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Brexit timeline: Key milestones in rocky road to separation been EU and UK


Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen will assess whether a post-Brexit trade deal can be salvaged

Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen will assess whether a post-Brexit trade deal can be salvaged

Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen will assess whether a post-Brexit trade deal can be salvaged

JUNE 2016:

Voters astonish both sides by opting to “Leave”, thus ending EU membership that stretched back to January 1973, when the UK, Ireland and Denmark became the first newcomers to the original European-founding six nations. The overall UK result was 52pc-to-48pc in favour of quitting the EU. Scottish voters backed Remain by 62pc; Northern Ireland voters by 56pc; but the Welsh result was identical to the overall UK score.

JULY 2016:

Theresa May, who had been UK justice minister and a half-hearted “Remain” backer, takes over as prime minister from David Cameron, who resigned hours after the “Leave” result emerged. She later compounds difficulties by insisting the UK must leave both the border-free single market and the customs union. Ireland fears for the continuity of UK exports worth €5bn per year and the future of the Border.

MARCH 2017:

UK Prime Minister Theresa May triggers the EU’s exit clause, known as “Article 50”, setting a deadline of March 29, 2017, to complete Brexit talks.

JUNE 2017:

Theresa May’s snap general election fails to deliver a majority. It weakens her in Brexit talks and, worse again, leaves her dependent on ten Democratic Unionist Party MPs from Northern Ireland, who were the only party there to back “Leave”.


Then-Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and Foreign Affairs Minister, Simon Coveney, clinch a EU deal guaranteeing special trade status for Northern Ireland, keeping it inside the EU customs union and aligned to the single market. There will be no return of north-south border controls in Ireland. It’s a major Irish coup, dismaying many UK Brexiteers and Northern Unionists.


UK and EU negotiators agree a draft divorce deal. But Theresa May faces angry opposition from many sides in Britain – especially those in her own Conservative Party who want a clean break with Europe on London’s own terms. A long process of attrition in the London parliament begins.


Amid much UK parliamentary drama, which made speaker John Bercow briefly a household name in Ireland, Theresa May suffers a series of humiliating defeats as she fails to get MPs’ approval for her EU-UK divorce deal. Continually undermined by her party colleagues, she is eventually forced to resign.

JULY 2019:

The “accidental Brexiteer”, Boris Johnson, emerges as the new UK Prime Minister. The former Brussels-based journalist was long rated a “Remainer” – now he was left to pick up the pieces and deliver on pledges of re-negotiating Ms May’s draft deal, including undoing the Irish border backstop.

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Boris Johnson’s efforts to leave the UK without a deal and block parliamentary discussion are overturned by a vote of MPs and a ruling by the UK Supreme Court. He is obliged to undo his “die in a ditch pledge” and seek an extension to the application of Brexit.


Then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar extends a helping hand to Boris Johnson at a high-profile meeting in the Wirral in north-west England. A revised Irish backstop depends heavily on semantics. Northern Ireland is now part of “a UK customs territory” but retains close links to the EU customs union and single market. In extremis border checks will apply on goods going between Britain and Northern Ireland.


Boris Johnson wins an 80-seat majority in the UK general election and he wins a parliamentary vote for the re-touched UK-EU divorce deal.


Now the UK has politically exited the EU, talks open on framing a new free trade. This is crucial to all sides, but of special Irish interest given exports to the UK worth €5bn per year. But negotiations are slow, difficult and bad-mannered.

JULY 2020:

Boris Johnson spurns an EU extension of up to two years on a transition trading period to allow for more measured negotiations. The UK PM insists he will “get Brexit done” by the time the existing trade arrangements expire on December 31, 2020.


London dismays the EU generally, and Ireland especially, by announcing it will renege on aspects of the eight-month-old political deal separating them from the UK. This includes repudiating Northern Ireland’s special trade status. The EU moves to take international legal action against London.


Persistent gloom over the Brexit talks lifts as the EU and UK sides agree that the terms of the revised “Irish backstop” will in fact apply. There will be no return of a border in Ireland. Key sticking points remained the same: fair competition with no undercutting on business state-aid rules, labour and environment law, and a credible means to resolve future disputes, while EU fishing boats get access to UK waters after Brexit.

DECEMBER 23, 2020:

Fish – despite being economically small to both sides – remains the final blockage. Brexiteers talked it up as “regaining control of our seas”. Ireland is among eight “EU coastal states” led by France, fighting for continued access to UK waters which give Irish boats one-third the value of their yearly catch. The fisheries lobby is on the warpath and they pack a political punch on all sides.

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