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What happens next in Britain’s relationship with the European Union?

Sunder Katwala / Dec 2023

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The British public are increasingly sceptical about the point of Brexit. A fairly stable majority now think leaving the EU was the wrong decision, as generational change combines with a minority of Leave voters becoming disillusioned with the outcomes.  Yet a more dominant mood than regret is the sense of Brexit exhaustion. So there is a broad public appetite for a much less heated, polarised or political debate about the future UK-EU relationship than in the years before and immediately after the EU referendum. 


New British Future research into British public attitudes towards the future relationship highlight both opportunities and challenges for pro-Europeans in Britain.

There is a great deal of pragmatic public permission to pursue a closer relationship with the EU, with considerably more support for a closer relationship between Britain and the European Union than a more distant one. The 52% who want a closer relationship include seven out of ten Labour supporters. Conservatives are more sceptical, though both a closer relationship (38%) or the status quo (41%) are more popular than further divergence.

That case is not strengthened much by appeals to European identity. These have a rather narrow appeal in post-Brexit Britain, though that was often the case during the UK’s four decades of membership too. Just 9% of people identified as European in this research.  ‘Shared values’ seemed a difficult and obscure question. Tolerance and diversity were considered more likely to be British values and global values than European ones.

Perhaps the finding of the British Future research is that a shared sense of identity is not essential for a closer relationship given the clear public perception that there are shared interests, from security in a volatile continent to the challenges of climate change.
Support for closer cooperation broadens further when specific issues and examples are considered. 

How might this influence the current and future government? The first consequence may be that the future of Brexit has a low profile in the General Election campaign. In the latest Ipsos Mori issues index, just 5% now cite Brexit as a priority issue, the lowest level of salience since 2015. This is a frustrating barrier for those who are frustrated at the public not making connections between their priorities – economic growth and public services – and the choice for Brexit. But it is arguably an opportunity for low drama option of constructive cooperation on specific issues. 

Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have talked about resetting the relationship with the EU. The research suggests that they could be bolder in pursuing it. These findings show that most of the British public will give them a great deal of space for greater pragmatic cooperation.  Attacks during an election campaign or beyond about betraying the spirit of Brexit from media commentators and political opponents may fall rather flat, since there is such broad public permission for a gradualist exploration of closer cooperation on a case-by-case basis.

Yet the appetite and capacity on the EU side for bespoke negotiations with Britain may prove more limited - though the Sunak Windsor Declaration shows a willingness to reciprocate a constructive approach from London.


The challenge for those who want a future government to be bolder still – and reconsider more totemic issues like the single market, free movement or a project to rejoin the EU itself – is that this would mean opening up more contested political arguments and reopening the Brexit debate. Here, the anxiety of the politicians reflects the current mood of most of the public. How far this might change over the next five years, if the 2016 referendum fades from memory, may depend on the scope and limits of a new effort at pragmatic cooperation in the next parliament. 


“Beyond Brexit: Public perspectives on the Future UK-EU relationships” by Heather Rolfe and Jake Puddle can be read at https://www.britishfuture.org/publication/beyond-brexit-public-perspectives-on-the-future-uk-eu-relationship/

 

Sunder Katwala

Sunder Katwala

December 2023

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