The campaign to persuade the British public to vote to remain in the European Union – or to leave it – is in full swing. Parliament has agreed the question for the ballot paper, and the Conservative government will decide the date: possibly 2016, at the latest 2017.
Diplomats in London will be watching closely, especially trying to establish just what the Prime Minister has brought home from renegotiations with the other member states in Brussels to allow him to recommend a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum (to stay in the EU).
David Cameron conceded the principle of a referendum some time ago as a sop to the eurosceptics in his own party, but as the decision comes closer, so the outcome grows more momentous for the country. If the answer is ‘Yes’ (to stay in the EU), many will heave a sigh of relief. If it is ‘No’ (to leave the EU), the nature of UK external relations will change, with repercussions around the world.
The referendum is asking for a simple answer to a very complex question. It is well known that the Conservative party is divided on the issue, but the position of the other political parties is already well established. Labour’s Shadow Cabinet is strongly in favour of remaining in the EU, despite their new leader having spoken against the EU on several occasions. The Liberal Democrats and the Greens are solidly in favour, just as UKIP is solidly against. But when you push beyond the simple party line-up, public opinion is much more varied and nuanced, and as yet shows no clear majority for either camp.
What is clear is that the issue enjoys what pollsters call ‘rising salience:’ the public thinks it is increasingly important as an issue. Extensive polling earlier this year, recently analysed by Sofia Vasilopoulou of York University in a pamphlet for Policy Network (www.policy-network.net,) suggested that just under 60 per cent, if asked to vote now, would say ‘Yes’ and only just over 30 per cent would say ‘No,’ with roughly 10 per cent undecided. But more recent polls have suggested the two sides are virtually level at 40 per cent each and the undecided vote larger. The rival campaigns are already moving into top gear to confirm their core vote and persuade the undecided.
Breaking the Policy Network figures down into more detail, over 40 per cent of their 3,000 sample felt that integration in Europe had gone too far, while under 30 per cent wanted more integration, and just under 25 per cent thought that the level of integration was about right. However, when asked if they think the UK benefited from being a member of the EU, over 40 per cent agreed and under 40 per cent disagreed, leaving close to 25 per cent who were undecided.
When the public are asked whether they would like the EU to have more or less authority over 18 different policy areas – ranging from taxation through agriculture, labour markets, asylum seekers, competition, foreign policy, development and trade to environment and climate change – they come up with much more varied answers. Only in six areas – taxation, monetary policy, agriculture and food, education, health and employment/social affairs – does a majority (often a very slender majority) think that the EU should not have more authority. A significant number of Britons are quite happy to see more integration in several other EU policy areas: 47 per cent for instance in environment and climate change, 40 per cent in digital security and data protection, close to 40 per cent in trade issues, and 30 per cent or more in sustainable development, energy, foreign and security policy, competition and business regulation, justice, fundamental rights and security, asylum seekers, overseas development and defence policy.
These findings parallel the recent report for Regent’s University London entitled ‘The UK and Europe: costs, benefits, options,’ (www.regents.ac.uk/europereport.) Twenty-one experts from business, academia and the civil service surveyed policy areas and noted that EU involvement was detrimental to British interests in very few of these areas. That confirmed the survey of EU competences conducted by the previous government ministry by ministry, to see if any powers should be clawed back from Brussels. In professional circles there is little doubt that the UK relationship with the EU is not bad news; on the contrary, the UK has frequently managed to persuade a majority of member states to accept policies that work in its favour. They may need adjusting here and there, but modest reform looks much better than radical Brexit.
Analysis of public opinion by class, age, level of education and political affiliation shows generally convergent trends. ABC1 class respondents, with education beyond secondary school, belonging to the Green Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party and aged under 35 are likely to be more pro-EU than the other end of the population or political spectrum. England tends to be less pro-EU than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and women slightly more pro-EU than men.
But all this fine-tuning of expected responses from different segments of society may be swamped by an emotional reaction to the overwhelming news of the day: migration. In the heat of the reporting and commentating on the problem of mass migration in Europe, it is extremely difficult for a rational argument to gain a hearing. In the UK debate, the emotional reaction to immigration often confounds asylum seekers with economic migrants, for instance, and those from war-torn corners of the earth with those from neighbouring EU member states.
For the British public, the notion of the EU redistributing wealth from richer to poorer countries is well accepted – within limits – but unrestricted access for migrants to work in this country, let alone to enjoy access to social benefits, is opposed by a clear majority of voters. Migration may be from distant Syria, Eritrea, Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, and it may be largely into continental Europe with very few refugees reaching the UK, but it is reported here as a threat. The nature of the reporting whips up as much fear as pity. The German gesture of accepting 1,000,000 immigrants a year for several years to come contrasts with David Cameron’s gesture of accepting just 20,000 over five years.
To be fair, the UK is also spending nearly a billion pounds on refugee relief close to the ‘hell holes’ from which the ‘hordes’ are fleeing, but this fact is considerably less well reported than the latest assault by desperate migrants on the EU border fence in Hungary. As we draw nearer the referendum it may not be easy to find a hearing for the reforms the Prime Minister will try to negotiate in Brussels. They will not be as headline-catching as shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. But the emotional pull of the migration drama will need to be balanced by the hard-headed arguments about Britain’s interests, which are larger and longer-lasting than even this migration crisis.