Brexit and between: Young people and the EU referendum

Mae'r cynnwys hwn ar gael yn Saesneg yn unig.


On the 23rd of June 2016, 43 years after a reluctant and delayed entry to the European Economic Community, Britain will vote on one of the most significant political decisions for a generation: its membership of the European Union. For young British citizens who have never known a time before the EU, this is potentially the most dramatic voting decision they will ever make. It is well established that young people typically have more favourable views of the EU than older age groups, but will this translate into support for Britain’s continued membership? What is at the heart of that favourable opinion, and will it survive the onslaught of criticism and challenge thrown at it by those wishing Britain to leave the EU over the next four months? Will the young play a major role in the referendum and turn out to vote in large numbers, or will their views be marginalised as many once again shun the ballot box?

Over the next four months, WISERD will be running a survey across the UK to ask under 30s about their likelihood to vote; their voting preference; how much they trust the two campaigns and the media sources through which they hear about the referendum. Drawing on our own survey and a wide range of publically available data and academic research, we will offer analysis and commentary about the voting intentions of young people, how they are engaging with the campaign, and how and why their attitudes may shift throughout its course. We will also examine how major political events between now and the 23rd June – such as the Budget or the devolved elections on 5th May – might affect young people’s decisions.

So keep an eye out for updates and findings from a dedicated project page, but in the meantime let’s start at the beginning and consider why this research is important. Here I offer an answer using what we already know about young people and politics to frame new qualitative findings on young people’s attitudes to the EU.

Historically disenfranchised and disengaged: but will the EU referendum be different?

We know young people in the UK are affected by politics. Unemployment is highest among 16 to 24 year olds and the likelihood of finding a permanent, full-time job is now much lower than it was for generation X causing delays to traditional stages of adulthood; the proportion of young people over 18 living with their parents is increasing year on year and tuition fees are capped at £9000 in England and Wales.

We also know 18-24 year olds have a lower general election turn-out than any other age group. The same is true of devolved elections in Scotland and Wales and of referendums, with the outstanding exception of 16-24 year olds in the Scottish referendum on independence, September 2014, where around 80% turned out. This has been attributed to ‘the referendum effect’:

‘…not only does politics matter more when it will determine which country you live in, but the one-off decision to expand the franchise to 16 year olds… may also have heightened young peoples’ political awareness north of the border’ (British Future 2015: 2)

So will the same effect apply to the EU referendum? It neither alters which country we live in nor is it extended to 16 and 17 year olds, however, it will change the position of the country that we live in and a Brexit is likely to directly affect young people. Indeed the competing leave and remain campaigns cite the impact of a Brexit on young people. Britain Stronger in Europe focuses on maintaining apprenticeships, employment and overseas study opportunities created by the EU, while the Get Britain Out campaign argues that Britain will have more money for education in the event of a Brexit.

Research by the Higher Educational Policy Institute found 75% students were very likely to vote in the EU referendum and 77% would vote to remain. A WISERD blog by Dr Stuart Fox consolidates this with results from a poll by the British Election Study showing 55% of millennials who would vote to remain compared with 18% who would vote to leave. Explanations for this have included young people thinking the EU has less impact on their lives and feeling unrepresented by political parties. However, further exploration is needed into whyyoung people wish to remain, leave or ‘don’t know’.

What is at the heart of young peoples’ opinion on the EU?

Qualitative research was conducted by WISERD Education researchers in June 2015 with 28 young people in England and Wales. They were asked what the EU means to them and how this might affect their voting preference in the upcoming EU referendum. The majority of participants (23) wanted to remain in the EU, reflecting the statistics outlined above.

Reasons for staying included having grown up in the EU and any alternative being an uncertain entity:

I have grown up in the EU and learnt about a time before the EU, it seems like the best option but with reforms and more solidarity (Focus group 3, participant 1, July 2015)

The EU being a safety net for Britain was a key reason to stay. Because it is a union based on trust and shared support, if one country faces difficulties all others will support it. The Greek economic crisis was given as an example for this stance on more than one occasion as well as mitigating terrorist attacks by ISIS and global warming, both seen as ‘international’ problems best tackled as a union.

I think it’s good that we are equal, it’s based on mutual trust and it shows that we are….evolving….we can work together and support each other in different ways through trading and agriculture I think that might be better but you have to make sure that countries are treated equal…we don’t have to take the fall on our own we all take the fall (Focus group 2, participant 3, July 2015)

Isolation for Britain outside of EU was given as a reason to stay, under the assumption that the EU would go on without Britain. This was linked to annoyance with the common misperception of Britain as a superpower, perhaps heralding from the age of empire and in part Britain’s position post WWII.

Britain sees itself as a super power, like America, but it can’t support itself like the US…The EU doesn’t need Britain…but we need them…There are lots of other countries that can grow apples’ (Focus group 3, participant 2, July 2015)

Replacing the European Convention on Human Rights and a subsequent British Human Rights Act was a concern among those who wished to remain:

If we had a British Bill of Rights as soon as it’s passed through he’ll (Cameron) be saying let’s legalise fox hunting, something like that…. the worst thing is if it passes as a new Bill of Right you can’t get rid of it, same with Obama and the guns law. Kids can’t go to school without being killed by a madman with a pistol (Focus group 2, participant 4, July 2015)

Only four of the 28 participants wished to leave the EU with Britain paying for EU activity a key reason, coupled with the example given below:

Our government just paid £7m to build a fence in France well, ok it is our problem that they’re coming over but it’s that France’s problem? It’s their borders, their problem and so their control so why aren’t they doing it? (Focus group 2, participant 7, July 2015)

‘Keeping Britain British’ was the main reason for one participant wishing to leave. This framed in discussion about economic migrants taking ‘British jobs’ by a group of young people who had left school and were either seeking employment or working zero hour contracts.

Those who did not know cited the complexity of the issue and a lack of knowledge about the EU.

It’s really complicated and I don’t know what’s going on (Focus group 1, participant 5, July 2015)

These findings give us a flavour of the issues and concerns shaping young peoples’ views on the EU. However, some concerns apply directly to young people (such as unemployment and zero hours contracts) while other apply to all age groups. The WISERD EU project will address this by looking at differences between different age groups in examining the trends and nuances of young people’s attitudes to the EU, and how these play-out in practice on the 23rd of June.

About The Project:

The ‘Should we stay or should we go: Young People and the EU Referendum’ project is a study of young people’s attitudes towards and engagement with the EU referendum campaign. Using data from a dedicated UK-wide survey of under 30s and a wide range of publicly available data and academic research we will address four key themes.

For more information go to