David Cameron will give his much anticipated speech on Europe tomorrow (hopefully). To say it has been well-trailed is a huge understatement: it could still hold some surprises, but at its core the PM is likely to say that he would like Britain to remain a key part of the European Union, but with some powers repatriated.
There are many legitimate questions over whether this is a feasible policy, the implications for our position in Europe, and whether it is smart politics to focus so much attention on an issue that is divisive in his party and such a low priority for the public. As our latest Issues Index shows, Europe ranks 15th in the most important issues facing the country, mentioned by just 6% of people.
But having said that, looked at in isolation, it is fairly clear that the Prime Minister’s (anticipated) view is in line with public opinion. The chart above shows that the single most popular option for the population as a whole is to stay in but reduce Europe’s powers, and has been for some time. The next most popular is to leave our relationship as it is, and the next after that is to leave altogether.
The question asked in the British Social Attitudes (BSA) study is a useful one, as it gives more options than straight in/out. Frustratingly, the data stops in 2008, before the full impact of the Euro crisis, and more recent effects from discussion of our place in Europe.
However our own and other pollsters’ more recent polling shows a consistent pattern since then: greater scepticism in the last few years, with that softening slightly in more recent months.
We are probably therefore, not a long way from the picture above – if anything, opinion is more sceptical and certainly the generational differences will have changed little (the age breakdown in our recent polling follows a similar pattern).
The BSA and our own even longer-term trends show that we have not always seen a static picture of stout British Euroscepticism. Ipsos MORI data shows Britons were most sceptical about the EU in the late 70s and early 80s and then swung back the other way in the late 80s and early 90s.
Euroscepticism rose again in the mid-1990s, which has been explained by a culmination of effects from the Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis of 1992, an increasingly negative and divisive political discourse, reactions in Europe to the BSE crisis, and the increasing focus on monetary union, which Britons were never positive about. 1
But the key interest for us here is how the generational patterns are shifting within these overall trends.
First of all, there is a clear generational pattern – older generations are more in favour of leaving than each subsequent younger generation, as the chart below shows.
The differences are not huge, but the pattern is clear.
Secondly, the three older generations are all more likely to say they want to leave the EU than 15 years ago, although this is more marked for the pre-war and baby boomer generations.
There is a bigger difference between the generations over reducing the EU’s power (seen in the chart below), with the pre-war and baby boomer generations significantly more in favour of this option. Indeed, baby boomers are closer to the pre-war generation and further away from younger generations on this issue than we see on most other questions.
Generation Y stand out on the chart above as particularly unlikely to want to reduce European powers. But it would be wrong to conclude from this that there is a younger generation in Britain who are particularly pushing for an increased role for the EU.
The trends also show that views on Europe do change quite markedly at key points: a long in/out campaign could have a significant impact on opinion across all generations.
In fact, there is not much difference between any generations when looking at those who want an increase in the EU’s powers, as you can see in the chart below. The difference is made up by younger generations being more likely to say leave things as they are.
As with the population as a whole, this may just reflect that the EU is not something generation Y have given a great deal of thought to.
One of the key unknowns from David Cameron’s speech is what he is going to say about a referendum on Europe. The data seen here suggests that if he can square the circle and negotiate a deal that keeps Britain as a core member of the EU while clawing back some powers, it is difficult to see much appetite for quitting the EU. But the trends also show that views on Europe do change quite markedly at key points: a long in/out campaign could have a significant impact on opinion across all generations.