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12 February 2020

UK in a Changing Europe: Do voters want a ‘hard or a ‘soft’ Brexit?

Should Britain seek a ‘hard’ or a ‘soft’ Brexit? That question has hung over the country ever since a majority voted in a referendum to leave the EU. Now it finally has to be answered as the country embarks on the task of negotiating its post-Brexit relationship with the EU.

Participation in the single market implies a willingness to accept that EU companies can sell their goods and services in Britain just as easily as those companies that are based here. This is a requirement to which few in Britain object in principle.

Throughout the Brexit process, never have less than 86% said they were in favour of ‘allowing companies based in the EU to sell goods and services freely in Britain in return for allowing British companies to sell goods and services freely in the EU’.

True, this sentiment appears less strong when voters are asked directly whether Britain should have the ability to set tariffs on goods coming into the country from the EU. Even so, never have more than 28% said that they were in favour of ‘allowing Britain to put a tax on goods imported from the EU, while allowing the EU to put a tax on goods imported from Britain’. Between 41% and 49% have indicated that they are against. Even among those who voted Leave the proportion in favour has never been more than 37%.

However, the EU will not allow the UK to participate fully in the single market unless it both adheres to the regulatory requirements of the market and allows the free movement of labour. Indeed, that is why the country faces a potential choice between a ‘soft’ and a ‘hard’ Brexit.

In many respects, voters in the UK appear to be in favour of maintaining alignment with EU rules – and perhaps especially so where they might be thought to benefit as consumers.

Our surveys have, for example, repeatedly found that over 70% are in favour of requiring ‘mobile phone companies to follow EU regulations that limit what they can charge for calls made abroad’.

Meanwhile, the proportion in favour of requiring ‘British-owned airlines to follow EU rules that require them to pay compensation to passengers who have been seriously delayed’, already at two-thirds in the autumn of 2016, now stands at nearly four-fifths (78%).

More broadly, it is far from clear that voters necessarily want Brexit to herald a markedly less heavily regulated consumer market. Around three in four are ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ against the sale in Britain of chlorinated chicken, while even more are opposed to hormone treated beef.

Both are products that are currently banned in the EU but not in the US, and which Britain could now decide to allow too. Similarly, on another issue where the EU has taken a less permissive outlook, rather more than half are still opposed to either the growth or the sale of GM foods in Britain.

Moreover, Leave voters largely share this outlook. For example, around two-thirds (65%) think that mobile phone companies should have to follow EU rules on the cost of calls, while 70% are against the sale of chlorinated chicken. All in all, there does not appear to be a widespread wish that post-Brexit Britain should necessarily diverge sharply from the regulatory regime of the EU. [...]

Voters also seem to accept the corollary of ending freedom of movement, that is, that British citizens should no longer necessarily have the right to settle in the EU – just under two-thirds (63%) express that view. Meanwhile, around two in five voters (38%), including nearly a half of those who voted Leave (46%) expect leaving the EU to result in a reduction in immigration to Britain.

So, while voters in Britain might be willing to maintain free trade with the EU and might not necessarily be concerned to see significant regulatory divergence, they are still reluctant to embrace the freedom of movement provisions of the EU. [...]

Full results on UK in a Changing Europe blog

© UK in a Changing Europe

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