Almost twice as many UK voters now believe a close relationship with the EU is more important for peace, prosperity and security than ties with the US, according to a major new study of post-Brexit attitudes.
The report, based on extensive polling and discussion groups with people of all Brexit persuasions, finds that attitudes towards the EU are becoming more favourable across a range of policy areas, and that the entire Brexit debate is now far less toxic and more pragmatic.
This, its authors say, will give a potential Labour government “space and permission” to work towards closer links, particularly on issues of trade, security and defence, where a clear majority of the public is now in favour. The report by the independent thinktank British Future found that 52% of the public would now like the UK to have a closer relationship with the EU, with only 12% saying it should have a more distant one, and 27% in favour of maintaining the status quo.
Asked which relationship they regarded as most important for peace, prosperity and stability, almost half of respondents (48%) ranked the EU first, above the US (27%) and the Commonwealth (25%).
As evidence grows of the economic damage done to the UK by Brexit, the poll found 61% of people now favour closer cooperation over both trade and science and research with the EU. Some 68% back closer cooperation over crime and terrorism, 57% on customs arrangements and 57% on international health.
The report notes that UK attitudes have “shifted significantly against” leaving. From discussion groups it identified “a sense of public exhaustion with the issue of Brexit” with most people “keen to put the divisions of previous years behind them”.
While there was little evidence to suggest that people in this country felt European, or regarded themselves as sharing European values, they were nonetheless open to working more with the EU out of pragmatic interest.
The report said: “There is majority support for a less heated debate on the UK-EU relationship across both 2016 Leave voters (56%) and Remain voters (73%), as well as from both Conservative supporters (61%) and Labour supporters (68%) alike. Importantly, support for a less heated debate was consistent: around six in ten, across all age groups that were eligible to vote at the time of the referendum.
“This suggests the potential for an updated and less divisive ‘future relationship’ than previously. Meanwhile younger people aged 18-24, who largely would have been too young to participate in the referendum, showed plurality agreement (45% agree, while 12% disagreed).”
Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, said there had already been signs of a willingness among the public to see the UK government working more closely with the EU, with the positively received introduction of the Windsor Framework on arrangements for post-Brexit trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland earlier this year, and the more recent agreement on the UK rejoining the EU science programme Horizon as an associate member from 1 January next year.
But Katwala said such was the shifting mood that a new government “could try to go further”.
“Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves have talked about resetting the relationship with the EU. The public will give them space and permission for increasing pragmatic cooperation – though it remains unclear how much appetite there is for this in Brussels,” he said.
“The challenge for those who want a future government to be bolder still – and reconsider more totemic issues like the single market, free movement or a project to rejoin the EU itself – is that this would mean opening up more contested political arguments and reopening the Brexit debate.”
To date, Starmer has been reluctant to talk about closer links with the EU, for fear of losing support in red wall seats in the north and Midlands and being accused by the Tories of having a secret plan to rejoin. He has, however, spoken about the need to make Brexit work better for the UK, particularly economically.
The survey also asked people for their opinion about the decision to leave the European Union: 49% of respondents said it was wrong to leave, against 36% who said it had been right to leave. 15% did not know.
The research included a representative survey of more than 2,000 people by Foculdata as well as a series of discussion groups with people in London, Peterborough and Stockport.