For the best part of 40 years, the UK has been the odd duck of the European Union family. This Thursday (June 23), the nation will vote on whether it wants to stay in the nest, or fly the coop.
Calling the referendum was a risky move for prime minister David Cameron, of the Conservative Party. An advocate for Britain’s continued membership in a reformed EU, his job hangs in the balance if the country ends up choosing to leave.
For most voters, the decision broadly comes down to one of three main issues: the economy, immigration, and a sense of British identity. It sounds straightforward enough. But the story of how the UK arrived at this momentous vote is a great deal more complex.
In the beginning…
Britain’s application to join the European Economic Community (EEC), the body that eventually becomes the European Union, dates back to the 1960s. After being vetoed by France twice, it is finally accepted in 1973. A referendum is held in 1975 on the UK’s continued membership in the bloc. Two-thirds of the country’s voters choose to stay in Europe.
From that point on, Europe continues to be an issue for Britain’s leaders. Prime minister Margaret Thatcher voices her opposition to further British integration in the EU and its joining of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism—the system that eventually paves the way for the launch of the euro 10 years later. Britain opts out of the shared currency.
The Labour Party’s accession to power in 1997 ends almost two decades of Conservative dominance, but doesn’t temper the debate over Europe. Following years of discussion over the ratification of an EU constitution, the Lisbon Treaty becomes law on Dec. 1, 2009. The document is an attempt to make the EU “more democratic, more transparent and more efficient.”
In 2009, UK prime minster David Cameron promises that if the Conservatives win the general election the following year, any fundamental transfers of power will need to be approved by the British people first. Meanwhile, Euroskepticism gets a larger platform: the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) comes second in the UK’s 2009 European parliament elections.
A Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition comes to power in May 2010, and the calls for a referendum start growing. In October 2011, Conservatives stage a rebellion against their leader over Europe: more than 80 Conservative MPs vote in favor of a motion calling for a referendum. Despite the support, the motion is defeated in parliament.
In January 2013, David Cameron firms up his promise that there will be an in/out referendum on Britain’s future with the EU if the Conservatives win the 2015 general election. It’ll happen by the end of 2017 at the latest, he says, noting that ”public disillusionment with the EU is at an all-time high.”
His pledge is a response to pressure from Euroskeptic Conservative MPs and UKIP, who grumble that Britain has not had a say over its membership in the bloc since the 1975 referendum. Cameron, in contrast, says he “never” wants Britain to “pull up the drawbridge and retreat from the world.”
This marks the start of Cameron’s campaign for renegotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU: “It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time to settle this European question in British politics,” he says. His opponents say holding a referendum would put the country through “years of uncertainty.”
And here we are…
Fast forward to 2015. The Conservative Party unexpectedly wins the UK’s general election with a majority of seats, dumps the Lib Dems as parters, and Cameron reasserts his pledge to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU by the end of 2017.
After two days of talks in Brussels this past February, Cameron and leaders of other EU member states finally agree on the nuts and bolts of Britain’s settlement in the EU. Among the terms agreed to are a British “opt-out” from the EU founding notion of an “ever closer union” and restrictions on the welfare benefits offered to EU migrants.
The date is set: Brits are told they’ll go to the polls on June 23.
Although some of Cameron’s closest Conservative allies back Britain’s membership of the EU, the Conservatives (and also some on the left) continue to be split on the issue of “Europe.” Signaling perhaps the biggest division in the party, then-mayor of London (and prime-ministerial hopeful) Boris Johnson declares his support for leaving the EU, saying that a vote to remain in the bloc would be an “erosion of democracy.”
So, what happens next?
June 24: ¯_(ツ)_/¯