Brexit, explained in one chart
How could this have happened? Why did Britain, an EU member for decades, all of a sudden decide to quit?
The core of the answer is deceptively simple: British voters are pushing back against a huge surge in immigration that's taken place over the past decade. This, more than anything else, drove Britons to support Brexit.
To understand why, take a look at this chart from the British Office for National Statistics. It shows the level of long-term immigration (people moving to the UK and staying for at least 12 months, in orange), long-term emigration (people moving out of the UK and staying away for at least 12 months, in red), and long-term net migration (immigration minus emigration, in blue).
It shows a clear trend: Britain hadn't experienced high levels of immigration for decades, but over the past 20 years the number of people moving there has spiked dramatically:
"Between 1993 and 2014 the foreign-born population in the UK more than doubled from 3.8 million to around 8.3 million," Oxford researchers Cinzia Rienzo and Carlos Vargas-Silva write. "During the same period, the number of foreign citizens increased from nearly 2 million to more than 5 million."
Crucially, the chart also explains a key reason why this spike happened. The chart shows when new countries joined ("gained accession") to the EU, which gives people from those countries new rights to move to the UK.
Most of these countries — the so-called EU8 and EU2, because that's the number of countries that joined in two separate waves — had previously been part of the Eastern Bloc, and thus were considerably poorer than the UK. So when they joined the EU, then, a lot of their citizens went to other, more prosperous EU countries looking for work. And many of them settled on Britain as a destination.
As you can see on the chart, immigration really picked up in 2004, when the EU8 joined the European Union, and remained high afterward. Poland, an EU8 country, is now the second-largest source of immigrants to the UK, only a hair's breadth behind first-place India.
Today, more than 3 million EU immigrants live in the EU. A large portion of them are from EU8 countries, along with many from EU countries such as Spain, Greece, and Portugal that were affected by the eurozone economic crisis who came to Britain (which isn't part of the eurozone common currency union) to look for work.
This influx of immigrants led to a major spike in anti-immigrant sentiment — today, 77 percent of Brits today believe that immigration levels should be reduced. This has translated into rising support for anti-immigrant parties and politicians, in particular the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and its leader, Nigel Farage. UKIP got 4 million votes in the 2015 national election, the third-largest national vote total in the country.
For Farage and like-minded politicians, reducing immigration is inextricably linked to leaving the EU. Because EU rules require Britain to let in significant numbers of EU immigrants, they argue that Britain can never curb immigration while it's in the EU.
This argument came to dominate the case for leaving in Britain.
"The topic of migration has been central to the referendum debate," Will Somerville, a senior fellow at the Migration Policy Institute, wrote before the vote. He continued:
For an astonishing nine consecutive months, voters have identified immigration as among the most important issues facing Britain (based on Ipsos MORI polling). In April, 47 percent rated immigration as the most pressing concern; just half that number identified the economy as the most important issue.
Those same Ipsos Mori polls find that a majority of "Leave" supporters — 52 percent — say immigration is "very important" to their decisions. Only 14 percent of "Remain" voters say the same, indicating that anti-immigrant sentiment is far more potent among supporters of Brexit.
The vote, then, was a large degree a referendum on immigration. British voters just told us, in no uncertain terms, that they were willing to risk a serious recession in order to keep foreigners out of their country.
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