Brexit Day is finally upon us. When the UK clocks strike 11pm (midnight in Brussels) on Friday, Jan. 31, Britain will leave the European Union. While the celebrations might be somewhat underwhelming, there's no doubt this is a momentous time in our political history.
It is fair to say our progress to this point has not been entirely smooth.
But you might not notice any changes for a while. That’s because Britain is in a transition period while it works out a free trade deal with the EU. This deal is vital if the UK wants to keep doing business with its biggest trading partner (in 2018, 45% of all UK exports went to the EU) with no tariffs or quotas.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said last year: “We cannot do everything in 11 months, we will need more time.” But he did say that “the principal elements” of a free-trade agreement could be agreed before the end of 2020.
Fishing rights will be the first priority in the trade talks, as the two sides aim to agree a deal on this by July 1, 2020. This has the potential for a major bust-up.
Johnson has insisted the UK will “take back control” of its waters after Brexit. The EU fears that European fishing boats will be denied access - which could devastate some coastal communities in northern Europe. Irish PM Leo Varadkar has said the UK needs to make concessions on fishing rights if it wants access to the EU’s financial services.
July 1 is also the deadline for Britain to request an extension to the transition period. The UK government is adamant this will not happen.
In fact, Johnson was so insistent on this point that he added a new clause to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill that ruled out any such extension. This would put an end to years of “deadlock, dither, and delay”, he told MPs in December. But shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer said it was “reckless and irresponsible”.
If a deal is not agreed by the end of the year, the UK and EU will be forced to trade on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms -with tariffs on imports and exports likely to hit UK businesses hard.
There are a lot of unknowns with Brexit, not least how exactly the government plans to manage immigration once freedom of movement comes to an end. The UK and EU will also need to agree many complex areas of policy such as the licensing of medicines, supplies of electricity and gas, and data sharing and law enforcement.
Leaving the EU is one thing - figuring out how Britain works with the bloc going forward is a whole different ballgame.
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