Following the referendum of June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom decided to withdraw from the European Union, of which it had been a Member State since 1973. On March 29, 2017, the British government formally notified its intention to leave the EU, thus activating the procedures defined in Article 50 TEU. For the first time in the history of the European integration process, a Member State decided to withdraw from the Union, thus opening a complex negotiation phase to establish the terms of the “divorce”.
After almost three years of complex negotiations, ratification by the UK and approval by the European Parliament, on January 30, 2020 the Council of the European Union adopted the decision on the conclusion of the withdrawal agreement on behalf of the EU and a political declaration on the framework for future relations. On January 31, 2020, the European Parliament adopted the Agreement on the UK withdrawal from the European Union. The Agreement entered into force on February 1, 2020, the date from which the United Kingdom is no longer officially a Member State of the Union.
The Withdrawal Agreement made it possible to regulate the ways of the UK’s leaving the EU in an orderly manner, protecting citizens and businesses. It also provided for the establishment of a transitional period (until December 31, 2020), during which – under the Withdrawal Agreement – the provisions of EU law (including the rules on the free movement of people, services, capital and goods) continued to apply to the UK. The only exception was the institutional provisions (the right to appoint a Commissioner, to elect MEPs, to participate in Council’s meetings with voting rights, etc.).
At the end of the transitional period, the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement (TCA) was signed, provisionally applied from January 1, 2021 and entered into force on May 1, 2021.
The TCA provides for:
- a free trade agreement, also including ambitious cooperation in economic, social, environmental, transport and fisheries matters, guaranteed by a strict framework ensuring a level-playing field;
- close cooperation and far-reaching provisions on police and criminal justice cooperation;
- the UK participation in some EU programmes;
- a general governance arrangement.
By UK choice, foreign and security policy issues, as well as defence cooperation, are not covered by the agreement.
The relations between the EU and the UK are therefore currently regulated by four treaties: the Withdrawal Agreement, the aforementioned EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), the EU-UK Security of Information Agreement, provisionally applicable from January 1, 2021 and in force from May 1, 2021, which enables both parties to exchange classified information by providing robust guarantees regarding the management and protection of such information, and the EU-UK Agreement on Cooperation in the Safe and Peaceful Use of Nuclear Energy, also provisionally applied from January 1, 2021 and in force from May 1, 2021, which provides for broad cooperation on nuclear safety and the peaceful use of nuclear energy.
Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland
Already at an early stage of the negotiations in view of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, the parties took note of the complex situation regarding the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and agreed on the need to find a specific solution for the problems created by the only land border between the UK and the EU on the island of Ireland and not to undermine the achievements made so far in the peace process between the Unionist and Republican communities (Good Friday Agreement of 1998).
To this end, a specific document, the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, was agreed upon as an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement, which:
- prevents the reintroduction of border controls on goods (the so-called “hard border”) between Ireland and Northern Ireland and protects the economy of the whole island by shifting entry controls to Northern Ireland (ports and airports) also for goods coming from Great Britain (the so-called “Irish Sea border”)
- safeguards the integrity of the EU single market, along with all the guarantees it provides in terms of consumer protection, public and animal health or the fight against fraud and human trafficking.
The Irish issue, however, cannot be considered closed. As early as the first months after the end of the transitional period and the entry into force of the specific provisions of the Protocol, discontent emerged on the part of the British government – echoing also widespread concerns in the Unionist community – with the Protocol provisions creating the aforementioned “Irish Sea border”. On June 13, 2022, the British government introduced a Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which essentially aimed to resolve the Protocol’s enforcement difficulties pointed out by the Unionist side through British domestic legislation. In the meantime, the Commission expressed its willingness to discuss measures to facilitate the implementation of the Protocol (a package of proposals was tabled in October 2021), but without re-discussing its structure and approach.