On 20 February 2016, the date of the United Kingdom’s referendum on membership of the European Union was announced. The British people were to be asked whether they wanted to remain in or leave the bloc.
But it wasn’t the first time they had been asked. The first referendum on whether to remain in what was then the EC (European Community) was held in 1975 and saw an overwhelming “yes” vote.
For the next 40 years, the question was more or less settled, until three years ago, when Prime Minister David Cameron promised another referendum. The vote was held on 23 June 2016 and, in a shock result, Leave won.
Britain invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on 29 March 2017, which started the clock on a two-year period of negotiations on withdrawal terms, a period which is due to end on 29 March 2019. This is the official date on which the UK will leave the European Union but negotiations between the British government and the EU have not gone smoothly and many believe that an extension to the article 50 process is likely.
The Brexiters’ victory has provoked a strong visual reaction. Britain’s decision to leave the EU has profoundly affected the lives of both British and European citizens, who have begun to express themselves on the question in increasingly strident ways. Numerous artists, illustrators and designers have produced elaborate work on Brexit, whether on commission or of their own volition.
We’ve rounded up some of the most interesting graphics inspired by the most discussed referendum in years.
Morten Morlands is the artist who designs the cover of The Spectator each week. In the run up to the vote in June 2016, he created an illustration that neatly summed up the magazine’s position.
The Spectator was pro Leave, so Morlands depicted a butterfly (the UK) escaping from a box (the EU) and soaring into the sky.
When the referendum was announced, a campaign in favour of leaving the EU was launched. Dominic Cummings was the brains behind the Vote Leave campaign and one of his most effective weapons was a means of public transport.
More specifically, a red bus emblazoned with the claim that the UK sends £350 million each week to the EU and that this money could be spent on the NHS instead, if the country left.
On Twitter, you can view the account of Artists For Brexit, which defines itself as: “a nonpartisan, voluntary, independent, national network of arts workers and arts enthusiasts who support the process of securing independence for the UK.”
Its pinned tweet features an illustration that portrays the EU as a snake on a cart pulled by two mules identified as Right and Left and personifications of Liberty and Democracy freeing the mules from their chains.
Our last example from the Leave camp is a mural drawn on a private home in Belfast. It says “VOTE LEAVE E.U.” in huge white letters followed by a citation from the Bible: “REV, 18:4” (Revelation, Chapter 18, Verse 4).
It demonstrates how Brexit is about much more than economics, viscerally moving Britons in almost mystical and prophetic ways.
Also weighing into the Brexit debate with a mural was world-famous street artist Banksy, but this time on the side of Remain.
Painted on the side of an abandoned amusement arcade in Dover, the piece depicts a workman on a ladder chipping away at one of the gold stars on a huge EU flag with a hammer and chisel. The meaning is obvious.
French cartoonist Jean Jullien is clearly a Remainer, as evidenced by this colourful illustration posted to Instagram a few years back.
The image shows a team of sportsmen (footballers perhaps?) from behind standing shoulder to shoulder with one another. One of the players’ shirts carries the Union Jack and the artist has added the phrase “Stronger Together”.
After the referendum was announced, a campaign in favour of Remain was launched. Its main slogan was “I’m IN”, accompanied by “Britain Stronger IN Europe”.
The campaign was created by advertising agency M&C Saatchi. Given the result of the vote, it does not seem to have been very effective.
Pro-EU artists also used social media to air their views. Cartoonist and illustrator Bruce MacKinnon used Twitter to post his take on Brexit.
He depicted a man in a Union Jack T-shirt who had cut off his left arm while his left hand shook the hand of another man wearing an EU flag T-shirt. Mr Union Jack is shown running off, saw and handless arm held aloft triumphantly.
As well as graphics with a clear political position, more neutral work has been produced too, particularly focusing on the dilemma faced by undecided voters in June 2016.
Daniel Garcia created this illustration for the UK edition of GQ. The image accompanied an article weighing up the pros and cons of the two choices facing voters.
The image summed up the indecision of many voters by showing a man dressed in a Union Jack T-shirt looking pensively at an open door in a giant EU flag.
Another good example of a neutral Brexit illustration was drawn by Robert G. Fresson. Commissioned for Bangladeshi newspaper of record The Daily Star, it depicts a row of EU member flags. The Union Jack is shown breaking free from the flag pole and flying away into the sky. It’s a clear visual metaphor for changing political winds.
Another great visual metaphor comes courtesy of French cartoonist Alex. He uses the iconic red double-decker bus to show the just how divided the British people are over Brexit.
The bus is shown breaking in two, with Leavers on the top deck and Remainers on the bottom.
Our last example was posted on Instagram by the artist behind the Hatch Art profile. Again, it evokes indecision and division.
The image shows a man’s head divided in two. One half features the EU flag, the other the Union Jack.
On 29 March 2019, the UK is due to leave the EU. It will be fascinating to see if, as well as the inevitable political upheaval, there will also be a creative reaction from artists and illustrators across Europe.