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Would British citizens vote differently now that they know more about the EU-27’s response to Brexit?

Would British citizens vote differently now that they know more about the EU-27’s response to Brexit?

Charlotte Grynberg (London School of Economics)

The 2016 Brexit vote was in many respects a leap in the dark: UK citizens voted to end their country’s membership of the EU without any indication of the type of relationship that would replace it. Many voters, especially those supporting the Leave vote, were optimistic and believed that the UK would continue to have full access to the EU single market without having to accept some of its more contentious elements, such as the free movement of people. However, it was far from certain that the EU-27 would accommodate such requests.

The role of expectations in the Brexit referendum

As in any referendum, voters in the Brexit referendum could not be sure of the consequences of the different voting outcomes. In fact, the uncertainty was particularly high in this case because the referendum represented a threat to international cooperation, which meant that both domestic and foreign parties had a stake in it. The consequences of a Leave vote would, therefore, depend not only on the choices of UK policymakers but also on how the rest of the EU decided to react to them.

In this respect, the EU-27 faced a dilemma. It stood to suffer significantly from a breakdown of its ties with the UK and had an interest in trying to salvage as many of the benefits from cooperation as possible. It could, therefore, choose to accommodate the UK’s decision and offer a favourable alternative deal: for example, allowing the UK to opt out of the freedom of movement while maintaining access to the single market. However, an excessively generous, bespoke deal for the UK risked creating political contagion, encouraging other member states to follow suit. To avoid this, the EU-27 could instead choose to take a hard line in the negotiations and make no concessions – an option that would be costly for both parties but preserve the future integrity of the union.

It was thus difficult for voters to gauge which strategy the EU-27 would adopt, and the referendum campaign featured different narratives on this issue. Prominent Leave campaigner Michael Gove argued that the EU-27 would not choose to harm its own economic interests – including those of influential interest groups such as German car manufacturers and French farmers – just to make a political point. Thus, a post-Brexit UK would “hold all the cards” in the negotiations and be able to choose the path it wanted. In contrast, Remain supporters like David Cameron and prominent EU figures like Angela Merkel stressed that the UK would have to face some difficult trade-offs if it chose to leave, as it would be impossible to enjoy some of the benefits of the EU membership without carrying the burden of the respective costs.

Reflecting this uncertain setting, in the run-up to the referendum British voters formed different expectations about how the EU-27 would approach the negotiations with the UK in the event of a Leave vote. This was illustrated by survey data from the British Election Study (BES), which asked British citizens what it would take for the UK to get unrestricted access to the EU’s internal market after Brexit. Respondents were split: a strongly pessimistic group (34.3% of respondents) believed that the EU-27 would take an uncompromising line in the negotiations, requiring that the UK continue its payments to the EU, adopt single market regulations and accept the free movement of labour. In contrast, a very optimistic group (14.4% of respondents) thought the EU-27 would prove accommodating and be willing to relax all of these requirements for the UK. The remaining respondents took an intermediate view, believing the EU-27 would make concessions on some but not all issues.

In a recent paper, written with Stefanie Walter and Fabio Wasserfallen, we analysed how these expectations affected British citizens’ vote choice in the Brexit referendum. We found that respondents who believed that the EU would take a tough stance in the negotiations were significantly less likely to vote Leave than those who were optimistic about the UK’s ability to get a favourable deal. This effect was substantial: the probability that a respondent who was very pessimistic about the conditions of a future deal would vote Leave was only 23.4%. In contrast, for an otherwise identical respondent who had a very optimistic outlook, this probability went up to 71.2%. This suggests that expectations about how tough the EU-27 would be in negotiations were an important explanatory factor of the Brexit vote.

The evolution of expectations since the Brexit referendum

Voters now know much more about the EU-27’s response to Brexit than they did in 2016. As negotiations have unfolded, most of the more optimistic expectations have been proven wrong: the EU-27 has chosen to take a hard line and has so far made few concessions on the issues which were key to the UK, such as ending the free movement of people. As a result, many British citizens have updated their expectations: in more recent versions of the British Election Study, the share of respondents who expect the EU to accommodate the UK’s wishes is substantially lower. This is particularly true of Leave voters: for example, whereas 65.9% of them believed that the UK could obtain unrestricted access to the EU markets without accepting freedom of movement at the time of the referendum, this number has fallen to only 46.6% two years later.

Does this shift towards more realistic expectations mean that people would vote differently in a re-run of the referendum? The theory suggests that they should: in particular, the many Leave voters who have become more pessimistic about the trade-offs involved in negotiating a new relationship with the EU should tend to switch toward supporting Remain. Surprisingly, we find that this is not the case: two years after the vote, only a small percentage of respondents (8.7% of original Leave voters and 5.7% of original Remain voters) state that they would vote differently in a new referendum, and those who have adjusted their expectations are no more likely to do so than those who have not.

A possible explanation for this puzzle is the very strong identities that British voters have developed with regard to Brexit: recent research shows that the social and emotional intensity of Brexit identities is now stronger than that of party identities. This suggests that once voters had made up their mind to vote for or against Brexit, they were reluctant to change their stance in response to new information. As a result, many Leave voters continue to support Brexit even though they now recognise that it could mean giving up full access to European markets.

Overall, our analysis underscores that Brexit has divided the UK population into two rather stable opposing camps, which have become more entrenched since the vote and will be very difficult to reconcile even if they eventually converge on a shared understanding of the trade-offs at stake.


Charlotte Grynberg is an MSc student of International Political Economy at the London School of Economics and the author, with Stefanie Walter and Fabio Wasserfallen, of “Expectations, Vote Choice, and Opinion Stability since the 2016 Brexit Referendum”