The World

How Brexit Went Off the Rails

A brief guide to three years of chaos.

Photo illustration of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May against a backdrop of the United Kingdom flag and several Brexit-related word cutouts, including "Irish," "1973," "March 29, 2019," and "Referendum."
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by ayzek/iStock/Getty Images Plus, Sean Gallup/Getty Images, Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images, and Thierry Monasse/Getty Images.

For two years, the date March 29, 2019, has loomed over British politics—the day on which the United Kingdom would finally leave the European Union, a hard deadline by which all arrangements had to be made detailing the country’s future relationship with Europe.

March 29, 2019, has arrived—and nothing has been resolved. Instead, the situation has become hopelessly complicated, bordering on incomprehensible.

If you’ve gotten confused and don’t know an Irish backstop from a Malthouse compromise from a Norway model, don’t feel bad: Even the people in charge of this project often seem to be making up the rules as they go along. So as we enter a new post–March 29 phase of Brexit, it’s worth going back to the beginning of the saga to understand the key ideas and events that explain how we got here and what might happen next. Believe it or not, this is the simple version.

The U.K. and the EU

Britain joined the European Economic Community, which later evolved into the European Union, in 1973, but there was always a higher degree of euroskepticism in the island nation than in other member states. This sentiment increased after the 2008 financial crisis and the eurozone debt crisis, with particular resentment focused on what was seen as Germany’s heavy-handed and autocratic role in the union.

In 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron vowed that if his Conservative Party won the 2015 election, he would attempt to renegotiate the terms of the U.K.’s EU membership, then hold an in/out referendum on whether the country should remain a member. Cameron personally opposed withdrawal but was under pressure from both euroskeptics within his own party and the growing popularity of the far-right U.K. Independence Party, which made withdrawing from the EU its signature issue.

Cameron’s gambit worked—maybe too well. The Conservatives shattered pre-election expectations in 2015 by winning an overall majority in Parliament, giving Cameron a mandate to hold the referendum. Cameron did attempt to renegotiate Britain’s membership, but he was able to win only partial concessions on political sovereignty and control of immigration. Reeling from its defeat, the Labour Party elected the veteran leftist Jeremy Corbyn as its new leader.

The referendum

The referendum was scheduled for June 23, 2016. Cameron campaigned for the “Remain” side but gave party members the freedom to campaign for either side. Some prominent party members, including then–London Mayor Boris Johnson, became leading “Leave” proponents.

The pitch for Leave was partially based on economic concerns—including an inaccurate promise that Britain would be able to save 350 million pounds sterling a week on membership dues and spend it on the National Health Service. But concerns about immigration and border security in the wake of the European migrant crisis that began in 2015 may have played a bigger role.

When the referendum was held, voters stunned the world by voting 52 percent to 48 percent to Leave. Cameron resigned as prime minister after the defeat. Theresa May, who as home secretary had backed Remain, became the new prime minister. Johnson became foreign minister.

Hard or soft

A slim majority of Britons may have decided to leave the EU, but no one was quite sure what that breakup would look like. The referendum asked only whether the U.K. should “remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union,” which didn’t provide much of a way forward.

A split quickly emerged between those advocating a “soft Brexit” and those favoring a “hard Brexit.” In a soft Brexit, Britain would prioritize trade and access to the European common market in exchange for giving up some control over immigration and keeping a whole lot of EU regulations. Non-EU countries like Norway and Switzerland have a setup like this. Under a hard Brexit, Britain would withdraw entirely, regaining full control over its borders and domestic regulations, as well as the ability to negotiate separate trade agreements with other countries, but lose tariff-free access to the market that accounts for 44 percent of its exports.

May kept her cards close to her vest for several months, repeatedly saying only, unhelpfully, that “Brexit means Brexit.” Then, in an October 2016 speech, she indicated she would prioritize immigration controls over trade access. A hard Brexit it would be.

On March 29, 2017, May formally triggered Article 50 of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, which gives countries two years to negotiate their withdrawal from the EU. The time limit put Britain at a negotiating disadvantage, particularly since European countries—looking to avoid future Grexits, Frexits, and Nexits—had little incentive to make things easy on the Brits. But still, Brexit opponents’ predictions of immediate economic doom were starting to look a little overblown, and the Conservatives were enjoying a healthy lead in the polls. May had reason to feel confident, which led to possibly the worst mistake of her premiership.

The 2017 election

May’s Conservatives, who were themselves sharply divided on Brexit, held only a slim majority in the House of Commons and in a key concession before triggering Article 50, May had agreed to let Parliament vote on the final Brexit deal. So in April 2017, May called a snap election in hopes of increasing her majority and negotiating leverage with Europe.

That’s not what happened. That June, in yet another surprise election result, the Conservatives lost 13 seats in the House of Commons along with their majority. In order to stay in power, the Tories had to forge a partnership with the Democratic Unionist Party, a conservative party primarily representing the Protestant community of Northern Ireland. This would have major implications later on.

The Irish question

It was clear from the start that withdrawing from the EU would be a complicated process—with unresolved questions over the status of European citizens currently living in the U.K., the host of EU regulations on the books in Britain, and the future trade relationship between the two. But the thorniest issue turned out to be one that almost no one was taking about in 2016: the Northern Ireland border.

The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland is the U.K.’s only land border with the EU. Currently, goods, services and people can cross that border unfettered. But if Britain leaves the EU’s customs union, goods crossing the border would somehow need to be checked for EU standards and tariffs. Neither side wants to impose a hard border with customs checks—which, it’s feared, could jeopardize the hard-won peace currently enjoyed in Northern Ireland after decades of sectarian violence.

But if the border remains open, it creates a backdoor for European goods to get into the U.K. unchecked. One solution would be to check goods between Northern Ireland and the island of Great Britain, but this would effectively create an economic border between the province and the rest of the U.K. This is unacceptable to May’s partners in the DUP. The “trilemma” of how to leave the EU’s single market, avoid a hard border in Ireland, and keep the country economically united remains unresolved.

Revenge of the Remainers

Suffice to say, Brexit hasn’t turned out quite as proponents hoped back in 2016, and there’s been a steady drumbeat of support to hold a new referendum, either on whatever final deal emerges from negotiations or on whether to withdraw at all. The European Court of Justice has ruled that it’s possible to revoke Article 50, and polls have shown that a narrow majority would vote Remain if another referendum were held. (To be fair, that’s what polls showed before the last referendum as well.) Revelations about the role of Russian disinformation in the run-up to the original referendum have bolstered calls for a redo. In October 2018, almost 700,000 people marched in London to demand a “People’s Vote” on Brexit, the largest demonstration in the U.K. since the Iraq war. The Scottish National Party, the third largest party in Parliament, backs a new referendum, as do a substantial number of Labour Party politicians.

Corbyn, who has been a euroskeptic since the 1970s, has ranged from ambivalent to hostile about a new referendum—there’s concern it could imperil Labour MPs in pro-Brexit areas—but has lately indicated he’s open to the idea under certain circumstances.

Things fall apart

The wheels really started to come off the Brexit train in July 2018, when May presented a draft Brexit plan to her Cabinet at Chequers—the prime minister’s country estate, roughly equivalent to Camp David. The plan was much closer to the “soft” end of the spectrum than anticipated. It involved the U.K. continuing to operate “as if” it were in the European customs union in order to avoid border checks in Northern Ireland. The problem is, once the U.K. left the union, it would have no role in setting the rules under which it operated. Boris Johnson said this would relegate the U.K. to the status of “colony.” Johnson, Brexit Secretary David Davis, and Davis’ deputy Steve Baker all resigned from the Cabinet in protest. Adding to May’s humiliation, her “Chequers plan” was then rejected by the EU at a meeting in Salzburg, Austria, in September.

No deal

Looming over these proceedings was the prospect of a “no-deal” Brexit. If Britain and the EU failed to reach an agreement by March 29, trade relations between the two would supposedly revert to World Trade Organization rules. Hard-line Brexiteers think this is just fine, but economists have warned it could have devastating economic consequences for British companies that do business in Europe and consumers who rely on products from Europe. Reassurances from the government that preparations were underway to “make sure there is adequate food supply” in the event of a no-deal did not exactly inspire confidence.

May’s deal

The prime minister finally hammered out a deal with the Europeans and got her Cabinet to back it in November 2018. Under this deal, March 29 would mark the beginning of a “transition period,” which would last at least until the end of 2020 but could be extended, during which the final trade arrangements would be negotiated. The most contentious feature of May’s deal is the “Irish backstop” meant to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Under the backstop, Britain will remain in a customs union with Europe during the transition period and perhaps longer—if no solution to the problem of how to check goods entering Northern Ireland can be found. This is objectionable to Brexiteers who fear that Britain could end up staying in an economic union with Europe, and unable to negotiate its own trade agreements, indefinitely. The backstop also states that some extra EU regulations will apply only to Northern Ireland in order to avoid border checks. This is objectionable to the DUP, which opposes any special status for the region. The whole provision is objectionable to basically everyone, as it means Britain will be subject to European rules that it will have no role in setting. But given the political constraints May was under, there weren’t a lot of better options.

Two more Cabinet ministers quit in protest, and in December the prime minister was forced to delay a planned vote on the deal when it became clear she didn’t have the votes.

The “No” phase

Parents of toddlers are familiar with what’s known as the “no phase,” in which young children who are just starting to discover their autonomy reject almost every option presented to them. (“Do you want to leave?” “No!” “Do want to stay?” “No!”) This is more or less what the last few months of parliamentary debate over Brexit have looked like.

On Dec. 12, hard-line Brexiteers triggered a vote of no-confidence in an attempt to replace May, but the coup attempt failed.

On Jan. 15, May finally put her plan to a vote, and it was rejected 432–202—the first time a government motion has been defeated by more than 100 votes since the 1920s.

On Jan. 16, the full Parliament held a no-confidence vote in May and again failed to unseat her. (The key factor keeping her in power at this point may be that no one really wants her unenviable job.)

On Jan. 29, Parliament rejected a “no-deal” Brexit, rejected a new referendum, and rejected a motion to ask the EU for more time. May went back to Brussels to seek more assurances from Europe on the Irish backstop.

On March 12, Parliament again rejected May’s deal, this time by a somewhat smaller margin. The following day, it again rejected a no-deal Brexit.

On March 14, Parliament finally approved a motion to seek an extension of the March 29 deadline, but May wasn’t through with brinkmanship. Under her motion, her unpopular deal would be put up for a third vote. If it were approved this time, she would ask for just a three-month delay to implement the agreement. If it were rejected again, the delay would be for longer. The government has wanted to avoid delaying Brexit past July, since that’s when a new EU Parliament will be seated and Britain doesn’t want to participate in elections for it. (At this point, that seems like the least of everyone’s problems.)

House Speaker John Bercow (if you’ve been watching the Commons debates, he’s the guy in the loud ties who’s always yelling “Order!” and delivering sick burns) threw a bit of a wrench in this plan by refusing to allow a third vote on the same motion. But rather than asking for the longer delay as she had promised, May asked for a short one and continued to press for a third vote. The EU said it would only approve this extension after Parliament voted for May’s deal.

On March 27, Parliament attempted to wrest control of Brexit away from May with a series of eight indicative votes on alternative Brexit scenarios ranging from revoking Article 50, to the Labour Party’s plan to keep Britain in a customs union with Europe, to a new referendum. None of these passed.

In a last-ditch effort to persuade Brexiteer critics to back her deal, May offered to resign if it were approved. On March 29, the day Brexit was supposed to be finished, a third vote on May’s deal was held. It failed. So, bright side, she gets to keep her job.

Where are we now?

The Brexit deadline has now been extended until April 12. By then, the U.K. supposedly has to choose between exiting without a deal or agreeing to a longer extension that will require it to participate in EU elections.

After its third defeat, May’s deal is almost certainly dead. There’s a possibility that Parliament could still vote in the coming days for a permanent customs union with Europe—an option that failed by a somewhat smaller margin than other scenarios in this week’s votes. Or the government could call a second referendum, or a new general election.

Or, it’s possible that two weeks from now Parliament could still not have figured out what it wants to do. European Council President Donald Tusk has called an emergency summit for April 10 to discuss the situation. If there’s no clear way forward, the EU will have to decide whether to simply cut Britain loose—this means “no-deal”—or continue to try to work with it toward a solution.

At the moment, no Brexit scenario is popular enough to win the backing of a majority. May’s handling of the situation is deeply unpopular, but Parliament won’t boot her out or even let her resign. Remarkably, Labour—under fire not only for Corbyn’s ambivalent Brexit stance but also accusations of anti-Semitism in the party’s leadership—is even less popular. No one likes the status quo or any of the alternatives. The only thing certain now is that however the Brexit crisis ends, no one will be happy with the result.