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?
For the UK to leave the EU it had to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which gives the two sides two years to agree the terms of the split. Theresa May triggered this process on 29 March, 2017, meaning the UK is scheduled to leave at 11pm UK time on Friday, 29 March 2019. It can be extended if all 28 EU members agree, but at the moment all sides are focusing on that date as being the key one, and Theresa May has now put it into British law.
So is Brexit definitely happening?
The UK is leaving the European Union on 29 March – it’s the law, regardless of whether there is a deal with the EU or not. Stopping Brexit would require a change in the law in the UK and – it is widely thought – the agreement of the rest of the EU, under the terms of Article 50. A European Court of Justice judge has said the UK could cancel Brexit without the consent of the rest of the EU, but the court has yet to deliver its final verdict on this point. Prime Minister Theresa May has warned Conservative MPs thinking of voting against the deal she has reached with the EU that they risk “no Brexit at all”. This is a reference to another referendum, which is backed by some MPs, who want the public to be given the final say, with the option to remain in the EU.
Could Brexit be delayed?
The EU might agree to extend Article 50 if its leaders thought there was a chance the UK could end up staying in, possibly through another referendum, but it would only be by a few months. The UK’s main opposition party, Labour, wants to force a general election and, after winning it, go back to Brussels to negotiate its version of Brexit. That would also require Brexit day being pushed back from 29 March, something the EU might agree to, to give a new UK government the chance to make its case. If Labour can’t force a general election it has said it will push for another referendum, but it has yet to say what it thinks the question on the ballot paper should be.
What’s happening now?
After months of negotiation, the UK and EU have 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.
The UK cabinet agreed the withdrawal agreement text on 14 November, but there were two resignations, including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and there was an, as yet unsuccessful, attempt by Brexiteer MPs to force a confidence vote in Theresa May.
The next step is for MPs to vote on the deal, which will take place on 11 December after five days of debate. If they pass it, the European Parliament will get a vote before Brexit day next March.
Do we know how things will work in the long-term?
Not in detail. But the 26-page political declaration referred to above, gives some detail of their aspirations on things like trade, travel and security will work.
- Read the full 26-page declaration on future relations
- This was Theresa May’s March speech setting out longterm plan
- Reality Check: What’s in the Brexit political declaration?
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