A to Z of Brexit (Part I)
Nine months ago we were all sick of hearing about it, but since Covid-19 unceremoniously uprooted all of our lives, Brexit hasn’t been hitting the headlines nearly as much as the contentious topic deserves. But never fear, Arbury Road is here!
We have, of course, been focusing on Brexit during this turbulent year and today we bring you all you need to know in a concise A-Z. We’ll be taking you through A to M in this article because we can’t have too much excitement at once. Part Two coming soon.
What would a Brexit article be without a mention of the main man himself? Scotsman, Adam Fleming, has been running Brexitcast, the BBC’s flagship political podcast and TV programme on the topic, since the very start. Now named Newscast, the programme has diverted from Brexit along with the rest of the country since coronavirus came along but still features regular Brexit discussions led by Fleming. An enthusiastic fan of binders and excessively-long legal documents, Fleming clearly explains Brexit jargon and the inner workings of the EU to the public, using his previous experience as a BBC Brussels correspondent.
Remember when all we heard about for months was the Irish Backstop back in Theresa May’s hayday? A key point of contention in Brexit negotiations, the 310-mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is the only remaining land border between the UK and the EU after Brexit, meaning that the political agreements and security measures put in place at this border are extremely important for both sides, further complicated by the historical sensitivity of the border. The backstop was a kind of ‘insurance policy’ negotiated by May to ensure there would not be a hard border between the UK and Ireland, i.e. no border checks. Boris Johnson has since replaced this with his own customs deal named the Northern Ireland protocol, which means that goods will not need to be checked between Ireland and Northern Ireland from 1 January, effectively creating a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in the Irish Sea.
We’ve lost count of the number of times a ‘Canada-style’ trade deal has been mentioned in Brexit talks. One of Boris Johnson’s favourite phrases, a comprehensive free trade agreement such as the one Canada has with the EU would allow most trading to take place without tariffs – taxes on imports – and with higher quotas, i.e. the amount of a product that can be exported without incurring extra charges. Comparisons between the UK and Canada are not always helpful, however, due to the long-standing relationship between the EU and Canada, in contrast to the yet-to-be-established UK-EU relationship, as well as the different types of trade each country does. For example, Canada does little trade in financial services, which is of major importance to the UK economy.
Dates and delays
How many times has the date for Brexit changed since the 2016 referendum? The perfect question for your next pub quiz. Since Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – the legal process for leaving the EU, which starts the supposed ‘two-year’ negotiation period – was triggered on 29 March 2017, the UK has asked for three extensions to this negotiation period, all of which the EU granted. The UK actually left the EU on 31 January 2020, which means Brexit has already happened and we currently find ourselves in the one-year transition period with a ‘no deal’ exit on the table. Feel reassured? One thing is for sure: the UK has asked for more extensions from the EU than we ever asked for homework extensions from our teachers.
Eurosceptic MPs in the Conservative Party were instrumental in causing Brexit by pressuring and/or convincing then Prime Minister, David Cameron, to hold a referendum on EU membership back in 2016. This faction of the Tory party has since formed the European Research Group (ERG), which is a group of extremely Eurosceptic Conservative MPs intent on securing a hard Brexit. As the process of Brexit has progressed, the ERG have exercised increasing influence on the manner of the UK’s exit from the EU, defeating Theresa May’s deal last year in 2019.
Freedom of movement
One of the most important cornerstones of the EU, freedom of movement allows EU citizens to live and work in other European countries, facilitating integration, creating a collective feeling of belonging and shared citizenship, and enabling citizens to experience life in cultures other than their own. This freedom was one of the main points of contention for Vote Leave, who successfully employed their spin machines to portray freedom of movement as the reason for the undercutting of many low-paid workers’ jobs, thus fuelling the famous and effective ‘take back control’ (of our borders and laws) slogan.
Normally a once-every-five-year occasion, two General Elections have been called since the 2016 EU referendum: the first in June 2017, resulting in Theresa May forming a minority Conversative government, and the second in December 2019, leading to Boris Johnson’s victory. Both Conservatives and Labour have called for the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act of 2011, which sets a five-year interval for General Elections, to be scrapped, with Conservatives saying it “has led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action” and Labour saying it “has stifled democracy and propped up weak governments.” Along with all the upturned conventions and unprecedented political situations that have emerged during the Brexit process, the flexibility of the supposed ‘fixed’ term parliament – implemented to provide an equal electoral playing-field for both major parties – has certainly been tested.
House of Lords
The unelected Upper Chamber of the Houses of Parliament has continued to cause trouble for Brexiteers throughout the process, with the Lords most recently commenting that the Internal Market Bill “would undermine the rule of law and damage the reputation of the United Kingdom.” Although the Conservatives are currently enjoying an 80-seat majority in the Commons, Remainers can count on the predominantly pro-European Lords to fight Brexit until the end. In an ironic twist of fate and/or failure of British democracy, we’ve ended up in a position where the only strong opposition to Brexit, with power to wield over the process, is the unelected House of Peers.
Branded as ‘Independence Day’ by many Brexiteers, the day the UK left the EU – 31 January 2019 – after 47 years of membership, was celebrated by some with fireworks in London’s Parliament Square. The epitome of ‘Vote Leave’ hyper-nationalism, celebrators’ signs reading ‘Britain Will Be Brilliant’ were reminiscent of a bygone Imperialist era, in a slightly-less-catchy echo of Trump’s famous ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan. This idea of liberating Great Britain to reclaim its rightfully prominent position on the world stage as an ‘independent nation’ was extremely effective in garnering votes for leave, yet fails to acknowledge the limitations of this inward-looking approach, as well as the necessity of international cooperation in tackling the most pressing issues of our time, namely the small matters of climate change and the coronavirus pandemic.
Johnson, of the Boris variety
Rising from Mayor of London to Foreign Secretary to PM, Boris Johnson, as the man now in charge of securing a favourable Brexit deal for the UK, is set to be defeated in the House of Lords this month over his Internal Market Bill. Six clauses of this Bill breach the Withdrawal Agreement signed last year by the UK and EU. It is not only the Lords who are unhappy with Johnson; the European Commission have already started legal proceedings against the UK for breaching “good faith” provisions in the treaty. As if this wasn’t enough to contend with, US Presidential candidate Joe Biden has said he will never sign a trade deal with the UK unless key clauses in the bill are removed, specifically those that undermine the Northern Ireland peace process.
Europe Editor for the BBC since 2004, Katya Adler, is one of the famous foursome on Brexitcast along with Laura Kuenssberg, Chris Mason and Adam Fleming. Always one of the first to know about the latest developments in Brussels, Adler keeps us informed about Brexit from the EU’s perspective. A key figure in BBC’s Brexit coverage, Adler has two honorary doctorate degrees and is fluent in German, French, Italian, Spanish and English: a living embodiment of an interconnected Europe!
Despite Boris’ famous ‘£350 million for the NHS’ bus, the UK’s piggy bank will not magically fill up as soon as the country leaves the EU; in fact, the UK is still liable to pay around £32 billion to the EU, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). This ‘divorce bill’ is an estimated figure, as the final total will not be known for decades due to the UK’s financial commitments running far into the future, including pensions and loans. Sinister, eh? The bus is looking even less accurate now... if that’s possible.
It was three times unlucky for Theresa May, as her Brexit deal, also known as the Chequers Agreement, was thrice voted down in the House of Commons in early 2019. Approved by the 27 EU governments but not by her own party, this deal had unhappy opponents on both sides, with Remainers arguing that it was worse than current membership terms and Leavers complaining that it was a soft Brexit, leaving the UK too entangled with the EU. With the Irish Backstop as the main sticking point, May’s deal paved the path for Johnson to take over as UK Prime Minister and attempt to renegotiate a significantly harsher divorce deal, with a ‘no deal’ exit looking ever more likely.
Keep a lookout for Part Two of our Brexit A-Z coming soon. Try not to lose too much sleep in anticipation!