A simple guide to Brexit: freedom of movement, the customs union and more explained

Negotiations are supposed to be finished by March 2019

If you’re reading this, you’re probably feeling just a little bit uninformed about Brexit, but, hey – you’re not alone! The extremely complex negotiations are ongoing, and every day the landscape shifts. Here’s our guide, from Brexit basics to the rough stuff.

What is Brexit?

Brexit is a word coined before June 2016’s EU Referendum, combining the ‘Br’ of Britain with the word ‘exit’: it’s shorthand for Britain’s exiting of the European Union. We reckon you knew that already.

As Theresa May has famously and repeatedly said: Brexit means Brexit – the subtext being that no one really knows the meaning yet. Exactly what it entails for the country’s economical, social and cultural landscape has yet to be determined in the ongoing Brexit negotiations, which are set to finish by the end of March 2019.

Why is Brexit happening?


As you probably remember, in June 2016 a referendum was held asking the British public whether or not they wanted to stay in the European Union. Across the UK, 52% of the voting public chose Leave. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, however, more voters chose Remain than Leave – and in Scotland the Remain vote was as high as 62%. The Scottish National Party has since raised the question of a second Scottish Independence Referendum, though it is unlikely this will be possible before Brexit negotiations finish in 2019.

What else happened after the EU Referendum?

David Cameron resigned. He’d promised the Referendum as part of his manifesto in the 2015 General Election and had later campaigned for Remain. The Remain campaign’s loss put him in an untenable position as Prime Minister.

He was succeeded by the current Prime Minister, Theresa May, who was then required to trigger Article 50. Like Cameron, she was once against Brexit, but now she says she sees it as an opportunity. She recently said: “I believe in the British people; I believe that with determination, ingenuity and common sense, we can use this moment of great national change to shape a better future for Britain.”

What is Article 50?

Article 50 is the piece of legislation that allows an EU country to exit the EU. Theresa May triggered Article 50 on March 28, 2017, giving the UK two years to finish Brexit negotiations. They’re meant to be complete by the end of March 2019.

Why did we have a snap election this year?

Good question. In April 2017, Theresa May called a general election on June 8 in order to ‘strengthen her hand’ in the Brexit negotiations, which were to begin on June 19. It’s no coincidence that at the time May called the election, her handling of Brexit was polling extremely well. In April, polls suggested she would walk away with almost 50% of the vote, but she ended up getting 42% – just 2% more than Labour.

This means that instead of giving her more seats in Parliament and therefore more political control, the general election has resulted in May’s Conservative Party losing so many seats that she is now running what is known as a minority government. The Conservatives are relying on numbers from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party to make up the majority it needs whenever there’s a vote in Parliament.

Who is leading the Brexit negotiations?


There are two main figures in the negotiations. They are:

  1. Representing the UK: David Davis MP – the Secretary of State leading the recently created Department for the Exiting of the European Union (DExEU).
  2. Representing the EU: Michel Barnier – a former French foreign minister and EU commissioner, and now the EU’s chief negotiator.

David Davis and Michel Barnier

What are they negotiating?

The first issue they sorted out was sequencing. This refers to the order in which Britain negotiates certain things. The UK’s representative, David Davis, was hoping to be able to carry out talks about how trade will work after Brexit has happened, at the same time as he was negotiating the details of Brexit itself. The idea of this is to make the transition from pre-Brexit to post-Brexit Britain as smooth as possible for the UK.

Barnier’s team have vetoed this, and Barnier has confirmed that he is unwilling to compromise, saying: “The UK has asked to leave the EU, not the other way round, so we each have to assume the consequences of our decisions and the consequences are substantial. Please do not underestimate those consequences.”

Right now the pair are working on negotiations for citizens’ rights (those of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa) as well as the Irish border, and the Brexit bill. We’ll soon be writing a separate, more detailed piece about the negotiating timeline, and the topics that have and will been discussed – so stay tuned.

What’s a ‘hard’ Brexit?

In the lead-up to Brexit negotiations, various different kinds of Brexit outcomes were discussed, ranging from ‘hard’ to ‘soft’. There’s no strict definition, but the phrase ‘hard Brexit’ tends to refer to a complete break with the EU, refusing to cooperate with freedom of movement even if it means losing access to the single market. A ‘hard Brexit’ would essentially mean the UK had complete control over its own immigration policy, but this would be likely to come at the expense of various economical benefits that the EU provides.

The phrase ‘soft Brexit’ is the opposite of this: it refers to cooperation with the EU’s freedom of movement rules in order to retain membership of the single market.

What’s freedom of movement?

Freedom of movement is pretty much what it says on the tin: it allows the free movement of goods, services, capital and people within the single market, and those four freedoms are fundamental to membership of the single market. To stay in the single market – which several non-EU countries actually do – each country has to allow freedom of movement, which makes it hard to control immigration. Those in favour of a ‘Hard Brexit’ tend to think it’s worth losing the benefits of the single market because it will let the UK control immigration.

What’s the single market?

The single market is intended to create a ‘level playing-field’ across all of its member states – removing tariffs, quotas and taxes on trade, meaning there are no barriers to trade between the members of the market.

The single market comes with many regulations on things such as food standards and working hours. If the UK leaves the single market it will no longer have to follow these rules, though if the UK wants to trade with EU countries it is likely that many of these regulations will stay the same.

A country doesn’t have to be a member of the EU to be in the single market. Norway and Iceland are examples of non-EU countries that do this – but to be members they have to contribute to the EU budget every year, and they have to accept the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction. If the UK’s negotiating team decide that it is best for the UK to stay in the single market, it will have to accept all these things that come with it – including freedom of movement.

What’s the customs union?

The customs union requires all members to charge the same import duty on any goods and services entering the union, and it removes tariffs on those things whenever they cross a border in the union.

You can be part of the customs union without being a member of the single market – Turkey does this. You can also be a member of the single market but not the customs union – Norway does this.

The customs union has nothing to do with freedom of movement and it doesn’t have the same regulations the single market does.

If the UK remained in the customs union (but not in the single market) it still wouldn’t be able to negotiate free trade agreements with other countries. It would have to pay the EU for access and accept the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction on trade.

However, retaining membership of the customs union would automatically mean that the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would remain open – something almost all political parties are in favour of, because between 23,000 and 30,000 people cross it daily for work.

What if negotiations fail and there’s no Brexit deal?

No one really knows, but it would be bad for the UK.

Is immigration going to go down after Brexit?

Theresa May has described the Leave vote as a “very clear message” from British people that they want a reduction in immigration, so reducing immigration is likely to be a priority for David Davis in the Brexit negotiations. The Prime Minister wants immigration to be reduced to about 100,000 per year; in 2016 it was about 650,000.

To control immigration, the UK will have to reject the EU’s freedom of movement, and this will probably prevent the UK remaining in the single market, as explained above.

What is going to happen to EU citizens in the UK?

The proposed rights of EU citizens in the UK have been set out in a long document by Theresa May.

Any EU citizens living in the UK now are covered under the plans and the cut-off point will be sometime between 29 March 2017 and 29 March 2019. Their families will be covered too. Once they’ve been living in the UK for five years they can apply for ‘settled status’ and can live, work and claim benefits just like they can now. Those who arrive after the cut-off date will not be covered under the proposals.

The EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, says May’s proposals do not go far enough.

What about UK citizens in the EU?

This hasn’t been determined yet. It will be decided during the Brexit negotiations.

Will Brexit affect prices in the UK?

Yes – most of the stuff we import will go up in price. Since the Referendum the pound has decreased in value against currencies like the Euro and the Dollar, while inflation recently hit a four-year high, meaning most products are going to cost more.

Will MPs get to vote on the final Brexit deal?

Yes. Thanks to a legal campaign by Gina Miller, the result of the Brexit negotiations will go through Parliament before Brexit can be executed completely.

Will Brexit affect travel to EU countries?

It probably won’t make planning a holiday to Europe any more difficult – tourism is valuable to EU countries – but it could impact things like the price of flights, and it could mean that the EHIC (European health insurance card) will no longer be available for Brits. This means travel insurance is likely to cost more.

Stay tuned for more on the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Soon we’ll be publishing a more detailed piece about exactly what’s going on at each meeting between David Davis and Michel Barnier, and how the results of the talks will affect you.

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