The UK and Europe
Parliament’s indecision on Brexit reflects the will of the people
Charlene Rohr and Jonathan Grant / May 2019
It is not surprising that Parliament is struggling to find a solution to the Brexit impasse. In fact, it mirrors our own research that finds that there is no one Brexit option that attracts a majority of people’s preferences, whether they voted Leave or Remain.
Part of the problem is that the referendum outcome tells us nothing about the sort of Brexit that people actually wanted when they cast their vote in 2016.
It was this problem that our research set out to address in 2017. What sort of relationship with the EU did the British people actually want? To try to understand the answer to this question, we used a Nobel Prize-winning economics technique to ask the public to choose and – crucially – make compromises between different potential Brexit options. Similar to what parliamentarians have been trying to do in the last weeks, but different in a number of important ways.
The options were not given labels commonly used in the Brexit debate – like EEA, Norway, Canada or WTO – as for many they are politically, or even emotionally, charged terms. Instead, we wanted respondents to make as rational a decision as possible, so we only described the options by individual attributes of a future UK-EU relationship. That meant describing and unpacking what things like freedom of movement for work and holidays, the ability to make free trade deals and access to the Single Market for goods and services actually entail in practice.
The structure of the choices meant that people were forced to make trade-offs. For example, one option might provide access to the Single Market, but only if the respondent accepted freedom of movement. If they did not, they would lose access to the Single Market but gain the ability for the UK to make free trade deals. From the choices that people made we were able to quantify what attributes were valued and prioritised most by the public, and what trade-offs they were willing to make.
We undertook our survey with a representative sample of the British population that closely replicated the actual voting proportions in the referendum, with just over 51 per cent of our sample reporting that they voted to leave. We also undertook the survey twice, once in 2017 and once in 2018, with mostly the same people, so we could examine how people’s preferences may have changed over that period.
We learned that people’s preferences changed little between 2017 and 2018. People place a high value on having access to the Single Market for trade in goods and services, but they also value the UK being able to make its own trade deals outside the EU. They value the UK being able to make its own laws, but not as much as access to the Single Market or the ability to make trade deals. They worry about freedom of movement, but mostly because of concerns about demand for public services. And they strongly disliked the idea of having to get a visa to travel for their holidays – something that necessarily follows (and is often overlooked) from ending freedom of movement.
When asked to choose between four packages of options – from remaining in the EU to leaving on WTO terms (and again not described by any specific label but rather by their attributes), we found no obvious winner. The most popular option was one resembling membership of the EEA, which was chosen by 43 per cent of people. The least popular option was for a Customs Union only, followed by a No Deal Brexit leaving on WTO terms. We also found a ‘softening’ of the type of relationship that Britons want with the EU between 2017 and 2018.
Those who voted Leave also have a range of preferences for Brexit. We find that the vast majority – 61 per cent of those who voted Leave – preferred to leave with some sort of negotiated deal. And again, the most popular of these was the EEA option, which garnered 34 per cent of their choices in 2018. Again, we saw a move to softer Brexit options more generally between 2017 and 2018. Interestingly, the EEA option was also the most popular option for those who voted Remain.
It is therefore not surprising that politicians are struggling to disentangle what Brexit option may be most acceptable, both for them personally and for their constituents, as the new April 12 deadline draws near. Given the public’s indecision about how to leave the EU, it appears that Parliament may not be so very far away from the will of the people.
A version of this article originally appeared in The New European