‘Euroscepticism’ is firmly back on the political agenda following last week’s battle in the House of Commons over whether to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Labour and Lib Dem opposition to the motion ensured its defeat, but an unprecedented 81 Tory MPs defied the party whip to vote in favour, revealing sharp differences of opinion within the Conservative Party.
Where is the public in all of this? Media coverage of this issue generally gives the impression of a nation that is deeply Eurosceptic. Opinion polls indicate that much of the population regards the EU with apathy at best and antipathy at worst. A YouGov poll for Chatham House in June of this year asked respondents to rank international institutions according to how positively they viewed them (with 10 being extremely positive and 0 being extremely negative). The EU scored lowest with a mean score of 4, coming in below the oft-maligned IMF and World Bank. Recent Eurobarometer surveys have found similarly low levels of satisfaction with the EU, with just 35 per cent agreeing with the statement that EU membership has benefitted the UK, compared to 54 per cent who disagree.
However, public attitudes are more nuanced than the topline figures suggest. First, over the last decade, Europe has fallen steadily down the list of issues that voters say they are concerned about, and now sits consistently near the bottom when compared to the economy, crime, immigration and others. There have also been considerable fluctuations in the relative proportions of those who say they would vote to take Britain out of the EU if given the choice, indicated by the results of a series of Ipsos-MORI polls. In October 2011, 41 per cent said they would vote yes in a referendum on staying in, versus 49 per cent who said they would vote no and 10 per cent who were undecided. Yet in 2007, a majority of 51 per cent would have voted to stay in, against 39 per cent who would have voted to get out. It would appear that public opinion is fairly malleable then, responsive to both swings and roundabouts in the economy as well as the rhetoric of political leaders.
We held an interesting debate on these issues at IPPR earlier in the week – the first in a new series of events about the next phase of the European project following the Euro crisis – chaired by the Economist’s David Rennie and with contributions from Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, Conservative MP Douglas Carswell, Ben Page (Ipsos-MORI) and Olaf Cramme (Policy Network). It fairly quickly became a conversation between the two Douglases, although compared to the tone of media commentary on this issue, the discussion was refreshingly civil.
As one of the most vocal advocates of withdrawing from the EU, Carswell was unsurprisingly critical of UK membership, characterising the ‘deliberate design’ and dissemination of top down policies by European technocrats as ‘ruinous’ and our position in the common market as a drain on our competitiveness. In his view it would be far better to go it alone and negotiate trade agreements with other countries on a bilateral basis (raising the obvious question of how much influence and impact we can hope to have as a medium-sized power within the global economy, without the heft of Europe behind us). Somewhat confusingly, he also argued that massive decentralisation in China and India had been critical to both of these countries’ economic growth, and that this was a model of political and economic organisation that the UK should emulate. Not sure if analysts of the Communist Party and China’s state investment institutions would agree! However, his views on immigration were less predictable, and he suggested that a Britain unencumbered by the regulations on freedom of movement within the EU would be free to strike migration agreements with a much greater number of non-European countries.
For his part, Douglas Alexander reiterated many of the familiar arguments in favour of EU membership, but also suggested that pro-Europeans need to move away from simply defending the status quo. Instead, they should make a more positive case that recognises the political, economic and social benefits that membership gives the UK, but also acknowledges the serious weaknesses within some EU institutional structures. Furthermore, he made the welcome point that some of the hyperbole needs to be stripped from the debate on the European project. Given that the nation state continues to provide the primary reference for most people’s sense of identity and belonging, discussion of our role and place in Europe should become more pragmatic and less emotionally charged.
It was clear from the discussion that both sides have hard questions to answer on this issue going forward. The Prime Minister’s hedging approach to the crisis in the Eurozone – lecturing Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy about the need to show more resolute leadership while simultaneously failing to provide substantive UK support for their efforts – is only damaging our reputation. But to date, the left haven’t done a great job of articulating a different position. As one audience member commented, if Labour were currently in government, the only difference would be that we would have been lecturing the Germans and being criticised by the French sooner than Cameron.
Perhaps an in-out referendum would sharpen minds. As a nation, we need to come to a clear decision about whether we want to play a more constructive role in strengthening European institutions and commit our political energy and resources accordingly, or if we want to definitively withdraw from the debate. Carping from the sidelines serves no-one’s interests, least of all our own. But this momentous decision should be based on a better understanding of UK public opinion and what drives it. Opinion polls only give us a partial understanding of such complex issues. It is time to start a much deeper public debate.