Both campaigns need to broaden their focus
Independent research organisation NatCen Social Research yesterday released the findings of its survey of British attitudes towards the European Union. Here’s what we found:
1. Being sceptical doesn’t necessarily make you an ‘outer’
NatCen says that only once since 1992 has a higher level of Euroscepticism been uncovered by British Social Attitudes surveys. According to the report, 65 per cent of the British public can be considered ‘Eurosceptic’.
But while that includes 43 per cent who say they want the EU’s powers to be reduced, only 22 per cent want to leave the EU.
In Scotland, which is often considered to be more pro-European than the rest of Britain, Eurosceptics are in the majority. 43 per cent are in favour of reducing the EU’s power, while 17 per cent actually want to leave.
When given a straight choice twice as many Scots think that Britain should remain part of the EU (60 per cent) as believe the country should leave (30 per cent).
2. People are concerned about Britain’s cultural identity
Nearly half (47 per cent) of those interviewed agreed that membership of the EU is ‘undermining Britain’s distinctive identity’, while just three-in-ten (30 per cent) disagreed.
What do people mean by British cultural identity? The issue is closely tied to levels of immigration (real or perceived), but is also linked to British people’s apparent reluctance to view themselves as culturally part of Europe.
NatCen research shows that when asked to choose as many identities as they like from a list of every national identity associated with Great Britain and Ireland, only 15 per cent of British people describe themselves as ‘European’.
In contrast just 36 per cent of French people describe themselves as ‘French only’ with no reference to being European.
3. The public has yet to be persuaded by the economic case for leaving
Only 24 per cent of the public believe that Britain’s economy would be better off if we left the EU, while 40 per cent say they think it would be worse. This report suggests that for most people economic concerns will be the deciding factor in how they vote.
40 per cent of those who believe that the EU is undermining Britain’s identity, but who are not convinced that the economy would be better, say that they wish to withdraw from the EU.
But that figure more than doubles to 82 per cent when people concerned about Britain’s identity also believe withdrawing would bring economic benefits.
4. There is desire for radical reform
68 per cent of people favour reducing the ability of EU migrants to access welfare benefits – David Cameron was astute in choosing to make this his headline negotiation, though his demands were extreme even by the standards of many sceptics.
When asked how long a migrant worker should have to contribute for before being entitled to benefits, as many as 44 per cent felt that they should become entitled after working for a year, while 60 per cent believed they should be able to claim benefits after two years. David Cameron was pushing for four years.
68 per cent of people favour reducing the ability of EU migrants to access welfare benefits, and 59 per cent do not think people from other EU countries should have free access to the NHS. 51 per cent want to end the free movement of people within the EU.
5. Both campaigns need to stop preaching to the choir
Opinions about migrants are worrying for the ‘Remain’ campaign, which now needs to make a strong case for the economic benefits of EU immigration.
At the moment it is focusing on the economic and business benefits of EU membership, but it seems that even Eurosceptics are already convinced by this and are willing to swallow their ‘cultural’ concerns to avoid taking an economic risk.
‘Remain’ needs to turn these grudging votes, which could easily become abstentions, into more stable votes based on belief in the benefits of free movement.
Meanwhile prominent ‘Leave’ campaigners focus on bureaucratic meddling from Brussels and the financial and even security risks of immigration when it is clear that these are not enough to sway even those who are worried about immigration and the potential for a ‘super state’.
If Euroscepticism is to translate into support for withdrawal, the ‘Leave’ campaign will now need to make a stronger economic case.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward