Everything You Need To Know About Brexit (Now That It’s Finally Happening)

Remember Brexit? Yeah, it's still a thing.

Well, thank god for 2017. A brand new blissful year, where we can forget about all the trash and terrible decisions of 2016 and move forward in peace and harm– oh. Wait.

The problem with 2017 is that most of the things that worried us so much last year haven’t actually happened yet. We’re still a few blissful days away from Trump’s America, the French haven’t elected Marine Le Pen for president (yet), and the United Kingdom is still safely in the European Union for the time being.

The wheels on the Brexit saga, however, are now beginning to spin faster. Yesterday in the UK, Theresa May — Britain’s Prime Minister since David Cameron resigned, tail between his legs, after a shock loss in the EU Referendum last June — gave her biggest speech since she took leadership in July.

May set out the terms for Brexit, which parts of the European Union the UK will continue to buy into, and how exactly the currently-not-very-united-Kingdom plans to carry out this unthinkably large task in just two years. Before today, the only things we’d heard about the government’s plan was that “Brexit means Brexit”, and that Britain would have a “red, white and blue” Brexit. I’m as confused as you are, don’t worry.

So, What’s Going To Happen?

In May’s speech yesterday, she set out 12 “priorities” under four main principles that’ll determine exactly how Brexit-y the Brexit will be — and it’s almost as ‘hard’ an exit from the EU as is possible.

Many of these objectives were set out during the referendum campaign, so we already had a pretty good idea of what they might be. They include strengthening the union between the four countries of the United Kingdom, creating strong trade options with countries outside the EU (which the UK previously couldn’t do on its own), and the UK taking back control of its own laws — that is, to stop some decisions going through the European Court of Justice.

The real news of the speech, however, came with news of where the UK stands on key economic issues like the European single market and Customs Union.

What’s The Single Market, And Why Is It Such A Big Deal To Leave It?

Basically, the single market allows every EU country to trade freely, move money around and provide services between countries without extra charges and tariffs. Sound like an ideal situation? That’s because it is. However, membership of the single market is based on four “indivisible” freedoms which are central to the EU’s unity — freedom of trade, of services, of capital and of people — and it’s the latter that the UK has a problem with.

Like many global political events over the past year, immigration was a huge issue in the EU referendum debate. It was ultimately the reason why many people voted ‘out’. So, if the UK doesn’t accept the free movement of people, which May has clearly said it won’t, there’s no choice but to leave the single market.

“We seek the greatest possible access to the single market without membership of it,” May said yesterday. That’s all very well, Theresa May-I-Have-My-Cake-And-Eat-It-Too, but now you have to set up a new free trade agreement and become an independent member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), and every single one of the 164 countries in the WTO has to agree to it. Keep in mind that the last time a country acceded to the WTO it took them 13 years.

May says the UK might stay an ‘associate’ member of the Customs Union, or sort of pick and choose which bits of that it wants — which will make imports and exports slightly easier. But this won’t change the fact that Britain’s borders will be substantially more rigid, and immigration much tighter.

This is interesting because a) there are already so many EU citizens living in the UK, and b) now there’ll be a land border between the EU and the UK, where the Republic of Ireland meets Northern Ireland. Not to mention the tunnel that you can drive or take a train through that gets you from the UK to France. So there are a lot of borders, immigration and trade policies that now need a serious overhaul.

And Scotland? What About Them?

Oh boy, is this an interesting one. Scotland voted to stay in the EU by a pretty solid margin. It was 52-48 overall for leave, across the UK, whereas Scotland voted 63 percent in favour of remaining. Understandably they are a little ticked off about being strung along out of the EU when they voted to stay.

You’ll also probably remember that they had an independence referendum of their own in 2014 on whether or not to stay in the United Kingdom, where 55 percent of Scots voted to stay. People said after that referendum that there couldn’t really be another one for 100 years if it was unsuccessful — but here’s where it gets tricky.

Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party, always backed this agreement — but only on the condition that the United Kingdom doesn’t make a decision that may negatively affect and compromise the values Scotland holds. Like, oh, I don’t know… leaving a large and very successful supranational union? Since the referendum, Sturgeon has been whispering about a possible do-over for the Scottish independence vote, and after Theresa May made herself clear on the single market, she’s said that a second vote is now “likely”.

If successful, that would leave Scotland as its own country, still attached to the EU with its free movement and single market membership, completely detached from the United Kingdom. You guessed it –that would mean another tricky EU-UK land border to police and negotiate.

The Scottish Parliament, in a wonderfully-timed act of defiance, voted just hours after May’s speech to protect their status in the single market, taking the first steps towards that second referendum which is expected to be more successful than the last.

What Does That Mean For Us Here In Australia?

Well, at the moment there isn’t a lot that we can do, or much that directly affects Australia just yet.

The UK isn’t allowed to make a start on any negotiations until Article 50 (the part of the Constitution on the European Union that allows a country to leave if it so chooses) has been triggered, so it’s all speculation until then. But after that date, and during the two-year countdown until Britain is officially out of the union, we’ll have to renegotiate our trade, movement and services agreements with our motherland, as we currently only have deals with the EU as a whole.

Here’s How Brexit Will Affect Your European Holiday

Travel for Australians shouldn’t be too much trickier. We’ve got great reciprocal travel visa deals with the European Union and the UK separately, although those Australians with EU citizenship who could previously work in the UK with no restrictions will find it much harder once they’ve left; potentially having to prove their worth as skilled workers.

When Is This Going To Happen Already?

It does seem like it’s been dragging on forever, and the suspense isn’t over yet. The British government have set themselves a deadline of March 31 to push the trigger on Article 50, after which they have exactly two years until they’re out on their own with no ties to the EU — so the latest that will be is March 31, 2019.

Reports are suggesting that May might trigger the article in late February or early March, to allow them to get on with the negotiations ASAP. That makes sense on the European front too — the next European elections are in 2019, and it makes absolutely no sense for the UK to elect MEPs (members of the European Parliament) only to have to fire them, like, four seconds later and have 73 spare spots in the Parliament. So it’ll start soon, but oh, it’ll drag on.

Like good (French) cheese. Or a fine (Italian) wine — better with time, right?

Matilda Edwards is a British-Australian-French freelance writer. She has flat-packed IKEA furniture in London and Melbourne, and no idea what’s coming next. She’s written for The Guardian, FasterLouder, mX and Grazia, and really likes hot chocolate.