The Road to Brexit: A Referendum Timeline

AUTHOR: Hailey Murphy (PhD student, York University, Canada)

When given a chance to let the EU know what they really thought of their role in it, UK citizens chose to ‘vote leave, take control’. However, getting to the bottom of what citizens in the United Kingdom really think about UK/EU relations is not as simple as the casting of a single vote and riding off into the sunset with a victory in hand. The road to Brexit is an intensely complex and difficult journey that will continue well after the marginal victory of the Vote Leave campaign. Further, the regional differences in the referendum results signal a highly divided UK in search of a new post-colonial identity. While trying to choose a starting line for this journey may prove difficult, considering Euro-scepticism had a strong presence in the UK even before becoming an EU member, official processes began in early 2016. It was this point at which it became clear that two sides existed with extremely different ideas for the future of the UK.

On February 20, 2016, then Prime Minister David Cameron announced that a referendum would be held regarding the fate of the UK’s membership in the EU. This announcement came three years after his Bloomberg speech in January 2013 where he outlined his vision of the UK’s role in the EU. Following this, his government engaged in several rounds of negotiations for a new deal with the EU which was meant to maintain membership while giving the UK special status. The announcement of the referendum came soon after Cameron negotiated a package deal with the EU which included several UK-friendly reforms. The referendum highlighted a sharp divide within the Conservative Party between the Euro sceptics who had lost faith in the EU and those who considered EU membership to be in the best interest of the UK. Despite the moderate gains brought forward in Cameron’s new reform package, his cabinet was not convinced it provided the UK with the independence it was seeking related to economic, immigration and security issues. Aside from the general dissatisfaction already existing in the minds of a large portion of UK citizens, the deal reached between Cameron and the EU fell short of expectations derived from the Bloomberg speech. Thus, on February 22, 2016, the Prime Minister made a statement in Parliament regarding the UK’s prospective special status within the EU and the referendum set for June 23, 2016 wherein he opened the floor for members within his own party to campaign in accordance with their private interests on the road to the referendum.

The campaign period leading up to the referendum was a bitter and often ugly battle between the Vote Remain and Leave camps. The Remain campaign was led foremost by David Cameron and received many endorsements from politicians, academics, economic experts, world allies, businesses and celebrities alike. The Vote Leave movement was headed by Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Michael Gove and backed by parties such as UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) and several right wing political groups such as Britain First. Over the course of the debates it became clear that the key issues surrounding the referendum were UK independence, the economy, immigration and security.

The Remain camp stressed the importance of free movement within the EU as crucial to jobs, education and the economy. The UK and EU are partners in trade and the ease of access (previously) maintained via EU membership allowed for these bonds to remain strong and fruitful. Aside from jobs directly related to trade between national and foreign entities, the Remain campaign also focused on opportunities available to those holding an EU passport. Educational opportunities and Erasmus were held up as examples of programs that benefit those within the UK while having a distinct European influence. Thus, EU citizenship provided the platform to broaden British horizons by way of educational exchange. Aside from education, these benefits also allowed for more choice with regard to vacation and retirement in the EU.

Further, being part of the single market was advertised as beneficial to individuals and families as consumers. The single market, the Remain camp argued, affects prices of goods brought into the UK from other EU countries. For example, they campaigned using data showing EU membership means lower prices on groceries, petrol, energy bills, flights and mobile roaming charges. Overall, the Remain campaign focused on economy-related policies that would negatively affect UK citizens should they vote leave. Their campaign material stressed jobs, workers' rights and the prices of goods and information from economists and banking experts to get their arguments across.

Aside from the "Stronger In" proponents within the Conservative Party, several non-partisans and progressives also fought to protect EU membership. The case to Remain was especially important for women and other traditionally marginalized groups. Historically, the EU has shown itself to be in favour of more progressive policies than the UK itself. The loss of EU regulation in areas such as women’s and workers’ rights posed a threat to already marginalized groups. Debate surrounding the referendum placed a spotlight on equality as a significant political issue and while this may not have appeared within the discourse between differing sides of the Conservative party, grassroots organizations and academics worked hard to mainstream this issue. EU legislation regarding equal rights for woman and labour law played a fundamental role in promoting gender equality in the member states. Legislation such as the Pregnant Workers Directive, the Equal Treatment Directive and the Community Charter of the Fundamental Social Rights of Workers were cited as just a few examples of vital legal assurances for vulnerable UK citizens. A separation from EU meant a loss of these key protections with no promise from either official campaign to substantially replace them.

In contrast, the Vote Leave campaign focused much more on issues of independence, immigration and security and the relationship between these and the economy. In opposition to those who wished to remain, Vote Leave saw free movement and easier border crossing to be very problematic. In delivering this view, they placed their attention more on those entering the UK over the prospect of British citizens leaving, asserting that the ease of access of EU citizens into the UK signalled a loss of control and a significant security threat in the age of terrorism. As such, they argued that placing responsibility for security into the hands of EU officials took significant power away from a nation historically known for its international supremacy and placed it in foreign hands. The ethos of independence and power was captured in their slogan, “vote leave, take back control”.

The notion of control was also applied to issues of immigration in claims that immigration into the UK has become extreme and that over 2 million persons had immigrated into the UK within the last ten years, a number predicted to grow. This ‘wave’ of immigration further posed a security risk according to the Leave campaign who cited the growth in EU member countries who may be ‘poorer’ and less politically unstable. The shift in focus, taken by those who campaigned to leave the EU, filtered into their economic concerns as well. While the Remain camp saw several economic benefits to EU membership, Leave saw a threat. Fears surrounding security and instability coupled with increased immigration and a lack of domestic control was tied to increased stress on the UK economy. This was based on concerns related to stretching the National Health Service thin and uncertainties of foreign overtaking local business interests.

Following months of campaigning on the aforementioned issues, the referendum was held on June 23, 2016. As the results poured in, it became clear that many citizens were persuaded most by the Vote Leave campaign. The referendum culminated in their victory by a margin of 3.8% with 51.9% of citizens voting to leave the EU and 48.1% voting to remain. Shortly after the result was officially announced, David Cameron stepped down from his position of Prime Minister, handing over power to Teresa May. This shift in power placed control into the hands of those members of parliament ready to usher in a new political era in British politics. Cameron’s negotiated deal with the EU did not prove to be enough to justify remaining a member of the EU. The rejection of EU membership is the first of its kind by a member state of the supranational body. The UK has formally initiated their exit from the EU, a historical political process which will take several months.