Brexit? A view from “New Europe”

  • By Lord Ashcroft
  • 28 January 2016
  • Europe

Earlier this month I published my latest research on how British voters are coming to terms with the issues in the EU referendum. There will be plenty more of that to follow. But to add an extra dimension, we decided to peer through the other end of the telescope and find out how our debate looks from elsewhere in Europe – how people in other member states see Britain’s attitude to the EU, what they think about some of the questions British voters are grappling with, what they make of David Cameron’s negotiating demands and, frankly, whether they care if we stay or go.

We kicked off last week, with the aid of fluent simultaneous translation, with focus groups in Warsaw and Sofia (“it’s not so cold today, only minus ten” remarked one participant cheerfully.) Views from this part of the continent are fascinating for several reasons: both Poland and Bulgaria are relatively new member states, having joined in 2004 and 2007 respectively, and are thus in a good position to compare the promise of membership with reality; both have long historical memories and strong current ties to Britain because of migration; and at least one is crucial to the PM’s renegotiation plan.

In both countries, most of our participants – men and women with a range of social backgrounds and political affiliations – had been in favour of joining. “We longed for freedom, for a standard of living like the west. We associated the EU with progress, development, Germany, France, a better quality of life;” “I expected that, slowly, the economy would start moving, incomes would rise, and we could work and travel where we wanted.”

For our Warsaw groups, EU membership had not been without its drawbacks (“there are some weird regulations”) but it had been part of the more prosperous, outward-looking, confident Poland that had grown up over the last decade: “When we entered the EU we became part of the global economy. We used to be a separate economy.”


“When we entered the EU, Poland became part of the global economy.”

“There are some weird regulations.”


Some took evident pride in Poland’s new status and pleasure in the changes they had seen. “There is no inferiority complex now. We used to think if it was invented in the west, it must be better. But I don’t think young people think that any more;” “We used to have to learn languages from a textbook. Last summer I walked down the boulevards and about forty per cent of the conversations were in English, French, German! That was unthinkable ten years ago;” The national stadium – in 2004 it was a market place. It’s a symbol of progress. And the underground, and the highways we have managed to build in the last few years;” “The Ukrainians really admire us. And Belarus. They admire how much we’ve changed.”


“There is no inferiority complex now. We used to think if it was invented in the West, it must be better. But I don’t think young people think that any more.”


Things looked rather more gloomy to our Bulgarian participants. Had their hopes for EU membership been fulfilled? “They were illusions. A lot of good things were expected, but with the passing years we were left only with the expectations. A hope that remained only a hope.” Specifically, “we expected that after some time, our standard of living would be closer to the EU standard, like Austria or Belgium. But it fell.” The main complaint, felt in both countries but more acutely in Sofia, was that the EU seemed to have brought higher living costs with no corresponding rise in incomes: “They have unified prices, but not wages. It is forcing German prices on us but we are not earning the same as they are in Germany.”


“It is forcing German prices on us but we are not earning the same as they are in Germany.”


For similar reasons there was no enthusiasm in either city for joining the euro (which both Poland and Bulgaria are theoretically pledged to do under the terms of their accession): “Prices would go up and salaries would stay the same;” “A lot of strong countries had problems when they joined the euro. It would be the end of us.”

In Warsaw, few had time for any suggestion that life had been better thirty years ago: “I think we had ration cards! Forget about the old days. I was raised in that system. I wouldn’t like to go back, it’s incomparable. Some say it was better but they have very short memories.” But in Sofia our groups had much fonder recollections, or at least impressions, of life under communism. “According to my mother it was just great. They went on holiday twice a year, now it’s once if you’re lucky. It was more secure, less stressful;” “Ordinary people, the working class, used to live much better than they do now.” Behind the iron curtain “we were carefree. There was employment for everyone. If you wanted to study you could study, if you wanted to work you could work. The money was little but it was enough for everything.” And what will things be like here in thirty years’ time? “Terrible. I don’t want to think about it, even. Bulgaria might not exist. There might not be any Bulgarians, only gypsies. I don’t know if it will be a state. It will have been bought by the Turks.”


One consequence of EU membership acknowledged by groups in both cities was the bounty of “Eurofunds”, particularly to help upgrade infrastructure. These had been abundant (“we weren’t aware we would get so much money. I didn’t imagine it!”) and their use is widely advertised, starting from arrival at Sofia airport.

But to our participants, EU subsidies were synonymous with waste and (in Bulgaria) corruption as much as with the improvements they had brought. “We get European funds for certain things. But they are not managed as they should be and they are not transparent;” “It’s good for a percentage of the population. A few have got a lot, but they were getting a lot before that;” “When the government builds two kilometres of road there is a big ceremony. Then in three months, cracks appear in infrastructure projects, literal cracks.”


“When the government builds two kilometres of road there is a big ceremony. Then in three months, cracks appear in infrastructure projects. Literal cracks.”


While the Warsaw groups tended to think funds could have been better used (they cited the building of airports which are now struggling to attract passengers), some Sofia participants believed Bulgaria had become more reliant on Eurofunds because of the damage they thought other aspects of EU membership had done to the country’s industry. Where they had hoped being part of a wider union would mean a bigger market for Bulgarian products, the result seemed to have been more imports and higher prices: “Agriculture is ruined – now we have to buy fruit and vegetables from abroad. How come we’re importing tomatoes from Poland? We used to export tomatoes to Poland.”


“How come we’re importing tomatoes from Poland? We used to export tomatoes to Poland.”


Though their countries had been part of the EU for nine and twelve years respectively, neither set of groups felt their countries had been truly accepted by their fellow members.

This impression was particularly acute in Sofia, where they felt Bulgarians were regarded by the rest of Europe as second class citizens, if that: “They accepted us, but partially. They accepted Poland, Hungary and Slovakia as brothers, but we are like savages – allowed in the back yard but not in the house. They thought the same about Romanians but they have moved on; we’re still savages.” Part of the reason, they thought, was that being part of the EU’s external border, other members saw Bulgaria as a problem: as far as they were concerned, the country was “a transit zone for criminals and drugs.”


“The EU accepted us partially. We are like savages – allowed in the back yard but not in the house.”


Some in Sofia who had travelled abroad said they had felt the same way in other countries: “I was in France for two months and not for a second did I feel equal to them. It was like living in a movie. They don’t accept us.” But judging by other remarks, this view seemed to stem from a lack of confidence about how their country measured up to its new European partners: “We are lacking the standards and culture, the things we need to call ourselves European;” “Being in the EU makes us more cosmopolitan, but really we are more Balkan. We pretend to be Europeans but when we come back here we carry on acting like Balkans.” Some also felt their leaders were doing nothing to improve the image of Bulgaria abroad: “When David Cameron came here Borissov [the prime minister] told him he had been patted on the head by three popes. What can I say?”


“When David Cameron came here, our prime minister told him he had been patted on the head by three popes. What can I say?”


Accordingly, our Bulgarians regarded the idea that they had any influence within the EU as laughable. “What influence does a Bulgarian politician have? He’s happy if a German politician pats him on the shoulder.” Does the country have any allies? “We usually take someone else’s side. Nobody takes out side.” What about the Greeks? “I doubt it. Dirty Byzantines.” Well, what about opponents? “We’re not important enough to have opponents.”


“What influence does a Bulgarian politician have? He’s happy if a German politician pats him on the shoulder.”


In Warsaw, by contrast, though people felt most decisions were made by Germany (“as my grandmother used to say, the Germans lost the war but they still deal the cards”), along with France and, perhaps surprisingly to a British audience, the UK. Nevertheless, our participants felt that while Poland’s natural allies were the Hungarians and Czechs (“we left the same system at the same time, with the same problems, similar baggage, similar experience”), the country was starting to become at least a middle-ranking power, if still a second-tier one. “There are two EUs. EU number one is the founders, and then there are the others who joined later and are treated worse. And we are the biggest of this other group.” There was some optimism that this situation could improve if things in Poland continued to progress: “We are in a group with Italy and Spain, but if we keep developing at the pace we are, our influence will be greater. We have much more say than Hungary. They used to be richer than us, now they’re poorer.” They had also managed to win the support of other countries on issues that mattered to them: “France supported us on agriculture. Britain wanted to cut subsidies and France said no.”


“As my grandmother used to say, the Germans lost the war but they still deal the cards.”


This in turn meant that Poles were more confident travelling abroad, and seemed to be treated with more respect, though this was not yet universal: “There is a difference between how we are treated now and what we used to be treated like. In the 1970s when I crossed the iron curtain I felt as though I had arrived from Asia or something. Spain still treats us like the third world. In Germany they still joke that we steal cars. I said, what about those paintings you stole from us that are still hanging in German museums? But the Brits just treat us like immigrants.”


“Spain still treats us like the third world. In Germany they still joke that we steal cars.”



The consequence of limited influence in Brussels was the imposition of laws and decisions that did not necessarily suit them. This was an issue in both countries: a Warsaw pensioner who liked to cure his own sausages lamented that “we used to use smoke, but now they say it’s harmful and we have to do it artificially”. (Other countries seemed to them more adept at negotiating the regulatory terrain: “The French eat snails but they categorise them as fish so they can get subsidies.”) Many in the Polish groups were irritated that constitutional reforms pursued by the newly elected government had been criticised in the European Parliament: “They are interfering in domestic politics. If we want to change something, it’s not their business. They’re poking their noses in, making a big deal that there’s something wrong with our constitutional tribunal, but it’s none of their business.”


“The French eat snails but they categorise them as fish so they can get subsidies.”


There was also annoyance, familiar in Britain, with the “gold-plating” of EU rules by domestic officials: “I wanted to open a bar, and every time they came to inspect it, something was wrong. They said I had to raise the ceiling seven centimetres. I already had debts. I thought ‘I’m going to jump in the river.’ So I looked it up, and it turned out it wasn’t a regulation, it was a recommendation! If anyone says there is an EU regulation, ask them to show it to you.”

The Bulgarians had plenty of examples of their own, including the infamous “straight cucumber” law. Many felt their leaders did whatever Brussels told them, or had no choice but to do so (“the ruling class just blindly follow the directions of the EU. Whatever the EU says, we do. We have done some really stupid things because of that”) – so much so that they were inclined to blame the EU for domestic legislation some of them didn’t like, such as Bulgaria’s 2012 smoking ban.

“There is a law about straight cucumbers! Ridiculous.”



For a few participants in both cities, the upside of EU law was that it represented a chance for them to appeal to the Strasbourg court for their rights (“at least there is a certain control on our crazy judicial system”).

But the biggest resentment against Brussels for many Bulgarian participants was the pressure to accept migrants in greater numbers than they thought was fair: “If the EU said ‘ten million refugees will come here,’ we’d say ‘OK’.” As well as imposing costs on the country they felt it could ill afford (“we don’t have any means to help them – we can’t help ourselves”) they worried about the consequences for security.


“If the EU said ‘ten million migrants will come here’, we’d say ‘OK’.”


Indeed neither set of groups saw EU membership as a way of making themselves more secure – open borders meant free movement of people whatever their intentions, and “we saw what happened in Germany on New Year’s Eve. If they can’t protect themselves, how can we?”

Having said that, our participants did not feel particularly threatened by terrorism, especially in Bulgaria. “It’s not interesting for the media in Europe what happens here, and that’s why it doesn’t happen here. If it did, the TV in Germany and France wouldn’t even cover it;” “You could totally walk round the Arena Armeec [Sofia’s 17,000-seat indoor stadium] with a bomb and no-one would take any notice”.


“If there were a terrorist attack in Bulgaria, the TV in Germany and France wouldn’t even cover it.”



In both cities, the flip side of the migration crisis was the biggest advantage the EU had to offer: the chance to live and work in another country. “The opportunity to work abroad is the most important part. It saves thousands of families. Bulgaria is probably sustained by the money people abroad send.” But so many have taken this chance over the years that more Bulgarians now work abroad than in Bulgaria itself. “It’s terrible, scary. There is a low birth rate, a high death rate – in twenty years we won’t exist;” “Bulgaria is losing its experts. Everyone goes abroad, especially doctors. We’re losing our brains.” But this was not to say that individuals who moved away could be blamed: “Anyone who has gone abroad has saved themselves.”


“I was in Britain two months ago and the minimum wage was £50 a day! We are way back here.”


Many of the Poles, all of whom had either worked abroad or had friends and family who had done so, also lamented that their compatriots had been driven by lack of opportunity at home as much as the lure of riches elsewhere: “People have no choice. It’s because they’re in a small town with no job, not because they want to go;” “People go to the west and do manual work and earn more than they can here in Poland in their learned profession;” “I was in Britain two months ago and the minimum wage was £50 a day! We are way back here.”

At the same time, people could see the same movements in the Polish labour market that had drawn them to Britain: “Even in McDonald’s there are recruitment ads in Polish and Ukrainian. It’s a sign of the times.” But the attraction of new workers from the “cheaper nations” of the east was not necessarily a bad thing: “It’s necessary. We’re not suddenly going to give birth to more children. We’ve had the peak birth years, the population is going to drop.


“In McDonald’s in Warsaw there were recruitment ads in Polish and Ukrainian. It’s a sign of the times.”


If our participants were going to move abroad, which EU country would they choose? “Switzerland!” Right. OK. Where else? “Britain. The healthcare there is very stable, and the salaries are quite good, unless you work for Bulgarians. And the culture.” “Britain, because of the standard of living and the language. You can easily learn it even if you don’t already know it.” “Britain, because it’s more cosmopolitan”.

How much does Britain have in common with Poland or Bulgaria? Not a great deal, it seems. “Only the religion;” “They are light years ahead of us. Even if we were running towards each other we’d never reach them;” “The Germans are more similar to us. They eat pork knuckle, we eat pork knuckle. The English eat lamb. What kind of meat is that?”


“The Germans are more similar to us. They eat pork knuckle, we eat pork knuckle. The English eat lamb. What kind of meat is that?”


What is Britain like? “A tidy country;” “A rich history;” “It has class;” “The weather is terrible, but it’s nice for women’s skin. That’s why they don’t have wrinkles.” What about the people? “Cold;” “Elegant. Phlegmatic;” “They like walking out in the fog and hunting for foxes;” “Slim, tall, slightly ginger hair.” That’s very specific. “It depends where you go. When I was in Luton, the typical Englishman was wearing a turban.” Importantly to them, “London is very cosmopolitan. There is no discrimination as there is in France, for example. They are more open to other nations;” “To be honest, when I was in Liverpool I got a very positive impression of the English. They know how to enjoy themselves, despite everything.”


“The British weather is terrible, but it’s nice for women’s skin. That’s why they don’t have wrinkles.”


If Britain were an animal, what kind of animal would it be? For most, a lion. On the other hand, “Britain is not as powerful as it is classy. So a horse – a very excellent, good breed of horse with pedigree.” Or perhaps “an Indian elephant, because India was their colony, and an elephant is a heavy, conservative animal. It’s smart and it does a lot of work.”


“To be honest, when I was in Liverpool I got a very positive impression of the English. They know how to enjoy themselves, despite everything.”


For some older participants in both cities, views of Britain were dominated by history. “They have never been our friends. There was the bombardment of Sofia in World War Two;” “They have a duty to the Poles who are working there. At Yalta, with the USA, they passed us over to Stalin. So thanks to them, the Poles ended up in the East. And after the 303 Squadron fought with them in the Battle of Britain!”

All the groups had the impression that Britain was not a particularly enthusiastic member of the EU: “they seem sceptical. It’s probably because of all the immigrants.” They sometimes put this down to Britain’s history (“they still drink juice from the colonies, they don’t care much about Europe”) and geography (“they are cut off, living there on that island”).


“Britain seems sceptical about the EU. It’s probably because of all the immigrants.”


But this attitude prompted more admiration than irritation. To many in these groups, this semi-detached stance signalled Britain’s determination to do things on its own terms and get the best deal it could – something that might usefully be emulated by their own governments. “They’re very assertive. They have negotiated a lot of good things, like their budget contributions. They are in a golden position;” “They attend to their interests. Maybe Poland should be more like that;” “I like the fact that they didn’t join the euro, they don’t have Schengen – they were always strong;” “They hold onto their principles. They see their opportunity and they fight.”

Who is the British prime minister, by the way? “John, Tony, oh what’s his name. Gordon something? I don’t remember.” But on the subject of British politicians, “there is Nigel Farage. He and Korwin [a Polish MEP and leader of his own, eponymous, libertarian and Eurosceptic party] are both the same. The English have started to show their extreme right. They are being more like ‘England for the English’.”




Most participants in both cities had heard about the British referendum. As for the renegotiation, few were opposed on principle to changing the UK’s membership terms. Indeed most thought it was important for Britain to stay: “It wouldn’t be favourable for us, let’s be honest. We may not be able to travel there;” “EU funds would be restricted;” “It would be the first step towards the collapse of the EU. It would be an inspiration for other countries. If they left it would be like a house of cards.”

On the specific British demands, there were few objections to the idea of changing the rules to ensure non-Eurozone countries cannot be outvoted and forced to help bail out Eurozone members (with the reservation that this might set an awkward precedent for other countries, such as, well, Poland or Bulgaria, which might need help in the future), or cutting regulation and extending the single market, or excusing Britain from having to work towards “ever closer union”.

What about more powers for national parliaments to block EU legislation? “Absolutely in favour. I vote with two hands;” “Poland should submit something like this. See, the British are quite smart.”

How about changing the rules so that child benefit cannot be claimed for children living outside Britain? “Well that’s fair. If the child is living in Poland, that makes sense.”


“Poland should submit something like this. See, the British are quite smart.”


OK, well here is the controversial one. What about restricting access to in-work benefits and social housing for people from other countries until they have lived and paid tax in Britain for four years? “That’s fair too;” “I think four years is too little. In Bulgaria it is five years.”

Apart from the suggestion that two years would be fairer, and the objection that Polish workers are still owed because of Yalta, there was little resistance in the groups to this biggest hurdle in the negotiations. Much more grating to the Warsaw participants was the suggestion that in return for a deal on benefits, Britain would support the establishment of a permanent NATO base on Polish soil. “That’s just blackmail;” “What difference does it make whether Britain supports it? It should be established whether Britain agrees or not.”

Would these changes to the benefits system discourage Poles and Bulgarians from going to Britain? “The gypsies, maybe”. “Most people don’t go there for the social welfare, they go for professional realisation. And why should they get social welfare? They should go there and work.”


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