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By: Rushil Yerrabelli


Courtesy of The Foreign Policy

For more than three years, the United Kingdom has been struggling to reach a deal to exit the European Union (EU). The struggle to reach a deal has caused great political divide in the British Parliament, over one of Britain’s most important decisions of the century. Below is a summary of the messy crisis that is Brexit. 



Headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, the European Union is an economic and political union consisting of twenty-eight member states. Simply, the EU eliminates borders between member states, allowing for the free movement of people and goods. The European Union thus allows for European products to be more competitive and significant on the global marketplace. In turn, the European Union has the world’s second-highest GDP and has become a leading political force on the global stage. 


The European Union began in 1957 as the European Economic Community with the Treaty of Rome, signed by France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium. Indeed the United Kingdom was not an original member, despite being Europe’s most politically and economically powerful nation. Britain joined in 1973 and subsequently became an important member of the European Union, signing the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993. In spite of being a leading member of the EU, Euroscepticism continued to grow within Britain. Talks to leave the EU occurred in the British Parliament for the greater half of this century. 


Treaty of Rome, 1957. Courtesy of the Economist


Hoping to settle the EU exit question once and for all, in 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron promised a national referendum. The referendum occurred on June 23, 2016, with 52% of participants voting in favor of exiting. Following the result, Cameron resigned, believing that the UK should stay in the EU. 


Breakdown of 2016 Referendum. Courtesy of The New York Times


Most young participants voted to stay in the EU, while older people favored the exit; Scotland supported staying in the EU while Wales and England supported Brexit. 


At the time of the referendum, people supported Brexit for the main reason of sovereignty. Citizens of the UK believed that being a part of the EU had forced the UK to join into certain alliances and trade deals, and also abide by certain economic regulations. Such agreements are thought to prevent Britain from acting in their own interest, therefore limiting their national sovereignty. This brings into the question of immigration, another aspect that people believed threatened the sovereignty of the UK. With the growing refugee crisis of 2016, the thought of having more immigrants in the UK was thought to threaten the British identity. People also belived that immigration could pose a threat to national security, especially with the rise of Islamic Terrorism during this time period. 



Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union requires the EU to reach a deal with the member states who plans to leave. The agreement looks to structure future relations between the EU and the state who seeks to exit. In May 2017, former Prime Minister Theresa May submitted the Article 50 withdrawal, and the EU gave the UK until March 29, 2019, to negotiate a deal. It has since been extended to October 31, 2019, and recently January 31, 2020. 


In March 2018, Theresa May was able to negotiate her 21-month transition plan with the European Union. In summary, Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal agreement had both a binding withdrawal agreement and a non-binding set of principles for Britain’s future relationship with the EU. The UK would also have to pay 50.7 billion euros to the EU as a means of settling its financial obligations while in the EU. Under her plan, the UK would remain in the EU customs union. This would allow for free trade between the two groups but also would allow for the UK to tax imports from other countries. Moreover, the 3 million EU citizens working in the UK could remain without a work visa. The UK would still abide by certain EU regulations, but could not vote on any future laws. Critics of May claimed that there was no point in abiding by EU laws if they could not vote in the EU parliament; they in turn advocated for a hard-deal Brexit. Lastly, in terms of the Irish border, May supported a backstop between Northern Ireland and Ireland. For decades, there has been  conflict between the Irish and Northern Irish, and an open border has resolved much of that conflict. Afraid that a hard border would spur conflict again, May’s backstop would allow for the UK to remain in the EU market and trade deals. Northern Ireland would effectively bound to more EU regulations as a result and a hard border could be avoided.


Despite receiving approval from the European Union, May was unable to pass her Brexit deal in Parliament, a necessary step for ratification. Her plan was voted down by Parliament three times. Members of her Conservative Party who voted the deal down wanted a hard-Brexit agreement. The members of the Labour Party did not want Brexit in general, and instead, wanted to hold another referendum. Unable to pass her agreement, Theresa May resigned from her position as Prime Minister on June 7, 2019. Boris Johnson assumed the role of Prime Minister and promised to deliver Brexit by October 31, 2019. As it stands, there are four possible options for the United Kingdom. 


Theresa May in Parliament. Courtesy of BBC


First, there is a no-deal Brexit. Boris Johnson has claimed the vast majority of his following support this kind of deal. A no-deal Brexit would mean the UK would exit the EU without a trade agreement. This kind of agreement would be disastrous for the British economy, as it would eliminate Britain’s tariff-free status within Europe. Tariffs would raise the costs of both imports and exports, hurting both the British and European economies. Nearly a third of British food comes from the EU, and droughts and heatwaves in the UK could make Britain vulnerable to a food shortage. Johnson’s plan also looks to have a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. A border could spark decades of conflict once again, while also forcing commuters to travel through customs every day. Lastly, the UK must still pay 51 billion euros to the EU and also deal with EU citizens currently living in the United Kingdom.     


Second is a hard Brexit. This kind of deal would include a trade agreement. Despite a trade agreement, Britain’s economy would still take a massive hit. London, Europe’s financial center, would be devastated as most businesses use the city as a pathway into Europe. It is also likely that most businesses would deter from London and move into other EU cities. Banking and practitioner occupations would take massive blows, especially in job loss, as the majority of workers, EU Citizens, would be forced to work in another country. In London, nearly 10,000 nurses have quit their jobs due to Brexit fearing job security, and nurses from the EU looking to practice in the UK has reduced by 90%.   


Third, is a deal similar to May. This plan is highly unlikely to pass as the UK does not have a significant enough economic leverage to create a better deal. Moreover, Johnson said he would not approve of this kind of deal, unless it would include a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. 


Fourth is another referendum. This is strongly favored by the Labour Party, and polls have shown that no Brexit would likely be the outcome of the referendum as the majority of citizens have realized the economic effect of Brexit. The EU has even mentioned that if Britain decided to stay in the EU it would be a unilateral decision made by Britain itself, that the EU Parliament would not have to vote. 



On August 28, 2019, Queen Elizabeth II approved Johnson’s request to shut down Parliament between September 11 and October 14, 2019. In doing so, it prevented Johnson’s opposition from blocking a no-deal Brexit. However, Britain's Supreme Court ruled the shut down as unlawful and the Parliament suspension was voided. On October 17, 2019, Johnson’s Brexit plan was approved by the EU Parliament.


Johnson’s plan is very similar to his predecessor; however, the key difference lies with the Irish border. Johnson’s plan states that Britain would leave the EU customs union, and there would be a customs border between Ireland and the United Kingdom. The plan also allows Northern Irish lawmakers to vote on how close they want to remain aligned with the EU over the next four years. Essentially, Johnson’s plan would remove the UK from the EU but would allow Northern Ireland to be in the EU custom’s union and single market for a certain number of years. 


Boris Johnson in Parliament. Courtesy of BBC

Johnson’s plan received approval from the EU Parliament; however, British lawmakers rejected Johnson’s accelerated timetable to fully pass his plan in the days approaching October 31st. Members of Parliament were concerned that voting on Johnson’s plan quickly before the October 31st deadline would lead to poor decisions for the future. As a result, Johnson requested an extension to the deadline from the EU. The EU gave the United Kingdom three extra months, pushing the deadline to January 31st, 2020.   



It is unclear what will happen to Johnson’s plan. Theresa May was able to get approval from the EU parliament, but subsequently had three defeats in Parliament. Members of the Labour and Democratic Union Party indeed support another referendum and have called Johnson’s deal even worse than May’s deal. At its current state, it is uncertain whether Brexit will occur. Despite Johnson’s promises to fulfill a plan to exit the EU, there still exists great division within the British parliament that would prevent Brexit from taking place.

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