Have The Brexit Talks Delivered What Voters Want?

Posted on 28 December 2020 by John Curtice

Following the successful conclusion of the negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with the EU on Christmas Eve, the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the institution are now known and, subject to ratification of the deal by Parliament on Wednesday, will be put in place on New Year’s Day.

Those on the Leave side of the debate will doubtless argue that the deal fulfills the instructions that were given by voters when they voted to Leave the EU in June 2016. However, exactly what voters hoped would emerge from the Brexit process has always been open to interpretation. During the course of the last four years, this website has conducted a number of its own surveys in which, inter alia, voters were asked what they hoped would emerge from the Brexit negotiations. These surveys addressed a number of the questions that were central to the Brexit debate, including immigration control and the regulation of economic activity.

In the following table, we attempt to evaluate how closely the outcome of the Brexit talks, as detailed by a variety of sources, reflect what our research suggested was the majority view on the topics that we covered. Note that sometimes the relevant provisions were part of the Withdrawal Agreement that was negotiated last year rather than of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement that has just been made. For each survey question, the single most popular view is stated, though in some instances it was only marginally so. Hypertext links provide further details of the distribution of responses for each question. In some instances, the outcome in Northern Ireland is different from that in the rest of the UK, while in others further details of the action that the UK proposes to take are awaited.

Three key conclusions emerge.

First, the decision to end freedom of movement, taken by Theresa May four years ago, clearly accords with the preference of a majority of voters. Immigration control was, of course, a key concern of voters in the 2016 referendum. This concern has not diminished significantly and appears to be shared by many of those who voted Remain. Given that freedom of movement is an essential requirement of membership of the EU single market, that decision inevitably constrained the options that were available to the UK in shaping a new relationship with the EU.

Even so – and this is our second conclusion – most voters were wanting to maintain tariff-free trade with the EU, as has now been negotiated. However, the scope of the trade agreement may be somewhat narrower than many voters were anticipating, not least perhaps in failing to make provision for financial services. Yet, at the same time, voters are willing to accept the introduction of customs checks on goods and people travelling between the UK and the EU – as will now happen.

Third, the priority given by the UK government in the trade talks to minimising the extent to which the UK has to follow EU regulatory standards does not seem to be shared by voters. On various aspects of consumer and environmental regulation – though not labour market standards – voters have been found to be willing to retain EU regulation, presumably because the provisions in question are felt to be beneficial. The political scope for the UK to diverge significantly from EU regulation in the post-Brexit world may prove to be rather less than both the UK government hopes and the EU seemingly fears.


Table: The Brexit Deal – Voters’ Majority Preferences and the Outcome Compared


Majority PreferenceOutcome


End Freedom of Movement for EU Citizens moving to the UK


Freedom of movement ends on 1 January, and is replaced by a new immigration system in which the rules for EU and non-EU citizens are the same.
End Freedom of Movement for UK Citizens moving to the EU



The end of freedom of movement means that UK citizens no longer have the automatic right to live and work in an EU country, and will have to apply for a visa.
Allow EU citizens already living in the UK to remain here.


This was agreed as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, though EU citizens have to secure their right by applying for settled status.
End EU migrants’ entitlement to welfare benefits


As was already the position for non-EU migrants, with the end of freedom of movement EU migrants will only become eligible for welfare benefits if they become permanent residents, a status that is usually only granted after 5 years.


Maintain free trade with the EU


The trade agreement provides for tariff and quota free trade in goods but does not cover services, which constitute 80% of the UK economy.
Maintain tariff-free trade with the EU


The trade agreement provides for tariff-free trade in goods between the UK and the EU, subject to adherence to certain rules on the origin of the parts of assembled goods and the avoidance of regulatory divergence that distorts patterns of trade.
Reintroduce customs checks between the UK and the EU


The UK is leaving the EU customs union, and consequently customs checks are being reintroduced both for passengers and goods.
Mutual recognition of financial services


This is not covered by the trade agreement. It is hoped that the EU will grant UK institutions the ability to offer some services by declaring that UK financial regulation is equivalent to that of the EU. The UK government has already granted EU institutions such access in the UK.
Allow EU boats to fish in British waters in return for reciprocal rights



The EU has retained access to British waters, albeit with a gradual reduction over a five and half year period in the quota of fish that EU boats can take, and the prospect of annual negotiations thereafter.
Keep EU regulations on design and safety of goods


The trade agreement allows the UK to introduce its own system of consumer regulation, subject to constraints. These include a commitment to not lowering standards below those already in place and the possibility that tariffs might be introduced if future regulatory divergence results in unfair competition.
Keep EU rules on flight compensation


This is not covered by the agreement, but the relevant European legislation has been incorporated into UK law.
Keep EU regulations on the cost of using a mobile phone abroad


This is not covered by the agreement and has not been incorporated into UK law, though UK mobile phone companies have said they will not charge extra for using a mobile in the EU.
Keep EU regulations on labelling of geographically specific foods


The UK is introducing its own system of regulating the use of terms like ‘stilton cheese’ and ‘Cornish Pasty’, though existing designations granted by the EU will be carried forward.
Labour Market
End EU regulations on the maximum number of hours people can work and on annual leave entitlement


The UK is no longer required to follow EU labour market regulations, but is committed by the trade agreement to not lowering existing standards.
Keep EU regulations on quality of bathing water


These regulations have been transferred into UK law, but the UK will be able to set its own standards and enforcement mechanisms in future, subject to the commitment in the trade agreement not to reduce environmental standards.
Require UK farmers to follow EU pesticide regulations


The UK is establishing its own regulatory regime, though existing authorisations for the use of pesticides are being carried forward. The trade agreement commits the UK to maintaining current environmental standards.

Northern Ireland

No passport checks between Northern Ireland the Republic of Ireland


The previously negotiated Withdrawal Agreement that, inter alia, was designed to avoid a ‘hard’ border on the island of Ireland means there no such checks. The Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland remains in place.
Northern Ireland should leave the EU on the same terms and conditions as the rest of the UK


Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market and, consequently, is leaving the EU on different terms and conditions than the rest of the UK.
Only follow some EU Court Judgements


Adherence to the terms of the trade agreement will be policed by a joint institutional framework and not by the European Court of Judgement (ECJ). However, UK participation in EU programmes, such as that for university research, will fall under the remit of the ECJ as will aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Participate in EU programmes for university research


The trade agreement provides for the UK’s continuation in some EU scientific programmnes including, most notably, the Horizon programme. However, the UK has withdrawn from the Erasmus programme of student exchange.
Keep Free Health Treatment for UK Citizens when Abroad


Existing European Health Cards that facilitate emergency health treatment across the EU will continue to be valid and will eventually be replaced by an equivalent scheme.


John Curtice

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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