London4Europe Committee Member and former HM Treasury senior civil servant Michael Romberg can find little evidence about what voters thought would happen in concrete terms.
We do not of course know for what Leave voters voted. The question on the ballot paper was “Leave the EU?”. It gave no clue as to what that meant.
There was no single authoritative statement that united the Leave campaign. Campaigners offered different proposals – many of which were inconsistent. Campaigners who said one thing during the campaign had made different proposals earlier – and not every voter will have kept up with their evolving thinking.
Single Market: access or membership?
On the single market, many Leave campaigners talked about preserving “access” to the single market. That is a tricky word. It could mean nothing. After all, everyone has access. It just means selling into the single market. North Korea has access just as Belgium does, albeit on different terms. No-one ever thought the EU would blockade the UK and forbid trade. So claiming that we would have access in that sense meant nothing.
So if those referring to “access” meant something, presumably they meant “access as now”. That would mean maintaining the same level of privileges as we have now, as members of the single market. Certainly “retaining access” would mean that.
Boris Johnson, of course, with his famous cake policy, was clear on the point. It would be possible to retain the trading privileges of the single market without agreeing to freedom of movement.
How the Single Market works
But members of the single market – EEA countries – have a different status from 3rd countries. Simplifying (but only slightly): a product that may lawfully be sold in any one EEA country may lawfully be sold in any other EEA country. So if UK trading standards officers say a UK product is alright, the French may not block it.
So membership of the single market is more like trading within one country than conventional trade across borders. Yorkshire may not block imports from Leicestershire on the grounds that they do not meet Yorkshire standards.
The single market works because there is a common rule-book – EU laws; that common rule-book is enforced in a single hierarchy of courts that culminates in the European Court of Justice. More importantly, it works because the continued, repeated and prospective interactions of member states in EU institutions and in other fora build a level of trust that approximates to the trust that exists within a nation state.
By contrast, when say a firm in Canada – a friendly power – wishes to export to the single market they have to demonstrate that their products meet EU standards. Trade facilitation agreements may make that easier – some Canadian agencies may be trusted by the EU to award certification and so goods do not need to be inspected in a Customs shed at the frontier. But it is a bigger hindrance than faced by firms in EEA states.
What voters expected
While there was some polling of what people wanted – although most of that has been in the period after the referendum, there was very little as to what people thought they would get in concrete terms as a result of a Leave vote.
The only poll I can find specifically on the single market is by Professor Stephanie Walters, University of Zurich, taken two weeks before the referendum vote asking 1,800 people via YouGov. She republished the original result in June 2017.
The question was: “If Britain votes to leave the EU, Britain will lose full access to the EU’s single market. How likely do you think this scenario will come true if Britain votes to leave the EU in the referendum?”
30% of prospective Leave voters thought it very unlikely, 36% fairly unlikely. So two thirds of Leave voters did not think their vote meant losing “full access”.
I think we should assume that “full access” was interpreted as meaning something like the access we have now. If people had interpreted it as just meaning we could sell to the EU then one would have expected 100%. The poll does not reveal whether voters were assuming that Boris was right or that there would be a choice involved.
There was also a Yougov poll conducted 5-6 June 2016. Much of it asked whether things would be "better or worse". But it did ask specifically (Pp 15-16) about our "current ... free trade with other EU members". Free trade is another awkward term to use because Leavers talked a lot about the Free Trade Agreements we could strike with other countries; these of course offer much less than the frictionless trade that comes with membership of the single market and customs union, but not all voters will have understood that.
57% of those intending to vote Leave (but only 32% of voters in general) believed that "It would probably be possible for Britain to negotiate free trade with the rest of the EU, without having to allow EU citizens to live and work in Britain". So prospective Leave voters believed Boris' line on cake.
What voters want now
There have been a number of polls asking voters to prioritise various options in the EU negotiation. The National Centre for Social Research pulls together the results of various polls asking people whether to prioritise control of immigration over free trade with the EU – although it is of course hard to know what exactly people understand by those two ideas. Broadly, in the period after the referendum the weight of opinion was a bit more for immigration control; in 2017 results were pretty even; more recently free trade is seen as a bit more important. But the leads are not that definite: the country is split more or less half and half on the point. Generally Leavers prioritise immigration control and Remainers trade.
(Depending on your browser you may be able to show Nat Cen's results as a graph: I suggest: combining strongly agree & agree; combining strongly disagree & disagree; and eliminating don’t knows.)
Professor John Curtice analysed a selection of polls on this issue for the BBC in July 2018 and reached a similar conclusion.
The “will of the people” was unclear on 23 June 2016 and has not become much clearer since. What little evidence I can find on expectations suggests that both Leavers and voters in general did not think the UK would leave the single market as a result of the Leave vote. Leave voters seem to have believed Boris' line on cake.
Voters are currently divided in their wishes for the nature of Brexit.
There is of course one good way to find out what voters now think of Brexit. It is to ask them on the back of two concrete plans: a referendum on the terms of Brexit with the option to Remain, a People’s Vote, giving us the Final Say.
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