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Why are the British so anti-EU? Or are we just indifferent?

Posted on 20 June 2003

Most people are indifferent or undecided about Europe rather than pro or anti. Men are more pro-Europe than women. And the media appears to heavily influence people's attitudes towards Europe.

These are some of the findings of the first research of ordinary people's attitudes to Europe and the EU. The research was undertaken by Politics students at the University of York.

Sixty students were tasked to find out why the British were anti-Europe in the lead-up to the Chancellor's statement on 'joining the euro' and the publication of the draft EU constitution. Working in small teams, they tested explanations on nearly a thousand residents of York and the seven local MEPs.

Their findings are announced on the eve of the Thessaloniki summit of heads of EU states and governments that will decide the future framework of the EU.

From existing published sources, the students pin-pointed the following potential explanations for anti-EU attitudes:

  • The influence of the news media
  • The apparent lack of trustworthy information from other sources
  • Britain's 'history' as a world-wide, imperial power with a 'special relationship' with the United States
  • Social, economic and cultural differences within Britain
  • The lack of accountability of EU institutions and the low status of politicians, political parties and institutions in Britain
  • Globalisation

They found that, on the whole, the people of York shared these sentiments. But attitudes to the EU were highly complex and multi-layered. They found that:

Feelings about the EU and the Euro
  • Most people opposed joining the euro, but only a minority were opposed to the EU.
  • Men were more pro-EU than women.
  • One sample showed that, while a 33% of interviewees were pro-EU and 27% anti-EU, 39% were undecided or indifferent.
Lack of information
  • Attitudes and opinions were not 'deep-set' and had changed over the years, so the role of information sources - news media, commentators and secondary education - was critical
  • 50% said that their views might change if they received more information. Most admitted that their knowledge of various facets of the EU was low although they were better aware of the euro-currency. 75% could not name any of their MEPs
  • 80% reported that the Government was giving out 'mixed messages' on the EU and 91% gave this as the reason for public disillusionment
Influence of the media
  • There was a very strong association between the newspapers that people read, incomes and their attitudes towards the EU
  • While the readers of the broadsheets were more highly-educated and more pro-EU, they were outnumbered by readers of the tabloids who were more 'Euro-sceptic'
  • Readers of the Guardian (66%), Independent and Mirror were more pro-EU whilst readers of the Telegraph, Mail and Sun (90%) were more anti-EU
  • Overall, 78% of the people described press reports of the EU as 'negative'. But the causal link between newspapers and their readers' attitudes to the EU was uncertain. Whilst most people shared the 'editorial line', they were not sure whether they bought a newspaper because they shared its views or it shared their views.
  • Most looked to the TV and radio for their main source of news, but their attitudes towards the EU and other attitudes appeared more associated with - if not influenced by - their choice of newspaper
  • One MEP interviewed stated that the news media was guilty of 'feeding negative stereotypes to the public' while another argued that most so-called 'well-known facts about the EU' (e.g., 'straight bananas') were 'urban myths'.
Attitude to other countries and nationalities
  • There was very little outright hostility expressed towards other EU citizens (although many did express hostility towards 'asylum-seekers')
  • Many attributed their reported greater closeness to the US to the shared English-language and associated shared popular culture of music, film and TV
  • People who holidayed or worked in Continental Europe were generally more pro-EU. But experience of using the euro had not been critical: personal convenience was seen by most as less important than the impact of joining the euro on the British economy.

The overall conclusions were expressed by nineteen-year-old student, Emma Blakey from Oxford (who has joint British/French nationality and who will chair the press conference):

"What is clear from this survey - if York residents are indeed representative of British people - is that the public on the whole has no deep-seated hostility or affection for the European Union.

"Most say they don't know or don't care. Instead our attitudes are more affected by circumstances and what are seen as the costs and benefits to the nation as a whole - rather than individuals - of EU membership.

"These 'circumstances' are a mix of personal experience and news media accounts. Overall, public opinion towards the EU is highly influenceable. The role of the press - especially the tabloids - is critical.

"At the end of the day, the real outcome for Britain of the weekend's summit in Thessaloniki will be determined on the printing fields of Wapping - unless much more information is made available by other sources for scrutiny and debate. Informed consent is essential to enduring EU integration."

Contact details

David Garner
Senior Press Officer

Tel: +44 (0)1904 322153