The Perils of Perception and the EU

New research by UK in a Changing Europe and Ipsos shows the public have a number of significant misperceptions about the EU and how it affects life in the UK.

The public have a number of significant misperceptions about the EU and how it affects life in the UK, new research by UK in a Changing Europe and Ipsos shows. We get some things right, but we’re more often very wrong on some of the key issues fundamental to the debate – including immigration, Britain’s contribution to the EU budget, the amount of Child Benefit that goes abroad and investment into the UK.

Some of the key things we get wrong (and right) are:

1) EU immigrants: we massively overestimate how many EU-born people now live in the UK. On average we think EU citizens make up 15% of the total UK population (which would be around 10.5m people), when in reality it’s 5%1 (around 3.5m people). Those who intend to vote to leave overestimate EU immigration more: they think 20% of the UK population are EU immigrants, compared with the average guess of 10% among those who intend to vote “remain”.

2) Proportion of immigrants who were born in another EU country: but at the same time we underestimate the proportion of all immigrants who were born in the EU. The average person guesses that a quarter (25%) of all immigrants were born in another EU member state, when the reality is 37%2. This suggests that it’s immigration as a whole that we overestimate, rather than EU-specific immigration (as we’ve seen in previous studies). 

3) Barmaid cleavages and other regulations from the EU:  The EU doesn’t always get credit for some of our laws they’re responsible for – like statutory holiday (37% correctly guessed) and two year guarantees on products (21% correctly guessed).  On the other hand, we’re generally pretty good at spotting more ridiculous “Euro-myths”, but still 1 in 7 of us (15%) believe at least one Euro-myth – including bans on barmaids showing too much cleavage and forcibly renaming the snack “Bombay Mix” to “Mumbai Mix” (neither of which are real EU laws3).  But EU law is complex– it’s no wonder there’s confusion. A quarter (24%) of us think bananas that are “too bendy” are banned from being imported into the UK. This is a long-standing favourite used as an example of excessive EU bureaucracy - most recently re-surfacing from Boris Johnson4. But is it a Euro-myth? Yes and no: the EU does have a regulation to stop malformed bananas being imported into the UK, but it’s a stretch to say the EU’s banned “bendy” bananas.

4) How much the UK pays in: The majority of us (67%) correctly say the UK annually pays more into the EU’s budget than it gets back - but we overestimate how much we pay compared with other countries. 84% of us put Britain in the top 3 contributors to the EU’s c.€140bn annual budget (the same proportion that picks Germany as a top contributor) and nearly a quarter of us (23%) think the UK is the single top contributor to the EU. In reality, Germany paid in twice as much as us in 2014 (21% of total EU income), followed by France (16%) then Italy (12%), with the UK in fourth place (11%)5.

5) How much the UK directly gets back: the majority of us are also correct that we get less back than other large countries.  Three in five correctly (58%) rank the UK as one of the lower gross recipients from the EU budget: in 2014, the UK received less than other Western European countries like Germany, Italy, Spain and France6

6) Child Benefit:  we massively overestimate the proportion of Child Benefit awards given to families in other European countries. The actual proportion of UK Child Benefit awards going on children living abroad in Europe is 0.3%7, but 14% of us think that 30% of UK Child Benefit goes to children abroad and 23% of us think 13% does. This means that nearly 4 in 10 of us think the number of children in EU countries receiving Child Benefit from the UK is 40 to 100 times the actual level.

7) EU democracy: only 6 in 10 know that members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are elected by the citizens of each member state.  One in five (18%) think that MEPs are not elected and a quarter (25%) say they don’t know whether they are or not.  

8) Who our MEPs are: Unsurprisingly then, just 5% can correctly name at least one of the MEPs representing their region. This is much lower than the number who can name their local MP (41%). 

9) The EU’s administration bill: we massively overestimate how much of the EU’s budget is spent on administration.  The average guess is that 27% of the overall budget is spent on staff, admin and maintenance costs, when in reality it’s 6%8. If this estimate were accurate the EU would be spending €38.5bn on admin each year, instead of €8.5bn.

10) Inward investment from EU countries: we underestimate how much investment into the UK comes from EU countries. The average guess is that they contribute 30% of total investment into the UK, when it actually makes up almost half (48%). This perception gap is mirrored by an overestimation of investment from China, which people think makes up 19% of inward investment but actually only accounts for 1%9.

The Perils of Predictions

The survey also asked people to make a series of predictions around the referendum.  Despite the fairly even race in the polls and the negative views towards many aspects of the EU seen in this survey, people are twice as likely to predict that we will vote to remain in the EU than to leave: 51% say that Britain will vote to remain and only 23% say we’ll vote to leave.

The public are also in line with the bookies on likely turnout levels: on average, we think the turnout will be 60%, when bookies’ odds imply a likely turnout of c63-64%.

But our predictions on the impact of a leave vote highlights the main challenge for the Remain campaign.  We are pretty certain that leaving will reduce immigration (63% believe that).  But while we are nearly as certain that it will also reduce investment from EU countries (57% believe that), only 25% of us think it will reduce our own living standards, with 13% thinking it will increase them and the remainder saying it will make no difference or they don’t know.

Bobby Duffy, Managing Director of Ipsos Social Research Institute, said:

“The public have been calling for the “facts” to help them make up their minds on how to vote – but this survey shows that many of us are still very shaky on fundamental aspects of our relationship with the EU.  This is not surprising, given that the facts on the EU are often complex and contested.  In that messy and heated context, these misperceptions are more of an indicator of what’s worrying us than a careful assessment of the evidence – that’s why we’re most wrong on things like immigration, benefit payments going abroad and what the EU spends on bureaucracy. 

But the survey also points to some key communication challenges and opportunities for the campaigns.  In particular, it seems that while the Remain camp may be winning on the macro-economic case, people are not convinced this will have any impact on their own standard of living. So, despite the Remain campaign’s focus on us each being £4,300 worse off if we leave, we’re not making the connection or not believing it. “Project fear” will be much less effective if we think it’s only happening to someone else.”

Professor Anand Menon, Director of the UK in a Changing Europe Initiative and Professor of European Politics and Foreign Affairs at King's College London, said:


“There are obviously still high levels of ignorance about the EU, which is troubling so close to the referendum. However, it is not so surprising, given the lack of accurate information provided to the public, as well as the mistruths, exaggerations, and scaremongering that have taken place during this campaign. It’s now more imperative than ever that the public can be provided with as much factual information about the EU as possible before they cast their vote.”


Technical note:

  • Fieldwork was conducted 29th April to 5th May 2016 and 27th to 30th May 2016.
  • In total, 1,000 interviews were conducted using i:Omnibus – Ipsos’s online panel. For the additional wave of fieldwork, a total of 1,083 interviews were conducted. All questions include all respondents unless stated otherwise (all adults aged 18-75).
  • The results have been weighted to reflect the known profile of the adult population in Great Britain. They are weighted on age, gender, social grade, region and work status.
  • Averages where specified refer to the median value (that is the response from the respondent in the middle of a ranked distribution).
  • As the data includes some outliers, the median value was chosen over the mean as a representative of the centre of the data. Median values, unlike the mean, are unaffected by outlying measurements.
  • Ipsos has worked with Full Fact, the UK’s independent fact checking charity, to establish the correct versions of the actual data and facts used. 


1) The estimated population of the UK in 2014 was 63.7 million and in the same year, an estimated 3.0 million of these were born in the EU. This means 5 in every 100 UK residents are born in the EU. Data are taken from the ONS population figures for 2014, published in August 2015.

2) In 2014, there was an estimated 8.3 million people resident in the UK born in another country – approximately 3.0 million of these were born in the EU. This means 37 in every 100 UK residents born in another country were born in an EU member state. Data are taken from the ONS population figures for 2014, published August 2015.

3) The EU is not stipulating that “Bombay Mix” change its name to “Mumbai Mix”. This is from a claim in the Sun in 2006 that the EU was planning on forcing a change of name as Bombay has been known as Mumbai since mid 1990s. This had never been discussed by the EU and the claim has been traced back to the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent at the time.

The EU has not banned barmaids from having too much cleavage on display when serving customers. This comes from false claims in 2005 that the EU had ordered employers to get workers to cover up in order to prevent exposing skin to the sun and increasing risk of skin cancer. There was a draft Optical Radiation directive that didn’t say anything about barmaid’s cleavages specifically, but did mention that employers would be responsible for ensuring their staff did not suffer from over-exposure to the sun by using sun cream or covering up their skin as appropriate. A vote from in the European Parliament meant that sunshine was not included.

Certain breeds of dog including corgis, bulldogs and cocker spaniels are not to be banned as pets by the EU. This is from a claim in the Daily Mail in 2002. A committee of animal protection experts drew up the European Convention for the Protection of Pet Animals in 1987, which does condemn the breeding of some varieties of dogs as pets. However, it was drawn up under the Council of Europe – which is completely separate to the EU. The UK is a member of the Council of Europe, but has not signed up to this agreement (which is voluntary).

4) Source

5) In 2014, the adopted EU budget was €142.6bn. The share of the gross contribution (after discounts and rebates) to this budget by the 10 listed member states are as follows: Germany (21.3%); France (16.3%); Italy (12.2%); UK (11%); Spain (8.1%); Belgium (4%); Poland (3.1%); Denmark (2%); Greece (1.3%); Romania (1.1%). Data are taken from the European Union Finances 2014 report by HM Treasury.  Figures for 2015 have also been released. However, 2014 figures have been used here in order to compare the contribution of EU member states with their receipts from the EU in the same year. As the EU expenditure figures for 2015 have yet to be released, 2014 figures for both member state contributions and EU expenditure in member states are used. The 2015 percentage gross share of the EU budget by the 10 member states listed are as follows: Germany (21.4%), France (15.7%), UK (12.6%), Italy (11.5%), Spain (8.1%), Belgium (4.1%), Poland (3%), Denmark (2%), Greece (1.3%), Romania (1.1%) Source

6) In 2014, the EU expenditure in the 10 listed member states are as follows: Poland (€17.4bn); France (€13.5bn); Spain (€11.6bn); Germany (€11.5bn); Italy (€ 10.7bn); Greece (€7.1bn); Belgium (€7.0bn); UK (€7.0bn); Romania (€5.9bn); Denmark (€1.5bn). Data are taken from the European Commission figures for expenditure in 2014.

7) In 2013, an estimated 20,400 ongoing Child Benefit awards were given to nationals of other EEA countries and in total c.7.55 million families received Child Benefit awards. This means 0.3% of Child Benefit awards cover children living in other EEA states. Data are from HMRC statistics as of December 2013 (the latest available statistics.)

8) In 2014, € 8.4 billion of the €142.5 billion EU budget was spent on administration – making up 6% of the total expenditure. Data are from the European Union breakdown of their budget in 2014.

9) In 2014, the international investment into the UK was £1,034bn. This is the stock measure of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) into the UK, which means it is the accumulated value of all past investments in the UK from international investors. The share of the 2014 stock FDI contributed by the listed trade partners or groups of trade partners are as follows: EU (48%); US (24%); Switzerland (4%); Japan (4%); China (including Hong Kong) (1%); Rest of the world (19%). Data are taken from the ONS data on Foreign Direct Investment Involving UK Companies for 2014, published in December 2015.


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