What is Brexit? And more questions you were too embarrassed to ask.
The United Kingdom’s divorce with the European Union — better known as Brexit — has become a drawn-out, contentious affair without an obvious resolution.
The UK is deeply and bitterly divided on how it should exit the EU, and what its future relationship with the bloc should look like. And in many ways, the split between those who want to leave the EU and those who want to remain within it has only hardened since the 2016 referendum, tearing apart traditional party loyalties within the UK.
Former British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government and her counterparts in the European Union negotiated a withdrawal agreement last year, but opposition to the deal from the UK Parliament killed it three times.
May’s Brexit defeats led to her political downfall, and she resigned her premiership in June. The race to replace her was surprisingly smooth: Boris Johnson, the bombastic, outspoken champion of Brexit, handily won the Conservative leadership contest and took over in July.
Johnson promised that he would deliver Brexit for the United Kingdom, “do or die,” by the deadline of October 31. Johnson said he’d achieve what May failed to do: get a Brexit deal that can win the support of Parliament. And if he couldn’t, well, the UK would be totally fine breaking away from Europe without a deal.
Leaving the EU without any deal promises chaos for both the UK and the rest of Europe — yet some Brexit devotees are willing to take the risk because they believe it would deliver a swift and decisive end to the UK’s relationship with the EU.
But as the deadline approached, Johnson managed to strike an agreement with the EU and revise May’s Brexit deal. It’s far from perfect, and many in Parliament still oppose it — but it’s won over many of the hardline Brexiteers May never could get on her side.
Johnson’s victory was still diminished by a rebellious Parliament, which forced him to seek a Brexit extension despite his new deal and even though Johnson really didn’t want to do it.
It’s why Brexit still hasn’t happened yet. The EU just approved the UK’s latest extension request to January 31, 2020, though it offered the UK the option to depart earlier if it could approve the Brexit deal before that date.
But the Brexit debate is unlikely to wrap up quietly. British lawmakers have now agreed to hold a pre-Brexit general election on December 12. It might be the only way to break the Brexit stalemate that’s persisted in Parliament for more than a year.
It’s hard to keep up with each new development in this saga — or understand how the UK went from a referendum in 2016 to still not being able to leave the European Union.
Vox has received a lot of reader questions, and my colleagues on the Worldly podcast have answered a bunch, which you can check out here. Here’s another attempt to explain some of the big questions we get from readers, along with others that might help you understand what in the holy hell is going on.
1) What is Brexit?
I know, I know — if we’re asking this question now, we’re all in a lot of trouble. But it’s worth going back to the beginning to understand how and why the UK and the EU ended up here.
“Brexit” is the term we’ve all decided to use to describe Britain’s exit from the European Union. The EU is a political and economic organization of 28 European countries, or member states, with its own bureaucracy and legislative body — the European Parliament — which is mostly headquartered in Brussels.
The EU’s predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community, was founded in the aftermath of World War II with the idea that economic cooperation would prevent another devastating European conflict.
The union has had different iterations and evolved since, adding members and introducing its own common currency, the euro. Central to the EU is its single market, which allows for the free and frictionless movement of goods, services, capital, and people within its borders. They’re known as the “four freedoms.”
The UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, which became part of the European Union when it formed in 1993.
But the UK has always had a degree of distance from the EU. It maintains its own currency, the sterling pound, and never joined the Schengen agreement, which eliminates internal border controls within the EU. But the UK is still required to embrace the movement of people, as part of those four freedoms.
And, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp has written, “British politics has always included a faction that’s skeptical of deeper integration with the rest of Europe.”
This intensified in the past decade with the 2008 financial crisis and the eurozone economic crisis that followed it. The influx of immigrants from poorer EU states and, later, fears over refugees and migrants from Syria and other parts of Africa and the Middle East helped galvanize voters in the UK and tapped into a larger skepticism about EU membership.
In 2013, Britain’s then-Prime Minister David Cameron promised that if his Conservative Party won elections, he would hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave. Cameron partly caved to pressure from the right flank of his party and the UK Independent Party (UKIP), the right-wing party that was peeling away some Conservative voters.
Cameron won, and kept his promise. The UK held the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016. There were two choices: Leave (the EU) or Remain.
There is certainly a case against the EU and its regulations, but emotion and nostalgia largely fueled the referendum campaign, especially among Leave proponents. Prominent Leave campaigners played up immigration fears and made promises about the UK reclaiming its sovereignty, taking control of its borders, laws, and trade, and securing more money for domestic programs like the National Health Service.
Cameron, who supported the Remain campaign, resigned after the referendum. Theresa May won the Conservative leadership contest to succeed him as prime minister in 2016. She was a Remainer, though not exactly an enthusiastic one. In a divided party, she was able to position herself between hardline pro-Brexit Conservatives and more moderate members of her party by promising to fulfill the results of the referendum and deliver on Brexit.
What “deliver on Brexit” meant in practical terms, though, turned out to be far more complicated.
2) Why is all this happening right now?
The UK had to formally give the EU notice that it wanted out by triggering Article 50 — the provision in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty that gives countries the power to withdraw from the bloc.
May did not trigger Article 50 immediately. In January 2017, in what’s often referred to as her “Lancaster speech,” May laid out her Brexit negotiating priorities, including her “red lines”: The UK would leave the EU customs union and single market, and the European Court of Justice (ECJ) would no longer have jurisdiction over the UK.
May eventually won the overwhelming support of Parliament to trigger Article 50 and formally notified the European Council in March 2017 of the UK’s intention to leave the EU. This set off a two-year countdown to the official exit date: March 29, 2019.
That UK was supposed to leave on that date whether or not it had a deal. A “no-deal” Brexit — in which the UK crashes out of the EU overnight and ends up outside all the EU institutions it once belonged to — is the default (more on this later).
It was up to May and the EU negotiators to come to an acceptable agreement to ensure an orderly breakup.
The EU agreed to begin negotiating such a deal after May formally invoked Article 50. Negotiations started in the summer of 2017, and May and the EU agreed to the divorce deal in November 2018.
But May was unable to win the support of the UK Parliament for that deal.
Which is why, as you might have noticed, May no longer has her job (more on that, later) and the original deadline of March 29, 2019, has come and gone without the UK leaving the European Union. The UK successfully won a short extension of Article 50 from EU leaders, moving the date from March 29 to April 12 to get more time to win approval for the Brexit deal.
May was still unable to get her deal through Parliament even with a delay. She reached out to the opposition Labour Party to find a compromise to break the impasse, but she again had to ask the EU for another extension until June 30.
EU leaders, after much debate, agreed to postpone Brexit again, this time until October 31. The months-long delay removed some of the urgency from the current Brexit discussion. But it wasn’t a huge amount of time, especially given the UK hasn’t been able to solve Brexit in almost three years.
The UK did a lot of things in those intervening months, including changing up its prime minister. But finding a Brexit solution wasn’t exactly one of them.
Oh and this week, Brexit just got delayed, again, until January 2020.
3) What kind of Brexit does the UK want?
The UK still hasn’t been able to figure that out, nearly three years after it voted to leave. That’s in large part due to the lack of clarity in the 2016 referendum on what “leave” actually meant.
But it’s helpful to look at the two broad categories of Brexit: “hard” Brexit and “soft” Brexit.
Now, even those terms mean different things to different people. But usually, the distinction between them has to do with the UK’s relationship with two major EU institutions: the customs union and the single market.
The EU customs union eliminates tariffs as well as non-tariff barriers (quotas, for example) among EU member states, and it forces the bloc to operate as a single unit when trading with countries outside the EU. This also means that individual countries are largely restricted from striking their own, country-specific trade deals.
The single market ensures free and frictionless movement of goods, services, capital, and labor (people) among EU countries, so the EU operates without hard borders, as if it were all one country. Four other non-EU states, including Norway, have negotiated access to the single market.
Now, back to “hard” versus “soft” Brexit.
People who favor a hard Brexit want to get out of the customs union so that Britain can pursue an independent trade policy. They also want out of the single market to gain control over issues such as immigration. Those who favor this approach want a clean break with the EU and would replace these current partnerships with a free trade deal or a series of trade agreements with the EU.
Those who support this approach are sometimes dubbed “Brexiteers,” and they tend to hail from the original pro-Leave campaign. They want to put as much distance as possible between Brussels and the UK.
And as the Brexit process has worn on, members of this camp have become more and more willing to risk a no-deal Brexit to get the UK out of the EU immediately and, in their minds, avoid any lingering entanglements. Such a precise break is more wishful thinking than reality, mostly because the UK just can’t replace its largest trading partner overnight. But this has become a more attractive option for a growing number of Brexiteers who just “get on” with it.
On the other side are those who favor a softer Brexit. This camp wants to keep closer ties with the EU. There are also divisions within the “soft” Brexit camp. Some just want customs union membership, others want full access to the single market, some want both — basically as close as possible tole to staying in the EU without actually being in the EU. This would soften the blow to the British economy when Brexit becomes official.
The caveat, though, is that the UK would also have to abide by many of the EU laws and regulations that govern the single market and customs union. And since it would no longer officially be an EU member, the UK would have little or no say in what those rules are or how they’re applied.
This group also includes many Remainers, who’d prefer not to Brexit at all. Some Remainers also support a second referendum to revote on the Brexit question, and many would prefer the government revoke Article 50 and just halt Brexit altogether. A lot of these folks are still holding out hope that Brexit can be reversed — but if that’s dashed, they’d opt for the next best thing, which is staying in a tight relationship with the EU.
These splits underscore why the UK Parliament couldn’t get behind a Brexit plan — or really make a decision at all.
4) What was in May’s original Brexit deal?
May, when triggering Article 50, told the EU that she wanted the UK and the bloc to agree to a “deep and special partnership that takes in both economic and security cooperation.” In order to do this, she said, the two sides should “agree to the terms of our future partnerships, alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU.”
The EU said no — the negotiating would take place in phases. The first phase would focus on the divorce: all the legal, political, and economic issues involving the UK-EU breakup. This covered things like how much the UK would pay the EU to settle its financial obligations to the bloc, what would happen to EU citizens living in the UK and vice versa, and how to close out treaties and cooperation agreements after Brexit.
Phase two would focus on the transitional period, specifically how the UK and the EU would adjust to the breakup. The final phase would focus on the details of the “special and deep” future relationship, where the EU and UK would decide how to trade and cooperate on security and other issues. This future relationship could involve those free trade agreements and a lot more distance between the two; or it could involve the UK sticking around, maybe having a still-pretty-close relationship.
The negotiations over this divorce settlement and transition period were complex. The EU and UK made some breakthroughs early but got stalled on major issues, most notably over the issue of preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member state).
In November 2018, the EU and May’s government reached a final deal. It came in two parts: a 585-page withdrawal agreement and a short (and not particularly specific) political declaration, which was basically a promise that the EU and UK would negotiate their future relationship. The final phase, in other words.
This withdrawal agreement tackled a lot of those issues mentioned above, including the divorce settlement (how much the UK must pay the EU, which is likely at least £39 billion, or about $50 billion) and protecting the status of UK citizens and EU nationals living in the EU and UK, respectively, post-Brexit and providing a means for those individuals to apply for permanent residency in those host countries.
The withdrawal agreement also calls for a 21-month transition period until December 31, 2020, to give the EU and the UK time to figure out that future partnership. It can be renewed once, up to December 2022. During this time, the UK would formally leave the EU and give up its decision-making power, but not much else would change.
The withdrawal agreement also included an “Irish backstop,” a guarantee that a “hard” border — meaning actual physical checkpoints for goods — won’t be put in place when the EU and UK break up.
This question, which barely came up in the 2016 referendum, ended up becoming a central issue in the Brexit negotiations. And it’s the one issue that’s continued to derail any chance of a Brexit breakthrough.
5) Okay, so what was the “Irish backstop”?
The Irish backstop was an insurance policy that says no matter what happens in the future negotiations between the UK and the EU, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will remain free of physical checks and infrastructure.
That border was heavily militarized during the Troubles, a decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland between “nationalists,” who identified more closely with Ireland and sought a united Ireland, and “unionists,” who identified more closely with Britain and wanted to remain part of the UK.
During that period, the border became both a symbol of the divide and a very real target for nationalist paramilitary groups, such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
A 1998 peace deal, known as the Good Friday Agreement, formally ended the conflict. That agreement included greater cooperation between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which meant softening the border between the two.
The European Union strengthened this truce, as its rules on trade and free movement created the conditions for closer ties between the UK and Ireland and so made an open border possible. Today, the border is all but invisible.
Brexit threatened to interrupt this altogether, as the UK’s decision to leave the EU meant that the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland would become an international one.
But early on in the Brexit negotiations, former prime minister May set out those “red lines” — which said no customs union membership, no single market. In other words, the UK wanted to get out of the very institutions that had helped preserve and sustain that open border.
But both the EU and the UK agreed they must honor the commitments of the 1998 peace process and protect the open, frictionless border on the island of Ireland. How to do so was much more fraught. The UK and the EU both had different proposals, but eventually they reached a compromise. This is the “backstop.”
The backstop says that if the UK and the EU haven’t figured out how to avoid physical checks on the Irish border by the end of the transition period (lasting until 2022, at the latest), the entire UK will stay in the EU customs union. Northern Ireland will also have a slightly closer alignment with the EU’s trade rules.
The backstop ends when both sides agree to a permanent arrangement that keeps the border open, and the UK can’t pull out of it unilaterally.
The EU bolstered this promise — that the backstop was intended to be a temporary fallback plan — by adding legal force to this backstop in negotiations in March. These addendums gave the UK recourse to seek arbitration if it felt the EU wasn’t negotiating in good faith.
So all in all, May negotiated a comprehensive Brexit deal. Nothing left for her to do but get UK Parliament’s approval.
Except that never happened. Because pretty much everyone, from hardcore Brexiteers to staunch Remainers, absolutely hated this version of the Brexit deal.
6) So why did everyone hate May’s deal?
The Irish backstop was a big part of it, at least for the hardline Brexiteers.
Brexiteers, most of whom were in May’s own Conservative Party, saw the backstop as treachery: a betrayal of the UK’s promise to get out of the EU and break free of its rules and regulations, because the backstop could potentially keep the UK entrapped indefinitely in the customs union.
Another important faction in the UK Parliament also hated the Irish backstop: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a conservative party in Northern Ireland. They previously had an outsize voice in this debate because their 10 votes in Parliament kept May’s Conservative government in power. (In 2017, May called snap elections, an attempt to strengthen her majority to negotiate Brexit; Conservatives instead lost seats in Parliament and needed the DUP’s support to govern.) The DUP’s influence is muted now that the current UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, has lost his majority in Parliament by other means — but the buy-in of the DUP still matters, as we’ll get to a bit later.
The DUP opposed the backstop because it requires Northern Ireland to more closely follow EU single-market rules. The DUP believes very strongly in the union and sees Northern Ireland’s unequal treatment compared to the rest of the UK (even if it might offer a financial benefit) as a threat.
And remember, those two factions were supposed to be May’s allies. So you can probably imagine how unsupportive her political enemies were of her deal.
The Labour Party, the main opposition party, objected to May’s deal because, well, it’s May’s deal. Labour is divided on whether to follow through on Brexit, and it had no incentive to back an agreement negotiated by a Conservative government, especially one the party sees as lacking labor and environmental protections. If May couldn’t get her own party behind her, why would Labour do her the favor?
Labour’s ultimate goal is to retake power; party leaders want to be the ones negotiating with the EU. Bolstering May wasn’t going to help them achieve that end.
And then there are the other, smaller (yet still influential) parties, including the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats, who say they want to remain in the EU.
This opposition led to three extremely embarrassing defeats for Theresa May in Parliament. Parliament rejected May’s deal by 230 votes in January, the worst defeat for a British government in modern history. Parliament voted down the deal in March by 149 votes.
On Friday, March 29 — the original date the UK was supposed to leave the EU — May put forward just the withdrawal agreement (without the political declaration). Parliament rejected it still, by a margin of 58, despite May’s promise to her Conservative Party that she would resign if MPs passed the deal.
May insisted that any orderly Brexit will require Parliament passing her deal in some form. After her third defeat, and later the EU’s extension until October 31, May engaged in cross-party talks with Labour to see if they could come up with a compromise Brexit plan. In May 2019, she offered a “new” plan, a sort of last-ditch effort to try to win support in Parliament and from the EU.
But Theresa May’s new Brexit plan was mostly the same. The few concessions she did offer mostly appealed to Remainers, not the hardcore Brexiteers she needed to win over to successfully get anything through Parliament. With no chance of bringing her deal for a fourth vote, and support from her own party failing, May had no choice but to resign.
She did so, officially, in June. Which eventually brought Boris Johnson to power.
7) Who is Boris Johnson and will he deliver Brexit?
Boris Johnson rose to political prominence as the mayor of London, and capitalized on that fame by becoming the public face of the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum.
Though Johnson has a reputation for having squishy convictions — except, his critics would say, when it comes to himself — he remained a vocal cheerleader for a hard Brexit throughout May’s tenure. So much so that he quit his post as foreign minister in 2018 to protest her handling of the negotiations.
Johnson was immediately the frontrunner in the race to replace May as leader of the Conservative Party. He ran on a very simple promise: that he would deliver Brexit, “do or die” by the October 31 deadline. He vowed to renegotiate a brand-new and better Brexit deal, and if the EU wouldn’t budge, then he’d take the UK out of the EU at the end of October without a deal.
Johnson cruised to victory on that promise. He took over on July 24, four months before the then-Brexit deadline.
But Johnson faced the exact same dilemma that May had: a divided Parliament that hated May’s Brexit deal, and an EU leadership that continued to say it was the only deal on offer.
And when it comes to Parliament, Johnson’s attempts have backfired spectacularly. He suspended — or “prorogued” — Parliament for five weeks in an attempt to sideline his opposition from blocking his Brexit plan, or attempts to leave the EU without a deal.
That infuriated opposition members of Parliament and those opposed to a no-deal Brexit. It created such an uproar that Johnson ended up losing his majority after a group of Conservatives rebelled and voted for the exact legislation Johnson didn’t want: a law that said Johnson would need to go back to the EU and ask for an extension if he failed to get a new deal by October 19.
Johnson didn’t want to get that extension, so he tried twice to dissolve Parliament and hold new elections, which could produce a legislature more favorable to his agenda. But Johnson needed two-thirds of MPs to vote in favor of this, and opposition MPs refused to give in. Instead, they want to force him to ask for that extension from the EU in hopes of preventing a no-deal exit — and to damage his support among hardline Brexit supporters.
Meanwhile, the UK’s highest court ruled Johnson’s suspension of Parliament unlawful, making the prorogation null and void. (Johnson has suspended Parliament again, but just for six days, so it’s not all that controversial.)
Johnson’s dealings with the EU started off pretty terribly, too. The prime minister wanted to scrap the Irish backstop, but the EU insisted on the provision, unless Johnson could bring back a viable replacement that would protect peace in Ireland and preserve the integrity of the EU’s single market and customs union.
It very much looked as if negotiations were totally doomed. Until, suddenly, they weren’t — and Johnson and the EU reached a last-minute breakthrough. But before we get there, let’s hear the EU’s side of the story for a second.
8) Why was the EU being so stubborn?
The United Kingdom learned a hard lesson in Brexit negotiations — the country had strength within the European Union, but once it decided to leave, it lost a lot of that leverage.
The EU has had to navigate a careful balance in these negotiations with Brexit. It has tried to operate on a unified platform, while representing the interests of all remaining 27 member states, each of which has its own domestic political concerns.
EU negotiators had to stick to their principles — refusing to budge on the four freedoms, for example — while also trying to stay out of UK politics. That hasn’t always been successful. But despite the long-held belief among some that the EU would cave at the last minute and give in to UK demands, it hasn’t really yet.
The EU, once it negotiated the Brexit deal compromise with May, insisted that it was final: Take the deal on offer, cancel Brexit, or risk a no-deal Brexit, EU leaders told the UK over and over again.
That position is partly for practicality, because if the UK tries to make new demands, there’s the possibility that 27 other European countries will also try to make tweaks.
The firm stance serves another purpose: signaling to other, more skeptical EU countries that the EU as a whole defends its members and looks out for its interests. Specifically, Ireland has a huge stake in the backstop and the guarantee of an open Irish border. The EU has defended Ireland’s interests and remained unified on this issue. And that unity, especially in the face of political fractures in the UK, has bolstered its negotiating position.
The EU also doesn’t want to make Brexit particularly easy; it wants to make a point that leaving the EU has legitimate risks and serious fallout. Skepticism of the EU propelled the referendum in the UK, but other countries in the bloc also have resurgent populist leaders or parties who are also deeply skeptical of the EU. But the EU’s position on Brexit has dampened plans for similar exists across Europe, as it’s become increasingly clear the costs of leaving outweigh the benefits.
The EU hasn’t been intractable, though. It offered additional legal assurances on the Irish backstop. It has also suggested it would be open to tweaking the political declaration governing the future relationship if that will help the Brexit deal get majority support in the UK. The EU approved multiple Brexit extensions. And, to Johnson, EU leaders said they’re willing to negotiate if he can bring forward a plan that will offer a legitimate and workable alternative for the backstop.
The EU also wants to avoid a no-deal Brexit, which will be incredibly disruptive for the continent. And even though the UK’s political dysfunction is largely to blame right now for the Brexit stalemate, the EU doesn’t want to be seen as being responsible for the chaos that a no-deal breakup would unleash.
Which is why their stance has always been that it’s willing to negotiate — but never at the expense of the integrity of EU institutions or peace on the island of Ireland.
So the EU held firm. So did Johnson. And somehow, after weeks of wrangling, they came up with a new solution.
9) What’s in this new Brexit deal agreed to by Johnson and the EU?
The new Brexit deal is pretty much the same as the old Brexit deal, except there’s no Irish backstop.
The EU and the UK came up with an alternative that will keep only Northern Ireland closely aligned with the EU rules, specifically on goods. This avoids any checks on the island of Ireland, though they will still have to happen on goods moving to or from the island of Ireland from the rest of Britain. This effectively relocates the customs border to the Irish Sea.
But the whole of the United Kingdom — including Northern Ireland — will get to leave the EU customs union. The arrangements are kind of complicated. For example, the UK will have to apply and collect EU tariffs if any goods going from the rest of Britain are at risk of entering Ireland, otherwise known as EU territory. So it’s still unclear how implementation on how some elements of this plan will work. That’s no small thing — and that might come back to be a problem later.
Another addition to this version of the deal is the ability for the Northern Irish government to have a say. The Assembly in Northern Ireland will be able to vote to continue the arrangements four years after they go into effect. (That’s 2021 or 2023, depending on how long the transition lasts.) It will just need a simple majority, rather than needing the majority of unionists and nationalists, which avoids one group getting a veto.
Northern Ireland hasn’t had a government since 2017, and if that continues, then the arrangements will remain until one is in place to vote on them. If Stormont (what NI’s seat of government is called) decides to exit this setup at any point, there’s a two-year grace-period before it officially ends, ideally to work out another alternative.
This setup sounds just a little bit like the original Northern Ireland-only backstop plan the EU had first proposed, which former Prime Minister May had previously said was unacceptable because it disrupted the union by treating Northern Ireland differently than the rest of the UK. Johnson himself said in 2018 that such an arrangement would be unacceptable.
And Johnson’s plan remains untenable to the strong unionists in Northern Ireland — specifically the DUP — who see this deal as driving a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The DUP’s resistance has complicated Johnson’s strategy to rush this deal through Parliament, as he lost the party’s 10 critical votes.
Still, both the EU and the UK made concessions. The EU stayed firm on its position that safeguards needed to be in place for the Irish border, and Johnson got the UK out of the EU’s regulatory regime. It’s an imperfect deal for both sides, and how it will work in practice is still going to have to be sorted out.
And that’s no small thing. The Irish backstop plan was the fallback, meaning it would only go into effect if the UK and the EU couldn’t agree to an alternative. This is more like an Irish “frontstop,” meaning this is likely going to be the plan moving forward.
10) So what happened with Johnson’s deal?
Johnson returned from Brussels, victorious, with his new deal. He scheduled it for a vote on October 19, called “Super Saturday” as it was one of the first time in decades that Parliament met on a weekend.
The vote looked to be close. But then, Parliament foiled the prime minister’s plans once again, essentially forcing him to seek a Brexit delay no matter what
The mechanics of the amendment are a little tricky, but here’s what to know: parliamentary approval of the Brexit deal vote is just one stage of the divorce process for the UK. The Brexit deal is really a treaty, negotiated with the EU, so the UK has to implement that into domestic law, which requires votes on legislation.
Parliament basically decided that it shouldn’t vote on the Brexit deal until all the Brexit legislation was approved. And since this is pretty consequential legislation, just to be safe, the UK better bake in some extra time to scrutinize it, in case it can’t make that October 31 deadline.
That meant, in practice, Johnson had to go back to the EU for an extension, against his wishes. He sort of tried to get around it by sending two letters to Brussels: one, unsigned, asking for an extension, and a second, signed, that said he really didn’t want a Brexit delay.
The EU basically ignored the second, saying it would weigh whether to offer a delay.
Johnson didn’t give up, though. Parliament wanted the Brexit legislation, so he gave it to them. The more than 100-page bill was published on Monday, October 21. Johnson wanted to give Parliament three days to read it, approve it, and vote on it so he could still take the UK out of the EU by Halloween.
You can probably guess what comes next. Parliament did vote to advance the Brexit legislation, moving it to the next stage of debate, which is farther than May ever got. But Parliament flat-out rejected Johnson’s three-day timeline. This made it all but impossible for Johnson to fulfill his “do or die” October 31 promise,
The EU agreed on October 28 — just days before the October 31 deadline — to offer the UK a Brexit delay to January 30, 2020. But, technically it was a “flextension,” meaning the EU would allow the UK to leave earlier, on December 1 or January 1, if it could finalize the Brexit deal sooner.
Johnson was legally bound to accept, so he did. The EU made it official, and everyone has their calendars marked for January 31, 2020.
11) Why can’t the UK just hold another public referendum on Brexit?
A second referendum, or “confirmatory public vote” as it’s also being called, would put the Brexit question back to the people. Advocates for a second referendum say that during the 2016 referendum, the consequences and realities of Brexit were opaque. Leave campaigners promised grand trade deals and more money for domestic programs, but that didn’t match up with reality.
“We think this really resonates with people: What’s being delivered to you is completely different than what was promised,” Barney Scholes, a spokesperson for the People’s Vote UK, the main referendum advocacy group, told me in December. “And I think everybody is in agreement about that, both Remainers and Leavers.”
Johnson’s deal is the reality of Brexit, supporters argue. Now that the British public knows this, shouldn’t they get to vote again on whether they want that Brexit reality?
May and Johnson both resisted a second referendum, saying the people spoke loudly in 2016 and voted to leave. It would be “undemocratic” to reverse this process, they claim. (May did soften her stance in a concession to Labour right before she was forced to resign.) Referendum supporters counter that more democracy isn’t undemocratic, and the ability to change one’s mind is what makes democracy work. Plus, Brexit has become so divisive that the only way to legitimize the process is to offer a public vote.
But there are a lot of issues here. One is timing: Estimates say it would take at least 22 weeks to hold a referendum, which means the UK would have to ask the EU for more time, again.
Another issue is what the referendum should ask. Should it be a clean 2016 do-over? A Brexit deal versus Remain? Should there be multiple options, including the offer of a “no-deal Brexit”? Or will this risk splitting the vote, offering an outcome that no one really wants?
One of the big criticisms of the first referendum hinged on the idea that people didn’t really understand what they were voting on, that the public didn’t fully grasp the complexities of the EU-UK relationship. That same argument thus applies to a second referendum: I mean, how many Brits have actually read the withdrawal agreement?
A second referendum wouldn’t be guaranteed to produce a different result, either. Polls show that if a referendum were held now, Remain would win by a small margin. That’s not necessarily because people have changed their minds. Instead, it’s because it would attract new voters, specifically young people who were not eligible to vote in 2016 (and who generally skew toward being pro-EU) and Remainers who sat out the 2016 vote. But remember, polls suggested Remain would win in 2016, too. And now here we are.
Still, a second referendum may be the only way to break the stalemate. Support for a public vote lost by 12 votes, 292 to 280, in Parliament in April. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said in the past that the party would support a second referendum to avoid “a damaging Tory Brexit.” But his party is split on whether to campaign in a referendum against any Brexit deal, and Corbyn himself isn’t exactly an enthusiastic Remainer.
At a party conference in September, Labour said it wouldn’t make a decision until after any general election. And the Liberal Democrats, a pro-Remain party that originally backed a second referendum, recently said at their party conference that now their stance is to revoke Article 50 altogether and cancel Brexit.
A second referendum has faded for other reasons — specifically, by putting the Brexit question back to the people another way: a general election.
12) Will the UK have a general election?
This is going to be one of the UK’s most consequential elections, and perhaps the last opportunity Brits have to decide what kind of Brexit they want — if they want Brexit at all.
Johnson, as we’ve noted, said he would take the UK out of the EU by October 31, do or die, deal or no-deal. This is not a great look for Johnson, seeing as he would basically break his October 31 promise.
This is exactly what the opposition parties wanted: to dent Johnson’s pro-Brexit base who might turn against him and opt for the more aggressively pro-Brexit Brexit Party, thus splitting the vote and giving the opposition a boost.
But it’s also not totally bad news for Johnson. His argument is going to be pretty simple: Give me a Parliament that will support me taking the UK out of the EU, and I’ll get it done. Sure, the extension is a hiccup, but it might bolster the case he’s been trying to make all along: It’s not me, it’s Parliament.
And Labour, the main opposition party, has its own problems. Jeremy Corbyn — the guy most likely to challenge Johnson for the prime ministership — is unpopular right now. Like, really unpopular. More Brits said they’d support a no-deal Brexit over having Corbyn as prime minister in a recent poll.
The reasons for this are complicated. Corbyn’s a socialist. There are voters, even within the Conservative party, that are less enthusiastic about Brexit than Johnson and his ilk — but are positively terrified of a Corbyn government.
Corbyn is also at odds with many of the more moderate voters in his party. He’s always been skeptical of the EU, and while there are definitely Labour “leave” constituencies, the core of his party opposes Brexit.
As a result of these tensions, Labour hasn’t handled Brexit particularly well. Corbyn’s strategy was to muddle through, attack Conservatives where he could, stop any no-deal Brexit plans, and get to elections so he could get to power and be the one to negotiate Brexit.
Corbyn’s fence-sitting created an opening for the very pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, a smaller and more centrist party. They’re staunchly anti-Brexit and their new leader, Jo Swinson, declared at their party conference last month that if they take power (which they won’t, but still), they’ll cancel Brexit altogether.
Labour and Lib Dems will have to decide if they’ll fight for the same votes or make difficult compromises to work together in any election. That also doesn’t solve the problem of Corbyn himself.
Which means, despite the continued Brexit drama, Johnson and the Conservatives are still in a good position to win the majority, according to even the most recent polls.
Ask Theresa May, and she’ll probably tell you polls can change. Actually, ask all those Remain voters who thought the EU would vote to stay in the EU during the referendum. Brexit has made British politics unpredictable, as it doesn’t neatly cut across party lines. And it’s given rise to smaller parties like the Liberal Democrats, on the pro-EU side, and the Brexit Party, on the pro-Brexit side, that might give both the Conservatives and Labour party headaches in any election.
And election, again, is likely going to be the closest thing to a second referendum, giving people the chance to elect MPs who will commit to pursuing voters’ preferred outcome, be no Brexit at all or a no-deal exit. Because even though the UK just got an extension, an no-deal Brexit in January is still something that could happen.
12) Why would a no-deal Brexit be so bad?
In a no-deal Brexit, the UK will cease to be a member of the EU overnight. All the trade and regulatory arrangements that the UK once shared as part of the EU will evaporate.
Experts warn that would create chaos that could be catastrophic for the UK economy, leading to potential food and medicine shortages, major travel disruptions, massive gridlock at ports of entry, and a plunge in the value of the British currency. Actually, it’s not just experts — this is the Johnson government’s own assessment.
Suddenly the UK and the EU would be following different regulatory schemes. For example, goods and people that would normally cross the UK’s border unimpeded may now be subject to customs checks. Delays and backlogs could mean foods rot and medicines expire.
There are also issues with differing regulations. For example, the EU requires a certain size wooden pallet to import and export goods. If you’re an EU member state in the customs union, the EU waives this requirement, which is essentially a non-tariff trade barrier. Now that the UK is out, it would now have to use this EU-approved pallet.
Other issues potentially abound. The European Health Insurance Card provides coverage to EU citizens traveling outside their home state; that coverage will disappear in a no-deal Brexit. British people traveling to EU countries may suddenly see a spike in cellphone roaming charges.
Just the threat of a no-deal Brexit has taken a toll on the British economy, as the uncertainty has forced companies to stockpile goods and inventory or relocate some operations to EU countries. No-deal preparations have intensified under Johnson, at least until the latest January extension. But the uncertainty (if you were stockpiling in March of last year, it probably doesn’t help you a year later, in January 2020) has already hurt the economy in both the UK and the EU.
Critics of the no-deal doomsayers or advocates of a no-deal have dismissed the risks, derisively labeling it “Project Fear,” a scare tactic by those who oppose Brexit altogether. And they may have a point: A no-deal might not be as bad as it sounds. Or it could be much worse. It’s all unpredictable, because there is no precedent for this.
The UK has allocated about 6.3 billion pounds (about $7.6 billion) for Brexit planning. The UK and the EU have contingency plans, and it’s possible these will mitigate some of the worst outcomes. But the short-term solutions aren’t totally sustainable.
Either way, there are a lot of apocalyptic-sounding no-deal stories out there. Britain might not be able to get bananas, the UK government bought 5,000 fridges to hold medicines, and the National Health Service is stockpiling body bags. Troops are on standby.
For all these reasons, this is an outcome that both the UK and the EU want to avoid. (Although the EU is more prepared — and slightly more insulated — from the effects of a no-deal, it’s still going be disruptive for EU countries.)
A no-deal Brexit also breeds a potential political crisis, especially in the UK. If a no-deal exit were to happen on January 31 (and that remains the default) will a new government be able to handle it?
“Clearly, there will be economic damage done in the short term from a no-deal,” Stephen Booth, the director of policy and research at the think tank Open Europe, told earlier this year. “But the bigger concern is actually the lack of political resilience we would have in the very short term.”
That’s why the EU keeps granting the UK extension, and will probably do so again in January if the question still isn’t settled — even though it’s trying to say it won’t. The EU wants to avoid a no-deal scenario, even as they’re also fed up with the UK’s dithering. Maybe an election will finally offer the UK a way forward, either allowing it to finalize a deal to finally Brexit without disruption. Or maybe it won’t, in which case, the possibility of a no-deal Brexit doesn’t go away.
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