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Only 1% of Brits cared much about the EU before the 2016 Brexit vote

The Big Ben bell tower on the Houses of Parliament is visible through a shaped foil balloon as demonstrators protest during a "March for Europe" against the Brexit vote result earlier in the year, in London, Britain, September 3, 2016.
REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
A case of tunnel vision.
By Adam Rasmi
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

For several years, the British public has said that Brexit is the most significant issue facing the country, and it’s no wonder: a divorce with the EU will have major economic, political, and social implications. But the UK’s relationship with the bloc hasn’t always dominated the British psyche: Indeed, it barely even registered with voters before the decision to hold a Brexit referendum in June 2016.

Market research firm Ipsos MORI has surveyed Brits virtually every month for decades to gauge their attitudes to various political issues. And as late as December 2015, just 1% of respondents said that Europe was the most crucial issue facing the country.

These monthly surveys show that apart from vocal Euroskeptics, the UK’s relationship with the EU was far from the most important issue—or even a major one. Before 2016, it was considered significant for generally a single-digit percentage of respondents.

More traditional issues like education, the economy, health care, and defense were seen as particularly relevant by the British public in the years before the Brexit disorder came to the fore. But so too was another key issue: immigration, which animated many Brexit backers to vote Leave in 2016 in the hope of ending freedom of movement for EU citizens in the UK.

Prime minister Boris Johnson is now required by law to seek a Brexit extension until at least Jan. 31, if he is unable to secure a divorce agreement at an EU summit on Oct. 17-18. A decision to hold a general election or second referendum could bring closure to the Brexit process, but a years-long and nationally-consuming crisis might not fade from minds so soon, whatever the outcome.

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