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Brexit explained: A novice’s guide to understanding UK’s departure from the European Union

The Deseret News has sorted through myriad reports to make sense of the politics, potential and fallout. Here’s what we know — and it’s all changing pretty fast.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he speaks to the media after being greeted by French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019, in Paris.
Daniel Cole, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Tempers are flaring and the United Kingdom’s political realm appears madcap as the Oct. 31 deadline for Brexit separation looms.

The past week has brought multiple protests, including inside the normally staid House of Commons. Lawmakers have been ousted from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party for helping thwart him on a recent Brexit-related vote. House of Commons speaker John Bercow said he would step down in late October. And the House of Commons and House of Lords passed legislation barring the United Kingdom’s divorce from the European Union without a withdrawal agreement to ensure an orderly process. Johnson also suspended Parliament for five weeks Monday, so it can’t officially act on Brexit until Oct. 14.

Jessica Taylor, House of Commons via Associated Press

To top it off, the prime minister lost his majority in Parliament — thanks in part to his own brother, who stepped down. Multiple Twitter feeds joked that Jo Johnson resigned “to spend less time with his family.”

The soundtrack to the chaos has ranged from silent protests to chants to name-calling, accusations and counter-accusations. And that just recaps the past week or so. Buzzfeed headlined its coverage “ludicrous Brexit carnage.”

It’s probably hard for Britons to keep track of what’s happening with Brexit, which is literal shorthand for Britain and exit — and it’s even more confusing for those of us “across the pond.”

The Deseret News has sorted through myriad reports to make sense of the politics, potential and fallout. Here’s what we know — and it’s all changing pretty fast.

First, some background

England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales comprise the United Kingdom, which has the fifth-largest economy in the world. The UK, as it’s often called, would be the first country to leave the European Union. Greenland left in 1985, but that’s an island belonging to Denmark. CNN said Greece is pondering Grexit.

The Brexit brawl started with a referendum in 2016 to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union, to which it has now belonged for about 45 years. Just under 52 percent of voters chose “leave” over “stay.”

The European Union is made up of 28 member countries who have agreed to let goods, services and people pass among them without hard borders. With a few exceptions, like the fact that most but not all of them use Euros as currency, they have agreed to certain economic and business terms, such as shared tariffs. They present a united front and avoid red tape. In fact, 3 million people from other European Union countries live and work in the United Kingdom, while 1 million of its residents live and work in other European Union countries. If Brexit occurs, that will have to be sorted out, too.

According to CNN, just under half of the United Kingdom’s exports go to EU countries, while just over half its imports come from them.

Actually leaving?

After the referendum, which was opposed by Prime Minister David Cameron (he called for the vote, thinking it would not pass), he stepped down. Theresa May replaced him. She resigned this summer after failing to gain Parliament’s support for a separation agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

The first step, explained in Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, was filing for a divorce by notifying leaders of the member nations that the United Kingdom planned to leave. That started a two-year clock on negotiating a deal, which would have to be approved by various parties, including United Kingdom lawmakers and European Union governing bodies.

May’s government negotiated an agreement, but couldn’t get Parliament’s approval. She twice received time extensions.

Remember the “Troubles” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that raged for decades? Northern Ireland belongs to the United Kingdom, while the Republic of Ireland will remain part of the European Union after Brexit. Following decades of enmity and domestic terror, the two Irelands have reached accord that hinges largely on the unfettered ability for people and goods to go back and forth without a hard border and inspections — something seen as vital to maintaining continuing peace.

When Theresa May was negotiating Brexit with the European Union, they came up with an agreement called the “Irish border backstop,” to prevent the need for a hard, monitored border between the Irelands. That agreement was a major sticking point that prevented Parliament from backing May’s Brexit plan. Opponents are worried about two things: the potential the backstop could be permanent and the possibility that it would in practice serve to keep the United Kingdom in the European Union’s custom union (a free trade area that allows goods to pass unchallenged between member nations). That would stop the United Kingdom from making its own trade agreements, which was part of the reason so-called Brexiteers wanted to leave the European Union in the first place.

Ireland is adamant. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has vowed that “in the absence of agreed alternative arrangements, no backstop is no deal for us.”

Johnson doesn’t like the backstop. He is thought to now be pondering a Northern Ireland-only backstop that would allow passage of goods and services back and forth on the Irish Isle, where there’s already an agreement governing electric power and agriculture.

As BBC’s Nicholas Watt explained, he “is interested in a so-called ‘Canada Plus’ free trade agreement with the EU. Theresa May rejected this option because the EU would only ever offer this to Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and not to the United Kingdom as a whole. This is because the EU has insisted that Northern Ireland would have to remain closely aligned to the EU to avoid a hard border.”

He wrote that “Theresa May rejected a ‘Northern Ireland only backstop’ in favor of a model that applied more widely to the UK. Northern Ireland would remain strongly within the EU’s orbit while Great Britain would be tied closely — though not wholly — to Northern Ireland.”

Brexit supporters said that would amount to “Brexit in name only.”

Paste Magazine explained how complicated the connections are between the United Kingdom and the European Union: “Even if Europe wanted Britain to leave, there are massive lists of rules and regulations and border disputes to be worked out, and these cannot be hashed out in a month. To give a short list of obstacles: rules concerning the movement of capital. The traffic of goods, including food. The movement of EU citizens, including immigrants. The border with Ireland. Huge numbers of subsidies which will have to be removed. Pick any part of British modern life, and Brexit will shred it.”

Recent events

Last week, UK lawmakers passed legislation that would require Johnson to seek another extension from the European Union, delaying the divorce until at its earliest January of 2020, unless a deal is made by Oct. 19 to guide “an orderly exit.” Monday, Queen Elizabeth gave the new law “royal assent.”

Johnson retaliated by expelling 21 Parliament members from his Conservative Party after they defied him and voted for the no-deal extension measure. Even Winston Churchill’s grandson got the boot.

According to The New York TImes, “The prime minister and many of his allies say that Britain must preserve the possibility of leaving without a deal in order to maintain leverage in negotiations with Brussels. Opponents of a no-deal withdrawal say it simply cannot be considered because of the potentially catastrophic consequences for the British economy.”

As CNN explained a no-deal Brexit: “In an instant, the country would lose its access to the EU’s single market and customs union, which facilitate trade between the bloc’s members. All manner of legal arrangements agreed by EU bodies will no longer apply in the UK, and businesses, public bodies and citizens would have to deal with the changes that leaving the EU would bring.”

CNN noted that many UK leaders and politicians have tried for three years to avoid that and said numerous sources, including “the Bank of England, the Treasury and the Office for Budget Responsibility, a no-deal Brexit could push the UK into a recession.”

Parliament is “prorogued,” which means it’s suspended until Oct. 14. America’s rough equivalent is a congressional break. The Hill reported that it is likely Johnson and fellow Brexiteers want to limit the ability of Parliament to prevent his government from exiting the European Union without a deal in place. The next chance to craft an agreement is during scheduled meetings Oct. 17 and 18.

Critics of his decision to send Parliament home suggest he may have misled the Queen about the need. His official reason is to put together and present a new domestic policy. Skepticism drove his critics in Parliament to require all government correspondence on the proroguement by officials be made public, along with the government assessment of harms from Brexit. Various news sources are reporting that food and medicine shortages are named as potential fallout.

Johnson has not blinked, vowing to see that the United Kingdom leaves the European Union on Oct. 31, whether there is a negotiated exit deal or not. It’s noteworthy that any further delay would require approval from all EU members — and some, including France, suggest they might not all be willing to grant another extension. Also widely believed is that the European Union will make the exit as difficult as possible to discourage other member countries from pulling out. Greece officials are watching closely.

The prime minister tried unsuccessfully to get a “snap” election, hoping to shore up his support in Parliament. Jeremy Corbyn, opposition Labour Party leader, has been vocal in calling for a general election — but when Johnson asked for one, he threw his clout into preventing it until making sure Brexit won’t happen without a deal in place to guide the transition.

What’s next

Writes Buzzfeed’s Alan White: “While this political chaos is no doubt fun to witness to a degree, and most of us are managing to sustain a level of emotional detachment, there’s a dark underside. The real world effects — economic and social — are very much with us, and they are increasing in severity with every day the crisis deepens.”

Long term, various scenarios have been detailed. For instance, experts told CNN that Article 50 could be revoked and it would be as if the past three Brexit-filled years were nothing but a dream. Or a second referendum could be called. If that happened, voters might choose to stay in the European Union.

It’s still possible that Johnson’s government can reach a deal with the European Union and win approval from Parliament. It’s also possible he’ll be force to ask for another extension to try to work things out.

There’s some agreement that should he choose to try to Brexit without a deal in place, the prime minister could face jail time for flouting the newly passed law. Or he could resign and pass the problem to someone else.

Meanwhile, the European Union leadership has nominated Phil Hogan, an Irishman, to lead trade talks for the European Union. If Brexit happens, he’s likely to lead negotiations in the aftermath.