What is Brexit? Why can’t Prime Minister Theresa May pass her deal? And more answers ahead of the Brexit deadline.
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.
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 has killed it three times.
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.
The EU has already granted the UK two extensions. The EU first offered a short delay from the original Brexit date of March 29 to April 12. The UK couldn’t find a resolution in that time, so it asked for another extension until June 30.
The EU agreed to postpone Brexit again, but this time for a much longer period: until October 31, 2019. It gave the UK the option to leave earlier if Parliament could pass a Brexit deal before then — something it has repeatedly failed to do.
The six additional months might not change all that much when it comes to Brexit: The UK still lacks a deal, still can’t find consensus for a Brexit option, and is still facing a deadline, though not one as urgent as it could have been.
It’s hard to keep up with each new development — or understand what it all means, especially since Brexit has introduced a whole new vocabulary, from “Irish backstop” to “second referendum.”
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 main questions we get from readers, along with others that you might not have asked but 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 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, also known as the “four freedoms.”
The UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, which became part of the European Union when it was 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. Current Prime Minister Theresa May won the Conservative leadership contest to succeed him. 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 EU 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 has been unable to win the support of the UK Parliament for that deal.
Which is why, as you might have noticed, that original deadline has come and gone and the UK still hasn’t Brexited. 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.
But May was 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, but this time until October 31. The EU did give the UK the option to leave earlier if Parliament managed to pass a Brexit deal before then, but the country still must participate European Parliamentary elections, between May 23 and 26. If it does not, the UK will leave the EU without a deal on June 1.
The six-month delay is a lot more time, and removes some of the urgency from the current Brexit discussion. But it’s not that much more time — and the UK hasn’t been able to figure out a Brexit solution in almost three years. Who knows if six more months will help.
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 that have emerged in the past three years: “hard” Brexit and “soft” Brexit.
Now, even those terms mean different things to different people. Bu broadly, 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. So, for instance, Germany, the UK, and France would all have to set the same tariffs when trading cars with the US. 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, some of the more extreme members of this camp have become more and more willing to risk a no-deal Brexit in order to get the UK out of the EU immediately and avoid any lingering entanglements.
On the other side are those who favor a soft Brexit. This camp wants to keep close 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 the equivalent of 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 can’t get behind May’s Brexit deal — or really make a decision at all.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about that deal.
4) What is in Theresa May’s 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 — that 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 — 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 staying in the customs union.
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” Irish border — meaning actual physical checkpoints for goods and people trying to cross it — 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 one that derailed May’s deal back home.
5) Okay, so what is the “Irish backstop”?
The Irish backstop is 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.
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.
And Prime Minister May, early on in the Brexit negotiations, 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 in Ireland. How to do so was much more fraught. The UK and the EU both had different proposals, but eventually they reached a compromise, the “backstop.”
The backstop says that if May and the EU haven’t figured out how to avoid physical checks on the Irish border by the end of the transition period, the entire UK will stay in the EU customs union. Northern Ireland will also have a slightly closer alignment with the EU’s trade.
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 last month. 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 hates May’s deal.
6) So why does everyone hate May’s deal?
The Irish backstop is a big part of it, at least for the hardline Brexiteers.
Brexiteers, most of whom are in May’s own Conservative Party, see 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 hates the Irish backstop: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a conservative party in Northern Ireland. They have an outsize voice in this debate because their 10 votes in Parliament keep May’s 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 had to form a coalition government with the DUP.)
The DUP opposes 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 are supposed to be May’s allies. So you can probably imagine how unsupportive her political enemies are of her deal.
The Labour Party, the main opposition party, objects to May’s deal because, well, it’s May’s deal. They have no incentive to back her agreement if she can’t get her own party behind her. Labour’s ultimate goal is to retake power so it can be the one negotiating that future relationship with the EU. Bolstering May isn’t going to help them achieve that end.
Labour has set out its Brexit priorities, which include negotiating a relationship with the EU that grants the UK the benefits of a customs union and single market. But remember, May’s withdrawal agreement is mostly just the divorce settlement — all that other stuff is supposed to be worked out later.
Labour’s objection, then, is mostly focused on that political declaration, which it sees as a “blind Brexit” because it’s too open-ended about that future partnership. It wants more specifics, and something closer to its own rather soft Brexit proposal. Ultimately, though, what Labour actually wants is to be the one to negotiate those terms, but since it can’t, this is the fight Labour leaders are picking.
And then there are the other, smaller (yet still influential) parties, including the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats, who want to remain in the EU, or at least have a softer Brexit than May’s deal provides.
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 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 has insisted that any orderly Brexit will require Parliament passing her deal in some form. She’s currently talking with Labour to see if they can find a solution to the impasse, but any bipartisan compromise will likely involve the future relationship with the EU, not the actual withdrawal agreement.
And May’s not just being stubborn. This is the EU talking. EU leaders have insisted that this withdrawal agreement is the only deal on offer — the UK can take the deal, leave the deal, or cancel Brexit altogether.
7) Why is 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.
That position is partly for practicality — 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. For example, Ireland has a huge stake in the backstop and the guarantee of an open Irish border. The EU has remained unified on this front. 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 and guaranteeing a customs union in the future relationship if that will get majority support in the UK. The EU approved two Brexit extensions, though the UK hasn’t exactly gotten its act together.
That’s because 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 stall in Brexit, the EU doesn’t want to be seen as being responsible for the chaos that a no-deal breakup would unleash.
8) 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.”
May’s deal — or some version of it — is the reality of Brexit, advocates argue. Now that the British public knows this, shouldn’t they get to vote again on whether they want that Brexit reality?
May has resisted a second referendum, saying the people spoke in 2016 and voted to leave. It would be “undemocratic” to reverse this process. Advocates counter that more democracy isn’t undemocratic, and that Brexit is 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 will have to move fast with the current October deadline, or ask the EU for more time, again.
Another is what the referendum should ask. Should it be a 2016 do-over? May’s 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 really have a sense of the complexities of the EU-UK relationship. That same argument applies to a second referendum: Is anybody reading the 585-page withdrawal agreement?
A second referendum wouldn’t necessarily produce a different result, either. Polls show that if a referendum were held now, Remain would win by a small margin, and last month, nearly a million people protested to demand a people’s vote. But everyone thought 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 last week. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said the opposition would support a second referendum to avoid “a damaging Tory Brexit,” but his party is split on the idea and Corbyn himself isn’t exactly an enthusiastic Remainer.
A “confirmatory public vote” remains part of the Brexit discussions between Corbyn and May. The prime minister has resisted so far, but there’s also a sense that this might be the only way to find a solution on Brexit.
Because right now the UK doesn’t have any plan — which means the possibility of a no-deal Brexit still looms.
9) Why would a no-deal Brexit be so bad?
As of this week, the UK still doesn’t have a Brexit deal that everyone can agree on — which means the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit is getting higher and higher. If that happens, the UK will cease to be a member of the EU literally overnight. All the trade and regulatory arrangements that the UK once shared as part of the EU will evaporate.
And 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.
This happens because suddenly the UK and the EU may 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 has 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.
The UK has allocated about 4.2 billion pounds (about $5.3 billion) for Brexit planning, including setting aside 2 billion pounds ($2.6 billion) for no-deal planning. The contingency plans are complicated — and some doubt they will be sufficient to tackle the challenges in case of a no-deal. Approximately 3,500 British troops are currently on standby.
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 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. For example, the UK will reportedly eliminate some tariffs to lessen the impact on businesses and will waive border checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland in favor of self-reporting. (Now is the time to be a smuggler.)
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.
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, where May’s government is already weakened. How will a deeply divided Parliament handle a no-deal?
“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 me. “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 May extensions. They want to avoid a no-deal scenario, even as they’re also fed up with the UK’s dithering. But offering more time doesn’t eliminate the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, just postpones it once more.