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What Is Brexit? And What Happens Next?

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Britain’s split from the European Union took full effect as 2021 began. Here is a guide to what it means, how it came about and what the future might hold.

Celebrating in London in January 2020 as Britain officially left the European Union.Celebrating in London in January 2020 as Britain officially left the European Union.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York TimesBenjamin Mueller

  • Feb. 12, 2021

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Britain broke from the European Union’s regulatory orbit on Jan. 1, casting off nearly half a century inside the bloc. While it formally left in January 2020, for 11 months Britain was in a transition period, operating under E.U. rules as negotiators settled on terms of the two sides’ future commercial relations.

The split, known as Brexit, has now been finalized, setting in motion what analysts say will be the biggest overnight change in modern commercial relations. A trade agreement between the two sides, far from closing the book on Britain’s tumultuous relationship with the rest of Europe, opened a new chapter, starting with an avalanche of trading obstacles on Jan. 1.

Here’s what you need to know:

Why “Brexit?”

A portmanteau of the words Britain and exit, Brexit caught on as shorthand for the proposal that Britain split from the European Union and change its relationship to the bloc on trade, security and migration.

Britain has debated the pros and cons of membership in a club of European nations almost from the moment the idea was broached, in the years after World War II. In the 1960s, it applied twice for membership in what was then the European Economic Community, only to be vetoed both times by France.

In 1973, Britain finally joined the club — and held its first referendum on whether to leave less than three years later. At the time, 67 percent of voters supported staying in the bloc.

But that was hardly the end of the argument.

In 2013, Prime Minister David Cameron promised a national referendum on European Union membership with the idea of settling the question once and for all. The options offered to voters were broad and vague — Remain or Leave — and Mr. Cameron was convinced that Remain would win easily.

That turned out to be a serious miscalculation.

As voters in Britain went to the polls on June 23, 2016, a refugee crisis had made migration a subject of political rage across Europe.

After an acrimonious campaign, in which the Leave side was criticized as pushing misleading and contradictory messages and later accused of breaking election rules, withdrawal from the European Union emerged with the support of 52 percent of voters.

ImageTrucks waiting to enter the Port of Dover in England. The increase of border controls raised concerns of long waits at the border.Trucks waiting to enter the Port of Dover in England. The increase of border controls raised concerns of long waits at the border.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Europe is Britain’s most important export market and its biggest source of foreign investment, and E.U. membership has helped London cement its position as a global financial center.

With some regularity, major businesses announced that they were leaving Britain because of Brexit, or at least threatened to do so.

Had the split been finalized without a deal governing future commercial relations, businesses feared enormous logjams at the borders and deep uncertainty about rules of trade across the English Channel.

But even with a deal, the path forward is uncertain. The Office for Budget Responsibility, an independent official body that assesses the British government’s economic plans, estimated that economic output in the country could be 4 percent lower cumulatively over the next 15 years than it would have been inside the European Union.

British companies have long been able to move goods to and from the European Union without paying taxes or tariffs. Had the two sides failed to reach a deal before the Dec. 31 deadline, tariffs would have been imposed, raising the price of cars considerably and making it much more difficult for British farmers to sell meat, for example, elsewhere in Europe.

A no-deal separation also looked likely to create gridlock at British ports and strand trucks on either side of the border.

The new agreement meant that Britain avoided onerous tariffs or quotas on goods. But problems have emerged, with checks increasing and traders having to complete new customs declarations. And commercial relations face more restrictions.

Fishing rights were among the most stubborn sticking points in the negotiations as Britain leaves the bloc’s single market and customs union.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The number of people employed in fishing in Britain has fallen in recent decades — a decline for which Brexit proponents blamed E.U. rules on sharing access to fisheries — and the British government cast its split from the European Union as a chance to revive the industry.

Britain originally sought an 80 percent reduction in the share of fish that E.U. boats would be allowed to catch in British waters. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson made significant concessions on that point: The European Union’s fishing quota in British waters is being cut 25 percent, although that will be phased in.

Brussels also compromised: Annual negotiations on fishing rights will begin in five and a half years, and the European Union had wanted a longer-term agreement giving it access rights to British waters.

British fishers, unhappy not to have exclusive access to fish in British waters, complained about the deal. But analysts said British boats wouldn’t have the capacity to catch everything that once went to European boats, even if they had the right to.

A no-deal scenario would have brought tariffs on British fishing companies, which currently sell much of their catch in E.U. countries. But even with a deal, some seafood exporters say that the added port-Brexit bureaucracy, and the extra time required to get their products to buyers in continental Europe, could drive them out of business.

Citizens of E.U. member states can look for jobs elsewhere in the bloc, work there without needing special permits and stay after they have left their jobs. But the trade deal ends the free movement of people between Britain and the rest of the continent.

It also ends Britain’s involvement in the Erasmus exchange program, which since 1987 had sent hundreds of thousands of young people each year traveling abroad for study, work experience and apprenticeships.

The European Union operates a single market, with member countries accepting shared rules and regulations so that goods, services and capital can move freely between them. It’s also a customs union: Members agree to apply the same taxes on goods from outside the bloc, meaning that they can be shipped within the European Union without further tariffs.

Britain has now left both the single market and the customs union and can pursue separate trade deals with other countries. Those points were among the demands made by the most fervently pro-Brexit lawmakers in Britain.

Parliament in London. Euroskeptic lawmakers in Britain pushed for the country to leave the bloc’s single market and customs union.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

In return for allowing British companies to avoid tariffs, the European Union wanted to ensure that those companies would not gain unfair advantages over E.U. rivals. The bloc’s leaders worried that Britain would give its own companies a leg up through additional state aid or by lowering environmental or labor standards.

Britain did not want the European Union to be able to automatically impose sanctions over any departure from European rules. So the two sides worked to devise a mechanism by which either could raise a complaint if it had evidence that one had changed regulations in a way that put the other’s businesses at a disadvantage.

As a last resort, if Britain and the European Union cannot find common ground in such a scenario, tariffs could be imposed to ensure that one side does not have too much of an advantage.

Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, has the country’s only land border with the European Union — the politically sensitive 310-mile frontier with Ireland.

After decades of sectarian strife, a peace process in the 1990s allowed checkpoints to be dismantled, and preventing the return of a hard border was a priority for both sides.

Under a deal struck late in 2019, Northern Ireland was given a special trade status and will continue to follow many European rules, so trucks can continue to cross the Irish border freely.

The agreement did mean that there would be new paperwork and some regulatory checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, although the new trade deal struck on Dec. 24 prevented the addition of even more bureaucracy for traders.

Still, the new system has caused headaches for companies as they pick their way through the fine print. Deterred by the paperwork, some British companies have limited distribution of their goods to Northern Ireland, and some products have disappeared from supermarket shelves there.

The new trade deal left Britain’s services sector — encompassing not only London’s powerful financial industry, but also lawyers, architects, consultants and others — uncertain about its future dealings with the E.U., despite the sector’s accounting for 80 percent or more of British economic activity.

The agreement does at least partially smooth the flow of goods across British borders, but it leaves financial firms without the biggest benefit of E.U. membership: the ability to easily offer services to clients across the region from a single base. This had long allowed a bank in London to provide loans to a business in Venice or trade bonds for a company in Madrid.

That loss is especially painful for Britain, which ran a surplus of 18 billion pounds, or $24 billion, on trade in financial and other services with the European Union in 2019, but a deficit of £97 billion, or $129 billion, on trade in goods.

Now, the sale of services, once assured, hangs on patchwork decisions by European regulators about whether Britain’s new financial regulations are close enough to their own to be trusted. While London’s expertise is difficult to match, putting its financial and service firms in a strong position to weather the storm, some obstacles are inevitable. Already, some Britons living in Europe have been told their bank accounts in Britain would be closed.

Cars waiting to be exported at the port of Bristol, England.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

For bankers, traders, truckers, architects and millions of migrants, the Dec. 24 trade agreement was only the beginning, Day 1 of a high-stakes and unpredictable experiment in how to restitch a tight web of commercial relations across Europe.

In the four years after Britain’s referendum, the number of Europeans migrating to the country for work plunged, and British companies sent employees to Paris and Frankfurt to set up toeholds on the continent. But despite their preparations, businesses braced themselves for considerable difficulties after Jan. 1.

British food distributors, spared the calamity of a no-deal separation, nevertheless scrambled to prepare the first of hundreds of thousands of new export certifications to allow their meat, fish and dairy to be sold to the bloc. Once exempt from such burdensome checks, they now face the same inspections as European imports from countries like Chile or Australia.

Britain is short of customs agents to deal with the tens of millions of customs declarations that are now needed, and even veterinarians to carry out new health assessments, industry experts said.

The deal also did little to assuage fears about how the country’s new immigration rules could complicate the lives of E.U. citizens living in Britain. People from other European countries have been allowed to apply for “settled status” in Britain, the right to stay indefinitely, and more than two million of them have been granted that status.

But few provisions were made for those unable to complete the process online, much less for those who don’t realize they need permission to stay somewhere they have lived for decades.

The City of London, Britain’s financial hub.Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Stephen Castle contributed reporting.

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