Next year will mark the 40th anniversary of Britain joining the European community but the odds on it being there a decade from now are lengthening fast.
While the euro crisis seems likely to push the countries using the currency – and probably those committed to joining it – into a full fiscal union, it appears to be exerting a centrifugal force on Britain.
Momentum is building for a referendum on membership of the European Union, encouraged by Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, a belligerent press and a section of the electorate that views Brussels with open hostility.
Lacking the ideological attachment to the post-war European integration project of other member states, Britain’s relationship with the EU has always been transactional: do the benefits outweigh the costs? With the European economy in such bad shape, and with the EU facing a political crisis as significant as its economic one, the advantages of membership are harder to see. Could Britain, so often the awkward partner, really walk away from Europe?
The results of the Chatham House YouGov Survey 2012 sketch the contours of a possible referendum campaign.
Euroscepticism by numbers
Overall, the British public is strongly in favour of a referendum on membership of the EU. Fifty-seven per cent think the government should commit to one, only 26 per cent don’t. A near majority in each of the three main parties also back a vote. If the referendum were announced tomorrow, a Yes campaign would start almost 20 points behind in the polls. Currently, almost half the country would vote to leave the EU.
Euroscepticism has a long tradition in Britain. The poll shows that pro- European opinion is distributed unevenly around the country. Scots tend to be the most in favour of staying in the EU. Voters there are almost evenly split – 40 per cent in favour, 41 per cent against, a statistical tie.
The pattern of support for Europe does not correlate fully with traditional party political geography. The regions least supportive of EU membership are the Midlands and Wales. Although not traditionally Conservative-leaning, voters there strongly favour leaving the EU – 52 per cent to 26 per cent – more than in London, the South or the North.
It is with age that opinion on Europe varies most widely. The only demographic group old enough to have been able to vote in Britain’s last referendum on EU membership are predominantly Eurosceptic. Among Britons aged 60 and over, 61 per cent would vote to leave the EU, against only 28 per cent that want to stay in. Among younger voters, the situation is reversed. More 18 to 24-year-olds would vote to remain in the Union than leave – 39 per cent to 29 per cent – although a high proportion is undecided. Could a Yes campaign mobilize a younger generation to go out and vote in support of a European future for Britain?
Does Britain have a future in Europe?
Much would come down to the wording of any question, and whether the choices were wider than leave or stay. The poll shows that, far from the EU founders’ vision of ‘ever closer union’, the public would prefer to draw back from Europe. But leaving is not the most popular choice. When presented with a broader range of options than ‘in or out’, the most popular choice is for a looser confederation, more akin to a free trade area.
A referendum endorsing this view would create a political mandate for the British government – whatever its hue – to renegotiate terms with Brussels, with a view to repatriating powers.
It is far from clear though what terms would be on offer. It seems unlikely that other EU states would allow Britain to maintain the benefits of access to the single market while opting out from other obligations that come with membership. Even if such an offer were available, the UK would still be bound by a great deal of European regulation but with potentially less influence, perhaps even no say at all, over how that regulation is decided. In this situation, is Britain prepared to be Norway without the oil?