This article is the first of a series of multiple posts by The Caravel’s editorial team regarding the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the European Union, also known as the Brexit.
British citizens cast their votes in a much anticipated referendum on June 23 to decide whether the U.K. should remain in the European Union or leave. Within 24 hours, the world exploded with the news of “Brexit”: 52% of voters opted to leave the EU, British Prime Minister David Cameron vowed to resign in October, and the pound fell to its lowest level since 1985.
Amid doomsday proclamations, frantic Google searches trying to determine the purpose of the EU, and hilarious tweets mocking the British nation, let’s take a step back and address an important question: Why did “Brexit” happen in the first place?
Britain has had a strained relationship with the EU from the beginning. In 1951, France, Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, and Luxembourg formed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) as a way to organize intra-European coal and steel trade. ECSC later expanded into the European Economic Community (EEC), a loose economic organization that reduced trade barriers, established common policy regarding transportation and agriculture, and served as a precursor to the EU. Great Britain did not join EEC until 1973 due to internal political disagreement and external resistance to their application from France.
In 1975, the ruling Labour faction, which in the 1970’s sought to protect domestic labor interests by abandoning the EEC, held a largely symbolic referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EEC. (It is worth noting that Labour has since altered its position and headed the Remain campaign leading up to the 2016 referendum.) The British public voted “Yes” by an overwhelming margin of two to one. When the EEC became the EU following the 1993 Maastricht Treaty, over 40 Conservative MP’s, also known as Tories, voted against the treaty’s ratification. A newly formed Referendum Party attempted to capture votes in 1997 by promising to hold another referendum to reconsider Britain’s membership.
Fast forward to 2013 when Prime Minister Cameron, caving to the pressure from the Eurosceptics in his party, promised that if the Tories won the 2015 elections, he would renegotiate Britain’s membership and hold an in or out referendum by 2017. Following an overwhelming Tory victory in 2015, Cameron began the slow process of promised EU negotiations. In a February 2016 EU meeting, he presented a list of demands, which he declared had to be fulfilled if Britain were to continue its membership. The same month, Cameron announced in a speech to the Parliament that the in/out referendum was scheduled for June 23. His Conservative party quickly divided over the issue: Cameron supported EU membership while former London mayor Boris Johnson and the head of UK Independence Party (UKIP) Nigel Farage spearheaded the “Leave” campaign.
UKIP, the driving Eurosceptic force in Britain, began as a single-issue party seeking to abandon the EU. It was founded in 1993 at the London School of Economics by those opposed to the Maastricht Treaty. Slowly it gained a following and by 2014, UKIP had earned 27.5% of the vote in the European Parliament elections. UKIP’s policy struck a chord with many British voters over the question of immigration, a pressing issue given the refugee crisis EU currently faces. UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage attracts many with his fiery rhetoric reminiscent of Donald Trump. For instance, in 2010 he referred to the EU President as having “the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk.”
Boris Johnson, a likely Tory candidate for Prime Minister following Cameron’s resignation who has actually been mistaken for Trump, described the EU by referring to the British as “passengers locked in the back of a minicab with a wonky satnav driven by a driver who doesn’t have perfect command of English and going in a direction we, frankly, don’t want to go.”
Britain’s history of protracted EU negotiations and frequent disagreements over the Kingdom’s place on the continent demonstrate that Brexit did not result from a random confluence of isolated incidents that somehow placed the entire future of the European Union in the hands of the British voters. While the individual party positions may have changed over time, there has always existed a growing faction of frustrated Eurosceptics pushing for Britain to fly solo. However, the vote to leave the EU is only the beginning: the end result of their skepticism remains to be seen.