Friday 25 February 2011

Who would win an EU referendum?

Saturday's Fabian Europe conference invited pro-Europeans and Eurosceptics to set out competing visions for Britain's role in the EU. In this guest post, Ben Shimshon of Britain Thinks, who spoke at the conference, looks at public attitudes evidence to ask who would convince the public if there was a referendum on British membership, and says that pro-Europeans could learn from lessons from Eurosceptic campaigners.


Snapshot polls suggest that a large proportion of the UK public instinctively support withdrawal from the EU.

Were a previously unannounced referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU to be held tomorrow (perhaps via phone or email), the polling evidence suggests that the public would be more likely to vote in favour of pulling out of the EU than staying in.

The last few times the public have been asked the “in or out” question, the response has been fairly decisive: In the absence of any information other than their pre-existing views, just under half of people say they are in favour of pulling out, about a third say they are in favour of staying in, and the rest say they don’t know. (YouGov, Sept 2010, showed 47% in favour of pulling out, and 33% in favour of staying in; Angus Reid, Dec 2010, showed 48% and 27% respectively).

This hasn’t always been the case. In the decade up to 2007, when they stopped tracking the question, Ipsos MORI’s polls were slightly more likely to show greater support for ‘staying in’ than ‘getting out’, although the tendency was for about 40% on either side of the argument and 20% undecided.

These ‘snapshot’ polling numbers need to be considered in the light of the overall salience of the EU for the British public. The last round of Mori’s issue index showed only 1% mentioning EU/Euro/Common Market as the main issue facing Britain, and only 3% mentioned it when prompted to come up with other issues facing Britain. The last time the EU was mentioned by more than 10% was in summer 2005, when the UK took over the presidency, and before that, in 2004 when the Fifth Enlargement took place. The signing of the Lisbon Treaty in December 2010 hardly registered at all.

The euro-sceptic view expressed by many in the British public in opinion polls is underpinned by a widespread, and commonly held, set of underlying associations with the EU. A Fabian/FEPS poll conducted by YouGov in November 2010 confirms the public’s baseline negativity towards the EU: 45% feel that membership of the EU is a bad thing for Britain, while 22% feel it’s a good thing and a similar number say neither. The same poll shows that the public instinct bends towards loosening ties, rather than greater cooperation (Fabian/FEPS/YouGov, Nov 2010) Angus Reid’s December poll shows that fully 59% of Brits feel that EU membership has been negative for the UK, while 29 feel it has been positive.

Qualitative research explains why these ‘knee jerk’ perceptions are often so negative. In focus groups with middle of the road swing voters, asking what comes to mind when they think of the EU typically elicits a predictable, and very narrow, range of responses. These tend to align with views that are loudly and persistently proclaimed in some of the UK’s most popular newspapers. The EU is seen to be the source of many of the perceived problems that are tied up in the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’:

• Wasting public money
• Human rights law that seems to protect criminals at the expense of victims
• Unnecessary regulation and bureaucracy – straight bananas, abolishing pounds and ounces
• Employment law that stops people being sacked
And, most difficult of all,
• Immigration laws that have led to what many respondents describe as ‘a flood’ of new arrivals from Eastern Europe into ‘their communities.’

Focus group participants discuss each of these in an incredulous tone of voice, agreeing vehemently with each point as it is made, and shaking their heads in disbelief at each example. Often, the whole discussion is capped-off by the assertion that the UK is being ‘taken for a ride’; the belief is widespread that places like France and Italy just ignore the rules and regulations that come out of Brussels and that it’s only the ‘soft touch UK’ that plays along.

Negative feelings towards the EU are also bound up in a unremittingly bleak narrative about politicians and politics generally. Ask a focus group of typically informed Brits what they think an MEP does and, if you’re not met with silence, you’re likely to receive a tirade about things like ‘gravy trains’ and being ‘in it for all they can get’. The sense that the EU is fundamentally unaccountable underpins the public appetite for a referendum – no matter whether the question is about being in or out, or about a particular treaty – pollsters continually show that the public wants the opportunity to take decisions about the EU. A YouGov poll for the Sun in January this year showed 41% saying there should be referenda on all new European treaties while 31% felt that there is no need for ‘minor’ treaties. At the time that the Lisbon Treaty was signed in Dec 2007, Ipsos Mori found that 54% of people wanted a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – but even then, only 4% would mention the EU as a top issue.

The mess around the Lisbon Treaty provided no end of ammunition for the ‘venal politicians’ point of view’, with both of the main parties seeming underhand and unwilling to trust the people; Labour because they signed the treaty without holding a referendum; the Tories because they ended up having to choose between backing down or insisting on a referendum that couldn’t change anything. Calls for a vote on Europe are likely to be a continuous feature of the coming months and years. In the focus groups, we often find that people believe that the Conservative Party have promised them an ‘in or out’ referendum – something which may prove difficult for the Government to navigate further down the road, especially as their coalition partners actually did promise a referendum on membership at the time of the Lisbon treaty.

What if there really was a referendum? Should it ever happen, a referendum on membership of the EU would be accompanied by high profile pro and anti campaigns, with all the coverage and press interest that entails. The question then becomes about how far an increase in saliency will be accompanied by a shift in perceptions about the EU as the public begin to pay more attention and think beyond their existing views.

Those who are in favour of continued membership of the EU clearly have the most work to do, both in terms of addressing the existing perceptions about the EU, but also in finding the messages that can actually chime with what the public care about. Both sides will attempt to connect the EU to other, more salient, issues in the public mind. Immigration, which was felt to be the number one issue facing Britain in the months and years preceding the downturn, is already closely (and negatively) connected to the EU in people’s minds. Doubtless the pro-withdrawal campaign would leverage those concerns, alongside tapping into ‘stock’ issues such as accountability, waste of public money, “bizzare” court judgements, and laws that fly in the face of “common sense”

The Fabian/FEPS poll suggests that, despite the prevailing winds, all is not lost for the pro-membership groups. Asked a general question about cooperation between EU countries, the UK public are more likely to favour ‘loosening the links’ between countries (49%) rather than cooperating more closely (21%). However, when it comes to almost any particular issue, they are more likely to support closer ties between EU countries every time: Climate change; diplomacy; tackling terrorism; regulating banks; financial recovery are all areas where respondents were more likely to advocate closer ties than looser ones. That means there is space for the pro-European voices to develop messages around high-salience issues such as the economy, trade and defence in order to promote a more favourable view of the UK’s EU membership. Those messages could be about the ‘positives’ of membership, but it may well be that the potential negative impacts of withdrawal - in terms of isolation, lack of power, loss of favourable trading partners – have the most potential. The challenge for advocates of the EU in the UK is to find the messages, words, images, tone of voice and spokespeople that can get those messages to land as powerfully as the anti-EU messages do.

At the moment, though the anti EU voices are winning the battle. Their arguments, and their ways of framing the debate, are cutting through and chiming with the existing perceptions and preoccupations of the UK public.

Those who want to make the case for the EU must do the same – and would be well advised to do so, whether they end up fighting a referendum or not.

Ben Shimshon is a director at BritainThinks, having joined Deborah Mattinson and Viki Cooke at the founding of the company. You can follow Ben on Twitter: @BenShimshon

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