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What Is Brexit? Answering Your Biggest Questions About the U.K.’s Plan to Leave the E.U.

14 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;

Brexit is complicated. We know. But with the clock ticking toward midnight on Britain’s membership of the European Union, and with virtually all the options still open, understanding it is more important than ever. Here’s what to know about the biggest constitutional challenge the U.K. has faced since World War II.

What is Brexit?

Brexit is a portmanteau of Britain’s exit from the European Union. The U.K. voted to leave the E.U. in a referendum in June 2016 by a margin of 52% to 48%.

What is the E.U. and when did the U.K. join?

The U.K. joined the European Union in 1973, back when it was known as the European Economic Community. But it is more than just a free-trade area, founded on the “four freedoms:” the movement of goods, people, capital and services. Citizens of any E.U. country can live and work freely in any other; certain laws and citizens’ rights apply across the bloc; and the E.U. runs several agencies that coordinate scientific, economic and technological cooperation between members.

When will Brexit happen?

At the moment, there are two potential dates for Britain to leave the bloc. British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered the two year-long process for leaving on March 29, 2017, which meant the U.K. was originally scheduled to leave on March 29, 2019 — i.e. this Friday. But as with everything to do with Brexit, things got a little more complicated. In both January and March, lawmakers refused to ratify the Brexit deal May had negotiated with the E.U., eventually prompting the 27 other member states to agree to give the U.K. an extension period.

Under that extension, if U.K. lawmakers had ratified a deal by Friday March 29 then Britain would leave the E.U. on May 22 with a deal. But on Friday, lawmakers refused for a third time to pass May’s plan, setting the U.K. on a path to leave the E.U. on April 12 without a deal — a plan that economists say would cause severe economic damage.

But there are two ways out. Firstly, if the U.K. can “indicate a way forward” to the E.U. before April 12, then the E.U. might agree to grant another extension. (The E.U. has called an emergency summit for April 10.) Secondly, the U.K. can legally cancel Brexit and remain a member of the E.U. So it is impossible to say when Brexit will happen for good, if at all.

What were the arguments for and against Brexit?

People who wanted Britain to leave the E.U. argued that it was paying too much to the E.U. in membership fees, and that E.U.-wide laws were undemocratic and infringed on the sovereignty of the U.K. parliament. Many advocates of the “leave” side of the referendum also cited border control as a priority: under the E.U., citizens of any member country have the right to live and work in any other. Fears that the U.K. was suffering because of immigration also motivated many voters to choose to leave.

People who wanted the U.K. to remain a member of the E.U. also offered a variety of reasons, ranging from the economic to the ideological. They argued that the U.K. benefits from free trade agreements with its largest trading partner, the E.U. — benefits that would be scrapped if the U.K. were to leave. And they spoke about how the E.U. was founded in the wake of World War II to prevent a catastrophic war from ever happening again in Europe, arguing the Union had succeeded in bringing a divided continent together.

Who wanted Brexit?

One of the most prominent supporters of Brexit was the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who became Foreign Secretary in the wake of the referendum. Also campaigning heavily for Leave was U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, alongside a vocal minority of lawmakers from the ruling Conservative Party.

All the major party leaders, including then Prime Minister David Cameron, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon, campaigned on the remain side of the referendum. Theresa May, who was Home Secretary (Interior Minister) at the time also campaigned to remain. However, after David Cameron resigned as Prime Minister following the result of the referendum, May succeeded him and announced she would deliver Brexit.

Of the people who voted in the referendum, 52% chose to leave the E.U., and 48% chose to remain. However only 72% of the electorate voted in the referendum. That means only 37% of the total U.K. electorate voted to leave.

Former UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader, Brexit campaigner and member of the European Parliament Nigel Farage (L) speaks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the European Parliament on March 27, 2019 in Strasbourg, eastern France.Frederick Florin—AFP/Getty Images

How many people still support Brexit?

Most polls indicate that if another referendum were to be held today, the remain side would win by a small margin of between 3 and 7%. But it’s not that simple. In most of those polls, the number of “don’t knows” hovers somewhere between 10% and 20%. And as the last U.K. general election showed in 2017, voters’ opinions can change rapidly during a campaigning period, which would be necessary if a new referendum were to be held. (At the start of the campaign period in that election, the opposition Labour Party was receiving just 25% in opinion polls, which rose meteorically to 39% on the eve of the election.)

But one thing is clear: the U.K. public was split virtually down the middle in the 2016 referendum, and not much has changed.

What is Theresa May’s approval rating?

According to the polling group Opinium, 61% of Brits disapprove of May’s handling of the Brexit process, compared to just 21% who think she is doing a good job.

But many don’t like the alternative either. In the pollster YouGov’s most recent survey asking who would make the best prime minister between May and Labour Party leader Corbyn, 31% of respondents said May would, compared to 19% who backed Corbyn. In a sign of Britain’s political turmoil, 46% of respondents refused to pick either, answering instead with “not sure.”

Will Theresa May resign?

It looks likely. At a meeting with lawmakers from her Conservative Party on Wednesday evening, May promised that she would resign at the end of the first stage of the Brexit process (at the moment, that looks likely to be in the month of May,) on the condition that lawmakers ratify her deal on Friday.

That didn’t happen: lawmakers voted the deal down again by a margin of 58 votes. Now, given that her deal has been voted down three times, the first by the biggest defeat for a government in the U.K.’s recorded parliamentary history (230 votes) and the second by a still-wide margin of 149, it is hard to see how she can justify staying on much longer. Indeed, she had pledged to resign even if it passed. Following the third defeat, opposition lawmakers in the Scottish National Party and Labour called for a general election to break the deadlock.

What is the Stop Brexit petition?

A petition calling for Article 50 (the legal device by which the U.K. is leaving the E.U.) to be revoked, thus canceling Brexit, has racked up 5.9 million signatures on the government’s petitions website.

But given that 17.4 million people voted to leave the E.U. in 2016, it’s unlikely to have much of an effect. Responding to the petition on Tuesday, the government said: “It remains the Government’s firm policy not to revoke Article 50 … Revoking Article 50 would break the promises made by Government to the British people, disrespect the clear instruction from a democratic vote, and in turn, reduce confidence in our democracy.”

Will there be a Brexit extension?

There has already been one from the original departure date of March 29. But the U.K. may be forced to ask the E.U. for another now that lawmakers have again refused to ratify May’s Brexit deal. The E.U. has said that, in that case, the U.K. would have to “indicate a way forward” if it wanted the E.U. to grant another extension. In practice, this would likely mean holding a second Brexit referendum or general election, though the E.U. cannot explicitly state its terms in order to avoid being seen as interfering in Britain’s internal political affairs.

What is the Brexit plan?

May describes her current plan, which she negotiated with the E.U. over nearly two years, as a “compromise.” Under it, the U.K. would leave the E.U.’s single market and customs union, meaning an end to the free movement of people, common policies on agriculture and fisheries and the beginning of a 2-year negotiation over a free trade agreement. However most lawmakers now believe that plan is dead, having been voted down three times.

What is the Brexit backstop?

One of the most contentious aspects of May’s plan is the so-called “backstop” for Northern Ireland. A kind of insurance policy, the “backstop” is designed to prevent border checks ever coming into place on the island of Ireland, where the U.K. nation of Northern Ireland shares a land border with an E.U. member state, the Republic of Ireland. (Border checks would contradict the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 document that ended the conflict on the island known as the Troubles.)

Under the backstop, Northern Ireland would remain part of the E.U. customs union in the event that a free trade deal cannot be finalized. Many Brexit supporters, particularly May’s Northern Irish coalition partners the Democratic Unionist Party, loathe the backstop. They say it would undermine the U.K.’s territorial integrity.

Can Brexit be reversed?

Yes. The European Court of Justice, the E.U.’s top court, ruled in December 2018 that the U.K. can unilaterally revoke Article 50, thus remaining a member of the E.U. under its current terms of membership. The U.K. could in future submit an application to rejoin, but it would lose the perks it currently enjoys, such as the substantial rebate on the budget payments it receives each year.

What is “no deal” Brexit?

The U.K. leaving the E.U. without a deal would likely be the most chaotic outcome, with potentially disastrous consequences for the country’s economy and citizens. A “no deal” Brexit would happen if the U.K. does not agree a withdrawal deal with the E.U. Under the current extension period, a “no deal” Brexit could happen as soon as April 12 if the E.U. refuses another extension. The Bank of England says it could cause a worse hit than the 2008 financial crisis did. The U.K. government is also preparing for food and medicine shortages in the case of no deal, as well as lengthy queues of trucks on freeways as new customs checks increase the length of time goods have to spend at the U.K. border.

What are all of the possible Brexit outcomes?

There are too many to mention. But on Wednesday night, lawmakers voted in so-called “indicative votes,” proposals for eight alternatives to May’s Brexit plan. In typical Westminster fashion, no option won a majority. Here are the three most popular options, which Parliament will likely vote on again on April 1.

  • A confirmatory referendum on a deal
    This proposal came the closest to passing. Under this option, rebel lawmakers would agree to vote for a negotiated deal on the condition that the U.K. public would be given the option to confirm it in a referendum, with the options most likely being leaving with a deal and remaining in the E.U.
  • Customs union
    Under this option, the U.K. would leave the E.U. but seek to remain a member of the customs union, meaning no tariffs would apply to U.K.-E.U. trade, and external countries would trade with the U.K. based on trading agreements negotiated by the E.U. as a whole.
  • Labour’s alternative Brexit plan
    The opposition Labour Party has a blueprint for its own Brexit plan, which in theory would keep the U.K. closer to the E.U. than May’s deal — including retaining “the benefits” of the single market and customs union. But since that plan has not been negotiated with the E.U., it is little more than an idea at this point.
  • Is Ireland part of Brexit?

    Er, it depends what you mean by that. Northern Ireland, a part of the U.K., will indeed be affected by whatever form of Brexit comes to pass. The Republic of Ireland, as an E.U. member state, will not, for the most part.

    Northern Ireland voted by a majority to remain in the E.U. While the region was barely mentioned during the Brexit referendum campaign, the border that divides it from the Republic of Ireland became a major challenge in the negotiations. As described above, cross-border movement and trade between the two is a key sticking point in the fiasco surrounding May’s deal.

    What does the E.U. think about Brexit?

    E.U. officials have repeatedly said they are sad to see Britain go, but will not stand in the way of the will of the British people. Speaking of the referendum result, European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said “It was a sad day for our Union and a sad day for me personally. But we must respect the decision of the British people – no matter how deeply we regret it … Our aim is to ensure that this withdrawal takes place in an orderly way.”

    However, of late, certain voices in the E.U. have been more combative. “You cannot betray the 6 million people who signed the petition to revoke Article 50, the 1 million people who marched for a people’s vote [second referendum], or the increasing majority of people who want to remain in the European Union,” said European Council President Donald Tusk on Wednesday.

    How has Brexit affected the pound?

    The pound dropped sharply against the dollar after the 2016 referendum, and has never fully recovered. On the eve of the vote, £1 could buy $1.48; today it buys $1.32. At the lowest point post-referendum, it sank to $1.20; at its highest, in April 2018, it rose to $1.43.

    How will Brexit affect travel?

    After the U.K. leaves the E.U., British citizens may need to pay for visas to enter E.U. member states. Currently, as an E.U. member state, U.K. citizens can spend as much time as they like in other member states, and even choose to settle and work in them. After Brexit, such luxuries will be conditional on bilateral deals between the U.K. and other countries.

    Will Brexit affect trade?

    Yes. But to what degree depends on what type of Brexit the U.K. ends up reaching. The Bank of England has warned that a no deal Brexit could cause the economy to shrink by more than 8%. But it also says that in the best-case scenario, retaining close trading ties to the E.U., GDP could rise by 1.75% over five years. The bank also says that if the U.K. had voted to remain in 2016, GDP would be 1% higher today.

    How will Brexit change business in Britain?

    Brexit already has changed business in Britain. Many firms have chosen to move their headquarters out of London to other European capitals, and still more have chosen to pause or cancel further investment because of uncertainty. “Nobody puts money [into] uncertainty. That’s not the way it works,” the CEO of Siemens, Joe Kaeser, told CNN in February.

    When is Brexit final?

    Brexit is irreversible when the U.K. leaves the E.U. under the terms of Article 50. At the moment, that could happen on either April 12 or at a later date if the E.U. grants an extension. But it could also be canceled altogether.

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    Write to Billy Perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com