What would happen in an EU referendum?

The front page of today’s Sunday Express claims that 75% want Britain to quit the EU now. This is pure nonsense.

As described on Tabloid Watch, to get to their 75% figure, the Express have added together the proportion who say they’d leave (28%), with the much larger proportion who say they’d vote to renegotiate membership (47%).

But putting this dodgy reporting aside, we’re left with the timely question of what the UK does think of EU membership, and how any referendum would fall out.

Fortunately, we’ve had plenty of polls that can answer this, and which lately have had a good level of consistency.

Starting with a straight up ‘should I stay or should I go’ question, polls over the last few months give us about 3 in 10 wanting to stay, and about half wanting to leave. An August YouGov poll was typical:

But break this down further, and the desire to leave becomes less clear.

Given various options for different kinds of membership, the split works as roughly (depending on the question wording) 3 in 10 wanting to leave, 4 in 10 wanting a less integrated EU, and 2 in 10 wanting the status quo or more integration. Today’s YouGov poll for the Sunday Times is representative of this.

This roughly matches the terms of the referendum that would be called if the Westminster motion passes this week (though of course it won’t).

The question of whether or not it should go through and use up parliamentary (and public) time is an important one too. Anthony Wells has blogged on it here, with the conclusion that it’s a relatively low priority at the moment.

But even if the motion did go through, this isn’t to say that ‘renegotiate terms’ would necessarily romp home. Three factors are worth bearing in mind:

1) Public opinion can change dramatically on single issues subject to popular vote. The earliest polls on the AV electoral system, about a year before the referendum, gave ‘Yes’ a lead of as much as 26 points over ‘No’ (59-32 at the peak). The final vote was 68% no to 32% yes: a shift of 62 points.

2) Attitudes to the EU have themselves shifted in the last few years. In 2000, Ipsos Mori found that in an ‘in or out’ EU referendum, 46% would leave, and 43% would stay: a tie within the margin of error, and much closer than we have now. In the same blog, Anthony Wells also pointed out “Before the [1975 referendum] campaign started polls showed a majority in favour of withdrawal, eventually people voted 2-1 in favour of staying in – so don’t assume that because polls currently suggest people would vote to leave that they actually would in practice”.

3) A referendum campaign would tell people a lot about the EU that they don’t already know. Like the AV campaign, it’s a topic where people are currently under informed. An interesting Eurobarometer poll shows that only 18% say they know ‘a great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ about the EU, its policies and institutions.

The same poll shows that people have a sense that EU membership does provide benefits like improved working conditions (+16), consumer benefits (+47), and regulated financial markets (+28). Since these messages have a basic credibility, it is plausible that a pro-EU campaign could draw on them to argue about what would be lost with reduced EU membership.

So, despite the Express’ far-fetched claim, there’s not an overwhelming clamour for Britain to leave the EU. And while the polls point to renegotiation as the current leader, its victory wouldn’t be inevitable.

  1. […] recently as October, no more than 3 in 10 said they would vote for Britain to stay in the EU. Since then several polls […]