Europe in or out – does the public really care?

While the Commons referendum vote is unlikely to pass, at the very least, the issue of Europe has been brought into the media, but does anybody in Britain really care?

Glenn Gottfried is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

Suspiciously silent until now, a minority of Tory backbenchers seemed to have made significant inroads over the past week by securing the obligation of parliament to debate the motion of a possible stay-in/get-out of Europe referendum.

While the measure is unlikely to pass, these Eurosceptics have, at the very least brought the issue of Europe into the media, but does anybody in Britain really care?

Recent polling from Ipsos-MORI’s Issue Index (pdf) shows that in September, less than half a per cent of respondents that Europe was the most important issue facing Britain today. Once asked for an additional important issue facing the country this number only increases to a mere 3 per cent.

Even in the midst of the current debate, YouGov show a similar trend on a poll (pdf) conducted 17-18 October; when providing a list of issues facing Britain and allowing respondents to select up to three choices, only 22 per cent selected Europe as one of their top three choices.

In fact, only 29 per cent of Tory supporters indicated Europe as one of their three top issues with Labour and Lib Dem voters remaining low at 10 per cent each.

In his latest blog, Anthony Wells points out that even when the public is hostile to Europe, they are still more likely to favour a renegotiation of powers rather than an outright withdrawal. Clearly the debate whether to stay in or out of the European Union has little – if any – salience and is out of touch with the vast majority of the British public. But has this always been the case?

Graph 1 below provides a snapshot of where Europe stands on the Ipsos-MORI issues index between 1990 and 2011. There are several points over the past 20 years where the question on European integration was certainly significant.

The debate surrounding the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992, the consideration surrounding the European single currency in the 1997 election and Gordon Brown’s five economic tests for joining the Euro in June 2003 all demonstrate the British public at times voice their unease with the European Union.

By January 2006 the question on Europe reached little concern and has maintained this low level ever since.

Europe only shows any salience with the British public when the question is further integration, more specifically issues relating to monetary integration and joining the euro, and even then a majority of the public never listed Europe as the most important issue facing Britain.

Graph 1:

This group of renegade backbenchers might think that they have the momentum to gain public support but the question of membership withdrawal is very different from that of deeper integration. Unless the debate is centred on further integration the general public is not likely to be concerned.

See also:

Tories may care deeply about Europe, but no one else doesDaniel Elton, October 21st 2011

While the Tories squabble over EU membership what’s the future for the euro?Ben Fox, October 21st 2011

Britain: Euroconfused not EuroscepticJoe Litobarski, March 17th 2011

Labour policy review will consider case for an ‘in or out’ Europe referendumSunder Katwala, February 11th 2011

EU’s €3.4bn for diplomacy is value for moneyJon Worth, September 6th 2009

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