With little more than three weeks before a potentially fateful national referendum, Britons are evenly split over whether to stay in or leave the 28-nation European Union, a poll released Tuesday by British opinion researcher YouGov showed.
A survey of 1,764 U.K. residents found 40 percent preferred to leave the bloc, and 40 percent preferred to stay, with 20 percent undecided or not planning to vote. U.K. voters will go to the polls on June 23.
The poll, obtained by Handelsblatt Global Edition, was conducted May 19 and 20 and has a 3 percent margin of error. Residents in six other European countries were also surveyed on their attitudes towards a potential “Brexit.”
A majority of those surveyed in Germany, France, Denmark, Finland and Sweden said they wanted Britain to stay in the bloc, which started as a post-war coal and steel trading union in 1951 and grew into its present form in 1992 with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty.
A plurality of respondents in France and Norway said they wanted Britain to remain in the union, but support for a “Bremain” fell short of a majority amid significant “don’t know” votes.
The poll found strong support in Germany, France and across most of Scandinavia for their own countries remaining a part of the European Union. But conversely, most voters said they expected other bloc members to try to leave if Britain became the first to opt out.
The poll was conducted amid a tide of rising nationalism across much of Europe, fueled in part by the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis. The survey revealed growing dissatisfaction among many voters with national political leaders and the European Union’s perceived ineffectiveness at dealing with big issues.
Citizens across all seven countries polled said they considered the European Union and their own national governments to be “arrogant,” “wasteful” and “dishonest.” Less than 10 percent said they found the E.U. and their own governments to be “honest” and “efficient.”
Still, despite the criticism, support for the 28-nation European Union – and for Britain’s continued place in the bloc – was strong on the continent, YouGov’s poll found.
Europe's wish for Britain to remain stems partly from a fear of what would happen to the European Union if it left.
In Germany, Europe’s largest economy, 54 percent supported their own country’s E.U. membership, with only 29 percent saying they wanted to leave. Also, 52 percent of Germans preferred Britain to stay in the European Union, double the 26 percent who want the U.K. to leave.
In France, support for the European Union was found to be weaker but still significant: 42 percent of French people said they supported France’s E.U. membership and the same percentage wanted Britain to remain an E.U. member. Conversely, 31 percent wanted France to leave the E.U. and 32 percent wanted Britain out too.
Majorities in Denmark, Sweden and Finland said they preferred Britain stay in the bloc, and a plurality said their own countries should remain in the bloc too.
Even in Norway, a non-E.U. country often hailed as a future model for an independent Britain, 37 percent believe Britain should remain an E.U. member, compared to 27 percent who think Britain should go.
Nearly two thirds of Norwegians polled, 64 percent, said they don’t support E.U. membership for their own country, which has rejected joining the bloc in two referendums since 1972.
The poll contained an ominous warning for E.U. supporters: By large majorities, regardless of country, most respondents said they expected other E.U. member countries to try to leave the bloc if Britain opted out.
E.U. supporters have long argued that a “Brexit” would have political and economic repercussions far beyond the borders of Britain.
Most respondents also said Britain’s exit would be “bad for the rest of the E.U.” Only in France did more people think a “Brexit” would be “good” or make “no real difference” to the future of the bloc.
Conversely, the poll revealed that other E.U. countries would oppose offering Britain easy access to the European Union, the world’s largest economic bloc, following a “Brexit” vote.
In the other countries polled except for Norway, which isn’t an E.U. member, respondents said Britain should either be required to contribute financially or continue allowing E.U. citizens the right to work in Britain if they want to get a free-trade deal with the European Union.
That would be similar to the kind of deals that other non-E.U. members such as Switzerland and Norway currently have with the bloc. Norway’s voters also said they expect Britain to have to contribute financially to the E.U. post-Brexit if they want to gain access to its markets.
In Germany, 32 percent said Britain should still be required to make a financial contribution and 18 percent said they would expect free movement of labor between Britain and the European Union.
Only 8 percent of Germans supported a “continuing free-trade agreement” for Britain without any such strings attached. Fourteen percent said there should be no free-trade deal with Britain under any circumstances.
French residents were prepared to be even harsher with their neighbor across the Channel: 20 percent of French people polled said there should be no free-trade deal with Britain in the event of a Brexit, while 26 percent want a financial contribution and 17 percent want to work freely in Britain.
The antagonism contrasts with the expectation of Britons themselves, who think it will be possible to cut a favorable deal with the E.U. once they leave.
Citizens in all five E.U. countries said Britain should contribute financially or continue allowing E.U. citizens the right to work in Britain ... yet this is not the expectation of Britons themselves.
The poll found that 41 percent in Britain believe they should be able to negotiate an E.U. free-trade deal without financial aid or free movement of labor. Just 12 percent believe Britain should contribute financially and 9 percent support the continued free movement of labor.
Regardless of whether Britain stays or goes, the survey highlighted some major differences between Britain and its continental neighbors over how much influence Brussels should have over their lives and government policy.
Germany, France and the E.U.’s Scandinavian members all supported the E.U. taking the lead over national governments on issues such as terrorism, human rights and immigration.
Britain, which is not only considering a departure from the E.U. but has also floated leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, wants national governments to take center-stage on all three issues.
But there were limits for the European Union’s core too: German and French citizens overwhelmingly rejected the E.U. taking the lead on financial issues like taxation and housing.
The only area where Britain, France and Germany can agree to give up sovereignty? All three countries believe climate change should be regulated at the European level.
Another major difference between the major E.U. powers is in their perceptions of who benefits from being a member of the European Union.
Asked which E.U. country benefits the most from its membership in the bloc, 23 percent of British citizens picked Germany, while 20 percent picked Romania and 19 percent chose Poland.
Ask the same question in Germany, and 38 percent of the population picked Greece, which has received hundreds of billions of euros in bailouts from fellow euro zone members – bailouts to which Britain, which is not a member of the euro, has not been contributing.
France, Denmark, Sweden and Finland all picked Greece as the country that has benefited most from E.U. membership.