On June 23, 2016, UK citizens voted in favor of leaving the European Union in a now-infamous referendum. Immediately following the vote, Prime Minister David Cameron—who led the “remain” campaign—announced his resignation.
His successor, Theresa May, triggered the EU withdrawal process nearly a year later in March 2017, establishing an official withdrawal date of March 29, 2019. Her first proposed deal—a “soft” Brexit plan that would have partially kept the UK in the EU trade alliance—was released in July 2018 and was attacked by hardline Brexiteers and Remainers alike.
May first entered negotiations with EU representatives with little consensus on what UK citizens and representatives wanted in a Brexit deal. In November 2018, she returned to Parliament with an official withdrawal deal, which hinged on one central line of debate: the Irish backstop.
The “backstop” would temporarily keep Northern Ireland in a post-Brexit customs union with the EU to prevent reinstating a hard border on the Irish Island. UK negotiators rejected this idea, not wanting to complicate trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The final deal included a compromise: the entire UK would enter a de facto customs union post-Brexit until a plan for Ireland was approved by the EU.
Dissatisfied with this compromise, hardline Brexiteers in May’s party triggered a vote of no confidence, wanting to oust her as party leader. Though May survived this vote, her deal was handed three crushing defeats in the House of Commons between January and March. With no viable deal on the table, UK and EU leaders agreed to extend the Brexit deadline to October 31, 2019. May, in turn, announced her resignation.
Many believed the ascension of Boris Johnson to Prime Minister signaled the end of the Brexit debate and the UK’s inevitable departure from the EU. A hardline Brexiteer, Johnson was famous for his long-standing distaste for the UK’s EU-membership. As a former reporter on the EU in Brussels, Johnson became known for his anti-EU sentiments and his many exaggerated stories about the EU’s governance of its member states.
Upon becoming PM in July, Johnson announced, “We’re going to fulfill the repeated promises of Parliament to the people and come out of the EU on October 31, no ifs or buts.” He promised a deal that would “maximize the opportunities of Brexit,” but two months later, Johnson has yet to release any new proposals. Instead, he has repeatedly used the threat of a no-deal Brexit, claiming that deal or no deal, the UK will leave the EU on October 31.
A no-deal Brexit has been deemed potentially disastrous by most experts. Overnight, the UK would lose all existing trade agreements, including its membership in both the EU single market and customs union, eliminating its tariff-free trade status. Because EU member states account for roughly 44% of all UK exports and roughly 30% of the UK’s fresh food imports, a no-deal Brexit would significantly disrupt trade. The pound will fall, inflation will rise, and real wages will likely be reduced. It would also impact US financial institutions, some of which house as much as 90% of their European staff in London and have already begun relocating to other European cities.
The UK government is actively preparing to curtail the effects of a no-deal Brexit through a plan called Operation Yellowhammer. A report on Operation Yellowhammer outlines the “reasonable worst-case” scenarios of a no-deal Brexit, painting a picture of what can be expected within the first six months if the UK leaves the EU without a deal. It predicts the short-term consequences of such a scenario as follows:
Food and medicine shortage: There will be reduced availability and choice of food products, with all products experiencing a price increase that could significantly harm low-income groups. Trade across the Channel will face “significant disruption” for six months, affecting supply chains for medical products. Because many of these products have a short shelf life, there will be decreased access to certain medicines and increased inflation.
Transport inefficiency: Between 50-85% of all UK lorries traveling to the EU will be unprepared for French customs after an overnight no-deal Brexit. This would lead to significant lines and wait times, delaying the entrance of lorries into France by 2.5 days and cutting port traffic by 40-60%.
Irish border unrest: The government’s plan for the border is “likely unsustainable” due to “economic, legal and biosecurity” risks. Trade on the Irish island will be severely disrupted, with agriculture hit the hardest. This will cause job loss, protests, road blockages, and the growth of an “illegitimate economy” around the border.
Loss of public order: There will be a rapid increase in public disorder in the UK following a no-deal Brexit, including protests and counter-protests. In addition, the free flow of information between the UK and EU will terminate, curtailing law enforcement operations. This will also pose a threat to national security, as the UK will not have the tools to identify people entering the country with EU criminal records.
Fearing these outcomes, MPs have attempted to prevent Johnson’s October 31 “deal or no deal” Brexit. On August 28, Johnson announced he would suspend Parliament from September 9 to October 14 in a ploy to prevent Parliament from blocking a no-deal Brexit. With suspension looming, MPs voted to take over Parliament’s agenda and rushed the passage of the Benn Bill, requiring the PM to request a three-month extension of Brexit if a deal is not reached by October 19.
Nevertheless, Johnson stated he planned to defy the Benn Bill and would “rather be dead in a ditch” than request another extension. When Parliament’s suspension began, he left the UK to meet with EU leaders and reenter deal negotiations. However, Johnson was forced to return to the UK on Wednesday after the Supreme Court released a landmark ruling finding his suspension of Parliament unlawful. Now, he must face Parliament.
What happens next is anyone’s guess. The only thing that seems certain is that the odds of a deal being reached by October 19 are astonishingly low, and another Brexit extension appears to be the UK’s best bet.
To learn more about the Brexit debate and potential scenarios, download National Journal’s Brexit primer.