It is five years since the British public voted to leave the European Union. The UK in a Changing Europe research centre has played a critical role throughout this time by improving the scrutiny, decision-making and public debate around the referendum and subsequent negotiations. Today, it is continuing to have an impact through helping us understand what lies beyond Brexit for the UK and the world.
Prime Minister David Cameron announced on 20 February 2016 that the UK would vote on 23 June that year on whether the country should remain in the European Union.
It set in motion a fierce debate amongst ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ campaigners. Debate around the UK’s relationship with the EU has lasted decades, sparking the creation of new political parties, attracting significant media attention and causing heated discussions on all sides, leading to the referendum.
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE) has been an impartial, non-partisan and authoritative reference point since 2015 for those wanting to know more about the UK’s relations with the EU.
Funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and based within the Faculty of Social Science & Public Policy at King’s, it was set up to produce and disseminate independent, rigorous and impartial social science research on the issues to inform public debate, which was crucial given the divisive nature of the issue.
Understanding the widespread impacts of Brexit
UKICE brought together researchers and a team of senior fellows from different disciplines across the UK to explore the political and economic trade-offs inherent in Brexit, the impact on trade and migration, and how it would affect the UK’s governance. They also modelled potential long-term economic impacts of different scenarios. The result was an ability to create truly interdisciplinary work that brought together diverse expertise from across the social sciences.
This research included analysis by Professor Jonathan Portes of the potential effect of Brexit on trade and immigration. This found that lower migration to the UK from Brexit could have significant negative consequences for GDP and productivity and, for the first time, indicated the plausible order of magnitude of possible impacts.
Other research looked at the tensions arising from the vote that could make enacting Brexit so difficult. This included how public opinion changed after the vote and the constitutional strains created by the Brexit process. They also identified key issues that could affect the rights of citizens in the UK and Europe.
Analysing the impacts of potential deals and ‘no deal’
Following the referendum and the subsequent triggering of Article 50, negotiations for the withdrawal agreement began. During this time, the team uncovered and explained the structural drivers behind the ‘Leave’ vote and produced timely analysis of different deals and their potential impacts.
Through its policy papers, that were widely shared with government, business and the media, the team had a direct impact on decisions made in parliament, with their research cited in many debates in the House of Commons and by Select Committee members.
Those who praised its work included Hilary Benn, MP, Chair of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee, who said UK in a Changing Europe analysis helped him better understand the implications of a no deal Brexit. Nicky Morgan who served both as a minister and Chair of the Treasury Select Committee during the Brexit process, said the non-partisan nature of the team’s work was particularly beneficial.
As well as the senior fellows giving written and oral evidence to select committees, Professor Anand Menon also briefed 80 MPs on 29 March 2021, the day of the first set of indicative votes on the Brexit options. The team additionally undertook a variety of briefings, meetings and advisory positions with Parliamentary research groups, met privately with MPs and senior ministers, plus gave evidence to both the Scottish and Welsh parliaments.
On the EU side, the team’s work was used to underpin regular briefings given to the EU’s Taskforce on Article 50, led by Michel Barnier, and Germany’s Brexit team in Berlin. The team also spoke with staff in embassies outside the EU, including New Zealand, Australia and the US.
Informing business and the public
During the transition phase, the team met with more than 50 businesses and associations briefing them on the negotiations and the potential economic impact of different scenarios.
Informing public debate was always a key aim of the centre and the team worked with the media, on social media and directly with the public to develop an understanding of the issues around Brexit.
This resulted in more than 2,000 media mentions including in every national newspaper, on flagship broadcast programmes such as Newsnight, BBC Breakfast, Good Morning Britain, Channel 4 News and Sky News. Professor Menon also appeared three times on BBC’s Question Time during key junctures in the process.
UK in a Changing Europe also held more than 40 ‘ask the expert’ town hall meetings across the country for the public, as well as talks in prisons, schools and pubs.
The combination of all this work led to recognition for UK in a Changing Europe, with director Professor Menon being awarded the Politics Studies Association Communicator Award in 2016 and ESRC Impact champion in 2017. The team also won three awards from Prospect including Best International Think Tank in 2018 and Best Foreign Affairs Think Tank in 2019.
Looking beyond Brexit
As 2021 dawned, the UK officially left the EU, the Customs Union and Single Market. However, this did not mean the team’s work was over.
Through the Brexit and Beyond series of reports released in February and March this year, the team brought together more than 70 experts’ views on what lies ahead. This covered a wide range of policy areas including agriculture, climate change, energy, cybersecurity, immigration, manufacturing and social care. It also analysed the consequences for the economy, government, political parties, the Union and law, plus the effects on public opinion and relations with other countries around the world.
Other recent work has looked at the UK’s permanent representation to the EU and an analysis of economically ‘comfortable’ Leavers looking at the hopes they had when voting for Brexit.
The team has also interviewed key individuals who played a role in shaping Brexit including politicians, civil servants, campaigners, and leaders of civil society organisations – the organisation’s Brexit Witness Archive providing long-form interviews for anyone wanting to access a historical record of Brexit.
Five years on from that crucial vote, the long-term consequences of leaving the EU will continue to be felt for decades to come. The invaluable research and analysis from UK in a Changing Europe has never been more critical.