Background to Brexit


The United Kingdom left the European Union at 11:00 pm on 31 January 2020. This document explains how Brexit happened, the transition period and what you can expect after the transition period ends. You can also read about:

On 23 June 2016, the United Kingdom (UK) voted to leave the European Union (EU).

On 29 March 2017, the UK gave notice to the European Council under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (pdf) of its intention to leave the EU. From this date, the EU27 (all European Union members excluding the UK) and the UK had 2 years to negotiate arrangements for the UK to leave.

On 29 October 2019, the European Council agreed with the UK to further extend the period of Article 50 until 31 January 2020. The ‘revised withdrawal agreement’ was ratified by the UK parliament and the EU parliament, and paved the way for the UK’s departure from the European Union on 31 January 2020.

Negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal fromthe EU

Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union requires the EU to negotiate an agreement with the member state that is withdrawing, setting out the arrangements for withdrawal and taking account of the framework for the member state’s future relationship with the EU. In April 2017, the European Council adopted a set of political guidelines which defined the framework for the negotiations and set out the EU's overall positions and principles. These guidelines stated that the EU wishes to have the UK as a close partner after it withdraws from the EU.

The UK was a member of the European Union throughout the negotiations and it continued to be a member until the end of the Article 50 period. The European Commission represented the EU27 as a whole in negotiating the UK’s withdrawal agreement. There were no separate negotiations between individual EU member states and the UK.

The Commission set up a Task Force for the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the United Kingdom.

How Brexit negotiations progressed

The first phase of negotiations focused on the most immediate issues. The 3 priority issues were:

  • The rights of EU citizens in the UK and of UK citizens in the EU
  • The framework for addressing the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland
  • The financial settlement needed for the UK to honour past financial commitments

In December 2017, the EU and UK agreed in principle how these 3 issues would be progressed. This agreement included a commitment to avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. You can read the joint report from these negotiations.

In February 2018, the European Commission published a draft withdrawal agreement, which translated the joint report from December 2017 into legal terms. This included protocols on citizens' rights, transitional arrangements, Ireland and Northern Ireland and institutional provisions, such as the Court of Justice of the European Union.

An amended version of the draft withdrawal agreement, showing areas of agreement and disagreement using a colour-coding system, was published in March 2018.

In June 2018, the EU and UK jointly published information (pdf) about progress made in the continued negotiations on the draft withdrawal agreement.

Withdrawal agreements

First withdrawal agreement

In November 2018, the European Commission and UK reached an agreement at negotiator level on a withdrawal agreement.

This document included a Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, setting out a backstop arrangement to be used to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This would see Northern Ireland keep full regulatory alignment with the rules of the European Single Market and customs union.

An outline of the Political Declaration on the future EU UK relationship was also agreed.

A withdrawal agreement can only come into effect if it is ratified by both the EU and the UK. The first withdrawal agreement was not ratified by the UK.

Revised withdrawal agreement and UK's departure from the EU

On 17 October 2019, the European Commission and the UK reached an agreement at negotiator level with the UK on a revised Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and a revised Political Declaration on the framework of the future EU and UK relationship.

This agreement was passed by the UK parliament and was signed into law by both the British and EU authorities. The UK formally departed the European Union at 11:00 pm on 31 January 2020.

The transition period

In January 2018, the European Council agreed negotiating directives for transitional arrangements after the UK leaves the EU. The period after UK withdrawal was known as the transition period.

During the transition period, the UK was treated as if it was still a member of the EU. The transition period ended on 31 December 2020.

This meant that during the transition period:

After the transition period

The Withdrawal Agreement guarantees certain rights for people living outside their countries of origin. The following people can continue to work or study in their host country with the same conditions as before:

  • EU citizens lawfully working in the UK before the end of the transition period
  • UK nationals lawfully working in an EU member state before the end of the transition period
  • Their relevant family members living in the host country

They will keep all their workers' rights based on EU law. For example, they will keep:

  • The right not to be discriminated against on grounds of nationality as regards employment, payment and other conditions of work
  • The right to take up and pursue work in the same way as nationals of the host state
  • The right to unemployment assistance under the same conditions as the nationals of the host state
  • The right to social and tax advantages
  • The right to join a union
  • Housing rights
  • The right for their children to access education

You can read more about Brexit and Ireland.

Further information

Page edited: 27 June 2022