More Than a Yes-No Question: The U.K.'s Future in the EU

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Prime Minister David Cameron defied polls and won re-election in May by a staggering margin in part because he promised he would put the country’s status in the European Union to a referendum by the end of 2017.

Just weeks later, Cameron followed through with legislation. Here’s how the question was framed: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union? As my colleague Uri pointed out at the time, the process just to get to that point required some verbal wrangling:

The word “remain,” for example, was added after British election authorities learned that some people weren’t aware that the U.K. was a member of the EU in the first place. And the choice of “remain a member” rather than, say, “leave” allows those advocating for staying in the EU to present themselves as the “Yes” campaign. That, in turn, could benefit Europhiles.

On Tuesday, the British Electoral Commission has now recommended that the wording be changed again.

According to the report, the phrasing—Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?— “could be perceived as biased to the status quo.”

The watchdog suggests the words “or leave the European Union” be added to the referendum question. And so, voters may eventually have to decide: Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

Of course, the new formulation ends the entire Yes/No paradigm of the referendum and all the strategic jockeying to be on the side of Yes has been for naught.

A prime minister’s spokesperson says the changes will be adopted though Parliament still has the final say.