Everything You Wanted To Know About The EU Referendum But Were Afraid To Ask

The road to June 23 has been paved with bananas, war and much more

For what seems like an eternity, the news bulletins have been dominated by talk of the UK's referendum on whether to stay or leave the European Union. Finally, tomorrow, Britain gets to vote.

It's been a curious campaign, a strange brew of political hysteria and confusion. Take someone painting a mural of 'Leave' cheerleader-in-chief Boris Johnson "snogging" Donald Trump. Who really knows why?

Ben Birchall/PA Wire

The referendum is arguably more important than any general election, changing Britain’s relationship with Europe and, in turn, the rest of the world, and the arguments have lurched from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Prime Minister David Cameron has warned of a fresh World War if we quit and ISIS being in favour the Out campaign. Boris Johnson thinks Brussels is telling us how we can sell our bananas.

We've heard about what it means it means for jobs, immigration, cheap flights, farmers, cell phone charges, Cornish pasties and more, and there's been more foreign interventions than you can shake your passport at.

Sure, Barack Obama came over here to warn Britain would be at the "back of the queue" for future trade deals under "Brexit". But perhaps the bigger move was one-quarter of Swedish hit machine ABBA cautioning against our withdrawal.

Much of it has been like a tennis match.

The Remain camp points to what it sees as immaculate sources backing their cause: the Governor of the Bank of England, the head of the International Monetary Fund and any passing foreign head of state. The Leave campaign returns: it's an "Establishment stitch-up". And back and forth the rally goes.

It's left Joe Public confused, responding with a plaintive cry: "We just want the facts."

So, er, what are the facts?

Let’s step back to January 2013.

David Cameron promised the Tories would hold a vote on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, the now 28-country bloc of countries forged out of the Second World War. The promise was in its 2015 election manifesto, and a date was set for before 2017.

Here’s the so-called Bloomberg speech.

The plan was to slay two dragons with one mighty swipe: Nigel Farage’s insurgent UK Independence Party (or Ukip), which was a real threat to the party’s share of the vote, and eurosceptic Tory MPs, a thorn in the side of successive Conservative Party leaders.

Books have been written on why, and it's been a itch that has needed scratching for decades, according to Tories and tabloid newspapers. But in a sentence: the EU has become bloated since its first incarnation, far outgrowing its original purpose as a trading zone and 'Brussels' - the derisory short-hand for the whole structure - now has too much influence over British life.

The Tories won the election. So the the country braced itself for the first referendum on the relationship since 1975, when it was more popularly known as the Common Market.

What's 'Brexit'?

We've seen #brexit a lot. A long, long time ago journalists used to write about "Britain leaving the European Union". But they were writing about it all the time and assumed everyone was following the debate just as closely, so shortened "Britain's exit" from Europe.

Most normal people probably think it's a breakfast cereal.

Was there a new 'deal' with Europe?

There was, though no-one really talks about it now.

Part of the manifesto promise was to thrash out a better relationship with EU member states to loosen its grip on the UK, and ensure Britain is not dragged further into a loveless relationship.

Cameron ping-ponged between European capital cities, and eventually agreed four key reforms that if you asked literally anyone to recall they would have to Google it. But the main two were reducing benefits for migrants to discourage them coming to the UK, and exempting Britain from “ever closer union” with the EU.

In fact, if anyone remembers anything from the three-year "charm offensive" it will be the awkward high-five with European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker at one of countless “crunch” summits.


Well before the deal came out of the other end of the Brussels sausage factory, many have handed down their verdict.

“Thin gruel” is the old-fashioned phrase used by that most old-fashioned of Tory MPs, Jacob Rees-Mogg, to describe what Cameron’s it amounted to. The backbencher summed up what most eurosceptics thought in his savaging of the proposals.

So who is ‘In’?

Cameron himself has long claimed to be a 'eurosceptic', but argues his 'deal' is sufficient to justify backing a reformed Europe. So he, and his Government, back Remain. Though a good proportion of his party have made it their life's work to get 'Out'.

The Labour Party, bar a handful of eurosceptics, is pro-Europe (though only really since the early-1980s). Jeremy Corbyn, from the left-wing tradition of the party, has long questioned whether the EU structure delivers more for business than it does workers, but is backing 'In'. The Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, Green Party and Welsh nationalists Plaid Cmyru are firmly in the ‘In’ camp.

As the campaign has gone on, a diverse cast of everyone from big business to actors have get behind Remain.

And 'Out'?

Big political names in Cameron's Cabinet take the opposing view, Michael Gove, the Justice Secretary and Cameron's old friend, and former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith are the starriest, and they're joined by a welter of Conservative backbenchers.

Tory government ministers John Whittingdale, Theresa Villiers, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel, who want to Leave
Tory government ministers John Whittingdale, Theresa Villiers, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel, who want to Leave
Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

This - a Tory civil war - has been a soap opera in its own right. So deep is the fault-line that some Conservatives are already calling on Cameron to quit.

Leaving the EU is UKIP's reason for being, so naturally this is the time for the country's third biggest party by number of votes to shine.

What about Boris?


The ex-London mayor electrified the early stages of the campaign by announcing he would campaign for Britain to 'Leave'. It was a crucial endorsement for many reasons. The stock phrase is this: Boris is a politician who reaches parts of the electorate others can't.

Here he is holding aloft a pasty.

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

It's hard to nail down the appeal of the Eton-educated former journalist who has been through more scraps than most politicians could withstand. But getting stuck on a zipwire and brandishing two small plastic flags at a London Olympics event may explain some of it.

What many have latched on to is how backing Leave boosts his own ambition to be the next leader of the Tory party, and in turn Prime Minister.

What about people we might have heard of?

And if you want to know how are celebrities are voting, take out quiz to find out.

But we aren’t voting for parties?

There are designated Leave and Remain campaign groups, decided by the independent Electoral Commission. Each side gets a £600,000 grant, and has to abide by a spending limit of £7 million.

The Leave designation was closely fought, with Vote Leave, led by Gove and other senior Tories, winning out over Leave.EU, which had close links to UKIP.

For Remain, it's Britain Stronger In Europe leading the charge, a cross-party group with Sir Stuart Rose, the former chief executive of British high street darling Marks & Spencer, its frontman.

But what about the 'facts'?

As predicted, Cameron's "re-negotiation" was pretty quickly sidelined. The debate has been dominated by, but not limited to, a handful of reasons to stay or go ...



Millions of jobs are linked to our EU membership, but there's little evidence to show how many would be in jeopardy if we left.


Some of Britain's biggest trading partners are in the EU, and more than 50% of our exports go to EU countries. Membership allows us to have a say over how trading rules are drawn up.

Travel and work

It's easier than ever to work and travel abroad. Around 1.4 million British people live abroad in the EU. Membership makes movement around the continent simple.

Crime fighting

The European Arrest Warrant allows criminals to be brought to justice across the EU.

Global influence

The EU is the world's biggest market and plays a big role in world trade, climate change issues, development projects and more.


Border control

Border control would be back in our hands. Many argue attempts to control immigration into the UK will fail as long as we are in the EU.

Cost saving

Estimates suggest membership costs around £24m per day when rebates and other receipts are taken into account.


Laws made by the directly-elected European Parliament supersede legislation made by individual member state parliaments.

Other countries exist outside

For example, Norway, which trades with the EU without being in it, controls its own farming and fishing, rather than being bound by EU quotas.

Those are the broad arguments, but the "facts" are elusive.

The Government's attempt to satisfy the nation's curiosity came via a £9.3m mailshot through every household's door outlining EU membership brings "economic security, peace and stability", and how leaving would result in an "economic shock".

Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Naturally, 'Brexit'-ers thought since the Government backs Remain the leaflet was somewhat one-sided, arguing it was “outrageous” the civil service was being used the for “pro-EU propaganda”. Here's UKIP's Nigel Farage, disgruntled, returning the leaflet to Downing Street.


One popular place for independent verifications is the Full Fact website, which has built up the reputation for panning documents for truth. Well, it's good enough for J.K. Rowling.

What’s 'Project Fear'?

Much of the above.

Project Fear is a political device designed to scare the bejesus out of people if they vote for the other side.

The best distillation of this was the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 that saw fears over whether the country would lose the pound and see business flee, many think, carry the result for the preservation of the United Kingdom.

The EU referendum has been worse still. Here are just a handful of the most extraordinary, fanciful and just plain daft claims.

1. The EU wants to ban high-energy appliances

This is tweet from an actual politician.

2. Cheese and sausages are under threat from 'Brexit' ...

3. ... but we'd save the whales if we left

4. Putin and ISIS would prefer it if we voted to Leave ...

David Cameron said:

"It is worth asking the question: Who would be happy if we left? Putin might be happy, I suspect al-Baghdadi might be happy."

5. ... but the EU is the kind of thing Hitler wanted

Boris Johnson wrote:

“Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried (to Europe under a single government), and it ends tragically. The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods."

Does any of this matter?

Some think it will come down to two factors: the economy v immigration.

The Remain campaign - having rolled out the Treasury, Obama, Bank of England governor Mark Carney and various international and domestic bodies to warn of recession, house price slumps and new trading tariffs - suspect they have won the economic argument.

But Leave has fears over immigration on its side.

The argument that Britain can control its borders is its most persuasive. It was one hammered home when the last round of figures were released indicating net migration to the UK is above 300,000.

But has Farage pushed it too far?

Philip Toscano/PA Wire

George Osborne branding the controversial poster as "vile", comparing it to extremist literature produced in the 1930s, was the most generous of criticisms.

Polling stations are open between 7am and 10pm. Don't worry if you've lost your polling card. It's all explained here and here.

Will it go to the wire?

The polling industry’s name was in the dirt after failing to call the general election. But hey, they’ve be monitored closely throughout.

Here's HuffPost's "poll of polls" has moved around - with Leave just ahead - but how the "undecided" break could be the deal-breaker.

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