With the Brexit deadline quickly approaching, many people are still unsure of what Brexit actually means. We all know that the term is an amalgamation of the words ‘British’ and ‘Exit,’ in reference to Great Britain’s unexpected vote to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum. But beyond that, the implications of a ‘No Deal Brexit’ are still unclear and difficult to conceptualize. Many people have given up on trying to understand the complexities of Brexit- even though it’s a highly contentious issue that has been repeatedly discussed and dissected by the media and by the British government. And for some, the constant Brexit discourse is simply irritating background noise they’ve learned to ignore.
However, Great Britain is now set to leave the European Union on October 31st- whether Parliament has a withdrawal agreement in place or not. The impacts of Brexit will soon be more tangible, so it’s important to understand even just the basics.
So what is the withdrawal agreement? Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union outlines, in regards to a member state wishing to leave the EU, that ‘the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal.’ Having a withdrawal agreement in place is important for transitional purposes- it’s meant to mitigate the negative impacts Brexit will have on British nationals living abroad in countries that still belong to the EU, on Britain leaving the EU’s single market (which allows for free trade between member states), and on the Northern Irish border once it becomes a border between an EU member state and a non-EU member state.
A no-deal Brexit simply means that Great Britain would leave the European Union with no withdrawal agreement in place, meaning no transitionary period. There’s no precedent to give us an idea of what this might look like because no country has ever left the European Union before. Parliament has been struggling to reach a consensus on how Brexit should be executed, and voted against proposed withdrawal agreements on three occasions. The deadline had to be extended several times, but whether or not it will be extended again is unknown.
With Teresa May’s resignation, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now attempting to see Brexit through before the deadline approaches. His Brexit plan differs from Teresa May’s in regards to the backstop- an insurance policy negotiated between the European Union and Great Britain that is meant to prevent there ever being a need for a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the case of a no deal Brexit.
The backstop is meant to continue allowing goods and people to travel freely from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, without being required to pass through customs, which typically takes place at border checkpoints. Teresa May and the EU offered to allow Great Britain to remain in the EU’s single market and customs union, which would eliminate the need for customs checkpoints and a hard border in Ireland- but this proposal was rejected by MPs who want the UK to remain autonomous and free to strike their own trade deals without EU interference or control.
Boris Johnson’s backstop proposal has several elements, including that it will be compatible with the terms laid out in the Good Friday Agreement. It will also, according to Johnson, ‘provide for the potential creation of an all-island regulatory zone on the island of Ireland, covering all goods including agrifood. . . this zone would eliminate all regulatory checks for trade in goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland by ensuring that goods regulations in Northern Ireland are the same as those in the rest of the EU,’ essentially eliminating the need for a hard border. He also claimed that ‘Northern Ireland will be fully part of the UK customs territory, not the EU Customs Union. . . Control of trade policy is fundamental to our future vision.’
It’s needless to say that surgically removing a country from a political system as intricate and complex as the European Union has been incredibly difficult- in terms of both execution, and public understanding. We still don’t know for certain what will happen on October 31st, or if Boris Johnson’s proposed backstop alternative will be approved, but it’s important to understand the consequences of Brexit when the impacts become more apparent.