Kathryn Simpson

The UK and Ireland joined the European Union (EU) in the first wave of EU enlargement in 1973. Yet, despite their geographical proximity both countries have experienced hugely differing attitudes towards the EU since accession with this trend continuing in the face of Brexit. 


UK Attitudes towards the EU 

The UK entered the European Economic Community (EEC) in the first wave of enlargement in 1973 and has over the past four decades displayed an unrivalled reluctance and suspicion of the EU project. Eurobarometer data since 1973 has consistently illustrated that UK citizens have among the most negative attitudes towards European integration. 

Successive UK governments have viewed European integration primarily in economic terms as opposed to a political project and the tendency in the UK debate to assess EU membership has been coined on a balance sheet of money paid in and benefits extracted. However, the UK’s relationship with the EU is more than one of British pragmatism – it highlights the lack of emotional or psychological commitment to the European project among Britain’s elite and the general public. 

In light of a new political context in the UK, the UK’s arms-length attitude to political debate about the benefits of EU membership has shifted substantially creating a new context within which the traditional ‘awkward partner’ must now operate. The political climate has swung in favour of the ‘Better Off Out’ attitude that has been sparked by an internal economic crisis and the external crisis of the Eurozone. Within this is the internal dimension of a changing Conservative Party with a shift towards a harder Eurosceptic position, a hardening of British public opinion towards immigration and the rise (and demise) of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) coupled with the external dimension of a two-tier EU as a consequence of the Eurozone crisis. All of this has provided British Eurosceptics with what they regard as further evidence of the dysfunctional nature of the EU project. 

Tracing the historical milestones in the UK’s relationship with the EU; the Maastricht Treaty, the enlargements of 2004 and 2007 and the economic and financial crisis demonstrate how the key themes that became prominent in the 2016 EU referendum campaign had in fact haunted the UK’s relationship with the EU for decades. The Europe issue in British politics has been a polarising matter for both the Conservative and Labour Party with both political parties displaying hostility to the power and role played by EU institutions. 

At the Labour Party Conference in 1962, Hugh Gaitskell declared that joining the EU would mean the “end of a thousand years of history”. This was echoed by Margaret Thatcher in 1988 in her Bruges speech declaring that she had “successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at the European level”. As a result, one of the key issues in the 2016 EU referendum – ‘control’ – had long been a hallmark of the UK’s relationship with the EU prior to accession and continued thereafter.



Irish Attitudes towards the EU

Ireland meanwhile is often regarded as one of the most enthusiastic supporters of European integration since its accession to the EU in 1973 as they are often considered as ‘good Europeans’ with a pro-integrationist attitude. However, research has shown that since the 1990s knowledge about the EU amongst the Irish public is low with individuals in Ireland more likely to refer to the economic aspects of the EU, such as the freedom of movement, the Euro and economic prosperity. This ‘knowledge deficit’ is perhaps not surprising as for the first twenty years of EU membership Ireland’s self-perception of its status within the EU was that of a small, poor, peripheral member state. 

The rejection of the Nice Treaty in 2001 and Lisbon Treaty in 2008 highlighted the potential emergence of a new popular scepticism towards the EU in so far as it concerns Irish interests and deeper European integration in Ireland. The emergence of referendums as key forums for debate about the EU in Ireland has resulted in a much greater degree of polarisation of opinions. This polarisation is two-fold. Firstly, referendums tend to reduce complex issues to a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer. Secondly, with nine EU-related being held thus far in Ireland this mechanism of direct democracy has fuelled an element of disenchantment among the Irish electorate with voters questioning why they are continuously being asked to vote on complex EU issues. 

Yet despite the emergence of a potential popular scepticism from 2001-2008 and the financial bailout received in 2010, Irish attitudes towards the EU have remained consistently positive. Standard Eurobarometer data from 1972 – 2018 shows that support for the EU in Ireland since 1987, in particular, has been above the EU average and reached a record high of 85% in 2018 (see Figure 2) – with individuals in Ireland believing that membership of the EU is a ‘good thing’ for Ireland. In addition, 68% of people believe Ireland has benefited from EU membership – the highest level since 1963. 

Embracing Brexit  

In many ways, the outcome of the UK’s referendum on EU membership was not surprising. Firstly, public opinion in the UK has consistently been the most Eurosceptic electorate in the EU since it joined the EU in 1973. Secondly, it is well-established that referendums on European integration are highly unpredictable and that voters often reject proposals put to them by the government even when supported by a consensus among mainstream political parties and experts. 

Since the 2016 EU Referendum, political uncertainty has been consistent in British politics with polarising attitudes on Brexit ranging from a No Deal Brexit, Hard Brexit, Soft Brexit and a second EU referendum. And it appears that despite intense discourse regarding Brexit since 2016 polarised views in the UK regarding the EU continue with the latest poll of polls published by NatCen placing those individuals intending to vote in a second EU referendum at Leave 47% and Remain 53%. 

The Irish government’s concerns about Brexit were first outlined in the 2014 National Risk Assessment and outlined that a period of uncertainty regarding the UK’s relationship with the EU would have an impact on Ireland in three areas. Firstly, in the pursuit of Ireland’s objectives as an EU member state, secondly regarding bilateral relations with the UK including the economic and trading relationship and thirdly issues in relation to Northern Ireland.  The UK decision to leave the EU apportioned a considerable shock to Irish national interests. There are serious economic concerns about the potential detrimental effect of the UK being outside the European Single Market and Customs Union in particular in light of a No Deal Brexit. 

One of the central components of the Irish government’s approach to Brexit has been to engage with civil society and stakeholders, in particular, creating an All-Island Civic Dialogue on Brexit a participative and consultative exercise that aimed to hear directly about the all-island implications of Brexit. The All-Island Civic Dialogue has undoubtedly created a positive narrative towards the EU in Ireland, therefore, shaping public opinion.

As the clock ticks towards Brexit Day on 29 March 2019 one thing we can be sure of is that when examining public opinion towards the EU in both the UK and Ireland overall not much has changed since 1973. The UK continues to be uncertain and awkward in its support of the EU project, while Ireland is consistently positive and pro-EU in its stance.  The two countries could not be any more different in their attitudes towards the EU.


Dr. Kathryn Simpson is Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at the Future Economies Research Centre, Manchester Metropolitan University. She tweets at @DrKathrynSimps. 


This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association (PSA) and Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI).  


To read the entire series, please see below:

  1. What’s the likely impact of Brexit on Higher Education in Northern Ireland? by Cathy Gormley-Heenan
  2. Brexit and a second Scottish Independence Referendum: What happens next? by Margaret Arnott
  3. What's the difference? British and Irish attitudes towards the EU by Kathryn Simpson
  4. Brexit and devolution in Wales by Roger Awan-Scully
  5. The Backstop: a ‘flexible and imaginative’ solution? by David Phinnemore
  6. Culture, the arts and Brexit by Kate Mattocks
  7. Brexit and implications for Scottish Devolution by Nicola McEwen
  8. Is Brexit propelling Northern Ireland towards Irish unity? by Katy Hayward
  9. Blair and Brexit by John O'Brennan
  10. The looming possibility of a retaliatory relationship between the UK and the EU by Will Phelan
  11. Brexit: Ethnopolitical dimension by Timofey Agarin
  12. Irish-British relations: Preparing for momentous change by Paul Gillespie
  13. Brexit, gender and Northern Ireland: Changing the state-society relationship by Yvonne Galligan
  14. Beyond the backstop: the DUP’s role in Brexit by Jon Tonge
  15. Brexit, political parties & power-sharing in Northern Ireland by Sophie Whiting
  16. Brexit and devolution in England: What's at stake by Arianna Giovannini
  17. What do people in Northern Ireland think about Brexit? by Jamie Pow and John Garry
  18. Brexit, diplomacy and defense by Ben Tonra
  19. Empathy, minorities and Brexit by Richard English
  20. Young people and Brexit: Not all that we think by Emily Rainsford
  21. Is the Backstop a Red Line Too Far? by Etain Tannam
  22. The UK's view of the EU by Simon Usherwood
  23. The invidious impact of Brexit on Ireland's policy landscapes by Mary C. Murphy
  24. Looking into the abyss: A European perspective by Brigid Laffan
  25. Britain after Brexit by Anand Menon
  26. Brexit as Political Irony by Feargal Cochrane
  27. The Brexit Countdown Series: Some concluding thoughts, and an appeal by Muiris MacCarthaigh and Feargal Cochrane