If you are confused about Brexit, you are certainly not alone. Britain’s path toward leaving the European Union is complicated and confounding — full of forks, U-turns and more than a few dead ends. Even seasoned Brexit watchers have been left at a loss for words.
Over the past few months, British Prime Minister Theresa May has lost two historic votes on the exit plan she reached in negotiations with E.U. representatives. (But she has also survived not one but two confidence votes — a sign, perhaps, of how few people envy her position.) And in March, Parliament’s speaker evoked a rule from 1604 to stop members from voting on it a third time, forcing May to seek an extension until June 30. However, on March 21, E.U. leaders only gave her until April 12 to either pass her deal or come up with an alternative.
Confused? Read on.
Q: What is Brexit?
A: May has said, “Brexit means Brexit.” But what that means is that Britain is going to leave the European Union. This would probably mean giving up the automatic free-movement and free-trade rights that come with E.U. membership.
Q: Why is Britain leaving the E.U.?
A: That’s a big debate. But basically, it’s because Britons voted to do so in a referendum June 23, 2016. Those voters who wanted out of the E.U. and to “take back control” of Britain’s laws and borders won, 52 to 48 percent.
Q: So Britain is definitely leaving the E.U.?
A: First, Britain and the E.U. needed to reach a withdrawal agreement.
Q: A withdrawal agreement? Is that different from a trade deal?
A: Yes. The withdrawal agreement outlines how Britain will leave the E.U. — things such as a timetable for a transition period, what happens to E.U. nationals living in Britain and the amount of money Britain has to pay the E.U. A trade deal would establish an independent Britain’s future economic relationship with the E.U.
Q: Okay, how’s all that going?
A: Very badly.
Q: But I thought I read that May got a deal?
A: Well, May’s government has drawn up a withdrawal agreement, and the E.U. has agreed to it. But Britain’s Parliament needs to approve it. Lawmakers were scheduled to debate it and vote in December, but when it became apparent that May couldn’t win that vote, it was delayed until Jan. 15.
Q: And then it finally passed?
A: Nope. May lost by a huge proportion: 432 to 202 votes.
A: Then she had to face a no-confidence vote.
Q: A no-confidence vote? Didn’t she already do that?
A: Yes, she won a no-confidence vote tabled by her own party in December. But he faced a Parliament-wide one, proposed by opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn, after the scale of May’s loss became apparent.
Q: And she survived?
A: Yes, she did — even the critics in her own party don’t want Corbyn to oust her. But it was hardly a resounding victory. She won by 19 votes Jan. 16, which shows how easily her government could fall if hard-line Brexiteers deserted her.
Q: So then what happened?
A: On Jan. 29, Parliament held another series of votes on the Brexit deal. One proposal to extend the deadline for negotiations was rejected, but Parliament members approved another motion that sought to take the threat of a “no deal” Brexit off the table, and another that said that Britain should propose “alternative amendments” to a controversial Irish “backstop” plan.
Earlier in the day, May had told Parliament she wanted to go back to Europe and get a better deal for Britain.
A: And did she?
Well, she tried at least.
Q: And then what happened?
The members of Parliament voted her deal down again by a margin of 149. So then May said they could vote on a “no-deal” Brexit, and they did, and rejected it. But the problem is that “no deal” is the default option — it can’t be rejected unless another option is chosen.
So then May was going to present her deal for a vote for a third time — but found she couldn’t.
Q: Wait! Why couldn’t she present her deal for a third vote?
She didn’t actually get to, because John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, cited a legal precedent from 1604 and announced that he wouldn’t allow a third vote on what was basically the same agreement.
He quoted from a guide to parliamentary procedure that said that an issue that “has been decided during a session may not be brought forward again during that same session.” (If you hadn’t heard of that legal precedent, don’t feel badly; German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she hadn’t, either.)
Q: What is the deadline for Brexit?
A: Well, it was March 29. But on March 21, E.U. leaders said that she could have a short extension, either passing a deal or coming up with an alternative by April 12. If British lawmakers finally approve May’s deal, they can leave the European Union on May 22.
Q: That doesn’t sound like much time.
A: It isn’t. It is both far shorter than the three-month delay that May was seeking, or the even longer delay that some lawmakers had hoped for.
Q: Why does Britain’s Parliament need to vote on the withdrawal agreement, considering that a referendum has already been held?
A: The referendum itself was never legally binding. May and the British government had originally hoped they would not have to turn to Parliament, but that didn’t work. Britain is a parliamentary democracy, meaning that Parliament is sovereign. After a lengthy legal debate, it was agreed that Parliament would get a “meaningful vote” on the deal — a move that significantly complicated May’s negotiations.
Q: Why didn’t May’s own party back her?
A: Thirteen members of May’s government have resigned over her stance on Brexit, including one of her chief whips in Parliament. There are plenty of people within May’s Conservative Party who want to remain in the E.U., as well as many hardcore Brexiteers who don’t support her plan for the opposite reason. It was, in fact, the Brexiteers who helped defeat May’s second Brexit vote.
Q: But why do people who want Brexit not support May?
A: They feel as though May has made too many concessions to Europe with this deal and argue that it isn’t in the spirit of the 2016 referendum.
Q: What sort of Brexit did they want?
A: Many Brexiteers want an agreement that keeps the economic benefits of the E.U. but ends free movement, takes away E.U. control over Britain’s trade laws and avoids a hard Irish border (more on all this later). They are particularly concerned that May’s deal aligns Britain too closely with Europe’s economic rules, which could make forming new trade deals with other countries difficult in the future.
Q: Who are they, by the way?
A: The most notable ones are Boris Johnson, May’s former foreign secretary, and Jacob Rees Mogg, another member of the Conservatives. But there are many others.
Q: What is the worst-case scenario for Brexit?
A: Most economists would say it was the “doomsday” scenario of a “no-deal Brexit,” whereby Britain has to revert to World Trade Organization trade rules at its borders because it cannot reach an agreement with Europe.
Q: Why would that be so bad?
A: It would probably cause major changes to British trade, resulting in serious disruption to almost every aspect of Britain’s business. An International Monetary Fund projection warned that up to 8 percent of Britain’s gross domestic product could be lost.
Q: Yikes. Are people prepared for that?
A: Well, Britain has tried to prepare. Earlier this year, Britain rehearsed a traffic jam along its southern coast, hoping to prep for the likely chaos at its ports. Britons have also been hoarding refrigerators, wine and chocolate in the event of no deal.
Q: How likely is this?
A: It’s definitely possible. One study that came out before May made her deal last year estimated that there were five possible scenarios for Brexit. All but one resulted in no deal.
Q: So Britain’s Parliament vote against a “no deal” Brexit doesn’t count?
A: Not really. As we mentioned above, this is the default option. It can only be avoided if another deal is found, or if Britain delays or even reverses its decision to leave the E.U.
Q: Does the E.U. want a no-deal for Britain?
A: European leaders have voiced real concerns about a no-deal Brexit. It could potentially disrupt their own agreements, too. But the E.U. is also worried about other countries trying to leave, so it is driving a hard bargain with Britain and offering few concessions.
Q: Does Britain’s opposition party oppose Brexit?
A: Labour is split on Brexit generally but is likely to oppose May’s deal for political reasons. As a party, it is unlikely to stop Brexit anytime soon — Corbyn, its leader, said that Brexit could not be stopped — but it is possible that May could reach across the aisle and persuade Labour Party members to support a version of her deal.
Q: Does anyone want to stop Brexit?
A: Yes. Lots of politicians in both the Labour and Conservative parties do want to stop it, while smaller parties, such as the Liberal Democrats, actively campaign against it.
Q: Could Brexit be stopped?
A: Theoretically, yes — a point May herself recently alluded to for the first time after reaching her draft agreement. The European Union’s highest court also ruled late last year that Britain could unilaterally reverse its decision to leave. But it would be a risky move politically.
Q: Couldn’t Britain just hold a second referendum?
A: The idea of a second referendum (a “people’s vote”) on the final terms has considerable support among the public, but politicians are hesitant, as it could unleash further political chaos, and the short extension wouldn’t allow time for one.
Q: How would Britons vote if that happened?
A: Hard to say, but many polls suggest that British voters have grown more opposed to Brexit over the past two years.
Q: Okay, let’s back up. What is E.U. freedom of movement, and why didn’t Brexiteers like it?
A: E.U. citizens are entitled to move around the nation states. For many in the pro-Brexit camp, immigration was a major issue with the rest of Europe.
Q: And what is the Customs Union? And the Single Market?
A: The E.U. Customs Union means it negotiates trade laws as a bloc, and the Single Market means Europe has no trade barriers within it. Pro-Brexit voices hope that by leaving Europe, Britain can negotiate its own, better trade deals.
Q: What is the big issue with the Irish border?
A: If Britain were to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market, there could be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, where border checks are now minimal.
Q: Why is that a problem?
A: It could jeopardize the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and, with it, the Northern Ireland peace process. It also would probably have a significant impact on trade. Plus, May needs to get her political partner in Northern Ireland (the Democratic Unionist Party) and the Irish government on her side.
Q: Would May’s deal solve all this?
A: Kind of. But also, not really.
Q: How so?
A: In the Brexit withdrawal agreement’s 585 pages, the most notable outcome was the creation of a transition period, which would essentially keep Britain in the bloc’s Customs Union until 2020, and possibly past then.
Q: And that solves the Irish border problem?
A: No, but it appears to provide a “backstop” and pledges to sort it out in the future.
Q: What is a backstop, in this situation?
A: Basically, it’s an insurance agreement that even if a broader agreement cannot be worked out, there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Q: And freedom of movement?
A: E.U. nationals living in Britain and Brits living in E.U. states will retain their rights, but they will have to formally apply for status to remain in the country.
Q: This doesn’t sound as though it would please everyone.
A: It doesn’t. As we noted before, both pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit camps have voiced opposition. Also, her deal was voted down twice.
Q: Have E.U. leaders tried to help May at all?
A: To a degree, yes. In a letter published Jan. 14, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker explained that they did not want the Irish backstop to come into force, describing it as a “suboptimal trading arrangement for both sides.”
However, they also said there was little room for more negotiations, writing: “We are not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the Withdrawal Agreement.” And after the deal was voted down a second time, Barnier basically said that the E.U. had done what it could do.
Q: Do any British politicians have a better idea?
A: Others claim to. Corbyn says he could solve the Irish border problem without a backstop, for example, and avoid a no-deal Brexit. But we probably won’t find out how these ideas work in practice unless May loses her job.
Q: What would happen then?
Q: I have more questions that were not answered here.
A: We all do. Send them to us, and we’ll try to answer them in an update.
Karla Adam and William Booth in London and Emily Tamkin in Washington contributed to this report.