Three and a half years after the United Kingdom asked European voters whether they wanted to leave the EU, the UK has finally passed the withdrawal agreement for Brexit.

The process of Brexit for the United Kingdom has been a long drawn out and excruciating one. During this process, we have witnessed the resignation of two Prime Ministers, protests, elections and the UK having to consistently push back the date for when the country had to leave. Finally, the final Brexit vote has taken place and the country is set to leave the EU next week.

What is Brexit?

When the referendum for leaving the EU took place over 3 years ago, the process was dubbed ‘Brexit’ or ‘British Exit’.

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). When the UK leaves, it will be the first member state to withdraw from the EU.

What happened with the referendum?

A public vote known as a 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 taken place 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.

Why did the parliament reject Teresa 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.

If it had been needed, the backstop would have kept the UK in a close trading relationship with the EU and avoided checks altogether. However, 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, Teresa May resigned as Prime Minister.

What is the new Brexit deal?

After winning the Conservative leadership contest, Boris Johnson took over as Prime Minister in July 2019 and set about renegotiating May’s deal.

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).

What’s happening with the new Brexit deal?

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, 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 2020.

What’s going to happen now?

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.

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

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