June 24, 2016

Brexit vote highlighted UK’s discontent with EU, but other European countries are grumbling too

The decision by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union – known as Brexit – shines a spotlight on the divisions in public opinion between the UK and the continental members of the EU, and within the UK on a range of issues relating to the future of Europe.

The June 23 referendum – in which the public voted 52% to 48% to leave – is a reminder that the British have never been as enamored with the EU as most of their continental counterparts. Britons have criticized the EU for its handling of a range of issues, resent the loss of power to the Brussels-based institution and are divided among themselves about the institution they first joined in 1973.

More broadly, a Pew Research Center survey conducted this spring found that publics in a number of other EU countries share the British desire for a less, not more, centralized Europe, and that the debate about the future of the EU will not subside just because the UK has now voted.

1British consistently more negative on European UnionThe EU has never been as popular in the UK as it has been among other EU members. Just 44% of the public in the UK has a favorable view of the EU, compared with a median of 50% who hold a favorable opinion in five other EU nations surveyed by Pew Research Center. Support for the EU is down in the UK from a high of 52% in 2014. British views of the EU have consistently been lower than those on the continent for nearly a decade.

2British have little faith in EUThe British have long thought that the EU was inefficient and intrusive and has mishandled the challenges facing Europe. In a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 64% of the British thought the EU was inefficient and does not understand the needs of its citizens. Six-in-ten said it was intrusive. In this year’s survey, 70% in the UK disapprove of the EU’s handling of the refugee issue and 55% said the same about the EU’s dealing with economic issues.

3The vote to leave reflects the desire of nearly two-thirds of the UK public to bring back some EU powers from Brussels to London. Fully 65% of the British said before the referendum that they wanted some EU powers to be returned to their national government. This included 73% of those ages 50 and older, 70% of men, 68% of those with a secondary education or less, 93% of UK Independence Party supporters, 77% of Conservative Party adherents and 49% of Labour Party backers.

4Scotland more concerned about economy than rest of UKThe Brexit vote exposes a rift in public opinion between the Scottish and people in the rest of the United Kingdom. The Scottish voted to stay in the EU by an overwhelming margin of 62% to 38%, putting a new Scottish independence referendum on the table. Pew Research Center data show that the Scottish are more likely than those in England, Northern Ireland and Wales to have a favorable opinion of the EU (53% versus 43% respectively).

Scotland also disagrees with the rest of the UK on two issues central to the Brexit debate: the economy and immigration. The Scottish feel more threatened by the prospect of global economic instability than their counterparts in the rest of the UK. Roughly six-in-ten say it is a major threat to their country, while only 48% say the same in England, Northern Ireland and Wales. Meanwhile, the rest of the UK feels more threatened by the large number of refugees leaving countries such as Iraq and Syria (54% major threat). Just 41% of Scottish people agree.

5The rest of Europe sees Brexit as pivotal for the well-being of the EU. Before the referendum, a median of 70% said that they thought it would be a bad thing for the EU if the UK were to leave. This included 89% of the Swedes, 75% of the Dutch and 74% of the Germans.

6The debate in other EU member states about the future of the institution may just be getting started. A majority of the Greeks (68%) and pluralities of the Dutch (44%), Germans (43%), Italians (39%) and French (39%) all want some EU power returned to their national governments. Both the Dutch and the French have a history of holding referendums on major and not-so-major issues, and Euroskeptic parties in both countries have already voiced support for a public vote on their relationship with the EU.

NOTE (April 2017): After publication, the weight for the Netherlands data was revised to correct percentages for two regions. The impact of this revision on the Netherlands data included in this blog post is very minor and does not materially change the analysis. For a summary of changes, see here. For updated demographic figures for the Netherlands, please contact info@pewresearch.org.

Category: 5 Facts

Topics: Europe, Western Europe, International Organizations, International Governments and Institutions

  1. Photo of Bruce Stokes

    is director of global economic attitudes at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous1 year ago

    No self respecting country should have to give up their national identity. It is bad socially and economically to do so.

    EU simply goes too far in trying to foster migration. We are a world of independent nations, some good, some average, and some not so good, some just plain evil.
    Migration normally moves from bottom up, never top down.

    A bit of immigration is good but an unlimited flow with no authority to say enough is enough can not work.

    I applaud the people GB for having the courage to stand up to the one worlders and reclaim their country.

  2. Anonymous1 year ago

    Birmingham in the English Midlands has a very multi-cultural population. The city is home to many people from around the World including people from India and other Asian countries. The city has large Hindu and Sikh communities as well as a moslem community.

  3. Rob Houck1 year ago

    Doesn’t this all go back to nationalism? We all know why Germany is not nationalistic. France also has nothing much to be nationalistic about. Italy was on the wrong side. The UK came out of WWII much weaker but without its underlying morality in question. So, as that brilliant thinker Joe Scarborough said recently, no American would ever give up his or her sovereignty. Somehow our misdeeds have been quickly forgotten or never acknowledged at all. German has a word “Mahnmal” to mean a memorial that serves as a reminder not to repeat old misdeeds. English? Nothing close. We have no memorials to the Indians whose land we took or the slaves or folks whom we lynched. We still fly the Stars and Bars. So if you believe you are the greatest nation on earth, why give up any of that nationhood, even for possible economic benefits or peaceful co-existence? The English are just one step behind us. In a way, its a wonder the UK ever joined. BTW, keep up the great work, Bruce.

  4. Anonymous1 year ago

    I don’t think you are British and I don’t think you understand Britain…are you from N.America perchance? You refer to “heavily Muslim populated areas like Birmingham and Wales have voted to leave the EU”.
    Birmingham – well you may(?) have a point but Wales heavily Muslim?..Cardiff and one or two other areas possibly..the rest of the country..very few. The 2011 census stated 45,950 in Wales i.e. 1.50% of the population

  5. Anonymous1 year ago

    After a close examination of the pattern of voting, it appears that heavily Muslim populated areas like Birmingham and Wales have voted to leave the EU. The general trend is the British also encouraged globalization which the EU also encouraged. But the third factor – the Muslim voice who are generally religious fanatics – wanted Britain to be separated from the EU for their own benefits. We should not forget the Muslims are a self-alienating community who prefer a no-go-zone and are bent on establishing Sharia Law throughout Europe. The EU promote integration with other communities and was on the path of progress. The EU even had a Bill of Rights and a specific constitution for the betterment of the entire world. These are points to ponder. A gradual, calculated and planned process of divide and rule by the Muslim community. Now the British people must be wondering other than a few narrow-minded.