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A Brexit timeline: How much time is actually left to strike a deal?

Here’s what’s happened so far, and what’s still to come in the Brexit negotiations.


This article was first published on the 30 June 2018. It has been republished to include the latest developments in Brexit negotiations.

IT’S NOT JUST trade and citizens’ rights that complicate any Brexit, it’s also the timeline that leads up to the UK’s departure from the EU.

The ordering of what happens in the months ahead is especially important in working out a solution for the Irish border problem. There has been little to no progress on the border in the past three months, despite across-the-board agreement that a hard border should be avoided at all costs.

As yet, no solution has been put forward to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The EU has had three summits since Article 50 was triggered, and with more talk about ‘sufficient progress’ and deadlines, we’ve compiled a timeline of important dates – past and future.

So let’s go back to where this all started to remind ourselves of how we ended up near the end of a two-year fixed period with no progress on how to avoid a hard border – and how likely it is that the timeline will be extended.

Big Ben repairs Scaffolding surrounds Big Ben to facilitate conservation work and upgrades. Jonathan Brady via PA Images Jonathan Brady via PA Images

7 May 2015

Tory Prime Minister David Cameron wins a 12-seat majority in the general election, based on a manifesto that includes the promise of holding a referendum on EU membership.

As well as being part of his manifesto, the EU referendum was also partly prompted by the rise of Nigel Farage and Ukip, who had began to gain traction in local elections. Farage in particular, made frequent statements decrying the EU’s immigration policy.

23 June 2016

The EU referendum is held. The final result sees 51.9% vote to leave the European Union, with 48.1% voting to remain.

The populations of Northern Ireland and Scotland vote to remain in the EU, while England and Wales vote to leave. Cameron resigns as Prime Minister.

4 July 2016

Nigel Farage resigns as leader of Ukip.

“I have decided to stand aside as leader of UKIP,” he told a London press conference. “The victory for the ‘Leave’ side in the referendum means that my political ambition has been achieved.”

He’s replaced with Paul Nuttall in November 2016, who resigns on 9 June 2017 after his party fail to win any seats in the UK general election.

13 July 2016

Theresa May becomes Prime Minister, two days after becoming leader of the Conservative party.

General Election 2017 PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Although she campaigned for the UK to remain in the EU, she was suspected as being a ‘secret’ Leave voter, and was instructed to campaign for a ‘Remain’ vote as a senior government minister (she was Home Secretary before taking the post as premier).

May also said before the referendum that whatever the outcome, the UK should leave the European Court of Human Rights, outlining problems she had with it as Home Secretary.

29 March 2017

Theresa May tells the House of Commons that Article 50 has been formally triggered.

This set in motion a two-year timeframe which allows a member state to negotiate its withdrawal from the European Union (the scheduled Brexit departure date is 29 March 2019).

29 April 2017

Taoiseach Enda Kenny gets unanimous approval that Northern Ireland can rejoin the EU as part of a united Ireland.

8 JUNE 2017

General Election 2017 aftermath Theresa May and Arlene Foster outside 10 Downing Street ahead of a deal to prop up the minority Conservative government. Dominic Lipinski via PA Images Dominic Lipinski via PA Images

On 8 June, Theresa May loses her majority in Parliament. She had called a snap election in order to strengthen her hand in the House of Commons and in Brexit negotiations with the EU, and ended up in a minority government propped up by the DUP.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party did better than expected, despite a huge amount of criticism in the UK media.

After much speculation and a prolonged announcement, Enda Kenny announces on 17 May that he would resign as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael by the end of the day.

On 14 June, Leo Varadkar becomes Taoiseach after a leadership challenge with Simon Coveney, who he appoints as Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs.

New Taoiseach Tánaiste Simon Coveney shakes hands with Fine Gael leader and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

8 December 2017

The EU and UK agree that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland in what’s become known as ‘the backstop’, after a bit of back-and-forth with the DUP.

This was an agreement that in a worst-case scenario, where there’s no agreed solution to the Irish border question, there would be “regulatory alignment” between the EU and Northern Ireland to ensure there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland.

There’s been little clarification on what “regulatory alignment” means in practical terms.

Britain, who have pledged to leave the Customs Union and Single Market in order to pursue more lucrative trade deals with countries outside the EU, have said that technology could be used to scan products and track the movement of people across the border.

But many experts, EU leaders and members of the Irish government have said that this technology doesn’t exist yet, and want more detail from the UK. Although Theresa May and the EU have repeatedly vocalised their determination to avoid a border on the island of Ireland, in the two years since the Brexit vote there hasn’t been a comprehensive plan on how to do this.

The only way, it seems, that it could be achieved is for the UK to remain in the customs union (which the Brexiteers and British citizens don’t want) or Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union, while the rest of UK leaves (which the DUP doesn’t want).

United Kingdom: Sinn Fein and DUP Leaders Meet Theresa May at Downing Street Detail shot of Ireland's Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams' pin that commemorates Martin McGuinness. SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

19 March 2018

The UK and EU agree on a transition phase which will last until 31 December 2020 – this is conditional on both sides agreeing to a final withdrawal deal.

It also agreed the wording of the backstop agreement.

original (1) European Commission European Commission

The transitional phase would mean that EU citizens arriving in the UK between the 29 March 2019 (when the UK is scheduled to leave) and 31 December 2020 would enjoy the same rights and guarantees as those who arrive before Brexit.

The same would apply to UK expats on the continent. The UK would be able to negotiate, sign and ratify its own trade deals during the transition period while remaining part of existing EU trade deals.

Northern Ireland would also stay in parts of the single market and the customs union if there is still no other solution that would avoid a hard border.

7 June 2018

The UK government published a document outlining its position on post-Brexit customs arrangements.

Although it was welcomed by the Irish government, they said that more detail was needed in order to progress with talks. The EU reaction was even more harsh, with Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier saying it didn’t give enough detail and posed more questions than answers.

The document proposed allowing the whole of the UK to be part of the “regulatory alignment” backstop if an alternative solution couldn’t be found. The regulatory alignment was only suggested, however, to protect the Good Friday Agreement (and avoid a return to Troubles-era violence).

The customs document also proposed putting a time limit on the backstop, which was also dismissed as unworkable; both Varadkar and Barnier made separate statements saying that an “all-weather” solution was needed.

28-29 June 2018

The European Council meeting was held.

This was the third and penultimate summit before the UK officially leaves the EU, but because so many issues were left unresolved, there’s talk of another summit being held between June and the final summit in October to iron out the remaining problems.

Those unresolved problems include the protection of citizens’ data after the UK leaves, and “geographical indicators” or a guarantee about where a product, like Scotch whiskey, is from.

In particular, the Irish question was expected to be discussed and perhaps finalised by the end of this meeting of EU leaders. The lack of progress by the UK has forced the Irish government to begin researching the reaction to a no-deal scenario, which it was reluctant to do before now.

EU negotiators are understood to be disappointed with the amount of progress made on the Irish question between March and June, but still are reluctant to entertain the idea of a no-deal scenario. Sinn Féin has said there should be a special summit in September to discuss the Irish border issue.

Brexit The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Niall Carson Niall Carson

6 July 2018

This was the Friday Theresa May gathered her Cabinet for a day-long discussion about what kind of Brexit they were going to ask the EU for.

MPs were instructed to hand in their phones at the beginning of the day so that reports wouldn’t be leaked to the media.

By 8 or 9pm, May published a video on Twitter briefly outlining the 12 points that her Cabinet had agreed upon.

Most significant was the request for a “UK-EU free trade area with a common rulebook for industrial goods and agricultural products”. The plan also reiterated its commitment to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Brexit One of the rare photos of Theresa May's cabinet meeting at Chequers, Buckinghamshire. Stefan Rousseau Stefan Rousseau

Some UK media reported that May also sent a letter out to her ministers threatening to discipline them if they didn’t roll in behind this plan. The threat of being fired seemed to have an effect – as two senior Brexiteers were to resign.

9 July 2018

The following Monday, Brexit secretary David Davis resigned from his role, saying he couldn’t endorse or fight for the Brexit deal outlined by the Cabinet.

“The general direction of policy will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one,” he wrote in his letter to May.

Later that day, at 3pm, Boris Johnson resigned as foreign secretary. In his resignation letter Johnson said: “Brexit should be about opportunity and hope… The dream is dying, suffocated by needleless self-doubt.”

Interestingly, Davis criticised Johnson’s decision to resign, saying “I had resigned because this was essential to my job… I’d have to be the champion of the policy. I don’t think it’s essential to the role of Foreign Secretary.”

Cabinet meeting Stefan Rousseau via PA Images Stefan Rousseau via PA Images

12 July 2018

The UK government publishes its long-awaited White Paper on Brexit. The 104-page document outlines the UK’s proposals for Brexit, and gives an insight into its position on a number of policies.

The White Paper, although nowhere near a finished Brexit deal, would form a basis for future negotiations with the EU.

It proposed that the UK and EU would share rules and regulations around customs, agri-foods and fisheries, a proposal that could avoid a hard border but would be difficult for Brexiteers to stomach (the House of Commons must approve the deal before it goes though).

19-20 July 2018

Theresa May visits Northern Ireland – including her first visit to the Irish border since becoming Prime Minister. She had been criticised previously for not engaging in issues in the North, in particular the collapsed Stormont Assembly.

During her speech in Belfast on Friday, she said that she wouldn’t accept the EU’s proposal for a backstop, saying that it lead to a partition within the UK and a border along the Irish Sea.

She said that no UK prime minister could accept that.

Brexit Prime Minister Theresa May during her speech at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast. PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

Following that statement from Theresa May, the Irish government and EU ramped up efforts to prepare for a ‘hard’ Brexit or no-deal scenario.

Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill said that following May’s speech, it was looking “increasingly likely that there will be a no-deal Brexit”.

18-19 October 2018

This was the date set by EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier to have a discussion about the Withdrawal Agreement – but of course, this didn’t happen.

There was disagreement over what the backstop, a plan B or safety net to ensure no matter what custom rules or regulations are in place, that a hard border will not return to the island of Ireland.

The UK was offered a “two-tier backstop” in an attempt to break the impasse: this would mean a backstop for the UK where they would be part of a customs union, and a backstop for Northern Ireland where they would remain in the Customs Union and Single Market.

An extension to the transition period, which was to run from the 29 March 2019 until 31 December 2020, was also offered, to give businesses more time to prepare for changes.

But as it stands, there’s still no agreement from within the Tory party over what kind of Brexit deal they want: some want to scrap the backstop altogether and go for a hard Brexit; while others like MP Anna Soubry want a second referendum.

BRITAIN-LONDON-BREXIT VOTE-DEMONSTRATION People take part in the People's Vote March in London in October 2018 Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

On 20 October,  hundreds of thousands of people marched on Westminster to call for a second referendum on Brexit. Although this is thought to be the largest demonstration since the Iraq war protest in 2003, opinion polls show that the percentage of Remain voters is just 4 points ahead of those who wish to Leave the EU (which is the same percentage before the original vote in June 2016, by the way).

There’s been a lot of disagreement within Westminster about who should have the power to vote on the deal – it’s been decided that the elected House of Commons will be the ones to cast their vote on it before it’s approved.

At least 20 out of 27 leaders of the remaining EU member states need to approve the deal for it to progress.

EU parliaments have to ratify the deal before 29 March 2019, which is two years to the day after Article 50 was triggered and when the UK must formally leave the EU. After this date, and if a withdrawal bill is agreed upon, Britain would then enter a two-year transition period.

Another EU summit is planned for the 8 December – one had been provisionally pencilled in for mid November if enough progress on the Irish backstop had been made. But Barnier decided that they hadn’t progressed far enough to warrant this.

Brexit An anti-Brexit demonstrator holds European Union and England flags outside the Houses of Parliament. PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

29 March 2019

The UK officially leaves the EU – deal or no deal. This is why there’s such a rush to get a final deal on the table, as both elected members of the EU and UK must approve the final agreement and ratify it before this date.

Although the Brexit schedule has been set in stone so far, there’s been some talk of extending the negotiation timeframe to allow for more time to come up with a solution.

This isn’t the preferred approach by the EU or Brexiteers however – Brexiteers including Nigel Farage have said that it would be a betrayal by the UK government to delay Brexit.

23-26 May 2019

The European elections are due to take place, meaning Ireland’s representatives in the European Parliament could change.

Already we know that Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy will be leaving the EP to run as a Dáil candidate in the next general election.

The elections will also see Ireland’s representation of MEPs rising from 11 to 13 because of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.

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