Researchers engaged with people across the East of England and found anxiety and resentment, as well as a broad consensus that the UK should remain in the single market. 

Remodelling the UK’s relationship along lines similar to the EEA was frequently described as a ‘rebalancing’ rather than pulling up the drawbridge to the world

Catherine Barnard

A new report on public attitudes to the future EU-UK relationship reveals a “striking degree of consensus” that full Single Market access should be retained, while skilled EU migrants – those with a job to come to – should be given entry to the UK labour market in return.

Professor Catherine Barnard and Dr Amy Ludlow, from Cambridge’s Faculty of Law, spent early 2017 canvassing opinion from hundreds of people across the East of England through a series of debates and workshops in schools, community centres and even a prison, as well as gathering views in streets and town squares.

This fieldwork was conducted in locations ranging from the strongly pro-Brexit, including the Lincolnshire town of Boston where the highest Leave vote (75%) was recorded, to Remain strongholds such as the city of Cambridge itself, which voted 73.8% to stay.

The researchers found that when the public were asked to indicate preferences on the big issues of Brexit, many participants wanted full Single Market access with no free movement or payment to the EU – the position commonly associated with Boris Johnson’s claim that the UK can ‘have its cake and eat it’, something which the EU rejects.

However, when people were presented with current viable options – EU membership, European Economic Area (EEA), Customs Union and ‘hard Brexit’ (i.e. non-membership of the Single Market) – they recognised the need for compromise, and reached an overall consensus that a deal closer to the EEA ‘Norway model’ might be best, at least in the short term.    

“The European Economic Area option was consistently seen by Leave and Remain voters alike to be an acceptable compromise that allows limits to freedom of movement and reduces the UK’s financial contribution to the EU. People wanted full access to trade in goods and services with the EU,” said Barnard. 

“Remodelling the UK’s relationship along lines similar to the EEA was frequently described as a ‘rebalancing’ rather than pulling up the drawbridge to the world. There was an almost universal desire among the study’s participants for EU citizens who are economically active or want to study in the UK to be able to continue to come.”

The report, produced as part of the UK in a Changing Europe (UKCE) programme, of which Barnard is a Senior Fellow, also highlights the anger and disappointment people still hold at the conduct of politicians and the media during the referendum campaign.

People on both sides of the debate expressed regret about the sense of division caused by Brexit. Some also reported feeling “embarrassed or awkward” in their relationships with EU nationals. There was also significant anxiety among participants about what might come next, with some describing an “eerie quietness… like the calm before the storm”.

“We found anxiety, but also resentment,” said Barnard. “Many young people, including those in prominent Leave-voting areas, expressed anger at the referendum, and a result they felt they would be living with for the rest of their lives.”    

The researchers also found a serious, often fundamental, lack of knowledge about the EU. Many people struggled to articulate specific examples of the EU’s impact on their lives beyond infamous ‘euromyths’ such as the banning of bendy bananas. Many said they didn’t understand what they were voting for.

The most commonly cited example of a positive EU impact was no mobile phone roaming charges. Some young people also mentioned the arrival of high-street brands such as Spanish company Zara.

In general, however, Barnard and Ludlow found that it was easier for people who voted Leave to provide examples of how they felt the EU had interfered too much than it was for Remain voters to give concrete examples of the EU’s benefit.    

Amy Ludlow said: “A key reason many people gave for voting Remain was inertia, that they saw no good reason to change the status quo. Leave voters could more often give a range of reasons for their vote: from immigration and a perceived erosion of British identity to the promise of additional healthcare funding.”    

The findings will be presented at a public event at Michaelhouse Café in Cambridge on 22 May, where Professor Anand Menon, Director of UKCE, and Dr Angus Armstrong of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, will join Barnard and Ludlow to talk about ‘Brexit, Boston and migration’

Unravelling and reimagining the UK’s relationship with the EU: Public engagement about Brexit in the East of England

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