UK Politics

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

Union flag duck Image copyright Getty Images

The European Union (EU) has agreed to extend the Brexit deadline until 31 January 2020. For those not following every twist and turn, this guide covers the basics.

What is Brexit?

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

What is the European Union?

The EU is an economic and political union involving 28 European countries. It allows free trade and 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). If the UK leaves, it would be the first member state to withdraw from the EU.

Why is the UK leaving?

A public vote - or referendum - was held on Thursday 23 June 2016, to decide whether the UK should leave or remain.

Leave won by 52% to 48%. The referendum turnout was very high at 72%, with more than 30 million people voting - 17.4 million people opting for Brexit.

Why hasn't Brexit happened yet?

Brexit was originally due to happen on 29 March 2019. That was two years after then Prime Minister Theresa May triggered Article 50 - the formal process to leave - and kicked off negotiations.

Under Mrs May, the deadline was delayed twice after MPs rejected her Brexit deal - eventually pushing it to 31 October.

Despite negotiating a revised deal, Prime Minister Boris Johnson will miss the latest deadline. That's because the EU has agreed to a further extension until 31 January.

The latest extension came after MPs failed to pass the new Brexit deal into law.

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Image caption Theresa May resigned after her Brexit deal was rejected three times

Why did Parliament reject Theresa May's Brexit deal?

The main sticking point for many Conservative MPs and the DUP (the government's ally in Parliament) was the backstop.

This was designed to ensure there would be no border posts or barriers between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit.

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Media captionConfused by Brexit jargon? Reality Check unpacks the basics.

If it had been needed, the backstop would have kept the UK in a close trading relationship with the EU and avoided checks altogether.

But many MPs were critical. They said if the backstop was used, the UK could be trapped in it for years. This would prevent the country from striking trade deals with other countries.

Parliament's opposition to the deal eventually led to Mrs May's resignation.

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Image caption Boris Johnson's revised Brexit deal has not yet been approved by the UK Parliament

What is the new Brexit deal?

After taking over as PM in July 2019, Mr Johnson has renegotiated parts of the existing deal.

The backstop has been replaced with new customs arrangements. Once they take effect, the UK would be able to sign and implement its own trade agreements with countries around the world.

The revised plan effectively creates a customs and regulatory border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. This means some goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain would 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).

As for the rest of the deal, much remains largely unchanged from the one negotiated by Mrs May. Known as the withdrawal agreement, it includes:

  • the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU
  • how much money the UK is to pay the EU (initially thought to be £39bn)

There are also changes to the political declaration, which sets out plans for the long-term relationship between the UK and the EU. It says this would be based on a free trade agreement.

Why hasn't the new Brexit deal been approved?

Mr Johnson attempted to put his revised deal to Parliament on 19 October.

However, the vote did not go ahead. MPs chose to postpone a vote on the deal until legislation needed to turn the withdrawal agreement into UK law was completed.

It meant Mr Johnson had to send a letter to the EU to ask for another Brexit delay. EU leaders agreed to the request, meaning that Brexit will be pushed back to 31 January.

The UK could leave before the new deadline, if a deal is approved by Parliament.

While the Brexit legislation has passed the first hurdle in Parliament, the government has currently paused its passage.

What about an early election?

Mr Johnson wants a general election in the hope of winning more Conservative seats, making a Brexit deal easier to pass.

But in order to hold an election, at least two-thirds of all MPs must agree to one. Despite three attempts, Mr Johnson has so far failed to secure enough support.

However, a fourth attempt may well succeed after Labour said it would back a December election following the latest Brexit extension.

Will a no-deal Brexit cause disruption?

If the UK leaves without a deal, the EU will start carrying out checks on British goods. That is because the UK will leave the customs union and single market overnight.

This could lead to delays at ports, such as Dover. Some fear this could lead to traffic bottlenecks, disruption to supply routes and damage to the economy.

Combined with possible sharp falls in the pound, the price and availability of some foods could be affected. There are also concerns over potential shortages of medicines.

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption As part of no-deal plans, a section of the M20 motorway would be reserved for lorries in the event of long delays

Mr Johnson has tried to calm such fears by announcing an extra £2.1bn of funding to prepare for a possible no-deal outcome.

Many Brexit supporters say it is hard to accurately predict what will happen, or believe any economic disruption will be short-term and minor.

But most economists and business groups believe no deal would lead to economic harm.

For example, the Office for Budget Responsibility - which provides independent analysis of the UK's public finances - believes a no-deal Brexit would cause a UK recession.

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