A basic guide to Brexit issues

Wednesday 7 August 2019

Brexit: what does it all mean, where are we now and what might happen next?

It is over three years since the Referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union (EU). The Government’s subsequent decision to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty on 30 March 2017 began the two-year process of departure from the EU. We now have an extended deadline to 31 October 2019, granted by the EU, but no one knows exactly when, or how, we are going to leave.

Newly appointed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s ambition is to leave the EU on 31 October 2019. Deal or no deal, that’s his stated deadline. But what does a no deal Brexit mean for individuals, our organisations, public services, and the people we serve? Alternatively, what would a deal or compromise (if arrived at in time) mean in reality? And how can we be prepared?

Here is a summary of some of the main issues.

What might the future look like?

The Irish Backstop

The debate about what (if any) future trade relationship the UK would have with the EU and the rest of the world has continued for months, with no issues being resolved. The Irish backstop has been a crucial sticking point. It will be interesting to see what a new Prime Minister proposes to solve this seemingly insoluble problem.

One of the main reasons for this is the parliamentary arithmetic. The Government now has the slimmest of parliamentary majorities (one) including the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), but the DUP is vehemently opposed to the Irish backstop. It is intended to prevent the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland after 31 December 2020 in the event of no agreement between the UK and the EU on its future trading relationship. The Irish backstop has meant that all ten DUP MPs voted against the Government’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement on every occasion. They may continue to do so on any deal put forward before the end of October.

New relationship

There is much talk of a relationship akin to those of some countries outside the EU, commonly referred to as the Norway model, the Canada model and Common Market 2.0. But what do they mean and how likely are they to happen? Initially, the Government talked of creating a ‘deep and special partnership,’ which would be like no other, but its lack of a majority in the House of Commons has meant that, essentially, all bets are off, and all options and models are potentially on the table.

Customs union

Will there be a customs union? The EU customs union means that there are no tariffs or non-tariff barriers to trade between member states (unlike in a free trade area) and members of the customs union impose a common external tariff on all goods entering the union. Initially ruled out by the Government as one of its red lines, since it prevented the UK from entering into trade agreements with other non-EU countries, Labour appears to back some form of customs union.

Regulatory alignment

Much has also been heard about regulatory alignment but no one is sure what this means in practice. One of the difficulties for the Government has been the divergence in views of members of the parliamentary Conservative Party. This is in reference to the extent to which the UK should be free to set its own regulatory standards in environmental protection, employment rights, and food safety standards. The alternative is agreeing to be bound by, or at least adhere very closely to, existing European Union standards in these areas to avoid any perception of a deregulatory race to the bottom.

Immigration and freedom of movement

Immigration and freedom of movement is a much-debated topic. As with the customs union and leaving the single market, the Government was initially adamant that Brexit had to mean an end to freedom of movement; one of the four indivisible freedoms of the single market. Labour made the same pledge during the 2017 election campaign  but following publication in December 2018 of the Government’s White Paper on immigration post-Brexit, the debate has re-intensified.

Whatever is negotiated (internally and Europe-wide) in the interim, there remains the possibility of a no deal exit from the EU by 31 October 2019. In the meantime, the country will continue in a state of uncertainty and hope for the best and prepare for the worst.

Ken Slade, Weightmans

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