Here is an easy-to-understand guide to Brexit – beginning with the basics, then a look at the current negotiations, followed by a selection of answers to questions we’ve been sent.
What does Brexit mean? It is a word that is used as a shorthand way of saying the UK leaving the EU – merging the words Britain and exit to get Brexit, in the same way as a possible Greek exit from the euro was dubbed Grexit in the past. Further reading: The rise of the word Brexit
Why is Britain leaving the European Union? A referendum – a vote in which everyone (or nearly everyone) of voting age can take part – was held on Thursday 23 June, 2016, to decide whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union. Leave won by 51.9% to 48.1%. The referendum turnout was 71.8%, with more than 30 million people voting.
What was the breakdown across the UK? England voted for Brexit, by 53.4% to 46.6%. Wales also voted for Brexit, with Leave getting 52.5% of the vote and Remain 47.5%. Scotland and Northern Ireland both backed staying in the EU. Scotland backed Remain by 62% to 38%, while 55.8% in Northern Ireland voted Remain and 44.2% Leave. See the results in more detail.
What is the European Union? The European Union – often known as the EU – is an economic and political partnership involving 28 European countries (click here if you want to see the full list). It began after World War Two to foster economic co-operation, with the idea that countries which trade together were more likely to avoid going to war with each other.
It has since grown to become a “single market” allowing goods and people to move around, basically as if the member states were one country. It has its own currency, the euro, which is used by 19 of the member countries, its own parliament and it now sets rules in a wide range of areas – including on the environment, transport, consumer rights and even things such as mobile phone charges. Click here for a beginners’ guide to how the EU works.
When is the UK due to leave the EU? The UK had been due to leave on 29 March 2019, two years after it started the exit process by invoking Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. But the withdrawal agreement reached between the EU and UK has been rejected three times by UK MPs.
Having granted an initial extension of the Article 50 process until 12 April 2019, EU leaders have now backed a six-month extension until 31 October 2019. However, the UK will leave before this date if the withdrawal agreement is ratified by the UK and the EU before then.
So is Brexit definitely happening? As things stand, the UK is due to leave the European Union at 23:00 GMT on 31 October 2019. If the UK and EU ratify the withdrawal agreement before then, the UK will leave on the first day of the following month.
But could Brexit be cancelled? Yes. Stopping Brexit would require a change in the law in the UK, something neither the government nor the main UK opposition parties want to do at this point. The European Court of Justice ruled on 10 December 2018 that the UK could cancel the Article 50 Brexit process without the permission of the other 27 EU members, and remain a member of the EU on its existing terms, provided the decision followed a “democratic process”, in other words, if Parliament voted for it. In March, an online petition calling for Article 50 to be revoked gained over six million signatures.
Could Brexit be delayed? Theresa May has said she wants the UK to leave the EU as soon as possible, if possible by 22 May, so the UK will not have to take part in the European Parliament elections taking place across Europe that month. The EU has said the Brexit process should not be extended again beyond 31 October 2019, but legally speaking another extension could happen if all EU countries, including the UK, agree to it.
Could there be another referendum? It would have to be put into law by the government, which has previously ruled it out. But having failed three times to get MPs to support her withdrawal deal, Theresa May has held talks with Jeremy Corbyn about finding a way forward. Some Labour MPs want Mr Corbyn to make a “confirmatory vote” on any deal a condition of any agreement. If Labour and the Conservatives fail to reach an agreement, MPs will face a series of votes on Brexit options, which could include another referendum. Mrs May has said her government “stands ready to abide by the decision of the House” if Labour does the same. MPs have twice rejected a “confirmatory vote” in Commons votes although the second attempt saw an increased number back it.
Why do politicians want a deal? The main point of having a deal between the UK and the EU is to ensure as smooth as possible an exit from the EU for businesses and individuals – and to allow time for the two sides to hammer out a permanent trading relationship.
What is in Theresa May’s deal with the EU? After months of negotiation, the UK and EU agreed a Brexit deal. It comes in two parts.
A 585-page withdrawal agreement. This is a legally-binding text that sets the terms of the UK’s divorce from the EU. It covers how much money the UK owes the EU – an estimated £39bn – and what happens to UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK. It also proposes a method of avoiding the return of a physical Northern Ireland border.
A 26-page statement on future relations. This is not legally-binding and sketches out the kind of long-term relationship the UK and EU want to have in a range of areas, including trade, defence and security.
What is the transition period? This is part of the withdrawal agreement, which so far, has not been approved by MPs. It refers to a period of time after Brexit until 31 December, 2020 (or possibly later), to get everything in place and allow businesses and others to prepare for the moment when the new post-Brexit rules between the UK and the EU begin. It would also allow more time for the details of the new relationship to be fully hammered out. Free movement would continue during the transition period, as the EU wanted. The UK would be able to strike its own trade deals – although they wouldn’t be able to come into force until 1 January 2021. But it all rests on the withdrawal deal being ratified.
Could leave without a deal? Yes. This is the so-called no-deal Brexit.
What would happen if the UK left without a deal? The UK would sever all ties with the EU with immediate effect, with no transition period and no guarantees on citizens’ rights of residence. The government fears this would cause significant disruption to businesses in the short-term, with lengthy tailbacks of lorries at the channel ports, as drivers face new checks on their cargos. Food retailers have warned of shortages of fresh produce and the NHS is stockpiling medicines, in case supplies from EU countries are interrupted. Government ministers and multinational companies with factories in the UK have also warned about the long-term impact on the British economy. Brexit-supporting MPs claim it would not be as bad as they say and the UK would save on the £39bn divorce bill, as well as being free to strike its own beneficial trade deals around the world.
Would trade with the EU continue? The World Trade Organization sets rules for countries that don’t have free trade deals with each other, including tariffs – the taxes charged on the import of goods. Without an agreement on trade, the UK would trade with the EU under World Trade Organization rules.
Is Theresa May’s Brexit deal now dead? Theresa May’s deal cannot come into effect until it has been passed by Parliament. It has now been heavily defeated in two “meaningful” votes, and a third vote just on the withdrawal agreement itself, governing the terms of the UK’s departure, not the “future relationship”, a non-binding bit of the deal which maps out aspirations for long-term trade, economic and security cooperation and more. She has told EU leaders that her cross-party talks with Labour are “based on acceptance of the withdrawal agreement without reopening it” – with the aim of getting it – and a “shared vision for the future relationship”, which could be subject to some change, approved by the Commons. So she has not ruled out having another go at getting it ratified – and hopes that reaching out to Labour can help break the deadlock. There is a separate sticking point about whether Speaker John Bercow will allow her to bring the deal back again for another vote.
What is the backstop? When the UK leaves the EU, the 310-mile border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will become the land border between the UK and the European Union.
Neither side wants to see a return to checkpoints, towers, customs posts or surveillance cameras at the border, in case it reignites the Troubles and disrupts the free cross-border flow of trade and people. But they can’t agree on a way to do that.
The UK and EU agreed to put in place a “backstop” – a kind of safety net to ensure there is no hard border whatever the outcome of future trade talks between the UK and the EU.
The backstop agreed between the two parties would keep Northern Ireland aligned to some EU rules on things like food products and goods standards. That would prevent the need for checks on goods at the Irish border, but would require some products being brought to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK to be subject to new checks and controls.
The backstop would also involve a temporary single customs territory, effectively keeping the whole of the UK in the EU customs union. If future trade talks broke down without a deal, the backstop would apply indefinitely. The arrangement would end only with the agreement of both the UK and the EU.
Why are so many MPs against it? The backstop was a key sticking point for many MPs who voted down the deal. They feared it could leave Britain tied to the EU indefinitely with no say over its rules and no ability to strike trade deals with other countries.
Are there any solutions to it? If there were an obvious solution that people agreed guaranteed no return of a hard border in Ireland it would probably have been implemented by now. Possible alternatives suggested include a “trusted trader” scheme to avoid physical checks on goods flowing through the border, “mutual recognition” of rules with the EU and “technological” solutions. However the EU has insisted that the backstop plan is necessary.Courtesy:BBC