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Brexit Explained

Here's all you need to know about Brexit, and why it's important

Forget the summits, political statements, and promises – here’s what we actually know about Brexit.

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THE UK’S DECISION to leave the European Union has become a complex and unpredictable beast, which has raised many questions about the responsibilities of a political and social movement weighed against the value of an economic and trade partnership.

It has started debates about the future of the European Union, the next step for the United Kingdom, and stoked the possibility of a trade war.

It’s also put the relationship between Ireland and our closest neighbour – in business, political partnerships and family ties – in jeopardy.

Over the next few weeks, before a crucial summit in October, we’re hoping to get a final plan on what Brexit will look like. But before then, let’s have a quick catch up on how we got here, what all those terms and deals mean, and what it is to be a member of the European Union.

How did Brexit happen?

Brexit Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and former UK Prime Minister David Cameron point fingers at one another. Yui Mok Yui Mok

After winning the general election, Tory Prime Minister David Cameron announced a referendum on EU membership. Having narrowly won the Scottish independence referendum months before (which saw Cameron travelling to Scotland at the last minute in a panic in order to rally support), the vote on EU membership was seen as an easy battle to win.

As well as being part of Cameron’s manifesto, the EU referendum was also partly prompted by the rise of Nigel Farage and Ukip, who had started to gain traction in local elections on an anti-EU, anti-immigration platform.

Boris Johnson also took a prominent part in the debate to leave the EU, which was seen as a political move to challenge Cameron as the UK and Tory leader (Johnson and Cameron went to Oxford University together, and the two have an interesting relationship – more on that in this piece from the British Independent).

On 23 June 2016, the EU referendum was held, and even at that late stage, the expectation was that the Remain vote would win (Farage gave what was considered a concession speech late in the day).

The final result saw 51.9% voting to leave the European Union (that’s 17 million people), with 48.1% voting to remain. The populations of Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to remain in the EU, while England and Wales voted to leave.

Having been left with no other option, Cameron resigned as Prime Minister.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU?

Scottish Labour conference Maggie Moss, from the European Movement in Scotland, demonstrates against Brexit outside the Scottish Labour Party Conference. Jane Barlow Jane Barlow

There was much analysis about why the UK voted to leave the European Union, but the best answer comes from looking at was being said and done directly before and directly after the Leave vote: that is, before the difficulties of Brexit came to light.

One of the main reasons to leave – encompassed by the Leave slogan ‘Take Back Control’ -  was to regain autonomy over UK affairs. Instead of paying into the EU which then redistributes the money in the form of grants, the UK would spend their money as they saw fit, went the argument.

This is best represented by the controversial and hotly contested “£350 million a week” which would be made in savings from leaving the EU and then given to the NHS. The day of the Brexit vote, Nigel Farage rowed back on that promise, saying it was a mistake to make such a claim. Others have also said that it isn’t possible, resulting in the big red bus, upon which the slogan appeared, to be mocked by the Remain side.

‘Take Back Our Borders’ was the slogan against immigration, which some in the UK feared in the wake of the growing migrant crisis in Europe and Germany’s pro-migration stance; and ‘Take Back Our Waters’ focused around fishing regulations and tensions around the number of EU boats that fish around the UK coast.

It’s also been said that the UK has always been a reluctant EU member state, not agreeing to join the euro being just one example. But officials in Europe also said that its politicians and representatives played a very active part in the EU, and that smaller countries could hide behind the UK when they objected strongly to certain issues.

What does it mean to be an EU member state?

Belgium: Political Leaders Attend The June 2018 EU Council Meeting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at The European Council summit in Brussels on 28 June. SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

The European Union started off as a coal and steel trade deal in the post-war era. Ireland and the UK joined that arrangement much later in the 1973, which was known as the European Communities by then.

In 1979, the first direct elections to the European Parliament were held and now, the European Union is both an economic and a social policy agreement between European nations. The idea is that by grouping European states together under a single market, it makes Europe more attractive as a whole for workers, and for corporate investment.

Member states pay an amount into the European Union pot, which is then redistributed as the EU elected officials see fit.

Up until now, the UK was the third biggest contributor, paying around 12.5% into the total budget. In 2016, the UK paid £13.1 billion into the EU budget, with the EU giving around £4.5 billion back to the UK in grants.

The Department of Finance said in a report earlier this year that Ireland will pay €2.7 billion into the EU budget this year, but has been asked to pay more to make up the deficit caused by Brexit (more on Ireland and the EU budget here).

Uk contributions Office for National Statistics Office for National Statistics

A large chunk of the EU budget goes towards the agriculture sector, such as CAP payments for farmers – an industry that isn’t that pronounced in the UK, but from which Ireland and Northern Ireland benefit massively.

As part of the UK’s departure from the European Union, they will have to pay “a divorce bill” of between €39 and €44 billion, a price that’s been sharply criticised by Brexiteers, and which Dominic Raab said the UK would refuse to pay if they don’t get a trade deal.

The bones of Brexit

So now that we’re through all that – what is Brexit, and why has something like leaving the European Union become so complex? 

Part of the reason is that the UK has been a part of the EU for so long, that many of its laws are EU laws, so they will have to make new UK versions when they leave (a lot of that work has already been done). 

Another reason is that being an EU member state creates close ties to other countries in the form of business links, trade deals and economic activity, particularly as the UK hasn’t been explicit about what kind of trade deal it wants instead.

The UK has indicated that it wants to remain part of the single market, but wants to limit regulation on goods and restrict immigration. But the EU has said that it won’t split the four freedoms of the EU (that’s the free movement of goods, services, people and capital) just because the UK has decided to leave the EU.

Brexit Theresa May with DUP leader Arlene Foster. This was May's first visit to the Irish border as UK Prime Minister. PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

The UK’s decision to leave the single market and customs union wouldn’t be as much of a problem if it wasn’t for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland; if a hard infrastructure were to go up because of different trade rules and regulations, it could threaten the hard-fought for peace in the North, which the UK, Ireland and the EU have promised to uphold as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

There are three elements that the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier put an emphasis on from the start – that’s the EU divorce bill budget (agreed), the guarantee of EU citizens’ rights in the UK and vice versa (mostly agreed, pending the jurisdiction of the European Courts of Justice); and securing peace in Northern Ireland and Ireland through avoiding a hard border (which hasn’t been agreed).

Barnier is angling for an ambitious free trade agreement, and an Irish backstop that would effectively mean a non-political custom-checks border along the Irish Sea, which he hopes would solve that problem.

But there is a lot of daylight between the two side’s stance on this issue – and even on what a ‘Plan B’ would look like.

The backstop

This is one of the most important parts of Brexit for Ireland. The backstop is an agreement between the EU and UK that if they can’t solve the Irish border issue, but can agree on all other Brexit problems, that the backstop will come into effect.

The backstop ensures that Northern Ireland would stay as part of the single market and the customs union if there is still no other solution that would avoid a hard border.

The wording of the backstop agreement was decided on 19 March after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing with the DUP, who are averse to the North being treated differently than Great Britain in the context of Brexit.

Although there are already differences in social policies between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, unionists fear that if the EU were to treat the North as an exception for peace-keeping reasons, that it could eventually lead to a united Ireland.

original (2) European Commission European Commission

The DUP is supporting the Tories in government, and because of this hold a great deal of sway on the backstop issue. In a speech given in Belfast, Theresa May said that she could not agree to a border along the Irish Sea, casting doubt over how watertight the backstop agreement is.

If there’s no agreement on the backstop – as in if they can’t agree on “regulatory alignment” on the island of Ireland, meaning one set of rules in Ireland – then there is no Brexit deal and the UK will go crashing out of the EU.

What happens if there is no deal?

Stormont powersharing talks Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney speaking outside Stormont House in Belfast. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Good question.

No one is really sure what happens if there is no deal at the end of negotiations and the UK go crashing out of the EU. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” as Theresa May has repeatedly said, meaning that the years of preparation for Brexit could count for nothing and the UK could leave without any relationship with the EU member states, Ireland included.

In this eventuality, a border would automatically go up on the island of Ireland – the EU has already said that it’s looked at the cost of setting up and manning a border in Ireland.

Experts say that this would lead to Troubles-era violence and an end to the peaceful era the North has enjoyed under the helm of a joint DUP-Sinn Féin government (until recently).

A final plan is scheduled in for a summit in October, where European politicians are expected to vote on the final Brexit deal. But without any progress on the Irish border issue they’re behind schedule already – prompting rumours that that vote could be pushed back to December, even January.

The UK is to leave the European Union on 29 March 2019 – two years to the day since Article 50 was triggered. All bets are off as to what happens between then and now.

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