A Happy Brexit? No Chance

British Flag Eu Flag
A British Union flag and an European Union flag outside the European Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, June 1, 2016. Britain may face harsh treatment if it votes to leave the EU. Francois Lenoir/Reuters

This piece originally appeared on Peter Kellner's The Politics Counter blog.

The matter can now be settled. New surveys by Pew Research and YouGov put the issue beyond doubt. If Britain votes to leave the European Union, we shall find life cold on the outside. The notion that the other EU states will be nice to us is for the birds.

On a recent trip to Brussels, I heard much the same as many others: senior officials from both the European Commission and a variety of member states warned that if we vote for Brexit, we will either have to give up free access to the single market—or abandon plans to curb immigration from the EU. Freedom of movement is an essential feature of the single market. If we insist on "controlling our borders" more than we do already, then we shall find it harder selling goods and services across the Channel.

To which Brexit campaigners say: stuff and nonsense. Such talk is crude sabre-rattling. If we opt for Brexit, the other 27 member states will quickly come to terms with our decision. Their companies will not want to lose their easy access to their British customers. They will clamour for no-tariff, barrier-free deal with the UK, however hard we clamp down on EU citizens wanting to work in Britain. Everything will work out fine.

What Europe's voters think

This week's poll numbers show that this is moonshine. The other countries will have to strike a tough deal, not out of any animus towards Britain but because of the backlash they would face back home if they don't. Here are some of the key findings.

Pew's 10-country survey finds that Britain is far from the most Euroskeptic country. French voters have a lower overall opinion of the EU. Asked about the way the EU handles European economic issues, people in five of the other nine countries surveyed by Pew are more critical than the British: not just Greece, Spain and Italy, which might be expected, but France and Sweden, too. In none of the ten countries do a majority approve of the EU's record.

Big majorities in all 10 countries are unhappy with the way the EU is handling the challenge of refugees. The figures for Britain—22 percent approve, 70 percent disapprove—are close to the ten-country average.

In all 10 countries, more people want Brussels to shed power rather than continue to the journey towards "ever closer union". In only two countries—France and Spain, where opinions are polarised—are the numbers even close. The mood across the EU is increasingly nationalist rather than federal; and it's a mood that extends well beyond the people who vote for explicitly nationalist parties.

YouGov's latest six-country Eurotracker survey helps to explain Pew's findings. Across all six, voters see the benefits of EU membership accruing not to ordinary workers or families struggling to make ends meet, but to politicians, bankers and "people running big businesses". EU enthusiasts point to the rights to protect workers and consumers, and the competition rules designed to make big companies behave themselves—but these cut little ice, not just in Britain, but France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, too.

The discontent across Europe is palpable. Neither Brussels nor, in the main, national governments command public respect. (YouGov finds that Angela Merkel's government is even less popular in Germany than David Cameron's in Britain.)

After June 23

That is the backdrop against which the rest of the EU will have to grapple with a vote for Brexit. It is inconceivable that Britain will be allowed a "best of both worlds" deal—all the benefits of a close relationship with the EU without the costs and responsibilities of membership. If that, or anything like it, were to transpire, voters across Europe would demand the same for their own countries. In order to fend off domestic political pressures, our current partners would have to hang tough and show their own electorates that following Britain out of the EU would be painful.

In the long run, the best response to the public mood uncovered by Pew and YouGov would be for the EU to reform itself to be leaner and more efficient. Then, the long, slow slog towards respect for "Brussels" could start. Indeed, if the UK votes "remain" on June 23, we could play a big role in promoting a constructive reform agenda. Meanwhile, we should be in no doubt that a vote for Brexit will create huge problems for our partners. And if they don't look us in the eye when they impose tough terms, it will not be because they are shame-faced but because they are looking over their shoulder at their own nervous and often angry voters.

Peter Kellner is a political analyst, having worked for more than 40 years as a journalist, broadcaster and pollster.