Brexit Explained For Americans: The Referendum and Withdrawal Bill – Opting Out

Theresa May podium, Brexit
Theresa May podium

The referendum

In the general election of 7th May 2015, the Conservative Party regained a majority in the House of Commons and David Cameron retained his seat as Prime Minister. The Tories proposed the only manifesto that promised a referendum on membership of the European Union (EU). It turned out to be a solid move from DC, whose party had to share power with the Liberal Democrats in the previous government. Appealing to growing Euroskepticism in the country gave him the minor advantage that won the day.

The European Referendum Act was passed in later that month, and on Thursday 23 June 2016 the referendum took place. The British people voted by 51.9% to leave the EU, on a 72% turnout. The government had promised to honor the result of the referendum, despite it not being legally binding. It soon triggered Article 50, a provision in EU law that allows countries to formally leave the union, and a date was set on which Britain would withdraw: 29th March 2019.


Although David Cameron campaigned and legislated for the referendum, he himself was in favor of Remain, and campaigned for Britain to remain. Once the Leave result was confirmed, he stepped down as Prime Minister. Theresa May was elected by party members to be the new leader and Prime Minister, who herself is a remainer, though she promised to deliver Brexit.

Soft or hard Brexit?

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum result, there was somewhat of an existential crisis amongst Remainer establishment figures, as the result was somewhat of a surprise. The national debate then became about whether Britain would have a “hard” Brexit, meaning exiting from the single market and customs union, or retain some of these arrangements post withdrawal. Brexiteers saw these efforts to retain these arrangements as a fudge.

Nonetheless, there was general consensus that Britain must form a deal with the EU to maintain a smooth trading relationship with Europe. There were a number of proposed relationships.

The UK could stay in the single market, maintaining frictionless trade with member countries yet not be subject to the European parliament. There are added complications with this, however, especially surrounding the customs union and Northern Ireland.

It is difficult to maintain a free trade arrangement without being part of a customs union. In order to prevent goods checks at the borders, Britain would have to find some way of negotiating the differences in customs arrangements post-Brexit.

The UK currently has an agreement with the Republic of Ireland, stipulated in the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that put in place a settlement between Northern Ireland and the Republic respecting the wishes of both Unionists and Royalists. This included an integrated relationship meaning people and goods can cross the border from both countries without checks. Leaving the customs union would mean there would have to be goods checks on the border, a “hard border.” If Northern Ireland stayed in the customs union, it would create a barrier between it and the UK, violating terms in the Good Friday Agreement.

As the only land border between the UK and the EU, the EU do not want the UK to be able to access the single market “through the back door” whilst not complying to customs arrangements.

The alternative is a No Deal Brexit. In such a scenario, Britain would leave the EU without a withdrawal agreement, and trade would be permitted under WTO terms. There is some speculation that it could halt trade and cause shortages, as well as pose a security risk. Though hardline Brexiteers believe this would represent a clean break from the EU and a great opportunity in the long term.

Other alternatives include an EEA, or EFTA agreement, which are seen as not-so-bad trade arrangements that other countries have with the EU whilst not being part of the Union. This is unpopular with Remainers, however, as they do not hold a close-enough relationship with the Union.

Withdrawal Bill and the backstop

After many months of negotiations with the EU, Theresa May came back to Parliament with a withdrawal bill that hopes to dictate the future relationship of Britain to Europe. It was hugely unpopular on all sides – let’s look at why.

In an attempt to solve the problem of the Northern Irish border, a “Backstop” was proposed, meaning Britain would retain certain elements of EU membership post Brexit, including a de-facto customs union, to avoid a hard border under any circumstances. Although most agree that a hard border is undesirable and puts the Good Friday Agreement into question, Brexiteers question the need for the Backstop.

There isn’t really an issue on principle with there being a transitional arrangement with the EU, yet what May’s withdrawal bill looks like is staying in the EU in all but name. There is no time limit on which the Backstop is meant to expire, and UK is not permitted to unilaterally leave the Backstop. The agreement also keeps the UK under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

The deal is also unpopular amongst Remainers, as the agreement retains many aspects of the EU, except there will be no place for the UK in European Parliament to debate and control these laws.

The only person who seems to think the deal is any good is Theresa May, who believes it ends freedom of movement and delivers on Brexit.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.