The Brexit questions that make your head spin

The Brexit questions that make your head spin
FILE PHOTO: Demonstrators protest against Brexit outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, November 28, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

In Summary

  • You'd be forgiven then for struggling to keep up with the flare-ups over Prime Minister Theresa May's strategy for a deal, the red lines over what each side wants and the countless debates on what the future may look like.
  • CNN correspondents and reporters go back to basics to guide you through everything you need to know.

As the first country to attempt a break from the European Union, the UK’s divorce from the bloc was always going to be a messy affair.

You’d be forgiven then for struggling to keep up with the flare-ups over Prime Minister Theresa May’s strategy for a deal, the red lines over what each side wants and the countless debates on what the future may look like. CNN correspondents and reporters go back to basics to guide you through everything you need to know.

Why did Britain vote to leave the EU?

Brexiteers don’t like sharing sovereignty. They want the UK to decide its own rules and forge its own path. From how many fish a boat can bring to market, to who lives here and which court ultimately has the final say over UK citizens. Many have long bristled at following laws and regulations set in Brussels by an organization they see as increasingly undemocratic.

Immigration is another key issue for Brexit supporters. Some believe the free movement of Europeans has placed too much stress on government services or changed the fabric of their communities too quickly.

And then there are, regrettably, the racists. I’ve met members of this vocal minority across the country. “I’m not racist but… ” a reasonable-looking man said to me in Cornwall recently before telling me why he supported Brexit. It turns out he was racist and wrong — most criminals don’t have dark skin.

Voting for Brexit was also a way for some to protest against a political and economic system they feel has left them behind while others profit unfairly. They seized the Brexit vote as an opportunity to bloody the noses of politicians and officials they blame for stealing their sense of hope.

What’s happening now?

In the two years since the UK triggered Article 50, very little has changed in the thinking of its parliament. Inconveniently for Theresa May, on Tuesday, she needs that very same parliament to approve her Brexit deal.

What hasn’t changed? Hardline Brexiteers still want the UK to have a clean break, while more pro-EU MPs want to mitigate the economic impact of leaving. And May is still struggling to discipline her party and command authority as prime minister.

Then what has? Well, parliament has wrestled back some power from the PM. It has ensured that it will have “a meaningful vote” on May’s deal and that the government will have to make known its Plan B within three days, should the deal fail to pass.

Parliament has restricted the government’s ability to raise funds in the event of a no-deal scenario — neither a novel nor devastating move — but a clear signal that the majority of MPs remain opposed to no deal and that some Conservatives are willing to vote against their government.

If we take May at her word, the only way parliament could stop a no-deal Brexit would be to bring down the government and form a new one.

So what now? It is enshrined in law that the UK is leaving the EU on March 29. For all the uproar, that remains the default option unless another course of action is approved by MPs.

That is one thing that has not changed. Yet.

What does Theresa May want?

In short: Her deal to pass.

Then the formal Brexit process can begin in March. The UK will then officially enter a nearly two-year transition period — adhering to all the same rules as before — with a new trade relationship hopefully struck by December 2020.

After that, the UK is on its own — striking its own trade deals around the world and no longer subject to EU rules or the European Court of Justice.

May has touted that the agreement includes an end to freedom of movement, with a new skills-based immigration system. EU citizens who have been living in the UK will need to formally apply to remain.

Though it’s leaving, the UK still wants a very close relationship with the EU, in a free trade area, with no tariffs.

Whether that will happen is another matter entirely.

Why has Europe been difficult in negotiations?

It’s no secret that the EU regrets Brexit and views it as a historic mistake. On the day of the Brexit referendum results, diplomats were busy laying down their red lines.

“If they think they’re going to get a good deal, think again,” one diplomat swore at the time. Another EU official later acknowledged there was a real concern that Brexit would lead to a domino effect, potentially marking the beginning of the end of the European project.

While those “doomsday” fears have subsided, Brexit remains an existential threat. If a country as large and as powerful as the UK wants to leave the club, a country that helped shape the single market and benefits immensely from security cooperation among many other things, what does that say about the state of the club itself?

And so, the EU’s primary focus throughout the negotiations has been on damage control.

As May rushed to trigger Article 50, the EU Commission was quick to frame the negotiation process, dividing priorities into three core buckets: the financial settlement; the rights of citizens; and the Northern Ireland border.

The Northern Ireland backstop was the thorniest sticking point, with the EU giving in to the UK’s demand that the backstop involves a UK-wide customs arrangement, instead of the Northern Ireland-specific arrangement proposed by the EU.

It has since become clear that compromise is not enough for British lawmakers who, as it stands, will vote the deal down next week. The question then becomes, is the EU willing to give any more, or will it stick to its position that it’s this deal or no deal?

So how will Brexit affect you?

The British pound has already slumped since the UK voted to leave the EU, and it could fall even further in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

That’s good news for tourists hoping for a cheap trip to Britain, and for export-heavy British businesses.

And bad news for many others — the cost of living is rising for Brits as imports become more expensive, and it has been a similar story for businesses that need to import raw materials.

The Bank of England has said no deal could lead to an immediate crash, with the economy shrinking 8% and severe unemployment.

The uncertainty of what sort of Brexit deal will be struck, and what it means in terms of the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU, has already been damaging for some businesses.

Consumer spending and business investment have both taken a hit, and the economy slowed in the second half of last year.

Some businesses have already triggered contingency plans. Airplane engine maker Rolls Royce is stockpiling components, and banks like Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs have moved parts of their businesses out of the UK. Airbus says it may be forced to quit the country altogether if no deal is reached.

Will it be sorted soon and what happens if it all goes wrong?

Words like “sorted” and “wrong” are both relative when it comes to Brexit.

If May’s deal is approved, then Brexit will be partly sorted on March 29 and partly some time before December 2020.

The problem is, that “if” is so gargantuan it deserves its own moon.

Even people close to the PM are privately calling the situation “grim” and are preparing for a defeat. The smaller the parliamentary defeat, the logic goes, the more optimistic they are that they can have a second crack to get Brexit “sorted” and turn that defeat into victory.

But if May is defeated so badly that her deal dies — or goes “wrong” — then the options are innumerable.

Popular scenarios: attempted (probably failed) renegotiation with the EU; a collapse of government and a general election; a change of prime minister; a second EU referendum; requesting the extension of article 50; scrapping of Brexit altogether; and crashing out with a no deal.

Some are fanciful, some are miserable and all are absent of the one thing that businesses, citizens and the UK’s diplomatic partners have most desired all along: stability.

Ironically, stability is the one thing that May’s deal offers, despite the tumult it has caused in the UK’s political system.

What will the UK’s place in the world be post-Brexit?

Even before Brexit, the UK’s position in the world was changing — the glory days of empire long gone.

But the UK does still have diplomatic heft and global power. It still has a hand in key global institutions. It has nuclear weapons and a permanent seat at the world’s most powerful diplomatic table: the UN Security Council. It can still be a global influencer.

The world order is in flux. As one great power wanes (America), China is emerging. Brexit in this context will be a speck on the landscape of more substantial shifts.

The UK’s decline will not happen visibly. In truth, it is unlikely that the full cost of Brexit will be felt by any of the generations that voted for it. The world has got wealthier, generation after generation. But other nations are catching up and the UK is moving into the slow lane.

The simple truth is this: the future of this once great but now small and isolated island will be at the mercy of the billions of people beyond its borders.

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