain the right to live and work in the UK without restrictions. UKIP and some Conservatives warn that official estimates of the scale on this wave of immigration will prove to be dramatically too low; after 2004 when Poland and other nations gained such rights, around 100,000 Poles came to the UK each year, rather than the fewer than 13,000 predicted by the Home Office.

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