What Just Happened? Brexit

In Which I Try to Explain to Americans the Madness that is Brexit

Alina Utrata
15 min readJul 27, 2019

UPDATE: Read Explaining Brexit to Americans Part II

Since my return from the UK, many confused Americans have asked me about Brexit. What is it? What’s going to happen? Is it really that bad? And why, oh why, is Boris Johnson like this?

I may only be able to answer some of these questions, but here is my attempt to explain the current situation — as well as anyone can explain What Just Happened with Brexit.

First things first: what exactly is the European Union?

You may remember from AP European History that after WWII, Europe had a think and decided it might be good to make European states more economically interdependent to reduce the likelihood of another globally devastating war. Initially, six European states formed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which evolved into the European Economic Community, which eventually turned into the European Union (EU).

The EU is very complicated: there is a European Parliament, the European Commission, the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights . . . No wonder that after the Brexit vote, the most searched question on Google was “What is the EU?”

There is a lot of real, legitimate debate about the European Union. Some people think that states give too much sovereignty to the EU, accepting the rules and regulations the EU passes. Others argue that being part of the EU has huge benefits — Europe is more powerful as a single trading bloc and help to hold European states to a higher standard (there are certain fiscal, democratic and human rights standards that states have to meet before being approved to join the EU).

If you want to learn more about the EU, the Council on Foreign Relations has a handy guide — with flow charts!

So why exactly did the UK decide to Brexit?

The United Kingdom is currently a member state of the European Union. They joined the EU (at the time, the European Economic Community) in 1973. That’s pretty late for a major power in Europe! In part, this is because there has always been a lot of “euro-skeptic” opinion in the UK. However, in the 1960s the UK realized that, as everyone rushed to make deals with the EEC, that they might become politically isolated if they didn’t join. The decisions the EEC were taking would effect the UK, so they figured it would be better to at least have a seat at the table. During their time as members, the British did “opt-out” of many initiatives that increased European centralization—for example, they’re not members of the Eurozone and still use the British pound.

In 2016, David Cameron’s government called for a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU. However, it’s important to remember that UK referendums are different than US referendums in several key respects.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron, campaigning, apparently. PC Irish Times.

In California, for instance, ballot initiatives are written as proposed legislation and must go through the California Secretary of State for approval and get a certain number of signatures before they are placed on the ballot. If voters pass that initiative, then that legislation becomes the law. (Although before you get too smug, California’s ballot initiative system is a mess.)

In the UK, referendums are pretty rare — there have been 11 total since 1973. Unlike in California, referendums do not have to be on a piece of legislation (although they can be). The Brexit referendum literally only asked “Should the UK remain a member of the EU or leave the EU?” And, finally, UK referendums are not legally binding. While many have argued that ignoring the “will of the people” would be politically disastrously, legally Parliament could just ignore the 2016 Brexit referendum if they felt like it.

Before the 2016 vote, it was widely assumed that Remain would win. There was actually a previous referendum about whether the UK should stay in the European Community in 1975, resulting in 67% to 32% for Remain. However, in a shocking upset, in 2016 Leave won by a slim majority — 51.8% to 48.1%. (You can also read Carole Cadwalladr’s reporting on shady/illegal stuff that happened during the Brexit referendum.)

It’s important to note several things: majorities for Leave were higher in England and Wales (53% and 52% voted leave) than in Scotland and Northern Ireland (38% and 44%). The vote was across party lines — there was really no “Brexit” and “anti-Brexit” party, and indeed MPs from the majority Conservative party campaigned on both sides of the referendum.


Why, oh why, did David Cameron call this vote?

Ah. Well.

Again, it is important to remember that David Cameron did not have to call this vote. However, his Conservative party for years had been divided on the European Union, with some members arguing that the UK was ceding too much sovereignty to Brussels. Indeed in 2012, almost 100 Conservative MPs called for a referendum on the “nature of our relationship with the EU”. The rise of right-wing euroskeptic party UKIP and Nigel Farage (you remember the guy who used to give crazy speeches in the European Parliament and is now BFFs with Donald Trump and Cambridge Analytica) also worried Cameron, especially when two Conservative MPs defected to UKIP.

Before the 2015 General Elections, Cameron promised that if the Conservatives (who were currently in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrat party) won an outright majority in Parliament, he would hold a “yes-no” referendum on continued membership in the EU. Awkwardly, in 2015, the Conservatives did in fact win an outright majority — so Cameron felt bound to uphold his campaign promise. (CUTE!)

Cameron then made a big show of going to the EU and “renegotiating” some stuff to give the UK more sovereignty. To be honest, I don’t even remember what was in the package (you can read about it here if it’s really important to you). Cameron and Remain were feeling pretty confident — remember, Cameron had just won a general election, the Scottish Independence referendum had failed, and all the polling suggested Remain was going to win. He was hoping that Remain would win the referendum, and then he could say to the euroskeptic wing of the Conservative party — too bad, the people voted and we’re staying in.

Sounded like a pretty good plan, right?

OK, so the UK voted for Brexit . . . then has Brexit already happened?

Once again, it’s important to remember that the UK referendum was not legally binding. This isn’t like California ballot initiative, where the vote is attached to a piece of legislation. The British public was literally just asked “do you want to stay in or get out?” It turns out, there are a lot of shades of grey (and complicated trade policy) between “in” and “out” of the EU.

After the Brexit vote, David Cameron resigned. (Well, to be fair, it was pretty embarrassing for him . . .) However, there has been a lot of criticism of Cameron for mic-dropping right after the vote (and then taking off to his little eco-hut.)

Former PM David Cameron in his eco-hut which he bought to write his memoirs in. Photograph: Red Sky

For one thing, Leave had won by a very slim majority — this was not a resounding public mandate for leaving the EU. For another, it was very unclear just what “Leave” the EU meant. Did people just not want further European integration? Did they want stricter border controls? Tighter immigration? Out of the customs union? Or the European Courts? Or did they just dislike David Cameron and Tory austerity policy? Was it all propaganda and misinformation? Inevitably, a lot of the post-Brexit vote has been arguing about what the vote actually meant.

Indeed, Cameron could have looked at the vote, said *in a British accent*, “Jolly good! I see that more people want out of the EU than I thought! Let’s organize a series of polls, or focus groups, or citizens assemblies, and really figure out what the public wants! Then we’ll have another referendum with a series of options about what people want from Brexit! Jolly good!” (Please note that most British people do not actually say “jolly good” on a regular basis, despite what you see in the movies.)

In reality, Cameron resigned and was replaced by Theresa May, who had been Home Secretary. May decided that what the UK needed was a wake up call, so on March 29, 2017 she triggered Article 50.

What is Article 50?

Article 50 is basically a letter to the European Union telling them that you’re planning to leave. Once a state triggers Article 50, they have exactly two years to negotiate an “exit deal” (almost like a divorce bill). The main issues the exit deal need to address are: what to do about EU nationals living in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU; how much money the UK owed to the EU; and the Northern Irish border. Once both the EU and the UK agree to an exit deal, the UK will have officially “brexited” and will no longer be a member of the EU. Then the UK can start negotiations with the EU about their future relationship.

***HOWEVER*** if the EU and UK do not reach an agreement on an exit deal within two years after triggering Article 50, the UK will “crash out” of the EU in a “No-Deal Brexit.”

Again, it is important to remember: Theresa May did not have to trigger Article 50. She absolutely could have worked on a Brexit policy or negotiated with the EU and triggered Article 50 later. Indeed, many people criticized her decision to trigger Article 50 in 2017, arguing that two years is a very short time to negotiate complicated agreement like Brexit and the deadline put the UK at a negotiating disadvantage.

While the deadline for the Withdrawal Agreement to pass was last March 29, the EU agreed to an extension. The new deadline is now October 31.

Prime Minister Theresa May signing the Article 50 letter in a weirdly sparkly top. Photo: Newsweek

Is a no-deal Brexit really that bad?

Yes. I do not know how to emphasize this enough. A no-deal Brexit is really, really, really, really, catastrophic, omg-are-you-serious-that-cannot-be-true bad. If a No Deal Brexit occurs it would trigger an economic shock, shrink the UK economy by 10%, cause food and medicine shortages, cause one in four food exporters to go out of business in six weeks, require the British Army to be deployed to ration food and medicine. . . .

Think about it. For almost 40 years, UK law and international agreements have become totally entangled with the EU. All of sudden, overnight, 40 years of agreements are just torn up? What happens to British airspace? Are British planes allowed to fly? What about import/export controls? What about people who rely on medicine imported from the EU, like insulin, to survive? Even things like chemicals used to treat water could all of a sudden not be able to enter the UK.

Say it with me: NO. DEAL. BREXIT. IS. BAD.

So I’m getting the sense that no-deal Brexit is bad . . . what are the other options?

Over the past two years, Theresa May has negotiated a Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union. (Go here and here if you want more details).

The main gist:

  • There would be a two to four year transition/implementation period in which most existing arrangements would stay in place
  • EU citizens who are residing in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU at the time of the end of the transition period will retain EU rights to live, work and study
  • UK will pay about £39 billion pounds to the EU, covering the UK’s existing obligations to the EU budget
  • The EU and UK agree to the backstop to avoid a hard border in Ireland

Theresa May said earlier this year that the options were: No Deal Brexit, No Brexit, or her Withdrawal Agreement. However, Parliament failed to get a majority for any of these options.

Wait, no Brexit is an option? Can they just cancel Brexit? Or hold another referendum?

It’s important to note that the UK could totally have a second referendum if Parliament wanted. The UK could also revoke Article 50 anytime before October 31 and unilaterally halt the UK’s exit from the EU. In fact, a petition to cancel Brexit got six million signatures. There is also a “People’s Vote Campaign”, which is organizing to demand a second Brexit vote.

However, politically the Conservative party seems committed to seeing through Brexit — and there is currently no majority in Parliament for either revoking Article 50 or holding a second referendum.

So is the Withdrawal Agreement bad? Why didn’t Parliament like it?

Actually, as far as Brexit goes, Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement is pretty good. Unfortunately, Parliament is so divided right now that it ended up being the “worst of both worlds” and the bill failed to get a majority.

Essentially, many Remain MPs did not want to support the deal as they felt it was too hard of a Brexit and/or they wanted a second referendum. Hard-line Brexiteers in Theresa May’s own party didn’t support it because of the backstop.

Wait, so what exactly is the backstop?

Ah. Yes. The infamous backstop. It is worth knowing what the backstop is because the entire Brexit issue is hung up on it.

The backstop is essentially an insurance policy about the Northern Irish border.

PC Al Jazeera

Currently, there is an “invisible” border on the island of Ireland. (See map — Northern Ireland is part of the UK, whereas the Republic of Ireland is an independent state and an EU member.) Right now, you can go back and forth across the Northern Irish border and you basically can’t even tell it’s there. (There is also a hilarious Twitter account for the Irish border that you can follow.)

This “invisible border” is possible because both Ireland and the UK are part of the EU. Because Ireland and the UK had the same “rules and regulations” for goods, services, and people, there is no need to have border controls at the Northern Irish border. So, effectively, the border is “invisible”—technically it exists, but it doesn’t really affect anything.

However, if there is a “hard Brexit” (a no-deal Brexit or a Brexit where the UK leaves the Single Market and/or the Customs Union) the “hard” or “visible” border will return to Ireland. In other words, the UK will need to check if people/goods coming into the UK comply with their specific laws and regulations, and border checks will return. (If you are a policy nerd and want to know exactly what the Single Market and Customs Union is, go here.)

The backstop is an “insurance policy” against the return of a hard border. Essentially, it states that if the future negotiations between the EU and the UK fail to secure a deal on free-trade and security once the UK has “brexited”, parts of Northern Ireland will remain in the Single Market and therefore there will be no return to a hard border.

In other words, it removes the possibility of “a hard border by default.” If talks fail, the border stays invisible.

OK, so would a hard border in Ireland really be that bad?


The return of the border is bad for two reasons: politically and economically.

  1. Politically, the return of the hard border would threaten the peace agreement in Northern Ireland. From the 1960s until 1998, Northern Ireland experienced a conflict known as “the Troubles.” 3,600 were killed and thousands injured. In 1998, the Good Friday Agreement ended the violent conflict — one of the key components of the peace agreement was the Northern Irish border. There’s no border check points, no military, no fences, no walls, no nothing. This was key to ending the conflict because it allowed people who identified as Irish and/or nationalists in Northern Ireland to act as if they already lived in a united Ireland. (Patrick Kielty explains this much better than I can in his amazing thread here.)

2. Economically, the hard border would be awful for both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. After 20 years, the Northern Irish and Irish economies are really inter-related. For example, there is a chicken farm which is half in the UK, and half in the Republic of Ireland. Or there are dairy farms in Northern Ireland where milk is shipped to the Republic to be processed. The re-imposition of a hard border logistically and economically would be bad for both countries, and no one is prepared for it.

Wait . . . so the backstop . . . it sounds . . . like a good thing . . . ?

Yes. Yes it does.

There are two main groups that don’t support the backstop: hard-line Brexiteers and the DUP.

Hard-line Brexiteers (like Boris Johnson) oppose the backstop because they say it will prevent the UK from striking its own trade agreements. This is essentially the same argument for a “hard” Brexit. The “pain” of leaving these trading blocs will be worth it in the long run because it will allow the UK to strike its own, better trade agreements with other countries (like the US). However, hard-line Brexiteers fear that the backstop will “trap” the UK in the Customs Union/Single Market and therefore prevent it from negotiating future trade agreements.

The other group that opposes the backstop is the DUP. The DUP is a right-wing, Unionist party in Northern Ireland—AKA they want Northern Ireland to stay in the UK, rather than become part of a united Ireland. Although the majority of Northern Ireland voted Remain, the DUP campaigned for Leave. After the snap election in 2017, the DUP entered into a supply and confidence agreement with the Conservatives to prop up their slim majority in Parliament.

The main position of the DUP is that they want “no divergence” between Great Britain and the UK, for fear that any divergence will spell the beginning of a united Ireland. This doesn’t really make sense as a policy because A.) the DUP are against marriage equality and abortion rights which is a “divergent policy” from the rest of Great Britain and B.) there are already some checks in the Irish sea for goods coming from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. Nonetheless, the DUP argue that the Northern Ireland specific backstop is unacceptable because it would mean Great Britain and Northern Ireland have different policies. Sigh.

It is worth noting that the DUP positions do not always, or even often, reflect the mainstream views of most people in Northern Ireland, even among Unionists or indeed the people who voted for them. Most people in Northern Ireland support the backstop and arguably special status for Northern Ireland if the rest of the UK left the EU would actually financially benefit the region.

Wait, but a lot of MPs talk about a “technological solution” to the Irish border? Can’t they just do that?

There is no technological solution to the Irish border.

Ha, ha, no seriously, what about a technological solution? You know, with fancy cameras, and artificial intelligence and stuff?

There is no technological solution to the Irish border. Either Northern Ireland stays in the Single Market and Customs Union, or the UK stays in the Single Market and Customs Union, or there is a hard border.

Ok . . . so what happened to Theresa May?

Well, on July 24, after failing to get majorities for any Brexit option through Parliament, the Conservative party made her step down as leader. After an internal Tory party election, Boris Johnson was chosen as the new leader of the Tory party and therefore the new Prime Minister.

In case you were feeling a bit despondent about the electoral college system, let me just inform you that Johnson became PM after less than 100,000 people voted for him in an internal party vote in which there are very few regulations.

Check out MSNBC’s clip which is SAVAGE.

So . . . what is Boris Johnson going to do?

Oh, if I only knew.

“Britan Trump”

Johnson said in the Tory leadership debates that the UK needs to prepare for a No Deal Brexit — not because it will happen, but because the UK needs to act like they think it might happen in order to trick the EU into believing the UK will actually execute No Deal Brexit, and result in the EU giving the UK a better deal. (I never said he was good at evil plans.) He is against the backstop, saying that May’s Withdrawal Agreement needs to be renegotiated, although it’s unclear how Johnson will have enough time to do this unless he revokes Article 50.

After taking office this week, Johnson fired anyone who had supported his challengers and filled cabinet with some of the biggest bunch of Brexit supporters you have ever seen. A lot of commentators speculate he’s gearing up for a snap general election, which would shore up the Conservative majority and allow Johnson to dump the DUP supply-and-confidence deal.

So what’s going to happen next?

Well, as Theresa May famously said:


In other words, I have no idea and neither does anyone else.



Alina Utrata

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