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FALQs: Brexit Referendum

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The following is a guest post by Clare Feikert-Ahalt, foreign law specialist for the United Kingdom and a number of Commonwealth jurisdictions at the Law Library of Congress. This blog post is part of our Frequently Asked Legal Questions series.

The United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community (EEC – now the European Union) in 1973. It had sought entry twice in the 1960s only to be blocked in both instances by France. Despite the apparent desire to join the EEC, the Conservative Party led the push for a referendum in 1975 that asked voters whether the UK should leave and the result of this referendum was an overwhelming “no,” with 67.2 percent of the voters electing to stay within the EEC.

UK/EU text logo with Union Jack and European flag images. (Photo by Flickr user Rareclass, June 5, 2016). Used under Creative Commons License 2.0,
UK/EU text logo with Union Jack and European flag images. (Photo by Flickr user Rareclass, June 5, 2016). Used under Creative Commons License 2.0,

1. Why hold a referendum?

The Conservative Party promised in the 2015 general elections that it would hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the European Union if it were elected. The party fulfilled this promise with the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which provided for a referendum that will occur on June 23, 2016.  This referendum has commonly been referred to as “Brexit.” The referendum ballot paper will contain one simple question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

2. Who can vote in the referendum?

The vote is open to British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens who are over the age of 18 years and are resident in the UK. UK nationals living overseas who have been on the electoral register in the UK during the past fifteen years are also eligible, along with Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar, Malta and Cyprus.

3. What is the public opinion about the EU?

The reason for the original campaign promise was the repeated frustration expressed by British citizens over many things that they claim membership in the EU has brought. For example, rules and fees imposed by the EU on small to medium businesses, which many claim provide little in return, have caused a lot of frustration. Some have also argued that the UK is one of ten member countries that pay more into the EU than they get out. There have been assertions that leaving the EU will result in the creation of thousands of new jobs in the UK. Freedom of movement of people and immigration, a key tenet of the European Union, have also caused much contention in the UK, with many British citizens frustrated that the borders have been opened, claiming that citizens of poorer EU countries have flocked to the UK en masse to take advantage of their generous benefits system.

Arguments for remaining in the EU include the ease of selling UK goods to other EU countries, and the freedom of movement across the EU. Some assert that the majority of EU immigrants who come to the UK are young and eager to work, rather than benefit seekers, which serves to fuel the UK’s economy. Furthermore, “remain” supporters claim that leaving the EU will result in the loss of thousands of jobs, rather than new jobs being created. Concerns have also been raised that exiting the EU will damage and weaken the UK’s global status.

Prime Minister David Cameron and a number of his cabinet members want the UK to remain a member of the EU. Other major political parties in the UK also want to remain in the EU, as do many EU countries, including France and Germany.

4. What will happen if the UK votes to leave the EU?

Unlike the certainty provided if the UK votes to remain in the EU, the details of what will happen if the UK votes to leave are unclear. It would have to negotiate new trade treaties.  And a Treasury report indicates that leaving the EU will throw the UK into a recession and result in long-term costs across the UK.

If the result is in favor of the UK leaving the EU, it would need to notify the EU in accordance with article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which describes the process of withdrawal. Article 50 requires the EU to negotiate the arrangements for withdrawal, including the status of future relations between the EU and UK.

5. What will happen if the UK votes to remain in the EU?

The Prime Minister has negotiated the terms of the UK’s continued membership in the EU, which the Prime Minister states will take effect immediately upon a “yes” vote to remain in the EU. The points negotiated include a reduction in the amount of child benefit and welfare payments that migrant workers receive; retention of the British currency without discrimination from other EU countries; special protection for the financial services industry in the City of London; and reimbursement if British money is used to bail out EU nations that experience financial troubles.

The latest opinion polls show that, this time, voters are split as to whether to remain in or leave the EU.


  1. I have been following developments in the case of the referendum since it took place in the UK and it has been completely fascinating to watch – this is a major issue that will affect the global economy, not just the UK’s. And it says a lot about people’s attitudes to immigration and freedom of movement. As the article says, we are very unclear about what will happen if the UK leaves the EU and there are uncertain times ahead.

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