Now that the House of Lords has opted to amend the Bill designed to give the Prime Minister the authority to give the EU formal notice that the UK wishes to leave, the House of Commons will be invited to consider once again whether EU citizens currently living in the UK should be automatically given the right to stay, and not (as the UK government prefers) have their right to do so made conditional on the same rights being given to British citizens living in the EU.
But where does the public stand on this contentious issue? After all, it might be thought reasonable for MPs to take public opinion into account before they make a final decision on this issue?
Perhaps the first point to make is that there seems to be little dispute that the government should be seeking an outcome whereby EU citizens currently resident in the UK would retain the right to stay after Brexit. The NatCen survey of attitudes to Brexit conducted last autumn found that as many as 76% would favour ‘Allowing all EU citizens who are already living in the UK to remain here’ being a part of the agreement negotiated with the EU. Just 12% were opposed. Even amongst those who voted Leave last June, 68% were in favour and just 18% opposed. Similarly last October BMG reported that 58% of all voters said the government should guarantee the right of EU citizens currently living in the UK to stay, while just 28% were opposed.
We should note too, though, that there seems to be quite considerable (if not necessarily unconditional) support for allowing British citizens resident in the EU to remain there if they so wish. Opinium recently found that 36% of voters believe that British citizens living elsewhere in the EU should automatically be given the right to remain, while another 25% felt they should certainly be given permission to remain if they have lived in a country for five years. Just 22% reckoned they should have to apply for the right to remain in exactly the same way as anyone else applying from outside the EU, while only 3% stated they should be expected to leave and return to Britain. So there is fair amount of sympathy (and especially so in fact amongst Remain supporters) for the idea that British citizens should be able to carry on living in Brussels, Berlin or Benidorm.
Between them these two findings mean that it is less than obvious on which side of the argument public opinion falls when it comes to the respective stances of the government and of the Lords. After all, while Remain voters are keener than Leave voters on guaranteeing the right of EU citizens to stay in the UK, they are also keener on allowing British citizens to stay in the EU too. Whether they think the position of EU citizens is so important that it outweighs any need to seek a guarantee for British citizens cannot be determined from the evidence we have cited so far.
There have, however, been a couple of attempts to try and ascertain where the balance of opinion lies. Back last summer YouGov asked their respondents to choose between three options – allowing EU citizens to stay, allowing them to stay but only if the EU makes the same deal for British citizens abroad, and requiring them to leave. Just 4% backed the last of these options. But amongst the remainder, the balance of opinion was tilted in favour of granting the right of EU citizens to stay conditional on similar treatment for British citizens. In the more recent of two readings, as many as 51% backed the former option, 34% the latter.
Just last month, however, ICM revisited the issue and secured a somewhat different result. While 42% said that a guarantee should not be given to EU citizens until an equivalent one has been given to British citizens living in the EU, 41% backed the proposition that ‘The government should guarantee the right of EU nationals now, as it is the right thing to do and may get Brexit negotiations off to a good start’. Perhaps public opinion has shifted – or maybe the wording of the ICM question made the unconditional option sound more appealing than did the more straightforward description used by YouGov.
Either way, it suggests that public opinion is potentially quite conflicted on the issue. Meanwhile, a more detailed look at both polls reveals that the government’s stance is more widely supported amongst Leave voters (by, for example, 57% to 29% according to ICM) and amongst Conservative supporters (49% to 41%), while the position of the Lords is more popular amongst those who voted Remain (by 57% to 30%) and those who backed Labour (54% to 34%).
The argument between the government and the Lords might be thought to be about tactics rather than principle. However, like so much of the Brexit debate it is in truth yet another reflection of the deep differences in outlook that were revealed by the referendum last June. Given that is the case, MPs are probably going to have to make their minds up for themselves – for whatever decision they make around half the country is likely to be unhappy.
By John Curtice
John Curtice is Senior Research Fellow at NatCen, Professor of Politics at Strathclyde University, and Chief Commentator on the What UK Thinks: EU website.