Someone once asked how Christmas dinner would be different after Brexit. Simple, No Brussels! When the UK voted to leave the European Union, it became the first member state ever to do so. With no precedent to follow, Brexit left Europe and Britain scrambling to come up with a deal on which they could agree. This article will define Brexit, cover its main reasons, and provide a simple timeline of political events leading up to and following Britain's separation from the European Union. 

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Table of contents

    Brexit Definition

    Brexit is a portmanteau (combination) of the words ‘Britain' and 'exit’. It refers to the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union (EU), following a referendum in June 2016. The term derives from previous speculation about a possible "Grexit", or Greek exit from the EU during the global financial crisis of the 2010s.

    The UK joined the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973. The EEC was renamed the European Community and integrated into the EU after its establishment in 1993, before being completely abolished in 2003, when the EU absorbed all of its remaining institutions.

    The UK was one of the most significant contributors to the EU budget and one of the EU's leading military powers alongside France. It also had considerable soft power on the global stage and powerful intelligence capabilities, making it a crucial asset and influential force within the EU and its foreign policy. The world was shocked when the UK voted to leave the Union on 23 June 2016.

    Reasons for Brexit

    Prime Minister David Cameron had promised to call a referendum on Britain's EU membership during his 2015 election campaign to answer criticism from eurosceptics in his own party and to prevent further defections to Nigel Farage's UKIP party. Before the referendum, Cameron had tried to renegotiate Britain's EU membership conditions. EU leaders complied with some of Cameron's requests, such as reimbursing the UK for money spent on eurozone bail-outs, excluding the UK from the EU's 'ever-closer union' obligation, and permitting Britain freed not to pay social benefits to migrant workers who had been in the UK for less than 7 years. However, they refused to budge on issues such as immigration, citing the EU's commitment to freedom of movement.

    Immigration was a significant concern for many Britons, due to a considerable rise in migration from EU countries since the early 1990s - from an average of 61,000 per year to 268,000 in 2014.1 As Cameron had failed to satisfy anti-immigration voices in his own party and beyond, the 'Leave' campaigns, led by Conservative London Mayor Boris Johnson and UKIP leader Nigel Farage, exploited this concern by predicting an enormous influx of immigrants if Britain stayed in the EU.

    Nigel Farage's famous 'Breaking Point' poster can be seen as an extreme form of this exploitation. The poster was condemned by MP's from all major UK parties, including other Brexiteers such as Michael Gove, with Labour MP Yvette Cooper stating

    Just when you thought leave campaigners couldn't stoop any lower, they are now exploiting the misery of the Syrian refugee crisis in the most dishonest and immoral way.

    The poster showed an image of Syrian refugees along the Slovenian border during the 2015 Migrant crisis, claiming 'The EU has failed us all.'

    Nigel Farage's UKIP party campaigns to leave the European Union Study SmarterFig 1. Nigel Farage's UKIP party campaigns to leave the European Union

    Furthermore, the leave campaign successfully linked this concern to the idea of 'taking back control' from the EU. This idea resonated with nationalist sentiments amongst older voters and those concerned about excessive EU regulations and environmental standards, and believed that that EU laws and regulations were a threat to British Sovereignty. The leave campaign also took advantage of the fact that the UK was a net contributor to the EU budget and claimed that by leaving the EU, the UK could afford to spend an extra £350 million on the NHS, with Boris Johnson telling The Guardian

    We grossly underestimated the sum over which we would be able to take back control7

    Overall, voter turnout in areas expected to vote leave were much larger than areas who were expected to vote remain. Around 64% of registered voters aged 18-24 voted, compared to 90% of over-65s. This played a major role in the results, as polls showed that older voters generally supported Brexit. The result was a clear win for the 'leavel' campaign.

    Brexit The Brexit referendum results StudySmarterFig. 2 The Brexit referendum results

    The Remain campaign had initially been confident as it had the support of the government and was endorsed by the Bank of England and the security establishment. They focused mainly on the security and economic benefits of remaining in the EU and warned of costly economic damages if the UK left the single market. Their campaign was labelled 'project fear' by their opposition, who accused them of using scare tactics to convince people to vote remain. The association of the remain campaign with imminent economic doom, fear mongering and their initial over-confidence, as well as the countervailing charismatic image of politicians like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, may have also encouraged higher turnout amongst leave-inclined voters.

    Brexit Timeline

    David Cameron (11 May 2010 – 13 July 2016)

    David Cameron announced his intention to resign as Prime Minister on the 24 June 2016, after 51.9% of voters voted to leave the EU. Having passionately campaigned to remain in the EU against prominent members of his own party, Cameron's popularity had faltered both within the Conservative party and amongst voters. He therefore believed that new leadership was required to lead Britain through Brexit, stating

    A negotiation with the European Union will need to begin under a new Prime Minister, and I think it is right that this new Prime Minister takes the decision about when to trigger Article 50 and start the formal and legal process of leaving the EU.2

    Article 50

    A legal mechanism outlined in the Lisbon Treaty (2009) signed by EU members, to be used when a member of the EU wishes to leave. It outlines the steps which must be completed to withdraw from the bloc. Legally, the government of the state wishing to leave must take the step in triggering the article. In the UK, the Prime Minister has the power to trigger article 50.

    David Cameron officially resigned as Prime Minister on July 13, 2016, after Theresa May secured leadership of the Conservative party on July 11, 2016.

    Theresa May (13 July 2016 – 24 July 2019)

    Despite supporting the 'Remain' Campaign, Theresa May promised to deliver Brexit, saying

    Brexit means Brexit, and we’re going to make a success of it.8

    May officially triggered Article 50 on March 29, 2017, beginning a two-year negotiation period between the UK and the EU on the specifics of Brexit. May also called a snap election in June 2017 hoping to gain a larger majority for her party in Parliament and therefore more support for her negotiating position.

    The result was a loss of the conservative governing majority, forcing the party to rely on the support of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist party (DUP). Disagreements within the Conservative party surrounding the Brexit proposal also undermined May's attempts to build consensus around the withdrawal agreement.

    On 12 July 2018 the UK government published its first proposal for the agreement, agreed by Cabinet ministers. Its suggestions included continued access to the EU's single market, a 'facilitated customs agreement' between the bloc and the UK and no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

    The proposal failed to gain support from either conservative MPs or the EU, with the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, accusing Britain of 'cherry-picking' the benefits of EU membership without any of the responsibilities. Brexit secretary David Davis and his secretary Steve Baker both resigned in protest against the proposal, followed by foreign secretary Boris Johnson.

    A revised withdrawal agreement was finally with EU leaders in November 2018, which, amongst other things, required the UK to fulfil the financial commitments it had agreed to prior to the Brexit vote totalling around £42 billion, whilst still observing EU laws and customs until the minimum term of December 2020. It also outlined a

    commitment to frictionless trade in goods through a common rulebook, the centrepiece of the Chequers plan 3

    The UK's withdrawal was set for 29, March 2019, however it still required the approval of the UK parliament. May faced strong opposition from all major parties in parliament, including her own. The main issue was the Irish 'backstop', which aimed to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland by implementing a legally-binding customs plan with the EU which would come into force if the UK and EU failed to reach a comprehensive deal by December 2020. Many politicians, including the DUP (on whom May's governing majority depended), were deeply opposed to the backstop.

    May's withdrawal agreement was rejected by Parliament on January 15 2019 by 432 to 202 votes, and then again on 12 March by 391 to 242 votes. May requested an extension on the negotiation period from the EU, which was granted until May 22 on the basis that Parliament agreed to the Withdrawal agreement by March 29, and if not, the UK must put forward new suggestions by April 12.

    In a desperate attempt to get her deal through Parliament, May promised to resign if her deal was approved. On March 29, a third vote was held. The UK government was defeated once again. A second extension of the negotiation period was granted by the EU until October 31, 2019, which required the UK to part-take in the European parliamentary elections.

    On May 24, Theresa May announced her resignation as PM and party leader, due to multiple votes of no confidence, insurrection by her Cabinet and her failure to get the Withdrawal Agreement approved by Parliament.

    Brexit, Theresa May declaring her resignation 24/05/2019 StudySmarter

    Fig. 3 Theresa May announcing her resignation

    Boris Johnson (24 July 2019 – September 2022)

    Boris Johnson assumed the leadership of the Conservative Party after May's resignation, and thus also became Prime Minister. Johnson's attempt to prorogue Parliament was declared as unlawful by the Supreme Court and he was criticised for proposing a 'no-deal' Brexit in the event that no deal could be reached before the deadline. On 17 October 2019, the Irish Backstop was replaced by the Northern Ireland Protocol and on 22 October, a revised Withdrawal Agreement was approved by Parliament.

    Johnson managed to gain the support of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn to pass the Early Parliamentary General Election Act 2019, allowing a general election to be held earlier than scheduled in order to meet the new deadline of January 31. The election was held on 22 December, and gave the Conservatives a comfortable 80 seat parliamentary majority. After amendments suggested by the House of Commons and the House of Lords had been completed, on January 23, 2020, the European Union Act 2020 was finally given royal assent and was supported by European Parliaments Constitutional Committee. On January 30, the EU council ratified the UK's Withdrawal agreement with 621 to 49 votes, and the UK withdrew from the EU on January 31, 2020.

    Brexit - Key takeaways

    • The UK voted to leave the European Union on 23 June 23 2016.
    • The Leave campaign focused on issues such as immigration, sovereignty and 'taking back control'.
    • The Remain Campaign focused mainly on the negative economic effects of Brexit.
    • The process of delivering Brexit played out under three Prime Ministers, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
    • Theresa May resigned after failing to pass her government's withdrawal deal through Parliament, after two extension periods, mainly due to the Northern Irish 'backstop'.
    • Boris Johnson finalised the Brexit deal after securing a new agreement regarding the Irish border, and an early parliamentary election which gave him a mandate to pass the withdrawal agreement through Parliament
    • The UK withdrew from the EU on 31 January 2020, after the European Union Act of that year was ratified by the European and UK parliaments.


    1. "EU Migration to and from the UK". Archived from the original on 2 April 2015.
    2. GOV.UK. 2016. EU referendum outcome: PM statement, 24 June 2016. [online]
    3. Boffey, Daniel; Rankin, Jennifer (25 November 2018). "Brexit deal explained: backstops, trade and citizens' rights". The Guardian.
    4. Fig. 2 The Brexit referendum results ( by Matman from Lublin ( licenced by CC-BY-SA-4.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
    5. Fig. 3 Theresa May declaring her resignation, 24/05/2019 ( by UK Government ( Licenced by OGL v3.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons.
    6. Nigel Farage arrives in town ( by Derek Bennett ( licensed by CC BY 2.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Brexit

    When did Brexit happen?

    The UK voted to leave the Union on June 23, 2016, and officially left the EU on January 31, 2020.

    What is Brexit?

    Refers to the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union (EU), following a referendum in June 2016.  

    What is the reason behind the uk Brexit?

    The main reasons for Brexit included worries surrounding immigration, national Sovereignty and the amount of money the UK was contributing to the EU.

    What is the advantages and disadvantages of Brexit?

    After Brexit, UK citizens no longer have the freedom of movement across EU nations, and the UK no longer has access to the EU single market. However, the UK now has full Sovereignty and does not have to adhere to any EU laws. 

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