Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Looking Back On The Impact The 2016 Brexit Vote


More than 3 1/2 years after voting to do so, the United Kingdom will finally leave the European Union tonight. Brexit is one of the biggest events in Britain since the end of World War II. And it will shape the country in the next few decades. NPR's Frank Langfitt looks back on the 2016 Brexit vote and the impact that it's already had.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Just before the referendum, it wasn't clear which way Britain would go.


LANGFITT: But in Tony Thompson's (ph) butcher shop, you could sense what was coming. Thompson was 58, didn't tend to vote in elections, but he planned to now to send a message to the country's leaders.

TONY THOMPSON: Got to stop the immigration, yeah, because it's only an island, you know? Can only get so many people on an island, can't you?

LANGFITT: Thompson had owned a butcher shop in London's East End. But over time, his white British-born clients moved out, replaced by Muslims from South Asia who had no use for an English butcher. Thompson eventually shut down that shop and opened another one in a much whiter community. Those Muslim immigrants weren't from Europe, but they were part of what Thompson saw as a trend he didn't like.

THOMPSON: It's like the English have been pushed out to the coast and the main towns - I mean, even Birmingham and all them places. It's not England anymore.

LANGFITT: On the other side of Brexit were people like Paul Dornan, a London screenwriter.

PAUL DORNAN: I voted to remain because I want to be part of Europe, not part of a little rock led by a Donald Trump lite (ph) called Boris.

LANGFITT: Dornan thought membership in the EU, a political and economic union of 28 countries, enhanced British power. His words on referendum day were prescient. Five months later, Donald Trump won the presidency, and last summer, Boris Johnson finally became prime minister. Again, Paul Dornan.

DORNAN: Britain is a small country that used to have a vast empire. A lot of the people who want us to leave the European Union think somehow by doing so they will have the British Empire back again.

LANGFITT: David Cameron was prime minister at the time. He called the referendum to settle a long-running dispute over Britain's relationship with Europe. Cameron didn't think Brexit would pass.


JENNY WATSON: The total number of votes cast in favor of leave was 17,410,742.


LANGFITT: Fifty-two percent voted for Brexit. The next day, Cameron announced his resignation.


DAVID CAMERON: I will do everything I can as prime minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months. But I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.

LANGFITT: Brian Klaas was a political scientist at the London School of Economics. He predicted Brexit would split the United Kingdom even more.


BRIAN KLAAS: There's going to be a lot of fallout from this vote. I think the economy is going to suffer in the short term. I think that there's going to be a lot of division within the country. And there's going to be clamoring for a second referendum with Scotland. There might be calls for Northern Ireland to break away.

LANGFITT: The referendum victory surprised even the leaders of the Brexit campaign, including Boris Johnson. In fact, they had no plan for how to unwind the U.K.'s complex decadeslong relationship with the EU, a failure that stunned Donald Tusk, then-president of the European Council.


DONALD TUSK: I've been wondering what a special place in hell looks like for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it safely.

LANGFITT: Theresa May won the battle for prime minister. Three years of political paralysis and tumult followed. It was unlike anything Britain had seen in decades. May eventually negotiated a Brexit withdrawal agreement with Brussels only to have her own Parliament vote it down three times.


JOHN BERCOW: The ayes to the right - 202. The noes to the left - 432.


LANGFITT: Many Europeans were shocked by the chaos here. George Papaconstantinou served as Greece's finance minister. He described his reaction like this.


GEORGE PAPACONSTANTINOU: Disbelief, astonishment - a country which prides itself as having an extremely robust parliamentary system suddenly finds itself completely adrift.

LANGFITT: But that didn't shake the conviction of most Brexit voters, even if leaving the EU might hurt some of them financially. Sue Lamb (ph) runs a flower farm in England. The Brexit vote made it harder for her to find EU workers on whom she depends.


SUE LAMB: Well, I never thought it was going to be the mess it is now. But generally I always think we should know, you know, who's coming through our borders. I think a lot of things in the EU are corrupt, and that didn't seem to be getting any better.

LANGFITT: Brexit forced Lamb to postpone investment, but she said she'd vote the same way again. People like Lamb are glad the U.K. is finally leaving the EU. But Brexit has strained ties in other parts of the country. Scotland voted to stay in the EU, and the Scottish National Party is calling for another independence referendum in hopes Scotland might eventually rejoin. Lynn Cunnington is a stay-at-home mom who lives in Glasgow.


LYNN CUNNINGTON: I think as an independent country within the European Union would be brilliant for Scotland. We need immigration here. We're a small country. We're different from England.

LANGFITT: Northern Ireland also voted against Brexit. The withdrawal agreement will require a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. that has angered many people there loyal to Britain and fuelled talk of an eventual vote to reunify Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, the EU member state to the south. Ian Shanks (ph) works in Belfast with former loyalist gunmen who fought during the sectarian conflict known as The Troubles.

IAN SHANKS: I think it's been a wake-up call for people. There is a genuine fear that it could lead to the breakup of the Union.

LANGFITT: Boris Johnson, who helped lead the 2016 Brexit campaign, became prime minister last summer. He won a big victory in December's election, vowing to resolve the crisis he helped spark.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: Get Brexit done in January and put the uncertainty behind us. Let's get out of the rut of the last three years and get on with our work as conservatives of making this country the greatest place in the world to live.

LANGFITT: The European Parliament approved the Brexit withdrawal agreement Wednesday, clearing the way for the U.K.'s departure tonight. The mood in Brussels, though, was not optimistic but sorrowful...


UNIDENTIFIED PARLIAMENTARIANS: (Singing) Should old acquaintance be forgot...

LANGFITT: As parliamentarians said goodbye to a crucial ally and friend, they broke into song.


UNIDENTIFIED PARLIAMENTARIANS: (Singing) For auld lang syne...

LANGFITT: Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.


UNIDENTIFIED PARLIAMENTARIANS: (Singing) Auld lang syne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.