What Events Led to Brexit? Brexit 101

The UK leaving the EU

Whether you are studying economics, political science, sociology, or any other social science, it might be important for you to understand the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. This strange decision, popularly known as Brexit, is one of the most impactful decisions fueled by an anti-immigrant, anti-globalist, and populist sentiment. This post will hopefully help you understand how the Brexit phenomenon happened and what events were crucial to it taking place.  


Prior to Brexit – the UK Joining the EU


The UK was late to join the EU partially because they did not see the economic benefits of such a union. Later on, the UK was blocked for a period of time by the French President Charles de Gaulle. The first one is an important point to take note of because it is essential to understanding the British view of the EU. For the UK, this was primarily a marriage of convenience where they intended to receive economic gains for membership.
Brexit Britain

De Gaulle’s idea was that the UK, prior to entering the EU, should be prepared to accept a wide range of political, financial, and monetary changes that would lead to a radical transformation of its political system. The UK has never really been ready to accept such a radical transformation. Regarding de Gaulle’s veto, it is undoubtable that he had his own reasons for preventing the UK from joining the EU. One of them was his belief that the UK would be a ‘’Trojan horse’’ of the US. Regardless of this fact, some of his initial criticism of UK participating in the EU was definitely on point.

After two French vetoes in 1963 and 1967, negotiations eventually began in 1969 after de Gaulle was no longer in power in France. Even after joining the European Economic Community in 1973, the UK held its first referendum on EU membership in 1975 where it decided to remain with 67% of the vote.


What Political Party Started Brexit?


This all started a long time ago – both of the leading parties in the UK (Labor and Conservative) have at some point advocated for exiting the EU. While most of us remember Labor as the ‘’New Labor’’ of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the Labor Party famously backed exiting the EU as early in 1983 in what is commonly known as the longest suicide note in history. Labor’s historic loss in the 1983 in a platform that included nuclear disarmament and exiting the EU was often cited as evidence that Brexit would never be taken seriously.

While opposition of the EU started from the Labor Party, the Conservative Party grew increasingly negative towards the EU in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. This stance escalated during the discussions of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty. This was the first sign that the Conservatives wanted to observe, more than participate, in the political integration that was an essential part of the European integration process. 

Throughout the years, the UK has been one of very few countries that has opted out of some forms of integration. Most notably, it decided not to participate in the implementation of the European currency – the Euro. For the UK, the integration process was going too quickly and they at times saw it as an unwanted advance on their sovereignty. For most of the EU, the UK was perceived as a member-state that always wanted to have all of the benefits of membership while not being prepared to share the burden.

While the Conservatives didn’t exactly have a warm relationship with the EU, the party that was most vocal for leaving the EU was the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Nigel Farage, the party’s long-term leader, claimed that the UK was being suffocated by EU regulation and that its sovereignty was in danger from remaining in the EU.


David Cameron’s Brexit Maneuver


British Prime Minister David Cameron made a series of risky moves, including agreeing to hold the Scottish referendum on independence from the UK. He saw it as an end to the modern-day debate that began with the 1979 Referendum. Cameron centered the debate on the benefits of Scotland staying within the EU and recognizing that it would have to re-apply for membership in the EU. As the Conservative Party was completely divided on the issue of Europe, holding a referendum seemed to be a good way of avoiding to break up the party.

Fail of the Scottish referendum

While a solid majority of Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) advocated for remain, Cameron won the election by promising a referendum on Brexit. This was primarily done to avoid in-fighting within the party and to ensure that UKIP did not siphon off too much votes from the Conservatives. Cameron’s gambit worked and, contrary to most what most pre-election polls showed, he managed to form a majority without forming a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. This made him solely responsible for implementing the promises he made about Brexit.

The time of Cameron’s negotiations with the European Commission on the position of the UK within the EU were marked by the Migrant Crisis – one of the largest issues the EU faced since the Global Economic Crisis. Many high-ranking EU officials, as well as leaders of EU member-states, did not appreciate Cameron’s position of stressing this issue when the EU clearly had more urgent priorities. Despite this fact, they mostly negotiated in good faith.


An Ever Closer Union?


A key aspect of the Lisbon Treaty was the phrase of the EU moving towards an ‘’ever closer union’’. This was largely a symbolic phrase, but Cameron managed to get the EU to promise to exempt the UK from implementing this purely political promise. For most in the UK, this was nowhere close to enough. For the EU, this was Britain creating problems during the Migration crises -one of the largest crises in modern history. The UK believed that they had already conceded too much to the EU.

Despite all of the efforts to negotiate something, the UK electorate decided to leave the EU with a majority of 52% voting for Brexit. Many have accused the Leave Campaign, led by figures such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, of manipulating the public with imagined statistics. The Remain Campaign was accused of scaremongering and inflating the actual dangers of Brexit. While the results of the Scottish referendum on independence were primarily based on the potentially adverse impact separating may have on their economy, the UK electorate accepted the potential of an adverse economic impact in return for ‘’gaining back their sovereignty’’.

It is difficult to quantify why the British electorate made such a decision when the economic benefits clearly were on the side of the Remain campaign. The end result is a deeply divided UK that, whatever the result, will have to find a way to move on. An increase in political polarization, largely negative approval rating for most political figures, and an increase in hate crimes clearly shows that the outcome may not be positive.


What Happens After the Brexit Vote?


After Cameron’s immediate resignation, it was pretty clear that there were three options on the table. Another referendum where the UK would reconsider its position, leaving the EU based on a withdrawal agreement, or the UK crashing out in a no-deal scenario. Theresa May became Prime Minister and, as a politician who campaigned for Remain, has been one of the largest advocates of ensuring that Brexit takes place by the 29th of March, 2019. She has also struggled to maintain her party coherent, especially after gambling away her majority in Parliament by calling a snap election in 2017.

In the current Parliamentary constellation, there is no clear majority for any Brexit-related option. May’s government barely has a majority that depends on an agreement with the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party. The first deal negotiated by Theresa May was rejected by a historic vote where the government was defeated by roughly 230 votes – the largest defeat suffered by a government in modern British history.

Regardless of what option ultimately occurs, the consequences of each of these decisions will be massive and, regardless of what ultimately does take place, the Brexit referendum is one of the clearest examples of rising populist sentiment in the mid-2010s.