Paper summary: How deeply does Britain’s Euroscepticism run?

This is a pre-release from our 33rd report, published in June 2016.

What lies behind our attitudes towards Europe? This paper addresses this question using
newly published data from the latest British Social Attitudes survey. It reveals that while
scepticism about the EU and a wish to curb its powers are widespread, reflecting not least
a concern about the cultural consequences of EU membership, this does not necessarily
translate into support for leaving the EU. For that to happen voters also need to be convinced
of the economic benefits of exiting.

Key findings

  • While 65% are sceptical about the EU, and want it to have less power, only 30% support Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
  • Nearly half agree that being a member of the EU is ‘undermining Britain’s distinctive identity’ but only around a quarter think Britain’s economy would be better off if we left the EU.
  • Amongst those who do think Britain’s economy would be better off if we left the EU, 72% support withdrawing. In contrast, amongst those who believe the economy would be worse off, just 6% support leaving.


The UK is in the midst of an important process. The UK government has been renegotiating aspects of Britain’s terms of membership of the European Union (EU) with a view to putting those revised terms to a referendum vote in which people will be invited to choose between remaining in the EU or leaving. A wide range of issues have been discussed during the course of this process so far, including the impact of EU membership on migration, Britain’s economy, the country’s welfare bill, and the sovereignty and security of the UK. But which of these issues is likely to matter most when people come to decide whether to vote to Remain or to Leave? What changes would people like to see made to the way in which the EU works? And how does the overall mood towards Britain’s membership now compare with that in previous years – does the fact that a referendum is being held at all reflect an unparalleled level of scepticism about the institution and the way in which it works?

These are the questions addressed in this paper, the fifth in an occasional series being published by the website in the run up to the referendum. It analyses the responses to a suite of questions that were included on the 2015 British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey, an annual survey that typically interviews a random sample of around 3,000 people face to face (Ormston and Curtice, 2015).1 Unlike opinion polls, this survey is not conducted in just a few days but rather over an extended period of months, in this case between July and the beginning of November last year. The advantage of this extended approach, together with the use of random sampling, is that it is more likely to secure a representative sample. As we have shown elsewhere (Curtice, 2016a) the reported general election voting behaviour of those who responded to the 2015 survey is reasonably close to the actual election result. This suggests that the views of those who participated in the survey on other political subjects, such as Europe, are also likely to be representative of the country as a whole.

However, the length of the period over which the survey was conducted means that it cannot tell us how the public have responded to the latest twists and turns in the renegotiations or the wider referendum debate. Indeed, the survey was designed and interviewing began well before the Electoral Commission had published its recommendation as to the question that should appear on the ballot paper (Electoral Commission, 2015). On the other hand the survey asked about far more than whether people want to be in or out of the EU. In particular, it is to date the only survey to have ascertained both what people think are the instrumental, economic consequences of being in or out of the EU and what they consider to be the cultural consequences of membership and the implications for immigration (Curtice, 2016b). It thus gives us a unique ability to ascertain the likely relative importance and role that these two key strands play in the Europe debate, and the role that they are likely to play in voters’ minds as they decide which way to cast their vote.

We begin by looking at our overall attitude towards the EU, and how this has changed during the course of the last 30 years. After that we assess the extent to which people would like to see the EU’s remit changed and reformed. We then turn to what voters consider to be the consequences of being in or leaving the EU before finally examining how these perceptions shape people’s overall stance towards the EU.x

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