I haven't exactly counted, but since the United Kingdom voted with a 52% majority back in June 2016 that it wanted to exit the European Union, the word 'Brexit' has been uttered approximately 6,371,604 times every day. It's on people's minds - and it's certainly on their lips.
But despite the government having been in negotiation with the EU for literally years now about how the whole thing is going to play out, it still doesn't seem as if there's a clear cut plan of action. And, well, that's basically because there isn't. And to throw the cat among the pigeons, Prime Minister Theresa May has now resigned. So where does that leave us?
If you're just as confused about Brexit as you are about what to have for lunch on a daily basis, read on.
When is Brexit happening?
A lot later than it was intended to, that's for sure. Officially, Brexit was supposed to take place on 29 March, 2019. That was because Theresa May triggered the process of the UK leaving the EU (by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty) on 29 March, 2017. The treaty set out that when a country triggers Article 50, they have two years to negotiate and agree the terms upon which they will leave the EU, which meant that at 11pm on Friday, 29 March 2019, we should technically have left.
But that evidently was not the case. On 21 March, Theresa May announced she'd received permission from the The European Council to delay Brexit until 22 May, 2019, giving her more chance to work out an approach to leaving the EU that everyone (well, the majority of British MPs) can agree on. Then on 10 April, the UK and the EU agreed to an even longer delay of 31 October, 2019.
After 31 October, if we have an agreed deal, we'll be in a 'transition period' where we'll continue to follow EU rules without having any say in what they are. This will last until 31 December, 2020 and is intended to give Britain time to implement our own new rules, trade deals and more. So basically, it's a long old process.
Why do we need to strike a deal before we leave the EU?
You'll have heard talk of 'deals' and 'no deals' a lot lately, but sadly none of it was in reference to a Noel Edmunds-fronted game show offering you the chance to win thousands. The aim is to have an agreed Brexit deal on the table with the EU by the time
29 March 22 May 31 October rolls around, which will lay out the exact terms under which we will depart from the union.
If we leave without a deal, we won't be allowed the aforementioned transition period. And that's quite an important one, because it's a necessary time frame in which we can sort our proverbial sh*t out.
If we don't negotiate a deal, the existing trade agreement we've got with the EU will cease immediately, meaning we'll be subject to the EU's external tariffs and things like food and drink will get a lot more expensive - quickly. Planes could be grounded if we haven't pre-agreed any rules, because airlines would be required to seek individual permission from each of the 27 EU states in order to operate there.
Treasury Minister Mel Stride was photographed back in January leaving a government meeting exploring the eventuality of a no deal, and at the top of a list of outcomes visible in his briefcase were the words "no food" and "no Channel Tunnel". So not exactly ideal.
And perhaps most concerning, without a deal, the Irish border becomes an issue that could potentially jeopardise peace. It was an important part of the Good Friday peace agreement in Ireland to ensure that there was an open border between the Republic in the south, and Northern Ireland. But when NI (as part of the United Kingdom) leaves the EU later this month, the Republic of Ireland will remain, meaning the two territories will be subject to different trade agreements and immigration policies. For this reason, there would be pressure to enforce customs and immigration controls along the border. But as previously explained, this is a fundamental issue for the people of Ireland. If this issue is left unsolved before Brexit occurs, it poses a threat to the peace between Protestant supporters of being part of the UK, and Catholic nationalists who believe Ireland should become united as one country.
To put it bluntly, arriving at 31 October without a deal would be completely and utterly chaotic - whether you fall on the side of leave or remain.
What's all this drama about the Brexit deal being rejected?
Any Brexit deal negotiated by the Prime Minister with the EU must be approved by the majority of all 650(ish) MPs in parliament (who come from a variety of different political parties, not just Conservatives). But the deal Theresa May proposed has been rejected a grand total of three times, indicating the majority of MPs really opposed the conditions it laid out.
In response to the second defeat, Theresa May said in a statement:
"I continue to believe that by far the best outcome is the UK leaves the European Union in an orderly fashion with a deal. And that the deal we have negotiated is the best and indeed only deal available."
So what deal did Theresa May want to make?
After a hell of a lot of back and forth, Theresa May first announced she had reached a draft Brexit agreement with the EU on 16 November, 2018. The deal wasn't exactly concise - it was 585 pages long - but these are some of the key points it set out:
- There would be a transition period lasting almost two years, as described above, giving the UK time to work out a new trade agreement with the EU.
- The UK would have to pay what is effectively a 'divorce bill' to leave the EU. A specific figure wasn't included in the draft agreement document, but it's expected to be at least £39 billion paid back over several years.
- UK citizens in the EU, and EU citizens in the UK would retain their rights to residency and social security after Brexit. No firm guidance was included for people who live in one EU country and work across the border in another (eg living in eastern France and working in Geneva, Switzerland), though, as they would only have the right to reside in the specific country where they live.
- There would be no 'hard border' between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland (meaning no physical border). Instead, NI would be subject to a "backstop" if no long-term trade deal is agreed between the EU and the UK by the end of the transition period. The backstop basically means that Northern Ireland would have to abide more closely to existing EU customs rules than the rest of the UK. This, however, is controversial because it means goods being brought into Northern Ireland from elsewhere in the UK would have to be checked to ensure they met EU standards, and some people believe this damages the strength of the union of the United Kingdom.
As well as the draft agreement on a Brexit deal, a non-legally binding 'political declaration' was also drawn up by the UK and the EU, which sets out the future relationship between the two. This one was a little shorter than the draft agreement, at just 26 pages, and set out that any future trading relationship would be "as close as possible" between the two parties. It also confirmed that free movement for UK citizens travelling to the EU will no longer be allowed (which may mean visas are required for European holidays), and that the UK and the EU will continue to work together to "establish a broad, comprehensive and comprehensive security partnership".
Why did everyone hate the deal, then?
Effectively, the majority of politicians didn't think it was good enough. In fact, some senior members of parliament were so opposed to it when it was first announced, they quit - including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab. In his resignation letter, the former head of Brexit said he "cannot reconcile the terms of the proposed deal with the promises we made to the country in our manifesto at the last election."
Prime Minister Theresa May announced that MPs would get their say on whether they wanted the deal to go through not by casting a "meaningful vote", scheduled for 11 December. But just 24 hours before the vote, May called it off, saying the deal "would be rejected by a significant margin" if MPs were to vote on it then. The Prime Minister insisted she'd rather go back into negotiations with the EU in a bid to get further "reassurances" from them on the Northern Ireland border plan, which is undoubtedly the most divisive issue in the draft agreement.
Despite further negotiations, May went on to call a further three meaningful votes on her deal - all of which were rejected. The outcome of the first one even broke records; 432 MPs voted against it, versus 202 who supported it, which the BBC reported was the biggest defeat for a government motion since 1918.
So why did Theresa May resign?
The past six months have been a bumpy ride, with May having been subjected to a vote of no confidence twice. The first was back in December 2018, when enough Conservative members of parliament (48 is the threshold) sent letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee detailing that they had no confidence in their leader. Theresa May survived that vote, and her leadership looked back on track for the foreseeable future.
But then, after the crushing defeat of the deal the first time round in January, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn tabled a vote of no confidence on behalf of his party. This was backed by MPs from the SNP, Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party.
The second vote of no confidence against Theresa May took place on 16 January, but once again, the Prime Minster and her government survived, with 325 votes of support against 306 of no confidence.
Following her second survival, Theresa May told MPs she would "continue to work to deliver on the solemn promise to the people of this country to deliver on the result of the referendum and leave the European Union."
She added that "we must find solutions that are negotiable and command sufficient support in this House," which was why she went back to the table to negotiate a more favourable deal with the EU that the MPs might actually support. But as we know, the MPs were still insistent that the reassessed deal was not good enough.
However, it all went downhill from there. May tried to gain support from Labour MPs by offering a vote on whether a second referendum was held, but this only enraged Brexit-supporters within her own party - and pressure grew for the Prime Minister to resign.
Then, on 24 May, Theresa May delivered the news the country had expected; that she was resigning as Conservative leader and will stand down on 7 June, 2019. "It will always remain a matter of deep regret for me that I have not been able to deliver Brexit," she said in her emotional speech.
So what now for Brexit?
As it stands, the government - soon to be minus a leader - has five months to negotiate a deal with the EU that MPs will agree to. Otherwise we're back to no deal, and we've already covered why that's not really the avenue we want to end up down. A Conservative party leadership contest will begin the week after Theresa May officially stands down (around 10 June), and whoever is selected will become Prime Minister themselves.
Brexit's future completely depends on who that person is; if the new PM is an adamant Brexit supporter, we may end up leaving the EU before October (if a deal is secured) or departing without a deal. Other potential candidates are firm remainers, however, so may put the wheels in motion for a second referendum if it looks like a deal won't be established.
Is there any chance at all that we might end up remaining in the EU?
There's a slim chance. Because Article 50 was triggered, it is now enshrined in law that the UK will leave the EU at some point this year. For this process not to go ahead, the law would need to be changed in the UK. Although this would be a complicated process, it's not an impossible one - especially if we get a new leader who is opposed to the idea of Brexit themselves.
On 10 December last year, the European Court of Justice (which is an EU body itself) ruled that the UK could cancel Brexit without getting permission from the other 27 EU members - but only if this followed "democratic process" (essentially, another referendum - or the 'People's Vote' you'll have heard so much about).
Cancelling Brexit is an idea that seems to have won favour with many of the British public. In March, a petition to revoke Article 50 went viral, accruing over six million signatures. The Parliament's petitions committee tweeted at the time that the rate of signatures was "the highest the site has ever had to deal with", even causing the site to crash earlier this morning.
The rate of signing is the highest the site has ever had to deal with and we have had to make some changes to ensure the site remains stable and open for signatures and new petitions. Thanks for bearing with us.- Petitions Committee (@HoCpetitions) March 21, 2019
While a million signatures is an undeniably large number, it doesn't yet compare to the number of people who votes to leave the European Union back in June 2016. As former leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, put it: "Should it reach 17.4 million respondents then I am sure there will be a very clear case for taking action."
Now we've covered all that, I'm off for a nap that I hope will last until 31 October 2019 (and beyond).
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