Over the past few months, we’ve been closely monitoring the UK’s sentiment towards Brexit. A consistent majority of Brits have expressed regret over the decision to leave in 2016. However, until recently, most didn’t favor the idea of a second referendum on the issue.
A Shift in Public Opinion
According to the latest polling by Redfield & Wilton from April, it appears that for the first time, a majority of Brits are also in favor of a second referendum within the next five years. This shift in public opinion has prompted us to revisit the topic in more detail.
In the past, we’ve been quite dismissive of the idea that the UK could actually rejoin the EU, primarily because the EU itself didn’t seem too keen on it. However, given that a majority of Brits now want to reopen the question and that new voters are overwhelmingly keen on rejoining, we thought it was worth exploring the topic further.
Brexit: A Look Back
Let’s start by looking at how public opinion towards Brexit has soured since the result in 2016. YouGov has been conducting a poll every couple of weeks, asking people in the UK, “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?” Since October of the previous year, “wrong” has held a 20-point lead, with about 55% saying Britain was wrong to leave the EU and just 35% saying it was the right decision. The remaining 10% were undecided.
This lead opened up as the UK economy was being driven into a ditch by arch-Brexiteer Liz Truss but has basically held steady since then. The latest YouGov polling for mid-April indicates that 53% think Brexit was wrong, including about 20% of 2016 Brexit voters, while 33% think it was right.
The Possibility of a Second Referendum
Now, when presenting this data, YouGov and other political commentators have been keen to stress that this doesn’t necessarily mean that the UK wants to rejoin the EU. After all, thinking Brexit was a mistake isn’t the same as wanting to rejoin.
You might regret what happened in 2016 but also not want to reopen old political wounds, especially because rejoining would probably require a second referendum, which could be just as chaotic and divisive as the previous one.
However, Redfield & Wilton polling from earlier this year found that 55% of Brits are now in favor of having a second referendum sometime in the next five years, while just 24% are against the idea. Unsurprisingly, most Remain voters want a second referendum, while most Leave voters don’t.
The Road to Rejoining the EU
So, could the UK really call a second referendum and potentially rejoin the EU? Well, in the near term, almost definitely not. Neither of the main parties is interested in the idea. The UK has enough problems as it is, and both the Conservatives and Labour are essentially scared of even talking about Brexit, let alone a second referendum.
However, looking to the medium/long term, whether the UK could eventually have a second referendum depends on two things: how UK attitudes towards Brexit develop and how the EU’s attitude towards the UK develops.
For there to be sufficient political demand for a second referendum, the number of people who think Brexit was a mistake has to continue to grow,and rejoining the EU has to become a political priority for some of those people.
Now, there’s no guarantee that this will happen. According to that YouGov polling, the number of people who think Brexit was a mistake is sitting pretty stable at about 55 percent, and it’s possible that as time goes on, people just get bored of Brexit and less interested in rejoining.
This is somewhat what happened in Switzerland in 1992. Switzerland voted by a tiny 50.3 percent majority not to join the European Economic Area (EEA). But as time went on, the Swiss got used to life outside the EEA, and the Swiss today have little appetite for closer relations with the EU or the EEA.
The Role of Young Voters
On the other hand, young people overwhelmingly regret Brexit and are in favor of both a second referendum and rejoining. To give you a sense of quite how pro-EU young Brits are, according to polling from ITV from the beginning of May, 86 percent of young people aged 18 to 25 want to rejoin the EU. Assuming that their opinions don’t shift significantly as they get older, as these new voters enter the electorate, they might increase demand for a second referendum.
🚨NEW— Peston (@itvpeston) May 3, 2023
Our inaugural #ITVYouthTracker found that a massive 86% of young people aged 18-25 would vote to rejoin the EU if there was another referendum 🔥
STAY OUT 14% @Savanta_UK @AnushkaAsthana @itvnews #Peston pic.twitter.com/G19VYT2bBq
The EU’s Perspective
The second thing is how the EU sees the UK. As things stand, there’s zero chance the EU would entertain the idea of the UK rejoining. The EU has basically stopped accepting members for the time being, and it’s going to have its hands full for the foreseeable future as it tries to bring Ukraine into the block.
It’s also worth saying that the EU would only consider accepting the UK if it could be sure that the UK wouldn’t decide to do another Brexit down the line. And it’s unlikely that the EU would offer the UK the same preferential treatment it enjoyed when it was in the EU before 2016, which might make Brits think twice about rejoining.