The crazy, agonized, hair-tearing saga of Brexit began nearly three years ago, when David Cameron, the prime minister at the time, called for a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. Shock waves rippled around the world in June 2016 after Britons defied pollsters and voted to leave the bloc.
Since then, Britain and the world have been treated to a seemingly endless list of ideas and terminologies — backstops, hard Brexit, soft Brexit, blind Brexit, Canada-plus-plus, Norway-plus-plus, the Chequers plan, vassal state.
But as anyone who has paid even remote attention knows, until now, at least, nothing has been decided. The only certainty, it seems, is that there is always a majority against any possible solutions, and never a majority in favor of them. Another way to put it is that Britain has become even more rived by divisions over Europe than it was before the referendum that was meant to end them once and for all.
To help aficionados of the process, or even those with a passing interest, The New York Times has collected a pictorial history of Britain’s journey, as captured by Times photographers.
Below, a rally in London in December pushing for a complete break from the European Union. The debate around Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc has been long, repetitive, emotional and sometimes vicious.
Harvesting vegetables near Boston, England. Many farm workers there are from Eastern Europe, in Britain legally under regulations that allow citizens of European Union nations to live and work in any member country. Rising anxiety about immigration defined and quite likely swung the pro-Brexit campaign.
Celebrating the queen’s birthday in Castle Point, Essex, a part of England where people are fiercely English, fiercely Conservative and fiercely pro-Brexit. The English are considerably less willing than their fellow Britons in Scotland and Northern Ireland to see themselves as a subset of Europe, and many feel that their sovereignty and identity are being diluted by a failing European Union and an “uncontrolled” influx of foreigners.
The boundary between the Republic of Ireland from Northern Ireland runs along the top of Cuilcagh Mountain. The frontier has become a major sticking point in Brexit negotiations. Many worry that reinstating a hard border would have psychological and practical implications.
The National Health Service, with its mandate to offer free universal health care, is a pillar of postwar British identity, and the prospect of additional funding was used as a rallying cry by anti-Europe campaigners.
But many of its employees are from the European Union. Thousands have quit since the Brexit vote, including Tanja Pardela, second from right, who returned to Germany after working as a pediatric nurse in London for 11 years.
Few major Western cities have been more open to Muslims than London, but the Brexit vote and a series of terrorist attacks have shifted the dynamics of daily life for many mainstream Muslims in the British capital.
The borough of Barking and Dagenham, pictured, was one of the few in London that voted to leave the European Union, and it did so by nearly two to one. Many whites there saw a vote for Brexit as a vote against immigration and Islam.
Bartenders at a London Fashion Week party that brought together people from 27 countries. For decades, Britain — particularly London — has been perceived as a melting pot of creative talent, from both home and abroad. It’s unclear whether Britain can maintain that reputation once Brexit takes effect.
London spent billions of dollars on a high-capacity train line to move more people through a growing city and link low-income outlying areas like Thamesmead, pictured, to central London.
The project, known as Crossrail, was intended to bind London together. But it may now signal the end of an ambitious era.
Britain faces many problems other than its pending exit from the European Union: regional divisions, economic disparities, unemployment and terrorism.
After a decade without Islamist terrorist attacks, Britain suffered four in 2017. A vigil was held in Trafalgar Square, London, for victims of an attack in March 2017.
Britain is learning to cope with more attacks in the most ordinary of places. People gathered in Manchester, England, in May 2017 after a bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in the city killed 22 people, including children.
The town of Grimsby, England, was once home to one of the largest fleet of trawlers in Britain. Now it’s a global hub for the fish processing industry, with fish from all over the world being gutted, packaged and sold to wholesalers.
But 70 percent of Grimsby residents voted to leave the European Union, choosing nostalgia for a dying industry over another that is thriving.
For a few weeks in July, the national fixation turned to sports, when England made the semifinals of the World Cup for the first time in decades.
One newspaper urged the Conservative Party to lay down the cudgels for one day. “Don’t You Know There’s a Game On?” asked its front page.
Although the British government has sought to reassure European immigrants that they will not have to leave immediately, no one really knows what residency status they will have once Britain leaves the bloc. More racial abuse and hate crimes have been reported across Britain since the referendum — aimed not just at immigrants from European Union nations but also at blacks, Muslims and Asians from other places.
Below, a Polish Mass at a Roman Catholic church in Boston, England. The community feels “uncertainty, a little fear about the situation,” the Rev. Stanislaw Kowalski said.
Below, a portrait of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who once championed the common European market but toward the end of her career became a euroskeptic, in storage in Romford, England.
The long, drawn-out process has frustrated many in Romford.
Below, a fund-raising party in Craignure, Scotland.
In Scotland, 62 percent of voters supported remaining in the European Union — making Scotland more pro-Europe than even London. The result crystallized a long-held feeling among Scots that a right-wing Conservative government in London did not represent them — and fueled calls for a new independence referendum.
A harbor worker in Brixham, England’s largest commercial fishing port. Many there want Britain to regain control of the waters within 200 miles of shore — fishing grounds that are now managed by Brussels and packed with European vessels.
Whether their grievances involve fish, immigrants or meddlesome rules, many Britons resent what they view as interference by European institutions and bureaucrats.
Orignially published in NYT.