First, let’s go through the basics. The UK held a referendum in June 2016 on whether it should leave the European Union. A majority decided to leave, sending shockwaves through the British political establishment and leading to the resignation of David Cameron as Prime Minister. Then what?
Theresa May, a fellow Conservative politician, was elected party leader, replacing Cameron as Prime Minister. May triggered the process to leave the EU by delivering a formal notice – known as the Article 50 notice – in March 2017. As things stand, Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union on March 29th next year.
Since Article 50 was triggered, the process to negotiate the terms of exit from the EU has been very complex and controversial, culminating in a dramatic sitting in the House of Commons yesterday, where Theresa May’s government delayed a crucial vote on Brexit in order to avoid a potentially embarrassing and fatal defeat.
1. So what exactly happened since March 2017?
Theresa May and her government spent the past 19 months negotiating the terms of how Britain will exit the EU. The final agreement, known as the Withdrawal Agreement, was finally agreed last month. But to become a binding treaty, it needs to be approved by both the UK and the EU. And for it to be approved by the UK, it needs to be approved by the House of Commons.
2. And what happened yesterday? Why was the Brexit vote postponed?
A vote was scheduled to be held yesterday after Theresa May spent a few weeks promoting the deal she struck with the EU. In the run-up to the vote, it became pretty apparent there would be no majority in the House of Commons for it, with May being hit with a fresh wave of resignations from Cabinet and signals of no confidence from backbenchers.
May finally threw in the towel during yesterday morning, when she told her ministers the final House of Commons vote on the deal would have to be postponed. In her statement, May said she recognised the deal as negotiated did not command a majority in the House of Commons and was therefore going to seek to renegotiate parts of it. The EU responded in the evening saying that the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement were not up for renegotiation but it was going to seek how it can provide support to May to see through the deal.
On the same day, the European Court of Justice ruled that the Article 50 notice delivered during March 2017 can be revoked prior to March 2019, meaning that Brexit would be cancelled and Britain would remain part of the European Union. This ruling emboldened those who want Britain to reverse its decision to leave the European Union.
3. Why is there still so much controversy in the UK on Brexit?
Mostly because no one knows what Brexit should look like. This was perhaps best summed up by Theresa May herself, who said, somewhat confusingly, “Brexit means Brexit”.
Pro-Brexit politicians as Boris Johnson have only said Brexit should be about “taking back control” over the border, immigration, laws and the ability of the UK to negotiate its own trade agreements.
There are politicians who want a future relationship with the EU to look like the kind of relationship that Norway has with the bloc, others want a second referendum on the issue, while others want to rip up the existing rulebook and walk out of the door in March 2019, without having any agreement in place.
In the House of Commons, there is a reported majority of politicians against the UK leaving without having agreed any deal whatsoever – the so-called Hard Brexit, or, as supporters call such option, Clean Brexit.
The smaller parties in Parliament – the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru and Northern Irish unionists the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – have remained consistent with their original position. The DUP is the only one of the small parties that supports Brexit – but not in the form negotiated by Theresa May. The other parties support the UK remaining in the EU.
4. What are the actual sticking points of the Brexit deal?
There are many but perhaps the single most problematic sticking point has been what happens to the border between the Republic of Ireland (which will remain in the EU) and Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK).
The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is the only land border between the UK and the European Union. It is also the flashpoint of the Troubles – a decades-old civil conflict that pitted pro-Republic nationalists against pro-UK unionists. The conflict came to an end with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Since the UK will no longer form part of the EU from next year, there would need to be a border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. However many fear that the return of a border would also mean the return of civil strife in Northern Ireland.
The UK and the EU set out to identify a solution that is palatable to both parties. This goal has proved elusive.
The Irish border question took on new significance since June 2017, when an early election failed to return a single party with a clear majority in the House of Commons. Instead, Theresa May, as head of the largest party in the House of Commons, relies on the DUP for support to pass legislation through the House of Commons.
The DUP come from Northern Ireland and are opposed to any form of barrier between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.
The Withdrawal Agreement provides that if no agreement is reached on the issue by 31 December 2020, then Britain would remain as part of a so-called customs union with the EU until a solution to the Irish border is identified – this mechanism is known as the ‘backstop’.
The Irish backstop arrangement eventually hampers the ability of Britain to negotiate its own trade deals and crosses a fundamental red line for many politicians that supported Brexit.
5. So what happens after the UK Brexit vote has been postponed?
Theresa May will fly to Brussels for a special Brexit summit on Thursday. This will probably be a very tense summit. There are indications that France and Spain may seek to extract new political concessions from Britain on the status of Gibraltar and fishing rights. Back in Britain, politics and the press will be watching to check whether May returns with an improved deal or otherwise.
The feeling however is that May will be unable to strike any major concession, other than a clarification to the text of the political declaration on how the Irish backstop arrangement would operate. There is widespread recognition that Theresa May’s negotiating position is weak, although some politicians keep arguing that they can replace her and renegotiate the entire agreement with Brussels.
6. How much time is left to seal a Brexit agreement?
The House of Commons has two weeks left of parliamentary sittings before it rises for the Christmas recess. The Withdrawal Agreement may be put to a vote during these two weeks. If this happens, and the agreement is rejected, then Parliament will have the option to either call a new referendum, choose to renegotiate the deal, call off all negotiations, or call off Brexit altogether.
The deal may also be put to a vote after the Christmas recess during the month of January. Theresa May has until 21 January to put the deal to a vote, although some commenters are arguing that she now has until 28 March 2019 – a day before Brexit is scheduled to occur.
The later the date of the House of Commons vote, the greater the odds of Britain either crashing out of the EU without a deal – a hard Brexit – or Parliament establishing its authority over the government and ordering the government to pause Brexit, or cancel Brexit altogether. Although there is a majority for the latter option in the House of Commons, such a decision would be highly controversial, especially in areas in England.
7. Will Theresa May lose her job as Prime Minister?
Probably, but not certainly. The Conservative Party, of which Theresa May is the leader, has a tradition of turning on its leaders on the issue of Europe. Each of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and David Cameron lost their job because of deep divisions in the party over the European Union. However, as things stand, there is no clear successor who would take her place. It may be that May lingers on until some more clarity is established over Brexit or the party identifies a suitable successor.
8. Will there be an early election in the UK?
Not necessarily. Even if Theresa May loses a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, this will not trigger an early election in the UK. This is because the UK has a law called the Fixed Term Parliament Act which determines the date of elections in advance. The next election is scheduled to be held on 5 May 2022. This date can only be changed if the government loses a vote of no confidence or two-thirds of the House of Representatives were to vote to change the date.
It is improbable that Conservative MPs would vote down their government. Even if Theresa May is replaced as party leader and prime minister, this would not trigger an early election.
9. What happens if there is no approved deal between the UK and the EU?
There is a possibility that the UK exits the European Union without transitional arrangements. This would mean a sudden and severe disruption to the relationship between the UK and the European Union.
Several studies have been carried out to explore this scenario. They all suggest that the UK would suffer very negative impacts, possibly leading to an economic recession.
Enormous cost could be inflicted on both the British and European side of the border as border-checks would need to be re-established, banking and financial systems would be disrupted and flights may be cancelled.
The UK government has been preparing contingency plans to deal with such an outcome. These plans include stockpiling medicine and leasing out ships to ensure continuity of supply.
However, nobody really knows what will exactly happen on 30 March 2019 if Britain and the EU wake up with no deal.
10. Can Maltese people living in the UK stay there after Brexit?
The Withdrawal Agreement gives parameters for which EU citizens can remain in the UK. According to May’s deal, Maltese and other EU citizens will have until 30th June 2021 to prove that they were living in the UK before 30th December 2020. If they do, they could obtain ‘settled status’, which preserves the rights currently enjoyed by EU citizens in the UK. This includes rights to work, healthcare and access to the benefits system.
However, in the event of a no deal Brexit, then the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement would not apply unless special measures are taken. Under draft plans for a no-deal, EU citizens will have until 30th December 2020 to prove that they had been living in the UK before March 29th 2019. Therefore, a no-deal means we all have about three months to move to the UK if we want to live there.
11. Can Brits in Malta stay even after the UK leaves the EU?
The Withdrawal Agreement preserves the rights of British citizens already living in Malta at the end of the transition period, 30th December 2020.
However, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the legal provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement would not apply. This means that Malta, alongside the other EU countries, would need to make new legal arrangements that determine the future of British citizens living in their territory.
While there have been political assurances that the rights of British citizens living in European member states would remain unchanged in the event of a no-deal Brexit, there has been no legal decision of the European Union in this respect as yet.
12. What if I want to move to the UK after Brexit?
After Brexit, anyone wishing to move to the UK would need to apply for a visa. This requirement will apply irrespective of the final look of Brexit: whether it happens on the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement or is a no-deal Brexit.
The UK government announced plans to overhaul its visa system in October 2018. Under the new plans, highly-skilled migrants such as doctors, scientists and IT programmers would be given priority over low-skilled migrants such as workers in the catering industry. However, these plans have not yet become law.
Citizens of the Commonwealth, an organisation that groups mostly former colonies of the United Kingdom and which includes Cyprus and Malta, might have a slightly more preferential treatment to obtain a visa, although their position may be subject to review as part of the UK government’s broader plan to reform immigration rules.
Citizens of the Republic of Ireland, who already have special rights to live in the UK and to vote in UK elections, will retain their right to do so.
Do you have any other Brexit questions? Ask them in the comments
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