Constanze Stelzenmüller

Granted, the euro crisis has us all baffled and tied in knots; but Britain appears to be even more confused and contorted than most. If we understand Prime Minister David Cameron's government correctly, the following are all current UK policy positions: 1) Europe's salvation lies in further integration towards a fiscal union; but 2) Britain will not be a part of this. 3) Britain will hold a referendum on its EU membership but 4) not now. 5) Scotland will vote in 2014 on whether it wishes to belong to the Union (the other one), but 6) it really ought to stay. In sum, and just to make sure we have this straight: Britain will be stronger without the EU – or at least by standing aloof from a more federated Europe; whereas Scotland will be a lot worse off without the Union.

This latest YouGov poll confirms that the, let's call it ambiguity, of British government policy actually faithfully reflects the attitudes of its voters. Britain has been a member of the EU for 37 years, 40% of its trade goes to the eurozone, and its legal system (not least its civil rights and freedoms) is tightly woven into the living fabric of European law. Yet the views expressed by the respondents suggest that a majority of Britons continue to see themselves as denizens of a sovereign island realm firmly anchored in the mid-Atlantic and beholden to absolutely no one – and certainly not the European Union. When asked which countries they feel most favourable towards (and most of us like people we think are Like Us), Britons said they feel closest to countries such as the Netherlands, Ireland, Sweden and Norway: hardy Northerners used to withstanding the onslaught of wind, water, Vikings and Brussels. (Note that the Scots fit right in.) Interestingly for us Continentals who still think of Britain as one of the Big Three powers in Europe (these days, it's probably the Big Four, with Poland), all of these are also rather small countries, in terms of power as much as size. In fact, France, Germany, and Poland top the list of countries Britons don't like, just behind Russia and Ukraine. This does not bode well for European foreign policy coordination in the future, whether with Britain in the EU or out of it.

The notion that the EU might be or become a leading power in the world is rejected absolutely; in all fairness, even the most diehard Euro-optimist finds that difficult to imagine these days. But the idea that EU membership is in the UK's national interest is rejected almost as roundly; the list of negatives associated with the EU is far longer than the positives. So what does serve the national interest? The armed forces, the BBC World service, and the intelligence services top the list higher than UK companies, diplomats and overseas aid. On this count at least, it appears the days of Rudyard Kipling, John Buchan and 007 are still with us—at least in the mind of the British public. No wonder, then, that fiscal union, or at least a more integrated EU (the goal now pursued by Germany, France and a number of other member states) is given short shrift by all but a tiny minority. Nearly two-thirds of respondents want a referendum commitment now, and 49% would vote to leave.

Still, that last number is revealing: it shows that Britons remain less persuaded by Euroscepticism than one might think (indeed, 30% would vote to stay, and only 26% want a complete UK withdrawal!). And despite (or perhaps precisely because of) the fact that China is thought by most respondents to be the world's next leading power, only a fifth said Britain should harness its fate to such emerging countries; the United States and the EU remain clear front-runners. Remarkably, between two-thirds and three-quarters said Britain should work with the rest of the European Union on issues from energy and climate policy via trade, border security, foreign, defence and security policy to relations with key emerging economies. When the same questions are asked with regard to the United States, the EU wins out on all counts except defence and security policy (but even there with only a narrow 2% lead for the US). This poll certainly does not support MP Douglas Carswell's allegation that Britons feel they are ‘shackled to a corpse'. Even more importantly, Britons understand the key consequence of globalization after all: cooperation and multilateralism trump bilateralism or ‘going it alone'. The mystery is why they think this would be easier from outside the EU than from within.

Presumably, the logic behind this conviction is the one articulated by some of the Conservative Eurosceptics: Britain could, like Switzerland or Norway, enjoy the benefits of closeness to the EU without any of the obligations. This rosy vision fails to take into account that Norway's oil and gas resources give it a leverage that would elude an economically troubled Britain. Meanwhile, Swiss diplomats, if guaranteed strict anonymity, would be likely to acknowledge that their country's situation is better described as de facto membership without any of the rights. Surely that cannot be what Britain wants either.

In reality, of course, Britain and the EU need each other. The EU needs Britain as a full and confident member,and as a champion of political and economic liberalism; Britain needs the EU for leverage and, yes, protection against the storms of globalization. Indeed, it might be thought that the YouGov respondents' fondness for the Netherlands or Ireland reflects a rather accurate understanding of what a Britain outside the EU would be like: a much smaller country. (And that would be including Scotland.)