The United Kingdom’s divorce with the European Union — better known as Brexit — has become a drawn-out, contentious affair without an obvious resolution.
The UK is deeply and bitterly divided on how it should exit the EU, and what its future relationship with the bloc should look like. And in many ways, the split between those who want to leave the EU and those who want to remain within it has only hardened since the 2016 referendum, tearing apart traditional party loyalties within the UK.
Former British Prime Minister Theresa May’s government and her counterparts in the European Union negotiated a withdrawal agreement last year, but opposition to the deal from the UK Parliament killed it three times.
May’s Brexit defeats led to her political downfall, and she resigned her premiership in June. The race to replace her was surprisingly smooth: Boris Johnson, the bombastic, outspoken champion of Brexit, handily won the Conservative leadership contest and took over in July.
Johnson promised that he would deliver Brexit for the United Kingdom, “do or die,” by the current deadline of October 31. Johnson has said he’ll achieve what May failed to do: get a Brexit deal that can win the support of Parliament. And if he can’t, well, the UK would be totally fine breaking away from Europe without a deal.
Leaving the EU without any deal promises chaos for both the UK and the rest of Europe — yet some Brexit devotees are willing to take the risk because they believe it would deliver a swift and decisive end to the UK’s relationship with the EU.
Johnson’s strategy hasn’t quite worked out as planned. He attempted to suspend Parliament to sideline lawmakers, and it backfired in a big way. Johnson lost his majority in Parliament as members of his own party defied him, partnering with the opposition to pass a law that would force Johnson to ask the EU for an extension if he couldn’t bring back a new deal. Oh, and the UK’s Supreme Court said he’d suspended Parliament unlawfully.
That said, there are some positive signals coming out of both the UK and the EU as this week wraps up, which has buoyed the prospect that an agreement just might be possible by the end of the month.
There hasn’t been a breakthrough yet, though — and it wouldn’t be the first time in the Brexit process that talks fell apart. Johnson is supposed to ask the EU for an extension if he doesn’t have a deal by mid-October, but it’s not all that clear if he’ll actually do it in good faith, or if he does, the EU will even agree to it.
The EU has already granted the UK two extensions. The EU first offered a short delay from the original Brexit date of March 29 to April 12. The UK couldn’t find a resolution in that time, so it asked for another extension. The EU agreed to postpone Brexit again, but this time for a much longer period: until October 31, 2019.
At the time, the European Council President Donald Tusk pleaded with the UK: “Please don’t waste this time.” Now, just a few weeks until Brexit’s final reckoning, Tusk’s warning feels more like a prediction.
That hasn’t stopped the flurry of news out of the UK, and it’s hard to keep up with each new development — or understand what it all means, especially since Brexit has introduced a whole new vocabulary, from “Irish backstop” to “second referendum.”
Vox has received a lot of reader questions, and my colleagues on the Worldly podcast have answered a bunch, which you can check out here. Here’s another attempt to explain some of the big questions we get from readers, along with others that might help you understand what in the holy hell is going on.
1) What is Brexit?
I know, I know — if we’re asking this question now, we’re all in a lot of trouble. But it’s worth going back to the beginning to understand how and why the UK and the EU ended up here.
“Brexit” is the term we’ve all decided to use to describe Britain’s exit from the European Union. The EU is a political and economic organization of 28 European countries, or member states, with its own bureaucracy and legislative body — the European Parliament — which is headquartered in Brussels.
The EU’s predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community, was founded in the aftermath of World War II with the idea that economic cooperation would prevent another devastating European conflict.
The union has had different iterations and evolved since, adding members and introducing its own common currency, the euro. Central to the EU is its single market, which allows for the free and frictionless movement of goods, services, capital, and people within its borders. They’re known as the “four freedoms.”
The UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, which became part of the European Union when it formed in 1993.
But the UK has always had a degree of distance from the EU. It maintains its own currency, the sterling pound, and never joined the Schengen agreement, which eliminates internal border controls within the EU. But the UK is still required to embrace the movement of people, as part of those four freedoms.
And, as my colleague Zack Beauchamp has written, “British politics has always included a faction that’s skeptical of deeper integration with the rest of Europe.”
This intensified in the past decade with the 2008 financial crisis and the eurozone economic crisis that followed it. The influx of immigrants from poorer EU states and, later, fears over refugees and migrants from Syria and other parts of Africa and the Middle East helped galvanize voters in the UK and tapped into a larger skepticism about EU membership.
In 2013, Britain’s then-Prime Minister David Cameron promised that if his Conservative Party won elections, he would hold a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU or leave. Cameron partly caved to pressure from the right flank of his party and the UK Independent Party (UKIP), the right-wing party that was peeling away some Conservative voters.
Cameron won, and kept his promise. The UK held the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016. There were two choices: Leave (the EU) or Remain.
There is certainly a case against the EU and its regulations, but emotion and nostalgia largely fueled the referendum campaign, especially among Leave proponents. Prominent Leave campaigners played up immigration fears and made promises about the UK reclaiming its sovereignty, taking control of its borders, laws, and trade, and securing more money for domestic programs like the National Health Service.
Cameron, who supported the Remain campaign, resigned after the referendum. Theresa May won the Conservative leadership contest to succeed him as prime minister in 2016. She was a Remainer, though not exactly an enthusiastic one. In a divided party, she was able to position herself between hardline pro-Brexit Conservatives and more moderate members of her party by promising to fulfill the results of the referendum and deliver on Brexit.
What “deliver on Brexit” meant in practical terms, though, turned out to be far more complicated.
2) Why is all this happening right now?
The UK had to formally give the EU notice that it wanted out by triggering Article 50 — the provision in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty that gives countries the power to withdraw from the bloc.
May did not trigger Article 50 immediately. In January 2017, in what’s often referred to as her “Lancaster speech,” May laid out her Brexit negotiating priorities, including her “red lines”: The UK would leave the EU customs union and single market, and the European Court of Justice (ECJ) would no longer have jurisdiction over the UK.
May eventually won the overwhelming support of Parliament to trigger Article 50 and formally notified the European Council in March 2017 of the UK’s intention to leave the EU. This set off a two-year countdown to the official exit date: March 29, 2019.
That UK was supposed to leave on that date whether or not it had a deal. A “no-deal” Brexit — in which the UK crashes out of the EU overnight and ends up outside all the EU institutions it once belonged to — is the default (more on this later).
It was up to May and the EU negotiators to come to an acceptable agreement to ensure an orderly breakup.
The EU agreed to begin negotiating such a deal after May formally invoked Article 50. Negotiations started in the summer of 2017, and May and the EU agreed to the divorce deal in November 2018.
But May was unable to win the support of the UK Parliament for that deal.
Which is why, as you might have noticed, May no longer has her job (more on that, later) and the original deadline of March 29, 2019, has come and gone without the UK leaving the European Union. The UK successfully won a short extension of Article 50 from EU leaders, moving the date from March 29 to April 12 to get more time to win approval for the Brexit deal.
May was still unable to get her deal through Parliament even with a delay. She reached out to the opposition Labour Party to find a compromise to break the impasse, but she again had to ask the EU for another extension until June 30.
EU leaders, after much debate, agreed to postpone Brexit again, this time until October 31. The months-long delay removed some of the urgency from the current Brexit discussion. But it wasn’t a huge amount of time, especially given the UK hasn’t been able solve Brexit in almost three years.
We’ll touch on this a bit later, but the UK did a lot of things in those intervening months, including changing up its prime minister. But finding a Brexit solution was not one of them.
3) What kind of Brexit does the UK want?
The UK still hasn’t been able to figure that out, nearly three years after it voted to leave. That’s in large part due to the lack of clarity in the 2016 referendum on what “leave” actually meant.
But it’s helpful to look at the two broad categories of Brexit: “hard” Brexit and “soft” Brexit.
Now, even those terms mean different things to different people. But usually, the distinction between them has to do with the UK’s relationship with two major EU institutions: the customs union and the single market.
The EU customs union eliminates tariffs as well as non-tariff barriers (quotas, for example) among EU member states, and it forces the bloc to operate as a single unit when trading with countries outside the EU. This also means that individual countries are largely restricted from striking their own, country-specific trade deals.
The single market ensures free and frictionless movement of goods, services, capital, and labor (people) among EU countries, so the EU operates without hard borders, as if it were all one country. Four other non-EU states, including Norway, have negotiated access to the single market.
Now, back to “hard” versus “soft” Brexit.
People who favor a hard Brexit want to get out of the customs union so that Britain can pursue an independent trade policy. They also want out of the single market to gain control over issues such as immigration. Those who favor this approach want a clean break with the EU and would replace these current partnerships with a free trade deal or a series of trade agreements with the EU.
Those who support this approach are sometimes dubbed “Brexiteers,” and they tend to hail from the original pro-Leave campaign. They want to put as much distance as possible between Brussels and the UK.
And as the Brexit process has worn on, members of this camp have become more and more willing to risk a no-deal Brexit to get the UK out of the EU immediately and, in their minds, avoid any lingering entanglements. Such a precise break is more wishful thinking than reality, mostly because the UK just can’t replace its largest trading partner overnight. But this has become a more attractive option for a growing number of Brexiteers who just “get on” with it.
On the other side are those who favor a softer Brexit. This camp wants to keep closer ties with the EU. There are also divisions within the “soft” Brexit camp. Some just want customs union membership, others want full access to the single market, some want both — basically as close as possible tole to staying in the EU without actually being in the EU. This would soften the blow to the British economy when Brexit becomes official.
The caveat, though, is that the UK would also have to abide by many of the EU laws and regulations that govern the single market and customs union. And since it would no longer officially be an EU member, the UK would have little or no say in what those rules are or how they’re applied.
This group also includes many Remainers, who’d prefer not to Brexit at all. Some Remainers also support a second referendum to revote on the Brexit question, and many would prefer the government revoke Article 50 and just halt Brexit altogether. A lot of these folks are still holding out hope that Brexit can be reversed — but if that’s dashed, they’d opt for the next best thing, which is staying in a tight relationship with the EU.
These splits underscore why the UK Parliament couldn’t get behind the Brexit deal May negotiated — or really make a decision at all.
And while we’re on the subject, let’s talk about that deal.
4) What is in the current Brexit deal?
May, when triggering Article 50, told the EU that she wanted the UK and the bloc to agree to a “deep and special partnership that takes in both economic and security cooperation.” In order to do this, she said, the two sides should “agree to the terms of our future partnerships, alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU.”
The EU said no — the negotiating would take place in phases. The first phase would focus on the divorce: all the legal, political, and economic issues involving the UK-EU breakup. This covered things like how much the UK would pay the EU to settle its financial obligations to the bloc, what would happen to EU citizens living in the UK and vice versa, and how to close out treaties and cooperation agreements after Brexit.
Phase two would focus on the transitional period, specifically how the UK and the EU would adjust to the breakup. The final phase would focus on the details of the “special and deep” future relationship, where the EU and UK would decide how to trade and cooperate on security and other issues. This future relationship could involve those free trade agreements and a lot more distance between the two; or it could involve the UK sticking around, maybe having a still-pretty-close relationship.
The negotiations over this divorce settlement and transition period were complex. The EU and UK made some breakthroughs early but got stalled on major issues, most notably over the issue of preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member state).
In November 2018, the EU and May’s government reached a final deal. It came in two parts: a 585-page withdrawal agreement and a short (and not particularly specific) political declaration, which was basically a promise that the EU and UK would negotiate their future relationship. The final phase, in other words.
This withdrawal agreement tackled a lot of those issues mentioned above, including the divorce settlement (how much the UK must pay the EU, which is likely at least £39 billion, or about $50 billion) and protecting the status of UK citizens and EU nationals living in the EU and UK, respectively, post-Brexit and providing a means for those individuals to apply for permanent residency in those host countries.
The withdrawal agreement also calls for a 21-month transition period until December 31, 2020, to give the EU and the UK time to figure out that future partnership. It can be renewed once, up to December 2022. During this time, the UK would formally leave the EU and give up its decision-making power, but not much else would change.
The withdrawal agreement also included an “Irish backstop,” a guarantee that a “hard” border — meaning actual physical checkpoints for goods — won’t be put in place when the EU and UK break up.
This question, which barely came up in the 2016 referendum, ended up becoming a central issue in the Brexit negotiations. And it’s the one issue that’s continued to derail any chance of a Brexit breakthrough.
5) Okay, so what is the “Irish backstop”?
The Irish backstop is an insurance policy that says no matter what happens in the future negotiations between the UK and the EU, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will remain free of physical checks and infrastructure.
That border was heavily militarized during the Troubles, a decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland between “nationalists,” who identified more closely with Ireland and sought a united Ireland, and “unionists,” who identified more closely with Britain and wanted to remain part of the UK.
During that period, the border became both a symbol of the divide and a very real target for nationalist paramilitary groups, such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
A 1998 peace deal, known as the Good Friday Agreement, formally ended the conflict. That agreement included greater cooperation between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which meant softening the border between the two.
The European Union strengthened this truce, as its rules on trade and free movement created the conditions for closer ties between the UK and Ireland and so made an open border possible. Today, the border is all but invisible.
Brexit threatened to interrupt this altogether, as the UK’s decision to leave the EU meant that the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland would become an international one.
But early on in the Brexit negotiations, former prime minister May set out those “red lines” — which said no customs union membership, no single market. In other words, the UK wanted to get out of the very institutions that had helped preserve and sustain that open border.
But both the EU and the UK agreed they must honor the commitments of the 1998 peace process and protect the open, frictionless border on the island of Ireland. How to do so was much more fraught. The UK and the EU both had different proposals, but eventually they reached a compromise. This is the “backstop.”
The backstop says that if UK and the EU haven’t figured out how to avoid physical checks on the Irish border by the end of the transition period (lasting until 2022, at the latest), the entire UK will stay in the EU customs union. Northern Ireland will also have a slightly closer alignment with the EU’s trade rules.
The backstop ends when both sides agree to a permanent arrangement that keeps the border open, and the UK can’t pull out of it unilaterally.
The EU bolstered this promise — that the backstop was intended to be a temporary fallback plan — by adding legal force to this backstop in negotiations in March. These addendums gave the UK recourse to seek arbitration if it felt the EU wasn’t negotiating in good faith.
So all in all, May negotiated a comprehensive Brexit deal. Nothing left for her to do but get UK Parliament’s approval.
Except that never happened. Because pretty much everyone, from hardcore Brexiteers to staunch Remainers, absolutely hates this version of the Brexit deal.
6) So why did everyone hate May’s deal?
The Irish backstop was a big part of it, at least for the hardline Brexiteers.
Brexiteers, most of whom were in May’s own Conservative Party, saw the backstop as treachery: a betrayal of the UK’s promise to get out of the EU and break free of its rules and regulations, because the backstop could potentially keep the UK entrapped indefinitely in the customs union.
Another important faction in the UK Parliament also hated the Irish backstop: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a conservative party in Northern Ireland. They previously had an outsize voice in this debate because their 10 votes in Parliament kept May’s Conservative government in power. (In 2017, May called snap elections, an attempt to strengthen her majority to negotiate Brexit; Conservatives instead lost seats in Parliament and needed the DUP’s support to govern.) The DUP’s influence is muted now that the current UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, has lost his majority in Parliament by other means — but the buy-in of the DUP still matters in the backstop debate.
The DUP opposed the backstop because it requires Northern Ireland to more closely follow EU single-market rules. The DUP believes very strongly in the union and sees Northern Ireland’s unequal treatment compared to the rest of the UK (even if it might offer a financial benefit) as a threat.
And remember, those two factions were supposed to be May’s allies. So you can probably imagine how unsupportive her political enemies were of her deal.
The Labour Party, the main opposition party, objected to May’s deal because, well, it’s May’s deal. Labour is divided on whether to follow through on Brexit, and it had no incentive to back an agreement negotiated by a Conservative government, especially one the party sees as lacking labor protections and a close EU relationship. If May couldn’t get her own party behind her, why would Labour do her the favor?
Labour’s ultimate goal is to retake power; party leaders want be the ones negotiating with the EU — and to hold another referendum on any deal. Bolstering May wasn’t going to help them achieve that end.
And then there are the other, smaller (yet still influential) parties, including the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Liberal Democrats, who say they want to remain in the EU.
This opposition led to three extremely embarrassing defeats for Theresa May in Parliament. Parliament rejected May’s deal by 230 votes in January, the worst defeat for a British government in modern history. Parliament voted down the deal in March by 149 votes.
On Friday, March 29 — the original date the UK was supposed to leave the EU — May put forward just the withdrawal agreement (without the political declaration). Parliament rejected it still, by a margin of 58, despite May’s promise to her Conservative Party that she would resign if MPs passed the deal.
May insisted that any orderly Brexit will require Parliament passing her deal in some form. After her third defeat, and later the EU’s extension until October 31, May engaged in cross-party talks with Labour to see if they could come up with a compromise Brexit plan. In May 2019, she offered a “new” plan, a sort of last-ditch effort to try to win support in Parliament and from the EU.
But Theresa May’s new Brexit plan was mostly the same. The few concessions she did offer mostly appealed to Remainers, not the hardcore Brexiteers she needed to win over to successfully get anything through Parliament. With no chance of bringing her deal for a fourth vote, and support from her own party failing, May had no choice but to resign.
She did so, officially, in June. Which eventually brought Boris Johnson to power.
7) Who is Boris Johnson and will he deliver Brexit?
Boris Johnson rose to political prominence as the mayor of London, and capitalized on that fame by becoming the public face of the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum. Though Johnson has a reputation for having squishy convictions — except, his critics would say, when it comes to himself — he remained a vocal cheerleader for a hard Brexit throughout May’s tenure. So much so that he quit his post as foreign minister in 2018 to protest her handling of the negotiations.
Johnson was immediately the frontrunner in the race to replace May as leader of the Conservative party. He ran on a very simple promise: that he would deliver Brexit, “do or die” by the October 31 deadline. He vowed to renegotiate a brand-new and better Brexit deal, and if the EU wouldn’t budge, then he’d take the UK out of the EU at the end of October without a deal.
Johnson cruised to victory on that promise. He took over on July 24, four months before the Brexit deadline.
But Johnson faced the exact same dilemma that May had: a divided Parliament that hated May’s Brexit deal, and an EU leadership that continued to say it was the only deal on offer.
And when it comes to Parliament, Johnson’s attempts have backfired spectacularly. He suspended — or “prorogued” — Parliament for five weeks in an attempt to sideline his opposition from blocking his Brexit plan, or attempts to leave the EU without a deal.
That infuriated opposition members of Parliament and those opposed to a no-deal Brexit. It created such an uproar that Johnson ended up losing his majority after a group of Conservatives rebelled and voted for the exact legislation Johnson didn’t want: a law that said Johnson would need to go back to the EU and ask for an extension if he failed to get a new deal by October 19.
Johnson doesn’t want to get that extension, so he tried twice to dissolve Parliament and hold new elections, which could produce a legislature more favorable to his agenda. But Johnson needs two-thirds of MPs to vote in favor of this, and opposition MPs have, so far, refused to give in. They want an election, but not just yet. Instead, they want to force him to ask for that extension from the EU in hopes of preventing a no-deal exit — and to damage his support among hardline Brexit supporters.
Meanwhile, the UK’s highest court ruled Johnson’s suspension of Parliament unlawful, making the prorogation null and void. (Johnson has suspended Parliament again this week, but just for six days, so it’s not all that controversial.)
Johnson’s dealings with the EU haven’t gone all that much better. The prime minister wants to scrap the Irish backstop in its current form, but the EU has insisted that the provision stays — and so the current Brexit deal remains intact — unless Johnson can bring back a viable replacement that would protect peace in Ireland and preserve the integrity of the EU’s single market and customs union.
It very much looked as if negotiations were totally doomed. Then Johnson put forward an actual proposal on the Irish border.
Johnson’s plan has a few components (and if you want a really detailed look at it, I recommend reading this or this), but the gist of what the public has seen would involve the UK fully leaving the customs union at the end of the transition period, although Northern Ireland would remain aligned with the EU rules when it came to goods.
This would mean checks on the Irish Sea (so goods moving from the rest of the UK into Northern Ireland), and will also require some sort of customs checks in both Northern Ireland and Ireland, but just away from the border.
This arrangement is subject to the consent of Northern Ireland’s government, whose executive and assembly would need to approve whether it wanted to stay aligned with the EU on goods every four years. At that juncture, the Northern Ireland government could decide to get out of the scheme.
The EU is extraordinarily skeptical of Johnson’s plan, with good reason. Johnson’s proposal avoids physical infrastructure at the actual border, but it still requires customs checks and doesn’t exactly yield frictionless trade and would disrupt the interconnected Irish economies. It’s not surprising that Northern Irish businesses are not board with this proposal.
The other huge issue is approval from the government in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland hasn’t had a functioning government since 2017, after the power-sharing arrangement between the two major parties representing both the unionists and nationalists collapsed. That’s a good gauge for how divisive Northern Ireland’s politics remain, and Johnson’s plan would effectively hand unionists veto power over this special arrangement. If that happened, there’s no obvious replacement — which means Johnson’s plan isn’t exactly the insurance policy to preserve an open border that it’s supposed to be.
These are just some of the objections Ireland and the European Union have raised to Johnson’s plan. The European Council president Donald Tusk described the EU as “open but unconvinced” last week.
There have been a few signs that Johnson might be able to win a majority in Parliament with this deal — something the EU also wants assurance of, if it’s going to make concessions. But some leaks from 10 Downing Street this week made it look as if the prime minister was trying to blame the EU for being intractable and sidelining negotiations.
So it all looked ready to implode, once again. But then, on late Thursday, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister Boris Johnson met, and the mood shifted. Varadkar said there was a possible “pathway to a deal.” It’s not clear, exactly, what that pathway might be — or whether it has more potholes along the way — but EU and UK negotiators are expected to take the weekend to conduct marathon talks.
Which means, maybe, just maybe, a breakthrough is possible.
8) Why is the EU being so stubborn?
The United Kingdom learned a hard lesson in Brexit negotiations — the country had strength within the European Union, but once it decided to leave, it lost a lot of that leverage.
The EU has had to navigate a careful balance in these negotiations with Brexit. It has tried to operate on a unified platform, while representing the interests of all remaining 27 member states, each of which has its own domestic political concerns.
EU negotiators had to stick to their principles — refusing to budge on the four freedoms, for example — while also trying to stay out of UK politics. That hasn’t always been successful. But despite the long-held belief among some that the EU would cave at the last minute and give in to UK demands, it hasn’t really yet.
The EU, once it negotiated the Brexit deal compromise with May, insisted that it was final: Take the deal on offer, cancel Brexit, or risk a no-deal Brexit, EU leaders told the UK over and over again.
That position is partly for practicality, because if the UK tries to make new demands, there’s the possibility that 27 other European countries will also try to make tweaks.
The firm stance serves another purpose: signaling to other, more skeptical EU countries that the EU as a whole defends its members and looks out for its interests. Specifically, Ireland has a huge stake in the backstop and the guarantee of an open Irish border. The EU has defended Ireland’s interests and remained unified on this issue. And that unity, especially in the face of political fractures in the UK, has bolstered its negotiating position.
The EU also doesn’t want to make Brexit particularly easy; it wants to make a point that leaving the EU has legitimate risks and serious fallout. Skepticism of the EU propelled the referendum in the UK, but other countries in the bloc also have resurgent populist leaders or parties who are also deeply skeptical of the EU. But the EU’s position on Brexit has dampened plans for similar exists across Europe, as it’s become increasingly clear the costs of leaving outweigh the benefits.
The EU hasn’t been intractable, though. It offered additional legal assurances on the Irish backstop. It has also suggested it would be open to tweaking the political declaration governing the future relationship if that will help the Brexit deal get majority support in the UK. The EU approved two Brexit extensions. And, even to Johnson, EU leaders have said they’re willing to negotiate if he can bring forward a plan that will offer a legitimate and workable alternative for the backstop. Though they’ve essentially rejected Johnson’s plan in its current form, EU officials are still negotiating.
The EU also wants to avoid a no-deal Brexit, which will be incredibly disruptive for the continent. And even though the UK’s political dysfunction is largely to blame right now for the Brexit stalemate, the EU doesn’t want to be seen as being responsible for the chaos that a no-deal breakup would unleash.
Which is why their stance has always been that it’s willing to negotiate — but never at the expense of the integrity of EU institutions or peace on the island of Ireland.
9) Why can’t the UK just hold another public referendum on Brexit?
A second referendum, or “confirmatory public vote” as it’s also being called, would put the Brexit question back to the people. Advocates for a second referendum say that during the 2016 referendum, the consequences and realities of Brexit were opaque. Leave campaigners promised grand trade deals and more money for domestic programs, but that didn’t match up with reality.
“We think this really resonates with people: What’s being delivered to you is completely different than what was promised,” Barney Scholes, a spokesperson for the People’s Vote UK, the main referendum advocacy group, told me in December. “And I think everybody is in agreement about that, both Remainers and Leavers.”
May’s deal — or whatever Johnson’s turns out to be — is the reality of Brexit, supporters argue. Now that the British public knows this, shouldn’t they get to vote again on whether they want that Brexit reality?
May and Johnson both resisted a second referendum, saying the people spoke loudly in 2016 and voted to leave. It would be “undemocratic” to reverse this process, they claim. (May did soften her stance in a concession to Labour right before she was forced to resign.) Referendum supporters counter that more democracy isn’t undemocratic, and that Brexit is so divisive that the only way to legitimize the process is to offer a public vote.
But there are a lot of issues here. One is timing: Estimates say it would take at least 22 weeks to hold a referendum, which means the UK would have to ask the EU for more time, again.
Another issue is what the referendum should ask. Should it be a clean 2016 do-over? A Brexit deal versus Remain? Should there be multiple options, including the offer of a “no-deal Brexit”? Or will this risk splitting the vote, offering an outcome that no one really wants?
One of the big criticisms of the first referendum hinged on the idea that people didn’t really understand what they were voting on, that the public didn’t fully grasp the complexities of the EU-UK relationship. That same argument thus applies to a second referendum: I mean, how many Brits have actually read the 585-page withdrawal agreement?
A second referendum wouldn’t be guaranteed to produce a different result, either. Polls show that if a referendum were held now, Remain would win by a small margin. That’s not necessarily because people have changed their minds. Instead, it’s because it would attract new voters, specifically young people who were not eligible to vote in 2016 (and who generally skew toward being pro-EU) and Remainers who sat out the 2016 vote. But remember, polls suggested Remain would win in 2016, too. And now here we are.
Still, a second referendum may be the only way to break the stalemate. Support for a public vote lost by 12 votes, 292 to 280, in Parliament in April. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said in the past that the party would support a second referendum to avoid “a damaging Tory Brexit.” But his party is split on whether to campaign in a referendum against any Brexit deal, and Corbyn himself isn’t exactly an enthusiastic Remainer.
At a party conference in September, Labour said it wouldn’t make a decision until after any general election. And the Liberal Democrats, a pro-Remain party that originally backed a second referendum, recently said at their party conference that now their stance is to revoke Article 50 altogether and cancel Brexit.
A second referendum has faded for other reasons — specifically, by putting the Brexit question back to the people another way: a general election.
10) Will the UK have a general election?
Most likely, yes. The question is when.
But, I know what you’re thinking: Johnson tried to call an election twice, and Parliament said “no,” twice.
This is true. And this is partly because everyone is trying to do a lot of complicated maneuvers to best position themselves for an eventual general election.
Johnson, as we’ve noted, said he would take the UK out of the EU by October 31, do or die, deal or no-deal. The problem? Right now, he’s legally bound to ask the EU for an extension if he doesn’t have a deal by October 19. Now, it’s still possible Johnson could get a deal by then, but there are no guarantees just yet. (Johnson’s government has given mixed signals about how it intends to go forward, but the government confirmed last Friday that he would sent a letter to the EU to seek an extension if no deal is reached.)
All 27 EU members-states must approve that extension, but Ireland’s made it clear that any extension is preferred to a no-deal scenario, so it seems likely that the EU will acquiesce. Though for how long — three months, which is what the UK wants, or something longer — is still undecided.
This is not a great look for Johnson, seeing as he would basically break his October 31 promise. This is exactly what the opposition parties wanted: to dent Johnson’s pro-Brexit base who might turn against him and opt for the more aggressively pro-Brexit Brexit Party, thus splitting the vote and giving the opposition a boost. Labour and other opposition parties have also hinted that no-deal is taken off the table (at least in the immediate future), they’ll agree to elections.
But it’s also not totally bad news for Johnson. His argument is going to be pretty simple: Give me a Parliament that will support me taking the UK out of the EU, and I’ll get it done. Sure, the extension is a hiccup, but it’s probably not fatal for him, and will bolster the case he’s been trying to make all along: It’s not me, it’s Parliament.
And Labour, the main opposition party, has its own problems. Jeremy Corbyn — the guy most likely to challenge Johnson for the prime ministership — is unpopular right now. Like, really unpopular. More Brits said they’d support a no-deal Brexit over having Corbyn as prime minister in a recent poll.
The reasons for this are complicated. Corbyn’s basically a socialist. There are Conservatives who are less enthusiastic about Brexit and dislike Johnson — but are positively terrified of a Corbyn government.
Corbyn is also at odds with many of the more moderate voters in his party. He’s always been skeptical of the EU, and while there are definitely Labour voters who agree with him on that, the core of his party opposes Brexit.
As a result of these tensions, Labour hasn’t handled Brexit particularly well. Corbyn’s strategy was to muddle through, attack Conservatives where he could, stop any no-deal Brexit plans, and get to elections so he could get to power and be the one to negotiate Brexit.
Corbyn’s fence-sitting created an opening for the very pro-Remain Liberal Democrats, a smaller and more centrist party. They’re staunchly anti-Brexit and their new leader, Jo Swinson, declared at their party conference last month that if they take power (which they won’t, but still), they’ll cancel Brexit altogether.
Labour and Lib Dems will have to decide if they’ll fight for the same votes or make difficult compromises to work together in any election. That also doesn’t solve the problem of Corbyn himself.
Which means, despite the continued Brexit drama, Johnson and the Conservatives are still in a good position to win the majority, according to recent polls. Ask Theresa May, and she’ll probably tell you polls can change, but Johnson is probably feeling good about his chances right now.
An election might also be the closest thing to a second referendum, giving people the chance to elect MPs who will commit to pursuing voters’ preferred Brexit outcome, be it a no deal or no Brexit at all. That’s assuming, of course, the UK gets an extension and hasn’t left the EU by the time these elections happen. Because though it looks less likely than it did just a few weeks ago, the possibility of a no-deal Brexit still exists.
11) Why would a no-deal Brexit be so bad?
In a no-deal Brexit, the UK will cease to be a member of the EU overnight. All the trade and regulatory arrangements that the UK once shared as part of the EU will evaporate.
Experts warn that would create chaos that could be catastrophic for the UK economy, leading to potential food and medicine shortages, major travel disruptions, massive gridlock at ports of entry, and a plunge in the value of the British currency. Actually, it’s not just experts — this is the Johnson government’s own assessment.
This happens because suddenly the UK and the EU may be following different regulatory schemes. For example, goods and people that would normally cross the UK’s border unimpeded may now be subject to customs checks. Delays and backlogs could mean foods rot and medicines expire.
There are also issues with differing regulations. For example, the EU requires a certain size wooden pallet to import and export goods. If you’re an EU member state in the customs union, the EU waives this requirement, which is essentially a non-tariff trade barrier. Now that the UK is out, it would now have to use this EU-approved pallet.
Other issues potentially abound. The European Health Insurance Card provides coverage to EU citizens traveling outside their home state; that coverage will disappear in a no-deal Brexit. British people traveling to EU countries may suddenly see a spike in cellphone roaming charges.
Just the threat of a no-deal Brexit has taken a toll on the British economy, as the uncertainty has forced companies to stockpile goods and inventory or relocate some operations to EU countries. No deal preparations have intensified under Johnson, but the uncertainty (if you were stockpiling in March of last year, it probably doesn’t help you in October) has already hurt the economy in both the UK and the EU.
Critics of the no-deal doomsayers or advocates of a no-deal have dismissed the risks, derisively labeling it “Project Fear,” a scare tactic by those who oppose Brexit altogether. And they may have a point: A no-deal might not be as bad as it sounds. Or it could be much worse. It’s all unpredictable, because there is no precedent for this.
The UK has allocated about 6.3 billion pounds (about $7.6 billion) for Brexit planning. The UK and the EU have contingency plans, and it’s possible these will mitigate some of the worst outcomes. But the short-term solutions aren’t totally sustainable.
Either way, there are a lot of apocalyptic-sounding no-deal stories out there. Britain might not be able to get bananas, the UK government bought 5,000 fridges to hold medicines, and the National Health Service is stockpiling body bags. Troops are on standby.
For all these reasons, this is an outcome that both the UK and the EU want to avoid. (Although the EU is more prepared — and slightly more insulated — from the effects of a no-deal, it’s still going be disruptive for EU countries.)
A no-deal Brexit also breeds a potential political crisis, especially in the UK. If a no-deal were to happen on October 31 (and it remains the default), can Johnson — who has no functional majority in Parliament — actually deal with it?
“Clearly, there will be economic damage done in the short term from a no-deal,” Stephen Booth, the director of policy and research at the think tank Open Europe, told earlier this year. “But the bigger concern is actually the lack of political resilience we would have in the very short term.”
That’s why the EU keeps granting the UK extension, and will probably do so again in October if asked. The EU wants to avoid a no-deal scenario, even as they’re also fed up with the UK’s dithering. But offering more time never eliminates the possibility of a no-deal Brexit, just postpones it once more.