“We goofed it up, you have to fix it,” the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Tuesday in a message to the younger generation about Brexit.
Fixing it would be “the direction of travel” with regards to the UK rejoining the EU, she told an audience in Brussels. But as we approach the fourth anniversary of Brexit, is it likely that Britain’s millennials and generation Z will demand a rapprochement?
For those hoping so, there is good news from polling for the Policy Institute at King’s College London. It shows these age groups (gen Z, roughly 11 to 26 years old today, and millennials, 27 to 42) have the greatest and growing confidence in the EU. Older generations are also showing progressively greater faith in the bloc in the last few years, probably bolstered by the EU response to Russia’s invasion on Ukraine.
Then there is polling involving more than 1,000 18- to 24-year-olds by the Best for Britain campaign group that showed in May that 58% wanted a closer relationship with the EU – almost twice as many as those who wanted things to stay as they were or become more distant. Across the whole population, 52% want things to be closer. Again, the youngest voters are more EU-friendly.
And last weekend YouGov pollsters found that 60% of people aged 18 to 24 believe in hindsight that the UK was wrong to leave the EU. The poll was a relatively small sample size, but other polling reflects the same sentiment.
“Young people are more likely to see Brexit as having caused more problems than it has fixed,” said Tim Bruffatto, the director of policy and research at Best for Britain, which is seeking closer ties with the EU when the post-Brexit trade deal is reviewed in 2025 and 2026. “It gives us hope. Lots of the cohort of gen Zs were not able to vote in the 2016 referendum and it’s very positive to know young people have a better view of the EU and do want a better relationship with the EU. Younger people benefit from Erasmus [the university exchange funding programme that the UK quit after Brexit], from freedom of movement and all of the economic opportunities that a closer relationship would bring.”
But digging deeper, attitudes become more complex. In last weekend’s YouGov polling, when asked what the UK should do “when it comes to our future trading relationship with the European Union”, only 36% of 18- to 24-year-olds said they would want to rejoin the EU. A significant minority, one in five, said the right thing would be to increase the trading relationship but not rejoin the bloc.
Ipsos polling for The Rest is Politics podcast, helmed by the remainers Alastair Campbell and Rory Stewart, found that 49% of people in the 18-34 age group support a referendum on the UK joining the EU in the next five years. That doesn’t sound like a great level of enthusiasm either. Only a third thought rejoining would improve the UK’s ability to control immigration and almost a quarter said it would get worse.
“Even this age group is sceptical about the benefits in some areas, such as immigration and the UK’s ability to make its own laws,” said Ipsos’s director of politics, Kevin Pedley. “Furthermore, with a referendum … not a political reality any time soon, it is impossible to say for certain how a future vote might go. Public views on Brexit are negative today but even younger cohorts do not see it as the most important issue to them right now.”
In 2019, 18- to 24-year-olds rated Britain leaving the EU the most top issue facing the UK, a tracking poll by YouGov showed. But as Brexit loomed on 31 January 2020, its salience started dropping, from about 60% of people rating it the most important issue to only 18% today. The economy, health, housing, the environment and immigration, in that order, are now the most important issues for the youngest voters.
In short, the youngest generations have other things on their minds. While they may in future vote for better relationships with the EU, at least some of the polling shows von der Leyen’s hope that they will fix what she sees as the generational blunder of Brexit may remain just that.