... or did they become this way only after the EU enlargement in Central and Easter Europe (after the fall of the Iron Curtain)?

If there's a need to back up the premise of the question... here's a Eurobarometer poll from 2016:

enter image description here

I'm not sure how far back such surveys go, but was the picture (modulo the smaller EU membership) similar in, say, 1990, with the UK trailing the Continental EU on this issue?

  • 2
    Not enough of an answer, but they UK (and with it Ireland) opted out from the Schengen agreements that dated back to 1985 (way before the fall of the Iron Curtain). While there were some "geographical" reasons given for it (the UK being separated from the continent) I would think of them of mere "ex post facto" explanations. Also, the UK were (and are) constantly opposed to any tighter integration of the EU (like the common defense initiatives).
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jul 11, 2018 at 0:07
  • @SJuan76: Indeed "Up yours, Delors" and so forth. It's fairly easy to find the [past] opposition at the top. Commented Jul 15, 2018 at 15:25
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    @SJuan76 That's not quite how it happened, the Schengen “agreement” is called an agreement because it was first an entirely separate initiative between very few countries, only integrated into EU law and made part of the EU acquis much later. So the UK did not really “opt out”, at least in 1985. Also, Schengen is wholly unrelated to freedom of movement (I know it's counter-intuitive and an extremely common confusion but that's a fact).
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 21:59
  • 1
    Interesting that Poland and Romania, two countries who tend to be sources of “Polish plumbers”, are on the right hand side of the graph.
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 19:26

3 Answers 3


Note: this post tries to bring some more data into the discussion rather than trying to straight-out answer the original question.

The Eurobarometer is one way to gauge the "euro-scepticism" of a country's citizens. Another interesting data point might be what laws were passed by the country's government.

From the "laws passed" perspective it seems that the British are not the most skeptical. The linked Wikipedia article lists the years from which on citizens of country A could work in country B. From this table, it seems the UK is in line with other EU members with respect to allowing free movement of people.

In the case of Austria, the Eurobarometer ranks Austria also on the "sceptical" end of the spectrum. However, Austria passed laws restricting citizens from the new EU member countries from entering Austria's labour market for a transitional period. In that regard, the UK was more open.

While this does not prove whether the UK was "sceptical" from the beginning or not. The laws passed by the UK government are less restrictive than Austria's laws. This could mean either a disconnect between the "sceptical" population and the ruling government; or a less "sceptical" attitude at the time the generous UK laws were passed.

However, legal restrictions posed by the government and public perception might be two different pairs of shoes.

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    Are you actually trying to answer the (historical) question? Or just disputing the Eurobarometer? I can't even tell that from your post. Something may have been legal for a long time in the UK, but still the opinion of the UK public on that may have been the lowest in Europe (both in recent times and historically). Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 21:48
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    Legal restrictions and public perception are indeed two different pairs of shoes but the question is about the later. And the UK was not only “in line” but in fact more generous than other historical EU members with the 10 new members joining in 2004, as it chose not to make use of the transitory restrictions that were allowed under EU law. Which makes the question even more relevant: Is the current level of skepticism a result of all this or has it existed all along, in spite of the British government policy of relative openness?
    – Relaxed
    Commented Jul 19, 2018 at 22:09
  • @Fizz my post tries to add another data point to the question. The public opinion of the Eurobarometer is not reflected in legal restrictions. In the case of Austria, which is also on the "skeptical" end of the Eurobarometer, legal restrictions for workers from the new EU members were implemented. Thus, in the case of Austria, the link Eurobarometer and laws passed is there. For the UK there is no such link. This can mean a lot of things, which is why I did not make a strong statement.
    – Dohn Joe
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 7:47
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    If the British had implemented legal restrictions, that would indicate strong "scepticism". As the UK was quite generous, as @Relaxed noted, that could mean two things. A disconnect between official policy and public opinion; or that the Brits were not that "sceptical" from the beginning. I put the "scepticism" in quotes, since in recent times it has been used as a euphemism for hard opponents of everything-EU. The likes of UKIP as not euro-sceptic, they are flat out opposed.
    – Dohn Joe
    Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 7:52
  • That's a fair point; please edit your answer (with what you said in your last couple of comments) to make it more clear that you're trying to give a proxy/correlation argument, rather than a direct measure of the public opinion. Commented Jul 20, 2018 at 14:46

I can't find old-enough polls just about immigration from the EU, but on the more general question of immigration: "are there too many immigrants in the UK", the polls have shown numbers that have been consistently high over decades:

enter image description here

This is my own chart based on Ipsos MORI data. I've only plotted the total agree/disagree, leaving out "don't know" and non-responders. The trend lines are 4-degree polynomials, although, i have no theoretical basis for that choice, it just looked good.

Just from this data, it's hard to conclude a clear trend around the time (2004) of the Eastward expansion of the EU. Maybe there was a delayed effect, but that would require more data to ascertain. There does seem to be a general trend toward an in increase in anti-immigrant sentiment in the 2010s compare to the 2000s (or even overall if you plot a straight line); I haven't done any formal testing of this 2000-2010 hypothesis; the conclusion seems sensitive the two low-scoring surveys from the 2000s, but the odd spike in between them makes me skeptical that it is a sizeable real effect. The general trend of a slight increase is less sensitive to removing those two surveys, but the "yes" line is nearly flat; see below

enter image description here

These surveys didn't all have the same methodology; some were phone, some face-to-face, and some by self-completed questionnaires. With such heterogeneity, more data points would be needed for anything but a wild guess in terms of conclusions.


There are several reasons. One of the simplest is geography: the mainland UK is an island and only Northern Ireland shares a land border with another state. In other European countries people are used to being able to walk or drive into neighbouring countries with no barriers, as well as work there. It's actually fairly common for people to work in a different country to the one they live in, especially around the Netherlands/Belgium/Germany/France border area.

Another reason is that immigrants have been the target of xenophobic hatred from parts of the British media for decades. In fact there is a very long history of this, for example with Jewish immigrants being described as "vermin" and accused of spreading disease back in the early 1900s. More recently immigrants have been blamed for economic problems such as low wages, and described as "flooding" the country or with similarly irresponsible language.

Some politicians, such as Theresa May, are guilty of this too. She described EU citizens exercising freedom of movement as "queue jumpers" quite recently.

The EU also has more of a voice in many other European countries. It's more common to see EU flags and signs with information on how the EU was involved with various projects. People are generally more aware of how interdependent EU countries are, and feel closer to the EU itself as an institution. For example, many in the UK believe that the EU is "undemocratic" and that EU MEPs and leaders are not elected, when in fact it actually compares quite favourably with their own parliamentary system.

  • Ok, but this is mostly commentary with a little anecdotal evidence. You're not really providing any hard data on my actual question or even longitudinal data that would be a reasonable proxy. Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 14:19
  • @Fizz I'm afraid you won't get much hard evidence. Maybe some newspaper opinion pieces.
    – user
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 14:48
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    The answer begins with "there are several reasons," but the question is not asking for reasons "why" something happened; it's asking for "when" something happened. What question are you answering?
    – phoog
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 16:47
  • I think you would need to provide some references for this to be a good answer. The UK was hardly the most xenophobic country in Europe in the early-mid 20th century.
    – Time4Tea
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 16:53
  • Also, it could be argued that the UK (or at least London and South-East England) are significantly more diverse than many other EU countries.
    – Time4Tea
    Commented Apr 8, 2019 at 16:59

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