Britain: Euroconfused not Eurosceptic

Joe Litobarski analyses two recent polls that throw new light on the British public's opinions on European Union, which challenge the UK’s image as a 'Eurosceptic' nation.

Joe Litobarski analyses two recent polls that throw new light on the British public’s opinions on European Union, which challenge the UK’s image as a ‘Eurosceptic’ nation – one is the UK national report of the Eurobarometer survey, a Europe-wide poll that has been conducted twice yearly since 1973; the other a more detailed “Flash Eurobarome­ter” poll on British attitudes to the EU, carried out by Gallup on behalf of the European Commission in the UK

Despite Britain’s fearsome reputation as a bastion of Euroscepticism, the latest data suggests attitudes are somewhat more divided. There is a rough balance between those holding positive (42%) and negative (39%) images of the EU, with a significant “undecided” group (18%) that could still be convinced one way or the other.

Importantly, the surveys reveal an enormous information deficit (82% knew “little or nothing” about the EU) and a “link between knowledge of the EU and how well it is perceived”, with respondents who knew “quite a lot” or “a great deal” about the EU being almost twice as likely to hold consistently favourable opinions.

The majority of those polled were also likely to have an exaggerated image of the EU’s cost to Britain. When asked what they thought the UK’s direct net contribution to the EU budget was, the average response was to guess almost a fifth of British Gross National Income (GNI) was being skimmed off by Brussels each year. Only 9% gave the correct figure of less than 3% of GNI (in fact, the annual net contribution to the EU budget is less than 1%).

One could argue about the importance of net versus gross or direct versus indirect costs till the cows come home – but the figure of one fifth of British GNI is not only 20 times greater than the true figure, it is far larger than even the harshest of estimates for indirect costs. Likewise, the shocking belief of 75% of respondents that the EU budget is larger than the entire UK budget has little basis in reality (the UK’s budget is in fact six times larger than the EU’s).

Clearly, confusion abounds. Only 35% agreed that the information available on the EU was simple and clear. Worryingly, 58% said they were not interested in receiving any more information (which probably means that yet another generic “public information campaign” is doomed to failure), though 81% would nevertheless be likely to listen if things were presented in a more, you guessed it, “simple and clear” manner.

At the same time, the public suspects the media of holding a negative bias. Almost half of all respondents (48%) believe the British press is “too negative” in its coverage of the EU. The message from all this is that Britain is not so much “Eurosceptic” as “Euroconfused” (and somewhat distrustful of both sides in the debate). If previous surveys of voter priorities are anything to go by, people are also seriously apathetic about the issue of Europe in general.

The benefits of membership, however, are not entirely lost on people in Britain. Today’s polls confirm the findings of a survey carried out in December of last year on behalf of the Fabian Society; whilst there might be scepticism in Britain about European integration in general, there are still majorities that want see a wide array of issues handled at the EU level – including tackling the financial crisis, combating terrorism, protecting the environment and coordinating science and technology research.

When asked if they thought there were any benefits from EU membership, majorities also agreed that the EU:

• Was good for consumers (69%);

• Improved working conditions (55%);

• Benefited environmental protection (55%);

• Strengthened global trade negotiations (58%);

• Improved regulation of financial markets (55%); and

• Made it harder for criminals to evade justice by jumping borders (70%).

Looking at all this data, the solution seems obvious; simplify and clarify the message as much as possible and public perception of the EU in Britain will rise accordingly; such an approach, however, is hardly revolutionary.

Presenting EU affairs in a simple and clear manner is exactly what supporters (and, indeed, detractors) have been trying to do for decades – yet the EU stubbornly defies all and any attempts. The bald truth is that the EU deals largely with issues that are both highly technical and incredibly low salience. In other words, the beast is by nature both horrifically complicated and deadly boring.

The stalemate seems doomed to continue. Ben Shimshon of Britain Thinks, however, has done a brilliant piece of analysis looking at which side would win in the event of an “in-or-out” referendum on EU membership.

He concludes that Eurosceptics have thus far been more successful than their pro-EU counterparts at linking the EU (which few people care about directly) to things people do actually give a fig about (such as unemployment and immigration). If the image of the EU is to be improved in Britain then the “information deficit” must be breached and the positive connection to the issues most important to voters must be made.

Last month, Sunder Katwala wrote on Left Foot Forward that Labour would be considering the case for an “In or Out” referendum as part of its policy review. This is firmly a minority position within the Labour party, though it was part of the Liberal Democrats’ campaign manifesto at the last election. I have written elsewhere about why supporters of the EU should not fear such a referendum.

However, even if an EU referendum is not on the cards – and in the short-term it definitely is not – supporters of the EU in Britain should still be organising and campaigning as if such a thing were a possibility (which is exactly what Eurosceptics have been doing since 1975).

The narrative of an overwhelmingly Eurosceptic Britain is, as today’s polls demonstrate, a false one – and yet it is a narrative that defines our relationship with Europe and surely affects the decisions of our representatives. Something has to change.

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30 Responses to “Britain: Euroconfused not Eurosceptic”

  1. dubious1977

    RT @leftfootfwd: Britain: Euroconfused not Eurosceptic: writes Joe Litobarski (@EuroGoblin)

  2. Scared of the unknown « Alarm Clock Briton

    […] Left Foot Forward comes an interesting article (no attributed author, unfortunately) on Euroscepticism in the UK, which is well worth a read. This […]

  3. danmason21

    RT @leftfootfwd: Britain – Euroconfused not Eurosceptic

  4. Anon E Mouse

    Put “In or Out” in a referendum to the British population and you’ll see how real people feel.

    In the words of the worlds greatest lyricist, Bob Dylan, “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”…

  5. BenM

    Anon E Mouse – did that in 1975.

  6. Mr. Sensible

    Bang goes the media and UKIP idea of a fully eurosceptic public…

  7. Anon E Mouse

    BenM – Not true – stop rewriting history.

    The referendum in 1975 was to remain in the EEC – nothing to do with a federal Europe – that was the Tories fault under John Major.

    Since we are having a referendum on AV (hope it goes YES myself) why not on membership of Europe?

    If you are sure you’re right BenM (and we both know you’re not) why are you so frightened to put it to the people?

    Democracy sucks huh….

  8. Joe Litobarski

    A slightly more colourful version of this post can be found here:

  9. J Clive Matthews

    Excellent stuff from @EuroGoblin on highly confused British attitudes towards the EU:

  10. Europe Direct Leeds

    RT @Nosemonkey: Excellent stuff from @EuroGoblin on highly confused British attitudes towards the EU:

  11. Nick Panayotopoulos

    RT @Nosemonkey: Excellent stuff from @EuroGoblin on highly confused British attitudes towards the EU:

  12. Horia-Victor Lefter

    RT @Nosemonkey: Excellent stuff from @EuroGoblin on highly confused British attitudes towards the EU:

  13. Mia Välimäki

    RT @Nosemonkey: Excellent stuff from @EuroGoblin on highly confused British attitudes towards the EU:

  14. Research Europe

    RT @Nosemonkey: Excellent stuff from @EuroGoblin on highly confused British attitudes towards the EU:

  15. Eurobee

    RT @Nosemonkey: Excellent stuff from @EuroGoblin on highly confused British attitudes towards the EU:

  16. Anthony Zacharzewski

    “the EEC – nothing to do with a federal Europe”

    Someone hasn’t read the preamble to the Treaty of Rome (“ever closer union”), or read the discussions in the House of Commons at the time. The idea of federal Europe was very much there.

  17. Steffen Moller

    RT @leftfootfwd: Britain: Euroconfused not Eurosceptic

  18. Anthony Zacharzewski

    So, Joe, big missing point here is what should pro-Europeans be doing about it – or do we just have to leave it to the EU and the Government (ha) to provide simple, easy information?

  19. Anon E Mouse

    Anthony Zacharzewski – That is not the basis on which is was proposed to the British people.

    You are using Lawyerly speak like a lot of the left seem to do to justify things they know normal people don’t like. The EEC was sold as an economic treaty.

    If you are so sure that the British people want this union then put it to them because if you think they will vote NO then you are not acting in the interests of them more in your own.

    I don’t need to read the House of Commons to realise that “the ever closer union” in the minds of anyone wouldn’t give the rights of unelected bureaucrats in a foreign country to change laws established in our country over centuries.

    We were promised a referendum by Tony Blair only to have it overturned by the unelected Gordon Brown (remember Tony Blair promised a “Full Third Term” so party politics was abandoned at that point) and it’s the reason I stopped voting Labour.

    The EU is a ramshackle waste of German and British money and the fact the officials cannot be booted out makes it a disgrace when we are constantly preaching about democracy around the world.

    You love it all you want to Anthony but don’t kid yourself that real people want what they currently are lumbered with – ask the Irish and remember as Europe moves ever to the right things may change…

  20. Antonia Mochan

    RT @litterbasket What brits REALLY think of the #EU also LFF article by same author

  21. Nick Panayotopoulos

    RT @euonymblog: RT @litterbasket What brits REALLY think of the #EU also LFF article by same author

  22. Charles Crawford

    RT @euonymblog: RT @litterbasket What brits REALLY think of the #EU also LFF article by same author

  23. scandalousbill


    I am not sure that referendums have the punch to which you allude vis a vis the expression of majority popular sentiment. I think that the upcoming referendum on AV is going to have a high degree of popular support or participation. Would you say in any case, even at 10 or 20% turnout, that it should be valid because those who did not vote failed to respond and therefore should be compelled to go along with the winning position whatever it may be? Or, if for example, traditionalists get a bandwagon effect operational to say, bring back the shilling, outlaw abortion, etc. Would the winning side be the best choice of, or for, the ordinary or normal people? If the SNP put a referendum on independence that passes by 51% in a turnout of 40% or less, would you say the ordinary Scottish person has spoken?

    In a similar manner, is the “fact the officials cannot be booted out” an issue of despotic bureaucrats, or ineffective MEP representation? Seems to me a term limitations of officials, or even elected posts of officials, should be able to be changed by either legislation of treaty amendment.

    UKIP bollocks aside, there are a great many observers who would maintain that the UK gains more from the EU. The benefits the euro sceptics are primarily, IMHO, chest beating and flag waving. I am always quite bemused that the passion of so called UK independence takes a distaining negative view of Scottish or Welsh independence. Why are these people to be so disenfranchised? Why should they not have the legal right object to laws being passed in a foreign nation? Or should they simply forget their nationalism, sovereignty, shut up and submit to past conquests?

  24. scandalousbill

    Correction, sorry.

    I meant to say that AV plebiscite will not get a large amount of voter turnout.

  25. Andrew Burgess

    Britain "Euroconfused not Eurosceptic" >> I agree and really really hope you are right there @litterbasket @leftfootfwd

  26. Anon E Mouse

    scandalousbill – I have the same reservations regarding the recent vote in Wales (I was working away and sent a postal vote) and the turnout but even as Eurosceptic as I am I most certainly do want Scottish Independence and would put Northern Ireland, Wales and England up for it in a UK referendum as well.

    I agree voter turnout though will be low which should benefit the YES to AV I hope…

  27. Ben Shimshon

    @litterbasket thanks for kind words in your @leftfootfwd post.

  28. Mark Stone

    RT @Nosemonkey: Excellent stuff from @EuroGoblin on highly confused British attitudes towards the EU:

  29. Tories lose touch with voters when they talk about the EU | Left Foot Forward

    […] Britain: Euroconfused not Eurosceptic – Joe Litobarski, March 17th […]

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