UK Referendum on EU Membership (2016)

First Submitted By Ben Hills

Most Recent Changes By Scott Fletcher

General Issues
Governance & Political Institutions
Specific Topics
Regional & Global Governance
United Kingdom
Scope of Influence
Start Date
End Date
Time Limited or Repeated?
A single, defined period of time
Total Number of Participants
Decision Methods
If Voting

A non-binding referendum on whether the UK should remain a member of the European Union. Voter turnout was 72% and the decision to leave the Union won with 51.89% voting 'Yes'. The outcome has been termed 'Brexit' for 'British Exit' and remains controversial.

Problems and Purpose

The referendum was proposed in response to a growing unrest with the U.K’s relationship with the European Union. With many MPs from all sides of the political spectrum calling for a referendum. Many saw the referendum also as a way that David Cameron was trying to get the Conservative party back under control, in a vote in 2011 a motion for a referendum on the EU was supported by 81 Conservative MPs, by far the largest rebellion of MPs over a European policy ever. This showed the strain on David Cameron as it was his party especially calling for a referendum and he was losing members of the party to the United Kingdom Independence Party. The purpose of the IN/OUT referendum was to decide whether the U.K should continue its membership of the E.U or leave the E.U. The country took to the polling stations on the 23rd of June 2016 and voted to leave the European Union.

Background History and Context

The history of the United Kingdom and the European Union has been a long and arduous one, with the June 2016 referendum being the second one held on membership in the 43 years the United Kingdom had been a part of the European Union. Before the European Union existed it was pre-dated by the European Economic Community (EEC). Which was initially created in the wake of World War Two between countries who believed that by trading with each other would be a greatly preventative measure against war happening again. There were 6 countries who signed the treaty of Paris in 1957; France, West Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Italy and Belgium. Britain first applied to join the EEC in 1963 but was rejected by the French President Charles de Gaulle, who then said no to Britain joining again in 1967. It was only in 1973 that Britain was finally able to join the EEC, only to decide two years later to have a referendum on whether to withdraw its membership. On the 5th of June 1975 the United Kingdom decided to remain in the EEC with 67.23% of the vote. There was a 64.03% turnout for the vote. Thus thoroughly showing that the public did want to remain in the EEC. Moving on through the next few decades the U.K’s relationship with the EEC did not steady, with Margaret Thatcher arguing for a new deal for the U.K due to its unfair expenditure to the EEC and what it received back in subsidies. (Even Tony Blair who had a strongly pro-EU stance, struggled with the EU due to battles over products such as British beef because of the Mad Cow disease problem in the late 90s and the battle of British chocolate being able to be sold in the rest of Europe.)

In 1993 the Maastricht Treaty came into effect, which was designed to not only integrate trade but also integrate countries politically, economically and culturally. With such things as a single currency (the Euro) and a united foreign policy coming into effect. The EEC would also be renamed the European Union (EU). This is a real change to the foundation of the EU and where it became the political body seen today. Throughout the 2000s the feeling against the EU grew, both inside the EU and within the U.K, with parties such as UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) rising in popularity. In 2009 David Cameron before he became Prime Minister said there was nothing he could do about the Lisbon treaty, the current treaty being brought into effect, as all 27 member states had already signed it. He promised that on any new treaties that the U.K had to sign that would mean the U.K signing over more powers to the E.U there would be a referendum. He stated "Never again should it be possible for a British government to transfer power to the European Union without the say of the British people in a referendum." (2009) A Conservative government would alter the European Communities Act 1972 meaning that no power could be transferred to the EU without a referendum. During his premiership he experienced many crisis such as; the migrant crisis of the last few years, the Eurozone crisis, as well as the growing threat of terrorism in Europe. This has meant that the E.U has seen a huge rise in backlash against it. Such a rise in fact that the pressure on the conservative government started to snowball and in the run up to the 2015 general election David Cameron promised a referendum on the membership of the European Union if the Conservatives won. After winning the election he announced on 20th February 2016 that the referendum would take place on the 23rd of June 2016. The public voted to leave the European Union and David Cameron announced he would be stepping down as prime minister by October 2016. The full outcomes of the U.K leaving the EU are still not fully understood as Article 50 has to be triggered when a country leaves the EU and the process takes up to two years to complete. Many people are still unsure on what the actual plan is for the U.K leaving the E.U as there is no official plan in place or any deals that have been put into place yet for our new relationships within Europe and with the world. 

Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities

The referendum was officially announced by David Cameron and organised by the conservative government. The cost of the referendum has been put at £142.4 million. There was no limit on spending by campaigning groups before the 27th of May 2016 as this was before the official 28 day campaigning period. After this the government imposed limits on spending for each of the campaigns with each of the official campaign groups (Vote Leave and Britain Stronger in Europe) getting a £600,000 grant of public money and the ability to spend up to £7,000,000 on their campaigns. Other unofficial campaigning groups could spend up to £700,000 each. 

Participant Recruitment and Selection

Anyone who was over the age of 18, was a UK citizen, and resided in Great Britain, Scotland, Northern Ireland, or Gibraltar was allowed to vote. You had to be registered by June 7th 2016 to be on the electoral register and be able to vote. You could also vote if you were a British or Northern Irish citizen who is living abroad but has been registered to vote in the U.K in the last 15 years. 

Methods and Tools Used

Referenda are an example of direct democracy. The 2016 referendum was only one of three to include the entire UK citizenry. Referenda are not generally legally binding, meant only to advise the government. However, refusal to heed the results of referenda is highly unlikely as it would be seen as a reject of the the will (vote) of the majority.

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

Since the announcement of the referendum on 20th February 2016 there was 11 debates about the E.U referendum, across all platforms from; televised debates (with and without audience participation), radio interviews to Facebook livestreams. The government also connected with the public in a highly criticized move when they spent £9.3 million on pro E.U leaflets which were delivered to every household in Britain.

The referendum took place on the 23rd of June 2016. Polls were open from 7am till 10pm and ballots asked voters to simply respond 'Yes' or 'No' to the question "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or Leave the European Union?."

Voter turnout was 72% (33,577,342), an all-time high for a referendum in Britain and the highest turnout since the 1992 general election. The 'Leave' campaign narrowly defeated the 'Remain' campaign by a vote of 51.89% to 48.11%. The majority of England voted for the U.K to leave the E.U. whereas other parts of Britain voted to remain, such as London, Scotland, Northern Ireland as well as Gibraltar. 

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

The vote had huge influence as although the referendum was technically non-binding and advisory to the government they would never consider not following through with the result. The people voted with one vote for one person and a simple majority was gained. This shows a clear cut case of direct democracy that has been put to the test and worked successfully (so far). There was a relatively simple outcome when it came down to the referendum; IN or OUT. The public chose to leave the European Union meaning that the U.K government, currently Theresa May’s Conservatives, must trigger what is known as Article 50.

Article 50 was written in the Lisbon treaty and has to be triggered when a country leaves the E.U. Article 50 gives a country 2 years to formally withdraw from the E.U (although it is widely thought that it will take much longer than this). Theresa May has said that she will trigger Article 50 by the end of march 2017, if this happens then the U.K would leave the E.U officially by April 2019 if everything goes as scheduled. However this is easier said than done as both the U.K and E.U will have negotiating teams to try and get the best they can out of the deal. The Vote Leave campaign for example said how when the U.K leaves it could have access to the single market but not have to have free movement of people so they could limit immigration, something that the E.U has vehemently denied saying that to have access to the common market you also have to have free movement of people. One of the major issues with the outcome of the referendum being what it was is that no one had an official plan in place there still doesn’t seem to be one and therefore it throws the effects of the referendum into darkness as it is impossible to predict what the U.K will come out with at the end of the transition process. Some sources stating that it could take up to 10 years to work out a new trade agreement with the E.U. 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

The United Kingdom referendum on leaving the European Union in practical sense worked well, a good example on how a democratic system is supposed to work. By giving the people a choice when it comes to the important decision is important and however close the result was for the referendum the result is still being treated with respect and will be honoured as such by the government. The vote was an example of direct democracy, one of only 3 ever held in the whole of the U.K. It showed that when the public are engaged and given a choice then people do like to get involved, especially in cases such as the referendum on the E.U as it is a big engaging topic that effects everyone and can really change and affect the way politics is done within a country.

The way that the referendum was used to strike out at the political elite as well was really interesting. It shows that people can be use direct democracy for more than just one vote over one thing. The expectation was that the U.K would remain a part of the E.U and that there would be no real change but because of this sudden unexpected victory for leave several things happened; the pound tanked in value falling to a 30 year low and a lot of people felt they had been lied to on what they were voting for exactly as there had been no clear plan in place, just to exit.

There is now a call for a second referendum based on what our leaving terms for the E.U which (if followed through with) would mean a huge lesson being taken away by the government, In that the public truly shocked the government by voting for independence and clearly they have learned that it important to connect with the public on important matters. So once again the British public would get to engage in politics that affects them. If a second referendum based on the terms of the E.U exit did happen it would make it the U.K’s third referendum in seven to eight years and bringing more referendum style politics might work well for the U.K. People like to have their say and clearly felt like the referendum was a way to do this. In Switzerland they have a cross of representative democracy and direct legislation, for example they have a system called ‘votation’ which is where they have several referendums a year and citizens are allowed to get their items on to the ballet for people to vote on. This is a way of really bringing politics into people’s lives more than once every 5 years when a general election is on, it could start to retain peoples interest in politics and mean a wider audience of voters participates every vote if they started to feel the could affect real change like in the independence referendum.

The fact that referendums have now been used twice in recent years (E.U and Alternative vote) could be a sign that we are on a road to institutionalising a form of democracy that would bring higher levels of participation. Meaning that rather than just always having a representative democracy where the decisions are being made for us, we are able to advocate change on an individual level which could engage the wider public further by showing them that their vote does matter and does actually change things in the country they live. 

See Also 

Scottish Independence Referendum 2014

UK Referendum on the Parliamentary Voting System (2011)


BBC (1967). 1967: De Gaulle says ‘non’ to Britain - again. BBC 27, 27 November. Available from [Accessed 5 January 2017].

BBC (2015). Timeline: Campaigns for a European Union referendum. BBC UK Politics, 21 May. Available from [Accessed 5 January 2017].

BBC (2016). Brexit trade deal could take 10 years, says UK’s ambassador. BBC UK Politics, 15 December. Available from [Accessed 5 January 2017].

Foster, A. (2016). EU Referendum 2016: How much has the referendum cost? Express, 23 June. Available from [Accessed 5 January 2017].

McKinney, C.J. (2016). Who can vote in the EU referendum? Full Fact. Available from [Accessed 5 January 2017].

Pruitt, S. (2016). The history behind Brexit. Available from [Accessed 5 January 2017].

Switzerland: Federal votes in 2016 and in the past. - (2015). Available from[Accessed 6 January 2017].

External Links


Lead image: Shropshire Star

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