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UK Politics

European Parliament Election 2014: A nation of eurosceptics? Despite Ukip surge, British support for EU is strong and rising

A global survey has revealed that the UK has a more favourable view of Europe than people in Spain, Greece or Italy do

It is certainly not apparent from the surge in support for Ukip. And it is definitely not reflected by the increasingly strident anti-European rhetoric of mainstream politicians.

But a new study suggests that British enthusiasm for European Union rather more resilient than some might think – and surprisingly is on the rise. A survey of global attitudes by the Pew Research Centre has found that support for the EU has actually increased by 9 per cent in Britain over the last year.

And for the first time since the start of the eurozone crisis more than half the British population has a favourable view of the union.

Not only that. When asked whether European economic integration has strengthened the economy, 41 per cent now agree – a 15 per cent year-on-year increase, which is higher than the rises in every other European country surveyed.

The results suggest Britain now has a more favourable attitude to the EU than citizens in Spain, Greece and Italy – and is only marginally behind pro-European countries such as France.

Interestingly, more than one in three voters even have a favourable attitude to those traditional bête noires of Europe – the Parliament and the European Commission – higher support again than in Spain and Italy.

The American-based Pew Research Centre is a respected assessor of global public opinion and every year carries out thousands of interviews across more than 60 countries on the current state of the world and important issues of the day.

In its latest survey it polled more than 7,000 people in seven European countries – including 1,000 in the UK – to gauge their attitudes to the EU and how they have changed from previous years.

It found that if a referendum on staying in the EU was held today, Britons would vote by 50 per cent to 41 per cent to remain in the EU – with only 9 per cent undecided. In 2013, the public was evenly divided on the issue: 46 per cent wanted to leave, and 46 per cent wanted to stay.

Within those figures women are more likely than men to want to stay in the EU, while, by more than two to one (63 per cent to 29 per cent), people aged 18 to 29 are pro-European. “In 2014, declining public trust in the European project and EU institutions has bottomed out and now seems to be rebounding,” the report concludes.

The report was very much at odds with the mood music in Westminster on Sunday with three polls suggesting Ukip was on track for it best ever European Election result.

A ComRes survey for The Independent on Sunday put Ukip in first place with 35 per cent of the vote among those “absolutely certain” to vote on Thursday. Labour were unchanged in second place on 24 per cent while support for the Conservatives in third was down two points to 20 per cent. The Greens were up two points on 7 per cent, leapfrogging the Liberal  Democrats who slumped to just 6 per cent.

In contrast, however, an ICM poll for The Sunday Telegraph, suggested that Ukip support was slipping and is now in third place behind the Conservatives. The survey had Labour is in first place on 29 per cent, down one point on last month, while the Tories are up four points to 26 per cent and Ukip has dropped two points to 25 per cent. The Liberal Democrats were on 7 per cent.

In a round of interviews ahead of Thursday’s elections David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg all sought to address the Ukip threat.

Mr Cameron attempted to draw the distinction between the pro-European parties on one side, Ukip on the other and the Tories who were taking a pragmatic approach.

“Labour and the Liberals think there is nothing wrong with Europe, Ukip thinks there’s nothing right with Europe, we think you’ve got to get stuck in, change it, get a better deal for Britain and give people a referendum,” he said.

“I don’t want a referendum now because you’d be giving people an unacceptable choice, the status quo which isn’t working properly or leaving altogether which would be bad for Britain, so let’s make the changes, get the better deal and then have the referendum.” 

Mr Miliband accused Ukip of trying to “tap in to people’s sense of discontent” but said the policies the party was promoting should not be attractive to Labour supporters.

“Mr Farage is saying that he wants to keep the flame of Thatcherism burning, he wants bigger cuts than the Tories, he wants to charge people to see their GP.

“I don’t think those [policies] are a solution. I think we’ve got better solutions to the discontent there is and to the feelings people have about the way the country is run.” 

The Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said Mr Farage’s “beer-swilling bonhomie mask” was now slipping. He accused the Ukip leader of using divisive politics after he remarked that he would be concerned if a group of Romanians were to move in next door to him.

“I think anyone who singles out one community, one nationality, and says ‘I don’t want to live next door to them’, I really think that’s the politics of division and I think it really should have no place in modern Britain,” he said. “I would say to people if you don’t like that point of view, if, like me, you are really put off by this very divisive, nasty approach to things then please go out and vote.

“The more people don’t vote the more likely it is that Ukip will get in.”