December 1, 2020

Brexit: All you need to know about the UK leaving the EU

Union flag duck Image copyright Getty Images

The UK stopped being a member of the European Union (EU) at 23:00 GMT on 31 January 2020, but that’s the not end of the Brexit story. Over the summer, UK and EU officials will try to agree what the future relationship will eventually look like.

For those not following every twist and turn, this is what you need to know.

What is Brexit?

Brexit – British exit – refers to the UK leaving the EU.

A public vote (known as a referendum) was held in June 2016, when 17.4 million people opted for Brexit. This gave the Leave side 52%, compared with 48% for Remain.

What is the European Union?

The EU is an economic and political union involving 27 European countries. It allows free trade, which means goods can move between member countries without any checks or extra charges. The EU also allows free movement of people, to live and work in whichever country they choose.

The UK joined in 1973 (when it was known as the European Economic Community) and became the first member state to leave.

What happened after Brexit day?

The UK formally left the EU on 31 January 2020 and immediately entered into an 11-month transition period.

During this period, the UK will continue to follow all of the EU’s rules and its trading relationship will remain the same. However, it is no longer part of the EU’s political institutions – so there there are no longer any British MEPs in the European Parliament.

The transition will end on 31 December 2020.

What needs to be agreed during the transition?

The transition gives both sides some time to decide the terms of the future UK-EU relationship. The broad aims were set out in a 27-page document called the political declaration.

Talks started in March and will intensify over the summer, with a new free trade agreement being the priority.

This is needed because the UK will leave the single market and customs union at the end of the transition. A free trade agreement will allow UK goods to move around the EU without extra charges and keep other barriers (like checks) to a minimum.

If an agreement cannot be reached by 31 December, then tariffs (taxes) and full border checks will be applied to UK goods travelling to the EU.

Aside from trade, many other aspects of the future UK-EU relationship will also need to be decided during the transition. For example:

  • Law enforcement, data sharing and security
  • Aviation standards and safety
  • Access to fishing waters
  • Supplies of electricity and gas
  • Licensing and regulation of medicines

What is the Brexit deal?

The transition period and other aspects of the UK’s departure were agreed in a deal called the withdrawal agreement.

Most of that was negotiated by Theresa May’s government. But after Boris Johnson replaced her as prime minister in July 2019, he negotiated some changes to it.

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Under Mr Johnson’s deal, a customs border will effectively be created between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Some goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain will be subject to checks and will have to pay EU import taxes (known as tariffs).

These would be refunded if goods remain in Northern Ireland (ie are not moved to the Republic of Ireland).

Image caption Mr Johnson has removed the backstop, replacing it with new customs arrangements for Northern Ireland

The rest of the withdrawal agreement is largely unchanged from the one negotiated by Mrs May. This includes:

  • The rights of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU (which will remain the same during the transition)
  • How much money the UK is to pay the EU (estimated to be about £30bn).

Why did Brexit take so long?

Brexit was originally meant to happen on 29 March 2019, but the deadline was delayed twice after MPs rejected the deal negotiated by then prime minister Mrs May.

Her deal included an arrangement known as the Irish “backstop”. If it had been needed, this would have kept the UK in a very close relationship with the EU in order to avoid checks along the Irish border.

However, the backstop proved unacceptable to many Conservative MPs who feared the UK would be trapped in it indefinitely.

After MPs voted down the deal for a third time, Mrs May resigned.

Mr Johnson needed a Brexit extension of his own after MPs failed to get the revised deal passed into law.

This led to the new deadline of 31 January 2020.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives won a majority of 80 seats

Mr Johnson then called an early general election, to which MPs agreed.

The election, which happened on 12 December 2019, resulted in a Conservative majority of 80.

With a sizeable majority in Parliament, it proved straightforward to pass the Brexit legislation, allowing the UK to leave the EU nearly four years after the referendum first took place.


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