Support for leaving the EU has dropped significantly, and sometimes dramatically, in member states across the bloc in the wake of the UK’s Brexit referendum, according to data from a major pan-European survey.
The European Social Survey (ESS), led by City, University of London and conducted in 30 European nations every two years since 2001, found respondents were less likely to vote leave in every EU member state for which data was available.
The largest decline in leave support was in Finland, where 28.6% of respondents who declared which way they would vote in a Brexit-style referendum answered leave in 2016-2017, against only 15.4% in 2020-2022.
Similarly stark falls between 2016 and 2022 were recorded in the Netherlands (from 23% to 13.5%), Portugal (15.7% to 6.6%), Austria (26% to 16.1%) and France (24.3% to 16%), with smaller but still statistically significant falls in Hungary (16% to 10.2%), Spain (9.3% to 4.7%) Sweden (23.9% to 19.3%), and Germany (13.6% to 11%).
Support for leave in the survey’s most recent round was highest in the Czech Republic (29.2%), Italy (20.1%) and Sweden (19.3%), but even in those countries it had declined by 4.5 percentage points, 9.1 points and 4.6 points respectively since 2016-2017, the survey showed. Leave was least popular in Spain (4.7%).
The period covers Britain’s long and fraught negotiations to leave the EU, but also the country’s ensuing political turmoil – five prime ministers in six years – and its current social and economic woes, all of which have been heavily reported on the continent and are widely interpreted as being caused at least partly by Brexit.
They also coincide with the Covid pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which experts suggest have prompted many EU citizens to view membership more favourably, and decisions by many anti-EU parties, including in France and Italy, to abandon Frexit or Italexit policies in favour of reforming the EU from within.
Mathieu Gallard, research director of the leading French polling firm Ipsos, which regularly conducts surveys of European opinion, said the ESS numbers reflected a “veritable collapse” in support for leaving the EU in several countries.
Gallard said the fall in support for a leave vote most likely stemmed from “a cumulative effect combining the EU’s attitude towards the various crises of recent years, the radical right’s moderation on the subject [of leaving the EU], and the many vicissitudes of Brexit”.
The ESS survey also found that respondents’ emotional attachment to Europe had increased between 2016 and 2022 in most member states. Asked to rate how attached they felt to the bloc on a scale of zero to 10, 54.9% of Portuguese respondents gave responses between seven and 10 in 2020-2022, against 41.5% in 2016-2017.
Strong emotional attachment to Europe in Finland rose to 58.7% from 46% over the period, while in Hungary – engaged in an increasingly bitter rule-of-law dispute with Brussels – it increased from 60% to 70.3%. In Italy the corresponding figures were 37.2% and 44.3%, and in France 44% and 48.8%. Germany and Spain were stable.
A Pew Research Center survey of 10 EU member states conducted in spring last year also found large majorities in nearly every country surveyed held a broadly favourable opinion of the bloc, with a median of 72% viewing it in a favourable light compared with 26% who had a broadly unfavourable opinion.
The ESS data also showed that support for staying in the EU – again excluding those who said they could not or would not vote, did not know which way they would vote, or would not cast a complete or valid ballot – increased in every member state for which comparable data was available, with remain support in 2020-2022 ranging from a low of 70.8% in the Czech Republic to a high of 95.3% in Spain.
The ESS survey is normally conducted through face-to-face interviews, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, respondents in six countries – including Austria, Germany, Poland, Sweden and Spain – were asked to complete questionnaires themselves in 2020-2022.
In those countries, the percentage of respondents who said they would not cast a vote was generally higher. Tim Hanson, a senior ESS research fellow, said this was most likely because the questionnaire presented them with that option, whereas interviewers asked people to choose between leave and remain.
The overall effect was to depress the “remain” vote in the “self-complete” countries rather than to increase the “leave” vote, Hanson said. Nonetheless, the difference in survey method meant excluding “no votes” provided a more reliable comparison between the two survey rounds.
Additional reporting by Pamela Duncan