What is Brexit?

Brexit has been an ongoing process since June 2016 when the United Kingdom (UK) voted to leave the European Union (EU). Here, we explain what you need to know about Brexit, from the referendum result to the options going forward.

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Brexit definition

‘Brexit’ is a contraction of ‘British exit’, and it is the word used to define the UK’s departure from the EU. The initial referendum took place in June 2016, with 51.9% voting to leave, and 48.1% voting to remain.

When will Brexit happen?

Officially, the current Brexit deadline is 31 October 2019. However, this date might be pushed back, depending on whether European leaders agree to an extension request sent on 19 October by the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson.

Brexit: what are the options?

A number of options have already been exhausted in the Brexit saga, although several still remain on the table. It remains to be seen whether the Johnson administration will be able to secure a new agreement with the EU, or whether the UK will crash out without a deal in place.

  1. Leaving under the PM’s withdrawal agreement
  2. Calling a general election
  3. Changing the deadline
  4. Leaving without a deal
  5. Holding a second referendum
  6. Revoking article 50

Leaving under the PM’s withdrawal agreement

During a second reading on 22 October, MPs agreed to allow Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement bill to go for debate and a vote, but they rejected his timetable for departure – meaning that Brexit is delayed but not denied.

Now that the EU has granted an extension, the next three months will be focused on garnering enough support for the prime minister’s deal in order for it to pass through the required legislative stages.

Calling a general election

An early general election has been on the cards ever since Boris Johnson became prime minister. One could be called if there is a two-thirds majority vote in the House of Commons, or a simple majority vote for a new law which requires one to be held on a certain date. An election could also be triggered if the government loses a vote of no-confidence.

The latter option would require the government to lose the support of the Commons, and for a 14-day period to pass without a new government being formed. A general election gives the British public the ability to change the composition of the House of Commons, and perhaps even change the governing party.

Changing the deadline

The prime minister formally requested a second extension to article 50 on 19 October, and this request was accepted on 28 October 2019. It granted the UK a three-month extension from the 31 October deadline, setting the new date as 31 January 2020.

As part of the extension – dubbed a ‘flextension’ – the UK will be allowed to leave the EU before the 31 January deadline so long as MPs and European lawmakers have bilaterally agreed to the terms of a withdrawal agreement. This could see the UK leave the EU at the end of November or December. However, if this deadline approaches with no withdrawal agreement in place, it remains to be seen whether the EU will grant another extension.

Leaving without a deal

A no-deal Brexit would see the UK leave at 11pm on 31 January 2020 with no arrangements for trade or travel in place. If a withdrawal agreement is not agreed to by lawmakers in London and Brussels before this time, a no-deal Brexit could still occur.

This is because it remains the default legal option, and will come into force automatically if the UK and EU have failed to agree terms or adjust the deadline by this date.

Holding a second referendum

The option of a second referendum on EU membership has been gaining popularity since the initial result was revealed, in part due to claims that the leave campaign misled voters. In fact, support for a second referendum has grown so loud that an increasing number of MPs from across the political spectrum have all declared their support for the idea.

However, this outcome seems unlikely under the current government and there will need to be a dramatic shift in the political landscape for the prospect of a second referendum to gain momentum.

Revoking article 50

A final option for the UK to resolve the Brexit saga, is to revoke article 50. The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that the UK can do this unilaterally, meaning that the decision to do so remains entirely at the UK’s discretion.

However, this option has always gone against the stance of the Conservative party, which maintains that the democratic result must be seen through, and that the UK must leave the EU.

Economic impact of Brexit

The UK economy since the Brexit vote

Before the referendum took place, experts speculated that a leave result would cause economic uncertainty – and possibly even trigger a recession. So far, that has not happened. The UK economy has continued to grow, but projections suggest at a slower pace than it would have had it voted to remain. Unemployment has also fallen in the UK steadily since 2016.

However, while the economy is still growing, there have been marked decreases in several British sectors. The automotive industry has started to slow – with some even commenting that it is failing. Equally, the UK housing market has started to fall, with some traders and economists blaming Brexit.

The UK economy after Britain leaves the EU

A number of experts have speculated on the impact that Brexit will have on the British economy once the UK’s withdrawal is finalised. Some say that the economic slowdown is likely to continue and that that the UK might actually be worse off than if it had voted to remain.

However, the future economic outlook for the UK depends largely on whether it leaves with or without a deal. The IMF has warned that a no-deal Brexit risks a recession that could last two years, and long-term predictions – made by the UK government itself – state that UK GDP could decrease by 8% over the next 15 years.1

A large proportion of economists agree that EU membership has a positive effect on trade and economic health. This is because the European trading bloc has no tariffs to move goods across borders. By leaving the EU, it is argued that the UK is subjecting itself to unnecessary tariffs and extra costs that EU member states do not have to worry about.

Those who supported the ‘leave’ vote argue that by cutting ties with the EU, the UK will be able to pursue trade deals with countries such as the US and China. Currently, as a member of the EU, the UK is not allowed to arrange free trade deals of its own.

By leaving the EU, this restriction is lifted, which opens the door to economic titans such as the US, but also to emerging-market economies such as Brazil and India. Whether the UK will be able to secure free trade deals of the same size – and which provide the same access to international markets as the EU – remains to be seen.

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Brexit timeline so far

Brexit referendum is held – June 2016

The referendum held in 2016 saw over 30 million people turn up to vote. The split was 51.9% in favour to leave, 48.1% in favour of remain.

There was significant regional variation in the vote: England and Wales voted to leave, while Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain. The majority in favour of either option was largest in Scotland, while the result was closest in Wales. Turnout in the referendum was high, at 72.2%. All in all, the vote revealed a deeply divided Britain: a fact which defined the following months of negotiations, challenges and reprisals.

Region Leave vote share Remain vote share Leave/ Remain Turnout
England 53.4% 46.6% Leave 73%
Northern Ireland 44.2% 55.8% Remain 62.7%
Scotland 38% 62% Remain 67.2%
Wales 52.5% 47.5% Leave 71.7%

The result took the government by surprise. David Cameron resigned from number 10, and was replaced by Theresa May following a leadership contest within the Conservative Party. She confirmed that the UK would leave the EU with her famous ‘Brexit means Brexit’ soundbite, despite being in favour of remain before the result was announced.

Article 50 is triggered – March 2017

Article 50 was triggered on 29 March 2017, starting the official two-year countdown to Brexit. What followed was a period of planning by EU and UK negotiators, lasting until June 2017 when negotiations began. In the interim, Theresa May called a snap election, hoping to boost the Tory’s parliamentary majority and strengthen the government’s bargaining power with EU leaders.

The plan backfired spectacularly, as the Conservatives lost their majority and were forced to form a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Some argue this has weakened the government’s position considerably, as ratification of the final deal will require the backing of the DUP in parliament.

Brexit negotiations begin – June 2017

Negotiations officially began on 19 June 2017, with the UK accepting a phased negotiation timeline suggested by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator. Phase one concluded in December 2017, with agreements in place regarding a financial settlement of between £35-39 billion, a soft Irish border, as well as the rights of UK and EU citizens living cross-border.

Phase two ran until mid-November 2018 and focused on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. As part of this phase of negotiations, a transition period of 21 months was provisionally agreed, which was scheduled to start immediately after the leave date. The idea was to give time for the UK to negotiate its future trading relationship with the EU.

The Chequers deal is published – July 2018

The ‘Chequers deal’ – published on 12 July 2018 – was one of the most substantial and most complete plans for Britain’s exit from the EU at the time. It set out the relationship that the UK would seek with the EU following its departure from the union.

Although being approved by the British cabinet, the plan was rejected by the EU in September 2018. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, cited that the integrity of the EU single market was not negotiable and that the UK cannot ‘cherry pick’ the parts of the single market it likes. The single market is reliant on ‘four freedoms’: the free movement of goods, labour, services and capital. The Chequers agreement only made concessions for the free movement of goods, which prompted Barnier’s comments.

The major sticking point was how the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland would work in practice, particularly if the two sides were unable to agree a workable trade deal during the transition phase. This is because the EU is unable to accept a soft border with a country that has different customs arrangements.

Theresa May puts her draft deal to cabinet – November 2018

After many months of negotiation, Theresa May finally put a draft deal – a successor to the failed Chequers agreement – to her cabinet in November 2018. The new deal represented a step towards a soft Brexit, as it detailed a plan for trade during the transition period, the Irish border, the rights of UK and EU citizens.

The prime minister declared that the cabinet had accepted her deal ‘collectively’ following around five hours of discussions on 14 November 2018. However, this terminology implied that the decision was not unanimous, with reports later suggesting that up to ten ministers had criticised the prime minister’s plan – particularly the Irish backstop. Several cabinet members resigned immediately, including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab. Many other MPs also expressed concerns over the proposed deal.

On 25 November 2018, a summit of EU leaders agreed to the prime minister’s deal. After the announcement, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stated that the decision was ‘not a moment of jubilation but a moment of deep sadness’ in light of Britain’s seemingly solidified departure.

Theresa May’s deal goes to a Commons vote – December 2018

On 10 December 2018, one day before the House of Commons was set to vote on the prime minister’s deal, Theresa May decided to postpone the vote in lieu of serious opposition from both sides of the aisle and speculation the deal would be rejected by the House.

The prime minister promised to return to Brussels to seek assurances from EU leaders on certain aspects of her deal – particularly with regard to clarification on the Irish backstop and whether the UK would be tied indefinitely to a customs union with the EU.

Vote of confidence in Theresa May – December 2018

On 12 December, a vote of confidence in Theresa May was brought forward by her own party. The vote saw 117 Conservative MPs move against her, but she prevailed with 200 voting in her favour. That meant that the prime minister was exempt from challenges from within her own party until December 2019.

Theresa May’s deal is defeated – January 2019

Following the delay of the first vote, it was rescheduled for 15 January 2019. The prime minister’s deal was historically defeated by 432 votes to 202 in the Commons, as had been expected at the time of the first scheduled vote. Her deal included plans for the rights of UK citizens living in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK, as well as for the transition period, a divorce settlement of £39 billion, and a contentious plan for the Irish border.

Many MPs said that the prime minister’s draft agreement was simply a bad deal and that they could not in good conscience give it their support. Because of the thumping defeat, Jeremy Corbyn triggered a vote of no confidence in the government, which took place on 16 January 2019.

Vote of no confidence in the government – January 2019

Theresa May survived a vote of no confidence in her government on 16 January 2019. The result was 325 to 306, a closer margin than was expected. The DUP were key to her victory as it is likely that the government would have lost the vote had its ten MPs rebelled.

Theresa May comes up with ‘Plan B’ – January 2019

Following the defeat of her Brexit plan on 15 January 2019, the prime minister had three parliamentary working days to put forward a ‘Plan B’. Her proposal – presented on 21 January 2019 – proved similar to the rejected deal, with only very minor tweaks. However, the prime minister promised to look again at the contentious Irish backstop with a view to getting the deal through the Commons.

Theresa May’s deal is defeated for a second time – March 2019

Theresa May’s Brexit deal was rejected for a second time on 12 March 2019. While the majority – 391 to 242 – was not as crushing as the vote of 15 January, it still constituted a decisive defeat for the prime minister’s efforts in her Brexit negotiations.

MPs express their desire to avoid no-deal Brexit – March 2019

On 13 March, MPs voted by 321 to 278 in a motion to avoid a no-deal departure. While this vote was not legally binding on the EU or its member states, it indicated that there was strong support for a final deal to be reached before the UK leaves the bloc.

MPs express their desire to extend article 50 – March 2019

On 14 March, MPs voted by 413 to 202 to seek an extension to article 50. Theresa May subsequently returned to EU leaders to seek this extension, which she secured.

First round of indicative votes held in the Commons – March 2019

A series of indicative votes was held on 27 March with the aim of highlighting which option had the most support from the Commons. While no option was able to command a majority, a second referendum had the most support.

However, whether a second referendum will take place remains to be seen, and it is a highly contentious issue – seen by many to be flying in the face of the initial referendum result.

Theresa May’s deal is defeated for a third time – March 2019

In a move which shocked few within her own party, the prime minister met with her backbench MPs and ministers at the 1922 Committee on 27 March, the same day as the indicative votes. She promised that, should her party get behind her deal, she would step down. This would allow for someone else to lead negotiations on the UK’s future relationship from the EU – most likely a Brexiteer – during the transition period.

However, Theresa May’s Brexit deal was defeated for a third time on 29 March, by a margin of 344 to 286.

Second round of indicative votes held in the Commons – April 2019

There was a second round of indicative votes held on 1 April which were aimed at identifying a majority for the most popular options proposed on 27 March. The most popular was a confirmatory referendum with 280 voting in favour – though this was not enough for a majority with 292 voting against. Meanwhile, a customs union narrowly missed out on a majority, losing by three votes.

The two other options were for common market 2.0 – a proposal to join the single market and a customs union – which was defeated by 21 votes, and a vote proposed by MP Joanna Cherry which would give MPs the power to block no deal by revoking article 50. This proposal was the least popular of the night, with just 191 MPs voting in favour of it and 292 voting against.

Cooper-Letwin amendment is passed – April 2019

On 3 April, MPs voted by 313 to 312 to pass the Cooper-Letwin amendment which would seek a further extension to article 50 to avoid no deal. The vote represented the first indicative vote which was able to secure a majority in the Commons – though the result was not legally binding on the EU.

Theresa May requests another article 50 extension – April 2019

With the 12 April deadline fast approaching – and with no new developments coming from the Commons – Theresa May wrote to Donald Tusk on 5 April, requesting that the deadline for the UK’s departure be extended to 30 June 2019. In her request, the prime minister made clear that should a deal be passed before 22 May, the UK would not hold European elections, but that the necessary preparations are being made in the event that these elections need to be held.

Equally, EU diplomats stated that even if the UK was bound to hold European elections, the UK could withdraw its MEPs once a final deal had been approved by the Commons. Their space in the European Parliament would be filled by delegates from the remaining 27 European member states.

The Brexit deadline is pushed back to 31 October – April 2019

Following a meeting of European leaders on 10 April, it was agreed that the deadline for the UK’s departure from the bloc would be pushed back to 31 October – a full seven months past the initial 29 March deadline.

The UK will be allowed to leave the EU before 31 October, but only if the House of Commons approves the prime minister’s withdrawal agreement.

Theresa May confirms a fourth vote – May 2019

On 21 May, the prime minister announced that she would put her vote to a fourth – and in the eyes of many commentators, final – round of debate in the Commons. She did so in the face of opposition from her own party – with the 1922 Committee and the European Research Group (ERG) voicing strong criticism of the prime minister’s deal, and with some Conservative MPs calling for her resignation.

This criticism grew so strong that Theresa May decided to postpone the vote – which was initially scheduled for the start of June 2019. As a result, a shadow was cast over the future of her premiership – with many in the media beginning to count her remaining time as prime minister in days rather than months.

Theresa May announces that she will resign – May 2019

With no clear or amicable way forward, Theresa May announced that she would resign on 7 June 2019 in light of what many called a failure to deliver Brexit. She promised to remain on as a caretaker prime minister until the result of the leadership contest was announced on 23 July 2019.

Following the vote, Theresa May went to Buckingham Palace to formally tender her resignation to the Queen and set the stage for her predecessor to take over.

Boris Johnson becomes prime minister – July 2019

After a hotly contested leadership race, Boris Johnson emerged victorious from an initially saturated field of candidates. He secured Britain’s top job with 92,153 votes from Conservative Party members out of a possible 159,320. His opponent in the final two, Jeremy Hunt, secured 46,656.

Parliament prorogued – September 2019

A little over a month into Boris Johnson’s premiership, he announced that he would be proroguing (suspending) parliament at the close of business on 9 September to prepare for a Queen’s Speech and the formal opening of a new parliamentary session on 14 October. Many criticised the prime minister for suspending parliament so close to the departure date of 31 October and said that it was a way for him to bulldoze through his Brexit plan without interference.

MPs vote to prevent a no-deal Brexit – September 2019

MPs voted on 9 September, before the prorogation came into effect, to prevent a no-deal Brexit in the House of Commons. The result of the vote represented a significant loss to Johnson, as it meant he would only have until 19 October to get Brexit terms agreed in Parliament. If he could not do so, he would have to request an extension to the UK’s departure date until 31 January 2020.

Parliament resumes after prorogation ruled unlawful – September 2019

Following the prorogation of parliament, opposition to the decision by Johnson became so fierce that a legal challenge was submitted to the Supreme Court to get the suspension of parliament overruled. A decision was reached on 24 September, in which the 11 justices unanimously declared that the prorogation had been unlawful, meaning parliament was free to resume.

PM submits new plans to Brussels and prorogues parliament – October 2019

Boris Johnson submitted what some called a last-ditch plan to the EU in early October, in an attempt to resolve the Irish border issue. The prime minister’s plan is for Northern Ireland to stay in the EU customs union for all industrial and agricultural goods. This arrangement would be subject to the approval of the Northern Ireland Assembly in Stormont, which would need to approve it for a transition period and then every four years.

However, for all other industries, Northern Ireland would leave the EU customs union, while the rest of the UK will leave the EU customs union entirely. Theoretically, this would eliminate lengthy delays at border checkpoints on the island of Ireland. The plan was received with apprehension in the EU, but European leaders recognised the concessions made by the British government.

Following the submittal of his new Brexit plan, the prime minister prorogued parliament on 8 October to allow the government time to prepare for a Queen’s speech and the beginning of a new parliamentary session, which took place on 14 October. The parliamentary session before this prorogation was the longest in British history, lasting 839 days.

Boris Johnson agrees Brexit deal with the EU – October 2019

A Brexit deal was agreed between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on 17 October. The deal is a modified version of the prime minister’s earlier proposal, which removes the Irish backstop – one of the most contentious talking points in previous versions of the withdrawal agreement.

Instead, Northern Ireland will remain in the UK customs territory and, at the same time, be classified as a point of entry into the EU customs union. Under the agreement, the UK will not enforce tariffs to products entering Northern Ireland, so long as they are not intended for shipment across the Irish border.

This arrangement will be up for review every four years by Stormont, at which point there will be a vote to decide whether to continue with the trade arrangements or not. Unlike other votes in Northern Ireland, this will only require a simple majority to pass, rather than the usual majority in both the unionist and nationalist parties.

Commons grants assent for withdrawal agreement bill to be debated during second reading – October 2019

The Commons granted assent for Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement to be debated and voted on, but under the condition that more time be given for it to be scrutinised. MPs declared that a timetable which included a 31 October departure did not allow enough time for the 110-page document to be properly considered and, if necessary, amended.

As a result, Boris Johnson ‘paused’ the legislative process on his withdrawal agreement, causing speculation to mount around whether he would push for an early general election.

EU agrees to deadline extension – October 2019

On 28 October, EU leaders agreed to grant Boris Johnson an extension of three months to the 31 October deadline. This puts the official departure date back to 31 January 2020, while also enabling the UK to leave before this date if the terms of departure have been agreed by both British MPs and European lawmakers.

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