News·7 min read

Brexit referendum: Why it happened and what's next

brexit bus
Mar 25, 2019

The Story

Welcome to the UK and EU’s messy breakup.

The Background

In the 1950s, Europe was trying to avoid a repeat of WWII. So a handful of countries decided to build closer economic and political ties in order to maintain peace and economic stability in the region. Meet, the European Economic Community. It started going by “EU” in the ‘90s and now has 28 member countries. The UK joined the squad in the ‘70s.

Does this squad wear pink on Wednesdays?

Uhh, no. But EU nations are part of a single market – making it easier for them to buy and sell goods with each other by getting rid of customs duties. They also have each other’s backs when it comes to security issues, like coordinating on international arrests. And EU citizens can travel freely around the bloc without dealing with visas.

So what’s the problem?

In recent years, there was a growing push for the UK to break things off with the EU. One reason: immigration. After the Soviet Union fell apart in the early ‘90s, a bunch of Eastern European countries joined the EU. People there started moving to the UK and other wealthy EU countries. That’s meant more competition in the UK for lower-paying jobs – something a lot of working-class UK citizens resented.

Ok, so...

In 2013, then-PM David Cameron was annoyed about pressure from within his party and beyond to split from the EU. Cameron wanted to unite his party and undermine support for a growing pro-Brexit party. So he promised that if he was re-elected PM in 2015, he would call a referendum and let the British people answer the question of Brexit once and for all.

How’d it go?

Not how he expected. In 2016, 52% voted to leave versus 48% who voted to stay. Cue jaws dropping. Even though some Brits talked a big game, few thought the country would vote to give up on the benefits of EU membership. But there was a lot at play in 2016 that many think factored into the UK’s decision to leave.

Tell me.

Europe was dealing with the worst migrant and refugee crisis in decades. Millions of people were fleeing places like Syria to escape war, terrorism, and poverty. Some Brexiters weren't on board with the EU's decision to take in some of these refugees, which they saw as a threat to security and the economy.

Got it. So what’s happening now?

After the Brexit vote, Cameron resigned, and PM Theresa May took over to deal with the fallout. May’s been in charge of hammering out an exit strategy with the EU – and trying to get UK lawmakers to sign off on it before Brexit kicks in. It’s been...a challenge.

The Big Issue

One key holdup is Northern Ireland. That’s the part of the UK that shares a border with Ireland (part of the EU). For decades, there was sectarian violence there – especially around the border. Checkpoints created a lot of tension between two groups: mainly Catholics who wanted Northern Ireland to reunite with the Catholic-majority Ireland. And mainly Protestant loyalists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK. We Skimm’d the history of the violence in Skimm This – our daily podcast. Bottom line: pretty much everyone wants to avoid setting up checkpoints again for goods moving between the EU and the UK.

What do they want then?

Good question. Here are the UK’s current options:

May’s’s a kind of half-Brexit half-not. It keeps the UK tied to the EU’s trade rules until they figure out what to do about Northern Ireland. Lawmakers rejected it...three times. Even though May said she would step down if lawmakers approve her plan. Now, no one knows WTF will happen. Problem, because if lawmakers can't agree on a deal, it could trigger a…

No-deal Brexit...aka the UK leaving the EU without a plan of action in place. Some are worried that could lead to chaos across everything from travel to trade. Many want to avoid this. Which is why they've been hitting...

Snooze...Brexit was originally supposed to happen on March 29. But the EU agreed to let UK lawmakers delay it until April 12. And then delay it again, since no one can agree on a plan for how to go through with it. The UK now has until October 31 to do some much-needed self-reflection and tell the bloc how it plans to move forward – and see if the bloc signs off. May is still pushing lawmakers to agree to her deal before the end of May. Otherwise the UK will have to participate in elections for the European Parliament, making their relationship even more complicated. Reminder, while all this is happening, there
are still millions of people hoping this will all
go away with a…

Re-vote...Exactly what it sounds like. A second referendum on whether to leave the EU or not. UK lawmakers have voted against this in the past, but they haven’t totally ruled it out. Cue an estimated million people or more marching in the streets, hoping to turn back time.

The Debate

There are a lot of issues to debate. But the one that kicked it all off was: ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’

Brits on Team Go say they’re tired of sending billions of dollars each year to help foot the EU’s budget. They also don’t like that unelected EU politicians get to impact their lives on everything from trade policies to immigration.

Brits on Team Stay say that the benefits of Brexit – like having access to the EU’s trading market, and getting to negotiate trade policies as a big bloc – outweigh the costs.

The Impact

A decision on how Brexit will go down is coming down to the wire. So the exact impact is up in the air. But here’s what could happen post-Brexit:

The UK...a recent UK gov report found that any Brexit scenario will likely hurt the UK’s economy. It’s still expected to grow, just at a slower pace than if it stays in the EU. Under a no-deal Brexit, the drop in GDP (think: how much a country produces) could be worse than it was during the 2008 financial crisis. It could also throw a wrench in supply chains and lead to food and medicine shortages.

The EU...may (or may not) be better off. The UK was the third-largest contributor to the EU’s budget, handing over more than $21 billion in 2016 alone. So the EU’s going to miss getting that money. But the rest of the EU’s economy has been growing at a faster pace than the UK’s. So some experts say that cutting ties with the UK could ultimately give the EU a boost. Still, the EU’s central bank doesn’t love this uncertainty and is taking steps to shield the economy from a potential downturn. Here's who else doesn't love this uncertainty...

The World...which is already dealing with a global slowdown blamed in part on the US-China trade war. Reminder: the UK is the world’s fifth-largest economy. And many say the uncertainty around Brexit isn’t helping push off what could be a recession.

You...will want to stay tuned. Depending on how Brexit goes down, it could impact everything from US-UK trade (and the cost of goods from the UK) to your travel plans.


In 2016, a simple up-down vote kicked off what’s expected to be the most significant change to the UK’s trade and foreign policy in decades. Now, figuring out how to undo years of economic and political ties has led to a tense and chaotic last-minute showdown. How British lawmakers ultimately decide to move forward could impact how big of a ripple effect this has across the world, and how much influence England continues to have on the world stage.

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