Brexiters have campaigned for Big Ben to chime as the UK leaves the EU. Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA – The Guardian
Confused by the whole 1,300-day Brexit saga? This summary sets out how and why it happened, and what can be expected in 2020 and beyond
How did we get here?
Where to start? There’s geography: Britain is an island, and has been since geologically Brexiting from the continent 8,000 years ago. And history: unlike most of western Europe, it has not spent the past few centuries as a battlefield. Its history, rather, is global and imperial.
That, plus second world war heroics, has given it a profound sense of exceptionalism, reinforced by relative economic success and an overwhelmingly Eurosceptic popular press that adores dripping corrosive untruths about Brussels.
All this eventually combined to create the impression that the EU was essentially an anti-British plot: something that was somehow done to us. Hardline Tory Euroscepticism emerged with Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech of 1988, hounded the party into opposition in the 1990s, and returned with a vengeance once Conservative rule was restored in 2010.
Amid the bitter fallout of the financial crash, mounting public concern over immigration and a political threat from the right in the form of Nigel Farage’s anti-EU Ukip party led David Cameron to promise an in-out Brexit referendum if he won the 2015 election.
A largely populist, emotive and evidence-free campaign with the inspired slogan “Take back control” carried the day, with voters motivated by a wide range of factors opting by 52% to 48% in favour of the UK leaving the EU.
Three years of exhausting stalemate set in, as parliament refused to muster a majority in favour of a withdrawal deal mired in uncertainty chiefly over the future status of Northern Ireland.
So what broke the deadlock?
In short, a meeting in a wedding venue in the Wirral on a cold day in October 2019.
Boris Johnson and Irish premier Leo Varadkar broke the impasse with an agreement on what to do about the tricky land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
This frontier had become a 300-mile stumbling block for Theresa May, who was unable to broker an agreement on how to take Northern Ireland out of the EU without reinstating unworkable – and unpalatable – border checks.
Johnson and Varadkar essentially agreed to shift the border checks to between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
The deal is not popular in Northern Ireland. But it is one that commands the support of the Conservative party and its 80-strong majority. So, after it was approved by MPs in December and is ratified in the European parliament and Westminster later this week, it will bring the final curtain down on 47 years of EU membership at 11pm on 31 January.
So is the UK out of the EU?
“Yes, but”. At the stroke of 11pm on 31 January (midnight in Brussels), the UK ceases to be a member of the EU. The divorce is sealed. The only way back is an application to rejoin.
But many people may not notice the difference, as the UK enters an 11-month transition period to allow time to negotiate a new relationship. That means staying in the EU single market, its customs union and paying into its budget. British citizens can continue to live, work, study and retire to the EU, while EU27 nationals enjoy those reciprocal rights in the UK.
A more significant moment could be 1 January 2021, the UK’s first day outside EU rules. Under the Brexit withdrawal agreement, that day could be delayed until 2022 or 2023, but Johnson has ruled out any extension of the transition period.
So what actually changes on Friday?
Life will carry on as normal for individuals with one key change – UK citizens, from 11pm, will no longer be EU citizens.
British passport holders will continue to be able to travel and work in the EU because the country remains in the single market for the transition period up to 31 December and the freedom of movement of goods, people, services and capital over borders applies until then.
The main change is legal and institutional. The article 50 process is over and non-reversible. Friday is the point of no return to the EU.
The UK will continue to follow EU rules, but have no say in making them. British ministers will play no part in the EU law-making process. The prime minister will cease attending EU summits to set the bloc’s priorities.
The UK’s 73 MEPs will be sent home, with one of the parliament’s union jacks dispatched to the EU-funded House of History. The last UK commissioner, Julian King, has already said goodbye to Brussels. The EU will move on without Britain.
Over 47 years, British governments cheered liberal economic policies (above all the single market), promoted EU enlargement, invented regional policy subsidies for poorer regions, pushed reform of fisheries and farming, watered down some environmental protection laws (and championed others), while avoiding the euro and the Schengen passport-free zone.
The UK had “the best possible world”, concluded one veteran French diplomat. Now it’s gone.
And how is the country planning to mark it?
After almost half a century of membership, the departure from the EU is a historic event. But the prime minister has to be careful about not deepening the divisions in the country by being too celebratory and has instead chosen a series of toned-down events to mark the occasion.
Instead of Big Ben chiming out as the UK officially leaves at 11pm on Friday, a clock counting down be projected on to No 10 Downing Street.
And an effort to convey the Tory party’s commitment to “levelling up” the country, a special cabinet meeting will be head in an as-yet-undisclosed location in the north of England.
The union jack will fly from all flagpoles in Parliament Square but there will be no emblematic lowering of the EU flag.
A commemorative Brexit 50p coin with the words “peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations” will come into circulation. New stamps marking the occasion are also in the pipeline.
Farage and the Leave Means Leave campaign are hosting a party for the countdown in Parliament Square, with Brexiters encouraged to go in fancy dress.
There is no official wake for remainers but Guardian readers have shared their private plans to mark the momentous day.
What will happen next?
There is a set timetable for the year with negotiations expected to formally kick off after 25 February.
By 1 July there must be a deal on fisheries and a UK decision on whether to ask for an extension to the transition period.
Johnson has urged Brussels to fast-track trade talks, but the EU moves at its own pace. Draft negotiating mandates are due to be produced by 1 February and EU ministers are expected to approve a mandate for the chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, on 25 February, allowing formal talks to begin soon after.
These talks will be unprecedented, and could cover a vast sweep of policies, including trade, security, foreign affairs, data, fisheries, cultural-educational ties and much more.
However, with just 11 months to negotiate, the chances are there will only be a “bare bones” deal likely covering trade, fisheries and security. If that is the case, then, at the end of 2020, there will be a lot of unfinished business. Differing aspirations for the trade talks have raised the prospect of a new no-deal scenario at the end of this year.
Leaving the transition period without a trade deal would not lead to the major diplomatic bust-up that failure on the Brexit withdrawal agreement would have done.
It would have huge domestic consequences, however, with representatives of the car industry, hospitals, agriculture and directors already expressing alarm over Sajid Javid’s declaration that the UK will not follow EU rules, which will cause hold-ups in Dover and Calais and possibly lead to businesses quitting the country.
In the absence of a deal, the earlier accord on citizens’ rights, money and the Irish border remains intact.
The special arrangements that apply in Northern Ireland will kick in, deal or no deal.
Both sides would brace themselves for the economic shock of trading on World Trade Organization terms, an outcome that is more damaging for the UK. But talks would roll on.
What are the big issues at stake here?
Top of the list is a trade deal to ensure the tariff and quota-free flow of goods between the EU and UK. But the EU will only agree to zero tariffs and zero quotas if the UK pledges zero dumping – that is, not lowering social and environmental standards to outcompete the EU.
Negotiators will almost certainly clash over the EU’s refusal to bring services into the trade deal, leaving the City of London reliant on a patchwork of market access agreements that can be withdrawn at any moment.
Another early fight will be over fish, as the EU seeks to link goods trade to maintaining the status quo on access to British waters, a demand seen as outrageous in London.
The non-trade topics sound easier, but are full of political landmines. For instance, agreeing a replacement for the European arrest warrant will require Germany to change its constitution. The UK will struggle to achieve the historic first of securing outside access to some EU crime-fighting databases.
What will happen to the economy?
It depends who you ask. In the short term, much of the risk seems to have been priced in, at least on currency markets, where sterling still languishes compared to where it was in June 2016. The stock market is well ahead.
A slightly more certain outlook could allow business investment to recover, after years of lagging behind Britain’s G7 peers. But against that must be weighed the unpredictability of the looming trade talks.
What does Europe think about the big Brexit moment?
The EU has always expressed regret at Britain’s decision to leave, repeating as long as legally possible throughout the Brexit process that the door was still open should the UK change its mind and, more recently, that it could always reapply after leaving.
But the bloc has also robustly defended its interests, in particular the integrity of the single market, insisting, with unexpected unanimity, that Britain could not “have its cake and eat it” by retaining the benefits of EU membership while diverging from its rules.
Frustration mounted at what the EU27 saw as the UK’s reluctance to accept the real-world consequences of the vote to leave, its inability to agree on what kind of Brexit it wanted, and of course the long months of parliamentary psychodrama and paralysis that ensued.
Some countries (France) have taken a much tougher line than others; some (the Netherlands, Denmark) will suffer much more from a no-trade-deal Brexit. But the EU27 should maintain their unity during the future relationship talks: however much of a blow a hard Brexit may be, a weakened single market is a far more damaging prospect.
What does it all mean for Britons in Europe…
No one yet fully knows; much remains to be negotiated. The withdrawal agreement secures British citizens’ basic rights to live and work within their EU host countries, a broadly similar post-Brexit status in each country, and EU-wide coordination on reciprocal healthcare and social security.
During the 11-month transition period, because the UK will remain in the single market, Britons will retain the freedom to move within the EU as before. After it ends they will have the right – providing they register, or in some countries apply, within a given time limit – to stay and, after a time, seek permanent residence.
But when the UK leaves the single market after transition, certain rights will fall away, including freedom of movement. This is a major blow for the 80% of UK citizens on the continent who are of working age or younger; they fought hard to lock free movement into the withdrawal agreement, but the EU decided this should be part of the trade talks.
Some rights within the gift of the UK are not yet assured either, such as home fees for British students on the continent who wish to study in the UK, and family reunification rights for Britons returning to the UK with EU family members.
…and for Europeans in Britain?
Many British voters who were passionate about staying in the EU will be feeling upset and emotional at 11pm on 31 January. While life goes on as normal in general, it is the point of no return and from 1 February British citizens will no longer be EU citizens.
But for EU nationals in the UK the moment will cast a long shadow of material consequence. While the government has given assurances that they will not face deportation or loss of social or employment rights, the bond of trust with the government is weak, not least because of the Windrush scandal.
And for the rest of the world?
Although it will certainly affect the UK more than the EU in almost every respect, Brexit will undoubtedly weaken the EU economically and politically. Britain was the EU’s second-biggest economy, a major net budget contributor, key military force and one of the bloc’s two nuclear powers and permanent UN security council members.
The EU’s institutions may have withstood the test of Brexit better than expected so far, and support for the EU among its citizens has generally increased. Brexit has also proved a salutary lesson, with almost all the bloc’s nationalist and Eurosceptic parties dropping promises to follow the UK’s example.
But the UK’s departure has distracted attention from a number of other big and urgent problems, including the climate crisis, and settling on the new relationship is also likely to be a messy and debilitating process. Longer term, in the balance of global powers a smaller, fractured Europe is obviously a weaker Europe.
In the face of an aggressive China and an increasingly protectionist and unpredictable US, the EU will need to be significantly tougher, with a centralised foreign policy and stronger rules ensuring European companies can compete with overseas rivals. Brexit makes that imperative even more urgent.