Here is an easy-to-understand guide to Brexit – beginning with the basics, then a look at the current negotiations, followed by a selection of answers to questions we’ve been sent.
What does Brexit mean?
It is a word that is used as a shorthand way of saying the UK leaving the EU – merging the words Britain and exit to get Brexit, in the same way as a possible Greek exit from the euro was dubbed Grexit in the past.
Why is Britain leaving the European Union?
A referendum – a vote in which everyone (or nearly everyone) of voting age can take part – was held on Thursday 23 June, 2016, to decide whether the UK should leave or remain in the European Union. Leave won by 51.9% to 48.1%. The referendum turnout was 71.8%, with more than 30 million people voting.
What was the breakdown across the UK?
England voted for Brexit, by 53.4% to 46.6%. Wales also voted for Brexit, with Leave getting 52.5% of the vote and Remain 47.5%. Scotland and Northern Ireland both backed staying in the EU. Scotland backed Remain by 62% to 38%, while 55.8% in Northern Ireland voted Remain and 44.2% Leave.
What is the European Union?
The European Union – often known as the EU – is an economic and political partnership involving 28 European countries. It began after World War Two to foster economic co-operation, with the idea that countries which trade together were more likely to avoid going to war with each other.
It has since grown to become a “single market” allowing goods and people to move around, basically as if the member states were one country. It has its own currency, the euro, which is used by 19 of the member countries, its own parliament and it now sets rules in a wide range of areas – including on the environment, transport, consumer rights and even things such as mobile phone charges
When is the UK due to leave the EU?
For the UK to leave the EU it had to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which gives the two sides two years to agree the terms of the split. Theresa May triggered this process on 29 March, 2017, meaning the UK is scheduled to leave at 11pm UK time on Friday, 29 March 2019. It can be extended if all 28 EU members agree, but at the moment all sides are focusing on that date as being the key one, and Theresa May has now put it into British law.
So is Brexit definitely happening?
The UK government and the main UK opposition party both say Brexit will happen. There are some groups campaigning for Brexit to be halted, but the focus among the UK’s elected politicians has been on what relationship the UK has with the EU after Brexit, rather than whether Brexit will happen at all. Nothing is ever certain, but as things stand Britain is leaving the European Union, although government ministers have started warning that Brexit might not happen if their plan for it is not backed by MPs when they vote on it. There is more detail on the possible hurdles further down this guide…
What’s happening now?
After months of negotiation, the UK and EU have agreed a Brexit deal. It comes in two parts.
A 585-page withdrawal agreement. This is a legally-binding text that sets the terms of the UK’s divorce from the EU.
It covers how much money the UK owes the EU – an estimated £39bn – and what happens to UK citizens living elsewhere in the EU and EU citizens living in the UK. It also proposes a method of avoiding the return of a physical Northern Ireland border.
A 26-page statement on future relations. This is not legally-binding and sketches out the kind of long-term relationship the UK and EU want to have in a range of areas, including trade, defence and security.
The UK cabinet agreed the withdrawal agreement text on 14 November, but there were two resignations, including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and there was an, as yet unsuccessful, attempt by Brexiteer MPs to force a confidence vote in Theresa May.
The next step is for MPs to vote on the deal, which is expected to happen on 12 December after five days of debate. If they pass it, the European Parliament will get a vote before Brexit day next March.
What is the ‘transition’ period?
It refers to a period of time after 29 March, 2019, to 31 December, 2020 (or possibly later), to get everything in place and allow businesses and others to prepare for the moment when the new post-Brexit rules between the UK and the EU begin. It also allows more time for the details of the new relationship to be fully hammered out. Free movement will continue during the transition period, as the EU wanted. The UK will be able to strike its own trade deals – although they won’t be able to come into force until 1 January 2021. This transition period is currently only due to happen if the UK and the EU agree a Brexit deal.
Do we know how things will work in the long-term?
Not in detail. But the 26-page political declaration referred to above, gives some detail of their aspirations on things like trade, travel and security will work.
Has the Irish border issue been solved?
The UK’s 310 mile land border with the EU – between Northern Ireland and EU member the Republic of Ireland – might not have been everyone’s big issue during the 2016 referendum campaign, yet it has come to dominate Brexit talks.
Neither side wants to see a return to checkpoints, towers, customs posts or surveillance cameras at the border, in case it reignites the Troubles and disrupts the free cross-border flow of trade and people. But they can’t agree on a way to do that.
The UK and EU agreed to put in place a “backstop” – a kind of safety net to ensure there is no hard border whatever the outcome of future trade talks between the UK and the EU.
The backstop will mean that Northern Ireland would stay aligned to some EU rules on things like food products and goods standards. That will prevent the needs for checks on goods at the Irish border, but would require some products being brought to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK to be subject to new checks and controls.
The backstop would also involve a temporary single custom territory, effectively keeping the whole of the UK in the EU customs union.
But Brexiteers do not like the prospect of being tied to EU customs rules and they say there’s no process for the UK to unilaterally decide to exit the backstop – and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party has said it will not tolerate anything that creates a new border down the Irish Sea.
Could the transition period be extended?
Theresa May insists she does not want to use the backstop and says it is highly unlikely that it will ever be triggered (her critics think otherwise).
But if no trade deal is in prospect by July 2020, the two sides could agree to extend the transition period instead. This would avoid the need for the backstop at that time, and keep trade with the EU flowing as it does now.
They could do this only once. The transition could not go on being extended indefinitely.
But there is no agreement on how long any extension would be. Some have suggested the end of 2022, but the government position has been for it all to be sorted before the next election, which is due in Spring 2022.
Either way, this could keep the UK under EU rules for at least three years after March’s official Brexit date, something Brexiteers are also unhappy about.
Can Theresa May get the deal through the Commons?
As things stand, it looks unlikely. MPs are expected to vote on the deal on 12 December.
Labour and all the other opposition parties in the House of Commons have said they will vote against it. Dozens of Conservative MPs – some reports say as many as 80 – are also opposed to it. And Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, who Mrs May relies on to keep her in power, have also said they will vote against it.
Theresa May is hoping to persuade MPs that the deal not only delivers on the result of the EU referendum by allowing the UK to take back control of its “money, laws and borders” it is also the best the UK can get from the EU and there is no alternative on offer.
She will also argue that if her deal is voted down, Britain risks leaving without a deal – a prospect feared by many MPs, who think it will cause chaos at the ports and damage industry – or, she says, there will be “no Brexit at all”.
Why are MPs against the deal?
Brexiteers say it is not what people voted for – and it could keep the UK tied to the EU indefinitely, without any say over its rules. Some have even argued that it would be worse than staying in the EU.
Remainers also argue that it is a worse deal for the UK than staying in the EU.
What happens if Mrs May can’t get the deal through the Commons?
It is hard to say for certain. There are number of possible scenarios, including:
- Leaving the EU without a deal
- Having another vote in Parliament – Mrs May will get three weeks to make a second attempt
- Another EU referendum (this can only happen if the government brings forward legislation to hold one and a majority in the Commons supports it)
- A general election – Labour’s preferred option but it would need a no-confidence vote in the PM
- Theresa May is removed by her own MPs and a new leader tries to renegotiate a deal with the EU – Tory MPs say they are close to having enough signatures to trigger a confidence vote in her
- Some of these options would involve delaying the official Brexit date of 29 March by a few months to allow time to renegotiate a deal, if the EU agrees to that
Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell has also floated the idea of Labour forming a minority government without a general election to have a go at getting its own version of Brexit – centred around a permanent customs union with the EU – through Parliament, although the party would then have to get the EU to agree to that.
What changed in government after the referendum?
Britain got a new Prime Minister – Theresa May. The former home secretary took over from David Cameron, who announced he was resigning on the day he lost the referendum. She became PM without facing a full Conservative leadership contest after her key rivals from what had been the Leave side pulled out.
Where does Theresa May stand on Brexit?
Theresa May was against Brexit during the referendum campaign but is now in favour of it because she says it is what the British people want. Her key message has been that “Brexit means Brexit” and she triggered the two year process of leaving the EU on 29 March, 2017. She set out her negotiating goals in a letter to the EU council president Donald Tusk. She outlined her plans for a transition period after Brexit in a big speech in Florence, Italy. She then set out her thinking on the kind of trading relationship the UK wants with the EU, in a speech in March 2018.
How did the snap 2017 election change things?
Theresa May surprised almost everyone after the 2017 Easter Bank Holiday by calling an election for 8 June (it had not been due until 2020). She said she wanted to strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations with European leaders. She said Labour, the SNP and other opposition parties – and members of the House of Lords – would try to block and frustrate her strategy. However Mrs May did not increase her party’s seats in the Commons and she ended up weakened, having to rely on support from the 10 MPs from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
What has happened to the UK economy since the Brexit vote?
David Cameron, his Chancellor George Osborne and many other senior figures who wanted to stay in the EU predicted an immediate economic crisis if the UK voted to leave and it is true that the pound slumped the day after the referendum – and is currently about 10% down against the dollar, and 10%-15% down against the euro. Predictions of immediate doom were wrong, with the UK economy estimated to have grown 1.8% in 2016, second only to Germany’s 1.9% among the world’s G7 leading industrialised nations. The UK economy continued to grow at almost the same rate in 2017 although there was slower growth, of 0.6% in the first half of 2018.
Inflation rose after June 2016 but has since eased to stand at 2.2%. Unemployment has continued to fall, to stand at a 43-year year low of 4%. Annual house price increases have steadily fallen from 8.2% in June 2016 to 3.2% in the year to August 2018, according to official ONS figures. This is the lowest annual increase in prices for five years, but it is still higher than inflation so property continues to show “real terms” increases in prices.
They officially started a year after the referendum, on 19 June, 2017.
The UK and EU negotiating teams met face-to-face for one week each month, with a few extra sessions also thrown in ahead of EU summits. Their first tasks were trying to get an agreement on the rights of UK and EU expat citizens after Brexit, reaching a figure for the amount of money the UK will need to pay on leaving, the so-called “divorce bill”, and what happens to the Northern Ireland border. A provisional deal on these issues was reached on 8 December. They then agreed terms for the “transition” phase and now have moved on to the permanent post-Brexit relationship, while trying to agree on the precise wording of the divorce issues.
What is Article 50?
Article 50 is a plan for any country that wishes to exit the EU to do so. It was created as part of the Treaty of Lisbon – an agreement signed up to by all EU states which became law in 2009. Before that treaty, there was no formal mechanism for a country to leave the EU.
It’s pretty short – just five paragraphs – which spell out that any EU member state may decide to quit the EU, that it must notify the European Council and negotiate its withdrawal with the EU, that there are two years to reach an agreement – unless everyone agrees to extend it – and that the exiting state cannot take part in EU internal discussions about its departure.
What’s going to happen to all the EU laws in force in the UK?
The Conservative government introduced the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to Parliament to end the primacy of EU law in the UK on Brexit Day. This “Great Repeal Bill”, as it was originally called, incorporates all EU legislation into UK law in one lump, after which the government will decide over a period of time which parts to keep, change or remove. The bill was subject to fierce debate as it passed through Parliament, with a number of attempts to change its wording. It finally became law in June 2018.
What is the Labour Party’s position on Brexit?
Labour says it accepts the referendum result and that Brexit is going to happen. But it opposes Theresa May’s Brexit plan, and wants to stop it and force a general election. If, however, it stops the PM’s plan and there is no general election it says the option of a new referendum would be on the table.
Leader Jeremy Corbyn says he would negotiate a permanent customs union with the EU after Brexit, which would be very similar to the one it has now. This is the only way to keep trade flowing freely and protect jobs, he says, as well as ensuring there is no return to a “hard border” in Northern Ireland. He has ruled out staying a member of the single market, as some of his pro-EU MPs want, so he can carry out his plans to nationalise key industries without being hampered by EU competition rules. He says the UK should have a very close relationship with the single market. Labour accepts that some form of free movement of people might have to continue. Labour’s shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry says Labour should seek to delay Brexit by extending the Article 50 period, if it wins power in a general election before 29 March.
What do ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexit mean?
These terms are used during debate on the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU. There is no strict definition of either, but they are used to refer to the closeness of the UK’s relationship with the EU post-Brexit.
So at one extreme, “hard” Brexit could involve the UK refusing to compromise on issues like the free movement of people even if it meant leaving the single market or having to give up hopes of aspects of free trade arrangements. At the other end of the scale, a “soft” Brexit might follow a similar path to Norway, which is a member of the single market and has to accept the free movement of people as a result of that.
What is the single market?
The single market is seen by its advocates as the EU’s biggest achievement and one of the main reasons it was set up in the first place. Britain was a member of a free trade area in Europe before it joined what was then known as the common market. In a free trade area countries can trade with each other without paying tariffs – but it is not a single market because the member states do not have to merge their economies together.
The European Union single market, which was completed in 1992, allows the free movement of goods, services, money and people within the European Union, as if it was a single country. It is possible to set up a business or take a job anywhere within it. The idea was to boost trade, create jobs and lower prices. But it requires common law-making to ensure products are made to the same technical standards and imposes other rules to ensure a “level playing field”.
Critics say it generates too many petty regulations and robs members of control over their own affairs. Mass migration from poorer to richer countries has also raised questions about the free movement rule. Theresa May has ruled out the UK staying in the single market, a position backed by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
What’s the difference between the single market and the customs union?
The customs union ensures EU member states all charge the same import duties to countries outside the EU. It allows member states to trade freely with each other, without burdensome customs checks at borders, but it limits their freedom to strike their own trade deals.
It is different from a free trade area. In a free trade area no tariffs, taxes or quotas are charged on goods and services moving within the area but members are free to strike their own external trade deals.
The government says the UK is leaving the customs union after the transition period but ministers have yet to decide on what will replace it amid divisions in cabinet over the two options – a customs partnership and a technology based “maximum facilitation” arrangement.
Who is negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU?
Theresa May set up a government department, headed by veteran Conservative MP and Leave campaigner David Davis, to take responsibility for Brexit talks. Former defence secretary, Liam Fox, who also campaigned to leave the EU, was given the new job of international trade secretary and Boris Johnson, who was a leader of the official Leave campaign, is foreign secretary. These three were each playing roles in negotiations with the EU. However that has all changed now, with Boris Johnson and David Davis resigning over Theresa May’s preferred Brexit plan. Dominic Raab took over as Brexit secretary – but resigned in November – and Jeremy Hunt is foreign secretary. Mrs May has made clear that she is in charge of the negotiations and the new Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay will not be getting involved in the Brussels talks.
How long will it take for Britain to leave the EU?
The Article 50 process lasts two years so the intention is for the UK to leave the EU on 29 March 2019. EU law still stands in the UK until it ceases being a member. But as things stand there will not be a final break on that day as the two sides have agreed to a 21-month transition period to allow a smooth implementation of whatever Brexit deal is negotiated and minimise disruption to businesses and holidaymakers etc.
Why might Brexit take so long?
Unpicking 43 years of treaties and agreements covering thousands of different subjects was never going to be a straightforward task. It is further complicated by the fact that it has never been done before and negotiators are, to some extent, making it up as they go along. The post-Brexit trade deal is likely to be the most complex part of the negotiation because it needs the unanimous approval of more than 30 national and regional parliaments across Europe, some of whom may want to hold referendums.
So why can’t the UK just cut all ties in March 2019?
The UK could cut all ties, but Theresa May and others would like to avoid such a “cliff-edge” where current regulations on things like cross-border trade and travel between the UK and the EU ends overnight. They think it would harm the economy and cause chaos at the UK’s borders.
What happens if there is no deal with the EU?
Without an agreement on trade, the UK would operate with the EU under World Trade Organisation rules, which could mean customs checks and tariffs on goods as well as longer border checks for travellers.
There are also questions about what would happen to Britain’s position as a global financial centre and the land border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. There is also concern that Brits living abroad in the EU could lose residency rights and access to free emergency health care.
What happens to EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens in the EU?
An agreement between the UK and the EU provides what Theresa May says is certainty to the 3.2 million EU citizens in the UK – as well as citizens of Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland that they will be able to carry on living and working in the UK as they have done with their rights enshrined in UK law and enforced by British courts. UK citizens in the EU will also retain their current rights with what the EU’s Jean-Claude Juncker called a cheap and simple administration procedure.
The proposal provides a cut-off date of Brexit day – 29 March 2019 – for those to be covered by the rules. Babies born after that date to people who have qualified under these rules will be included in the agreement. Under the plan EU citizens legally resident in the UK and UK citizens in the EU will be able to leave for up to five years before losing the rights they will have as part of the proposed Brexit deal.
Healthcare rights will continue as now although it is not clear yet what status an EHIC card would have for other travellers after Brexit. For the full details please see the UK-EU agreement. As with all other aspects of Brexit, this agreement would only come into force if and when the UK and the EU agree on an overall Brexit deal.
How will EU citizens apply for the new status?
UK government ministers say there will be an online system – similar to one used to renew driving licences – that will take minutes to complete with a fee similar to getting a passport, which is about £72.
Will EU nationals have to leave the UK if there’s no deal?
We don’t yet know what it would mean for recent arrivals, but it’s worth saying that even if no Brexit deal was done, EU nationals with a right to permanent residence, which is granted after they have lived in the UK for five years, should not see their rights affected after Brexit. With rising talk of a no deal Brexit, Mrs May has said EU citizens in the UK will be able to stay even if there is no deal done on Brexit.
What about EU nationals who want to work in the UK?
Any EU citizen already living and working in the UK will be able to carry on working and living in the UK after Brexit. The current plan is that even after Brexit, people from the EU will be able to move to work in the UK during a “transition” phase of about two years. There is also some debate over whether they will have the same rights as those who came before, with possible restrictions on access to benefits or to vote in local elections. The EU wants them to have the same rights as now – the UK doesn’t.
What happens after the transition period has yet to be decided, although it is widely expected that there will be a work permit system along the lines of that for non-EU nationals.
What does the fall in the value of the pound mean for prices in the shops?
People travelling overseas from the UK since the Brexit vote have found their pound buys less.
A fall in the pound means exports get a boost as UK goods will be cheaper to buy in other countries, but some imported goods could get more expensive. The UK inflation figure for the year to September 2018 was 2.2%, above the target level, but not out of kilter with recent years.
Will immigration be cut?
Prime Minister Theresa May said one of the main messages she took from the Leave vote was that the British people wanted to see a reduction in immigration. She has said this will be a focus of Brexit negotiations as she remains committed to getting net migration – the difference between the numbers entering and leaving the country – down to a “sustainable” level, which she defines as being below 100,000 a year.
The government is due to publish its post-Brexit immigration plans shortly, which it says will give priority to skilled migrants, regardless of whether they come from EU countries or non-EU countries, ending the free movement of EU citizens into the UK.
The rate of increase in the size of Britain’s population has slowed since the Brexit vote. Annual net migration is estimated to have fallen by nearly a third from the time of the referendum to 271,000 in the year to March 2018.
“Brexit could well be a factor in people’s decision to move to or from the UK, but people’s decision to migrate is complicated and can be influenced by lots of different reasons,” the Office for National Statistics said.
Could there be another referendum?
Campaigners, led by a group called the People’s Vote, are calling for the public to have the final say on the final Brexit deal. Theresa May does not want another referendum, arguing that it would be an undemocratic breach of trust with the British people who clearly voted to Leave.
The Labour leadership was initially against another referendum, saying it would prefer to see a general election if Theresa May’s plans were voted down by MPs. But leader Jeremy Corbyn has agreed to abide by a vote of party members at the Labour conference, which backed keeping the idea of another referendum on the table.
Which brings us to the next question…
Will MPs get a vote on the final Brexit deal?
Yes. Theresa May has promised there will be a Commons and Lords vote to approve the deal the UK and the rest of the EU have agreed. The Commons vote is expected to happen on 12 December.
So could MPs block Brexit?
In theory, yes, but the EU side would need to agree too. The referendum result is not legally binding but the UK has triggered the automatic process of leaving the EU.
MPs could vote against the exit deal between the UK and EU. This would mean the UK would be on track to leave without a deal, rather than halting the process. Some anti-Brexit MPs believe that if that happens, they could then persuade enough of their colleagues to back a second referendum.
Will I need a visa to travel to the EU?
The UK government wants to keep visa-free travel to the UK for EU visitors after Brexit and it is hoping this will be reciprocated, meaning UK citizens will continue to be able to visit EU countries for short periods without seeking official permission to travel.
If visitors from EU countries wanted to work, study or settle in the UK they would have to apply for permission under the proposals.
No agreement has been reached yet, however. If it is decided that EU citizens will need visas to come to the UK in the future, then UK citizens will need visas to travel to the EU.
Will I still be able to use my passport?
Yes. It is a British document – there is no such thing as an EU passport, so your passport will stay the same. The government has decided to change the colour to blue for anyone applying for a new or replacement British passport from October 2019.
Has any other member state ever left the EU?
No nation state has ever left the EU. But Greenland, one of Denmark’s overseas territories, held a referendum in 1982, after gaining a greater degree of self government, and voted by 52% to 48% to leave, which it duly did after a period of negotiation.
What does this mean for Scotland?
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said in the wake of the Leave result that it was “democratically unacceptable” that Scotland faced being taken out of the EU when it voted to Remain.
She has called for an extension of the 21-month transition period to give the UK government more time to negotiate a compromise with opposition parties – and has officially asked for another referendum to be held, on the final Brexit deal.
The SNP leader wants to stay in the customs union and single market after Brexit, describing it as the “least damaging” option for the UK economy as a whole.
How much has Brexit cost so far and how much will it cost by the end?
There is much debate about the long-term costs and benefits to the UK economy of Brexit – but what we do know for certain is that the EU wants the UK to settle any outstanding bills before it leaves.
The bill will cover things like pension payments to EU officials, the cost of relocating London-based EU agencies and outstanding EU budget commitments. The often-quoted estimate of the so-called “divorce bill” is £39bn.
But the calculation of an exact UK share will depend on exchange rates, on interest rates, on the number of financial commitments that never turn into payments, and more. The UK says that if there is no deal agreed on Brexit it would pay substantially less and focus only on its “strict international legal obligations”.
Why pay anything?
The UK could leave without any Brexit “divorce bill” deal but that would probably mean everyone ending up in court. If compromise can be achieved, and if payment of the bill were to be spread over many years, the amounts involved may not be that significant economically.
How will pensions, savings, investments and mortgages be affected?
State pensions are set to continue increasing by at least the level of earnings, inflation or 2.5% every year – whichever is the highest, no matter what happens in the Brexit negotiations.
There was an early post-referendum cut in interest rates, which has helped keep mortgage and other borrowing rates low. The reasonably strong performance of the UK economy, and the increase in inflation led to the Bank of England raising interest rates from 0.25% to 0.5% in November 2017 – the first increase in interest rates for 10 years – and then to 0.75% in August 2018. Interest rates going up generally makes it more expensive to pay back a mortgage or loan – but should be good news for savers as they should get amore interest on their money.
Will duty-free sales on Europe journeys return?
Journalists and writers on social media have greeted the reintroduction of duty-free sales as an “upside” or “silver lining” of Brexit. As with most Brexit consequences, whether this will happen depends on how negotiations with the EU play out – whether the “customs union” agreement between Britain and the EU is ended or continued.
Will EHIC cards still be valid?
If you are already living in another EU country on the day the UK leaves the bloc, 29 March 2019, your EHIC card – which entitles travellers to state-provided medical help for any condition or injury that requires urgent treatment, in any other country within the EU, as well as several non-EU countries – will continue to work.
After that date, for EU citizens wishing to travel to the UK or UK citizens wishing to travel to the EU, it is unclear about what will happen because no deal has yet been reached.
Will cars need new number plates?
Probably not, says BBC Europe correspondent Chris Morris, because there’s no EU-wide law on vehicle registration or car number places, and the EU flag symbol is a voluntary identifier and not compulsory. The DVLA says there has been no discussion about what would happen to plates with the flag if the UK voted to leave.
Will leaving the EU mean we don’t have to abide by the European Court of Human Rights?
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg is not a European Union institution. It was set up by the Council of Europe, which has 47 members including Russia and Ukraine. So quitting the EU will not exempt the UK from its decisions.
The Conservatives are committed to sticking with the Human Rights Act which requires UK courts to treat the ECHR as setting legal precedents for the UK during the Brexit process.
What about the European Court of Justice?
The Court of Justice of the European Union – to give it its full name – is the EU’s highest legal authority. It is based in Luxembourg. It is an entirely different thing to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).
It is the ECHR not the ECJ that has often upset British politicians by making it harder, for example, to deport terrorist suspects. The ECJ interprets and enforces the rules of the single market, settling disputes between member countries over issues like free movement and trade. It is at the centre of pretty much everything the EU does and it having the power over UK actions has been a key issue for those arguing for the UK to leave to the EU to regain full sovereignty.
Prime Minister Theresa May has vowed that Britain will not be under the “direct” jurisdiction of the ECJ after Brexit. But she has suggested that elements of relations could – where the UK signs up to specific EU agencies – still be covered by the ECJ after Brexit
After that, there will need to be a new mechanism for settling disputes between the UK and the EU but what form that take has yet to be decided. There has been talk of an ombudsman, or some other third party, being appointed to settle disagreements.
The version of the Brexit deal, published on 8 December 2017, do also give limited powers to the ECJ in terms of EU citizens living in the UK for up to eight years.
The political declaration document makes clear that ECJ will continue to have a role on interpreting EU law after Brexit.
Will the UK be able to rejoin the EU in the future?
BBC Europe editor Katya Adler says the UK would have to start from scratch with no rebate, and enter accession talks with the EU. Every member state would have to agree to the UK re-joining. But she says with elections looming elsewhere in Europe, other leaders might not be generous towards any UK demands. New members are required to adopt the euro as their currency, once they meet the relevant criteria, although the UK could try to negotiate an opt-out.
Who wanted the UK to leave the EU?
The UK Independence Party, which received nearly four million votes – 13% of those cast – in the 2015 general election, but who saw their vote collapse to about a quarter of that at this year’s election, has campaigned for many years for Britain’s exit from the EU. They were joined in their call during the referendum campaign by about half the Conservative Party’s MPs, including Boris Johnson and five members of the then Cabinet. A handful of Labour MPs and Northern Ireland party the DUP were also in favour of leaving.
What were their reasons for wanting the UK to leave?
They said Britain was being held back by the EU, which they said imposed too many rules on business and charged billions of pounds a year in membership fees for little in return. They also wanted the UK to make all of its own laws again, rather than being created through shared decision making with other EU nations.
Immigration was also a big issue for Brexit supporters, They wanted Britain to take back full control of its borders and reduce the number of people coming here to live and/or work.
One of the main principles of EU membership is “free movement”, which means you don’t need to get a visa to go and live in another EU country. The Leave campaign also objected to the idea of “ever closer union” between EU member states and what they see as moves towards the creation of a “United States of Europe”.
Who wanted the UK to stay in the EU?
Then Prime Minister David Cameron was the leading voice in the Remain campaign, after reaching an agreement with other European Union leaders that would have changed the terms of Britain’s membership had the country voted to stay in.
He said the deal would give Britain “special” status and help sort out some of the things British people said they didn’t like about the EU, like high levels of immigration – but critics said the deal would make little difference.
Sixteen members of Mr Cameron’s Cabinet, including the woman who would replace him as PM, Theresa May, also backed staying in. The Conservative Party was split on the issue and officially remained neutral in the campaign. The Labour Party, Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats were all in favour of staying in.
The then US president Barack Obama also wanted Britain to remain in the EU – unlike his successor, Donald Trump, who is an enthusiastic champion of Brexit – as did the leaders of other EU nations such as France and Germany.
What were their reasons for wanting the UK to stay?
Those campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU said it got a big boost from membership – it makes selling things to other EU countries easier and, they argued, the flow of immigrants, most of whom are young and keen to work, fuels economic growth and helps pay for public services.
They also said Britain’s status in the world would be damaged by leaving and that we are more secure as part of the 28 nation club, rather than going it alone.
What about businesses?
Big business – with a few exceptions – tended to be in favour of Britain staying in the EU because it makes it easier for them to move money, people and products around the world.
Given the crucial role of London as a financial centre, there’s interest in how many jobs may be lost to other hubs in the EU. Some UK exporters say they’ve had increased orders or enquiries because of the fall in the value of the pound. Others are less optimistic, fearing products for the European market may have to be made at plants in the EU.
Who led the rival sides in the referendum campaign?
- Britain Stronger in Europe – the main cross-party group campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU was headed by former Marks and Spencer chairman Lord Rose. It was backed by key figures from the Conservative Party, including Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne, most Labour MPs, including party leader Jeremy Corbyn and Alan Johnson, who ran the Labour In for Britain campaign, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru, the Alliance party and the SDLP in Northern Ireland, and the Green Party. Who funded the campaign: Britain Stronger in Europe raised £12.1m, including two donations totalling £2.3m from the supermarket magnate and Labour peer Lord Sainsbury. Other prominent Remain donors included hedge fund manager David Harding (£750,000), businessman and Travelex founder Lloyd Dorfman (£500,000) and the Tower Limited Partnership (£500,000). Who else campaigned to remain: The SNP ran its own remain campaign in Scotland as it did not want to share a platform with the Conservatives. Several smaller groups also registered to campaign.
- Vote Leave – A cross-party campaign that had the backing of senior Conservatives such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson plus a handful of Labour MPs, including Gisela Stuart and Graham Stringer, and UKIP’s Douglas Carswell and Suzanne Evans, and the DUP in Northern Ireland. Former Tory chancellor Lord Lawson and SDP founder Lord Owen were also involved. It had a string of affiliated groups such as Farmers for Britain, Muslims for Britain and Out and Proud, a gay anti-EU group, aimed at building support in different communities. Who funded the campaign: Vote Leave raised £9.8m. Among its supporters was businessman Patrick Barbour, who gave £500,000. Former Conservative Party treasurer Peter Cruddas gave a £350,000 donation and construction mogul Terence Adams handed over £300,000. Who else campaigned to leave: UKIP leader Nigel Farage was not part of Vote Leave. His party ran its own campaign and was involved in Leave.EU, a campaign run by former UKIP donor Arron Banks, which raised a total of £3.2m. The Trade Union and Socialist Coalition also ran its own out campaign. Several smaller groups also registered to campaign.
Will the EU still use English?
Yes, says BBC Europe editor Katya Adler. There will still be 27 other EU states in the bloc, and others wanting to join in the future, and the common language tends to be English – “much to France’s chagrin”, she says.
Will Brexit harm product safety?
Probably not, is the answer. It would depend on whether or not the UK decided to get rid of current safety standards. Even if that happened any company wanting to export to the EU would have to comply with its safety rules, and it’s hard to imagine a company would want to produce two batches of the same products.
Which MPs were for staying and which for leaving?
The good news for Edward, from Cambridge, who asked this question, is we have been working on exactly such a list.
How much does the UK contribute to the EU and how much do we get in return?
In answer to this query from Nancy from Hornchurch – the UK is one of 10 member states who pay more into the EU budget than they get out. Only France and Germany contribute more. In 2014/15, Poland was the largest beneficiary, followed by Hungary and Greece.
The UK also gets an annual rebate that was negotiated by Margaret Thatcher and money back, in the form of regional development grants and payments to farmers, which added up to £4.6bn in 2014/15. According to the latest Treasury figures, the UK’s net contribution for 2014/15 was £8.8bn – nearly double what it was in 2009/10.
The National Audit Office, using a different formula which takes into account EU money paid directly to private sector companies and universities to fund research, and measured over the EU’s financial year, shows the UK’s net contribution for 2014 was £5.7bn.
If I retire to Spain or another EU country will my healthcare costs still be covered?
David, from East Sussex, is worried about what will happen to his retirement plans. At the moment, the large British expat community in Spain gets free access to Spanish GPs and their hospital treatment is paid for by the NHS. After they become permanent residents Spain pays for their hospital treatment.
In some other EU countries such as France expats of working age are expected to pay the same healthcare costs as locals but once they reach retirement age their medical bills are paid by the NHS.
The deal agreed in principle between the UK and the EU means the position will remain unchanged for British people living in the EU before the Brexit cut off date (29 March 2019) – but it has yet to be decided what happens if you want to retire to somewhere in the EU after that date.
What will happen to protected species?
Dee, from Launceston, wanted to know what would happen to EU laws covering protected species such as bats in the event of Britain leaving the EU.
As already mentioned the plan is for all EU laws to be transferred into UK law as part of the EU (withdrawal) Bill. That means the government then has time to decide what laws to keep, scrap or change without the risk of a legal black hole on the first day after Brexit.
The status of Special Areas of Conservation and Special Protection Areas, which are designated by the EU, would be reviewed to see what alternative protections could be applied. The same process would apply to European Protected Species legislation, which relate to bats and their habitats. The issue has been a hot one and Environment Secretary Michael Gove has insisted that the UK will maintain or enhance its environmental laws.
Will we be barred from the Eurovision Song Contest?
Sophie from Peterborough, who asks the question, need not worry. We have consulted Alasdair Rendall, president of the UK Eurovision fan club, who says: “All participating countries must be a member of the European Broadcasting Union. The EBU – which is totally independent of the EU – includes countries both inside and outside of the EU, and also includes countries such as Israel that are outside of Europe. Indeed the UK started participating in the Eurovision Song Contest in 1957, 16 years before joining the then EEC.”
What will happen to pet passports?
The answer to Alan’s question, the European Commission says, is that pet passports will, like everything else, form part of the negotiations.
The UK introduced the pet passport scheme in 2000, replacing the previous quarantine laws. It means you and your dog, cat or ferret can travel between the UK and the EU (and other participating countries) as long as it has a passport, a microchip and has been vaccinated against rabies.
Of course, until the UK actually leaves the EU, the scheme continues as normal.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “The UK has a long history of world-leading animal welfare and biosecurity standards, which we are committed to safeguarding and improving, securing the best deal for Britain as we leave the EU.
Has Brexit made house prices fall?
So far, the answer is no. The average price for property has continued to increase, although the rate of annual price rise has slowed from 9.4% in the year to June 2016 to 3% in the year to June 2018, according to the Office for National Statistics.
What is the ‘red tape’ that opponents of the EU complain about?
Ged, from Liverpool, suspects “red tape” is a euphemism for employment rights and environmental protection. According to the Open Europe think tank, four of the top five most costly EU regulations are either employment or environment-related. The UK renewable energy strategy, which the think-tank says costs £4.7bn a year, tops the list. The working time directive (£4.2bn a year) – which limits the working week to 48 hours – and the temporary agency workers directive (£2.1bn a year), giving temporary staff many of the same rights as permanent ones – are also on the list.
Most of the EU-derived laws on the UK’s statute books will be copied across into UK law so that businesses can continue to function on the day Britain leaves the EU, in March 2019. Future governments will then be able to amend or scrap them.
Brexit may also generate “red tape” of its own – if the UK leaves the single market and the customs union, businesses could face more paperwork as they cross borders into EU countries.
Will Britain be party to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership?
Ste, in Bolton, asked about this. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – or TTIP – currently under negotiation between the EU and United States would create the biggest free trade area the world has ever seen.
Cheerleaders for TTIP, including former PM David Cameron, believed it could make American imports cheaper and boost British exports to the US to the tune of £10bn a year.
But many on the left, including Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, feared it wouldl shift more power to multinational corporations, undermine public services, wreck food standards and threaten basic rights.
This debate now appears academic as US President Donald Trump is not a fan of the agreement, which means it has been shelved in its previous form – but whatever happens, when the UK quits the EU it would no longer be part of a revived TTIP and is planning to negotiate its own trade deal with the US.
What impact will leaving the EU have on the NHS?
Paddy, from Widnes, wanted to know how leaving the EU will affect the number of doctors we have and impact the NHS.
This became an issue in the referendum debate after the Leave campaign claimed the money Britain sends to the EU, which it claimed was £350m a week, could be spent on the NHS instead.
Before the vote the then Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned that leaving the EU would lead to budget cuts and an exodus of overseas doctors and nurses. The Leave campaign dismissed his intervention as “scaremongering” and insisted that EU membership fees could be spent on domestic services like the NHS.
Since the referendum there has been a relaxation of the immigration rules for doctors from outside the EU and an increase in the planned number of “home grown” doctors qualifying through new medical schools. But according to Personnel Today there were fewer EU nationals moving to work in the NHS, and an increase in the number quitting.
Spending on the NHS has continued at the same level as planned before the referendum, although Theresa May said in June 2018 that a “Brexit dividend” was helping fund a larger-than-planned £20bn increase in NHS spending in England by 2023.
Why has leaving the European Court of Human Rights been ignored?
The European Court of Human Rights is not an EU institution and that’s why discussions about leaving it have not formed a key part of the Brexit debate.
The European Court of Justice – the ECJ – is one of the primary institutions of the European Union and administers EU law. So, while it might have a role in supervising a future trade deal, part of the goal of Brexit was to remove the UK from the ECJ’s jurisdiction.
The European Court of Human Rights which, as Barry points out, can be even more controversial, is a body set up not by the EU but by member states of the Council of Europe, a separate institution which contains countries that aren’t EU members.
It’s this court which has produced rulings which have been controversial in the UK, including blocking the extradition of Abu Qatada and establishing the right of serving prisoners to vote in elections – and leaving the EU won’t change anything here.
Adrian runs a small electronics company and wants to know about export tariffs after Brexit
As long as Britain has been in the EU we haven’t really talked much about tariffs. That’s because all trade within the European Economic Area is tariff-free. On top of that the EU has trade agreements with 52 other countries as well.
After Brexit, Britain is going to have to negotiate new deals all on its own. That’s both a problem and an opportunity.
For example you can use tariffs against foreign imports to protect businesses you care about, as the EU does with agricultural produce, but you do then run the risk of retaliation from your trading partners.
The key body in all of this is the World Trade Organisation and at the moment the UK is only a member via its membership of the EU.
The UK will automatically become a member in its own right as soon as it leaves the EU.
The principle of non-discrimination means that WTO members must not treat any member less advantageously than any other.
In practice, this should prevent the EU introducing tariffs on the UK which would discriminate against us, or the UK introducing similar tariffs on the EU.
Non-food items imported into the EU currently have a tariff of about 2,3%. Cars have a 10% tariff – but if the EU were to impose a 10% tariff on UK car imports, then the UK could impose the same tariff on German and French cars. The two sides would want to avoid a tit-for-tat trade war.
They are hoping to strike a broad agreement on trading terms by December 2020, which would include a “free trade area and deep co-operation on goods, with zero tariffs and quotas”.
The UK will also need to reach agreements with other nations around the world.
What impact will leaving have on the UK’s long term political influence in Europe
In reply to Peter – there are basically two views on what will happen in terms of clout when outside the EU.
View one is that the UK projects power and influence in the world, working through organisations such as the EU and that on our own it’ll be a much diminished force.
View two is that unencumbered by the other 27 members, the UK can get on with things and start adopting a much more independent, self-confident, assertive role on the world stage.
Will other EU nations want to leave and could the UK form its own free trade area?
If the UK were to get a fantastic Brexit deal then maybe others would be tempted to go.
But the truth is, lots of European politicians want the EU to be tough with Britain precisely to stop other countries from following it through the door.
As to Britain forming its own free trade area, it seems an awfully long shot and on balance it is unlikely, not least because there are not that many free countries around available to recruit into another free trade area.
How will access to healthcare change for expats living in the EU
Veronique, who lives in Italy asked this one. fter Brexit, there will be two possibilities.
The first and easiest would be that the negotiators come up with a reciprocal deal that keeps the current arrangements, or something a bit like them, in place.
If they don’t, the situation will depend on the individual country where you live.
For the Bradleys in Italy, for example, residents from non-EU countries, and that will soon include the Brits, will have to finalise their residency status, acquire an Italian identity card and then apply for an Italian health insurance card.
If they visit the UK at the moment, access to the NHS for non-resident Brits is not straightforward unless you have a European health insurance card.
The right to treatment is based on residency, not on your tax status.
So, even if you live abroad and pay some British tax on a buy-to-let property for instance, you might find yourself getting a bill for any NHS treatment you end up getting while you are back in the UK.
What will happen to EU nationals with a British state pension
Peter, a German citizen living in the UK asked this question, and the good news is that if you are an EU national and you get a British state pension, nothing much should change, because the state pension is dependent not on where you come from, but on how long you have paid National Insurance contributions in the UK.
So it doesn’t matter whether you come from Lithuania or Latvia or Transylvania or Timbuktu, what counts is how much you have paid in terms of National Insurance contributions.
There is one wrinkle though and that is that you have to have paid in for at least 10 years.
Under the current rules, if you are an EU citizen and haven’t paid in for 10 years, you can point to any contributions you have made in your native country and say, “I paid in there”, and that will count.
That works for EU countries and another 16 countries with which the UK has social security agreements.
Once we have left the EU, you will no longer be able to do that unless we negotiate new reciprocal agreements.
If we don’t then potentially, if you have paid in fewer than than 10 years’ worth of National Insurance contributions, you will not get a British state pension.
Is it possible to be both an EU citizen and not an EU citizen
Anyone born in Northern Ireland has an absolute right to carry both passports.
Declan, and Irish passport holder, might be happy to know that this is one of the few questions where I can’t see a downside as long as you are happy and comfortable carrying both passports.
The Irish document means you continue to enjoy the benefits of EU citizenship, and the British passport will give you full rights in the UK at the same time.
Call it one of the clear joys of coming from Northern Ireland, alongside the rolling hills, rugged coastline and enjoyable breaks between the showers.
All you have to do is remember to carry the Irish passport when you are joining the EU citizens-only queue at the airport in future.
Is there a get-out clause for Article 50?
It’s complicated. On the face of it, it looks like once we have triggered Article 50 we are locked in, and that is certainly how the European Parliament reads it.
And there is a view that if we were in this two-year process after triggering Article 50 and we wanted to get out of it, then ultimately that would be a decision for the European Court of Justice.
But the EU top brass never miss an opportunity to tell us what a big mistake they think we are making.
So although suddenly announcing we don’t want to leave after all would involve a huge loss of face, other European leaders might help it happen, whatever the legal protocol but all 28 EU members would have to agree.