Brexit Guide: where are we now?

 Comments
Brexit Guide: where are we now?
Copyright
REUTERS/Simon Dawson
Text size Aa Aa

This article is updated regularly as events unfold.

The United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union — an economic and political partnership of 28 countries — bringing to an end 46 years of British membership.

Brexit is set to be the most important constitutional shake-up the UK has known since it joined the six-nation European Economic Community in 1973, and represents the first time the European institution has lost a member.

The process has plunged the UK into its worst political and constitutional crisis since the Second World War, forcing the resignation of Prime Minister Theresa May. The country had been due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019, but the revised departure date is now October 31 after gridlock in parliament twice forced the government to seek a delay.

The UK voted to leave the EU by 52% to 48% in a June 2016 referendum. The result has increased strains between the UK's individual countries: England (53%) and Wales (52.5%) voted to leave, whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland voted by 62% and 56% respectively to remain in the EU.

The latest developments (to July 9):

UK's Johnson and Hunt clash over Brexit in first TV debate

What would UK prime minister contenders Johnson and Hunt do about Brexit?

Labour's Corbyn says new UK PM must put Brexit plan to second referendum

UK's Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats stage rival protests at European Parliament opening

New MEPs take their seats — but what happens to the 27 in limbo?

Tory leadership hopefuls take up the battle for Brexit

British politics was thrown into deeper turmoil when Theresa May — who failed to get her EU divorce deal through parliament — became the latest in a long line of Conservative prime ministers to be brought down by Europe.

May has quit as Conservative party leader but will remain in Downing Street until a successor is chosen later in July. Former foreign minister Boris Johnson — who has emerged as a clear frontrunner — faces the current foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt in a run-off election among the party membership, following a series of votes among its lawmakers in parliament (MPs).

Both remaining contenders for prime minister have said they believe they can renegotiate the withdrawal deal. This was struck by London and Brussels and approved by the 27 other EU governments in November 2018 — before being rejected three times by the British parliament.

However, if they fail, both Johnson and Hunt say they are ready to take the UK out of the EU without a deal this autumn — a stance which has strong support among their party's members.

European national leaders — preoccupied with other priorities including renewing the EU's top posts — once again ruled out a renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement at their June summit. It followed earlier warnings by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and several other national leaders.

Although they refuse to rewrite the terms of the UK’s exit — including controversial arrangements for the Irish border — EU leaders are more open to modifying an agreed framework for future ties.

Meanwhile the extension of the UK's EU membership, delaying Brexit from April to October, forced the UK to contest European Parliament elections in May — and send 73 newly-elected MEPs to Strasbourg in July.

Read more:

EU leaders rule out renegotiating Brexit deal once again

Brexit: should Boris Johnson and the Tories get real over no deal?

Will more deadlock bring a no—deal Brexit?

The two sides' positions appear hard to reconcile. The UK wants to keep many benefits from the existing arrangements but is intent on leaving the EU's single market and customs union — and taking control of its money, borders and laws. The EU's priority is to preserve the integrity of its single market, institutions and founding principles.

More battles beckon in the British parliament where many MPs vehemently oppose no deal. It's thought some pro-EU MPs may move to bring down the government if faced with such a prospect.

Whether a no-deal Brexit can be stopped is uncertain. In June MPs voted down an opposition Labour motion to try to block such a scenario. Meanwhile, EU leaders are not certain to approve another extension.

The heightened uncertainty amid a winter of British political turmoil forced the UK and the EU, as well as people and businesses on both sides of the English Channel, to step up no-deal preparations ahead of the original March deadline. Such plans are likely to have to be revived in the run-up to October.

A no-deal exit would immediately alter trading and many other arrangements between the UK and the EU, including the rights of British and European citizens. It would hit the UK's economy but also those of its closest neighbours on the continent — and particularly the island of Ireland, where the survival of a hard-fought peace accord is at stake after decades of political violence.

The key dates ahead

  • July 23: Conservative Party to announce new leader, who will become new UK prime minister.
  • September 29 — October 2: the Conservative Party conference takes place a month before the UK's revised EU exit date.
  • October 17—18: the last scheduled EU summit before Brexit day.
  • October 31: the new date when the UK is due to leave the EU.

What happens in a 'no—deal scenario'?

In the absence of an alternative agreement, the default legal position is that the UK will leave the EU on the revised scheduled departure date of October 31.

In such a scenario, legal arrangements covering many aspects of everyday life would abruptly cease to apply. It would also bring a significant change in the trading relationship between the UK and the EU.

Many political leaders, institutions, companies and individuals have warned of severe disruption and economic damage — with the UK being hit worse than the EU.

However, Brexiteers have long dismissed “Project Fear” forecasts and some argue that the UK could survive perfectly well under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

Brexit and business — read more:

UK firms cut investment plans as Brexit alarm hits new high — survey

UK car industry warns next PM against 'seismic' no-deal Brexit

Jaguar commits to building electric vehicles in UK — but calls for Brexit deal

Japan's NTT invests big in London amid Brexit uncertainty

As the process dragged on without formal approval for an exit deal from the UK and EU parliaments, the focus shifted even more sharply to “no deal” preparations.

In April 2019 a leaked letter by the government's most senior civil servant warned of an economic recession, food price rises, a severe impact on Britain's security services, police forces and legal system, and a return to direct rule by the UK government in Northern Ireland.

In June, the same civil servant, Sir Mark Sedwill, said government and public services were in "pretty good shape" to cope with a no-deal Brexit at the end of October. He added that in the private sector the level of preparedness varied from sector to sector.

The UK government has published a series of papers advising citizens and businesses on the consequences and how to prepare for no-deal. It says the UK would become a "third country", and there would be no agreement on applying arrangements set out in the exit deal.

In March the European Commission said it had completed its no-deal preparations, having released its Contingency Action Plan for Brexit in December. In a no-deal scenario, it confirms that the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and Britons on the continent would no longer be protected at European level — and lays out basic plans to regulate financial services, air transport, road haulage, customs and exports, and climate policy.

In November 2018, two major reports by the UK Treasury and the Bank of England assessed the potential damage to the economy of various Brexit scenarios.

Read more:

No-deal Brexit: everything you need to know

No-deal Brexit: what would 'WTO terms' mean for UK-EU trade?

What would no-deal mean for citizens' rights: EU nationals in the UK and Britons in the EU?

How would no-deal affect travel and consumers?

Not all doom and gloom: the Brexiteers' case for a 'hard Brexit'

How we got here: Brexit delay brings European election electroshock

In the wake of the repeated parliamentary defeats for the EU divorce deal, the House of Commons twice forced the British government to seek to delay Brexit. EU national leaders met for a special European Council summit on April 10 and agreed to a six-month "flexible extension" to the UK's departure from the bloc, with a new exit date set for October 31.

The United Kingdom can leave earlier if its parliament approves the negotiated withdrawal deal, but the delay forced the country to take part in the European Parliament elections.

Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party, which advocates leaving the EU without a formal agreement, came top of the European vote. But there was a strong showing from pro-EU parties, in particular, the Liberal Democrats, who want to reverse Brexit altogether.

Britain's two main parties — the Conservatives and the Labour opposition — were severely punished by voters. Many Conservatives are furious at the failure to “deliver Brexit”, while Labour has been accused of sitting on the fence.

The results indicated that opinion in the UK is becoming still more polarised over Brexit, confirming the results of surveys which suggest that people have become increasingly entrenched in two camps — those who wish to remain in the EU, and those who are determined to leave, even with no deal.

Read more:

Brexit delay: what changes with the extended deadline to October?

Brexit delay prolongs 'crippling' limbo for EU and UK expats

What does the rejected Brexit divorce deal contain?

In November 2018 the British government and EU leaders approved a deal on the terms of the separation — the Withdrawal Agreement — and a Political Declaration on the nature of future EU-UK ties.

Despite its triple rejection by the UK parliament, the EU insists the Withdrawal Agreement is the only one on offer and cannot be altered. It is ready, however, to modify the Political Declaration. A successfully ratified deal would pave the way for an orderly UK exit from the European Union, quickly followed by full trade talks between the two sides.

The near 600-page Withdrawal Agreement would be legally binding and settles the key “divorce” issues: the UK’s financial obligations to the EU, citizens' rights — those of EU citizens living in the UK and Britons living on the continent — and arrangements for the Irish border. Set to become the only land frontier between the UK and the EU, both sides agree this must remain open, but the historically sensitive and complex issue bedevilled the talks.

A ratified exit deal would also pave the way for a the way for a planned transition period to come into effect after the UK’s departure. During this period many existing arrangements would remain in place, allowing for more time to sort out future EU-UK relations and avoid an abrupt “cliff-edge” exit.

If no UK-EU trade deal was agreed by the end of December 2020 — although an extension to this period is possible under the draft accord — a "backstop" mechanism would come into force to keep the Irish border open. This would set up a basic UK-wide customs union with the EU, but with Northern Ireland more deeply integrated with the bloc's rules.

Read more:

What's in the Brexit deal and why is it so unpopular?

How the deal protects EU citizens living in the UK — if it's ratified

How the deal protects UK citizens living in the EU — if it's ratified

The Political Declaration accompanying the Withdrawal Agreement is much shorter and covers future relations. The 26-page document is not legally binding — but could form the basis for a trade agreement to be negotiated after Brexit.

Unlike Conservative Eurosceptics and Northern Irish unionists who have focused their hostility on the backstop arrangements in the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK's Labour Party has emphasised its opposition to the Political Declaration. Leader Jeremy Corbyn has argued that the document is too vague and would lead the UK into a "blindfold Brexit".

Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, has said a permanent customs union — favoured by Labour — could be included in the Political Declaration. But although the issue was considered in the cross-party talks, the discussions foundered.

Read more: Political Declaration: the details

Why did the UK parliament repeatedly reject the deal?

Theresa May insisted the deal was in the national interest and there was no viable alternative. She argued that it delivered on the referendum result: an end to free movement, an end to huge UK payments to the EU, and an exit from the unpopular EU structures on farming and fishing.

However, the agreement brought hostility from both supporters and opponents of Brexit. In parliament, an alliance of forces resulted in the successive defeats for the government.

The main Labour opposition said the deal did not meet its six Brexit tests.

Derailed by the backstop

The controversial backstop, the mechanism in the agreement to guarantee an open border on the island of Ireland, proved to be a major stumbling block. The difficulty is that the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – one of the most politically sensitive borders in the world – will become an EU-UK land border after Brexit, yet the UK wishes to pursue an independent trade policy.

The backstop envisages the UK remaining in a "single customs territory" with the EU in the absence of a free trade deal, as a kind of insurance policy to keep the border open.

Eurosceptic critics suspect it will keep the UK strapped permanently to EU trade policy. EU sources pointed out that the UK-wide mechanism in the withdrawal agreement was included at the UK’s request, to avoid splitting off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on whose support the government depends, has vehemently opposed any move they believe might separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. Under the backstop, as set out in the deal, Northern Ireland would stay aligned to some EU rules.

Read more:

Why is the Irish border issue so complex?

Irish border: can technology remove the need for a backstop?

What 'alternative arrangements' are there to the Irish backstop?

As the clock ticked down towards the original March 29 deadline, the UK and the EU said they had agreed a revised Brexit deal following weeks of deadlocked talks between London and Brussels. The British parliament had voted to seek “alternative arrangements” for the backstop after the first parliamentary defeat.

EU27 leaders had refused to alter the text of the withdrawal agreement. But Theresa May said she had secured legally-binding changes over the backstop’s application. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said “meaningful legal assurances” had been given — while warning that there would be "no third chance" to revise the deal again.

However, leading members of the Conservative anti-EU European Research Group (ERG) and the DUP rejected the new proposals, after consulting new legal opinion on the deal from the government's top lawyer. The deal suffered a second defeat on March 12.

The government decided the third vote in the House of Commons on March 29 would be only on the withdrawal deal, not on the declaration on future relations. This was partly to conform to a ruling by the Speaker who insisted on substantial changes from the previous vote. However, it still ended in defeat by 58 votes.

The parliamentary deadlock prompted moves by MPs from different parties to wrest control of the Brexit process and allow a series of "indicative votes" to explore alternative solutions to the government's deal. But there has been no majority for any particular solution, other than an opposition to no-deal.

How did Brexit get into such a mess?

The turmoil in the British domestic political scene has cut across party lines. Internal party divisions have affected both the UK government and opposition.

The ruling Conservative party has long been riven between Eurosceptic and Europhile factions. The main Labour opposition has seen tension between its largely pro-EU membership and a leadership more inclined to deliver Brexit.

The Tories in particular have haemorrhaged support to the hardline Brexit Party. Meanwhile, both Conservatives and Labour have suffered defections of some MPs to a new pro-EU centrist party — "Change UK – The Independent Group (TIG)" — for reasons that include their leaders' stances on Brexit.

Tory turmoil boils over

At the heart of the debate over Europe in the United Kingdom is the balance to be struck between two objectives: a desire for independence, sovereignty and autonomy against the need to retain access to European markets, which, the EU has always insisted, means adhering to EU rules.

The defeated UK-EU exit deal represented a compromise. But the blurring of several of Theresa May's so-called "red lines" on the limits of EU power sparked fury within her Conservative Party, for decades split by an internal conflict over Europe. As negotiations with Brussels brought more UK concessions, a string of government resignations followed.

After the 2017 general election, which left the Tories severely weakened in parliament, hostility amid their own ranks to any moves towards a "softer" Brexit restricted May's room for manoeuvre. Eurosceptics including the DUP strongly opposed her Brexit plan and the subsequent agreement, with many calling for the UK to leave the EU with no deal. They argue the accord ties the UK too closely to EU rules, compromising independence perhaps far into the future.

Equally, several pro-EU MPs also opposed a deal which, in their view, would leave the UK worse off than it had been inside the bloc. Some joined calls from opposition parties for a second referendum to see whether the country had changed its mind on Brexit.

Pressure from Tory Europhiles obliged the prime minister to open the door to a Brexit delay. Although she had long resisted calls from the Labour opposition for the UK to remain in a customs union with the EU, she suddenly changed tack on April 2 — only for cross-party talks to collapse weeks later.

Theresa May's fate was sealed after she revealed a fourth plan for getting her thrice-rejected Brexit deal through parliament. She tweaked the legislative package and crucially opened the door to a possible confirmatory referendum — a move which angered many in her party and sparked another government resignation.

Read more:

Boris Johnson leads Brexit charge — but is 'taking back control' an illusion?

Article 50 a year on: Brexit 'red lines' change colour

How Brexit defined then destroyed Theresa May's premiership

What is the stance of UK opposition parties?

The main opposition Labour Party has been criticised for an ambiguous Brexit policy, and blamed for its poor performance at local and European elections in May.

Despite gradually moving towards backing a public vote to resolve the Brexit crisis, the party has not committed itself. Its preference is for a general election, but the leadership's reticence to back a second referendum has angered many among its large pro-EU membership.

Labour says it respects the result of the June 2016 referendum. Its priorities are to secure a customs union with the EU and access to its markets, as well as ensuring the protection of standards over the environment, and consumer and workers' rights.

The party has backed a new EU referendum under certain conditions, not in all circumstances. Its National Executive Committee agreed on April 30 to support Labour's alternative plan for Brexit, and back a public vote if it couldn't secure changes to the government's deal or a general election.

The issue has caused internal divisions. Leader Jeremy Corbyn had resisted another referendum, and many MPs in Brexit-supporting constituencies are also hostile. But he has come under intense pressure from the party membership, and some prominent frontbench figures who favour another public vote.

Following Labour's election defeats in May, Corbyn said the "only way out" of the Brexit crisis was either a general election or a referendum on a deal. Many in the party believe there is no prospect of either an election or a deal. Deputy leader Tom Watson wants another referendum regardless, and for Labour to campaign for the UK to remain in the EU.

On July 9 Labour tipped further in the direction of advocating a public vote — and backing EU membership. In a letter to party members, Corbyn called for a referendum on any Tory deal — or no deal — on Brexit, adding that Labour would campaign to remain in the EU. However, the letter did not spell out what Labour would do in power — bringing more accusations of ambiguity.

The pro-EU Liberal Democrats and the newly formed Change UK – The Independent Group (TIG) of breakaway centrist MPs both oppose Brexit, and support a second referendum on the UK's EU membership. So do the Green Party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the Welsh party Plaid Cymru.

The Brexit Party advocates leaving the EU on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, negotiating new terms afterwards — a position condemned as unrealistic and potentially disastrous by many mainstream politicians, economists and businesses. Leader Nigel Farage accuses the UK's political class of betraying the result of the 2016 referendum, adding that his new party's mission is to "change politics for good".

The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which Farage once led and was obliterated at the European elections, also favours a no-deal Brexit and blocking a second referendum.

Read more:

What is UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn's policy on Brexit?

What is the secret of Farage's success and what is his Brexit plan?

A history of UK-EU tension

Check out our series on the history of the United Kingdom's complicated relations with the European Union:

How does the European Union work?

The EU originally developed after World War Two, with the aim of promoting economic co-operation and trade between countries to stop them from going to war again. Its members' economies are now integrated around a single market allowing the free movement of goods, people, services and capital.

Nineteen of the 28 member states use a single currency, the euro. The EU has its own institutions and passes laws affecting many issues across the union.

Read more:

What does the European Council do?

What does the European Parliament do?

What does the European Commission do?

Receive our regular newsletter directly to your smartphone