UK vs EU: is it really all about immigration?

Disclaimer: as might become apparent after reading the analysis below, I am writing as someone who very much wants the UK to remain part of the EU. I hope my own bias has not interfered substantially in the writing of this piece beyond the actual choice of the topic.

In the period running up to the EU referendum, both (all 3?) sides will be talking a lot about what Britain is likely to look like outside the EU. Iain Begg makes a very good point over at the LSE blog about just how difficult or actually impossible it is to predict how Britain would fare outside the EU. It all depends too much on what deals are struck with the EU itself over a possible exit. But then, this uncertainty can play very nicely in the hands of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign. Voters are risk-adverse and tend to prefer the status quo over a state of uncertainty. So what is it that they fear the most?

Where are we then?

I’ve looked at data collected in Nov-Dec 2014 by the Eurobarometer. Not the most recent of datasets, but it will do for the purpose of this post. British respondents were asked: If the UK was outside the EU, do you think it would do better, worse, neither better nor worse in each of the following areas?

In a few areas, Britons are more likely to say the UK will be worse off outside the EU: trade, scientific research and the environment are the biggest drawbacks of potentially leaving the EU. Yet, in quite a few policy areas, it is expected that the UK would fare better were the referendum to fall on the side of the Euro-skeptics. The most striking is immigration, where half of respondents think UK would do better on its own. Other perceived gains from an Out vote would be in health, cost of living, education and agriculture.


So far it’s looking like a pretty grim picture for the Stronger in Europe campaign. There is no area where a majority of people agree being part of the EU is a benefit, and on more issues than not (9 out of 15 investigated in the Eurobarometer) there is a sense that the EU is a net drawback instead of providing a benefit. End of story then? Well, no. That would make a pretty boring and useless post, wouldn’t it? Let’s move on to more interesting things.

But what’s important?

The table below shows the results of a Ordinal Logistic Regression model (a good text on how to read the output here. Using linear regression I obtained similar results). In this model, the dependent variable is whether the UK’s membership to the EU is a good, bad thing or neither, ordered from bad (1) to good (3). The independent variables are a battery of questions on whether the UK would suffer or be better off if it were to leave the EU (re-coded so that a higher value means it would be worse off). Taking economy as an example, those who say UK would be worse off in this area outside the EU are more likely to say being part of the EU is a good thing for the country.

I’ve also included a list of controls: self left-right positioning, age, age when ended education, gender, type of settlement and employment status. They all have small effects on attitudes to the European Union and generally indistinguishable from 0. The exceptions are employment status, with those in self-employment more likely to favour the European Union, and possibly gender, men being more euro-skeptic ( p-value just above the 0.05 level). Region was not included as a control variable due to very low sub-samples in Wales and Scotland.


Looking at the results, it becomes apparent that immigration is not the main driver of EU attitudes. Instead, the state of the economy, trade, employment and foreign affairs seem to be the main reasons for pro-EU attitudes. It might seem counter intuitive, give that immigration is one of the main focuses of the out-campaigns. A recent poll from Survation found that limiting access of EU migrants to welfare benefits is the most desired outcome by a plurality of respondents (22%), together with increased sovereignty for the Parliament in Westminster (18%). My own take on this is that people are generally unsatisfied with the levels if immigration (though the evidence that they shouldn’t be is overwhelming), yet they understand that there is not much that can be done about it without completely sealing Britain off from the rest of the world. And that may be a step many are unwilling to take. There is some evidence for this. A rather convoluted question asked by IpsosMORI in October 2015 finds that restricting the right of free movement between EU countries makes little difference for how over a third would vote in the referendum, with another 38% being more likely to vote to remain.

Do we just say phew and go to the pub?

All in all, that sounds like pretty good news for the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign. Campaigning for the status quo can be somewhat easier, allowing for a more negative campaign, that focuses on uncertainty and fear. But then again, the areas picked up in this analysis are also weak points for EU relations so far, indicating a very difficult battle ahead. Trade is the most obvious benefit of being part of the European Union, with 43% of respondents projecting a bad outcome for the UK in this area should it vote to leave. But on economy and employment, people tend to think the country would be better off should it leave. That is indeed terrible news. Any successful campaign should focus its efforts on changing these views by taking advantage of the overall positive impact the EU is seen to have on trade.

One thing I have not mentioned so far is that, according to this analysis, it seems that people who believe gender equality would be worse outside the EU are more likely to say EU membership is a bad thing. I’ve yet to come up with any hypotheses as to why that is, but would love to hear any ideas. Might be a topic for another time.

You can find my syntax over here.

And the dataset I used can be downloaded from the GESIS website.

Any thoughts, ideas, criticism, please share in the comment section below. Would love to hear what you have to say.


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