Brexit (/ /,; a portmanteau of "British exit") was the withdrawal of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union (EU) and the European Atomic Energy Community (EAEC or Euratom) at 23:00 31 January 2020 GMT (00:00 CET). The UK is the first and so far only country to have left the EU, after 47 years of having been a member state of the EU and its predecessor, the European Communities (EC), since 1 January 1973. It continued to participate in the European Union Customs Union and European Single Market during a transition period that ended on 31 December 2020 at 23:00 GMT (00:00 CET).
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Glossary of terms
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of the European Union (1973–2020)
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The European Union and its institutions have developed gradually since their establishment, including 47 years of British membership, and grew to be of significant importance to the UK. Throughout that time Eurosceptic groups had existed, opposing aspects of the Union and its predecessors. Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s pro-Europe government held a referendum on continued EC membership in 1975 in which voters chose to stay within the bloc with 67.2% of the vote share, but no further referendums were held as the project grew and became "ever-closer" in the subsequent Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. Facing pressure from Eurosceptic groups, Prime Minister David Cameron's pro-Europe government held a second referendum on continued EU membership in 2016 in which voters chose to leave the EU with 51.9% of the vote share. This led to his resignation, replacement by Theresa May, and four years of negotiations with the EU on the terms of departure and future relations. This process was both politically challenging and deeply divisive within the UK, with one deal rejected by the British parliament, general elections held in 2017 and 2019, and two new Prime Ministers in that time, both Conservative. Under Boris Johnson's government, the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020; trade deal negotiations continued to within days of the scheduled end of the transition period on 31 December 2020.
The effects of Brexit will in part be determined by the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement which was agreed on 24 December 2020 and ratified by the UK Parliament on 30 December 2020 and was "provisionally" applied by the EU from 31 December 2020. The broad consensus among economists is that Brexit will likely harm the UK's economy and reduce its real per capita income in the long term, and that the referendum itself damaged the economy. Brexit is likely to reduce immigration from European Economic Area (EEA) countries to the UK, and poses challenges for British higher education, academic research and security; the Turing scheme was announced as a new global student exchange programme in early 2021 to combat this. Following Brexit, EU law and the EU Court of Justice no longer have supremacy over British laws or its Supreme Court. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 retains relevant EU law as domestic law, which the UK can now amend or repeal.
Following a UK-wide referendum in June 2016, in which 51.89% voted in favour of leaving the EU and 48.11% voted to remain a member, Prime Minister David Cameron resigned. On 29 March 2017, the new British Government led by Theresa May formally notified the EU of the country's intention to withdraw, beginning the Brexit process. The withdrawal was originally scheduled for 29 March 2019. It was delayed by deadlock in the British Parliament after the June 2017 general election, which resulted in a hung parliament in which the Conservatives lost their majority but remained the largest party. This deadlock led to three extensions of the Article 50 process.
The deadlock was resolved after a subsequent general election was held in December 2019. In that election, Conservatives who campaigned in support of a "revised" withdrawal agreement led by Boris Johnson won an overall majority of 80 seats. After the December 2019 election, the British Parliament finally ratified the withdrawal agreement. The UK left the EU at the end of 31 January 2020 CET (11 p.m. GMT). This began a transition period that ended on 31 December 2020 CET (11 p.m. GMT), during which the UK and EU negotiated their future relationship. During the transition, the UK remained subject to EU law and remained part of the EU customs union and single market. However, it was no longer part of the EU's political bodies or institutions.
Withdrawal was advocated by hard Eurosceptics and opposed by pro-Europeanists and soft Eurosceptics, with both sides of the argument spanning the political spectrum. The UK joined the European Communities (EC) – principally the European Economic Community (EEC) – in 1973, and its continued membership was endorsed in the 1975 referendum. In the 1970s and 1980s, withdrawal from the EC was advocated mainly by the political left, e.g. in the Labour Party's 1983 election manifesto. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty founded the EU, was ratified by the British Parliament in 1993 but was not put to a referendum. The Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party led a rebellion over ratification of the treaty and, with the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the cross-party People's Pledge campaign then led a collective campaign particularly after the Treaty of Lisbon was also ratified by the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 without being put to a referendum following a previous promise to hold a referendum on ratifying the abandoned European Constitution was never held eventually pressured the Conservative prime minister David Cameron to hold the June 2016 membership referendum. Cameron, who had campaigned to remain, resigned after the result and was succeeded by Theresa May.
On 29 March 2017, the British government formally began the withdrawal process by invoking Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union with permission from Parliament. May called a snap general election in June 2017, which resulted in a Conservative minority government supported by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). UK–EU withdrawal negotiations began later that month. The UK negotiated to leave the EU customs union and single market. This resulted in the November 2018 withdrawal agreement, but the British parliament voted against ratifying it three times. The Labour Party wanted any agreement to maintain a customs union, while many Conservatives opposed the agreement's financial settlement, as well as the "Irish backstop" designed to prevent border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party (SNP), and others sought to reverse Brexit through a proposed second referendum.
On 14 March 2019, the British Parliament voted for May to ask the EU to delay Brexit until June, and then later October. Having failed to get her agreement approved, May resigned as Prime Minister in July and was succeeded by Boris Johnson. He sought to replace parts of the agreement and vowed to leave the EU by the new deadline. On 17 October 2019, the British Government and the EU agreed on a revised withdrawal agreement, with new arrangements for Northern Ireland. Parliament approved the agreement for further scrutiny, but rejected passing it into law before the 31 October deadline, and forced the government (through the "Benn Act") to ask for a third Brexit delay. An early general election was then held on 12 December. The Conservatives won a large majority in that election, with Johnson declaring that the UK would leave the EU in early 2020. The withdrawal agreement was ratified by the UK on 23 January and by the EU on 30 January; it came into force on 31 January 2020.
Terminology and etymology
Background: the United Kingdom and EC/EU membership
The "Inner Six" European countries signed the Treaty of Paris in 1951, establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). The 1955 Messina Conference deemed that the ECSC was a success, and resolved to extend the concept further, thereby leading to the 1957 Treaties of Rome establishing the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom). In 1967, these became known as the European Communities (EC). The UK attempted to join in 1963 and 1967, but these applications were vetoed by the President of France, Charles de Gaulle.
Some time after de Gaulle resigned in 1969, the UK successfully applied for EC membership, and the Conservative prime minister Edward Heath signed the Treaty of Accession in 1972. Parliament passed the European Communities Act later that year and the UK joined Denmark and Ireland in becoming a member on 1 January 1973.
During the 1970s and 1980s, the Labour Party was the more Eurosceptic of the two major parties, and the Conservatives the more Europhile. The 1983 Labour Party manifesto would even pledge to leave the then European Economic Community. Earlier on, Labour had won the February 1974 general election without a majority and then contested the subsequent October 1974 general election with a commitment to renegotiate Britain's terms of membership of the EC, believing them to be unfavourable, and then hold a referendum on whether to remain in the EC on the new terms. Labour again won the election (this time with a small majority), and in 1975 the UK held its first ever national referendum, asking whether the UK should remain in the EC. Despite significant division within the ruling Labour Party, all major political parties and the mainstream press supported continuing membership of the EC. On 5 June 1975, 67.2% of the electorate and all but two British counties and regions voted to stay in; support for the UK to leave the EC in 1975 appears unrelated to the support for Leave in the 2016 referendum.
The Labour Party campaigned in the 1983 general election on a commitment to withdraw from the EC without a referendum. After their heavy defeat in that election, Labour changed its policy. In 1985, the second Margaret Thatcher government ratified the Single European Act—the first major revision to the Treaty of Rome—without a referendum.
In October 1990, under pressure from senior ministers and despite Thatcher's deep reservations, the UK joined the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), with the pound sterling pegged to the deutschmark. Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister the following month, amid Conservative Party divisions arising partly from her increasingly Eurosceptic views. The UK and Italy were forced to withdraw from the ERM in September 1992, after the pound sterling and the lira came under pressure from currency speculation ("Black Wednesday").
Under the Maastricht Treaty, the EC became the EU on 1 November 1993, reflecting the evolution of the organisation from an economic union into a political one. Denmark, France, and Ireland held referendums to ratify the Maastricht Treaty. In accordance with Constitution of the United Kingdom, specifically that of parliamentary sovereignty, ratification in the UK was not subject to approval by referendum. Despite this, British constitutional historian Vernon Bogdanor wrote that there was "a clear constitutional rationale for requiring a referendum" because although MPs are entrusted with legislative power by the electorate, they are not given authority to transfer that power (the UK's previous three referendums all concerned this). Further, as the ratification of the treaty was in the manifestos of the three major political parties, voters opposed to ratification had no way to express it. For Bogdanor, while the ratification by the House of Commons might be legal, it would not be legitimate—which requires popular consent. The way in which the treaty was ratified, he judged, was "likely to have fundamental consequences both for British politics and for Britain's relationship with the [EC]." This perceived democratic deficit directly led to the formation of the Referendum Party and the UK Independence Party.
Thatcher, who had previously supported the common market and the Single European Act, in the Bruges speech of 1988 warned against "a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels". She influenced Daniel Hannan, who in 1990 founded the Oxford Campaign for Independent Britain; "With hindsight, some see this as the start of the campaign for Brexit", the Financial Times later wrote. In 1994, Sir James Goldsmith formed the Referendum Party to contest the 1997 general election on a platform of providing a referendum on the nature of the UK's relationship with the rest of the EU. The party fielded candidates in 547 constituencies at that election, and won 810,860 votes—2.6% of the total votes cast—but failed to win a parliamentary seat because the vote was spread across the country. The Referendum Party disbanded after Goldsmith's death in 1997.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP), a Eurosceptic political party, was formed in 1993. It achieved third place in the UK during the 2004 European elections, second place in the 2009 European elections and first place in the 2014 European elections, with 27.5% of the total vote. This was the first time since the 1910 general election that any party other than Labour or the Conservatives had taken the largest share of the vote in a nationwide election. UKIP's electoral success in the 2014 European election is documented as the strongest correlate of the support for the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum.
Opinion polls 1977–2015
Both pro- and anti-EU views had majority support at different times from 1977 to 2015. In the EC membership referendum of 1975, two-thirds of British voters favoured continued EC membership. Over the decades of UK-EU membership, Euroscepticism existed on both the left and right of British politics.
According to a statistical analysis published in April 2016 by Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, surveys showed an increase in Euroscepticism (defined as a wish to sever or reduce the powers of the EU) from 38% in 1993 to 65% in 2015. The BSA survey for the period of July–November 2015 showed that 60% backed the option to continue as a member and 30% backed withdrawal.
In 2017, a probe was launched over claims that Russia used social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to sway public opinion over the Brexit Referendum. The "Russia Report" accused the UK government of actively avoiding investigating whether Russia interfered with public opinion and says that it remains quite possible that Russia did, indeed, meddle.
Referendum of 2016
Negotiations for membership reform
In 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron initially rejected calls for a referendum on the UK's EU membership, but then suggested the possibility of a future referendum to endorse his proposed renegotiation of Britain's relationship with the rest of the EU. According to the BBC, "The prime minister acknowledged the need to ensure the UK's [renegotiated] position within the [EU] had 'the full-hearted support of the British people' but they needed to show 'tactical and strategic patience'." On 23 January 2013, under pressure from many of his MPs and from the rise of UKIP, Cameron promised in his Bloomberg speech that a Conservative government would hold an in-or-out referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017, on a renegotiated package, if elected in the 7 May 2015 general election. This was included in the Conservative Party manifesto for the election.
The Conservative Party won the election with a majority. Soon afterwards, the European Union Referendum Act 2015 was introduced into Parliament to enable the referendum. Cameron favoured remaining in a reformed EU, and sought to renegotiate on four key points: protection of the single market for non-eurozone countries, reduction of "red tape", exempting Britain from "ever-closer union", and restricting immigration from the rest of the EU.
In December 2015, opinion polls showed a clear majority in favour of remaining in the EU; they also showed support would drop if Cameron did not negotiate adequate safeguards for non-eurozone member states, and restrictions on benefits for non-UK EU citizens.
The outcome of the renegotiations was revealed in February 2016. Some limits to in-work benefits for new EU immigrants were agreed, but before they could be applied, a member state such as the UK would have to get permission from the European Commission and then from the European Council, which is composed of the heads of government of every member state.
In a speech to the House of Commons on 22 February 2016, Cameron announced a referendum date of 23 June 2016, and commented on the renegotiation settlement. He spoke of an intention to trigger the Article 50 process immediately following a Leave vote and of the "two-year time period to negotiate the arrangements for exit."
After the original wording for the referendum question was challenged, the government agreed to change the official referendum question to "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?"
In the referendum 51.89% voted in favour of leaving the EU (Leave), and 48.11% voted in favour of remaining a member of the EU (Remain). After this result, Cameron resigned on 13 July 2016, with Theresa May becoming Prime Minister after a leadership contest. A petition calling for a second referendum attracted more than four million signatures, but was rejected by the government on 9 July.
|Votes||Proportion of votes||Invalid votes|
|East of England||4,398,796||75.7%||1,448,616||1,880,367||43.52%||56.48%||2,329|
|North East England||1,934,341||69.3%||562,595||778,103||41.96%||58.04%||689|
|North West England||5,241,568||70.0%||1,699,020||1,966,925||46.35%||53.65%||2,682|
|South East England||6,465,404||76.8%||2,391,718||2,567,965||48.22%||51.78%||3,427|
|South West England
|Yorkshire and the Humber||3,877,780||70.7%||1,158,298||1,580,937||42.29%||57.71%||1,937|
Voter demographics and trends
A 2017 study published in Economic Policy showed that the Leave vote tended to be greater in areas which had lower incomes and high unemployment, a strong tradition of manufacturing employment, and in which the population had fewer qualifications. It also tended to be greater where there was a large flow of Eastern European migrants (mainly low-skilled workers) into areas with a large share of native low-skilled workers. Those in lower social grades (especially the working class) were more likely to vote Leave, while those in higher social grades (especially the upper middle class) more likely to vote Remain. Studies found that the Leave vote tended to be higher in areas affected by economic decline, high rates of suicides and drug-related deaths, and austerity reforms introduced in 2010.
Studies suggest that older people were more likely to vote Leave, and younger people more likely to vote Remain. According to Thomas Sampson, an economist at the London School of Economics, "Older and less-educated voters were more likely to vote 'leave' [...] A majority of white voters wanted to leave, but only 33% of Asian voters and 27% of black voters chose leave. There was no gender split in the vote [...] Leaving the European Union received support from across the political spectrum [...] Voting to leave the European Union was strongly associated with holding socially conservative political beliefs, opposing cosmopolitanism, and thinking life in Britain is getting worse."
Opinion polls found that Leave voters believed leaving the EU was "more likely to bring about a better immigration system, improved border controls, a fairer welfare system, better quality of life, and the ability to control our own laws", while Remain voters believed EU membership "would be better for the economy, international investment, and the UK's influence in the world." Polls found that the main reasons people voted Leave were "the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK", and that leaving "offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders." The main reason people voted Remain was that "the risks of voting to leave the EU looked too great when it came to things like the economy, jobs and prices."
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Withdrawal from the European Union is governed by Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. It was originally drafted by Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, and introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon at the insistence of the United Kingdom. The article states that any member state can withdraw "in accordance with its own constitutional requirements" by notifying the European Council of its intention to do so. The notification triggers a two-year negotiation period, in which the EU must "negotiate and conclude an agreement with [the leaving] State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the [European] Union". If no agreement is reached within the two years, the membership ends without an agreement, unless an extension is unanimously agreed among all EU states, including the withdrawing state. On the EU side, the agreement needs to be ratified by qualified majority in the European Council, and by the European Parliament.
Invocation of Article 50
The 2015 Referendum Act did not expressly require Article 50 to be invoked, but prior to the referendum, the British government said it would respect the result. When Cameron resigned following the referendum, he said that it would be for the incoming prime minister to invoke Article 50. The new prime minister, Theresa May, said she would wait until 2017 to invoke the article, in order to prepare for the negotiations. In October 2016, she said Britain would trigger Article 50 in March 2017, and in December she gained the support of MP's for her timetable.
In January 2017, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled in the Miller case that government could only invoke Article 50 if authorised by an act of parliament to do so. The government subsequently introduced a bill for that purpose, and it was passed into law on 16 March as the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017. On 29 March, Theresa May triggered Article 50 when Tim Barrow, the British ambassador to the EU, delivered the invocation letter to European Council President Donald Tusk. This made 29 March 2019 the expected date that UK would leave EU.
2017 UK general election
In April 2017, Theresa May called a snap general election, held on 8 June, in an attempt to "strengthen [her] hand" in the negotiations; The Conservative Party, Labour and UKIP made manifesto pledges to implement the referendum, the Labour manifesto differing in its approach to Brexit negotiations, such as unilaterally offering permanent residence to EU immigrants. The Liberal Democrat Party and the Green Party manifestos proposed a policy of remaining in the EU via a second referendum. The Scottish National Party (SNP) manifesto proposed a policy of waiting for the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and then holding a referendum on Scottish independence.
The result produced an unexpected hung parliament, the governing Conservatives gained votes (but nevertheless lost seats and their majority in the House of Commons) but remained the largest party. Labour gained significantly on votes and seats, retaining its position as the second-largest party. The Liberal Democrats gained six seats despite a slight decrease in vote share compared with 2015. The Green Party kept its single MP while also losing national vote share. Losing votes and seats were the SNP, which lost 21 MPs, and UKIP, which suffered a -10.8% swing and lost its only MP. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin also made gains in votes and seats.
On 26 June 2017, Conservatives and the DUP reached a confidence and supply agreement whereby the DUP would back the Conservatives in key votes in the House of Commons over the course of the parliament. The agreement included additional funding of £1 billion for Northern Ireland, highlighted mutual support for Brexit and national security, expressed commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, and indicated that policies such as the state pension triple lock and Winter Fuel Payments would be maintained.
UK–EU negotiations in 2017 and 2018
Prior to the negotiations, May said that the British government would not seek permanent single market membership, would end ECJ jurisdiction, seek a new trade agreement, end free movement of people and maintain the Common Travel Area with Ireland. The EU had adopted its negotiating directives in May, and appointed Michel Barnier as Chief Negotiator. The EU wished to perform the negotiations in two phases: first the UK would agree to a financial commitment and to lifelong benefits for EU citizens in Britain, and then negotiations on a future relationship could begin. In the first phase, the member states would demand that the UK pay a "divorce bill", initially estimated as amounting to £52 billion. EU negotiators said that an agreement must be reached between UK and the EU by October 2018.
Negotiations commenced on 19 June 2017. Negotiating groups were established for three topics: the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and vice versa; Britain's outstanding financial obligations to the EU; and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In December 2017, a partial agreement was reached. It ensured that there would be no hard border in Ireland, protected the rights of UK citizens in EU and EU citizens in Britain, and estimated the financial settlement to be £35–39 billion. May stressed that "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". Following this partial agreement, EU leaders agreed to move on to the second phase in the negotiations: discussion of the future relationship, a transition period and a possible trade deal.
In March 2018, a 21-month transition period and the terms for it were provisionally agreed. In June 2018, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that there had been little progress on the Irish border question—on which the EU proposed a backstop, to come into effect if no overall trade deal had been reached by the end of the transition period—and that it was unlikely that there would be a solution before October, when the whole deal was to be agreed. In July 2018, the British government published the Chequers plan, its aims for the future relationship to be determined in the negotiations. The plan sought to keep British access to the single market for goods, but not necessarily for services, while allowing for an independent trade policy. The plan caused cabinet resignations, including Brexit Secretary David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.
Draft withdrawal agreement
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On 13 November 2018, UK and EU negotiators agreed the text of a draft withdrawal agreement, and May secured her cabinet's backing of the deal the following day, though Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab resigned over "fatal flaws" in the agreement. It was expected that ratification in the British parliament would be difficult. On 25 November, all 27 leaders of the remaining EU countries endorsed the agreement.
On 10 December 2018, the Prime Minister postponed the vote in the House of Commons on her Brexit deal. This came minutes after the Prime Minister's Office confirmed the vote would be going ahead. Faced with the prospect of a defeat in the House of Commons, this option gave May more time to negotiate with Conservative backbenchers and the EU, even though they had ruled out further discussions. The decision was met with calls from many Welsh Labour MPs for a motion of no confidence in the Government.
Also on 10 December 2018, the European Court of Justice(ECJ) ruled that the UK could unilaterally revoke its notification of withdrawal, as long as it was still a member and had not agreed a withdrawal agreement. The decision to do so should be "unequivocal and unconditional" and "follow a democratic process".If the British revoked their notification, they would remain a member of the EU under their current membership terms. The case was launched by Scottish politicians, and referred to the ECJ by the Scottish Court of Session.
The European Research Group (ERG), a research support group of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, opposed the Prime Minister's proposed Withdrawal Agreement treaty. Its members objected strongly to the Withdrawal Agreement's inclusion of the Irish backstop. ERG members also objected to the proposed £39 billion financial settlement with the EU and stated that the agreement would result in the UK's agreement to continuing to follow EU regulations in major policy areas; and to the continuing jurisdiction of the ECJ over interpretation of the agreement and of European law still applicable to the UK.
On 15 January 2019, the House of Commons voted 432 to 202 against the deal, which was the largest majority ever against a United Kingdom government. Soon after, a motion of no confidence in Her Majesty's Government was tabled by the opposition, which was rejected by 325 votes to 306.
On 24 February, Prime Minister May proposed that the next vote on the withdrawal agreement would be on 12 March 2019, 17 days away from the Brexit date. On 12 March, the proposal was defeated by 391 votes to 242—a loss by 149 votes, down from 230 from when the deal had been proposed in January.
On 18 March 2019, the Speaker informed the House of Commons that a third meaningful vote could be held only on a motion that was significantly different from the previous one, citing parliamentary precedents going back to 1604.
The Withdrawal Agreement was brought back to the House without the attached understandings on 29 March. The Government's motion of support for the Withdrawal Agreement was defeated by 344 votes to 286—a loss by 58 votes, down from 149 when the deal had been proposed on 12 March.
March and April extensions
On 20 March 2019, the Prime Minister wrote to European Council President Tusk requesting that Brexit be postponed until 30 June 2019. On 21 March 2019, May presented her case to a European Council summit meeting in Brussels. After May left the meeting, a discussion amongst the remaining EU leaders resulted in the rejection of 30 June date and offered instead a choice of two new alternative Brexit dates. On 22 March 2019, the extension options were agreed between the British government and the European Council. The first alternative offered was that if MPs rejected May's deal in the next week, Brexit would be due to occur by 12 April 2019, with, or without, a deal—or alternatively another extension be asked for and a commitment to participate in the 2019 European Parliament elections given. The second alternative offered was that if MPs approved May's deal, Brexit would be due to occur on 22 May 2019. The later date was the day before the start of European Parliament elections. After the government deemed unwarranted the concerns over the legality of the proposed change (because it contained two possible exit dates) the previous day, on 27 March 2019 both the Lords (without a vote) and the Commons (by 441 to 105) approved the statutory instrument changing the exit date to 22 May 2019 if a withdrawal deal is approved, or 12 April 2019 if it is not. The amendment was then signed into law at 12:40 p.m. the next day.
Following the failure of the British Parliament to approve the Withdrawal Agreement by 29 March, the UK was required to leave the EU on 12 April 2019. On 10 April 2019, late-night talks in Brussels resulted in a further extension, to 31 October 2019; Theresa May had again requested an extension only until 30 June. Under the terms of this new extension, if the Withdrawal Agreement were to be passed before October, Brexit would occur on the first day of the subsequent month. The UK would then be obligated to hold European Parliament elections in May, or leave the EU on 1 June without a deal.
Revised withdrawal agreement
After Boris Johnson became prime minister on 24 July 2019 and met with EU leaders, the EU changed its stance. On 17 October 2019, following "tunnel talks" between UK and EU, a revised withdrawal agreement was agreed on negotiators level, and endorsed by the British government and the EU Commission. The revised deal contained a new Northern Ireland Protocol, as well as technical modifications to related articles. In addition, the Political Declaration was also revised. The revised deal and the political declaration was endorsed by the European Council later that day. To come into effect, it needed to be ratified by the European Parliament and the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
October 2019 extension
The British Parliament passed the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, which received Royal Assent on 9 September 2019, obliging the Prime Minister to seek a third extension if no agreement has been reached at the next European Council meeting in October 2019. In order for such an extension to be granted if it is requested by the Prime Minister, it would be necessary for there to be unanimous agreement by all other heads of EU governments. On 28 October 2019, the third extension was agreed to by the EU, with a new withdrawal deadline of 31 January 2020. 'Exit day' in British law was then amended to this new date by statutory instrument on 30 October 2019.
2019 UK general election
After Johnson was unable to induce Parliament to approve a revised version of the withdrawal agreement by the end of October, he chose to call for a snap election. The House of Commons supported the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019 by 438–20, setting the election date for Thursday 12 December. Opinion polls up to polling day showed a firm lead for the Conservatives against Labour throughout the campaign.
In the run-up to the general election on 12 December 2019 the Conservative Party pledged to leave the EU with the withdrawal agreement negotiated in October 2019. Labour promised to renegotiate aforementioned deal and hold a referendum, letting voters choose between the renegotiated deal and remain. The Liberal Democrats vowed to revoke Article 50, while the SNP intended to hold a second referendum, however, revoking Article 50 if the alternative was a no-deal exit. The DUP supported Brexit, but would seek to change parts related to Northern Ireland it was dissatisfied with. Plaid Cymru and the Green Party backed a second referendum, believing the UK should stay in the EU. The Brexit Party was the only major party running for election which wanted the UK to leave the EU without a deal.
The election produced a decisive result for Boris Johnson with the Conservatives winning 365 seats (gaining 47 seats) and a overall majority of 80 seats with Labour suffering their worst election defeat since 1935 after losing 60 seats to leave them with 202 seats and only a single seat in Scotland. The Liberal Democrats won just 11 seats with their leader Jo Swinson losing her own seat. The Scottish National Party won 48 seats after gaining 14 seats in Scotland.
The result broke the deadlock in the British Parliament and ended the possibility of a referendum being held on the withdrawal agreement and ensured that the United Kingdom would leave the European Union on 31 January 2020.
Ratification and departure
Subsequently, the government introduced a bill to ratify the withdrawal agreement. It passed its second reading in the House of Commons in a 358–234 vote on 20 December 2019, and became law on 23 January 2020 as the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020.
The withdrawal agreement received the backing of the constitutional committee in the European Parliament on 23 January 2020, setting expectation that the entire parliament would approve it in a later vote. On the following day, Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel signed the withdrawal agreement in Brussels, and it was sent to London where Boris Johnson signed it. The European Parliament gave its consent to ratification on 29 January by 621 votes to 49. Immediately after voting approval, members of the European Parliament joined hands and sang Auld Lang Syne. The Council of the European Union concluded EU ratification the following day.
Transition period and final trade agreement
The Withdrawal Agreement still applies after this date. This agreement provides free access of goods between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, provided checks are made to goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The British Government attempted to back out of this commitment by passing the Internal Market Bill: domestic legislation in the British Parliament. In September, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said:
- I would say to my hon. Friend that yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.
During the transition period, David Frost and Michel Barnier continued to negotiate a permanent trade agreement. On 24 December 2020 both parties announced that a deal had been reached. The deal was passed by both houses of the British parliament on 30 December and given Royal Assent in the early hours of the next day. In the house of commons, the governing conservatives and main opposition Labour voted in favour of the agreement whilst all other opposition parties voted against it. The transition period concluded under its terms the following evening. After the UK said it would unilaterally extend a grace period limiting checks on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, the European Parliament postponed setting a date to ratify the agreement. The vote was later scheduled for 27 April when it passed with an overwhelming majority of votes.
There is a customs transitional arrangement in place until 1 July 2021. During this time period, traders importing standard goods from the EU to the UK can defer submitting their customs declarations and paying import duties to HMRC for up to six months. This arrangement simplifies and avoids most of the import controls for the time being and is designed to facilitate inward trade during the Covid-19 health crisis and to avoid major disruptions in domestic supply chains during this transition period.
Political developments within Britain
European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018
In October 2016, Theresa May promised a "Great Repeal Bill", which would repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and restate in British law all enactments previously in force under EU law. Subsequently renamed the European Union (Withdrawal) bill, it was introduced to the House of Commons on 13 July 2017.
On 12 September 2017, the bill passed its first vote and second reading by a margin of 326 votes to 290 votes in the House of Commons. The bill was further amended on a series of votes in both Houses. After the Act became law on 26 June 2018, the European Council decided on 29 June to renew its call on Member States and European Union institutions to step up their work on preparedness at all levels and for all outcomes.
The Withdrawal Act fixed the period ending 21 January 2019 for the government to decide on how to proceed if the negotiations had not reached agreement in principle on both the withdrawal arrangements and the framework for the future relationship between the UK and EU; while, alternatively, making future ratification of the withdrawal agreement as a treaty between the UK and EU depend upon the prior enactment of another act of Parliament for approving the final terms of withdrawal when the Brexit negotiations were completed. In any event, the act did not alter the two-year period for negotiating allowed by Article 50 that ended at the latest on 29 March 2019 if the UK had not by then ratified a withdrawal agreement or agreed a prolongation of the negotiating period.
The Withdrawal Act which became law in June 2018 allowed for various outcomes including no negotiated settlement. It authorises the government to bring into force, by order made under section 25, the provisions that fixed "exit day" and the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972, but exit day must be the same day and time as when the EU Treaties ceased to apply to the UK.
Exit day was the end of 31 January 2020 CET (11.00 p.m. GMT). The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 (as amended by a British Statutory Instrument on 11 April 2019), in section 20 (1), defined 'exit day' as 11:00 p.m. on 31 October 2019. Originally, 'exit day' was defined as 11:00 p.m. on 29 March 2019 GMT (UTC+0).
Additional government bills
A report published in March 2017 by the Institute for Government commented that, in addition to the European Union (Withdrawal) bill, primary and secondary legislation will be needed to cover the gaps in policy areas such as customs, immigration and agriculture. The report also commented that the role of the devolved legislatures was unclear, and could cause problems, and as many as 15 new additional Brexit Bills may be required, which would involve strict prioritisation and limiting Parliamentary time for in-depth examination of new legislation.
In 2016 and 2017, the House of Lords published a series of reports on Brexit-related subjects, including:
Nuclear Safeguards Act 2018
The Nuclear Safeguards Act 2018, relating to withdrawal from Euratom, was presented to Parliament in October 2017. The act makes provision about nuclear safeguards, and for connected purposes. The Secretary of State may by regulations ("nuclear safeguards regulations") make provision for the purpose of — (a) ensuring that qualifying nuclear material, facilities or equipment are available only for use for civil activities (whether in the UK or elsewhere), or (b) giving effect to provisions of a relevant international agreement.
Opinion polling overall showed an initial fall in support for Brexit from the referendum to late 2016, when responses were split evenly between support and opposition. Support rose again to a plurality, which held until the 2017 general election. Since then, opinion polls tended to show a plurality of support for remaining in the EU or for the view that Brexit was a mistake, with the estimated margin increasing until a small decrease in 2019 (to 53% Remain : 47% Leave, as of October 2019). This seems to be largely due to a preference for remaining in the EU among those who did not vote in 2016's referendum (an estimated 2.5 million of whom, as of October 2019, were too young to vote at the time). Other reasons suggested include slightly more Leave voters than Remain voters (14% and 12% of each, respectively, as of October 2019) changing how they would vote (particularly in Labour areas) and the deaths of older voters, most of whom voted to leave the EU. One estimate of demographic changes (ignoring other effects) implies that had an EU referendum taken place in October 2019, there would have been between 800,000 and 900,000 fewer Leave voters and between 600,000 and 700,000 more Remain voters, resulting in a Remain majority.
In March 2019, a petition submitted to the British Parliament petitions website, calling on the government to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU, reached a record-level of more than 6.1 million signatures.
- Opinion polling on whether the UK was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU
- Opinion polling on whether the UK should leave or remain in the EU, including "Neither" responses
- Opinion polling on whether the UK should leave or remain in the EU, excluding "Neither" responses and normalised
After the Brexit referendum, the Scottish Government — led by the Scottish National Party (SNP) — planned another independence referendum because Scotland voted to remain in the EU while England and Wales voted to leave. It had suggested this before the Brexit referendum. The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, requested a referendum be held before the UK's withdrawal, but the British Prime Minister rejected this timing. At the referendum in 2014, 55% of voters had decided to remain in the UK, but the referendum on Britain's withdrawal from the EU was held in 2016, with 62% of Scottish voters against it. In 2017, in the event that Northern Ireland remained associated with the EU – for example, by remaining in the Customs Union, some analysts argued Scotland would also insist on special treatment. However, in the event, the only part of the United Kingdom which received unique treatment was Northern Ireland.
On 21 March 2018, the Scottish Parliament passed the Scottish Continuity Bill. This was passed by stalling negotiations between the Scottish Government and the British Government on where powers within devolved policy areas should lie after Brexit. The Act allows for all devolved policy areas to remain within the remit of the Scottish Parliament and reduces the executive power upon exit day that the UK Withdrawal Bill provides for Ministers of the Crown. The bill was referred to the Supreme Court, which found that it could not come into force as the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which received royal assent between the Scottish Parliament passing its bill and the Supreme Court's judgement, designated itself under Schedule 4 of the Scotland Act 1998 as unamendable by the Scottish Parliament. The bill has therefore not received royal assent.
In the wake of the United Kingdom's vote to leave the European Union, the Department for International Trade (DIT) for reaching and extending trade agreements between the UK and non-EU states was created by Prime Minister May, shortly after she took office on 13 July 2016. By 2017, it employed about 200 trade negotiators and was overseen by then Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox. In March 2019, the British government announced that it would cut many import tariffs to zero, in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The Confederation of British Industry said the move would be a "sledgehammer for our economy", and the National Farmer's Union was also highly critical. Additionally, the plan appeared to breach standard WTO rules.
On 2 June 2020, Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel stated that the European Union must prepare for the possible failure of Brexit trade talks with the UK. She added that negotiations were being accelerated to try and reach a deal that could be ratified by the end of the year. Her warning came as the deadline for extending talks passed away, with negotiations expected to end on 31 December with or without a deal.
There has been litigation to explore the constitutional footings on which Brexit stands after R (Miller) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (simply known as the "Miller case") and the 2017 Notification Act:
- In R. (Webster) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, a Divisional Court of Gross LJ and Green MR determined that the substantive decision to leave the EU that was notified on 29 March 2017 was in fact the executive decision of the Prime Minister using a statutory power of decision found to have been delegated to her by the Notification Act: this is confirmed by the House of Commons Library commentary on the case. The case was appealed to the Court of Appeal and paragraph 15 of the judgement, along with the citable nature of the decision were upheld. While the case was criticised academically by Robert Craig, who lectures in jurisprudence at the London School of Economics, aspects of the case's analysis were supported by the Supreme Court in Miller 2 at paragraph 57, which confirmed that:
Parliament, and in particular the House of Commons as the democratically elected representatives of the people, has a right to have a voice in how that change comes about is indisputable.
- This confirmation that the decision was an executive act was part of the basis of R. (Wilson) v. Prime Minister which allied this point with the concerns about the irregularities in the referendum. The High Court hearing was on 7 December 2018 before Ouseley MJ and when judgement was given it was held that: courts’ job was not to rule on irregularities in the ‘leave’ campaign as these were not questions of law; it was also said that the case was brought both too early and too late. Judgement in the Court of Appeal (before Hickinbottom LJ and Haddon-Cave LJ) before also went against the applicant.
- Regarding the reversibility of a notification under Article 50, Wightman and others v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union was referred to Court of Justice of the European Union; the UK government sought to block this referral, taking the matter on appeal to the Supreme Court, but was unsuccessful. On 10 December 2018, the Court of Justice of the EU ruled that the UK could unilaterally revoke its Article 50 notification.
Many effects of Brexit depended on whether the UK left with a withdrawal agreement, or before an agreement was ratified ("no-deal" Brexit). In 2017, the Financial Times said that there were approximately 759 international agreements, spanning 168 non-EU countries, that the UK would no longer be a party to upon leaving the EU.
Economists expect that Brexit will have damaging immediate and longer term effects on the economies of the UK and at least part of the EU27. In particular, there is a broad consensus among economists and in the economic literature that Brexit will likely reduce the UK's real per capita income in the medium and long term, and that the Brexit referendum itself damaged the economy. Studies found that Brexit-induced uncertainty reduced British GDP, British national income, investment by business, employment and British international trade from June 2016 onwards.
A 2019 analysis found that British firms substantially increased offshoring to the EU after the Brexit referendum, whereas European firms reduced new investments in the UK. The British government's own Brexit analysis, leaked in January 2018, showed that British economic growth would be stunted by 2–8% over the 15 years following Brexit, the amount depending on the leave scenario. Economists warned that London's future as an international financial centre depended on passport agreements with the EU. Pro-Brexit activists and politicians have argued for negotiating trade and migration agreements with the "CANZUK" countries—those of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom—but economists have said that trade deals with those countries would be far less valuable to the UK than EU membership. Studies project that Brexit will exacerbate regional economic inequality in the UK, by hitting already-struggling regions the hardest.
The potential impact on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has been a contentious issue. Since 2005, the border has been essentially invisible. After Brexit, it became the only UK–EU land border (not counting the land border between the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar with Spain). All involved parties agree a hard border should be avoided, as it might compromise the Good Friday Agreement that ended the Northern Ireland conflict. To forestall this, the EU proposed a "backstop agreement" (the Northern Ireland Protocol) that would have kept the UK in the Customs Union and kept Northern Ireland in some aspects of the Single Market also, until a lasting solution was found. The backstop was part of the withdrawal agreement, but was replaced in the revised agreement.
Brexit caused the European Union to lose its second-largest economy, its third-most populous country, and the second-largest net contributor to the EU budget. Brexit will result in an additional financial burden for the remaining net contributors, unless the budget is reduced accordingly. The UK will no longer be a shareholder in the European Investment Bank, where it has 16% of the shares. Analyses indicate that the departure of the relatively economically liberal UK will reduce the ability of remaining economically liberal countries to block measures in the Council of the EU. In 2019, ahead of Brexit, the European Medicines Agency and European Banking Authority moved their headquarters from London to Amsterdam and Paris, respectively.
After Brexit, the UK will leave the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which provides government financial support to farmers in the EU. The UK receives much less than it contributes. Brexit allows the UK to develop its own agriculture policy. The current UK government has committed to maintaining the same payments to farmers until the end of the current parliament, even without a withdrawal agreement. The Agriculture Bill is intended to replace the CAP with a new system. The UK will also leave the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) that lets all EU countries fish within 12 nautical miles of the British coast and lets the EU set catch quotas. The combined EU fishing fleets land about six million tonnes of fish per year, about half of which are from British waters. By leaving the CFP, the UK could develop its own fisheries policy. The UK will also leave the London Fisheries Convention that lets Irish, French, Belgian, Dutch and German vessels fish within six nautical miles of the UK's coast.
Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory bordering Spain, will be affected by Brexit. Spain asserts a territorial claim on Gibraltar. After the referendum, Spain's Foreign Minister renewed calls for joint Spanish–British control. In late 2018, the British and Spanish governments agreed that any dispute over Gibraltar would not affect Brexit negotiations, and the British government agreed that UK–EU treaties made after Brexit would not automatically apply to Gibraltar.
Brexit poses challenges to British academia and research, as the UK is likely to lose research funding from EU sources; see a reduction in students from the EU; find it harder to hire researchers from the EU; and British students will find it harder to study abroad in the EU. The UK is currently a member of the European Research Area and likely to wish to remain an associated member following Brexit. The British government has guaranteed funding for research currently funded by EU.
An early 2019 study found that Brexit would deplete the National Health Service (NHS) workforce, create uncertainties regarding care for British nationals living in the EU, and put at risk access to vaccines, equipment, and medicines. The Department of Health and Social Care has said it has taken steps to ensure the continuity of medical supplies after Brexit. The number of non-British EU nurses registering with the NHS fell from 1,304 in July 2016 to 46 in April 2017.
After Brexit, the UK will have the final say over the laws that govern it. Under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, EU laws will no longer have supremacy over British laws after Brexit. To maintain continuity, the Act converts EU law into British law as "retained EU law". After Brexit, the British parliament (and the devolved legislatures) can decide which elements of that law to keep, amend or repeal. Furthermore, British courts will no longer be bound by the judgments of the EU Court of Justice after Brexit.
After Brexit, the UK would be able to control immigration from the EU and EEA, as it can end EU freedom of movement. The current British government intends to replace it with a new system. The government's 2018 white paper proposes a "skills-based immigration system" that prioritizes skilled migrants. EU and EEA citizens already living in the UK can continue living there after Brexit by applying to the EU Settlement Scheme, which began in March 2019. Irish citizens will not have to apply to the scheme. Studies estimate that Brexit and the end of free movement will likely result in a large decline in immigration from EEA countries to the UK. After Brexit, any foreigner wanting to do so more than temporarily would need a work permit.
By leaving the EU, the UK would leave the European Common Aviation Area (ECAA), a single market in commercial air travel, but could negotiate a number of different future relationships with the EU. British airlines would still have permission to operate within the EU with no restrictions, and vice versa. The British government seeks continued participation in the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). The UK has its own air service agreements with 111 countries, which permit flights to-and-from the country, and further 17 countries through its EU membership. These have since been replaced. Ferries will continue, but with obstacles such as customs checks. New ferry departures between the Republic of Ireland and the European mainland have been established. As of August 2020, the government's Goods Vehicle Movement Service, an IT system essential to post-Brexit goods movements, was still only in the early stages of beta testing, with four months to go before it is required to be in operation.
Concerns have been raised that Brexit might create security problems for the UK, particularly in law enforcement and counter-terrorism where the UK could use the EU's databases on individuals crossing the British border.
Brexit has inspired many creative works, such as murals, sculptures, novels, plays, movies and video games. The response of British artists and writers to Brexit has in general been negative, reflecting a reported overwhelming percentage of people involved in Britain's creative industries voting against leaving the European Union. Despite issues around immigration being central in the Brexit debate, British artists left the migrants' perspective largely unexplored. However, Brexit also inspired UK-based migrant artists to create new works and "claim agency over their representation within public spaces and create a platform for a new social imagination that can facilitate transnational and trans-local encounters, multicultural democratic spaces, sense of commonality, and solidarity."
- European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020
- EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement
- International reactions to the 2016 United Kingdom European Union membership referendum
- Opposition to Brexit in the United Kingdom
- Referendums related to the European Union
- Multi-speed Europe
- Interpretation of EU Treaty law by European Court of Justice
- 2010s in United Kingdom political history
- 2020s in United Kingdom political history
- Withdrawal of Greenland from the European Communities
- Danish withdrawal from the European Union
- Dutch withdrawal from the European Union
- Greek withdrawal from the eurozone
- Romanian withdrawal from the European Union
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The results I summarize in this section focus on long-run effects and have a forecast horizon of 10 or more years after Brexit occurs. Less is known about the likely dynamics of the transition process or the extent to which economic uncertainty and anticipation effects will impact the economies of the United Kingdom or the European Union in advance of Brexit.
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Die Briten haben sich für einen Abschied entschieden, Europa wird nun anders aussehen. Der Kontinent verliert seine (neben Frankreich) stärkste Militärmacht samt Atomwaffenarsenal, seine zweitgrößte Volkswirtschaft, das Land mit der drittgrößten Bevölkerung, die Finanzhauptstadt der Welt und einen von zwei Plätzen im UN-Sicherheitsrat. [The British have decided to leave. Europe will now look different. The continent will be losing its strongest military power (alongside France), ... its second largest economy, the country with the third largest population, the financial capital of the world, and one of two seats on the UN Security Council.]
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Relating to court cases
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