Is Britain sleepwalking towards a European exit?
An Observer poll conducted in four countries reveals the widening gulf between Britain and the rest of the EU. And on both sides of the Channel, attitudes seem to be hardening.
Slowly but surely, Britain is detaching itself from the European project, slipping into an EU membership category of its own, one marked “outlier nation”. That, at least, was the impression left by statements emanating from a European Union summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, on Friday, where the UK’s reputation as the club’s most awkward and unhappy member was underlined yet again.
It is also the clear lesson from a landmark four-nation poll of attitudes to Europe carried out by Opinium in the UK, Germany, France and Poland and published by the Observer.
The survey shows not only that British people regard the EU much more negatively than do citizens of other countries, but also that the citizens of other EU nations think Britain brings few benefits to the union. As a result, more people on the continent seem happy to see us leave than seem keen for us stay. That, in itself, should worry pro-Europeans profoundly.
Exchanges at the Vilnius summit gave glimpses of the current state of relations between Britain and its partners. The so-called Visegrád Four – Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – posed as the true Europeans as they tore into David Cameron in a statement, reacting to his calls for tougher rules to prevent mass migration within the EU.
The four insisted that eastern Europeans, rather than being a drain on the UK economy and scrounging from the British benefits system, were in fact harder workers and more productive than many Britons. “They are younger and economically more active than the average British workforce; they also contribute to UK national revenues far in excess of the social benefits they use,” they said. They also accused Cameron of adopting a selective approach to core EU principles, such as freedom of movement across borders.
Separately, Romania’s prime minister, Victor Ponta, reacted to Cameron’s pledge of tough new welfare rules for EU migrants, including those expected to arrive in Britain from his country from 1 January, by saying: “We will not accept being treated as second-rate citizens.” Britain has always been involved in rows in Europe, but now such talk is more commonplace. Earlier this year, France’s foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, adopted a lofty Gallic tone towards Cameron and Britain. “You can’t do Europe à la carte,” he said. “I’ll take an example which our British friends will understand: let’s imagine Europe is a football club and you join, but once you’re in it you can’t say ‘let’s play rugby’.”
Fabius spoke out after the prime minister pledged that if the Tories won a majority in 2015, he would seek to re-define the terms of UK membership and then hold an in/out referendum in which the people would be asked to approve or reject membership on the new terms, by the end of 2017.
For France and Germany, whatever their differences over the future of the EU – and there have always been many – the political consensus about Europe has held firm between them for well over 60 years. From the founding fathers, who formed the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, insisting that the pooling of resources would “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible”, to the former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who described the EU as “a matter of war and peace in the 21st century”, to Angela Merkel today, European integration has remained not just an economic cause for the mutual benefit of neighbour nations, but an underlying moral imperative. New members in eastern Europe such as Poland have their concerns, but are broadly very content to be inside.
With the UK it is different. We have always been suspicious but now we seem borderline hostile, and the feeling is mutual. The survey of more than 2,000 people in the UK and over 1,000 in each of Germany, France and Poland, shows a clear parting of the ways. Just 26% of Britons think the EU is, overall, a “good thing” compared with 62% of Poles, 55% of Germans and 36% of French.
Accompanying this anti-EU feeling is an ingrained cultural resistance to the European ideal and the very idea of being European. Just 14% of UK people polled say they regard themselves as European, compared with 48% of Poles, 39% of Germans and 34% of French. Whereas most people in Germany, France and Poland name a fellow European country as their closest ally, the British name fellow English-speaking nations: 33% named the US, 31% Australia and 23% Canada.
Equally striking, in the context of Cameron’s attempts to negotiate a new deal for the UK, attitudes to British membership are pretty negative among our partners, who will have to sign off on any future special terms of membership we may want to agree. When asked whether the UK is a positive force in the EU, just 9% of Germans, 15% of French and 33% of Poles say it is. Opposition to giving the UK special membership terms is strongest in Germany, where 44% are against and 16% in favour, with 26% of the French in favour and 36% against. In Poland there is more support, with 38% in favour and 23% against.
Even the prospect of the UK leaving the EU – an outcome that would destabilise the community profoundly – does not seem to worry most German or French people too much. Ever-closer union can live on without the UK. Just 24% of French respondents say a British exit would have a negative effect on the EU, compared with 36% of Germans. Poles were more concerned, with 51% saying the effect would be negative.
The picture is not one of uniform enthusiasm for the EU in the other three countries, and blanket hostility towards the EU in the UK. The polling shows very high levels of concern about the EU’s effect on immigration among French and German citizens, as well as among the British: 64% of British people say they regard the EU as having a negative impact on immigration, with 59% of French people and 42% of Germans saying the same. Only 20% of Poles regard the effect on immigration as negative.
And when it comes to the ability to travel easily to other EU nations, even the British are strongly in favour, with 56% saying it is positive and 6% taking a negative view.
On the EU’s role in environmental policy, opinion in the UK is quite evenly split, with 34% viewing it positively and 30% saying it is negative. On foreign policy, 22% of Britons are in favour of what the EU does, while 35% are negative.
The gulf between British and German views about Europe’s role is demonstrated, perhaps most starkly of all, by the findings on foreign policy: 49% of Germans regard the EU’s involvement in foreign affairs as a good thing, against just 10% who are against.
As the UK prepares to admit Romanians and Bulgarians to work and live here from January 1, before European elections next May in which the anti-EU Ukip party is expected to perform strongly, it is difficult to see how the pro-European argument will be able, easily, to break through in the months to come. All three mainstream parties are terrified of Ukip, and aware of the state of public opinion. Next September’s referendum on whether the people of Scotland want to stay in the United Kingdom will further test the depth of separatist tendencies. Then will come a general election campaign in which the main parties, again, will have one eye on Nigel Farage’s party when drawing up their manifestos. Pro-EU campaign statements will be in short supply.
Last week, the former Tory prime minister Sir John Major said it would be a “truly dreadful outcome for everyone” if Britain were ever to leave the EU.
With opinion as it is, here and in other EU countries, it is also an outcome that now seems entirely possible.