Voters want UK to stay in the EU single market but be able to control immigration

  • Despite their differences many Remain and Leave voters agree on what Brexit should mean 

Almost everyone (90%) supports remaining part of the European single market, regardless of how they voted in the EU Referendum, according to a new report published today by NatCen Social Research.

But at the same time as many as seven in ten (70%) think the UK should be able to limit the number of people from the EU who come here to live and work. Indeed, almost three-quarters (74%) believe that potential EU migrants should have to apply to come here in the same way non-EU migrants have to do.

Today’s paper, the most comprehensive study yet undertaken of public attitudes towards the shape that Brexit should take and published as part of the ESRC-funded What UK Thinks: EU project, shows that Leave voters (90% in favour) are almost as keen as Remain voters (94%) on staying in the single market.

Meanwhile, although less than the figure for Leave voters (85%), over half (55%) of Remain supporters are in favour of the UK being able to limit EU immigration.

The results, which come from NatCen’s new methodologically rigorous panel survey, show widespread support both for measures that are often labelled a ‘soft’ Brexit and for those that are widely considered to form part of a ‘hard’ Brexit.

On possible options for a ‘soft’ Brexit

  • EU regulations: nearly two-thirds (65%) of all voters, including over half of Leave voters (55%), think British firms should continue to comply with EU regulations on the design and safety of goods.
  • Bank passporting: almost two-thirds (63%) of all voters, including 57% of Leave supporters, think EU banks should be allowed to do business in the UK in return for UK banks being able to do the same in the EU.
  • Common fisheries: three in five (60%) of all voters, including a half (50%) of Leave voters, think that EU fishermen should still be able to work in British waters in return for UK fishermen being able to fish in EU waters.

And on possibilities for a ‘hard’ Brexit

  • Customs checks: At least seven in ten (71%), including 55% of Remain voters, back reintroducing customs checks on people and goods coming into the UK from the EU.
  • Free healthcare for EU visitors: At least three in five (62%) voters, including nearly half (48%) of Remain supporters, favour ending free NHS healthcare for people visiting from the EU.
  • Passport checks between UK and Ireland: Although less than half (45%) of all voters in Britain support introducing passport checks between the UK and Ireland, only 29% are opposed. The remainder (25%) are neither in favour nor against.

Where Remain and Leave voters do disagree is on the relative importance of retaining access to the single market versus being able to limit immigration. While 70% of Remain voters think the UK should ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ allow freedom of movement for EU citizens if that were the only way to keep free trade with the EU, 70% of Leave voters say the government ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ should not strike such a deal. As a result, voters as a whole are evenly divided on the issue, with 49% thinking we should allow freedom of movement if it enables the UK to keep free trade, and 51% not.

Professor John Curtice, Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, said:

“Irrespective of how they voted, voters in Britain do not feel that the UK’s exit from the EU should necessarily be a choice between a ‘hard’ or a ‘soft’ withdrawal. Rather, many back options on both menus. Consequently, the kind of deal that is most likely to prove electorally popular is one that maintains free trade but permits at least some limits on EU migration.

“That, of course, is the deal that many in the EU insist will not be possible. In those circumstances, the UK government will be faced with a tough choice. But given that most Leave voters – and, indeed, a majority of Conservative voters – prioritise limits on immigration over keeping free trade, perhaps we should not be surprised if that would be the choice that, if necessary, it will be inclined to make.”


The report will be launched at an event in Parliament on 16 November, more detail here.

For more information or a copy of the report contact Sophie Brown:, 020 7549 9550 or 07734 960 069 or Leigh Marshall:, 0207 549 8506 or 07828 031850.


  1. NatCen Social Research interviewed 1,391 people between 22 September and 24 October 2016, either via the internet or over the phone. All respondents were originally interviewed as part of the random probability face-to-face 2015 British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey. The data have been weighted to take account of differences between the composition of the sample and that of the original BSA sample, as well as to ensure that it matches the known demographic characteristics of the population. After weighting 51% of the sample said that they have voted Leave, 49% Remain, very close to the actual result of 52% Leave, 49% Remain.
  1. NatCen Social Research is an independent, not for profit organisation. We believe that social research has the power to make life better. By really understanding the complexity of people’s lives and what they think about the issues that affect them, we give the public a powerful and influential role in shaping decisions and services that can make a difference to everyone.
  1. The ‘What UK Thinks: EU’ website can be accessed at It provides a comprehensive collection of polling and survey data on attitudes in the UK towards Europe, data on what the rest of Europe thinks about the EU, and impartial commentary and analysis on the evidence of the polls. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of its initiative on ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’.
  1. The UK in a Changing Europe initiative – – promotes independent, rigorous, high-quality academic research into the complex and ever changing relationship between the UK and the European Union. It provides an authoritative, non-partisan and impartial reference point for those looking for information, insights and analysis on UK-EU relations.
  1. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965 and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrated its 50th anniversary.