Matthew Goodwin
Visiting Senior Fellow, Europe Programme
Those in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU long assumed that the merits of economic integration, the appeal to the head over the heart, would win any vote. This no longer seems true.
A shop in Brighton with a Union Flag painted outside. Photo by Getty Images.A shop in Brighton with a Union Flag painted outside. Photo by Getty Images.

Before the end of 2017, Britain is due to vote in a referendum on continuing its membership in the European Union. Until now, the conventional wisdom has been that the country will opt to stay in. But the landscape is changing. The prospect of a 'Brexit', as a possible British exit is known, looks more likely now than it has for more than a generation.

Pragmatism over passion

The British never fell in love with the European project. As their neighbours moved toward closer union, Britain became known for its instinctive euroscepticism. It was the awkward partner that had only reluctantly joined, neither fully embracing the broader vision that united Berlin, Paris and Rome, nor adopting the single currency that followed.

This approach was driven by pragmatism more than passion, true to Winston Churchill’s 1953 description of Britain’s relationship with Europe: 'We are with them, but not of them.'

Britons have often recoiled from what integration in Europe came to entail. After the union’s 2004 enlargement, which brought in several former Warsaw Pact countries (including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Baltics), surveys of British public opinion found disquiet at the arrival of hundreds of thousands of mainly low-skilled workers from central and eastern Europe.

Yet the prospect of a Brexit always felt remote; only rarely has there been mass support for quitting the union. When people were pushed on how they would actually vote in an in-or-out referendum, only a minority ever identified themselves as 'Outers'. Little more than a year ago, 'Inners' held a 56 to 36 percentage-point lead over the Outers, while the decision of Scottish voters to reject independence in 2014 underlined the risk-averse nature of these islands.

When it came to Europe, the average voter acted like an unhappy spouse: dreaming of alternatives but reluctant to end the relationship. That picture is now changing.

Immigration anxiety

Earlier this month, one poll put the Outers ahead, while another found only a negligible margin between the two camps. Some argue that these surveys are outliers, and point to how the pollsters widely failed to predict the outcome of May’s general election. But below the surface, several trends are combining to push the country closer to a Brexit.

Those in favour of Britain’s membership long assumed that the merits of the single market and economic integration would suffice, that appeals to the head over the heart would win any vote. This no longer seems true. Seen through the eyes of most voters, the stagnation and instability of the eurozone contrasts with Britain’s economic recovery.

This comparison, alongside claims of economic competence and a turnaround, helped the Conservative Party win its first majority government in more than 20 years. Convincing voters that it is in their financial interest to cling to the eurozone is not as easy as it once was.

It’s not only about economics; there is a cultural dimension, too. In the last election, nearly four million mainly white working-class retirees abandoned the mainstream in favor of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a stridently eurosceptic populist party. The rise of UKIP, which campaigns as hard against an influx of European workers as it does for withdrawal from Europe, is a register of how immigration has moved to the forefront of Britain’s debate.

Then came the refugee crisis. Combined with angst over migrant camps near Calais, France, where hundreds are trying to enter Britain, recent headlines have pushed public anxiety about immigration to the highest level ever recorded. It is now voters’ top priority, with nearly twice as many voicing concern over immigration as the economy.

Much of this was a long time coming, among an electorate that has never warmed to demographic change. Some of the sentiment is wrapped up with public anger over the failure of the Conservative government to fulfill its pledge, dating from the 2010 election, of reducing net migration to just 'tens of thousands' a year. The most recent figure available put net migration into Britain at an annual record high of 330,000.

Such trends have dealt the eurosceptics — who earlier this year were writing off their chances of winning the referendum — a strong hand. Some now believe they can turn the vote on European Union membership into a plebiscite on immigration and securing national borders.

Changing political context

Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, finds himself in a difficult position. His reluctance to match the commitment of some other European member states to receive refugees — he has promised to resettle only 20,000 over five years — is broadly in line with public opinion. But this risks eroding his political capital in Europe as he tries to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership, before returning to the people for the vote.

Europe’s leaders are distracted from efforts to prevent a Brexit, and given Britain’s stance on the refugee crisis, they are unlikely to feel sympathy for Cameron’s requests to curb welfare benefits for migrant workers from the European Union. Unless he extracts something from the renegotiation that addresses public concern over the free movement of labour — long seen by other states as a pillar of the European project — a Brexit will start to look probable, rather than merely possible.

The political context has also changed. Last weekend brought the shock election of the radical left-winger Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party — ushering in a new ambivalence toward Europe among the parliamentary opposition. Corbyn has said that he cannot see himself campaigning for a Brexit, but he reiterated his desire for a 'social Europe' that protects workers’ rights and the environment, rather than a free-market one. Angered by the European Union’s treatment of Greece and a perceived democratic deficit within its core institutions, and concerned that workers’ rights might be watered down, other left-wingers and some trade unions have actually suggested that they could campaign for a Brexit.

So, gone are the days of New Labour’s unequivocal support for the European Union. And the only other vigorously pro-union party, the Liberal Democrats, was all but obliterated in the last election. True, support for the union remains the dominant view in Westminster, but for the first time in decades, there is a split on both the left and the right.

With Cameron expected to announce a date soon for the referendum, the sceptics remain the underdogs. But the prospect of a Brexit feels far less remote than it once did.

This article originally appeared in the International New York Times.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback