June 20, 2017

Heading into Brexit talks, Britain is as divided as ever

By Karen Whisler

Negotiations over Brexit began Monday in Brussels, with UK representative David Davis meeting with French foreign minister Michel Barnier to initiate a process towards the goal of Britain’s formal withdraw from the EU by March 2019. However, the road ahead for these talks is far from smooth. Still reeling from a disastrous election last week, Theresa May and her Conservatives are now tasked with formulating a Brexit deal that will be palatable for the public they represent. However, recent polling indicates that the public is increasingly split on what exactly would qualify as an acceptable deal.

After a tumultuous year, the nation that voted for Brexit last summer seems to be suffering from some buyer’s remorse. Just before that fateful decision, a 44 percent minority of people in the UK held a favorable view of the European Union; today that proportion has ticked up to 54 percent. Contrast this with a pessimistic attitude pervading with regards to Britain’s future: a plurality – 48 percent – of citizens now think that the impending Brexit will be bad for the country.

Yet the leader of the nation has been relatively consistent in what she considers the will of the people. For PM May the ideal outcome of the talks would be a “hard Brexit”, or complete separation from the EU customs union and single market. Yet a poll by Survation over the weekend shows that this approach is far from the public’s will. Only one in four Britons surveyed favored leaving the customs union, which would forfeit UK and EU companies’ automatic rights to free trade in the EU and UK, respectively. Even May’s own Tory public is divided on the issue with 45 percent in favor and 44 percent opposed. The tide has instead turned towards a measured approach. A plurality of respondents preferred “soft Brexit” – in the Survation poll, paying a fee to the EU for access to the customs union and maintaining the right to free trade between the two powers. The remaining 25 percent would rather go back on the Brexit decision altogether and remain a part of the EU.

Then there is May’s hardline assertion written into her Conservative Party manifesto: “we continue to believe that no deal is better than a bad deal for the UK.” If the negotiations in Brussels don’t turn out the way she wants, the Prime Minister is ready to simply walk away and leave the EU with no formal terms at all. As for the British people themselves, many believe that call should not be up to her.

The same poll by Survation found that nearly half the country would rather hold a referendum for the public to decide whether to accept the Brexit deal. The breakdown of support for that vote is particularly striking: among Conservatives only a quarter favor such a proposal; for Labour voters it’s more than two-thirds. For 18 to 34 year-olds, referendum support is 55 percent to 34, whereas the numbers are a near-perfect reverse for those 55 and older. As seen in the General Election earlier this month, the UK has become a nation with deep divisions across lines of party and age. These referendum numbers in particular highlight how much Britain’s youth – who turned out in record numbers to vote overwhelmingly for Labour last week –mistrust their nation’s embattled Tory government. If PM May does refuse the terms of the yet-to-be-negotiated agreement, 60 percent of young people have said that they will not accept her judgement.

What about the other side of the negotiation table? If and when the UK does exit the EU, almost 70 percent of Europeans predict the union will be hurt. But overall there’s little chance of a mass exodus from the 23-year-old institution. No nation on the continent has anything close to a majority of people wanting to follow Britain’s lead, and the only population holding a generally negative opinion of the EU is Greece. Further, most agree that any Brexit deal is bound to hurt Britain overall.

For now, Europeans seem to take the stance that they are stronger united, even in the face of economic and immigration woes.



Dina Smeltz joined The Chicago Council on Global Affairs in February 2012 as a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy, and directed the Council’s 2012 survey of American public opinion (see Foreign Policy in the New Millennium).  She has nearly 20 years of experience in designing and fielding international social, political and foreign policy surveys.

As the director of research in the Middle East and South Asia division (2001-2007) and analyst/director of the European division (1992-2004) in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department’s Office of Research, Dina conducted over a hundred surveys in these regions and regularly briefed senior government officials on key research findings. Her experience includes mass public and elite surveys as well as qualitative research.  She has written numerous policy-relevant reports on Arab, Muslim and South Asian regional attitudes toward political, economic, social and foreign policy issues.  Her writing also includes policy briefs and reports on the post-1989 political transitions in Central and Eastern Europe, and European attitudes toward a wide range foreign policy issues including globalization, European integration, immigration, NATO, and European security.

With a special emphasis research in post-conflict situations (informally referred to as a “combat pollster”), Dina has worked with research teams in Bosnia, Kosovo, Cyprus, Israel-Palestinian Territories and in Iraq (2003-2005), where she was one of the few people on the ground who could accurately report average Iraqis impressions of the postwar situation.  In the past three years, Dina has consulted for several NGOs and research organizations on projects spanning women’s development in Afghanistan, civil society in Egypt and evaluating voter education efforts in Iraq.

Dina has an MA from the University of Michigan and a BS from Pennsylvania State University.

Feel free to email Dina with comments or questions at dsmeltz@thechicagocouncil.org


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