The UK has rarely been a contented member of the EU. Over the last decade an historical wariness towards integration gave way to increasing and vocal euroscepticism and to growing calls for the UK to quit the EU. This led to a crisis in UK membership of the EU, which saw continued membership put into question, culminating in the referendum on 23 June 2016. This resulted in 51.9 per cent of voters opting, on a turnout of 72.2 per cent, to ‘leave’ the EU. The result was unexpected and the UK government had not prepared for it. The UK thus entered a new stage in the crisis: how to withdraw from the EU. For the EU, the priority became how to prevent others following the UK example. This chapter explores the nature and implications of the crisis of UK EU membership. It starts by providing an overview of the crisis before illustrating, in the section ‘Avoiding Crisis through Exceptionalism’, how wariness towards European integration and reservations about its speed and direction have generally been managed by securing various forms of exceptionalism. The UK government may have claimed in its 2016 White Paper on UK membership of the EU that a recently negotiated ‘new settlement’ provided the UK with a ‘special status within the EU’ (UK Government, 2016a), but such a special status has long existed. The section ‘Heading towards Crisis: Mounting Pressure for a Referendum on EU Membership’ explores how a fragile membership moved into a period of profound crisis, triggered in 2013 by a promise from the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, of an ‘in-out’ referendum before the end of 2017.
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