'Brexit': what's happened, what's next

Negotiators are meeting each month and already appear to be working against the clock. Even the broad outlines of Britain's planned exit from the European Union are still unclear.

Peter Nicholls/ Reuters
A tourist bus passes an anti Brexit protester in London, Britain on Oct. 19, 2017.

Last year, Britain shocked the world by voting to leave the European Union. “Brexit” has proved to be one of the most complicated things a country has ever done: One study found it “incomparably more complex” than the first moon landing.

Q: Where does Brexit currently stand?

It took the British government until March of this year to trigger Article 50 – the two-year process for a country seeking to leave the bloc voluntarily. This means Britain should officially leave no later than April 2019. Although that may seem like a long way off, the EU hopes the talks will actually be concluded in October 2018 so the European Parliament has time to ratify the deal.

Negotiators are therefore working against the clock to decide how to unwind Britain’s relationship with the EU and make a plan for the future. Many have likened the process to a long and knotty divorce – but one with 28 interested parties.

The negotiating teams have been meeting each month since this past June, but it is difficult to gauge how much progress has been made as it’s all behind closed doors.

At the latest EU summit in October, Brexit negotiators failed to clinch a declaration of “sufficient progress,” which is necessary to advance discussions to the next phase. The EU27 (countries of the EU minus Britain) will be asked to vote on this again at the next summit in December.

Q: How has Britain itself been doing?

The government has been in turmoil since the decision to leave. Theresa May, who became prime minister after the referendum vote, has been trying to heal bitter divisions in the Conservative Party – and the country – since then.

She took a gamble that did not pay off when she called for a snap election to take place in June. She expected her party to win in a landslide, but instead, the vote resulted in a hung Parliament. She has also faced legal battles, struggled to get bills through Parliament, and most recently, encountered leadership threats.

Q: What are the most pressing Brexit issues right now?

The negotiators – David Davis leading for Britain and Michel Barnier for the EU – have been trying to reach an agreement on some of Brexit’s most controversial issues. This has included deciding the rights of British citizens who live in the EU and of EU citizens who live in Britain, working out what will happen to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and perhaps most important, negotiating how much Britain will have to pay – the so-called divorce bill.

At present, the EU is waiting to see what Britain is willing to pay, but Britain is said to be refusing to name a figure.

For Britain, future trade relations and a plan for a two-year period to transition to post-Brexit relations are the current top priorities. But the EU says it will not discuss such issues until progress has been made on the financial settlement.

Q: How are prospects looking for moving ahead?

Unless a new timetable is agreed upon, Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29, 2019 – deal or no deal. Many commentators have predicted that Britain could be heading toward the latter if things don’t progress faster.

In October, following the fifth round of negotiations, Mr. Barnier said the talks were at an “impasse.” But at a news conference at the end of the EU summit, European Council President Donald Tusk was more optimistic and said concerns about a deadlock had been “exaggerated.”

There has been considerable debate in recent weeks about the standoff and what would happen if Britain left the EU without a deal. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, told members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France: “We want a deal. Those who don’t want a deal – the no-dealers – they had no friends in the Commission.”

Q: So is Brexit really going to happen?

For those still hoping Brexit won’t actually happen, the good news is that the Article 50 withdrawal process can be halted. However, the European Commission and the European Parliament’s Brexit committee have said that reversal has to be agreed to by the other EU countries.

Calls for a second referendum vote have intensified as it seems increasingly likely that Britain is heading for either a so-called hard Brexit (in which Britain would leave not just the EU but also the Single Market and customs union) or no deal (prolonging the uncertainty about Britain’s future relationship with the EU). When Mr. Tusk updated the European Parliament after the summit, he said it was up to Britain whether there was “a good deal, no deal, or no Brexit” at all.

The mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, hinted in an interview with BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program that the Labour Party could back a second referendum if the British Parliament rejects the deal. Those in support of leaving the EU (dubbed Brexiteers) say to do so would disregard the will of the people.

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