I find the whole Brexit thing impenetrably difficult to understand. My main points of confusion:

  1. What exactly does leaving the EU entail? Just writing some letter announcing that EU tariff agreements will no longer be honored?

  2. If voters in the UK chose to leave the EU (years ago?), why have the concrete steps from point 1 not been done?

  3. Does the current prime minister want to leave the EU or not? If yes, what prevents the prime minister from unilaterally disavowing any treaties which constitute the bond with continental Europe?

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    VTC: The 3 point in particular uses language that makes it clear this is just an axe to grind. A somewhat naive axe, as all the answers below take the opposite stance, but and axe nonetheless.
    – Jontia
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 9:31
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    "unilaterally disavowing any treaties which constitute the bond" - how is that child-proof? O_O I'm an adult and I can barely understand that sentence...
    – user91988
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 17:08
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    Does this suffice? youtube.com/watch?v=Xm6Id3Qt8Wk Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 23:22
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    Ooh, now I want to have an upgoer five compatible explanation of Brexit...
    – Jasper
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 10:54
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    The UK's Brexit problem is caused by over-simplified explanations, not cured by them. Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 9:53

15 Answers 15


The EU is like a club that countries can join. The club has rules, one of which is called Article 50 and was written by a British guy. Article 50 says how countries can leave the club, and that it takes two years during which time they have to negotiate the terms they want to leave on.

A lot of people in Britain like being in the club, and a lot of businesses have come to rely on the benefits of membership like being able to sell their stuff to other club member countries. So to keep them happy the Prime Minister wants to keep some of the benefits of membership. But other people don't like the club and just want out completely, and she wants to make them happy too.

Because it's impossible to keep everyone happy and no-one really thought this through back when the vote happened, it's all become a bit of mess.

  • 28
    +1 This is the only answer that comes closest to addressing all aspects of the question at a level requested in the question.
    – spacetyper
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 11:37
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    Unfortunately in its attempts to simplify it ignores the main sticking point, which is the ramifications for the Irish land border. Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 14:35
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit: I don't think you can ELI5 the Irish land border. At least, not without making the answer three times as long.
    – Kevin
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 16:35
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    Britain never was a full member of said club.
    – brasofilo
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 21:35
  • I have tried to explain the Irish border issue, although it's more like ELI12 than ELI5.
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 13:39

Imagine two teenage siblings who don't want to live with their parents anymore. They hate all the rules they have to follow in their house.

(1) What exactly does leaving the EU entail? Just writing some letter announcing that EU tariff agreements will no longer be honored?

They could just leave the house indeed [hard Brexit]. The youngest sibling just wants this, but the oldest one realizes the risks: no food, no money [the UK strongly depends on trade with the EU].

(2) If voters in the UK chose to leave the EU (what years ago??), why have the concrete steps from (1) not been done?

For the past three years the two siblings have been fighting about their plan: just walk away assuming that kind strangers will provide for them [negotiate new trade deals with other countries], or stay in good terms with the parents and keep their allowance? [accepting some of the EU rules in order to maintain prosperity]

(3) Does the current prime minister want to leave the EU or not? If yes, what prevents the prime minister from unilaterally disavowing whatever harebrained treaties constitute the bond with continental Europe?

To keep with the metaphor, it's as if the prime minister has a double personality disorder: she hears the two teenagers' voices in her head and she keeps trying to satisfy both of them. She fails, because it's impossible.

  • 3
    I would say in 2 you actually have three options: Stay with parents (unilaterally revoke article 50 and stay in the EU), leave parents and hope to get by with help from strangers, eg. getting some money for mowing grass or cleaning cars of people they meet (hard leave without any deal) or accept a set of conditions under which parents will keep helping them to some level but they still need to stay in a close contact (signing a deal).
    – Ister
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 9:25
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    Eh, it's more like three or four teenagers, one of whom doesn't want to leave but has to if the other two do.
    – Miller86
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 9:31
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    @Miller86 Of course. I thought about it, but for the purpose of the exercise I chose to keep the metaphor as simple as possible. It's meant to be a very simplified version, knowing there are many other answers on politicsSE where more accurate versions can be found.
    – Erwan
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 11:50
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    Doublle-personality disorder and teenage angst. Oh, my.
    – user285
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 13:27
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    I appreciate how you aligned the Leave sentiments with the least mature perspective in this story
    – Caius Jard
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 9:39

This is really broad, and quite a bit longer than just a sentence or two, but in language a 10 year old might understand:

Oversimplified short version

Liars and frauds told UK voters they'd get fairies and unicorns if the UK exited the EU. Some voters fell for it; others went fishing instead of voting.

Since then, the UK government has delivered the best deal it can get without putting too much stress on the economy, and asked MPs to approve it. But MPs rejected the PM's deal -- twice.

They did so because they think staying an EU member is simply better, or because they really do believe in fairies and unicorns.

Somewhat simplified longer version

Re 1) and 2): Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union lays out rules on how an EU member state can leave the EU. May triggered the process just under 2 years ago.

The UK then began a negotiation with the EU to work out a divorce deal. To come into effect, this deal must get approved by the UK and by the EU. The UK parliament has rejected it twice.

Article 50 also says that there's a deadline of 2 years to work out this divorce deal. This is why there was talk of a no deal Brexit for the past two years. The EU can extend the negotiation period if all of its remaining members agree to it -- which they did at last week's EU summit.

The new important dates are April 12th, by which the UK will crash out without a deal unless parliament passes the divorce deal this week or comes up with a new plan by then; and May 22nd, which is the latest the UK can delay Brexit without participating in EU elections.

Re 3): During the Brexit campaign, May was a late and unenthusiastic Remain backer, for reasons not unlike those of Corbyn -- it was the party line.

Since then, May has embraced the Brexit decision and become a staunch Leaver. She's been standing firm, at times against even her own parliament, to deliver what she understands is what UK voters said they wanted when they voted Brexit: out of the customs union, out of the common market, and out of the ECJ's jurisdiction.

She's on record for not wanting a second referendum, because it's too divisive, and because the risk that voters no longer care about politics is too high. She's also on the record for not wanting any or much of a delay to the Brexit process, because too long a delay might end up meaning new EU elections (a non-starter for a country that's leaving), or even no Brexit at all if things drag on for too long.


With the above answer in mind, I think there's an underlying assumption in your question that ought to be addressed because you seem to be sold on the notion that the UK can just burn the "harebrained" treaties to the ground and shrug off the consequences. It's not that simple.

Leaving the EU entails hitting the reset button on:

  • The international agreements the UK is involved in through the EU, be them with parties external to the EU (e.g. EU trade deals with Canada or Japan, EU air travel arrangements that allow UK airlines to fly outside of the UK's airspace and foreign airlines to fly inside UK airspace) or internal to the EU (e.g. fishing rights inside EU waters, etc.).

  • Common market-related regulation, ranging from trivial looking matters, as mocked in this Yes, Minister sketch, that aim to make products reasonably comparable across the EU, to more important matters like food standards (e.g. banning chlorinated chicken). The EU goal in most cases here revolves around safety, quality standards, and removing non-tariff trade barriers. The safety standards alone are good enough a reason to inspect anything crossing the UK-EU border in the event of no deal, and that can put supply chains (food, auto parts, etc.) in jeopardy.

  • Freedom of movement of goods, capital, services, and labour, which the EU has made clear again and again are all or nothing. A major side effect of this is the customs union, and what that entails for the Northern Ireland border. Another major one is whether UK-based banks (a significant part of the economy) are allowed to operate in the EU.

What caught the imagination of planners and the media are the future Dover-Calais border-related deadlock, grounded flights, food and medical shortages, and so forth. But these are only aspects of what a No Deal scenario might look like.

Also, there's a slew of much less abstract problems that need a response before the UK formally leaves. To list but a few:

  • UK budgetary commitments to EU projects -- will the UK based projects get funded if the UK refuses to honor its financial commitments?

  • UK officials who retire on an EU pension -- who funds this if the UK refuses to honor its financial commitments?

  • UK students who are studying in the EU, and vice versa -- who pays for their university fees if the current arrangements get cancelled?

  • UK workers living in the EU, and vice versa -- do they still have the right to live and work where they are in the event of a no deal Brexit?

  • UK retirees in Spain and elsewhere -- does the NHS continue to pay for their medical bills, and on what terms?

  • The Northern Irish border -- should the UK respect the Good Friday Agreement or is it ready to risk the resurgence of The Troubles?

These little details add up, and directly affect millions of people. It's not like you can go "screw this" and to hell with the consequences.

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    The children were supposed to handle 2 sentences, alas they lost interest at some point near the nonetheless in the first sentence.
    – kubanczyk
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 12:49
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    -1 for the fairies and unicorns. I don't like Brexit either, but that doesn't mean I would support strawman arguments about it.
    – vsz
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 18:09
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    @vsz: In what world is having your cake and eating it not fairies and unicorns? Until now the UK was in the EU with a whole bunch of opt outs. Now it wants out with an even larger number of opt ins. Speaking as a continental European, I'm disgruntled if anything, about how much the EU has let go to accommodate a wedding partner that never really wanted to be in wedlock to begin with. Also, do continue reading, because you seem to have stopped at the child version. Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 18:12
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    While I'm a die-hard remainer, this comes off as far too biased.
    – Omegastick
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 5:14
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    @DenisdeBernardy : I'm also anti-Brexit, there is no need for you to try to convince me. But your answer is still biased, and you are still using strawman arguments.
    – vsz
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 13:03

The EU is not just about tariffs, it's a whole legal framework. It details what products can be sold and how, how farming and fishing is carried out, how truck and plane companies can operate internationally, who is allowed to live and work in other countries, and so on. This covers a lot of law. (The acquis communitaire).

Businesses outside the EU have to comply with these rules to sell into the EU. People from outside the EU have to comply with the (usually very expensive and time consuming) rules for immigration.

The Brexit proposal was effectively that we could stop complying with the rules we didn't like, without being treated as if we were outside the EU (and all the paperwork that implies). Unsurprisingly this did not go down well.

Two particularly important areas are what happens at Calais: any delay at customs results in the M20 being turned into a lorry park, and any long-term reduction in flow will result in great disruption to UK trade. And what happens across the Irish border: at the moment it runs through houses and farms, and people commute across it. Any checks there will be extremely unpopular and may result in Northern Ireland invoking its right to leave the UK and return to Ireland.

So, in order to leave the EU without chaos, a deal must be made.

However, there is no available deal that has the support of enough MPs in Parliament to actually happen. Hence the current chaos.

what prevents the prime minister from unilaterally disavowing whatever harebrained treaties constitute the bond with continental Europe

"Harebrained" is a stupid condemnation of treaties that have been carefully agreed over decades by hundreds of representatives.

The government's own assessment says that leaving unilaterally will result in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs and food and medicine shortages, since full non-EU customs checks will be imposed at Calais and it will no longer be legal for most UK lorry drivers to drive in the EU or vice versa.

  • 1
    Good job on calling out the harebrained comment.
    – Jontia
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 9:29

Imagine you are a member of the local tennis club.
You can play tennis for free all the time, but you have to follow the rules of the club.

Now you don't like the rules any more, so you decide to quit.

'Hard Exit' means you quit, but obviously you can't play tennis there anymore. You don't like that.
You are asking to quit, but be allowed to still play tennis there, without following the rules. Obviously, the tennis club doesn't agree to that.

Time goes on, and things are not changing. Either you are bound by the rules, or you can't play there. You still don't like either solution. Tick - tock.


I'll try the simplest answers I can as I tried to explain to my 9 year old:

  • Yes. Leaving just means telling the EU we want to leave. To support that, they must believe it was a decision we came to through our normal process of making decisions. Nothing about tariffs or immigration or such - that sort of thing can be worked out separately.

  • The decision was actually closer to 3 years ago. The reasons why we seem to have not actually done it are many and debatable. To summarize: Nobody expected the result and it took a lot of time trying to figure out what to do and how to do it. It's possible some bad decisions were made then at that initial stage and nobody had enough sense, or possibly strength of character, to get that straightened out then. So it's dragged out a bit.

  • The current PM did not initially want to leave. But she is a politician and politicians will often say things to get votes and public support at one point, and then do something completely different later for the exact same reason. I know that's confusing and it confuses (and angers) us voters as well. But that's the way it is and is rarely otherwise. Any breaking of treaties, unless specified in the treaty itself, usually has to have at least some kind of Parliamentary support. In this particular case, that was made the case by both a vote of Parliament and a Supreme Court verdict.

I know this sounds child-like, but my 9 year old is bright and asks a lot of questions. This is pretty much how I've had to sum things up in a non-biased way (I want her to think for herself on matters like this, not just have my or her mother's views).

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    About point 3, I think it's possible that Theresa May started out wanting to stay, but changed her mind after the referendum - "I want to stay but since the majority wants to leave, let's leave".
    – Allure
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 1:29
  • About point 3, I think it's possible that Theresa May started out wanting to stay, but didn't change her mind after the referendum!
    – Ed999
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 7:14

Many good answers already, but the Irish border is a particular sticking point that is not much addressed in existing answers. I will try to explain the Irish border issue in simple terms (but "a few sentences" is impossible). First some history.

Partition of Ireland

The UK has a little brother Ireland. For hundreds of years, the UK was in charge of Ireland (and in fact of a large part of the world, because they had conquered those countries with their powerful army, this is why the US speaks English today). About 100 years ago Ireland declared the independent Republic of Ireland (they had wanted independence much longer). But in Northern Ireland, many people (a bit more than half) felt more British than Irish (because their great-grandparents had (been) moved from Britain, partly to suppress Irish independence) and this part did not become independent. Ireland was, and remains, split. This is called the Partition of Ireland.

Belfast agreement / Good Friday agreement

Many Irish people were very unhappy with this, and there was a war. To resolve this war, the UK and the Republic of Ireland agreed to have similar rules. This way, people in all of Ireland could cross between the Republic and Northern Ireland without noticing the border. Both the ones who wanted (nationalists) and who did not want independence (unionists) were OK with that (at least OK enough to mostly stop fighting). They could have very similar rules because they were together in the EU. This agreement is called the Belfast agreement or the Good Friday Agreement.


Now the UK will (most likely) leave the EU but the Republic of Ireland will not. This means the rules will not be similar anymore, and the border between the two will become more visible. Many people in Ireland, in particular nationalists in Northern Ireland, are very unhappy about that. They might cross the border twice a day or even have a farm that exists on both sides. The EU and the nationalists wants that Northern Ireland rules stay close to Republic of Ireland rules (so Northern Ireland stays a little in the EU), but the unionists (and many in the UK government) want that Northern Ireland rules stay close to British rules. It is not possible to do both (unless all of UK stays close to EU rules, which is like staying a bit in the EU). The current UK government needs the support from the unionists, so they have to keep them happy. The backstop is a part of the proposed EU-UK temporary agreement (that Parliament rejected) to keep Northern Ireland close to the EU, in case the EU and the UK do not agree a good long term agreement.

Therefore, for the Irish border question alone, it is impossible for the UK to leave the EU with a "hard Brexit" while keeping both nationalists and unionists happy.

In the above, I have simplified many things. The history of Ireland is a bit more complicated. Many unionists also do not want a hard border in Ireland (there are two major unionist parties which disagree on the issue of Brexit). The main opposition in the UK (the Labour Party) proposes a solution that they claim avoids the need for a backstop, but not all are sure this is accurate. Some Irish nationalists believe Brexit may be a chance to undo the partition of Ireland and make Ireland one independent country (the idea is that people are so upset with Brexit that they rather join Ireland and EU than stay in a Brexit UK), but that may be wishful thinking for them.

Overall, Brexit is very complicated and cannot be explained in a few child-proof sentences, but I hope this post helps to clarify why the Irish partition is making it harder to find a solution to Brexit.

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    Just a minor point on nomenclature: Nationalists want a united Ireland, free of British rule. Republicans are prepared to use violence to obtain this. Unionists want NI to remain part of the UK; Loyalists are prepared to use violence to maintain this. So the distinction is that Nationalist/Unionist are political positions that accept the rule of law. Republican/Loyalist are para-military positions. Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 8:22
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    @OscarBravo Thank you. I did not know this, and I have edited the answer (now avoiding the words Republicans and Loyalists).
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 8:34
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    @OscarBravo Your distinction between nationalists and republicans is far too black and white. The major nationalist party in the north would describe itself as "republican" but has disavowed violence. same for unionist/loyalist. The terms are shaded in real use and not clear cut as you claim.
    – matt_black
    Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 11:31
  • @matt_black You are talking about Sinn Fein, which is trying to reclaim the term Republican, since it has now, as you say renounced violence. Perhaps in future, as the Troubles fade into the past, the words will recover their original, non-contentious meanings. For the period of the Troubles and for a long time since, Republican and Loyalist meant the armed parties to the conflict. Commented Mar 26, 2019 at 13:59
  • This is a bit of an aside, but what value is there in mentioning "this is why the US speaks English today"? All the other countries and territories that speak English could also be mentioned. Also I'd venture that it wasn't really 'a powerful army' that conquered America, it started out through quite pitiful and initially unsuccessful settlers. My point is, I'd suggest editing out this part of the sentence).
    – Tally
    Commented Aug 23, 2019 at 11:47

I can't do it in two child-proof sentences, but I'll try to come close.

  1. The EU is a union of 28 states which has been granted some but not all powers of a central government by the member states.
  2. UK voters decided to leave the EU. This is complicated because the EU had so many powers for so long and the UK voters told the UK government to negotiate the details with the remaining EU states.
  3. If the UK government and the remaining EU states cannot agree on the details of leaving, the UK will leave without a deal. That means medical drugs approved in the EU are no longer legal to use in the UK and the other way around, UK citizen cannot travel and work in the EU without a visa and the other way around, UK banks cannot sell products in the EU and the other way around. (There are emergency measures to handle some of this. UK and EU citizens won't be deported March 30th even if there is no deal and no extension.)
  4. When UK voters decided to leave, they had a simple question with a "yes" or "no" answer. Probably most did not want to leave without a deal.
  5. The UK parliament cannot agree on if and how to leave, but they do not want to leave without a deal. The UK parliament has a complicated question with many possible answers, and no answer has a majority for it.

Eleven sentences, not entirely child-proof, and admittedly biased against the current UK parliament and government.

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    "Most but not all UK citizens want to leave" is an extraordinarily misleading and likely factually inaccurate statement, but sure.
    – Carcer
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 14:18
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    @Carcer, Leave won the vote. Getting the referendum result into a single child-friendly sentence does not allow for many qualifiers, like people who did not show up because they thought everything would be all right, or people who voted because they believed extravagant claims.
    – o.m.
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 14:43
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    It's probably safer to say "most but not all UK citizens wanted to leave", or even "most people who voted in the referendum 3 years ago wanted to leave". It's very hard to say what they want now, and even harder to say whether they want a deal, what kind of deal, etc, and that's an important part of the current situation.
    – IMSoP
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 17:12
  • @IMSoP, better now?
    – o.m.
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 17:18

All the countries in the EU agree to 'four freedoms' of the Single European Market:

  • free movement of goods
  • free movement of capital
  • free movement of people
  • freedom to establish and provide services

Part of this involves writing EU law into the law of each, individual country (which Brexiteers view as losing national soverignty)

In return, each country can trade tariff free inside the Single Market, and can trade with non-EU countries under the favourable terms of EU trade deals and can benefit from EU subsidies

To answer your questions:

  1. Leavng the EU involves invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. After that the UK could just walk away. But it would then have to trade with the EU and other countries under very unfavourable terms. It would cost the UK a huge amount of money and it would take years (the EU/Canada deal took seven years) to negotiate trade deals to replace the EU external deals. The reason Brexit is taking so long is because all but a few extreme leavers want a relationship with the EU that doesn't damage the British economy

Also, Britain will have an open border with the EU between Ireland and Northern Ireland. If there is no deal and the EU imposes the standard tariffs on goods/visa for people, how will that open border be maintained, taxes collected, visas checked etc? Part of the Good Friday Agreement that lead to the IRA and UDF ceasefires is that there is no hard border between the UK and Eire

  1. Concrete steps have been taken to leave the EU. There is agreement between Theresa May on all these things but there are many different factions in Parliament that want either a slightly different deal or no deal at all. The EU Withdrawal Bill has moved most EU regulation into British Law so that there are no loopholes for criminals and others to exploit after leaving

  2. Theresa May wants to leave the EU under the terms of her deal but she needs this passed into law by Parliament. Most MPs want different deals. Many want to make life easier be retaining some of the four freedoms, and/or joining EFTA and/or staying in the customs union similar to non-EU countries like Norway and Switzerland. Or even not leaving at all

Currently, British law states that we will leave the EU with no deal. This is viewed as an economic catastrophe by most - too many pages to link to here, just google 'no deal economic catastrophe'

  • 2
    Can you reference the exact paragraph in the 'Good Friday Agreement' which states that there should be no 'hard border' between the UK & Eire?
    – DrMcCleod
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 18:10
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    @DrMcCleod: law.stackexchange.com/questions/29255/…
    – chirlu
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 19:17
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    @DaveGremlin Thanks, but I have read the GFA, and I could not see anything in it which specified that an open border between the UK and Eire should exist. If you could indicate the passages or sections that convinced you otherwise, I would be grateful. (Text here: gov.uk/government/publications/the-belfast-agreement)
    – DrMcCleod
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 22:48
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    The UK and Ireland already have independent immigration policies despite the open border, and both of them opted out of the EU's integrated immigration policy (a.k.a. the Schengen area), so immigration checkpoints and visa checks are unlikely to appear at the Irish border. They haven't existed there since 1923, long before the EU was first conceived. Also Norway and Switzerland are not in the customs union; Switzerland isn't even in the EEA.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 4:04
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    @EricNolan I understand that there were checkpoints. My point is that changes to immigration law will not make the current situation change. Withdrawal from the customs union, on the other hand, will. So mentioning visas and visa checks is just introducing unnecessary complexity to an already complex issue. And of course even the introduction of customs checks won't directly lead to a militarized border. That would arise only if the violence started to increase again.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 20:40

After posting a comment that I wanted to see an upgoer five compatible (which means only using the 1000 most-used words in the English language) explanation of Brexit, I actually set out to write one myself. It's definitely more than "a few sentences" and it doesn't answer your questions directly, but it is (what I see as) a pretty complete explanation of Brexit in language that is quite child-proof. (I also think I managed to limit the amount of bias pretty well.)

Here goes.

The European Union is a group of countries that work together, a bit like as if they are one country. They started off with only a few countries, but they grew to 28 countries. No country has ever left this group.

The United Kingdom is one of those countries in the group. The leader of this country asked the people if they wanted to leave this group, because he thought that the people would say no. A number of important people told everyone to say yes, and they told the people how good it would be to leave. They couldn't actually prove how good this would be, but they still got more than half of the people to say yes. The leader of the country stopped being the leader because he didn't want to leave this group. Another person became the new leader.

The new leader told the other countries that they wanted to leave their group. They got two years to agree on how to work together with the group after leaving it. If they were not able to agree in those two years, they would just not work together with those other countries at all, which would be a problem because they need to work together for many things they do every day. The new leader was the one who had to agree with the other countries, so the people who told everyone that leaving was good for them were not doing this. This leader used those two years to agree on a plan on how to work together after leaving.

However, the leader can't decide such things on her own. There is a group of people that decide things for the country together. The leader of the country had to get at least half of the people in this group to agree with her. Not enough people in this group agreed. Some of them wanted to work together with the group of countries less, so they would be able to do things without the other countries needing to agree. Other people in this group didn't want to leave the group of countries at all. Some of them decided that they will only agree to leaving the country if the people are asked again if they really want to leave. This way, the people can choose between the plan of the country leader and not leaving at all. The last time they were asked, they could only say "yes" or "no" without a real plan of how they would work together with the group of countries if they left.

One of the reasons that agreeing on how to work together is hard is about a place called Northern Ireland. This is a part of the United Kingdom, but some people that live there want to be a part of Ireland, instead. There used to be a war between the people who wanted to be part of those two different countries. When this war ended, they agreed that it would be a bit like the place was part of both the countries, which was possible because they were both part of the group of countries which were sort of like a big country. With one of the two countries leaving this group and the other staying, they need to find a way to still be sort of like part of both countries. If they aren't sort of like in both countries anymore, the war could start again. This would happen if the country does not agree to work together with the group much or at all. This is why the plan of the leader of the country has the country working together with the group of countries a lot, which is one of the things other people who decide for the country do not like.

Most people do not want to leave without agreeing on anything with the group of countries. When the two years were almost up, it sort of looked like that was going to happen because time was almost up and they still had not agreed on anything. That is why the leader asked the group of countries for more time. The group agreed and the country first got a few extra weeks, and then even several more months. The leader tried to get more of the people who make decide things for the country to agree with her plan, but she failed at this. That is why she stopped being the leader.

Now there is a new new leader who is one of the people who said it was good to leave the group of countries when the people were first asked. He says that he wants to leave the group of countries even if it is without agreeing how to work together with the countries still in the group. However, he too is having trouble getting the rest of the people who decide things for the country to agree with him. He now wants to get new people to decide things for the country instead. These people need to be chosen by all the people of the country. That means they have to ask everyone who they want to decide things and then getting those people to agree on a plan after that. The extra time given by the group of countries is also almost up.

The only words flagged by the Simple writer were:

  • "European Union"
  • "United Kingdon" (twice)
  • "Northern Ireland"
  • "Ireland"
  • The only objectionable point I find here is that both the PM and the MPs are "leaders", which makes the post slightly confusing toward its end. I guess you couldn't find any other ELI5 word for "parliamentarians". Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 19:50
  • @Fizz I reworded things a bit. I no longer double use the word leader. I did get a bit more wordy and use each of people, group of people and group of countries to refer to different things now, but I see it as improvement on the whole. I also added a paragraph about what's been happening more recently.
    – Jasper
    Commented Sep 5, 2019 at 8:39

To succinctly answer your questions (1), (2), (3) (not necessarily in this order):

  • PM May wants out of the EU, but she wants out on the terms of the draft deal she negotiated with the EU... which is lacking support in her own Parliament (but the MPs couldn't decide to replace her as PM either; why that is is an interesting separate issue).

  • May and the UK Parliament did trigger (years ago) all the legal steps needed for the UK to crash out the EU with no deal... in the next couple of weeks (a little vague because extensions to the deadline are possible).

  • A no-deal exit is however not the Brexit that most UK MPs want, according a recent non-binding vote they took, which is basically the only thing they could agree on recently--that is what kind of Brexit they don't want. So basically their hope-for-the-best thinking (triggering article 50, which has a deadline to finish exit negotiations) is coming back to bite them in the sense that they'll (collectively) get their least favorite version of Brexit... by default.

For more background why no-deal doesn't look good (to most MPs), let me try to explain a few aspects of Brexit. Yes, I'll be oversimplifying by necessity and I'll make [possibly faulty] analogies with the US because the OP hails from there:

Getting out of the EU just by article 50 (which was triggered by PM May two years ago, following a [non-binding] UK referendum) without any deal is like scrapping most of your trade agreements (big understatement). Even if the EU were just a trade agreement, it's often preferable to change one rather than scrap it. Witness Trump's actions in this respect: he scrapped the non-yet-going TPP, but for most other, NAFTA, etc., he renegotiated them with some but not huge changes.

The trouble is that there's no consensus in the UK parliament what a replacement deal should look like, even though PM May did hammer a draft deal with the EU. Compare with NAFTA's replacement having trouble in Congress. Trump gave up threatening to just scrap NAFTA. Back to EU, the looming problem is that Article 50's legal two-year deadline to reach a deal means there's an automatic scrap about to happen. A short extension to the Article 50 default-no-deal-deadline has been mutually agreed with the EU, but the EU also got tired of the indecision in the UK parliament as well.

But the EU is not just a trade deal; in a certain way it, is was also a part of a peace agreement in Northern Ireland. The de-escalation in Northern Ireland (Good Friday Agreement) was largely possible because both the UK and Ireland were part of the EU's single market, so the two countries could make invisible the border that the Northern Irish republicans fought against (the latter because they advocated a union of Northern Ireland with Ireland). So dropping out of the EU is also like scrapping a part of peace deal. Imagine a US state [legally] seceding from the rest of the Union, while a part of secessionist state's population threatens with civil unrest or even domestic terrorism if a border is actually put in place after the secession...

So the draft deal May agreed to "gave in" to the troublesome guys [Northern Ireland republicans] by allowing Northern Ireland to stay in a customs' union (so no visible border) with the EU until someone can figure out a better solution (so it's a open-ended concession/delay); this is the [in]famous "backstop". But this backstop pissed off the "take back control of our borders" guys from her own party coalition (including a Northern Ireland unionist party--unionist here meaning they want [to stay in] union with the UK--that is actually critical to keeping May's government in power and also to the ratification of a deal). I'm vastly oversimplifying the terms of the draft deal, but you can search here for more questions on the backstop and the intricate details of the customs union it entails; a part of the rules would extend to the whole of UK, another sticking point for some MPs ("take back control of our laws"). The very fact that different rules would apply to Northern Ireland and rest of UK is a red line for the Northern Ireland unionist parties.

And if you want to see the whole picture literally as a picture, here's the famous (by now) Brexit trilemma:

enter image description here

May's deal is basically putting a half-border in the Irish sea and half-exits the EU... until a better solution can be found. You can see why this didn't go well with DUP and the hardcore Brexiters.

The no-deal Brexit is basically a hard border in Ireland, with all the risks that implies. Never mind the economic shock, which is not depicted in the trilemma chart. Adding that would make it a quadrilemma.

And yes, I suck at this:

enter image description here

(And that was just for the first para.)

  • Not only the single market, but the customs union.
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 4:14
  • In hindsight, "option C" (from the figure) happened. Commented Sep 3, 2019 at 19:37

After World War 2, some European countries decided to work closely together. They hopes that becoming closer would stop another horrible war happening again.

In 1973, Britain joined the group, to get good trade terms with the rest of Europe. Other countries also joined it, until it got quite big.

The group started out as a trade group, but gradually the main countries behind it, felt that the best way to be closer was to gradually introduce rules that would lead its members towards having similar laws and rules. That would mean that many businesses would have similar rules in all European countries, and so there would be easier trade, less to fight over, and businesses would be better and stronger. This was called "convergence", which means "becoming more alike".

A lot of people in Britain started to dislike this idea. They felt that it was too much like Europe was telling countries how to run themselves, and imposing rules on them, taking away their freedom to choose for themselves.

Gradually a big separation started to happen, between people who thought this EU ("European Union") was a good idea, people who agreed with free trade but didn't agree with becoming closer in other ways, and people who didn't like it at all. To calm voters, Britain's prime minister David Cameron promised to allow a public vote (called a "refere dum") on what should happen.

Everyone was sure Britain would vote to stay, but more than half of the voters said to leave, which caused shock and chaos. Nobody in the government had believed this would happen, so they didn't have any plans at all for what to do if people voted to leave Europe. But they felt they had to do what the vote said.

The rules for the EU are agreed by all its countries. One of the rules (called "Article 50") says that if a country wants to leave, it has to tell the other countries and then it can leave 2 years later. Britain told Europe it wanted to leave in March 2017, so it was due to leave in March 2019.

But as time went on, it became more and more difficult to work out how to leave the EU. People had made exaggerated claims about how easy leaving would be, and how much money it would save, which turned out to be completely wrong. Companies had got used to European laws and having a huge number of countries they could easily do business in. If Britain wasn't going to be in the EU, all of that - about 50 years of business and legal things - would all have to be done differently.

It turned out to be really really difficult. If British companes wanted to sell to European ones, they would have to agree to follow European standards and rules. They would maybe have to pay extra taxes for selling and buying things. Businesses that needed extra employees would not be able to employ people from other European countries.

Gradually some people started to believe that leaving was not as good an idea as they had believed, or that if it had been a good idea, it was doomed anyway because the negotiations had been done badly. Some people wanted to leave anyway,some wanted to change their mind, many people felt hurt and badly let down.

The other big problem if Britain left, was where to put the border, or boundary, between Great Britain and the rest of Europe.

Part of Great Britain is Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland had a long history of terrible terrorism and violence, which was settled and peace returned in the 1990s. One of the most important parts of that peace agreement was that both sides agreed there would be no barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland.

But if Great Britain leaves Europe, there has to be some kind of boundary between Great Britain and Europe, with different rules on each side. This is called the "Irish backstop" problem. If you put the boundary between Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland, you destroy the peace agreement. If you put it between Northern Ireland and the rest of Britain then you stop free trade within Britain, which also is a huge problem. But you have to have a boundary of some kind, and there just isn't an easy answer.

Faced with this, the Prime Minister Theresa May had gradually found it harder and harder to get Parliament to agree with her plan to leave Europe, until it has become almost a complete revolt.

MPs are also very divided. Some want to stay, some want to leave, some want to ask the people to vote again, some want to leave and take their chances on not having any agreement before leaving. Some see that as a complete disaster. Nobody knows what to do, and every plan suggested, has a lot of MPs who say they disagree with it.

And that's where we are, and how we got there!


If it wasn't for the Irish border question, the negotiations with EU would have been over long ago and the PM's leave deal would have been adopted. As it is there is no way UK can accept the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement, which will result in UK being tied to EU for ever just to ensure there is never a hard border. When the No Hard Border decision was made at the end of the Troubles, no one said "Then what if UK wants to leave the EU?" The referendum in 2016 didn't say "Do you want to leave, but by the way, you won't be able to because the Irish border must remain unmanned?" Someone though was aware of this when the WA was being drawn up and they made sure there was an unbreakable clause in there to enforce it, without any regard as to how badly it would affect UK's ambitions to leave.

  • 4
    This isn't quite right though, there are ways to leave the EU without needing a hard border in Ireland, but Theresa May explicitly ruled them out at the beginning of the process, while mumbling vaguely about "technological solutions". They could have gunned for a more Norway-like option where the UK stays in the customs union or something similar (which many brexiteers actually campaigned on, using Norway and Switzerland as examples of successful non-EU countries), but they ruled that out at the beginning and have made basically zero progress on the Irish issue for the last 2 years since then.
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Mar 24, 2019 at 19:54
  • 2
    The OP probably has no idea what you're talking about with the backstop and so forth. He's from the US that's why he's asking for elementary explanations. Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 2:52
  • @Some_Guy Norway is not in the customs union, though it is in the single market. That's why the option of staying in the customs union is called "Norway plus."
    – phoog
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 4:09
  • There were several 'deal breakers' in her bloated deal. The media decided to harp on about the backstop, and that's certainly warranted, but they just as easily have focused on the £39 billion (plus), fishing rights, continued adherence to the EJC. Any one of those sunk this deal. In combination.... well, the two largests defeats in all of British parliamentary history. And maybe the largest of all coming up. But I agree with Fizz, I'm not sure too many people outside of the UK are going really understand any of those topics except maybe the money (and even that's a bit complicated).
    – ouflak
    Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 7:23
  • @ouflak the 39 billion are due whether a deal happens or not, they're prior commitments. The UK will still have to pay them in full when leaving with no deal.
    – Magisch
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 14:25

Here is a story to tell your 7 years old:

In school there is a class with 28 children. They are all friendly people. One student is called Britannia and another is called Erie. They are best friends.

One day, Britannia decides she doesn't want to be in the class anymore (she thinks she should decide by herself when she studies, talks and plays, instead of doing what the teacher -- called Brussels -- says).

So, Britannia tells the other students she will leave the class (in around two years' time). However, Britannia demands to have the same benefits than she had being in the classroom. For example, Britannia wants to be able to sit, talk and play just as before with her best friend, Eire.

The other students do not accept this. They say: "Fine, leave if you want. But if you want to have the same benefits, including remaining a good friend with Erie, you must obey some of the rules of our classroom. For instance, you can only play with Erie when we are not studying. It is unfair if Erie is not studying with us but playing with you."

Britannia has spent the last few years debating with the rest of the classroom, the teacher Brussels, and with herself about what to do. Her deadline for leaving the class already passed, but she asked them for more time to think and solve the conundrum.

By now, she remains profoundly confused. There are voices in her head saying many different things. She is suffering mentally and there are signs she might be getting physically ill too. She feels immobilised with her indecision. Brussels and the rest of the classroom don't know what to do either. Erie is particularly worried. They are just trying to carry on with their class schedule.

The solutions are:

  • Britannia does not leave the classroom (as she realises that being part of it was actually much better than being outside)

  • she leaves the classroom angry and is no longer good friends with the other students, including here best friend Erie (which is what people call a "no deal Brexit)

  • she leaves the classroom in good standing, sacrificing some of the benefits she had previously, but, in order to remain good friends with them (and particularly Erie), still obeying some of the rules of the classroom (this is, she leaves "with a deal").

It's Britannia's choice. She must make up her mind!


Here are my two cents:

  1. To leave the EU, which is essentially a complex trade bloc, the UK had to trigger a part of the EU treaty called Article 50. By triggering this article, the UK could leave the EU immediatly, hence no longer being subject to various regulations (but also excluded from the free trade zone), or take time up to 2 years to negotiate an exit deal.

  2. The Brexit referendum was on June 23, 2016. 7 months after the Brexit result (on March 29, 2017), the UK finally triggered article 50, starting the 2 year countdown. In that time Theresa May's government has supposedly been negotiating an exit deal while various agencies and civilian businesses prepared themselves for the exit.

  3. Theresa May finally brought her deal to the Parliament for a vote in January 2019. As it turns out, it was an absolutely horrible deal and the Parliament rejected it by the largest margin EVER for a sitting government's proposal. The main points of concern were:

    • The border with Ireland and Northern Ireland. Ireland is independent and part of the EU, but a hard border would have to be avoided to prevent civil unrest (i.e the Troubles). May's deal would have essentially removed Northen Ireland from the UK.
    • Gibraltar. Gibraltar is a UK protectorate and has been for hundreds of years. However, due to its proximity to Spain it is very connected to Spain culturally. May's deal would have essentially given control of Gibraltar to Spain.
    • EU membership fees. The UK owes fees to the EU totalling £39Billion for 2019. May's deal would have essentially given up all that money (which is HUGE leverage for the UK) with nothing in return in terms of trade concessions.

So now, almost 3 years after the referendum the UK government is still "figuring thinga out". In my mind that is an utter failure.

  • Cyprus is a very good example of what happens when a non-EU country has a dispute with an EU-country. EU is on the side of the member here Greece, which blocks Turkey who really, really wants to be in the EU! UK leaving the EU will essentially mean giving up Gibraltar to please the EU member Spain. Commented Mar 25, 2019 at 12:51
  • the 39 billion are no leverage position, they're still due even if the UK crashes out with no deal, and will have to be paid off in full. They're prior commitments.
    – Magisch
    Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 10:50
  • @Magisch, The £39 billion was in regards to commitments made on the assumption that UK membership would continue on perpetually. Obviously that was a fatal assumption. When one leaves an organization, one does not continue to enjoy the rights and privileges of that organization. Likewise, one does not continue to pay the fees. That's just the way life works.
    – ouflak
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 20:00

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