9 December 2023

British public supports closer UK relationship with EU – new research

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How do people in the UK feel about our relationship with Europe today and in the future? Are there issues and areas where people would like closer cooperation? And do we have a shared sense of values or identity? New research by British Future finds out.

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The British public values the UK’s relationship with the European Union more highly than that with the US or Commonwealth nations, and a majority would like a closer relationship with the EU, according to new research.

Research conducted by British Future for the report ‘Beyond Brexit: Public perspectives on the future UK-EU relationship,’ finds that 52% of the public would like the UK to have a closer relationship with the EU. Just 12% said that they would prefer a more distant relationship and 27% would keep the status quo.

Asked which relationship was most important for peace, stability and prosperity, almost half of respondents (48%) ranked the EU first, above the US (27%) and Commonwealth (25%).

People support greater UK-EU collaboration most strongly on counter-terrorism (68%) but also on trade (61%), and science/research co-operation (61%). Six in ten (61%) also support closer collaboration on migration for work and study. Majorities support closer collaboration on defence, customs, international health and climate change.

Labour supporters are strongly in favour of closer ties with Europe, with two-thirds (68%) saying they would like a closer relationship with the EU. The research suggests that should Keir Starmer win the next general election, his government would have political space to expand practical cooperation with Europe.

The public is keen, however, not to re-open Brexit divisions and disputes. Six in ten (59%) say they would welcome a less heated debate about the UK’s future relationship with the EU in our politics and our society. Majorities of Conservatives (61%) and Labour supporters (68%) favour this aim, as well as both Remainers (76%) and Leavers (56%).

Support for closer collaboration with Europe was driven by pragmatism rather than shared values or identity, the research finds. Less than one in ten people in Britain (9%) identifies as European, with this figure falling even lower among ethnic minorities. Those who do identify as European seldom see it as their primary identity. Research into whether there are shared UK and EU values found little awareness or agreement on what such values are and whether they are uniquely ‘British’ or ‘European’.

Heather Rolfe, Research Director for British Future and co-author of the report, said:

“There is clearly pragmatic support among the public in Britain for closer cooperation with our neighbours in the EU. But people here do not feel European and shared interests – in tackling terrorism or climate change, for example – resonate much more with people than the idea of shared values.

“A new government would have political space to open up new conversations with Europe about closer collaboration on a wide range of issues. But that needs to be done gradually and with a focus on practical cooperation. Few people are interested right now in reigniting the polarising arguments of the Brexit debate.”

Sunder Katwala, Director of British Future, said:

“These findings show why there was little fuss over Rishi Sunak increasing cooperation with the EU on the Windsor framework and the Horizon scheme for science. A new government could try to go further.

“Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have talked about resetting the relationship with the EU. The public will give them space and permission for increasing pragmatic cooperation – though it remains unclear how much appetite there is for this in Brussels.

“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.”

The survey also asked people for their opinion now about the decision to leave the European Union: 49% of respondents said it was wrong to leave, 36% right to leave and 15% did not know.

The research comprised a nationally representative survey as well as a series of discussion groups with people in London, Peterborough and Stockport.

Read the ‘Beyond Brexit’ report here