Where are we now – and how did we get here?
The United Kingdom left the European Union — now an economic and political partnership of 27 countries — on January 31, 2020, bringing to an end 47 years of British membership of the EU and the institutions that preceded it.
Attention has since turned to negotiating the future EU-UK relationship beyond a transition period that ends on December 31, 2020 — heralding abrupt and major changes unless there is an agreement.
Meeting this tight deadline was going to be a huge challenge, even before the fierce onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic. But despite a stalemate at the talks, an extension to the transition period has been ruled out.
"Brexit" — the term used to describe Britain's EU departure — represents the most important constitutional shake-up the UK has known since it joined the six-nation European Economic Community in 1973. It is also the first time the European institution has lost a member.
The UK voted to leave the EU by 52% to 48% in June 2016. It followed decades of increasing hostility to the European project in the United Kingdom, reinforced in recent years by a rise in nationalist sentiment, particularly in England.
Other factors such as austerity and frustration with traditional politics have also been cited as reasons — amid a wider debate over the role of the nation state and the rise of populism in an age of globalisation.
The vote revealed strains between the UK's individual countries: England (53%) and Wales (52.5%) voted to leave the EU, whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland voted by 62% and 56% respectively to remain. Other divisions have also been exposed: between metropolitan areas and small towns for example, and different age groups and social classes.
The referendum's aftermath plunged the UK into its worst political and constitutional crisis since the Second World War. Brexit day was repeatedly delayed amid deadlock in the British parliament over the divorce terms.
There has been concern that the prolonged, acrimonious process has shifted attention from major global challenges, not least the battle to address the climate emergency — now compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout.
For many in Europe, the prospect of an institutionalised rift between the UK and the EU weakens the continent at a time when America has become more isolationist, and China and Russia increasingly assertive.
WHERE WE ARE NOW: The transition period
The UK ceased to be a member of the EU from February 1, 2020, and is no longer part of the bloc's institutions.
However, the standstill post-Brexit transition period keeps most arrangements from the UK's EU membership in place until it expires at the end of 2020. These include the rules on freedom of movement (a conditional not absolute right of EU citizens to move to other EU countries to live and work), cross-border travel and personal rights.
The end of the transition period will bring significant changes regardless of whether agreement on future trading and other relations is reached. EU citizens will no longer have the right to move to the UK to work and settle, and vice versa.
There will be new restrictions concerning travel, while customs formalities and regulatory controls will be introduced.
The UK intends to introduce a new immigration policy from January 2021. EU nationals will no longer have preferential treatment, under a planned points-based system to attract skilled workers.
Negotiating the future UK-EU relationship
Both sides are aiming to strike a deal on trade and the future UK-EU relationship, to come into effect when the transition period expires at the end of December.
Come January 1, 2021, the UK will no longer be part of the EU's Single Market and Customs Union, and subject to an agreement all legal aspects of Britain's membership of the bloc will cease to apply.
The negotiations which began in March 2020 cover trade in goods, plus a wide range of other areas including services, fishing and farming, aviation, security cooperation, data policy, education and science.
What does each side want from post-Brexit ties?
The European Union wants one comprehensive treaty covering everything, whereas the United Kingdom has been seeking a simpler free trade deal and separate agreements on other matters.
Although the talks involve elaborate technical detail both sides have over-arching political objectives. The UK wants to make sure its European ties do not compromise its new independence; the EU needs to show that life inside the bloc is better than outside, and has consistently said the UK cannot "cherry-pick" benefits without obligations.
The deadline is the end of the year and the expiry of a post-Brexit “transition period” that keeps most arrangements from the UK's EU membership temporarily in place. In practice a deal will need to be struck earlier to allow time for the ratification process and for both sides to get ready.
Without an accord, the UK will thereafter be legally considered a "third" country by the EU, creating significant barriers to trade and other aspects of life. Both sides’ red lines have raised fears that no deal may be reached, bringing an abrupt, damaging “cliff-edge” at the end of 2020.
The process cannot be separated however from the pandemic and the greatest economic crisis since World War II, which call for international cooperation and action to ease catastrophic problems, not make them worse.
Level playing field': the new post-Brexit fault line
The EU and the UK have signed up to various assurances on future trade competition and other matters. This includes a commitment to a "level playing field" covering issues such as state aid, social and workers' rights, the environment and climate change.
These engagements come in the Political Declaration on the shape of future EU-UK relations, negotiated as part of the divorce deal agreed in the autumn of 2019, paving the way for the UK's departure from the bloc. The document provides a framework designed to form the basis for a future trade agreement.
The declaration relates to a future EU-UK economic relationship where the UK opts for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). But in return for zero tariffs and quotas, the UK makes "robust commitments" to ensure "open and fair competition".
However, the declaration is engagement is legally non-binding — as opposed to the divorce deal's Withdrawal Agreement, on the terms of the UK's departure, which has the force of an international treaty. Critics are wary that the commitments may not be watertight — especially given the Johnson government's avowed intention to diverge from EU rules and forge an independent trading path.
In the original declaration negotiated by the previous UK government but which was never ratified, the then Prime Minister Theresa May envisaged the UK remaining closely aligned to EU rules and standards.
After the subsequent agreement was struck by her successor Boris Johnson, some observers argued that negotiations over future ties risked being much more complicated and harder to resolve than the terms of the divorce deal. The stalemate resulting from the first rounds of talks in the spring of 2020 would appear to bear this out.
Running parallel to the Brexit saga has been the UK's evolving relationship with the United States, with which Britain hopes to strike a future trade deal. Trade experts say the UK faces a key choice over regulatory alignment: whether to stay close to EU rules to access the European market, or follow American regulation.
Trade talks intensified after months of stalemate
Following the UK's departure from the bloc in January 2020, the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his team were granted a new mandate from the European Council — made up largely of national leaders — to negotiate the post-Brexit EU-UK relationship. The UK under Boris Johnson's new government also set out its position.
In June both sides agreed to intensify talks over the summer to work towards a deal on trade and the future relationship, after extremely sluggish progress during the first few months of negotiations.
Coronavirus puts a spanner in the works
A first round of talks in March was followed by a six-week suspension amid the coronavirus outbreak, which totally overshadowed the process as it developed into a full pandemic. Key figures including Barnier and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson were struck at various stages by COVID-19.
Three further rounds took place by video link instead of face-to-face talks, a step seen as necessary but unsatisfactory given the detail involved and the dozens of negotiators on each side.
At each stage, both sides expressed frustration at the lack of progress. At the end of the second round of talks in April, Barnier effectively accused the UK of dragging its feet.
He used similar language at the end of a third round of discussions in mid-May, accusing the UK of a lack of ambition. His British counterpart David Frost agreed that little progress had been made, accusing the EU of adopting an ideological approach.
After the fourth round in early June, the EU negotiator's language was starker than ever. Barnier said no significant progress had been made towards a deal, accusing the UK of backtracking on commitments. Frost said progress had been "limited" and regretted the remote format.
The EU's chief negotiator again said that "serious divergences remain", and his British counterpart used the phrase "significant differences", after further talks ended in early July.
Although large differences remain on fundamental issues such as competition and fishing rights, late July brought signs that both the UK and EU are willing to compromise in some areas -- leading to hope that a deal could be struck.
But optimism was short-lived: after a seventh round of talks in August brought "little progress", Barnier complained that "we are wasting valuable time".
Transition extension is ruled outThe divorce agreement allowed for a two-year extension of the transition period to give more time for negotiation, with an end-of-June deadline for a decision on whether to invoke it. Both sides have agreed however that there will be no prolongation, the EU having accepted the UK's opposition to it.
Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Britain consistently ruled out any extension having legislated to that effect — although the full effect of the global health and economic crisis in the coming months remains to be seen.
Some voices had called on the UK to seek an extension: they included the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Kristalina Georgieva, the European Parliament's largest group the European People's Party, and the anti-Brexit campaign group Best for Britain.
Critics say the shorter deadline provides nowhere near enough time to conclude a deal embracing all aspects of future EU-UK relations. One possibility evoked is for a simpler, more “bare-bones” trade deal to be struck, leaving the detail of other policy areas to be sorted out later.
'Serious differences' between EU and UK
Both sides outlined sharply contrasting positions as they flexed their muscles in advance of the talks. Officials in Brussels were reportedly taken aback by the stance of Boris Johnson’s government — which is seeking a far more distant, independent relationship with the EU than the one sought under the previous UK prime minister, Theresa May.
EU leaders have called for an “ambitious” wide-ranging agreement — subject to conditions. Setting out the EU's position, chief negotiator Michel Barnier said there could be no trade deal unless Britain agreed to the "level playing field" commitment and did not undercut EU regulations. He subsequently said that "serious differences" remained between both sides.
But during the pre-talks period Johnson, other ministers and officials, all highlighted the UK's stance: that being able to diverge from EU rules and standards was the essence of Brexit and the UK’s “new footing as an independent sovereign nation”.
Britain is seeking a narrower free trade deal similar to those the EU has done with countries such as Canada. Brussels stresses it has always been clear that the UK’s geographical proximity to the EU, and degree of economic integration with Europe, mean the same rules cannot apply.
Deadlock over competition and fishing rights
Throughout the talks, Michel Barnier has repeatedly said the UK has failed to engage on a commitment to respect the "level playing field" in competition, while his British counterpart has effectively accused Brussels of moving the goalposts.
David Frost accuses Brussels of unfairly trying to tie the UK into EU rules and standards, arguing that EU demands on fishing are incompatible with UK sovereignty.
The UK intends to be free of the EU's Common Fisheries Policy and act as an "independent coastal state" from the end of 2020. The EU wants continued access to British waters and accuses the UK of inflexibility.
The EU chief negotiator has been equally disparaging over the UK's stance on matters such as governance, law enforcement, transport and sustainable development -- adding that the British seemed to misunderstand the consequences of leaving the EU's Single Market and Customs Union.
Over transport rights, Barnier has criticised London for wanting certain rules such as driving time and rest periods to be waived for British lorry-drivers while on European roads, but for access to be the same as that granted to workers from EU member states
Why might December 2020 see another 'no-deal scenario'?
Throughout 2019, the fear for many on both sides of the English Channel was that the UK could "crash out" of the EU without an agreed deal on either the terms of the divorce or the future relationship. Had that happened, legal arrangements covering many aspects of everyday life would have abruptly ceased to apply.
But the threat of such a "no deal" exit in January 2020 vanished with the UK election result in December 2019. The UK went on to leave the EU under the ratified withdrawal agreement. Its provisions — on the financial settlement, citizens' rights, and Northern Ireland — are now protected under a binding treaty whatever the outcome of negotiations on future ties, as explained above.
The new "no deal" that is being talked about refers not to Britain's exit from the EU — but to a potential failure to reach agreement on future relations by the end of the 11-month transition period.
The formidable challenge of securing a trade deal with the EU in a few months during the transition period — a task that usually takes the bloc several years — means both sides could be staring at another economic "cliff-edge" in 2020.
Failure to secure a trade deal would hit the UK's economy but also those of its closest continental neighbours — and Ireland. It would bring an immediate change in the trading relationship between the UK and the EU.
Other important matters such as cooperation on security and terrorism, education and science risk being left up in the air if no detailed agreement is reached on future EU-UK relations
BREXIT DIVORCE DEAL: the UK's exit terms
The UK's departure from the EU on January 31, 2020 took effect under the terms of the revised divorce agreement struck by London and Brussels in October 2019.
The deal consists of a Withdrawal Agreement on the terms of departure, accompanied by the Political Declaration on future ties (see above).
The divorce terms in the Withdrawal Agreement cover matters such as the UK's financial settlement, provisions for Northern Ireland, and citizens' rights: safeguards for the rights of EU nationals living in the UK, and Britons living on the continent.
The deal also established the transition period which came into effect upon the UK’s departure and runs until December 31, 2020. During this period many existing arrangements remain in place.
The Withdrawal Agreement: a binding treaty
The revised Withdrawal Agreement keeps many of the the provisions in the deal previously negotiated by Theresa May's government.
These include the terms for settling the UK's financial obligations to the EU, and on citizens' rights: safeguarding residency and social security rights for EU nationals living in the UK and Britons in the EU, and maintain freedom of movement until the end of the transition period.
The main change from the deal negotiated by Theresa May's government is that the controversial Irish "backstop" contained in the previous accord (see below) — to keep an open border on the island of Ireland — is scrapped in the new agreement.
The divorce terms came into force when the UK left the EU at the end of January under the ratified deal, and have the force of an international treaty.
Arrangements for Northern Ireland
Brexit means that the border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU) – one of the most politically sensitive frontiers in the world — now becomes the European Union's only land border with the United Kingdom. All sides agree this must remain open, but the historically sensitive and complex issue bedevilled the divorce talks.
Under the revised deal, Northern Ireland will leave the EU's Customs Union with the rest of the UK, which wants to pursue an independent trade policy. But in practice, after the end of the transition period it will follow EU customs rules and be subject to EU oversight.
The North will remain aligned with some aspects of the EU's Single Market — and apply EU law on VAT (Value Added Tax) rules.
Customs and regulatory checks will not be carried out on the island of Ireland, but at ports — effectively creating a new regulatory divide in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The UK government has accepted that this will mean some controls on goods, backtracking on Boris Johnson's previous insistence that there would be no checks.
This arrangement is effectively an insurance policy to avoid a hard border — such as border posts — and protect the cross-frontier economy between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU), post-Brexit.
It replaces the plan in the previous, rejected withdrawal deal known as the backstop. In the absence of a trade deal or an alternative solution, the idea was for the whole of the UK to remain in a customs union with the EU, while Northern Ireland would be aligned even more closely with EU rules. The backstop's removal means this arrangement will no longer happen.
The revised agreement has similarities with an original EU proposal for a Northern Ireland-only backstop — which was rejected by Theresa May's government — but is more complex, and has one key difference in that legally, Northern Ireland will be in the UK customs union.
The accord deals with the issue of Northern Irish consent for these changes: Northern Ireland's assembly will be able to decide on whether to keep the new arrangements — but only four years after the transition period.
HOW WE GOT HERE: Brexit follows decades of UK soul-searching over Europe
The United Kingdom's place in Europe — and vice-versa — is an issue that arguably was never properly resolved after the Second World War, and came to a head with the Brexit referendum.
Many in the UK, especially in England, have always been sceptical of the political pan-European project revered by many on the continent. The antagonism towards the EU that surfaced during Margaret Thatcher's premiership in the 1980s has been followed by decades of hostile media coverage, especially in British tabloids.
At the heart of the debate in the UK is the balance to be struck between two objectives: a desire for independence, sovereignty and autonomy against the need to retain access to European markets, which, the EU has always insisted, means adhering to EU rules.
The turmoil in the British domestic political scene has cut across party lines. Internal party divisions have affected both the UK government and opposition. The ruling Conservative party in particular has long been riven between Eurosceptic and Europhile factions.
Derailed by the backstop
To guarantee an open border, the backstop envisaged the UK remaining in a "single customs territory" with the EU, in the absence of a free trade deal or an alternative solution. It proved to be a major stumbling block in the negotiations.
Eurosceptic critics, including the Conservative anti-EU European Research Group (ERG), suspected it would have kept the UK strapped permanently to EU trade policy. EU sources pointed out that the UK-wide mechanism in the withdrawal agreement was included at the UK’s request, to avoid splitting off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), on whose support the May government depended, has always vehemently opposed any move it believes might separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. Under the backstop, as set out in May's deal, Northern Ireland would stay aligned to some EU rules.
Revisions fail to stop defeats
As the clock ticked down towards the original March 29 deadline, the UK and the EU said they had agreed a revised Brexit deal following weeks of deadlocked talks between London and Brussels.
EU27 leaders had refused to alter the text of the withdrawal agreement. But Theresa May said she had secured legally-binding changes over the backstop’s application. The British parliament had voted to seek “alternative arrangements”.
The parliamentary deadlock prompted moves by MPs from different parties to wrest control of the Brexit process and allow a series of "indicative votes" to explore alternative solutions to the government's deal. But there was no majority for any particular solution, other than an opposition to no-deal.
How did Johnson reach a revised deal with the EU?
In a nutshell, Boris Johnson made major concessions over Northern Ireland.
Out went the UK's previous proposals — much vaunted by Brexit supporters — for "alternative arrangements" including technological solutions to keep an invisible border. Instead, Johnson has agreed to a different status for Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK — accepting a plan very close to one the EU originally proposed.
The EU also gave ground, re-opening the withdrawal agreement it had always said was sacrosanct. Dublin and Brussels agreed to replace the controversial Irish border backstop that had plagued Brexit talks for months, and opened the door to a possible time-limit on border safeguards with a new consent mechanism.
However, Johnson's change of tack came at a price: Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), until then an ally of the government, said it could not support proposals that would create a "border in the Irish Sea".
Arrangements for Northern Ireland were a key sticking point throughout negotiations ever since the UK triggered the formal Brexit process in March 2017. Behind the details over trading arrangements are fundamental questions concerning identity. The possibility of new borders — between Northern Ireland and either the Irish Republic, or Great Britain, or both — is hugely problematic in a region with a troubled past.
Tory election win ends long Brexit deadlock
The UK finally broke the long-standing Brexit stalemate following the snap general election on December 12, 2019, which brought a crushing victory and 80-seat parliamentary majority for Boris Johnson's ruling Conservative Party.
The Tories campaigned on a promise to leave the EU by the end of January, and the prime minister's campaign slogan of "Get Brexit done" evidently struck a chord with voters. The 80-seat margin provided an ample cushion to put the UK's exit into effect.
The main opposition Labour Party suffered its biggest defeat since 1935. Under leader Jeremy Corbyn — since replaced by Sir Keir Starmer, the party's former Brexit spokesman — the party's policy was much criticised. Its plan if elected was to renegotiate a Brexit deal which would then have been put to the public in a second referendum.
The pro-EU Liberal Democrats won fewer than a dozen seats — despite increasing their share of the vote — as the "Remain" vote was split. The party's campaign pledge to stop Brexit altogether if elected proved unpopular with voters.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) which also campaigned to "stop Brexit", but via a second public vote, won the vast majority of seats north of the border with England. Across the Irish Sea, anti-Brexit votes also came to the fore as Northern Ireland elected more Irish nationalists to the UK parliament than pro-British unionists.
EU welcomes 'clarity' as Brexit becomes a certainty
EU leaders welcomed the "clarity" brought about by the election result. Any remaining uncertainty was removed after the divorce deal was ratified by both the British and European parliaments — legal requirements for its terms to take effect.
The European Parliament passed the deal on January 29, 2020 by a large majority, despite expressing concerns over the rights of Britons living in the EU, and especially the rights of EU citizens resident in the UK.
In the UK, the Conservatives' election victory ensured that the legislation to implement Brexit was duly passed by parliament, receiving royal assent on January 23.
'No-deal' revisited: Fears of economic damage and disruption in 2019
Well before the coronavirus pandemic caused havoc, in the run-up to Brexit many political leaders, institutions, companies and individuals warned that a no-deal departure would bring severe disruption and economic damage on both sides of the English Channel — with the UK being hit worse than the EU.
However, Brexiteers dismissed “Project Fear” forecasts and some argued that the UK could survive perfectly well under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.
Although the UK has since left the EU under the terms of the divorce deal, the concerns over failure to reach a deal on trade and other matters concerning future ties have echoes today.
Government documents, published in early September 2019 and codenamed "Operation Yellowhammer", confirmed a grim assessment of the potential impact of a no-deal Brexit on October 31. Based on the government's own preparations for a "worst case" scenario, they contained warnings of possible food, medicine and fuel shortages.
The heightened uncertainty amid a year of British political turmoil in 2019 twice forced the UK and the EU — as well as people and businesses on both sides of the English Channel — to step up no-deal preparations, as the Brexit process dragged on without formal approval for an exit deal.
How does the European Union work?
The EU originally developed after World War Two, with the aim of promoting economic co-operation and trade between countries to stop them from going to war again. Its members' economies are now integrated around a single market allowing the free movement of goods, people, services and capital.
Nineteen of the 27 member states use a single currency, the euro. The EU has its own institutions and passes laws affecting many issues across the union.
It highlights the benefits of membership as securing peace, promoting freedom and prosperity as part of the single market, safeguarding food and environmental standards, consumer benefits, protecting human rights, and enhancing Europe's global power.
The European Council is led by its president and is made up of the national heads of state or government, as well as the president of the Commission. It sets the EU's overall political direction but has no law-making powers.
The European Commission promotes the EU's general interest. It is made up of Commissioners, one from each member state, nominated by national governments. It proposes and enforces laws and implements EU policies and its budget.
The European Parliament is the only institution directly elected by its citizens, and represents them. It also has legislative, supervisory and budgetary responsibilities.
The UK's departure brings another headache for the EU, in the shape of a hole in its budget for the next few years. A summit in February aimed at agreeing the bloc's long-term financing plan ended in failure.
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