‘Aren’t you going insane?’: readers’ questions from beyond Brexitland

Jigsaw puzzle displaying European map missing Great Britain

Having asked those of you living outside the UK if you were confused by the latest news from Brexitland, I got so many responses (thank you all) that I have grouped and paraphrased the most common ones so as to be able answer, at least approximately, as many as possible.

And I’ve mostly stuck to factual questions on the Brexit process. “Will Brexit finally teach Britain it no longer rules the world?” from (among others) Steve Norman in Canada, Ferdy in Dublin and Thijs in the Netherlands, warrants a book-length response, but not now.

Also, I’m not going into great detail explaining Brexit terminology: if you want answers to that I recommend the Guardian’s handy Brexit phrasebook which hopefully has most of it covered.

What are the ground rules of Brexit? I’m seriously confused (Danni, US)

Brexit is the process of the UK leaving the EU, which it narrowly voted in favour of in a referendum in June 2016. The process is governed by article 50 of the EU’s Treaty of Lisbon and is happening in two stages: first, the two sides negotiate their divorce deal (the “withdrawal agreement”), and after this they will sort out their future trading relationship. It’s proving problematic because the UK voted for a departure but not a destination: some think Britain should remain in a close relationship with the EU, with privileged access to its vast single market but having to obey its rules; others think its should strike out on its own, with greater control but less smooth trade. It’s complicated by the red lines set down by the prime minister, Theresa May, (ending the automatic right of EU citizens to settle in the UK, and leaving the EU’s single market and customs union) which exclude a lot of potential options.

Can you explain the Irish backstop? (Diane Dalton, US, with related questions from Ton Pasman and Leonie, Netherlands; Shona, Ireland; Dietmar Homberg, Germany; Elisabeth Sanfuchs, Belgium; Ayaz Ramji, Canada)

When the UK leaves the EU, the border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland, which is currently invisible, will become the EU’s only land border with the UK. Such a border normally requires customs and other controls. Nobody wants that, partly because nobody wants a return to the violence of the period before the Good Friday agreement, which removed border checks. In theory, the post-Brexit trading arrangements between the EU and the UK will avoid a “hard” border, but they could take years to negotiate so the EU has insisted on a “backstop” guaranteeing the absence of a hard border until those arrangements are in place. The backstop leaves the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU “unless and until” the EU agrees it can leave. Brexiters do not like this at all.

Why is the deadline 29 March 2019 and what’s the problem with extending it? (Dawn, Canada; Jean Vigoureux, France)

Article 50 provides for two years of talks; the UK triggered it on 29 March 2017 so in principle it leaves automatically two years later. It can ask the EU27 for an extension, which they have said they would grant for a valid reason, such as sorting out the final details of a deal that has the support of a majority in the UK parliament. This now looks quite likely, but it may only last for a few months because a new European parliament is sworn in in July and EU rules require all member states to be represented – a problem if the UK is still a member. Experts think this could be resolved with a temporary fix, but the EU would rather avoid the hassle.

Can article 50 be revoked and how would the EU respond? (Benjamin Willumsen, Chile)

The European court of justice has ruled that the UK can revoke article 50 unilaterally at any time without the permission of the EU27 (who would…

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