Paul's Column: has public opinion on Brexit changed since the referendum?

10 April 2018

While Brexit dominates politics and the news here in the UK it’s less of an issue amongst the remaining EU27.  Yes, they talk about it but nowhere near as much as we do.  The most common question I get asked is, ‘When will the British government decide what it wants from the Brexit negotiations?’, which says it all really!

As was entirely predictable the EU27 are acting, as their name suggests, as a union. They have been consistent, clear and unified in their position.  There may be 27 of them but they act in a united manner, unlike the UK1, who speak with many contradictory tongues; May, Johnson, Davis, Fox, Hammond.  It’s this lack of a unified, consistent and clear position from the UK that is irritating many in the EU27.

At the same time as speaking in many tongues, the UK government has perfected the diplomatic art of ‘kicking the can down the road’.  Issues, such as the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, that we would have thought would have been sorted out by this stage of the negotiations have been deftly kicked into stage two, the transition period of March 2019 to December 2021. Technically, we will have left the EU yet major issues will remain unresolved.  This means the ‘meaningful vote’ that the House of Commons was promised before we left is becoming problematic, i.e. how can it be meaningful if we don’t know what leave actually looks like?

Meanwhile on the doorstep in the North East not a great deal has changed in my experience.  Back at the time of the EU referendum those who supported Remain had some idea as to why they thought the UK would be better off remaining in the EU.  It was a decision they took in their heads.  On the other hand, and I realise this is a generalisation, Leavers were going with a gut feeling.

Since the referendum the Remainers have become increasingly informed about the many downsides of leaving as they continue to follow the debate closely.  On the other hand, the Leavers seem less engaged and when people point out the growing list of problems with leaving they tend to say that the politicians need to sort it out, the decision has been made.

That many Remainers have become more vocal means that that the ‘noise level’ is high, but the underlying voting intentions haven’t really shifted. It’s a deceptive state of affairs.

What might change things?  Job losses clearly linked to Brexit will be the wake up call, but the reality is this probably won’t happen until after we’ve left.  If a hard Brexit delivered a one in six level of unemployment in the North East, as the government’s own research has predicted, then you’d find a big change in public opinion but by then it will be too late.

Wherever I go both in the UK and abroad I get asked the question, ‘Why did the North East deliver such a big vote for Leave in the referendum?’ My standard answer is as follows.  We have had years of negative stories in the media about the EU especially from the right wing newspapers.  This drip drop has had a slow but corrosive impact.  Good news stories from Brussels have been claimed by Westminster as their own, bad news stories have been blamed on Brussels regardless.

Add into this toxic debate concerns around immigration, the biggest single issue on the doorstep in the North East, then you are fighting an uphill battle.  With hindsight we had lost the EU referendum in the North East before the campaign even began.

Hence we’ve a big role to explain to people in our region the facts about immigration, such as we have far fewer immigrants than most people think, those we do have are a financial benefit to the region not a hindrance and that we have skills gaps in our economy that only people from aboard are likely to fill.  We can change attitudes on immigration but we won’t if we don’t try.

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Do you think the North East needs its own voice in the EU exit negotiations?

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