EU’s heart might be open, but Britain’s isn’t
LONDON — Donald Tusk’s recent lament on Twitter that the EU’s heart is still open to Britain if it changes its mind about leaving the club is likely to fall on deaf ears across the Channel.
While there has always been a segment of the British population that is emotionally connected to Europe, they have also always been outnumbered by the actively hostile or the utterly pragmatic. In the past, British public opinion has swung from bitter opposition to broad support of the European Union in a single decade, depending on how good a deal Brits believed they were getting at the time. And British support for the EU has tended to be about rational arguments on trade, as opposed to any emotional vision for Europe as a whole.
Since June 2016, the number of people who want a second referendum has been consistently lower than the number that don’t, even in surveys that showed movement toward Remain on other questions. Despite all the sound and fury among the British political classes — and despite rising inflation and food prices and the devaluation of the pound — there has been little change in public opinion since the referendum.
Voters agree Brexit is the key issue facing the country but remain divided on how it should be carried out, although a soft Brexit is growing in appeal across the country. For most, there is no doubt Britain is leaving the bloc, even if its precise relationship with the single market, customs union and other elements remain contentious and divisive issues.
In a way, Tusk’s emotional message — European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker has also since chimed in — sums up the difference between the view of post-war Europe in core EU nations and in Britain, an island that so often has been cut off, emotionally and physically, from the Continent. His peace offering, if that is what it was, is simply too little too late.
If the EU was genuinely worried about the U.K. leaving the bloc, it would have made substantial concessions on freedom of movement some years ago.
The difficulty for emotional Europeans is that their feelings are more than matched by Britain’s emotional Leave voters. British Remainers, meanwhile, are more motivated not by “hearts” but by rational economic arguments about barriers to trade outside the EU.
Predicting the future is an increasingly difficult task. But the data suggest it would take a drastic event — a dramatic cliff-edge Brexit and the recession that would bring about, for example — to make the British people as a whole rethink their Brexit decision and run into Europe’s “open” arms.
Ben Page is chief executive of British polling company Ipsos MORI.