Seven months after a divisive referendum, the U.K. will soon launch the process for leaving the European Union.
Brexit becomes real
How has Brexit affected the country?
Not as badly as many predicted. Before the historic plebiscite on June 23, the “Remain” camp warned that Brexit would cause economic chaos: a deep recession, plummeting stock prices, and skyrocketing unemployment. But most of those grim predictions— labeled “Project Fear” by those backing “Leave”—have yet to materialize. The United Kingdom’s GDP grew 2 percent over the year, the fastest of any G-7 nation; the London stock market, as measured by the FTSE 100, ended 2016 at a record high; and unemployment remained steady. The only economic bombshell was the pound dropping by 18 percent against the dollar, from $1.48 to $1.20, before recovering slightly in January. “They told us we were doomed,” says Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative member of Parliament who backed Leave. “They have been proved wrong.” Yet many economists believe Brexit’s true impact will become clear only once the negotiating process has begun.
When will that happen?
Tory Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to trigger Article 50—the clause for exiting the 28-member bloc—by the end of March. That will begin a two-year countdown to Britain’s formal breakaway, during which London and Brussels will attempt to hammer out the terms of their divorce. May had planned to activate Article 50 without going through Parliament, but Britain’s Supreme Court ruled last month that she would require approval from both chambers—a ruling that could delay the process. The justices also determined that the prime minister wasn’t legally obliged to consult the “devolved,” or national, governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. That decision renewed speculation that Scotland, where the public backed “Remain,” might try to break away from the U.K. so it can stay in the EU.
What terms does May want?
Some Britons hoped she would try to keep Britain in the EU’s single market— a “soft” Brexit. But that would undoubtedly have meant adhering to the bloc’s rules on freedom of movement, which allow unlimited immigration and travel among member states—one of the EU features that motivated many Britons to vote to leave. So May has called for a “hard” Brexit: a complete withdrawal from the single market, but with a free-trade deal offering “the greatest possible access” to it. She said the U.K. would no longer be subject to freedom of movement rules or laws made in the European Court of Justice; vowed to guarantee the rights of Britons currently living in Europe and of Europeans in the U.K.; and pledged to strike new deals with trading partners around the world, including the U.S. May also said she would “change the basis of Britain’s economic model” if Brussels didn’t play ball—a thinly veiled threat to dramatically lower corporate taxes in order to entice big EU-based banks and other companies to the U.K. If the EU tried to “punish” Britain for leaving, she said, it would be “an act of calamitous self-harm.”
What about the EU?
Britain is Europe’s second-largest economy, behind Germany, so both sides want to work out a deal. But a pain-free Brexit could encourage other EU members to leave the bloc, so German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that Britain cannot “cherry-pick” the best features of its EU membership and dispense with the rest. Right-wing, Euroskeptic parties are gaining popularity in Germany, France, and the Netherlands, all of which are holding elections this year; these and other EU members could well hold their own “leave” referenda. If another major country does follow Britain out of Brussels, the EU would almost certainly fall apart—likely unleashing economic and geopolitical chaos.
How will it all play out?
This is the first time a nation has left the EU, so it’s uncharted territory. Negotiators will be unpacking 43 years’ worth of treaties and agreements, covering thousands of different issues. Will a hard border be required between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member? Will Britain pay the £50 billion ($63 billion) “exit bill” the EU is planning on imposing? Everything is on the table. The final deal will need to be ratified by Britain’s Parliament, and by all 27 of the EU’s remaining members. The negotiations can be extended beyond two years, but only if every EU country agrees. If no deal is approved within the allotted time, all EU laws and treaties will automatically cease to apply to the U.K.
Any chance of a do-over?
Not really. The Conservative majority in the House of Commons will almost certainly overcome any efforts to block either the triggering of Article 50 or the final agreement. The House of Lords is largely opposed to Brexit, but the mostly wealthy members of the unelected upper chamber know that overturning the will of the people would lead to outrage—and reforms to curtail the Lords’ power. With both Conservatives and Labour pledging to press ahead, it appears that the die has been cast. “There’s no going back,” says David Davis, Britain’s Brexit minister. “The point of no return was June 23.”