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The Brexit rollercoaster: A timeline of Britain’s EU divorce

Daniel Sorabji, AFP | The front pages of the UK daily newspapers reporting on March 29, 2017, the day Prime Minister Theresa May formally triggered the process leading to Britain's exit from the EU.

After two years of gruelling negotiations, Prime Minister Theresa May has seen her proposed EU divorce deal twice shot down in parliament, leaving the UK in disarray just weeks before Brexit deadline.

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With the clock ticking on Britain's exit from the 28-member bloc, UK lawmakers resoundingly rejected May's deal for a second time on Tuesday, March 12, 2019, adding a further, dramatic twist on the long and winding road to Brexit.

May’s crushing defeat means a divided parliament now faces two starkly different options: to delay Brexit past the March 29 deadline or crash out of the EU without a deal.

How did it come to this?

  • Cameron’s gamble

January 23, 2013: Prime Minister David Cameron says he is in favour of an in/out referendum on the UK's membership of the EU, bowing to pressure from Eurosceptic MPs in his Conservative Party. The move is widely seen as a tactical ploy to stem the rise of the Eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) and close a gap in the polls with the opposition Labour Party.

September 18, 2014: Scottish voters decide by a majority of 55% to remain part of the UK in a referendum on independence, but Cameron’s government is criticised for its lacklustre performance during a divisive campaign.

May 22, 2014: Nigel Farage’s UKIP, which wants to pulls Britain out of the EU, wins a record 26% of the vote in European elections and becomes the UK's biggest party in the European Parliament.

May 7, 2015: The Conservatives win a general election, claiming enough seats to rule without their pro-European coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Cameron confirms he will hold a referendum on whether to leave the EU after more than four decades of a troubled membership.

February 20, 2016: After negotiations with EU leaders, Cameron says he has secured concessions that will give Britain a “special status” within the union. He confirms that he will campaign for Britain to remain in the 28-nation bloc in a simple in/out referendum set for June. But he suffers a major blow when one of his closest Conservative allies, London Mayor Boris Johnson, says he will campaign for Brexit – giving the “Leave” campaign its most high-profile figurehead.

June 16, 2016: A bitter campaign comes to a dramatic conclusion with the murder of Labour MP and “Remain” campaigner Jo Cox, one week before the referendum. The murderer, extremist Thomas Mair, shouted “Britain First” before killing the mother of two.

  • ‘Independence Day’

June 23, 2016: In a surprise result, Britain votes by 51.9% to 48.1% to exit the EU, sending shockwaves across global markets. Farage hails June 23 as Britain’s “Independence Day”. Cameron resigns the next morning, saying the country needs “fresh leadership”.

July 13, 2016: Theresa May, seen as a moderate “Remainer”, becomes prime minister after a Conservative leadership contest in which prominent “Leave” campaigners, including Boris Johnson, appear to scupper each other’s bids. May appoints “Leavers” in all Brexit-related cabinet positions, giving Johnson the foreign ministry.

October 2, 2016: Having stated that “Brexit means Brexit”, May says Britain will begin the formal process of leaving the EU by the end of March 2017. This involves triggering Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. The pound tumbles again after May suggests she will go for a “hard” Brexit if it is the only way to end the free movement of people between the UK and the EU.

November 4, 2016: May’s timetable is thrown into doubt when English High Court judges rule that the government needs parliamentary approval before it can trigger Article 50. The Eurosceptic tabloid press lashes at the judges, describing them as “enemies of the people”.

  • ‘No deal is better than a bad deal’

January 17, 2017: May sets out her views on Brexit in a speech at Lancaster House, the very place where Margaret Thatcher announced her support for the Single European Market 29 years earlier. The prime minister says Britain will leave the single market and will reject any deal that leaves it “half in, half out”. She adds: “No deal is better than a bad deal”.

January 24, 2017: After a challenge by the government, the Supreme Court upholds the earlier ruling by the High Court judges, giving parliament – where a majority of MPs oppose Brexit – a chance to halt the whole process.

March 13, 2017: Parliament approves a bill giving the government the authority to invoke Article 50, with the opposition Labour Party, led by the Eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn, telling its MPs to respect the result of the referendum. In response to the vote, Scotland’s pro-EU first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, says she plans to have a second referendum on Scottish independence.

  • Article 50

March 29, 2017: May sends a letter to Brussels formally triggering Article 50, which starts the clock on the process of the UK leaving the EU. The move gives Britain and the EU two years to negotiate the terms of their divorce.

EU leaders respond two days later with a roadmap setting out their conditions. They include the UK honouring its commitments to the EU through a financial settlement (estimated at some €40 billion), granting EU citizens in Britain a residency permit, and ensuring there is no physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Britain had counted on the EU’s 27 remaining member states being divided and ill-prepared, but it is soon apparent that the opposite is true.

Theresa May signs the letter officially invoking Article 50.
Theresa May signs the letter officially invoking Article 50. Christopher Furlong, AFP
  • Snap election backfires

June 8, 2017: Weeks after calling a surprise general election to strengthen her hand, May sees her move backfire spectacularly as the Conservatives lose their majority in parliament. Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which supports a “hard” Brexit, makes a deal with the Conservatives, allowing May to stay in power. But her wafer-thin majority means the already tortuous path to Brexit is getting even more arduous.

June 26, 2017: Formal negotiations on withdrawal begin between a weakened UK government and the EU, with a thick fog covering the road to Brexit.

December 13, 2017: Rebel Conservative MPs side with the opposition, forcing the government to guarantee a vote in parliament on the final Brexit deal, when it has been struck with Brussels.

December 15, 2017: The EU agrees to move on to the second phase of negotiations after a preliminary agreement is reached on the Brexit “divorce bill”, the Irish border and EU citizens’ rights. May agrees in principle to a so-called “backstop” – a safety net ensuring there is no return to physical border checks in Ireland, whatever the outcome of trade talks between the UK and the EU.

March 19, 2018: The UK and EU make decisive steps in negotiations. Agreements include dates for a transitional period designed to ensure “an orderly withdrawal” from the bloc. But EU negotiators warn that there are issues still to be sorted out, most notably on the Irish border.

  • Hardliners quit

July 7, 2018: After months of power struggle between “hard” and “soft” Brexiters within the government, May announces she has united her cabinet behind a compromise deal, dubbed the “Chequers” plan, which would leave Britain in a close relationship with the EU. But the plan is too soft for some, prompting May’s chief Brexit negotiator David Davis to resign two days later, soon followed by Johnson.

July 19, 2018: The EU Commission publishes a document urging member states to accelerate preparations for a “no-deal” Brexit. Days later, the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, says the risk of Britain leaving the EU without an agreement is “uncomfortably high”.

September 19-20, 2018: May’s position at home is further weakened when her Chequers plan is rebuffed at an informal summit in Salzburg, with EU leaders dismissing her proposals as unacceptable.

October 20, 2018: Hundreds of thousands of pro-EU protesters march in London calling for a second referendum, with polls suggesting “Remain” would win. Organisers say 700,000 people attend the event, making it the country’s largest rally since huge protests in 2003 against the war in Iraq.

An anti-Brexit campaigner outside the Houses of Parliament in London on December 11, 2018.
An anti-Brexit campaigner outside the Houses of Parliament in London on December 11, 2018. Oli Scarff, AFP
  • A deal – and more resignations

November 13, 2018: The UK government says it has finally reached a deal with Brussels. Citing opposition to the Northern Ireland backstop, another four ministers resign from May’s cabinet two days later, including Brexit minister Dominic Raab. They say the backstop will threaten the UK’s territorial integrity.

November 25, 2018: EU leaders approve the deal at an extraordinary summit in Brussels. The next day, May says the UK parliament will have its say in a vote on December 11.

  • May's historic defeat

December 10, 2018: Facing a crushing defeat in parliament, May postpones the vote on the Brexit deal and says she is heading to Brussels to secure further guarantees on the Northern Ireland question. She is promptly rebuffed by EU leaders, who say there is no scope to renegotiate the deal. Sensing an opportunity, Brexit hardliners in the Conservative Party seek to oust May in an internal vote two days later. But she survives.

December 13-4, 2018: Back in Brussels, May fails to wrest further concessions from EU leaders wearied by months of gruelling and chaotic negotiations. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, stresses that the backstop is intended as an insurance policy that would be replaced in time by a comprehensive trade deal.

January 15, 2019: May suffers a crushing defeat in parliament, where her Brexit deal is rejected by an overwhelming margin of 230 votes – the largest defeat for a sitting government in history. Labour's Corbyn calls a no-confidence vote for the next day, but May survives – again – as Tory MPs who shunned her Brexit plan this time rally behind the PM.

  • Back to Brussels

January 29, 2019: Just a fortnight after her humiliating defeat, May bounces back with a series of victorious votes in parliament. MPs notably reject amendments that would have delayed the UK's withdrawal and made a no-deal Brexit impossible. A narrow majority also say they will back May's deal if “alternative arrangements” are found to replace the backstop, giving the prime minister a mandate to restart negotiations with the EU.

Brussels, however, says the Irish backstop is "part and parcel" of the Brexit deal and will not be renegotiated.

February 18, 2019: Eight MPs resign from the Labour Party to form “The Independent Group”, arguing that Corbyn’s party has become “institutionally anti-Semitic” and is “complicit in facilitating Brexit".

Two days later, they are joined by three MPs from the Conservative Party, who say the ruling party has become hostage to Brexit hardliners.

March 12, 2019: May’s withdrawal agreement is again rejected by the House of Commons – this time by a margin of 149 votes – after the UK’s attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, says concessions secured by the PM on the Irish border question will not prevent Britain from being permanently tied to the EU.

The next day, MPs also vote against the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, though the motion carries no legal weight.

March 14, 2019: Parliament votes overwhelmingly to seek a delay in Britain's EU exit, beyond the March 29 deadline – which would require the approval of all 27 other EU members.

March 29, 2019: The UK is set to leave the EU, with or without a deal, unless both sides agree to delay Brexit, or Britain chooses to cancel it altogether.

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