A short history of the long road to Brexit

A countdown clock, projected onto the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street, marked the final minutes of the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union on January 31, 2020. As the clock ticked toward 11 pm, one half of the country celebrated. The other half mourned.

A person holding a sign saying “To Brexit you have destroyed my future, career and dreams”
An anti-Brexit protester on January 31, 2020.
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Brexit supporters rally in celebration, on January 31, 2020.
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The story of Britain’s breakup with the European Union began long before 52 percent of voters on a June 2016 referendum decided to leave the bloc. And though the UK will officially rescinded its EU membership Friday, the drawn-out and arduous divorce is far from over. Brexit will enter a new phase, as the UK and EU work to figure out all the details of their future relationship: trade, financial services, security cooperation, and much more.

But the moment is still a big one, as the UK ends its EU membership — the first country to do so — and charts a new version of its relationship with the bloc.

Here’s a look at what brought the UK to Brexit.


The beginning

In 1973, the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor to the European Union.

Even from the start, the public and politicians split on the value of membership.

“In this case it must be acknowledged that a large part of the country is not ecstatic about the score,” the Guardian wrote in an editorial on January 1, 1973. “The journey into Europe will be bumpy and discordant.”

British politicians George Thomson, Baron Thomson and Duncan Sandys celebrate Britain’s entry to the EEC on January 1, 1973.
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William Withelaw and Margaret Thatcher, then leader of the conservative party, campaigned for “Yes to Europe” referendum in 1975.
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Just two years later, in 1975, the UK held its first nationwide referendum, which happened to be on membership in the European community. Then, a Labour prime minister was in charge, dealing with a divided party with a strong anti-Europe faction.

Conservatives, led by Margaret Thatcher, championed staying in. Thatcher called for a “massive ‘Yes’ to Europe” in the referendum, wore a Euro-themed sweater. About 67 percent of the country agreed.

But it did not settle question of the UK’s place within Europe. In the four decades since, the UK changed. So did Europe.

Deeper disillusionment sets in

The Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s more closely integrated the member-states, forming the modern EU. The “Maastricht Rebels” — something of a precursor to today’s Brexiteers — battled to defeat its ratification in the UK, though they ultimately failed.

Even so, the UK managed to carve out distance from the rest of Europe; for example, it never adopted the common currency, the euro. But the British tabloids that had enthusiastically trumpeted a “yes” vote in the 1970s began to blare headlines skeptical of the EU that exaggerated the overreach of bureaucrats in Brussels. The “ban” on barmaids’ cleavage. The “ban” on bendy bananas. The plans, that never existed, for one-size-fits-all condoms, reported by Boris Johnson himself.

An anti-Euro protester stands outside London’s Houses of Parliament, on June 9, 2003, the day of the government’s decision on whether the UK will join the Euro.
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The financial crisis in 2008 and the eurozone economic crisis that followed it intensified suspicion about the EU. The influx of immigrants from poorer EU states and, later, fears over refugees and migrants from places like the Middle East and Africa tapped into darker fears about the future of Britain.

Then came the referendum.

The big vote

In 2013, Britain’s then-Prime Minister David Cameron promised that if his Conservative Party won elections, he would hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave. Cameron partly caved to pressure from the right flank of his party and the UK Independent Party (UKIP), the right-wing party that was peeling away some Conservative voters.

Cameron won, and kept his promise. The UK held the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016. There were two choices: Leave (the EU) or Remain.

Cameron backed Remain. Other prominent members of his party did not. The popular former London Mayor Boris Johnson joined the official “Vote Leave” campaign. He campaigned in a big red bus that promised more money for Britain’s national health service, that has become, in its way, the symbol of Brexit: the fervent belief of something better, without clear proof that it exists.

It feels quaint now, compared to some of the darker claims made during the Brexit campaign. Nigel Farage, the current Brexit Party leader associated with the unofficial Leave.EU campaign, stood in front of a billboard of mostly non-white migrant men. “Breaking Point,” the poster read. “The EU has failed us.”

Nigel Farage unveils the party’s new EU referendum poster on June 16, 2016.
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And still, the pundits and the polls seemed to think that the UK would never do it, would never actually leave. “It will be stronger if we stay. It will be weaker if we leave,” Cameron said days before the referendum vote. “That’s a huge risk to Britain — to British families, to British jobs — and it’s irreversible. There is no going back.”

David Cameron holds a “Vote Remain” rally on June 22, 2016.
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Anti-Brexit protesters in York, England.
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Brexit supporters in Ramsgate, England.
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Boris Johnson holds a “Vote Leave” rally on May 23, 2016.
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Taking back control. Populism. Immigration fears. Better trade deals. English nationalism. Anger at the political establishment. Deindustrialization. Misinformation. Russian interference — whatever the combination reasons, spoken or unspoken, 17.4 million people voted to Leave. Northern Ireland and Scotland preferred to remain, but the English (and Welsh) wanted to go.

Cameron resigned, leaving a new prime minister to figure out the divorce. Theresa May got the job, which British politics and political realities and May’s own miscalculations made all but impossible.

Maybe that wasn’t so obvious in March 2017, when May gave official notice to the EU that the UK wanted out. That set off a two-year countdown, to March 29, 2019.

British newspapers on June 24, 2016.
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The divorce begins — and soon gets messy

It wasn’t always contentious, the divorce. But the EU and the UK got stuck exactly where they were always going to get stuck: on the issue of a 310-mile border on the island of Ireland.

A peace deal ended a decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland, which turned a dividing line invisible, free of customs checks. How to keep it so once Northern Ireland departed with the UK, and Ireland remained firmly within the EU, became the most urgent issue of Brexit, the stakes incalculably high.

May and the EU thought reached a compromise solution in the fall of 2018. But the “Irish backstop,” as it was known, became politically toxic among the most ardent Brexit supporters, who saw a concession as full-on surrender to the EU.

A schoolgirl walks past an anti-Brexit billboard near the Irish border on November 14, 2018.
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Her most vocal critics came from within her own Conservative Party. The opposition in Parliament, without the numbers to sway Brexit, saw no reason to help May win.

This brought three historic defeats. The first, on January 15, 2019, she was always going to lose, but no one knew by how much. It will go down as the worst loss for a prime minister since Britain became a modern democracy. The second that followed, on March 12, 2019, was notable in that it was slightly less embarrassing than the first.

And for another, even more important reason: Britain was hurtling toward the March 29, 2019, deadline without a Brexit deal in place. That threatened doomsday-esque predictions: backlogs at borders, food and medicine shortages, a currency crash, public unrest.

May sought an extension instead.

The EU bought May a little more time, until April 12, 2019. Her attempts to renegotiate the Brexit deal largely failed. Her attempts to get Parliament to finally go along with her deal also failed. May again asked the EU for an extension, and the EU agreed, again. May wanted June, the EU returned with a counter-offer of a “flextension” to October 31, 2019, giving the UK, at maximum, six months to figure it out.

May took it. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, warned the UK: “Please do not waste this time.”

May falls, Boris rises

The UK mostly got around to picking a new prime minister. May tried to make a fourth attempt at pushing a Brexit deal through, but faced with unmoving opposition, she resigned in May. Her Conservative Party elected Boris Johnson, who enthusiastically promised the UK would leave, deal or no deal, on October 31.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip May waving outside 10 Downing Street on July 13, 2016, the day she took office (top) and on July 24, 2019, the day she left office.
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He tried, hard. He moved to renegotiate May’s deal. He moved to shutdown Parliament so it couldn’t get in the way. The prorogation of Parliament backfired; lawmakers rebelled against Johnson and made it law that Johnson had to ask the EU for an extension, something he said he’d rather “die in a ditch” than do. Johnson lost his majority in the process.

But the renegotiation plan — that, actually worked. Johnson and the EU agreed to a new protocol for Northern Ireland, one that pleased Brexiteers even as they and Johnson abandoned their allies in Northern Ireland.

The surprise breakthrough came with just weeks to go until the October 31, 2019 deadline. Johnson wanted his vote, Johnson wanted out. Parliament wouldn’t budge; enough Brexit skeptics still sat in Parliament, and, together, they could foil a deal.

Instead of voting to take the EU out on October 31, 2019, they asked Johnson to go back to the EU and ask for more time. Hundreds of thousands more asked for a second referendum, another chance to decide if the UK should leave at all.

Johnson wrote to Brussels, reluctantly. The EU agreed, eventually, to delay again, until January 31, 2020 — within range of a year since the original date of the divorce.

Johnson did the task he had not wanted to do: delay Brexit. He demanded elections in return.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to reporters outside 10 Downing Street, following his Conservative party’s general election victory, on December 13, 2019.
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The opposition was reluctant to give them. Johnson’s popularity meant Brexit opponents might lose any leverage left to block Brexit. But a divided Parliament sustained the year-long Brexit deadlock. Johnson’s gamble — that only a new Parliament could end the stalemate — was also a correct one.

And Johnson’s gamble paid off, spectacularly. He won a majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons, wiping out Labour in its once-loyal strongholds and ending the careers of plenty of lawmakers who fought him.

The second referendum cries ended. The opposition turned inward, focusing on the future of their own parties instead. The UK was leaving in January, that was that.

The end — or the end of the beginning

Parliament still went through the motions. Swift approval of the Brexit legislation, resistance out of principle only. “We will always love you and we will never be far,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said as the EU Parliament approved the Brexit deal on January 29.

The UK’s pro-Brexit representatives waved British flags, and all of the Britain’s representatives prepared to leave for good. The remaining members of the European Parliament joined hands and sang “Auld Lang Syne.”

The EU Parliament’s final Brexit vote tally on January 29, 2020.
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MPs of the European Parliament rise following a historic vote for the Brexit agreement in Brussels, Belgium, on January 29, 2020.
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The UK’s 40-plus-year membership in the EU expired at 11 pm Friday. As Cameron once predicted, there is no going back — at least not to the way it was. Should it want to rejoin someday, Britain will have to apply, like everyone else.

Johnson delivered a brief address on Friday. “The most important thing to say tonight is that this is not an end, but a beginning,” the prime minister said. “This is the moment when the dawn breaks and the curtain goes up on a new act in our great national drama.”

Farage invaded Parliament Square with Union Jacks. Big Ben did not bong at 11 pm, because it’s under renovations, but a recording tried to make up for it.

Leaving doesn’t unite the country. In Scotland, hundreds gathered for a vigil outside the Scottish Parliament. Pro-EU demonstrators protested in London. In Belfast, Northern Ireland, a Brexit “mood board” captured the surreal day, as people, in dry erase marker, wrote their feelings — “Afraid! glad. Conned!” — on a dry erase board and walked away.

The UK has departed the EU, but what Brexit is, and what it means, is still undecided. The UK must now redefine its relationship with the rest of the continent. This time, on the outside.