With the eurozone seemingly crumbling, the British public could be forgiven for thinking the grass was looking greener on these fair shores. The Chancellor’s grim Autumn Statement should have acted as a stark reminder that the worst is yet to come but within days this was overshadowed by David Cameron’s bold action on Europe.
On Monday, my colleague Tom Mludzinski commented
on the potential longevity of the recent Tory boost in the polls and given the response to David Cameron’s ‘veto’, it is worth exploring British attitudes to Europe in a little more detail. First of all, some historical data on the matter:
- Between 1991 and 2007, those in favour of joining the Euro never rose above a third in our polls with a 22% low recorded on three occasions (1996, 1997 and 2000). Those strongly in favour have never risen above 19% and a couple of times this figure fell to 10%.
- Between 1977 – 2011, when asked ‘If there were a referendum now on whether Britain should stay in or get out of the European Union, how would you vote?’ those saying ‘stay in’ ranged between 26% in 1980 and 63% in 1991, our most recent indicator shows 49% say ‘get out’.
- However, when asked ‘which of these — Europe, the Commonwealth or America — is the most important to Britain?’ – Europe has been the clear winner, peaking at 57% in 1993 compared with the USA which achieved a high point of 34% (2003), and the Commonwealth which reached 26% in 1986.
- Interestingly, the proportion of the public saying they feel they know at least "a fair amount" about the European Union has never risen above three in ten in any of our polls. But 80% now believe the state of the European economy has an influence over the British economy (even more than the 71% who think British government decisions influence the British economy).
- In September 2011, when asked if ‘as a citizen would you say that you would be better protected in the face of the current crisis if the UK adopted measures and applied them individually?’ 60% in the UK said yes compared with France 34%, Italy 29%, Germany 27% and Spain 22%.
- When the 27 EU member states were polled in spring 2010, distrust of the EU was most prominent in the United Kingdom (64%) compared with Germany (51%) and France (50%).
- With regard to perceptions of the EU, in the 27 EU member states asked, the UK was also the only country whose “negative” image scores outweighed “neutral” or “positive” scores (negative image: 39%, neutral image: 38% and positive image: 19%).
It is worth noting that the British public, whilst acknowledging they know little about the EU also has little interest in it – unless a specific issue provokes media coverage. This was reflected in the December Economist/Ipsos MORI Issues Index which showed concern about Europe/EU at 7% (although fieldwork concluded the day before the Prime Ministers’ veto on the European Treaty). It is important to remember that despite the recent rise, concern about the EU/Europe is still far lower than ‘traditional’ issues such as the economy, unemployment and crime.
Bailouts, Spanish and Italian bond yields and the dramatic departure of George Papandreou and Silvio Berlusconi did, to some extent, shift the focus from our domestic problems in recent months and last week’s developments will prolong this. But while Mr Cameron may try to use the British public’s relatively high Euro-scepticism to his advantage the Autumn Statement should be the first of many prompts that we are not out of the woods yet.
Indeed, the most recently published wave of the Eurobarometer series shows that a majority of the British public do believe the worst is yet to come (61%). This is significantly higher than the EU average of 47% and similar to the level shown in Ireland (60%). It is lower than opinions recorded in countries such as Greece (78%) and Portugal (80%) but higher than G8 members Germany and Italy with 38% and 42% respectively.
David Cameron’s hard-line stance towards the EU appears have been well received and exploring the British public’s underlying views towards Europe goes some way to explaining this. But the PM will be fully aware that attitudes to Europe are unlikely to determine the result of the next election and the domestic economy is only ever a moment from the headlines.