Polls before the Brexit referendum in 2016 showed a majority in favour of remain, but they also showed that most Britons were indifferent. The same is true today, says Bill Emmott.
The United Kingdom’s parliament has signalled its acceptance of prime minister Boris Johnson’s withdrawal deal with the EU, but has also decided there must be a general election on December 12, before the deal can be ratified.
EU leaders could be forgiven an ironic smile. Even though opinion polls give Johnson’s pro-Brexit Conservatives a commanding lead, they also indicate that a clear majority of British voters — larger than the one that backed leave in the 2016 referendum —favours remaining in the EU.
But EU leaders may want to contain their smiles. The EU’s biggest enemy is not Eurosceptic hostility, but indifference. Although polls taken before the Brexit referendum showed a majority for remain, they also found that most Britons didn’t care about the EU one way or another.
The question of EU membership wasn’t a priority for most people. It was assumed that voters would select the less-risky option and support remain. In fact, their indifference put the referendum up for grabs.
As a result, random contingencies or either side’s rhetoric had the potential to push the result over the line in either direction. In the event, immigration had become an especially potent issue in 2016, owing to media images of mass migration and refugee flows across the Mediterranean and the Balkans. For the leave campaign, the EU’s failure to manage the crisis was a boon.
Yet when historians look back at this episode, they will probably conclude that there was an ocean of apathy between two sets of hardcore true believers on each side of the European question. Britain had always been a semi-reluctant EU member state, so it didn’t take much to tip the balance slightly in favour of leaving.
The key moment came when then-prime minister David Cameron, driven by political dynamics within the Conservative Party, made the fateful decision to hold a referendum on the issue, amid the economic and political stress of the long recession that followed the 2008 global financial crisis.
Ever since the establishment of the European Economic Community (the precursor to the EU), in 1957, Britons have had a rather detached, sometimes even condescending, view of European integration. This remained the case even after the United Kingdom’s accession to the bloc in 1973, and even after a significant majority of British voters affirmed EU membership, in a referendum in 1975. For the British, being a part of Europe was a transactional relationship, not a marriage of love.
By contrast, the countries that suffered the most from two world wars and German occupation during the Second World War (France, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy) have always had deeper, more sentimental reasons for supporting the EU. The spectre of war features prominently in these countries’ collective memory, even among younger generations that were born long after peace had been secured.
But even continental Europeans’ commitment to the European project should not be taken for granted. This month, the think-tank Friends of Europe published an opinion poll, based on interviews with 12,000 respondents across the 28 EU countries, and found that 60% of respondents “aren’t sure they would miss the EU if it were gone”. That result should chill the bones of all EU leaders.
Predictably, the share of British respondents who aren’t sure if they would miss the EU is 63%. But a staggering 72% of French respondents feel the same way, as do 67% of Italians and 60% of Germans.
On this evidence, the EU’s biggest problem is that citizens simply take it for granted, and do not particularly care whether it thrives or fades away. This problem may reflect a failure of communication. After all, a supra-national bureaucratic entity, comprising an endless array of directorates, agencies, and committees, was always going to find it hard to be loved, or even to explain what it does and why it exists.
But the bigger problem is that the EU struggles to make quick, clear, and ambitious decisions. It has a far easier time saying no than yes. It is a lot better at defusing conflicts among members than it is at mustering collective action in the interest of clearly defined, shared objectives.
This wasn’t always the case. The launch of the euro, in 1999, was a big, clear, epochal moment, following a major political decision and the successful implementation of many technical measures. But since then, things haven’t gone well when it comes to the one issue that most concerns ordinary voters: the eurozone’s effectiveness at creating jobs and ensuring rising living standards. Nowadays, the euro elicits reluctant acceptance, not passion and conviction.
The slogan of Britain’s famed Special Air Service is, ‘who dares wins’. But in the case of Brexit, one could adapt it to say, ‘who cares wins’.
In the run-up to the 2016 referendum, pro-EU forces failed to make enough Britons care about EU membership. Perhaps that will change during the December general election campaign, but it would be risky to bet on it. Proponents of the EU across the other member states should take note. Indifference is their greatest enemy.
Bill Emmott, a former editor-in-chief of The Economist, is the author of The Fate of the West.