Four years on from the UK’s Brexit vote, a majority of British voters would now opt to remain inside the European Union, says new research.
According to the European Social Survey (ESS), a pan-European poll carried out every two years, 56.8% of respondents in the UK indicated that they would vote to remain inside the bloc, an increase from 49.9% the last time the survey was published in 2018. The most recent survey shows that of those questioned in the UK, 34.9% said they would vote to leave and 8.3% said they would not vote at all.
The findings come in the same week that marked the fourth anniversary of the 2016 referendum. The intervening years have seen the UK engage in divisive internal debate about precisely what form Brexit should take, complicated negotiations with Brussels on how the country would leave the bloc, and painful political deadlock that only ended on January 31 this year, when the UK finally left the EU.
The survey also reveals that support for the EU has grown broadly across the continent.
The latest survey of 26 countries, four of which are not member states, reveals an increase in support for EU membership, suggesting that speculation that other countries would quickly follow the UK to exit the union is possibly unfounded.
Of the 19 countries that participated in both the latest and previous ESS, all EU member states saw support for EU membership rise. There was little change in Norway and Switzerland, which are not member states. The latest data was gathered while the UK was still negotiating its exit from the EU as a member state.
“Brexit had an early uptick in support among member states, but for most EU citizens, Brexit hasn’t been on their radar for a long time,” says Georgina Wright, an EU expert at the Institute for Government.
“Over the past few years there has been more of a sense that Europe isn’t static. At the last EU election we saw lots of parties who backed EU reform elected to the parliament, which I think suggests citizens are increasingly positive about the EU’s ability to change with the times.”
Outside of the bloc there is a mixed picture. In the Balkans there are majorities in Montenegro and Serbia for joining. However, support remains strong for staying outside in non-member states that have a far closer relationship with the EU than the UK government currently claims to want.
Switzerland, for example, is part of the EU’s Schengen Area and operates in line with large areas of EU law in order to participate in the EU’s Single Market. Just 11.2% of respondents in the country would be in favor of joining. Norway, where 21.5% of respondents were in favor of joining the EU, is a full member of the European Economic Area and the European Free Trade Association.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, by contrast, has stated on numerous occasions that the UK will not fall in line with EU law and seeks only a free-trade agreement with the bloc. Any deal would need to be in place by December 31 of this year, when the UK’s current transition period with the EU expires.
Although the survey shows a significant swing in British support for EU membership compared to 2016, it paints only part of a murky picture in the context of British politics. Johnson won an 80-seat majority in a landslide election victory back in December on the simple platform of “Get Brexit Done,” suggesting that leaving the EU was popular after more than three years of indecision.
“A lot of people, regardless of their preference for leave or remain, believe that the referendum was a democratic vote, regardless of what they think of the outcome. So in the words of the PM, they might agree that we needed to get Brexit done,” says Will Jennings, Professor in Politics at the University of Southampton.
“Asking people hypothetically how they would vote if the referendum were happening now, you might get an interesting answer. But it is a fundamentally different question.”
Whatever is happening in the UK, the apparent trend of increased support for the union among its own ranks will be welcome news to Eurocrats. Brussels has been careful to prevent Brexit setting a trend for increased Euroskepticism and has myriad internal problems due to disagreements between member states on issues like China and migration.
“Our latest data suggests that the UK remains divided on Brexit, however, in the rest of the union, support for remaining in the EU remains very high and is actually rising,” says Professor Rory Fitzgerald, Director of the European Social Survey at City, University of London. “Support for remaining ranged from 66% (Czech Republic) to 89% (Spain), suggesting that the anti-EU sentiment seen in the UK is not spreading to other countries.”
However, he also notes that if the UK is successful in striking a deal with the EU before the end of the year, then Britain’s Europe question could be settled once and for all.
“Only in countries outside the bloc like Norway and Switzerland do we see higher levels of anti-EU sentiment than in the UK. However, this suggests in the longer term, being outside the union might see support for re-joining decline.”
Whether that happens will largely come down to what kind of deal, if any, Johnson manages to strike with Brussels. “The softest deal that this government wants to strike is far harder than many of the people in this country are comfortable with,” says Simon Usherwood, professor of politics at the University of Surrey. “When people start to see the impact that has on the country and the economy, we might soon learn that the European question is far from settled as new battle lines are drawn.”
Brexit negotiations between the EU and UK have continued through 2020 via videoconference, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Both sides have previously told CNN that the lack of human interaction has made the negotiations more fraught. And while both want to reach an agreement, there is still significant distance between the two sides, and very little time left, unless either London or Brussels makes a major concession.