Explaining Brexit to Americans Part II

In a Very Specific and Limited Way

Alina Utrata
17 min readOct 10, 2020

The last time I wrote about Brexit was a little over a year ago — Boris Johnson had just become Prime Minister, ash was not blocking out the sun in the Pacific Northwest, and very few people had ever heard of the word “coronavirus”. Simpler times. But, just in time for my return to the UK, British politics has decided a throwback to Brexit doomsday deadlines is just what we needed to get us out of this pandemic meltdown. So, here is Part II of my Explaining Brexit to Americans, edition “In a Very Specific and Limited Way”.

Okay, so last year you said that Brexit hadn’t actually happened yet — but in January, all of my remainer friends cried re-tweeting the video of the British flag being taken down outside the EU parliament. Surely Brexit has happened by now!

Yes, Brexit has already happened. On January 31, 2020, the United Kingdom officially left the European Union — the UK is no longer an EU member.

Right now, the UK is in the midst of the “transition period.” That means the UK is not a member of the EU, but everyone is still acting as if it is. All of the same rules, regulations and agreements are still being observed. This transition period ends on December 31, 2020 (i.e. in 2.5 months) — that’s when you’ll be able to see Brexit “actually happening.” Boris Johnson has said that the EU and the UK have until October 15, 2020 (i.e. 5 days!!!!) to finish negotiations about their future relationship, otherwise both sides should “accept that [there won’t be a deal] and move on.”

Wait. The UK and the EU are still negotiating? I thought they had already negotiated (for years and years!) and the UK Parliament had already ratified some agreement?

It does sometimes seem like the EU and the UK have been negotiating for all eternity, doesn’t it?

Before Brexit happened last year, the EU and the UK were negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement. That’s like the original British-EU divorce bill (and what everyone was always mad at former Prime Minister Theresa May about). The UK Parliament passed the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in January 2020, just before the UK officially brexited. If they hadn’t passed that Withdrawal Agreement before the January deadline, the doomsday No-Deal Brexit scenario would have occurred.

As a refresher, the Withdrawal Agreement addressed:

  • how long the transition/implementation period would be
  • what would happen to EU citizens residing in the UK, and UK citizens residing in the EU
  • the amount of money the UK owed the EU
  • the Northern Irish border

Right now, the negotiations taking place are about the future relationship between the EU and the UK. There is a LOT of stuff to cover in these negotiations (the final agreement is expected to run to about a thousand pages!).

No-Deal Brexit could still happen if the two sides don’t come to an agreement about the future relationship at the end of the transition period. Boris Johnson has set the deadline for those talks at October 15.

Oh yeah, I remember you talking about the Withdrawal Agreement.… so what did end up happening with that?

You might remember from last time that Theresa May was unable to get her Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament, and therefore the Conservative Party removed her as Prime Minister and selected Boris Johnson as leader instead. Immediately after moving into Number 10, Boris Johnson filled his cabinet with a bunch of hard-line Brexit supporters. I posited that this was because he was gearing up for a snap election — and I was right! (You have no idea, in this climate, how gratifying it is to finally predict something correctly about British politics.)

So, in December of last year, the UK went to the polls (again). A lot of people thought that Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party might not do so well, especially because Theresa May called a snap election in 2017 after she became PM and ended up losing the party’s majority. (That’s what forced the Tories into the Confidence-and-Supply agreement with the Northern Irish party the DUP.)

PM Boris Johnson campaigning. Photo: AFP

In fact, Boris Johnson’s party won in a landslide. The opposition Labour Party did more than just badly — it lost its “red wall”, or an area of working class areas in northern England which historically have voted for the Labour Party. The Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, resigned and was replaced by Keir Starmer in April 2020. (It’s worth noting that Carole Cadwalladr has an excellent TedX Talk about how the democratic process has been subverted by social media monopolies.)

Boris Johnson campaigned on the slogan “Get Brexit Done.” In other words, the country is sick and tired of Brexit, if you vote for me I’ll get it done and we can all move on from this Brexit issue once and for all. After Johnson won with a comfortable majority of 80, he did manage to get his “oven-ready” Brexit plan through Parliament.

So Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement was different from Theresa May’s?

Boris Johnson’s withdrawal bill is basically Theresa May’s withdrawal bill, but with a different Northern Ireland protocol.

You may remember that a lot of people didn’t like Theresa May’s withdrawal bill because of the Northern Irish backstop. Hard-line Brexiteers said that the backstop would trap the UK government in customs union and single market and prevent it from negotiating trade deals with other countries (it wouldn’t). The DUP didn’t like the backstop because they argued it would cause “divergence” between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, creating a border in the Irish sea (it — and this will shock you — wouldn’t).

In Theresa May’s plan, if negotiations about the future relationship between the EU/UK broke down (i.e. the ones happening right now), then the entire UK would stay in the customs union. That means no hard border on the island of Ireland and no border in the Irish sea — by default. Nothing was stopping the UK from doing it on purpose. The UK and the EU could have agreed to something different in the future relationship negotiations (i.e. the ones happening right now).

PC Al Jazeera

Originally, the EU suggested a backstop where only Northern Ireland would stay in the customs union. That way Great Britain could set its own trade policy and there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland — but there might be some checks on goods in the Irish sea. However, the DUP (a hard-line Unionist party in Northern Ireland) feared that any divergence in policy between Great Britain and Northern Ireland could be the precursor to a united Ireland. Theresa May bent over backwards to keep the DUP happy, which is why she agreed to a UK-wide, rather than Northern Ireland-specific, backstop — it would prevent any chance that “divergence” between Great Britain and Northern Ireland might possibly occur.

When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, he scrapped the backstop for a “full stop.” Under his Withdrawal Agreement, Northern Ireland will be aligned with EU regulations for four years after the transition period ends this December. That means, instead of Northern Ireland remaining in the EU customs unions only if talks fail, the region will automatically stay in the customs union for at least four years. At the end of four years, the Northern Ireland devolved legislature Stormont will vote on whether they want to continue to be aligned with the EU for either another four years or eight years.

Wait . . . so doesn’t this mean that there will be checks on goods in the Irish sea now? Exactly what the DUP was afraid of?

Yes. This means that both goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland and visa versa will need to fill out customs and regulatory forms at the very least. Some goods may be subject to regulatory checks or tariffs, depending on whether they are considered “at-risk” of being sold in the Republic of Ireland. It’s very complicated, and you can read more here.

In November 2019, Boris Johnson said that if any business in Northern Ireland is asked to fill out paperwork to send goods to Great Britain they should telephone him and “and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin”. However, since Parliament ratified Johnson’s Withdrawal Bill, it is legally binding — so legally businesses will have to submit those forms, whether they are in the bin or not.

Is a “border” in the Irish sea really that bad?

It is true that a border in the Irish sea is better than a border on land. However, it’s still not great — especially because many of the businesses who will be expected to handle these new regulations are struggling to implement new protocols and understand new laws in such a short time frame. All of this is compounded with the coronavirus pandemic — many businesses are just struggling to stay afloat, let alone make such massive regulatory changes. Additionally, across the UK, businesses are worried that any new checks may have the potential to destroy or disrupt “just in time” manufacturing.

How does Northern Ireland feel about Johnson’s Withdrawal Bill? Surely it’s better that local communities get a say about whether they want to remain aligned with the EU?

As with everything in Northern Ireland, it depends on who you ask.

The DUP are, obviously, furious. There were a lot of op-eds about how they were “duped” by Boris Johnson (weren’t we all?) and that Theresa May’s deal was much better for them.

Other people are rightfully concerned about what is going to happen if Stormont is asked to vote on alignment with EU regulations every four to eight years. The power sharing agreements that keep the fragile peace in Northern Ireland can easily become deadlocked. For example, in 2017 Stormont shut down over a scandal involving the DUP and the RHI heating initiative, and it was only restored in January 2020. (That’s not the first time Stormont has been shut down — Direct Rule by Westminster was imposed in Northern Ireland from 2002 to 2007 after the parties could not come to a power-sharing agreement.)

Something as contentious about whether Northern Ireland should remain in alignment with EU regulations being discussed and voted on in Northern Ireland every four to eight years has the potential to become a flashpoint for future conflict between nationalists and unionists, so it’s definitely not an optimal scenario for the region. As Katy Hayward pointed out,

“The concern is that it is coming from an understanding that it is about the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and not about cross-community consent. . . Everyone who knows Northern Ireland knows that that is a very divisive issue and effectively gives the DUP a veto as Sinn Féin will never vote to remain aligned to GB if given a choice of that or the EU.”

The most important thing, however, is that there is no return to a hard border on Ireland. Many people have written about this much more eloquently than I have, but the bottom line is: a hard border in Northern Ireland has the potential to reignite the violent conflict of the Troubles and it is essential that it is avoided at all costs. Boris Johnson’s Northern Ireland protocol, for all its drawbacks, does guarantee this.

Okay, got it. So the Withdrawal Agreement was all sorted last year. Done and dusted. No need to talk about it anymore.


Well, a few weeks ago, a little over a month before the October 15 deadline for the future relationship negotiations, Boris Johnson announced he was going to try to pass the Internal Market Bill through Parliament.

It quickly became clear that this Internal Market Bill would give government ministers the power to “undo” or “override” parts of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Wait. The Withdrawal Agreement. The one we were just talking about?


Boris Johnson’s own Withdrawal Agreement? The one he negotiated with the EU?


But . . . . wasn’t it already signed and ratified by Parliament, like, a year ago? Isn’t it literally the law now?


Members of Parliament pointed out that the Withdrawal Agreement is a ratified international treaty signed by the UK and the EU. Unilaterally changing the terms of an international treaty is, literally, against international law. Johnson’s own Secretary for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis admitted as much — but added that the Johnson government was only planning to break the law “in a very specific and limited way.”

Wait . . . What is happening? WHY is it happening? Please, someone — anyone! — explain.

So almost a year after Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement became law, Johnson suddenly announced that some of the consequences of the Northern Ireland protocol were “not foreseen” and that they needed to be re-written in order to “preserve the union.” Essentially, the prime minister claims he just realized that the Withdrawal Agreement will require checks in the Irish sea and that UK companies which do business in Northern Ireland must adhere to some EU standards and regulations.

So, to prevent the obvious ramifications of an international treaty Johnson negotiated and willingly signed up to — sorry, I mean this “unconscionable attack on British sovereignty” — the prime minister introduced the Internal Market Bill.

I know I’m going to regret asking this . . . but what is the Internal Market Bill?

The Internal Market Bill has to do with the rules and regulations regarding trade in the four nations of the United Kingdom. Previously, all of the UK adhered to the EU standards for things like food safety, or air quality. After Brexit, the devolved governments of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland will have the power to set a lot of these regulations in their own regions.

Think of the four nations a bit like states in the US. When California sets a regulation, for example, many companies simply adopt this as a nation-wide standard because California is such a large market. The Internal Market Bill basically does the opposite. Essentially, it says that all of the devolved administrations must accept goods and services from all the other nations, even if those goods and services have lower standards than the region they’re entering. The Welsh government has pointed out that this could quickly lead to a “race to the bottom” as different regions set their standards lower and lower to compete. The Scottish government has criticized this as a “power grab” from the Westminster government. (Sort of like if the US Congress tried to pass legislation that would affect something US states legislatures were supposed to be in charge of.)

The most important part of this bill relates to Northern Ireland. Remember how Northern Ireland is supposed to stay in the EU’s Customs Union for four years? This Internal Market Bill effectively means that Northern Ireland would be required to accept any goods or services from the UK, even if they fell below EU standards — which is directly in violation of the Withdrawal Agreement’s protocol on Northern Ireland.

Did Boris Johnson know that this was against the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement?

Yes, Boris Johnson is doing this on purpose, if that’s what you’re wondering. The text of the Internal Market Bill literally says its powers “have effect notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which they may be incompatible or inconsistent” (i.e. the Withdrawal Agreement).

Writing in the Telegraph, Boris Johnson explained, “We are now hearing that unless we agree to the EU’s terms, the EU will use an extreme interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol to impose a full-scale trade border down the Irish Sea. . . . I have to say that we never seriously believed that the EU would be willing to use a treaty, negotiated in good faith, to blockade one part of the UK, to cut it off; or that they would actually threaten to destroy the economic and territorial integrity of the UK.” (If you want to know why this is not true, please re-read my answers to questions 4 and 5.)

Johnson claimed he learned “in the last few weeks” that there had “may be a serious misunderstanding about the terms” of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Is that true? Could the prime minister really have just realized there was a misunderstanding?

No. The idea that Boris Johnson could have “just realized” what the terms of a treaty he negotiated and ratified are is beyond ludicrous. Never mind that the DUP were screaming about it for months, that is literally what the agreement says.

It is, I admit, sometimes difficult to tell the difference between when Johnson is being incompetent and when he is being deliberately nefarious. However, as Fintan O’Toole pointed out, in March 2019 Johnson’s top advisor Dominic Cummings wrote on his blog “don’t worry about the so-called ‘permanent’ commitments this historically abysmal Cabinet are trying to make on our behalf. They are not ‘permanent’ and a serious government — one not cowed by officials and their bullshit ‘legal advice’ with which they have herded ministers like sheep — will dispense with these commitments.” In other words, don’t worry about the legally-binding, international treaty — we’ll rehash it later.

Perhaps the problem is that we have grown so used to political hypocrisy that we no longer believe it when politicians tell us they are lying.

Can they do that? Can the UK government just break international law?

I mean, sure, Parliament can break international law if it really wants to. The UK is a sovereign nation, after all, despite Johnson’s best attempts to claim that it is not.

However, many people — from former Conservative prime ministers Theresa May and Sir John Major to former Labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown — are upset about it. They worry what this means for the UK’s reputation, in terms of whether other countries will trust them to adhere to future treaties, or whether they will have the moral authority to call out states like Iran, Russia or China for failing to adhere to their own agreements. The EU has also launched legal proceedings against the UK for breaching its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement.

It is worth noting for my American friends that international law is important for most states in the international system, regardless of what the US’s “bad boy of Westphalia” image would have you believe.

So what’s the big deal here? Why are people so upset about it?

The big deal is that two doomsday scenarios we thought the UK was going to avoid are once against becoming real possibilities: No Deal Brexit and a hard border on the island of Ireland.

I’ll explain what both are, how they could happen, and why they would be really, really bad.

So what’s so bad about a No-Deal Brexit?

A No-Deal Brexit is what would happen if the UK and the EU fail to reach an agreement about their future relationship before the end of the transition period. It means that the UK would “crash out” of the EU with no agreements in place about what will happen next.

No Deal Brexit would be really, really, really bad. The UK in a Changing Europe report forecasts that “the impact of a no-deal Brexit suggests that the total cost to the UK economy over the longer term will be two to three times as large as that implied by the Bank of England’s forecast for the impact of Covid-19.”

It is genuinely irresponsible journalism to mention No-Deal Brexit without including the fact that No-Deal will trigger a massive economic shock, cause food and medicine shortages, potentially require the deployment of the British armed forces and, allegedly, cause civil unrest among Welsh sheep farmers. But don’t just take my word for it: Politico has done an excellent report covering what happens if there is a No Deal Brexit.

The fact that it is even being considered as a negotiating strategy, let alone Boris Johnson calling it a “good outcome”, is one of the most disgusting aberrations of public responsibility I have ever encountered, and I live in Donald Trump’s America.

Boris Johnson has said that if a No-Deal Brexit happens, the UK could trade on WTO terms (or “Australian-style deal”) — but, as I’ve written before, this is more complicated (and less great) than it sounds.

The only way No Deal Brexit can be avoided is if the EU and the UK agree on a future relationship deal. Right now, they’re hung up on state aid and fisheries.

So what’s so bad about a hard border on the island of Ireland?

Northern Ireland is a divided society currently in the midst of implementing a peace process. From the 1960s until 1998, the region experienced a period of violent conflict that killed 3,600 people and injured thousands more.

Please just sit with that for a moment.

One of over a hundred “peace” walls in Belfast today. PC Alina Utrata

It was not a small thing, nor was it inevitable, that the Good Friday Agreement ended the violence in 1998.

If you remark to people in Northern Ireland today about how nice it is that the conflict in Northern Ireland is over, they will stare at you as if you are mad (or, perhaps, merely English). The peace in Northern Ireland is a fragile one, and it is genuinely threatened by a hard border in a way that the Westminster establishment seems pathologically unable to understand.

Why is the border such a big deal? One of the main components of the peace process was the invisible border. Because the UK and the Republic of Ireland are both part of the EU (and subsequently the Customs Union and Single Market) you don’t need any infrastructure to check goods or services. It is as if the border isn’t there.

If there is a hard border on Ireland, you change that calculus. It starts with a camera. Suddenly, there is something for teenage boys (bored, due to unemployment caused by coronavirus and systemic deprivation) who fancy themselves inheritors of the paramilitaries of old to shoot at. That means a guard will have to be posted. Suddenly, there is someone to shoot at — and someone to shoot back. Violence will escalate.

It also means that many people who were happy living in Northern Ireland (and keeping their NHS benefits) for the time being, but who may have said their aspirations was to see a united Ireland “someday” are now looking at the economic impact of a hard border and thinking — actually, someday could come sooner. That means the increased likelihood of a border poll in Northern Ireland — which would be a fraught event at the best of times.

As Katy Hayward said:

“For all the murals and flags and songs and marches, there is a steady — and growing — push against the danger of ideology and a repelling of fear. It’s an uneasy but essential act of accommodation. Many countries define “belonging” in terms of who is outside their borders. This is true in Northern Ireland but in quite a distinct way: identity is defined literally in terms of which countries are at our borders. The “other” really is my neighbour. This makes politics lively and sharp and dull and tedious at the same time. It makes cultural traditions vibrant and passionate and wearying and wretched. It makes history fascinating and vivid and crushing and inescapable.”

Please, please listen to this moving speech by SDLP Column Eastwood. Avoiding a hard border is really, really, really important. (You can also read the farewell address of the Northern Irish Border twitter account.)

So what’s going to happen?

Well, the Internal Market Bill is currently working its way through the House of Commons, but nothing is likely to be decided until December. Meanwhile, the UK-EU negotiations are set to run out in five days, on October 15.

It is worth nothing that while Boris Johnson has said that they want to get out of the EU to strike better trade deals with other countries, like the US, figures from US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Presidential Candidate Joe Biden have said: there will be no US trade deal unless the the Good Friday Agreement is preserved.

(Great article here on how the Republic of Ireland understands far better how to work US foreign policy establishment than the British.)

There are few times where I can really be proud of my country, but the Irish lobby showing up in Congress for the Good Friday Agreement is one of them. Northern Ireland is one of the most gorgeous, wonderful places I’ve ever been, full of some of the loveliest people I know and love, and it deserves peace.



Alina Utrata

PhD’ing in Politics and International Studies at Cambridge via Queen's University Belfast via Stanford. www.alinautrata.com