What is Brexit?


On 23 June 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) voted to leave the European Union (EU). The UK leaving the EU is known as ‘Brexit’ (short for ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’).

On 29 March 2017, the UK gave notice to the European Council under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (pdf) of its intention to leave the EU. From this date, the EU27 (all European Union members excluding the UK) and the UK had 2 years to negotiate arrangements for the UK to leave.

This means that the UK was expected to leave the EU on 29 March 2019. The European Council agreed on 10 April to extend Article 50 until 31 October 2019. This decision was taken in agreement with the UK.

On 29 October 2019, the European Council agreed with the UK to further extend the period of Article 50 until 31 January 2020. If the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified by the EU and the UK before then, the period may be shorter. In that case, the Withdrawal Agreement may enter into force on either 1 December 2019, 1 January 2020 or 1 February 2020.

Negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU

Framework for Brexit negotiations

Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union requires the EU to negotiate an agreement with the member state that is withdrawing, setting out the arrangements for withdrawal and taking account of the framework for the member state’s future relationship with the EU. In April 2017, the European Council adopted a set of political guidelines which defined the framework for the negotiations and set out the EU's overall positions and principles. These guidelines stated that the EU wishes to have the UK as a close partner after it withdraws from the EU.

One of the EU’s core negotiating principles was that the withdrawal agreement had to be a single comprehensive package, with no individual matters being settled separately to the agreement as a whole. This meant that if both parties could not agree on a significant issue – such as the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland – this could undermine the withdrawal agreement as a whole.

It is important to note that the UK was a member of the European Union throughout the negotiations and that it will continue to be a member until the end of the Article 50 period. The European Commission represented the EU27 as a whole in negotiating the UK’s withdrawal agreement. There were no separate negotiations between individual EU member states and the UK.

The Commission set up a Task Force for the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the United Kingdom, with Michel Barnier as chief negotiator.

How the Brexit negotiations progressed

The first phase of negotiations focused on the most immediate issues. The 3 priority issues were:

  • The rights of EU citizens in the UK and of UK citizens in the EU
  • The framework for addressing the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland
  • The financial settlement needed for the UK to honour past financial commitments

In December 2017, the EU and UK agreed in principle how these 3 issues would be progressed. This agreement included a commitment to avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. You can read the joint report (pdf) from these negotiations.

In February 2018, the European Commission published a draft withdrawal agreement, which translated the joint report from December 2017 into legal terms. This included protocols on citizens' rights, transitional arrangements, Ireland and Northern Ireland and institutional provisions, such as the Court of Justice of the European Union.

An amended version of the draft withdrawal agreement, showing areas of agreement and disagreement using a colour-coding system, was published in March 2018.

In June 2018, the EU and UK jointly published information (pdf) about progress made in the continued negotiations on the draft withdrawal agreement.

Withdrawal agreements

First withdrawal agreement

In November 2018, the European Commission and UK reached an agreement at negotiator level on a withdrawal agreement.

This document included a Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, setting out a backstop arrangement to be used to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This would see Northern Ireland keep full regulatory alignment with the rules of the European Single Market and customs union.

An outline of the Political Declaration on the future EU UK relationship (pdf) was also agreed.

A withdrawal agreement can only come into effect if it is ratified by both the EU and the UK. The first withdrawal agreement was not ratified by the UK.

Revised withdrawal agreement

On 17 October 2019, the European Commission and the UK reached an agreement at negotiator level with the UK on a revised Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and a revised Political Declaration on the framework of the future EU and UK relationship. Before the revised withdrawal agreement can enter into force, it needs to be ratified by the EU and the UK. For the EU, the Council of the European Union must authorise the signature of the withdrawal agreement, before sending it to the European Parliament for its consent. The United Kingdom must ratify the agreement according to its own constitutional arrangements.

You can read FAQs on the process and the next steps on ec.europa.eu.

Transition period after the UK leaves the EU

In January 2018, the European Council agreed negotiating directives for transitional arrangements after the UK leaves the EU. The period after UK withdrawal is known as the transition period.

During the transition period the UK will remain under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and stay within the single market and the customs union. All EU regulations will continue to apply to the UK, including changes made to these regulations during this period. However, the UK will no longer have voting rights in the institutions of the EU. During this time the UK can make trade deals with countries outside the EU – although they cannot come into force until the end of the transition period.

Further information

There is detailed information about Brexit on dfa.ie, including the Government’s Contingency Action Plan for a “no-deal” Brexit.

Read more in our documents Brexit and you, Brexit updates and Brexit information and supports.

Page edited: 4 November 2019