As the deadline for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, or Brexit, bears down, the government is paralyzed. Companies are jumping ship. Fears of medicine shortages are rising. And after Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan for leaving the bloc was resoundingly rejected by lawmakers, Parliament is only now getting around to debating other ideas — mere weeks before the departure deadline.
The swashbuckling, populist plan to quit the European Union has stalled, and almost every option is now on the table, from a daringly complete break with Europe to abandoning Brexit altogether.
What emerges out of the logjam could determine the shape of Britain and its place in the world for decades. Following is a basic guide to Brexit, what it is, how it developed into the mess it is today and how it could ultimately be resolved.
What is Brexit?
A portmanteau of the words “Britain” and “exit,” Brexit is shorthand for Britain’s split from the European Union, changing its relationship to the bloc on trade, security and migration.
Britain has been debating the pros and cons of membership in a European community of nations almost from the moment the idea was broached. (It held its first referendum on membership in 1975, less than three years after it joined.) 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 it would offer were Remain and Leave, and Mr. Cameron was convinced that Remain would win handily.
On June 23, 2016, as a refugee crisis made migration a subject of political rage across Europe and among accusations of lies and fraudulent tactics on the Leave side, Britons voted for a hazily defined Brexit by 52 percent to 48 percent.
Not only did that not settle the debate, but it saved for another day the tangled question of what should come next. Now, that day may finally be arriving.
How did Britain vote?
England and Wales voted for Brexit, overcoming support to remain in the European Union in London, Scotland and Northern Ireland. See a detailed map of the vote.
Why is it such a big deal?
Europe is Britain’s most important export market and its biggest source of foreign investment, and being in the bloc has helped London cement its position as a global financial center. Every day, it seems, a major business announces or threatens plans to leave Britain after it quits the European Union, the latest being Airbus, which employs 14,000 people and supports more than 100,000 other jobs.
The government expects the country’s economy to grow anywhere from 4 to 9 percent less than it would inside the bloc over the next 15 years, depending on how it leaves.
Mrs. May has promised that Brexit will end free movement, the right of people from elsewhere in Europe to move to Britain and vice versa. That is a triumph for some working-class people who saw immigration as a threat to their jobs, but dispiriting for young Britons hoping to study or work abroad.
What’s holding it up?
Undoing 46 years of economic integration in one stroke was never going to be easy, and the Brexit process has been bedeviled by the same divisions that led to the referendum in the first place. Both Britain’s main parties, the governing Conservatives and the Labour opposition, are divided over what to do, leaving Parliament so factionalized that there may be no coherent plan most lawmakers would back.
Mrs. May spent 18 months negotiating a divorce deal with the European Union, shedding one cabinet minister after another in the process. But when she presented the plan to Parliament, it was rejected by a historic margin of 230 votes.
We keep hearing about the
Irish border. What’s that about?
The single greatest hangup is the question of Britain’s only land border with the European Union: the invisible line between Ireland, another member state of the bloc, and Northern Ireland, which remains part of the United Kingdom.
Mrs. May and her Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, want to keep checkpoints from going up at the border; that’s a crucial part of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought respite from decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
But the method she agreed for guaranteeing that — called “the backstop” — has alienated just about everyone.
The backstop would keep the whole United Kingdom in a temporary trading relationship with Europe until a final deal avoiding a hard border could be agreed, something that hard-line Brexiteers fear would never happen. And it would bind Northern Ireland to even more European rules, to the dismay of those who reject any regulatory differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. (They include the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, whose 10 lawmakers give Mrs. May her parliamentary majority.)
Why is Brexit back in the news?
Just about the only clear decision Britain has made on Brexit since the 2016 referendum was to give formal notice to quit under Article 50 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty, a legal process setting it on a two-year path to departure. That happened on March 28, 2017, making the formal divorce date this coming March 29.
As the deadline nears, Mrs. May and her government are trying to overcome seemingly impossible parliamentary arithmetic and get lawmakers to back her agreement with European leaders. The fantasy that Brexit would be easy is crumbling, and lawmakers who made lofty promises to their constituents are having to face the hard reality of a vote.
So far, Parliament has decisively knocked down Mrs. May’s deal, but also decided against removing her from power entirely. Mrs. May is now busy plotting her next move. She could tack to the center by committing to a permanent trading relationship with Europe — a customs union — that would do away with tariffs and quotas. That way, she would solve the Irish border dilemma and possibly win some votes from opposition Labour lawmakers.
But that would also risk splitting her own Conservative Party, which she wants to avoid at all costs. So she seems poised to do the opposite, and instead try to win over right-wingers in her own party by acceding to their demand for measures that would risk anger in Brussels and a hard border in Ireland. Toward that end, she has pledged to reopen the legally binding withdrawal agreement with the European Union to renegotiate the part about the Irish border.
Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, who has worked hard not to commit his party to a distinct course on Brexit, is mulling whether to get behind a second public vote or to seek a new “soft” Brexit deal that would maintain more ties with the Continent.
What comes next?
Mrs. May is forging ahead with what she has called her Brexit Plan B. In un-Plan-B-like fashion, the strategy is to stick with Plan A, while trying to wring more concessions out of the European Union.
Opposition lawmakers and backbench Conservative members of Parliament had a brief opening to offer amendments to her Plan B that could chart a different course altogether. But lawmakers failed to approve an amendment giving Parliament the power to instruct Mrs. May to seek a delay to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
Instead Conservative lawmakers sent her back to Brussels to negotiate changes to her deal that the European Union has already said it will not make. She now has a two week window to try to get the Europeans to budge before the issue comes back to Parliament for yet another showdown in the middle of February.
No one knows what might happen next. Hard-line Brexiteers, who have been seeking a no-deal exit, could be more amenable to Mrs. May’s deal if it becomes the hardest form of Brexit on the table. But extending the departure deadline would also give backers of a second referendum time to build support for what currently seems a long-shot option. That could end in Britons reversing their decision to leave the European Union altogether.
There are other possibilities, too, like a general election that could put Mrs. May on more solid footing in Parliament — or lead to a government led by Mr. Corbyn that would presumably negotiate a soft Brexit deal keeping Britain closer to the bloc.
Visit our more detailed guide to what could happen next.