LONDON — Five years ago Wednesday, Britons voted in a referendum that was meant to bring certainty to the U.K.’s unsettled relationship with its European neighbors.
Voters’ decision on June 23, 2016 was narrow but clear: By 52% to 48%, they chose to leave the European Union. It took over four years to actually make the break and the former partners are still bickering, like many divorced couples, over money and trust.
And five years after a fractious referendum campaign that sparked family arguments and neighborhood disputes, Britain is still as split over Europe as ever.
“Britain is still significantly divided over the merits of Brexit,” said polling expert John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde. He says voters are split almost exactly 50-50 between “remain” and “leave” supporters, and relatively few have changed their minds since 2016.
“Over four in five people still say that they would vote exactly in the same way as they did five years ago,” Curtice said.
The country is also split on whether Brexit has been a success. In 2016, Brexit campaigners claimed leaving the EU would not only restore British sovereignty, but save the country money. Notoriously, campaigners emblazoned a double-decker bus with the claim that Brexit would give the U.K. an extra $486 million a week to spend on its beloved national health service. The U.K.’s net contribution to the EU was actually about half that much.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government insists that Brexit is bringing new economic opportunities. Britain recently signed its first full post-Brexit trade deal, with Australia, and has applied to join a trade partnership of Pacific-rim countries.
But Britain’s trade with the EU, which before Brexit accounted for about half of all imports and exports, plummeted by 20% after the U.K. made a full economic break at the end of 2020, although the disruption from the coronavirus pandemic makes it hard to tell how much of that impact is from Brexit.
Jonathan Portes, professor of economics at King’s College London, said Brexit will be “a significant but not catastrophic” drag on U.K. economic growth for many years.
“Not a blowout, but a slow puncture,” he said.
The referendum ended the career of then-Prime Minister David Cameron, who had championed staying in the EU and quit soon after. His successor, Theresa May, tried and failed to strike a divorce deal that both the EU and Britain’s Parliament would accept and resigned in 2019.
The two most prominent Brexit champions have had mixed fortunes. Former U.K. Independence Party leader Nigel Farage arguably did more than anyone to make Brexit happen, but never won a seat in Parliament despite repeated attempts. He founded, and then left, the Brexit Party, and remained in the public eye as Britain’s most vocal supporter of Donald Trump. He is currently out of frontline politics.
Johnson, who led the official “Vote Leave” campaign, became prime minister in 2019 by promising to “get Brexit done” after years of wrangling. He succeeded in leading Britain out of the EU — and straight into another crisis, the coronavirus pandemic.
He leads a nation divided over more than just Brexit. Far from bringing the U.K. together, Brexit has frayed the bonds between the different parts of the United Kingdom.
It has increased support for independence in Scotland, which voted in 2016 to remain in the EU but had to leave the bloc when the rest of the U.K did. It also has destabilized Northern Ireland, which borders EU member Ireland, by imposing new trade barriers between it and the rest of the U.K. that have angered Northern Ireland’s pro-British unionist community.
As for the divorced couple itself, Britain and the EU are squabbling, with Britain urging the bloc to show flexibility and the EU threatening legal action unless the U.K. sticks to the Brexit agreement.
British Brexit minister David Frost, who led negotiations for the U.K. side, said Tuesday that many Brexit supporters like him were surprised at how rocky the relationship had become.
“It’s not something that we want,” he said. “The sooner we can move beyond the settling-down process the better.”