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Brexit: What you need to know

Updated: Mar 3, 2020

This blog post is part of a series on Brexit.

Brexit is messy and confusing. After more than two years of negotiations it's still not clear what is going to happen. Here is a quick summary of the whole thing and what you really need to know.

What is Brexit?

Brexit is the commonly used phrase to describe the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union (EU). The term (an amalgamation of ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’) was coined in 2012 by Peter Wilding – the founder and director of the British Influence think tank. The term is now widely used by politicians, the media, and the public.

Why is Brexit happening?

On 23rd June 2016, the UK held a referendum – a public vote – to decide whether the country should leave or remain part of the EU. 51.9% of those voting decided to leave. 48.1% wanted to remain. Whilst the majority of voters wanted to leave the EU, not only was it a close call, but it was also not unanimous across the UK.

The UK is comprised of four countries – England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Whilst England and Wales voted to leave, the majority of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland overwhelmingly voted to remain.

A brief Brexit timeline:

  • June 2016: Referendum - majority of the UK public vote to leave the EU

  • March 2017: UK government triggered Article 50 – announcing they will leave the EU within 2 years

  • June 2018: UK parliament approved Withdrawal Act – states that existing EU law is UK law but the EU cannot make any future laws for the UK

  • June-November 2018: UK government and EU representatives negotiate withdrawal terms

  • November 2018: Draft withdrawal agreement finalised

  • January 2019: Draft withdrawal agreement rejected by the UK parliament (in biggest parliamentary defeat in UK history)

  • January 2019: Motion of no confidence in the government – the Labour party (UK’s second biggest party) posed the motion but it was narrowly defeated. Theresa May’s Conservative government remains in power

What is the 'Irish Backstop'?

This is one of the main points of contention in the draft withdrawal agreement as it currently stands. The current terms of the withdrawal agreement state that upon leaving the EU, the UK will enter a transition period for up until December 2022. During this time, the UK will remain in the single market whilst the government renegotiate trade agreements with the EU for the future.

However, if by December 2022 there is still no trade agreements, under the terms of the ‘backstop’ the whole of the UK will enter a ‘single customs territory’ with the EU. Northern Ireland alone will remain subject to further EU laws and regulations, in order to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland (an EU member state). The Irish border, is the UK's only land border with the EU.

UK Members of Parliament (MPs) have widely rejected this on the grounds that Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK will be subject to different regulations, and that the UK would be unable to leave the backstop without EU approval.

So what comes next?

At the time of writing, the UK is still due to leave the EU on 29 March 2019. However, there is no agreed deal for this exit and MPs on both sides are pressuring the government to avoid a ‘no deal’ scenario.

Possible outcomes:

  • Deal: the UK government is trying to renegotiate various terms of the current (rejected) deal with EU authorities. If a deal is forged and this is accepted by both parties, the UK could still leave the EU as planned on the 29th March.

  • No deal: if no new deal is established, the UK government could take the risky move of leaving the EU with no deal. Trade terms would likely revert to World Trade Organisation rules. Some companies are stockpiling goods for in case of a no deal Brexit. The government has also been running trials for trucks in Dover.

  • Extension: The UK government may ask for an extension – meaning they still intend to leave, but at a later date, giving them more time to renegotiate a deal.

  • Remain: some people still believe that Brexit may not happen at all. The European Court of Justice has left this option open – recently stating that the triggering of Article 50 is reversible. The current UK government however has rejected this and maintains a course for Brexit.

What about a second referendum?

Since the first referendum in 2016, there have been calls for another. This so-called ‘people’s vote’ has been advocated by numerous Members of Parliament and business leaders across the country.

Supporters argue that in the first referendum, people were voting for or against Brexit, without knowing what Brexit would even look like. Now that we have a deal on the table, they argue it is more democratic to put that deal back to the public. This people’s vote would give the public the option to take the Brexit deal on offer, or to remain part of the EU. Critics however argue that a second referendum would do injustice to those who voted to leave, and therefore be undemocratic.

A second referendum is, at the moment, unlikely. Both the major political parties in the UK (the Conservatives and the Labour parties) maintain a stance of Brexit and have not officially supported a second referendum.

So what comes next? Well, your guess is as good as ours for now! But keep following our blog for updates and to see where this all ends up.

This blog post is part of a series on Brexit.

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