- 51% of Britons now approve of EU leadership
- Leave-voting demographics behind the rise in approval
- Slightly more Britons approve of the EU than their own leadership
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Britons’ approval rating of the leadership of the European Union surpassed 50% for the first time in 2022, further cementing the popularity of the bloc’s leadership as the EU and the United Kingdom are poised to write a new chapter in post-Brexit relations.
The U.K. and EU recently unveiled a new deal -- the Windsor Framework -- aiming to address post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland. Announcing the new deal, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen struck a warm tone and spoke of a desire for a more constructive relationship.
Britons’ approval of the EU has been on a strong upward trend for years, despite their country’s vote to leave the bloc in 2016. In the decade since 2013 -- the year Prime Minister David Cameron first pledged to renegotiate the terms of the U.K.’s membership and hold a referendum if reelected -- approval of EU leadership has increased by 76%.
Over that same period, only five other member states have seen a faster rise in approval of EU leadership (Sweden, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus and Finland), yet the U.K. is the only country that has voted to leave.
Even though disapproval of EU leadership (47%) is notably lower than in the years leading up to the referendum, Britons are still largely divided over the EU. It remains an issue on which almost everyone has an opinion. In 2022, only 2% said they “don’t know” if they approve or disapprove of EU leadership, compared with 30% who offered no opinion in 2010, before it became a hot political topic.
Britons Somewhat Less Fond of Their Own Leadership
Britons are less enamored with their own country’s leadership. Last year was the fourth consecutive year that Britons rated EU leadership slightly higher than their own government, with 46% approving of the leadership of the United Kingdom.
A majority of Britons have not approved of their leadership since 2006 (51%) as former Prime Minister Tony Blair neared the end of his term. Even though the David Cameron and Theresa May governments of the 2010s never enjoyed the approval ratings that Blair’s government did, their leadership nevertheless was more popular than that of the EU. This is no longer the case.
Gallup World Poll fieldwork in 2022 occurred between May 30 and June 27, shortly after the “Partygate” report was published detailing lockdown breaches in Downing Street, and just before Boris Johnson’s resignation on July 7.
As the U.K. government battled several crises last year, Britons’ opinion of their own leadership and that of their European neighbors stood in relief.
How Did the U.K. Reach This Milestone in EU Approval?
The vote to leave the European Union in 2016 split the U.K. along new political fault lines. Older, less affluent voters in rural areas fueled the Brexit movement. Many saw this as a backlash against “the elite” after years of political disillusionment. But six years after the referendum, these same groups' approval of the EU has risen the fastest.
In 2016, the poorest 20% of U.K. adults (32% approving) were more negative toward the EU than the richest 20% (46%). This trend has reversed since then, with a majority of individuals in the poorest income group (55%) now approving of the EU’s leadership.
It is a similar story for those in rural areas. Since 2016, they have seen a 20-percentage-point increase in EU approval, now at 54%. Likewise, approval of the EU among people aged 50 and older reached a record high in 2022 (55%).
One possible reason why EU support has risen most sharply among leave-skewing demographics is that these groups have grown increasingly disapproving of their own political leadership.
Johnson -- the face of the Vote Leave campaign -- built his political reputation on appealing to people who felt somewhat disconnected from mainstream politics. But in 2022, he faced a near-constant stream of crises, including reports of lockdown partying in Downing Street and allegations of corruption.
As such, his personal approval ratings fell sharply in 2022 among the leave-voting demographics that propelled him to power in 2019. Likely boosted by the successful vaccine rollout in 2021, Johnson's support among people aged 50 and older dropped from 48% to 38% in 2022, with rural Britons seeing a similar decline in approval (52% to 40%).
In sum, this historic milestone in British public opinion has been driven by leave-skewing demographics becoming more pro-EU since the referendum.
Three years later, Brexit has largely been relegated as a political issue, overtaken by COVID-19, prime ministerial turnover and the cost-of-living crisis. Questions remain as to what the future of the relationship will look like.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s recently proposed migration bill, designed to stop migrant boats crossing the English Channel from France, risks reigniting tensions shortly after the successful agreement of the Windsor Framework.
If the conservative government continues to lag behind Labour in the polls, and the ongoing relationship with the EU continues to take shape, public opinion in the U.K. will likely shift further in coming years.
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