UK Politics

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

Union flag duck Image copyright Getty Images

The UK is due to leave the European Union (EU) on 31 January 2020, after Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Brexit deal was backed by MPs.

For those not following every twist and turn, this guide covers the basics.

What is Brexit?

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

What is the European Union?

The EU is an economic and political union involving 28 European countries. It allows free trade and free movement of people, to live and work in whichever country they choose.

The UK joined in 1973 (when it was known as the European Economic Community). If the UK leaves, it would be the first member state to withdraw from the EU.

Why is the UK leaving?

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

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

Why hasn't Brexit happened yet?

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

Under Mrs May, the deadline was delayed twice after MPs rejected her Brexit deal - eventually pushing the date to 31 October 2019.

After replacing Mrs May as PM, Mr Johnson was required to seek a third extension after MPs failed to pass a revised Brexit deal into law.

The new deadline has been set for 31 January 2020, three and a half years after the referendum was held.

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

Why did Parliament reject Theresa May's Brexit deal?

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

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

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

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

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

After MPs rejected the deal for a third time, Mrs May resigned as prime minister.

What is the new Brexit deal?

After winning the Conservative leadership contest, Mr Johnson took over as PM in July 2019 and set about renegotiating Mrs May's deal.

Mr Johnson succeeded in replacing the backstop with new customs arrangements. Unlike the previous deal, the revised one will allow the UK to sign and implement its own trade agreements with countries around the world.

However, the revised deal effectively creates a customs and regulatory border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. This means some goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain would be subject to checks and pay EU import taxes (known as tariffs).

These would be refunded if goods remain in Northern Ireland (ie are not moved to the Republic of Ireland).

Image caption Mr Johnson has removed the backstop, replacing it with new customs arrangements for Northern Ireland

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

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

Has the new Brexit deal been approved?

Mr Johnson tried to put his revised deal to a vote in Parliament on 19 October 2019.

However, the vote did not go ahead. Many MPs wanted to postpone it until the legislation needed to turn the deal into law had been approved. MPs said this was to stop a possible no-deal Brexit.

With Parliament in deadlock, Mr Johnson called an early general election, to which MPs agreed.

The election, which happened on 12 December, resulted in a Conservative majority of 80.

Eight days later, MPs voted 358 to 234 in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which now goes on to further scrutiny in Parliament.

The remaining stages of the bill are expected to be completed quickly in January.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservatives have a majority of 80 seats

What happens next?

Assuming the European Parliament also gives the green light, the UK will formally leave the EU on 31 January with a withdrawal deal.

However, this would only mark the next step in the Brexit process. Following its departure, the UK will enter a transition period until 31 December 2020.

During this period, the UK's trading relationship with the EU will remain the same while the two sides negotiate a free trade deal. At the same time, many other aspects of the UK's future relationship with the EU - including law enforcement, data sharing and security - will need to be agreed.

If a trade deal is ready in time, the UK's new relationship with the EU can begin immediately after the transition. If not, the UK faces the prospect of having to trade with no agreement in force. This would mean checks and tariffs on UK goods travelling to the EU.

Mr Johnson has also ruled out any form of extension to the transition period, meaning the clock is already ticking.

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