Brexit FAQs: Overview

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Updated 18 January 2021

This blog is one of a series answering some frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the UK’s exit from the EU, and what changes on 1 January 2021. These blogs are based on information available at the time of publication, and clearly the situation, and our understanding of it, will continue to be subject to change.   

They provide some general information and should not be seen as definitive advice for individual circumstances which may be complex.  However, wherever possible links to further sources of information are provided.

Other blogs cover the topics below, and can be found at the following links:

  1. Citizens
  2. Transport
  3. Health
  4. EU law and institutions
  5. Negotiations (No Deal)
  6. Fishing, farming, and support for business
Brexit is a term used to describe the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.
On 23 June 2016, the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union by 52% to 48%.
The referendum on EU membership was UK-wide. Although Scotland voted by 62% to 38% to remain, the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU.
As Brexit is the term used to describe the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union, Brexit was done when the UK left the EU on 31 January 2020. However, negotiations continued throughout 2020 over the arrangements for the future UK and EU relationship.  On 24 December 2020, the EU and the UK announced agreement had been reached on the future relationship in the shape of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement.  The new Agreement came into effect on 1 January 2021.

Exit day was the day on which the UK left the EU. It was 31 January 2020.

The time the UK officially left the EU on 31 January 2020 was 11pm.

The UK was no longer an EU Member State from 31 January 2020. The UK’s membership of the political institutions of the EU (the European Parliament, the European Commission and the European Council) ceased on 31 January 2020.

The transition period meant that the UK did, however, continue to be a member of the single market and customs union (meaning that the trading relationship with the EU remained the same throughout 2020) until 31 December 2020.

Throughout 2020 the UK was also able to attend Council meetings on topics relating to the UK, however it did not have a vote on these matters. The UK also continued to follow EU law as well as rules and regulations in areas like agriculture and fishing during the transition period, however it no longer participated in others such as the Common Security and Defence Policy.

Freedom of movement continued through 2020 – meaning that UK citizens were able to live, work and travel freely in EU Member States and EU citizens were able do the same in the UK. This principle of freedom of movement ended on 31 December 2020.

No, the UK ceased to be an EU Member State on 31 January 2020. However, the agreement reached between the UK and the EU ahead of exit day meant that a transition period was put in place. During this transition period many of the arrangements between the UK and EU functioned as they had done prior to the 31 December 2020.

The transition period ends at 11pm 31 December 2020.

The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020, but a ‘transition period’ was in place until 31 December 2020. The transition period effectively maintained the status quo – it allowed the UK to continue as if it were an EU member state, whilst not participating in EU institutions and governance structures.
This was exactly the same as the transition period. The UK Government tended to use the term ‘implementation period’.
When the transition period ended at 11pm on 31 December 2020, it was replaced by the new EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

The new Agreement consists of three pillars:

  • A free trade agreement.
  • Law enforcement and judicial cooperation in criminal matters.
  • Governance arrangements, including dispute settlement.

More information is available in a SPICe Spotlight long read.

No deal was used at various points in the Brexit process to describe a scenario where there was no agreement in place between the UK and the EU at the time of the UK’s exit.

After the Withdrawal Agreement was reached, no deal was a possibility because the UK Parliament had not agreed a Bill to give legal effect to the Withdrawal Agreement.

When the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 became law, there was no longer the possibility of a no deal scenario when the UK left the EU on 31 January. Rather, the UK entered a transition period until 31 December 2020.

During 2020, 'no deal' was used to refer to the situation where the UK and EU failed to reach agreement on the future relationship to govern arrangements from 1 January 2021 onwards after the transition period had ended. The conclusion of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement on 24 December 2020 meant a no-deal outcome was no longer possible.

The Withdrawal Agreement established the terms of the UK's withdrawal from the EU. In dealing with the UK’s exit, the Agreement addressed many issues which arose because the UK had been a member state, for example, the rights of EU citizens living in the UK. The Agreement did not deal with the future EU/UK relationship.
The political declaration set out the aspirations for the future relationship between the EU and the UK. Although it was agreed by both the UK and the EU it was not legally binding.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 repealed the European Communities Act 1972 which brought the UK into the EU.

The Act also preserved and converted a lot of EU law into domestic law. Domestic law is the law that applies in the UK. EU law which was converted into domestic law applies in the UK after the end of the transition period.

The European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 turned the Withdrawal Agreement (which was a draft treaty) into UK law.
Future relationship was a term used to describe what arrangements would look like between the UK and EU from 1 January 2021 (i.e. after the end of the transition period). The future relationship is set out in the new EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement and has been in effect since 1 January 2021.
The European Economic Area (EEA) is made up of the 28 EU Member States and three other countries, Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein. All EEA countries are part of the single market, however, non-EU EEA countries are not part of the EU customs union. More detail is available in the SPICe briefing on European Economic Area Membership.

The single market (sometimes also called the common market) is used to describe the removal of barriers across the EU and EEA so that there is free movement of goods, people, services and capital from one member state to another.

Within the single market a common framework of regulations means companies across the EU follow the same standards. This ensures that goods made in any member state can be sold across the EU.

The EU is a customs union. This means that EU member states form a single territory for customs purposes. This means that:

  • no customs duties (tariffs) are paid on goods moving between EU Member States
  • all apply a common customs tariff for goods imported from outside the EU
  • goods that have been legally imported can circulate throughout the EU with no further customs checks.
Yes, the UK continues to form part of geographic Europe