The assumption is widespread today that Britons are naturally Eurosceptic – that history and geography have given us a completely different perspective on Europe from that of our neighbours on the Continent.
With the exception of the Liberal Democrats, most politicians act as if it is obvious that few votes are to be had in sounding pro-European and that the trick is either to sound witheringly contemptuous of the EU or just avoid talking about it.
But are they barking up the wrong tree? A new survey – which will have diehard Eurosceptics choking on their breakfast – shows not only that most Britons support the European project but also that we are now more pro-European than a number of countries that were once rock solid on the subject.
The Pew Research Centre’s findings show that 54 per cent of Britons “look favourably” on the European project, well up from only 45 per cent back in 2012. Of the seven nations surveyed, this puts us ahead of the Spaniards, Italians and Greeks and roughly abreast with the French. Only the Germans and Poles are markedly more pro-European than we are.
The figures are also startling because they suggest that while Britons have become more pro-European since 2012, the other countries in the survey, except for Poland, are travelling in the opposite direction. As our love for Europe waxes, theirs wanes and, if the trend continues, Britain will be much more pro-European than most EU member states in a few years’ time – again, with the exception of Poland and Germany.
The results will not necessarily have the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, hurriedly rewriting his manifesto for the forthcoming European parliamentary elections. Even if more than half of the UK population are broadly pro-European, just under half are not, so a large pool of anti-European votes exists for a flamboyantly Eurosceptic party to fish in.
Moreover, it may be that Eurosceptics feel more passionate about their cause than Europhiles do about theirs, in which case the former will still trump the latter in elections. Nevertheless, the mere fact that pro-Europeans form a silent majority in modern Britain will come as a revelation to many, shattering many a hoary myth about what makes this country tick.
With a general election looming next year, the implications are potentially significant for all the parties. For the Liberal Democrats, there is consolation. They may be slaughtered in the European elections this month, but the Pew Centre’s findings vindicate Nick Clegg in his refusal to apologise for his party’s pro-European values.
David Cameron’s advisers might also draw some comfort from the survey, as it suggests that his strategy of seeking a looser arrangement with Brussels while keeping Britain in the club matches many people’s approximate standpoint.
This is indicated by other results in the same survey, which show that a broadly pro-European sentiment in Britain does not translate into confidence in Europe’s main institutions. The lesson for all the big parties is that while Euroscepticism is a force to be reckoned with, it is also in retreat – in which case getting into a bidding war with Ukip over who can sound more Europhobic is a fool’s errand.