After more than four years of gruelling negotiations, parliamentary tussles and last-minute cliffhangers, the United Kingdom’s last EU ties will be severed on December 31 when the post-Brexit transition comes to an end.
The UK officially left the European Union at the end of January 2020, but the transition period has kept most existing arrangements in place. Once this expires, EU rules will cease to apply to Britons.
After multiple extensions, the two sides struck an 11th-hour deal on post-Brexit trade on December 24, dispelling fears of an economically damaging “no deal”.
From David Cameron’s fateful referendum promise to Boris Johnson’s Christmas Eve victory speech, we take a look at the many twists and turns on the long and winding road to Brexit.
January 23, 2013: Prime Minister David Cameron says he is in favour of an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, bowing to pressure from Eurosceptic MPs in his Conservative Party. The move is widely seen as a tactical ploy to stem the rise of the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) and close a gap in the polls with the opposition Labour Party.
September 18, 2014: Scottish voters decide by a majority of 55 percent to remain part of the UK in a referendum on independence, but Cameron’s government is criticised for its lacklustre performance during a divisive campaign. Months earlier, Nigel Farage’s UKIP, which wants to pulls Britain out of the EU, wins a record 26 percent of the vote in European elections and becomes the UK’s largest party in the European Parliament.
May 7, 2015: The Conservatives win a general election, claiming enough seats to rule without their pro-European coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Cameron confirms he will hold a referendum on whether to leave the EU after more than four decades of a troubled membership.
February 20, 2016: After negotiations with EU leaders, Cameron says he has secured concessions that will give Britain a “special status” within the union. He confirms that he will campaign for Britain to remain in the 28-nation bloc in a simple in/out referendum set for June. But he suffers a major blow when one of his closest Conservative allies, London Mayor Boris Johnson, says he will campaign for Brexit – giving the “Leave” campaign its most high-profile figurehead.
June 16, 2016: A bitter campaign comes to a dramatic conclusion with the murder of Labour MP and “Remain” campaigner Jo Cox, one week before the referendum. The murderer, extremist Thomas Mair, shouted “Britain First” before killing the mother of two.
June 23, 2016: In a surprise result, Britain votes by 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent to exit the EU, sending shockwaves across global markets. Farage hails June 23 as Britain’s “Independence Day”. Cameron resigns the next morning, saying the country needs “fresh leadership”.
July 13, 2016: Theresa May, seen as a moderate “Remainer”, becomes prime minister after a Conservative leadership contest in which prominent “Leave” campaigners, including Boris Johnson, appear to scupper each other’s bids. May appoints “Leavers” in all Brexit-related cabinet positions, giving Johnson the foreign ministry.
October 2, 2016: Having stated that “Brexit means Brexit”, May says Britain will begin the formal process of leaving the EU by the end of March 2017. This involves triggering Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. The pound tumbles after May suggests she will go for a “hard” Brexit if it is the only way to end the free movement of people between the UK and the EU.
November 4, 2016: May’s timetable is thrown into doubt when English High Court judges rule that the government needs parliamentary approval before it can trigger Article 50. The Eurosceptic tabloid press lashes out at the judges, describing them as “enemies of the people”.
- ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’
January 17, 2017: May sets out her views on Brexit in a speech at Lancaster House, the very place where Margaret Thatcher announced her support for the Single European Market 29 years earlier. The prime minister says Britain will leave the single market and will reject any deal that leaves it “half in, half out”. She adds: “No deal is better than a bad deal.”
January 24, 2017: After a challenge by the government, the Supreme Court upholds the earlier ruling by the High Court judges, giving parliament – where a majority of MPs oppose Brexit – a chance to halt the whole process.
March 13, 2017: Parliament approves a bill giving the government the authority to invoke Article 50, with the opposition Labour Party, led by the Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn, telling its MPs to respect the result of the referendum. In response to the vote, Scotland’s pro-EU first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, says she plans to have a second referendum on Scottish independence, stressing that most Scottish voters want to remain part of the EU.
March 29, 2017: May sends a letter to Brussels formally triggering Article 50, which starts the clock on the process of the UK leaving the EU. The move gives Britain and the EU two years to negotiate the terms of their divorce.
EU leaders respond two days later with a roadmap setting out their conditions. They include the UK honouring its commitments to the EU through a financial settlement (estimated at some €40 billion), granting EU citizens in Britain a residency permit, and ensuring there is no physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Britain had counted on the EU’s 27 remaining member states being divided and ill-prepared, but it is soon apparent that the opposite is true.
June 8, 2017: Weeks after calling a surprise general election to strengthen her hand, May sees her move backfire spectacularly as the Conservatives lose their majority in parliament. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which supports a “hard” Brexit, makes a deal with the Conservatives, allowing May to stay in power. But her wafer-thin majority means the already tortuous path to Brexit is getting even more arduous.
June 26, 2017: Formal negotiations on withdrawal begin between a weakened UK government and the EU, with a thick fog covering the road to Brexit.
December 13, 2017: Rebel Conservative MPs side with the opposition, forcing the government to guarantee a vote in parliament on the final Brexit deal, when it has been struck with Brussels.
December 15, 2017: The EU agrees to move on to the second phase of negotiations after a preliminary agreement is reached on the Brexit “divorce bill”, the Irish border and EU citizens’ rights. May agrees in principle to a so-called “backstop” – a safety net ensuring there is no return to physical border checks in Ireland, whatever the outcome of trade talks between the UK and the EU.
March 19, 2018: The UK and EU make decisive steps in negotiations. Agreements include dates for a transitional period designed to ensure “an orderly withdrawal” from the bloc. But EU negotiators warn that there are issues still to be sorted out, most notably on the Irish border.
July 7, 2018: After months of a power struggle between “hard” and “soft” Brexiters within the government, May announces she has united her cabinet behind a compromise deal, dubbed the “Chequers” plan, which would leave Britain in a close relationship with the EU. But the plan is too soft for some, prompting May’s chief Brexit negotiator David Davis to resign two days later, soon followed by Johnson.
July 19, 2018: The EU Commission publishes a document urging member states to accelerate preparations for a “no-deal” Brexit. Days later, the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, says the risk of Britain leaving the EU without an agreement is “uncomfortably high”.
September 19-20, 2018: May’s position at home is further weakened when her Chequers plan is rebuffed at an informal summit in Salzburg, with EU leaders dismissing her proposals as unacceptable.
October 20, 2018: Hundreds of thousands of pro-EU protesters march in London calling for a second referendum, with polls suggesting “Remain” would win. Organisers say 700,000 people attend the event, making it the country’s largest rally since huge protests in 2003 against the war in Iraq.
- A deal – and more resignations
November 13, 2018: The UK government says it has finally reached a deal with Brussels. Citing opposition to the Northern Ireland backstop, another four ministers resign from May’s cabinet two days later, including Brexit minister Dominic Raab. They say the backstop will threaten the UK’s territorial integrity.
November 25, 2018: EU leaders approve the deal at an extraordinary summit in Brussels. The next day, May says the UK parliament will have its say in a vote on December 11.
December 10, 2018: Facing a crushing defeat in parliament, May postpones the vote on the Brexit deal and says she is heading to Brussels to secure further guarantees on the Northern Ireland question. She is promptly rebuffed by EU leaders, who say there is no scope to renegotiate the deal. Sensing an opportunity, Brexit hardliners in the Conservative Party seek to oust May in an internal vote two days later. But she survives.
December 13-14, 2018: Back in Brussels, May fails to wrest further concessions from EU leaders wearied by months of gruelling and chaotic negotiations. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, stresses that the backstop is intended as an insurance policy that would be replaced in time by a comprehensive trade deal.
January 15, 2019: May suffers a crushing defeat in parliament, where her Brexit deal is rejected by an overwhelming margin of 230 votes – the largest defeat for a sitting government in history. Labour’s Corbyn calls a no-confidence vote for the next day, but May survives – again – as Tory MPs who shunned her Brexit plan this time rally behind the PM.
January 29, 2019: Just a fortnight after her humiliating defeat, May bounces back with a series of victorious votes in parliament. MPs notably reject amendments that would have delayed the UK’s withdrawal and made a no-deal Brexit impossible. A narrow majority also say they will back May’s deal if “alternative arrangements” are found to replace the backstop, giving the prime minister a mandate to restart negotiations with the EU.
Brussels, however, says the Irish backstop is “part and parcel” of the Brexit deal and will not be renegotiated.
March 12, 2019: May’s withdrawal agreement is again rejected by the House of Commons – this time by a margin of 149 votes – after the UK’s attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, says minor concessions secured by the PM on the Irish border question will not prevent Britain from being permanently tied to the EU.
March 14, 2019: Parliament votes overwhelmingly to seek a delay in Britain’s EU exit, beyond the March 29 deadline – which would require the approval of all 27 other EU members.
March 29, 2019: The UK is set to leave the EU, with or without a deal, unless both sides agree to delay Brexit, or Britain chooses to cancel it altogether.
March 14, 2019: Parliament votes overwhelmingly to seek a delay in Britain’s EU exit, beyond the March 29 deadline – which would require the approval of all 27 other EU members. Days later, MPs force May to seek an extension until June 30, but EU leaders offer her two alternatives: May 22 if the deal is passed, April 13 if not.
March 29, 2019: MPs reject the withdrawal agreement for a third time but are unable to find a majority for any alternative, including a second referendum. Two weeks later, May has no other option but to seek yet another delay in Brussels. EU leaders agree to a “flexible” extension until October 31, with the possibility of Britain leaving earlier if parliament passes the deal.
May 23-24, 2019: Britain has to take part in European elections, having failed to exit the union. They result in a big win for Farage’s Ukip and a crushing defeat for the Conservatives and Labour. The day after the vote, May announces she will step down on June 7.
July 23-24, 2019: Boris Johnson takes over at Number 10 after winning the Tory leadership contest.
August 28, 2019: Parliament is prorogued for five weeks at Johnson’s request, sparking fears the PM plans to by-pass MPs and force a no-deal Brexit.
September 3, 2019: 21 rebel Tory MPs are expelled from the party after voting against the government’s plans to leave on October 31 with or without a deal. Two days later, Johnson says he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than ask for another extension.
September 9, 2019: The so-called “Benn Bill” comes into law, making a no-deal exit from the EU impossible without parliament’s approval. At the end of the month, the Supreme Court rules that the suspension of parliament was unlawful.
October 17, 2019: After weeks of acrimony, UK and EU officials suddenly announce they have reached a new deal that replaces the Irish backstop following major concessions by Johnson’s government. However, MPs withhold their approval until laws implementing Brexit are in place, effectively forcing Johnson to seek another extension.
October 28, 2019: EU leaders agree to yet another Brexit “flextension”, until January 31. It will be the last.
December 12, 2019: After campaigning on a promise to “Get Brexit Done”, Johnson’s Conservatives secure a decisive victory in a snap general election, gaining a massive 80-seat majority in parliament. The result all but stamps out Remainers’ last hopes of halting Brexit.
January 23, 2020: The withdrawal agreement eases through parliament and becomes law. Six days later, European lawmakers give their approval to the deal.
January 31, 2020: The UK formally leaves the European Union at the stroke of midnight, becoming the first member state to do so. An 11-month transition period begins the next day, during which Britain is still bound by EU rules.
March 2, 2020: The two sides begin marathon talks on the future UK-EU relationship, which Johnson promises to wrap up by December. However, progress is delayed by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
July 1, 2020: The UK government allows a deadline to seek an extension to lapse, despite a distinct lack of progress on a host of thorny issues, including fishing rights in UK waters.
September 9, 2020: EU leaders launch legal action after the UK government publishes a highly controversial bill to rewrite parts of the withdrawal agreement it signed in January. Brussels says the British move “seriously damages trust”.
October 16, 2020: Johnson warns that Britain must “get ready” for the prospect of no-deal Brexit and “go for the Australia solution” on trade issues, a day after France’s President Macron says London must back down in a row over fishing rights.
November 26, 2020: The UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) predicts that a no-deal Brexit would strike a devastating blow to parts of the UK economy and result in hundreds of thousands of job losses.
December 18, 2020: Negotiators miss one of several self-imposed deadlines to reach a deal, owing to continued disagreements on fishing rights and the so-called level-playing field, a set of common rules designed to guarantee open and fair competition. European lawmakers set another deadline for December 20, which is also missed.
December 24, 2020: After days of round-the-clock talks, the two sides finally strike a trade deal on Christmas Eve. “We’ve taken back control of our laws and our destiny,” says a jubilant Johnson, hailing the deal as his “present” to the nation. “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” adds a more measured Ursula von der Leyen, the EU Commission president. “It is time to leave Brexit behind.”
December 30, 2020: EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the heads of the European Commission and European Council, smiled at a brief televised ceremony to put their names to the 1,246-page Trade and Cooperation Agreement. The document was then flown by Britain’s Royal Air Force to London for Johnson to add his signature. The UK’s lower House of Commons also voted overwhelmingly by 521-73 to back it.
December 31, 2020: Brexit takes full effect at midnight.