The EU is more unpopular in Britain than it has been at any time in the last 20 years, according to the annual British attitudes survey.
Produced by NatCen Social Research, the report, released on Thursday (26 March), says 63% of Britons are Eurosceptic, an attitude defined as wanting to leave, or reduce the powers of the EU.
Over a third of those surveyed want to leave the EU outright, more than at any time since 1985.
Despite a growth in Eurosceptic sentiment, the majority of the public still want to stay in the EU. But there is growing support for reducing the powers exercised by Brussels, said the report.
When asked a straight choice between withdrawing from the EU and remaining a member, 57% said they wanted to stay in, with 35% wanting to leave.
Presented with a range of options, rather than simply in or out, the percentage who wished to leave dropped to 24%. 38% wanted to stay in the EU, but to reduce its powers.
No marked rise in Euroscepticism
The NatCen British Social Attitudes Report is produced every year. It charts shifting public opinion to political, cultural and economic developments. This is the 32nd such report.
Politically, the last five years have been marked by the rise of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the announcement of a proposed referendum on EU membership by the Conservatives.
Despite this, the survey suggests there hasn’t been a marked increase in levels of Euroscepticism since 2005.
The last big sea change in public opinion came in 1996 after the decision by the EU to ban exports of British beef over fears about BSE, or mad cow disease.
Prior to this, no more than a quarter of the public were defined as Eurosceptic. Since the ban, over half the UK public has polled as Eurosceptic.
The 2015 survey showed only 15% of British citizens identify themselves as European. This has remained relatively consistent since 1996, when the survey first begun asking the question.
Of those who identify themselves as European, 7% want to leave the EU, although many remain critical of the institutions. 43% who feel European said they want the EU’s powers reduced.
Support for a British exit from the EU has grown primarily in the sector of the population who do not regard themselves as European, and currently stands at 40%.
Do we benefit?
Most people (42%) don’t think stronger ties with the EU would make a difference to the UK economy.
However, more people think stronger links would benefit the economy (35%) than think it would weaken it (17%).
These results show a stronger support for the economic benefits of the EU than when the question was last asked in 1997, despite the effect of the eurozone crisis.
There is no simple explanation for the development of Britain’s more Eurosceptic mood. The majority of Britons do not think membership of the EU makes a difference to the UK’s influence on the world stage.
On the issue of internal EU migration, 41% said the costs outweighed the benefits. Only 17% thought the benefits where at least equal with the cost.
But 69% think it is important for British people to be able to work in other European countries.
The report suggests that many in the UK take their cues on European matters from trusted institutions.
A report published yesterday by the House of Commons EU Select Committee criticised the lack of debates on European issues in Parliament.
The government has responsibility for scheduling what topics will be debated and when they will take place.
The committee has been calling for debates on the free movement of people, the EU budget, and the EU semester for over a year. None have so far taken place. No debates on EU matters have taken place in the Commons in the last nine months.
“The government’s collective failure to schedule so many debates on EU documents over the past year is deplorable, and is a discourtesy to this committee and to all members of the House,” the report said.
The government said it remained committed to “strong EU scrutiny”.
The committee also said the BBC’s coverage of EU matters should be “improved substantially.”
It called for more analysis and said all sides of the European debate needed to be covered more effectively.
Committee chairman Sir William Cash previously told EurActiv he thought that the BBC was in breach of its public service remit and was failing to properly inform the public about EU issues.
The BBC responded that it would be wrong for MPs instruct the BBC on its coverage, which it said was extensive and impartial.
Prime Minister David Cameron promised to offer Britons a simple ‘in-out’ referendum on whether to stay in the European Union if he wins the next election in 2015.
Cameron's referendum pledge, made in a landmark speech in in January 2013, appeared to resonate with public opinion at the time.
An opinion poll conducted in February that year showed 50% of Britons would vote “out” against 33% “in” and 17% who would not vote either way.
But a more recent poll, published in 2014, showed 56% would back staying in the EU, compared with 36% who would choose to leave.
That was the highest level of support for Britain's EU membership since 1991, and showed a switch from 2012, when more people said they wanted to exit the bloc than remain in.
You can read the full British Social Attitudes report here: http://www.bsa.natcen.ac.uk/
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