Research into hundreds of people’s views about Brexit and the future UK-EU relationship led by Trinity Fellow, Professor Catherine Barnard, found ‘a striking degree of moderate consensus’ on both sides of the debate – and not the ‘hard Brexit’ currently being pursued by the UK government.
While many people wanted full access to the Single Market without free movement of people and with no or limited payment to the EU, when presented with four viable options – EU membership, European Economic Area (EEA), Customs Union and ‘hard Brexit’ – participants preferred a deal closer to the EEA ‘Norway model’, at least in the short term.
Professor of European Union Law and Employment Law at Cambridge, Catherine Barnard, said:
The EEA option was consistently seen by Leave and Remain voters alike to be an acceptable compromise that allows limits to freedom of movement and reduces the UK’s financial contribution to the EU. People wanted full access to trade in goods and services with the EU.
Professor Barnard, a Senior Fellow of the UK in a Changing Europe, and Dr Amy Ludlow, a Trinity alumna and Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, conducted the research in early 2017 in parts of Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire where opinion about Brexit was strongly divided. They held events in community centres, schools, prisons, market squares and the University of the Third Age, each typically attracting 100 people.
At each event a short film was shown of interviews about Brexit with people on the streets of Cambridge and Wisbech, followed by general debate and then small group discussion about aspects of the UK’s relationship with Europe.
Analysis of these discussions showed that many people had a serious, often fundamental, lack of knowledge of the EU; they felt frustrated and misinformed by the referendum campaign and politicians on both sides of the debate; they regretted the sense of division it had caused across the country; and they were angry and anxious about the future.
Professor Barnard said:
We found anxiety, but also resentment. Many young people, including those in prominent Leave-voting areas, expressed anger at the referendum, and a result they felt they would be living with for the rest of their lives.
Despite Theresa May’s claim that the country is coming together, the discussions we had with people across the east of England revealed deep wounds and a divided society, generationally and geographically.
Leave voters found it much easier to give specific examples of how they felt EU had over-reached itself than Remain voters did to cite the EU’s benefits. Reasons given for remaining were often linked to higher values and ideals rather than practical examples of positive impact on daily life. Others voted to remain out of inertia, said Dr Ludlow.
They saw no good reason to change the status quo. Leave voters could more often give a range of reasons for their vote: from immigration and a perceived erosion of British identity to the promise of additional healthcare funding.
The research revealed that the technocratic integration advocated by Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of the EU, had become its Achilles’ heel, at least in the UK. EU attempts to harmonise national rules in technical areas – whether about lawnmower noise, vacuum power, or the amount of water to flush a loo – spawned endless headlines and ‘euromyths’, which the Leave campaign exploited and for which the Remain campaign had no simple, appealing response.
Professor Barnard said that skilled political leadership would be required to heal the wounds and divisions in British society revealed by the research. ‘Building on the areas of consensus recognised by our participants might be the way to deliver this,’ she said.
The findings of the Unravelling and reimagining the UK’s relationship with the EU will be presented at Michaelhouse Café in Cambridge on 22 May, 6-7.30pm, where Professor Anand Menon, Director of the UK in a Changing Europe, and Dr Angus Armstrong, Senior Fellow on the project, will join Professor Barnard and Dr Ludlow to talk about ‘Brexit, Boston and migration’. The event is free and open to all.
Read the full report of Unravelling and reimagining the UK’s relationship with the EU
Hear the perspectives of people who took part in the research