After my last post, @mcnalu queried my assumption that a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU would result in an exit:

@expatpaul the only point I wonder about is whether a referendum will result in exit. Polls suggest no, but do I believe them?

It’s a good question and it’s certainly true that a majority of people say they want to remain in the EU. However, the majority of British people also support either reducing the EU’s powers or leaving the institution altogether. NatCen sums this up quite nicely:

The majority of us are Eurosceptic – our latest British Social Attitudes survey found 62% of Brits support either leaving the EU or reducing its powers. And although an anti-EU stance is common where we might expect – among supporters of UKIP and the Conservative party, for example – it’s also gathering pace in unexpected places. As many as 43% of those who feel European now say they want the EU’s powers reduced.

As the table below shows, Euroscepticism has been simmering away since the mid to late nineties. Since 2012 however the feeling has increased, having peaked in 2012 at 67%. However, the problem isn’t that straightforward. While we’re highly Eurosceptic, when given a choice between staying in or leaving, a majority (57%) say they want to stay. So the picture is complicated and people’s views on this issue are highly nuanced and emotive. The next government will have to be both bold and sensitive to navigate this complex terrain.

So, 57% of the population want to stay in the EU and 62% are in favour of leaving the EU or reducing its powers. I am sure there are many ways to interpret this apparent contradiction, but to me, this suggests that support for Britain’s continued membership is spongy.

Most people recognise that, on balance, staying in the EU is beneficial but also recognise that there are plenty of problems with the institutions and would like to see them addressed. This is not an unreasonable position but, when every step involves hammering out an agreement among 27 heads of government, change is always going to be a slow and painful process.

By promising to complete his negotiations and then have a referendum in 2017, I think Cameron is – at the very least – running the risk of creating wildly unrealistic expectations. People will be disappointed and, even if they don’t swing into the anti-EU camp, if enough people are disappointed enough to not bother voting in the referendum, the result will be heavily skewed in favour of withdrawal.

Digressing for a moment, this YouGov political tracker (pdf) seems to bear this out. As of May 8-9, 45% of people would vote to stay in the EU and 36% would vote to leave. The detailed questions indicate that people do recognise the value of the EU and, if David Cameron actually managed to renegotiate terms to “protect British interests” the percentage of people saying they’d stay in rises to 58%. Unfortunately, YouGov don’t ask how people would vote if Cameron failed to renegotiate terms.

And back to my second point: turnout.

Britain doesn’t have a lot of experience with referenda so there aren’t a lot of data points available when it comes to predicting how many people are likely to vote. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the only data point we really have is the 2011 AV referendum, in which 42% of the electorate voted. I am ignoring the more recent Scottish Independence referendum for reasons that will, hopefully, become apparent as I continue.

The turnout for the 2014 European Parliament elections was 34%. The average turnout for 2012 local elections was even worse. As The Guardian notes:

Basically, Brits don’t vote in elections that aren’t general.

And low turnouts lead to the motivated minority having a disproportionate effect on the result.

While it’s true that pollsters will attempt to adjust for turnouts, the previously noted paucity of data points leaves me with very little faith in their ability to judge these adjustments accurately.

In summary, while a majority of UK voters support staying in the EU there is also a very strong desire to see the implementation of reform. By promising to have his negotiations completed in time for a 2017 referendum, David Cameron is, at minimum, running the risk of creating some horribly unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved and by when.

People are going to be disappointed and, with the EU not being a primary concern for many, these people are likely to stay at home when the referendum comes around. Consequently, the two groups that are likely to have the most influence are older voters (more likely to vote overall and more anti-EU than the average) and the vehemently anti-EU who are going to vote against no matter what.

Because of the way Cameron has approached this, support for staying in the EU is, in my view, likely to fall further and faster than the polls are currently able to indicate.

Of course, when the referendum comes around there will be a campaign to remain in the EU. In my view, this campaign needs to get its act together already. They need to be pointing out, and explaining why, Cameron has set himself up to fail. They need to be working across EU NGOs and political groupings to build a visible reform agenda with some realistic timelines attached.

Then, when 2017 comes around, they will be able to say “the idiot has thrown his tantrum, now this is what the grown-ups are going to do.”