UK withdrawal from the European Union

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Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union

Glossary of terms
  • Withdrawal Act 2018 (Gibraltar)
  • Cooper–Letwin Act
  • Benn Act
  • 2019 suspension of rebel Conservative MPs
  • Public Vote Bill (not passed)
  • Terms of Withdrawal Bills (not passed)
  • Scottish EU Continuity Bill (blocked)
  • Withdrawal Agreement Act (Gibraltar)
  • EU (Future Relationship) Bill
Bloomberg speech Jan 2013
European Parliament election May 2014
2015 general election May 2015
Renegotiation begins Jun 2015
Referendum Act passed Dec 2015
Renegotiation concluded Feb 2016
Referendum held Jun 2016
Theresa May becomes PM Jul 2016
Article 50 judgement Jan 2017
Brexit plan presentedFeb 2017
Notification Act passed Mar 2017
Article 50 invoked Mar 2017
Repeal Bill plan presentedMar 2017
2017 general election Jun 2017
Brexit negotiations begin Jun 2017
Withdrawal Act passedJun 2018
Chequers plan presented Jul 2018
Withdrawal agreement plan presented July 2018
Withdrawal agreement released Nov 2018
Meaningful votes Jan–Mar 2019
Brexit delayed until 12 April Mar 2019
Cooper–Letwin Act passed Apr 2019
Brexit delayed until 31 October Apr 2019
European Parliament election May 2019
Boris Johnson becomes PM Jul 2019
Prorogation and annulment Aug–Sep 2019
Benn Act passed Sep 2019
Withdrawal agreement revised Oct 2019
Brexit delayed until 31 January Oct 2019
2019 general election Dec 2019
Agreement Act passed Jan 2020
UK leaves the EU Jan 2020
Implementation period begins Jan 2020
UK–EU trade deal agreed Dec 2020
Future Relationship Act passed Dec 2020
Implementation period ends Dec 2020
New EU–UK relationship begins Jan 2021
UK–EU trade deal ratified Apr 2021
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The United Kingdom in orange; the European Union (27 member states) in blue: a representation of the result of Brexit

Brexit (/ˈbrɛksɪt, ˈbrɛɡzɪt/;[1] a portmanteau of "British exit") was the withdrawal of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union (EU) at 23:00 GMT on 31 January 2020 (00:00 1 February 2020 CET).[note 1] The UK is the first and only sovereign country to have left the EU.[note 2] The UK had been a member state of the EU and its predecessor the European Communities (EC) since 1 January 1973. Following Brexit, EU law and the Court of Justice of the European Union no longer have primacy over British laws, except in select areas in relation to Northern Ireland.[2] The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 retains relevant EU law as domestic law, which the UK can now amend or repeal. Under the terms of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland continues to participate in the European Single Market in relation to goods, and to be a de facto member of the EU Customs Union.[3][4]

The EU and its institutions have developed gradually since their establishment and during the 47 years of British membership, and grew to be of significant economic and political importance to the United Kingdom. Throughout the period of British membership, Eurosceptic groups had existed, opposing aspects of the EU and its predecessors. Labour prime minister Harold Wilson's pro-EC government held a referendum on continued EC membership in 1975, in which 67.2 per cent of those voting chose to stay within the bloc, but no further referendums were held during the subsequent process of European integration, aimed at "ever closer union", embodied in the Treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon. As part of a campaign pledge to win votes from Eurosceptics,[5] Conservative prime minister David Cameron promised to hold a referendum if his government was re-elected. His government subsequently held a referendum on continued EU membership in 2016, in which voters chose to leave the EU with 51.9 per cent of the vote share. This led to his resignation, his replacement by Theresa May, and four years of negotiations with the EU on the terms of departure and on future relations, completed under a Boris Johnson government, with government control remaining with the Conservative Party in this period.

The negotiation process was both politically challenging and deeply divisive within the UK, leading to two snap elections. One deal was rejected by the British parliament, causing great uncertainty and leading to postponement of the withdrawal date to avoid a no-deal Brexit. The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020 after a withdrawal deal was passed by Parliament but continued to participate in many EU institutions (including the single market and customs union) during an eleven month transition period in order to ensure frictionless trade until all details of the post-Brexit relationship were agreed and implemented. Trade deal negotiations continued within days of the scheduled end of the transition period and the EU–UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement was signed on 30 December 2020.

The effects of Brexit will in part be determined by the cooperation agreement, which provisionally applied from 1 January 2021, and formally came into force on 1 May 2021.[6] The broad consensus among economists is that it is likely to harm the UK's economy and reduce its real per capita income in the long term, and that the referendum itself damaged the economy.[7][8][9][10][11] It is likely to produce a large decline in immigration from countries in the European Economic Area (EEA) to the UK,[12] and poses challenges for British higher education and academic research.[13]


Following a UK-wide referendum on 23 June 2016, in which 51.89 per cent voted in favour of leaving the EU and 48.11 per cent voted to remain a member, Prime Minister David Cameron resigned. On 29 March 2017, the new British government led by Theresa May formally notified the EU of the country's intention to withdraw, beginning the process of Brexit negotiations. The withdrawal, originally scheduled for 29 March 2019, was delayed by the deadlock in the British parliament after the June 2017 general election, which resulted in a hung parliament in which the Conservatives lost their majority but remained the largest party. This deadlock led to three extensions of the UK's Article 50 process.

The deadlock was resolved after a subsequent general election was held in December 2019. In that election, Conservatives who campaigned in support of a "revised" withdrawal agreement led by Boris Johnson won an overall majority of 80 seats. After the December 2019 election, the British parliament finally ratified the withdrawal agreement with the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. The UK left the EU at the end of 31 January 2020 CET (11 p.m. GMT). This began a transition period that ended on 31 December 2020 CET (11 p.m. GMT), during which the UK and EU negotiated their future relationship.[14] During the transition, the UK remained subject to EU law and remained part of the European Union Customs Union and the European Single Market. However, it was no longer part of the EU's political bodies or institutions.[15][16]

The withdrawal had been advocated by hard Eurosceptics and opposed by pro-Europeanists and soft Eurosceptics, with both sides of the argument spanning the political spectrum. In 1973, the UK joined the European Communities (EC) – principally the European Economic Community (EEC) – and its continued membership was endorsed in the 1975 membership referendum. In the 1970s and 1980s, withdrawal from the EC was advocated mainly by the political left, e.g. in the Labour Party's 1983 election manifesto. The 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which founded the EU, was ratified by the British parliament in 1993 but was not put to a referendum. The Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party led a rebellion over the ratification of the treaty and, with the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the cross-party People's Pledge campaign, then led a collective campaign, particularly after the Treaty of Lisbon was also ratified by the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008 without being put to a referendum following a previous promise to hold a referendum on ratifying the abandoned European Constitution, which was never held. After promising to hold a second membership referendum if his government was elected, Conservative prime minister David Cameron held this referendum in 2016. Cameron, who had campaigned to remain, resigned after the result and was succeeded by Theresa May.

On 29 March 2017, the British government formally began the withdrawal process by invoking Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union with permission from Parliament. May called a snap general election in June 2017, which resulted in a Conservative minority government supported by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). UK–EU withdrawal negotiations began later that month. The UK negotiated to leave the EU customs union and single market. This resulted in the November 2018 withdrawal agreement, but the British parliament voted against ratifying it three times. The Labour Party wanted any agreement to maintain a customs union, while many Conservatives opposed the agreement's financial settlement, as well as the "Irish backstop" designed to prevent border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party (SNP), and others sought to reverse Brexit through a proposed second referendum.

On 14 March 2019, the British parliament voted for May to ask the EU to delay Brexit until June, and then later October.[17] Having failed to get her agreement approved, May resigned as Prime Minister in July and was succeeded by Boris Johnson. He sought to replace parts of the agreement and vowed to leave the EU by the new deadline. On 17 October 2019, the British Government and the EU agreed on a revised withdrawal agreement, with new arrangements for Northern Ireland.[18][19] Parliament approved the agreement for further scrutiny, but rejected passing it into law before the 31 October deadline, and forced the government (through the "Benn Act") to ask for a third Brexit delay. An early general election was then held on 12 December. The Conservatives won a large majority in that election, with Johnson declaring that the UK would leave the EU in early 2020.[20] The withdrawal agreement was ratified by the UK on 23 January and by the EU on 30 January; it came into force on 31 January 2020.[21][22][23] The Brexit transition period ended on 31st December 2020 at 11pm GMT.

Terminology and etymology

Following the referendum of 23 June 2016, many new pieces of Brexit-related jargon entered popular use.[24][25]

The word "Brexit" was voted Word of the Year 2016 by the Collins English Dictionary.[26]

Background: the United Kingdom and EC/EU membership

  EC Members (Inner Six)
  EFTA Members (Outer Seven)
When the UK first joined the European Communities (along with Denmark and Ireland) on 1 January 1973 it was one of just nine member states that made up the bloc at the time.
  EC Members