The U.K. Voted To Leave The European Union. What Happens Next?

Vote Leave campaigner Boris Johnson arrives for a press conference at Vote Leave headquarters in London Friday June 24, 2016. CREDIT: MARY TURNER/POOL VIA AP
Vote Leave campaigner Boris Johnson arrives for a press conference at Vote Leave headquarters in London Friday June 24, 2016. CREDIT: MARY TURNER/POOL VIA AP

The U.K. voted to leave the European Union by a vote of 51.9 percent on Thursday — making it the first time a member country has chosen to leave the union. Thursday’s vote is not legally binding, but while the vote could technically be blocked or overturned, U.K. politicians are still likely to move forward with leaving the E.U.

Prime Minister David Cameron, who in 2013 promised an E.U. referendum if he was re-elected, has said he will formally resign and there will be a new prime minister before the Conservative Party conference in October. It’s not clear who will replace him, but it could be far-right pro-Leave Conservative MP Boris Johnson.

Due to the lack of exit polls and the regulations prohibiting campaigning or any other action that might influence voters (including reporting), the decision to leave the E.U. came as a huge surprise. The most recent polls before Thursday revealed that the referendum could go either way.

It’s not clear when the U.K. Parliament will pass the laws that will get the U.K. out of the union or when the country will formally let the E.U. know it is leaving — something that’s required before it can do so. Under Article 50 of the Treaty on the European Union (TEU), a member state that wants to leave the E.U. first needs to come to a withdrawal agreement that clarifies what relationship it will have with the E.U. in the future. The U.K. will have two years to come to such an agreement, and if it does not, U.K. membership in the E.U. will automatically expire (unless the U.K. and the European Council decide to extend their negotiations). It’s not yet clear when this two-year negotiating period will start, as the Brexit vote in itself was not formal notification.

Leaving the E.U. will have a major impact on the U.K. economy and security. As ThinkProgress has previously reported:

Europe is the U.K.’s most important trade partner and a significant source of foreign investment, and that’s in large part due to the union. The U.K. Treasury has warned that the country would be “permanently poorer” if it leaves the E.U.

The Bank of England has similarly warned that uncertainty about the referendum is already affecting the economy, with businesses and consumers putting off major decisions, and if the U.K. decides to leave, the value of the pound would fall drastically. The U.K. economy could also expect to lose many of the benefits it’s received from migration from the E.U. — which amounted to over £20 billion between 2001 and 2011 alone, according to one study from University College London.

In terms of national security, former MI6 Chief John Sawers has warned that leaving the E.U. would make the U.K. “less safe” because it would shut the U.K. out of “crucial” intelligence sharing with the E.U. U.K. Home Secretary Theresa May, former Chairman of the British Joint Intelligence Committee Pauline Neville-Jones, former Director General of MI5 Eliza Manningham-Buller, and Europol Chief Rob Wainwright have all said similar things.

Currently, the British pound sterling is the lowest it has been in 30 years.

Migration — which is of course closely related to the country’s economy — will be another key area impacted by the decision to leave the union. It’s not clear yet whether E.U. residents currently living and working in the U.K. would have to leave, or vice versa, as it ultimately depends on what relationship the U.K. chooses to have with the union moving forward. The U.K. could choose to remain in the E.U.’s single market, which would mean a continued free movement of citizens between the U.K. and the E.U., or it could choose to apply work permit restrictions similar to those currently in place for non-E.U. citizens in the country.


No member state has left the E.U. before — leaving the details of what happens next a bit unclear. (Greenland, a territory of Denmark, voted to leave the E.U. predecessor.) Norway, which has been used as an example of what the U.K. could do post-E.U., decided not to be a part of the union in 1994. However, the country is still part of the E.U. single market — and allows the free movement of people and capital — but it has no part in E.U. decision-making.

Many other key issues will also be be affected by the U.K. decision to leave, including whether Scotland will remain part of the U.K.; whether Northern Ireland will remain part of the U.K.; whether other countries will follow Britain and leave the E.U.; the U.K.’s National Health Services; efforts to tackle climate change worldwide; the status of protected species in the U.K.; U.K. membership in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership; and many, many more.

For now, a petition for a second referendum on whether to leave the E.U. has become the fastest petition to be considered for debate by the U.K. parliament and so popular that the government site is crashing. At the time of publication, there were over 120,000 signatures.