Explaining ‘Brexit,’ Britain’s Vote on European Union Membership
Credit Andy Haslam for The New York Times
Britain will hold a referendum on June 23 on whether the country will leave the European Union, a process often referred to as Brexit. How did we get to this point?
What is Britain deciding?
The referendum will ask voters whether the country should “remain a member of the European Union” or “leave the European Union.”
What is the history?
The European Union began in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community, an effort by six nations to heal the fissures of World War II through duty-free trade. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community, or Common Market.
Britain tried to join later, but President Charles de Gaulle of France vetoed its application in 1963 and in 1967. Britain finally joined in 1973.
Has a vote like this happened before?
A referendum was held in 1975, two years after Britain joined the European Economic Community, on whether it should stay. More than 67 percent of Britons voted in favor.
A slogan of the “Vote Leave” campaign was projected onto the White Cliffs of Dover in southern England this month. Credit Peter Nicholls/Reuters
The arguments for and against
Those who favor leaving argue that the European Union has changed enormously over the last four decades with regard to the size and the reach of its bureaucracy, diminishing British influence and sovereignty.
Those who want to stay say that a medium-size island needs to be part of a larger bloc of like-minded countries to have real influence and security in the world, and that leaving would be economically costly.
It has to do with a decades-long rift in the governing Conservative Party. A vocal minority has demanded that Britain leave the European Union since the time of Margaret Thatcher. That minority grew in opposition during the Tony Blair years, and views on Europe have become a litmus test for Tory candidates, because grass-roots Conservatives tend to favor a British exit.
To pacify his party and undermine the anti-European Union U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, Mr. Cameron promised to hold the referendum should he be re-elected prime minister. Nearly half of all Tory members of Parliament, including six cabinet ministers, now favor leaving the bloc.
Unlike in general elections, Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar, a British overseas territory, can vote in the referendum. Credit Jorge Guerrero/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Who is voting?
British citizens older than 18 can vote, as can citizens abroad who have been registered to vote at home in the last 15 years. Also eligible are residents of Britain who are citizens of Ireland or of the Commonwealth, which consists of 53 countries, including Australia, Canada, India and South Africa.
Unlike in general elections, members of the House of Lords may vote, as can Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar, a British overseas territory. Citizens of the European Union living in Britain cannot vote, unless they are citizens of Cyprus, Ireland or Malta.
Andy Rain/European Pressphoto Agency
Why the unusual name?
The referendum is often called Brexit, for British exit from the European Union. It is a variant of the label Grexit, invented during the Greek debt crisis (which, by the way, is not over).
Is this vote final?
Yes, at least for the foreseeable future. If Britons vote to leave, there will be an initial two-year negotiation with the European Union about the terms of the divorce, which is unlikely to be amicable.
The negotiation will decide Britain’s relationship with the bloc. The major issues would surround trade. If Britain wants to remain in the European Union’s common market — the world’s largest trading bloc, with 500 million people — Brussels is expected to exact a steep price, in particular to discourage other countries from leaving.
What impact would an exit have on Britain’s economy?
This is an essential and divisive question. The economic effect of an exit would depend on what settlement is negotiated, especially on whether Britain would retain access to the single market for duty-free trade and financial services. But that would probably require accepting freedom of movement and labor for European Union citizens, which is one of the main complaints the “leave” camp has about bloc membership.
Most economists favor remaining in the bloc and say that an exit would cut growth, weaken the pound and hurt the City of London, Britain’s financial center. Even economists who favor an exit say that growth would be affected in the short and medium term, though they also say that Britain would be better off by 2030.