How European are the British?

Even Eurosceptics want to live on the continent
April 23, 2014

We know that Britain’s electorate is divided on the European Union, and that Ukip has tapped into a rich vein of EU-phobia. But what about Europe in a broader context—its people, geography, nations and civic life? Are we as wary of them as we are of the phenomenon that signifies so much more than the capital of Belgium: “Brussels”?

The short answer is no. A YouGov survey for Prospect in the lead up to the European Parliament elections finds that most of us would prefer to live on the European mainland if we were sure our living standards would not fall. One reason is that most of us have doubts about our own country. Few of us think we can claim the best public services, friendliest people or—and for many, this is the clincher—the best weather. These things matter more to us than the things we reckon we do better than other EU countries: our democracy and the standard of our policing.

One striking finding is that relatively few people align their views on the EU to their views on “Europe.” For example, opponents of British membership of the EU are just as likely as supporters to say they would like to live on the continent. And there is little difference between the two sides as to which European country has the highest living standards, best public services, finest democracy, best police or friendliest people.

So what does distinguish “in” voters from “out” voters? Our survey finds that those who would vote to remain in the EU are more likely to have close friends or relatives living in Europe. Those with these connections would vote by almost two-to-one in favour of continued EU membership. Those without them would vote narrowly for withdrawal.

The strongest pro-European groups are Scottish voters, Londoners, the middle classes and those under 30—along with Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters. Opponents tend to be older and more working class as well as Conservatives or, overwhelmingly, Ukip supporters—the only surprise there is that 4 per cent of Ukip supporters say they would vote to stay in the EU).

One intriguing discovery is that Ukip supporters are less likely than voters generally to say that Britain has the best public services, finest democracy and friendliest people—while non-Ukip opponents of EU membership tend to give Britain higher marks than the average on all these points.

Our results confirm other YouGov research which suggests that Ukip’s main appeal is not driven by the EU as such, but by a fear that Britain has gone off the rails. Hence the fact that 57 per cent of Ukip supporters would prefer to migrate to mainland Europe if they could.

Then there’s the climate. The most popular destination for our hypothetical exodus is Spain—a country that hardly any of us rate for its economic strength, public services, police, political system or friendliness. Yet the countries we rate highly for living standards and public services—Sweden and Germany—are ones where few of us wish to live.

In short, the attraction of life across the Channel has little to do with the kinds of things that politicians everywhere fret so much about. Sunshine trumps all.