Geographies in Depth

As Britain leaves the EU, what happens next?

A pro-Brexit protester looks on as flags flutter outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, October 28, 2019. REUTERS/Hannah McKay - RC16E8212210

What is at stake in the transition period? Image: REUTERS/Hannah McKay - RC16E8212210

John Chalmers
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Geographies in Depth?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how United Kingdom is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

United Kingdom

  • Britain leaves the EU at midnight on Friday 31st January.
  • February 1st will then mark the beginning of the transition period, which is set to last until the end of 2020.
  • Negotiations will begin on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

At the stroke of midnight in Brussels on Friday, Britain will leave the European Union and Prime Minister Boris Johnson will deliver on his election promise to “Get Brexit Done”.

But he won’t have long to savor the triumph of a divorce that, over 3-1/2 years, shook British politics to the core and polarized the nation. Feb. 1 will mark the beginning of a new phase of negotiations between London and Brussels to agree on the shape of their future relationship.

Have you read?

They have until the end of 2020 — a transition period during which Britain will remain an EU member in all but name — to hammer out an agreement on trade and other issues including security, energy, transport links, fishing rights and data flow.

Johnson says 11 months is time enough to strike a “zero tariff, zero quota” trade deal and has vowed — even though the option is there — not to extend the limbo period beyond 2020.

Cliff edge 'a distinct possibility'

If they fail, the legal default will be a potentially crippling no-deal Brexit that would leave trade between Britain and the EU based from 2021 on World Trade Organization terms that would impose import duties and controls.

EU Brexit adviser Stefaan De Rynck said this week that a cliff edge “remains a distinct possibility” because finding common ground by Dec. 31 will be harder than agreeing divorce terms as the two sides did in October, more than three years after Britons voted to leave the bloc in a referendum.

EU UK Trade Brexit
United Kingdom, Import by Product to teh EU Image: World Integrated Trade Solution

You can view an expanded version of this chart here.

Trade agreements with the EU typically take years to complete, and few in Brussels believe the transition period will be long enough to seal more than a “bare bones” trade deal.

Expect a stand-off over fair competition

Getting more than that would be easier if Britain was willing to remain aligned with EU regulations, but London insists it will not be “a rule-taker”.

Britain’s concern is that keeping to EU rules would make it harder to strike trade agreements with other countries, especially the United States.

Britain's Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay poses with European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier ahead of a meeting at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium October 11, 2019.  Francisco Seco/Pool via REUTERS - RC1D82E7B760
Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay and Michel Barnier. Image: REUTERS

The EU says it will not seal a trade deal with a large, economically powerful neighbor without solid provisions to guarantee fair competition.

Its demands will focus on “level playing-field” issues — environmental and labor standards, as well as state aid rules — to ensure Britain would not be able to offer products on the bloc’s single market at unfairly low prices.

Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform think-tank said Britain’s desire for full control of domestic regulation and trade policy will significantly limit the scope of any deal.

“At best, the EU and UK are on course to conclude a free trade agreement that removes all tariffs and quotas, but creates significant new administrative and regulatory barriers to trade in both goods and services,” he said.

Fish fight ahead

With industry supply chains in the EU currently crossing borders multiple times for products like cars and drugs, agreeing rules to designate where products come from — and hence what regulations and taxes apply — will be complicated.

The European Union's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier addresses the European Economic and Social Committee, at the EU Parliament in Brussels, Belgium October 30, 2019.  REUTERS/Yves Herman - RC156A12FFE0
Michel Barnier addressing the European Economic and Social Committee. Image: REUTERS/Yves Herman - RC156A12FFE0

But one of the biggest hazards on the road to a deal will be fishing rights, sparring over which has already begun.

Regaining control of Britain’s rich fishing waters was a totemic issue for many Brexit campaigners, but Brussels has linked access for EU boats to access to EU markets for Britain’s giant financial sector.

Just a few months to seal a deal

Although on paper the EU and Britain have 11 months to strike a deal on future relations, in reality the timeframe is much smaller.

Talks will not formally start until after EU governments agree a negotiating mandate late next month.

The two sides would then have to strike an agreement by the middle of October to leave time needed to translate the treaty into the EU’s 23 official languages and secure the required parliamentary ratification before year-end.

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

$400 billion debt burden: Emerging economies face climate action crisis

Libby George

April 19, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum