Q: Why is Britain leaving the E.U.?
A: Because Britons voted for it, 52 to 48 percent, in a referendum on June 23, 2016. Concerns about immigration and sovereignty were the top reasons people voted to leave.
A: England and Wales voted to leave, while Scotland and Northern Ireland wanted to remain in the E.U. London was strongly for remain. The vote divided both main political parties: Conservatives and Labour. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn voted to remain, although he is lukewarm on the E.U. and has regularly criticized it as a capitalist club. Some Conservatives voted to remain, although they are currently dominated by a pro-Brexit faction, chief among them Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who led the official campaign to leave the E.U.
Q: When does Brexit happen?
A: Well, that’s still hard to say. The original departure date was supposed to be March 29, 2018. But Parliament couldn’t agree on how to leave, instead rejecting May’s withdrawal plan three times. Johnson has previously pledged to leave by the current deadline, Oct. 31.
Johnson did work out a tentative deal with E.U. leaders last week in Brussels, and he passed that deal through Parliament. However, he was still forced to ask for another extension.
Q: Wait, why does Johnson need an extension?
A: In September, British lawmakers passed a law that required Johnson to ask to delay Brexit past the Oct. 31 deadline if a deal to ease the exit was not in place by Saturday. That didn’t happen, so Johnson sent E.U. leaders a letter asking for an extension — though he didn’t sign it, and he also sent a letter saying that the delay was a bad idea.
Johnson had previously promised he would not seek another extension, pledging to leave even if it meant crashing out of the E.U. without a deal — a scenario that many economists have warned could be disastrous for Britain and Europe.
Q: But I thought Parliament had finally agreed to Johnson’s deal?
A: Yes, they did — on Tuesday, the House of Commons finally gave its approval for the withdrawal agreement bill that would turn Johnson’s withdrawal agreement into British law.
But there was a big caveat. Lawmakers refused Johnson’s request for an accelerated timetable that would have pushed the withdrawal agreement bill through a number of legislative steps in the next few days. That means it is impossible to have the legislation in place before the Oct. 31 deadline.
Q: Why did Parliament object to the accelerated timetable?
A: Usually, legislation can take months to work its way through Parliament. British lawmakers were presented with the withdrawal agreement bill Monday evening and were expected to work their way through almost 100,000 words in just a few days.
Q: What options does this leave Johnson?
A: Technically, he has already requested an extension from E.U. leaders, but it is not clear whether they will agree. Johnson told Parliament on Tuesday that his government would step up preparations to leave the European Union with no deal at the end of October.
Earlier in the day, Johnson had suggested that if his timetable were rejected, he would withdraw the legislation and seek a national election, but he did not immediately do that Tuesday evening.
Q: What is in the deal that Johnson worked out in Brussels?
A: The proposed withdrawal agreement would set out terms 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. It doesn’t get into anything about trade deals or other aspects of the future relationship between Britain and the E.U. That’s saved for a separate set of negotiations.
Q: What is new in Johnson’s deal?
A: Much of Johnson’s deal remains the same as his predecessor’s, with language on the transition timing, the rights of E.U. nationals and the amount of money Britain has to pay the E.U. — the “divorce bill” — largely the same. Where it differs significantly, however, is how it handles Northern Ireland and the risk of a hard border with Ireland.
Johnson’s deal says the entire United Kingdom will leave the E.U. custom union and that there will be a legal customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In practice, it could be argued that this means the customs border would be across the sea between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Q: How would this work in practice?
A: For example, if goods are being sent from London to Belfast, they would be checked at points of entry into Northern Ireland. If something is at risk of being transported onward to the Republic of Ireland, duty would be paid on the goods, with firms eligible for refunds if they can prove the goods remained in Northern Ireland.
The deal also says Northern Ireland lawmakers will get a vote on how closely they want to stay aligned with the E.U. after four years and that Northern Ireland will remain aligned with E.U. law on value-added tax on goods.
Q: How is this different from May’s deal?
A: May had taken a different approach, proposing what was known as a “backstop” for the Irish border, essentially an insurance policy against a hard border.
That idea argued that until a future trade deal somehow dispenses with the need for border checks, or until technology is developed that does the job of border agents and achieves an invisible border, the backstop would require Britain to remain in the E.U. customs union and parts of the single market.
That idea was controversial in part because Britain would be subject to E.U. rules even after losing its say over them, provoking a fierce response from hard-line Brexiteers.
Q: Why is Ireland such a big deal in Brexit?
A: An open border on the island of Ireland has helped resolve decades of conflict — allowing “unionists” in Northern Ireland to feel securely part of Britain while Northern Irish “republicans” can feel connected to the Republic of Ireland in the south. But that open border has been possible only because the E.U.’s customs union and single market avoid the need for border checks. If Northern Ireland leaves the E.U., along with the rest of Britain, there will have to be a different way to preserve an open border and maintain peace.
Q: Why does Parliament need to approve a Brexit deal, given that there was already a referendum?
A: The referendum wasn’t legally binding, and it asked people only whether they wanted in or out of the E.U. — not how they should leave. Because Britain is a parliamentary democracy, meaning Parliament is sovereign, it was agreed after a lengthy legal debate that Parliament would get a “meaningful vote” on the deal, a decision that significantly complicated Britain’s negotiations.
Q: Could there be a second referendum?
A: There has been widespread talk of some form of second referendum for years, but the idea has gained considerable traction in recent weeks. On Saturday, the same day Johnson’s deal will go before Parliament, lawmakers will also vote on whether the deal should be put to the public in a referendum.
A key factor to watch will be whether Labour supports the call for a second referendum. Jenny Chapman, the Labour MP in charge of Brexit policy, said it would, but Corbyn has said the priority would be blocking Johnson’s deal.
A: After David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister who called for a referendum on E.U. membership, resigned when Britain voted to leave in June 2016 (he had campaigned for Britain to remain in the E.U.), May won an internal contest to take over the party and become prime minister the next month.
May had supported remain before the referendum, but she pledged to take Britain out of the E.U. However, she became mired in bitter, complicated negotiations on how that would happen. The withdrawal deal she reached with E.U. leaders was repeatedly rejected by Parliament. May called an election in April 2017 that was aimed at strengthening her position in Parliament, but she instead lost her parliamentary majority.
Despite all these setbacks, she clung on. It was only after her deal was rejected the third and final time in May that she announced she would resign. She has remained a member of Parliament.
Q: How did Johnson become prime minister?
A: After May announced she would step down as prime minister, the Conservative Party held another leadership contest. Johnson, who had bowed out early in the 2016 contest, quickly emerged as a front-runner, winning considerable support from Conservative Party members. He became prime minister on July 24, 2019.
Q: What happened to him suspending Parliament?
A: Shortly after becoming prime minister, Johnson announced he intended to suspend Parliament for five weeks ahead of the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline, a move that critics said was designed to limit the amount of time that lawmakers could debate his deal. However, Britain’s Supreme Court soon ruled his decision was unlawful and voided the suspension.
Q: Why do people think a “no-deal Brexit” could be bad?
A: Most economists would say a no-deal Brexit, a scenario in which Britain leaves without an agreement with the E.U. and without the two-year transition period that comes with it, would significantly disrupt Britain’s foreign trade. Most probably, Britain would revert to World Trade Organization rules at its borders. But the sudden break could cause major disruptions to trade and travel. The International Monetary Fund projected that up to 8 percent of Britain’s gross domestic product could be lost.
Q: Could Brexit be stopped?
A: Theoretically, yes. The E.U.’s highest court ruled last year that Britain could unilaterally reverse its decision to leave the bloc. A petition to cancel Brexit has garnered more than 5 million signatures, becoming the most popular petition hosted on Parliament’s website and prompting a parliamentary debate. However, many lawmakers are wary of supporting a complete reversal.
This article draws on information from an article previously published in November 2018. Karla Adam and William Booth in London and Marisa Bellack, Siobhán O’Grady and Emily Tamkin in Washington contributed to this report.