Early last year, David Cameron proposed a new policy on the UK’s membership of the European Union, in which he would renegotiate a new settlement with his fellow European leaders and put the result to the British people in an in/out referendum, should his party emerge victorious at next year’s General Election. In an interview with Democratic Audit’s Sean Kippin, polling expert John Curtice discusses the possible ramifications of this strategy in terms of British public opinion.

In terms of UKIP’s success at the recent European Parliament elections and the possibility of a referendum being held on the UK’s membership of the European Union, have we seen a growth in new Eurosceptic sentiment or is it simply a spike in existing Eurosceptic feeling?

We have to distinguish time periods here. The only time when the European Union was a popular institution in the UK was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This was a time when the Labour Party had reversed its opposition to European integration, largely as a result of the ability of the then President of the European Commission Jacques Delors to persuade the Trades Union Congress to back the European project. He made the case that while the UK had a ‘nasty right-wing government’ under Thatcher and John Major, Europe offered the possibility to implement all kinds of social market legislation.

Yet this was also the period before the Tories had fully embraced Euroscepticism. So we had this brief point where both parties, together with the Liberal Democrats, were pro-European, and where Europe was beginning to grow quite nicely and look like an attractive proposition. However the moment the Tories began their journey toward Euroscepticism the European Union gradually returned to being a largely unpopular institution. So in the long run since the 1990s we’ve been on a journey toward very considerable Euroscepticism.

Where is public opinion on the UK’s EU membership now, in the context of David Cameron’s proposed renegotiation and in/out referendum plan?

When you start asking citizens more detailed questions beyond simply whether they want to leave or stay in the EU, you find that the modal voter basically adopts a position along the lines of ‘I suppose we should stay in, but could Brussels please boss us around rather less’. We therefore reach a paradox because if you look at the short-term dynamics of attitudes toward Europe, the more critical our mainstream politicians have been of Europe, the more people have been willing to say that they’d vote to stay in the EU.

So Cameron’s speech in January 2013, in which he offered an ‘in/out’ referendum following a renegotiation, actually saw support for staying in the European Union increase. It later settled back down again, but it didn’t return to as large a gap in favour of leaving as we had before. The second period, which is the most paradoxical of all, is over the last few months when UKIP’s popularity took off during the European Parliament election campaign. This led to all of the major parties, including the Liberal Democrats, adopting a more critical stance toward Europe and we actually reached a point at which a majority in the UK started to say that they’d prefer to stay in the EU.

Almost undoubtedly if we have a referendum in which Cameron has indeed come back from a negotiation with a piece of paper saying Brussels aren’t going to boss us around quite so much anymore then the ‘stay in’ side would win. The thing you really have to watch is not a Conservative inspired referendum, but a situation in which the Labour Party are forced into holding one. Labour are desperate to avoid making a promise in that context, although they have agreed to keep the legislation on holding a referendum should there be future treaty change.

The problem that they would face is of course that if the Tories were out of office they’d almost certainly become more Eurosceptic and if Ed Miliband came back with a piece of paper from Brussels the Tories would be more inclined to campaign to leave. That would be a much more difficult referendum for the pro-EU side to win because it might be an unpopular Labour government fighting a referendum it doesn’t want to fight against a hostile opposition.

As so often in British politics it sometimes requires the Tories to deliver Whig policies. It’s perfectly clear that Cameron does not have a great deal of love for the EU, but he reckons that when push comes to shove we have to be in there. He’s been explicit about the fact that he wants to make a deal and campaign to stay in and under those circumstances the referendum would undoubtedly be successful.

Is there a danger that voters aren’t particularly clear on what they would be voting on in an EU referendum? For instance, we have seen some confusion in the past over the public’s understanding of free movement rights.

The truth is that public opinion is not consistent. If you look at some of the research that’s been done for Chatham House on attitudes toward Europe, you find that when you ask people what they dislike most about Europe they say freedom of movement. Yet if you ask what people most like about Europe they say the fact that they can go off and live in another European country! Meanwhile some of the most Eurosceptic newspapers in the UK sell lots of copies to expats living in France and Spain whose right to live in these countries derives from the fact that we’re members of the European Union.

Public opinion is not required to be consistent, but the key problem the Tories might face if they were ever to fight a referendum on an anti-EU stance is the response from the business community. Although big business doesn’t like some of the regulation that comes from Brussels, they still regard the advantages of the single market as outweighing the price of regulation. So they will applaud any Conservative prime minister who attempts to reduce the cost of regulation, but they will not wish to do that at the price of putting the UK’s membership of the EU at risk.

Note: This article gives the views of the interviewee, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. 

About the Interviewee

John Curtice – University of Strathclyde
John Curtice is Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator at whatscotlandthinks.org, an ESRC funded website that offers a comprehensive collection of easily searchable data on attitudes towards Scotland’s constitutional future. For more information via Twitter see @whatscotsthink

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