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Brits are deeply Eurosceptic, but may still vote to remain in the EU

23 February 2016
  • Nearly half see EU as a threat to British identity
  • Majority favour wide ranging reforms
  • But less than a quarter think Britain would be better off leaving

new report published today by NatCen Social Research uncovers widespread Euroscepticism among the British public, majority support for wide ranging reforms to the EU, and considerable concern about the cultural impact of the EU.

However, a majority seems unlikely to vote to leave unless they are also persuaded – as they have not been so far – that Britain would be better off economically outside the EU.

The paper, the latest in the ESRC funded WhatUKThinks:EU project, presents new data from NatCen’s latest British Social Attitudes survey. It shows that two thirds of the British public can be considered Eurosceptic; 65% either want the UK to leave the EU (22%) or for the EU’s powers to be reduced (43%). Only once since 1992 has a higher level of Euroscepticism been uncovered by BSA.

Even in Scotland, often considered to be more pro-European than the rest of Britain, Eurosceptics are in the majority; 43% want the EU’s powers reduced and 17% want to leave, more than at any time since 1999.

This Euroscepticism is reflected in majority support for radical changes to the way the EU works.

  • Two thirds (68%) favour reducing the ability of EU migrants to access welfare benefits.
  • A majority (60%) also favour reducing the extent to which the EU regulates business.
  • Almost as many (59%) want to stop people from other EU countries accessing the NHS for free.
  • Just over half (51%) want to end the free movement of people within the EU.

Behind this scepticism lies widespread concern about the cultural impact of EU membership. Nearly half (47%) agree that membership of the EU is ‘undermining Britain’s distinctive identity, while just three in ten (30%) disagree.

In or Out?

However, in spite of this deep concern about Britain’s EU membership, when given a straight choice, twice as many think that Britain should ‘continue’ to be an EU member (60%) as believe the country should ‘withdraw’ (30%).

So why is support for withdrawing from the EU less than half the level of Euroscepticism?

The report suggests that concerns about the negative cultural impact of EU membership, while linked closely to Euroscepticism, are not always sufficient to persuade someone that Britain should actually leave the EU. For scepticism to translate into support for withdrawal, voters need also to be convinced of the economic case for leaving. And at present most are not.

  • Only 24% believe that Britain’s economy would be better off if Britain left the EU, while as many as 40% feel it would be worse off.
  • Only two in five (40%) of those who believe that the EU is undermining Britain’s identity but who are not convinced that the economy would be better say that they wish to withdraw from the EU. But that figure is at least double (82%) amongst those whose cultural concern is married with a belief in the economic benefits of withdrawal.

Prof John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow, NatCen Social Research said: “Britain is as sceptical about Europe as it has ever been, feelings that seem to be largely driven by concerns about the impact the EU is having on the nation’s identity and cultural life, not least as a result of high levels of EU immigration. However, for most people on its own this scepticism is not enough to warrant leaving the EU. The Leave campaign evidently needs to persuade more voters of its economic arguments, while Remain has to assure voters that the economic advantages of membership are worth putting up with interference from Brussels.”


Download the full report here 

For more information, to arrange an interview with Prof Curtice, or for a copy of the report contact Sophie Brown:, 020 7549 9550 or 07734 960 069 or Leigh Marshall:, 0207 549 8506 or 07828 031850 


NatCen Social Research is an independent, not for profit organisation. We believe that social research has the power to make life better. By really understanding the complexity of people’s lives and what they think about the issues that affect them, we give the public a powerful and influential role in shaping decisions and services that can make a difference to everyone.

Sample and approach – The 2015 British Social Attitudes survey consisted of 4,328 interviews with a representative, random sample of adults aged 18 plus in Britain. This represented a response rate of 51%. Interviewing was carried out between 4th July and 2nd November 2015. Addresses are selected at random and visited by one of NatCen Social Research’s interviewers. A random quarter, amounting to 1,105 people (954 for self-completion questions), of the sample were asked the questions about the European Union.

The ‘What UK Thinks: EU’ website can be accessed at It provides a comprehensive collection of polling and survey data on attitudes in the UK towards Europe, data on what the rest of Europe thinks about the EU, and impartial commentary and analysis on the evidence of the polls. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its initiative on ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’.

The UK in a Changing Europe initiative – – promotes independent, rigorous, high-quality academic research into the complex and ever changing relationship between the UK and the European Union. We provide an authoritative, non-partisan and impartial reference point for those looking for information, insights and analysis on UK-EU relations.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. It celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015.