Do Voters Care About Controls on EU Imports?

Posted on 31 August 2023 by John Curtice

The defining slogan of the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum was, of course, ‘Take back control’. The slogan not only referenced how Brexit would facilitate control of immigration, but also of goods and services entering the UK. For some advocates of Leave at least, that latter prospect was a crucial part of their vision of Brexit. It would allow the UK to implement and enforce its own regulatory regime, one that would be more competitive than that of the EU. Indeed, the Trade and Co-operation Agreement negotiated by Lord Frost reflected that vision by excluding any firm commitment to follow EU regulations in future.

Not that voters necessarily believe that much use is being made of the regulatory freedom Brexit was supposed to bring. In Redfield & Wilton’s latest poll for ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’, only 36% think that, since Brexit, ‘the UK government has written laws and regulations that diverge from EU laws and regulations’ to a ‘significant’ or a ‘fair’ degree, while 39% believe it has either undertaken a ‘small amount’ of divergence or none at all. As many as one in four (25%) state that they do not know. Those who voted Leave and those who backed Remain differ little in their response to this question.

Meanwhile, in the last few weeks, the UK government has postponed or cancelled two elements of the original vision for Brexit. First, it has postponed the introduction of border checks on food imports entering from the EU. Already delayed on more than one occasion, even though checks on goods entering the EU from the UK were introduced as soon as the UK left the single market at the beginning of 2021, they were scheduled to be introduced in October. Indeed, regulatory checks on imports from the EU in general have repeatedly been delayed, and, following an announcement in April, are now not due to be implemented until next year.

Second, the government announced that it was abandoning a planned requirement that goods sold in the UK should have a British safety certificate – and its accompanying logo displayed on those goods. Under these plans, EU safety certification (and the display of its logo) would no longer be sufficient – but now it will be, a step that will potentially limit the impact of the UK’s legal ability after Brexit to set its own safety standards.

According to Redfield & Wilton’s latest poll, neither of these announcements is in tune with public opinion. After explaining that the EU had introduced customs checks on goods entering the single market from the UK but that the UK had not introduced checks on EU goods coming into Britain, respondents were asked:

Do you think the UK Government should or should not introduce checks on goods coming into Britain from the EU?

As many as 69% said that it either ‘definitely’ (29%) or ‘probably’ (40%) should do so. Only 17% indicated that it definitely (4%) or probably (13%) should not.

Thereafter, respondents were advised that the government had decided that ‘goods such as fridges and televisions’ that had a EU safety certificate could continue to be sold in Britain without having a separate British certificate. They were then asked:

 Do you think that consumer goods sold in Britain should or should not be required to have a British rather than an EU safety certificate?

As many as 64% said that a British certificate should ‘definitely’ (28%) or ‘probably’ (36%) be required, while only 21% stated that it definitely (5%) or probably (16%) should not.

At first glance, these figures suggest that in making these decisions the government has potentially put public confidence in how it is handling Brexit at risk –  its net approval among voters as a whole is, at -14, in negative territory.

Yet, in practice, there is little evidence to support that contention. In the case of border checks, net approval of the government’s handling of Brexit stands at -4 among those who say they definitely or probably should be introduced. That is actually above the equivalent figure (-38) among the minority who are against their introduction.

Similarly, in the case of attitudes towards the introduction of a British safety certificate, net approval of the government’s handling of Brexit is -6 among supporters of the idea, but -31 among opponents.

Still, we might anticipate that the absence of border controls and of a British safety certificate is more of a concern for supporters than opponents of Brexit. Perhaps if we look separately at those who say they would vote to stay out of the EU if there were another referendum on the subject, we will discover that approval of the government’s handling is lower among supporters than opponents of border controls and a British safety certificate.

That, however, is not the case. Among supporters of Brexit, net approval of the government’s handling is +30 among those who support border checks, compared with +18 among the minority who do not.  Meanwhile, the equivalent figure among those Brexit supporters who support a British safety certificate is, at +37, higher than among those who do not (+11).

So, does this mean that Brexit supporters are unconcerned about the delivery of regulatory divergence – and have little interest in the border control needed to pursue such a policy? Not necessarily. For both among voters in general and among those who would vote to stay out of the EU, approval of the government’s handling of Brexit is higher among those who think the UK government has diverged from EU laws and regulations to a significant or fair degree than it is among those who believe it has diverged a ‘small amount’ if at all. Among those who would vote to stay out, for example, net approval of the government’s handling stands at +61 among those think there has been a fair amount of divergence, but only +2 who take the opposite view.

As of now at least, voters may not have noticed the government’s recent announcements. But it cannot assume that for supporters of Brexit – a diminished group though they might now be – the promise to ’take back control’ has necessarily been forgotten.

This blog is also published on the UK in a Changing Europe website.

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By John Curtice

John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen and at 'UK in a Changing Europe', Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.

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