Britain is finally set to leave the EU, but what happens next?

Britain is finally set to leave the EU, but what happens next? The UK and Brussels are braced for 11 months of crunch trade talks before a ‘cliff-edge’ in December (and Boris Johnson wants deals with Japan AND the US in 2020 as well)

  • Britain leaves the European Union at 11pm on January 31 after three years of talks
  • The UK and EU will enter into a standstill transition period until the end of 2020 
  • They will use the next 11 months to hammer out terms of their future relationship
  • But EU does not believe there is enough time to get a full trade deal on the books
  • Boris Johnson is refusing to extend transition, raising prospect of a ‘cliff-edge’
  • UK also targeting trade deals with US and Japan and wants them done this year 

Britain is finally set to leave the European Union but its dealings with the bloc are far from over. 

The last three years have almost entirely been about hammering out the terms of the UK’s divorce from Brussels. 

Now the two sides must try to agree all of the details of their future relationship before a standstill transition period ends in December. 

The EU is adamant that 11 months is not enough time to get the job done, but Boris Johnson is refusing to agree to an extension, setting up a fresh Brexit ‘cliff-edge’ at the end of the year.

Here is a breakdown of all the key dates in the next chapter of the Brexit saga.

Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, pictured in Downing Street on January 8, will spend 2020 trying to hammer out a post-Brexit trade deal between Britain and Brussels 

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator pictured in Strasbourg on January 14, will lead talks for the EU 

January 31, 2020: The UK formally leaves the European Union at 11pm after more than three years of tortuous wrangling. The two sides enter into a standstill transition period during which they will try to agree the terms of their post-Brexit relationship. EU rules will continue to apply to the UK for the duration of the transition. The Department for Exiting the European Union ceases to exist.

February 2020: The UK will be free to pursue trade deals with whoever it wants. Japan and the US are expected to be Britain’s top targets with initial talks likely to start immediately after Brexit. The UK will also want to kickstart talks with the EU – but the bloc will make Britain wait.

End of February/early March 2020: Before trade talks can start between the UK and the EU, the bloc must agree a negotiating mandate. This mandate will set out the broad terms of what the EU will be striving for during negotiations and will also spell out Brussels’ red lines. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has suggested the mandate may not be finalised until the end of February or early March.

March 2020: Formal trade talks between the UK and the EU are expected to begin. A group of 40 officials called ‘Taskforce Europe’ and based out of the Cabinet Office will lead negotiations for the UK. The taskforce will be headed up by David Frost, a diplomat and one-time business lobbyist who was appointed Mr Johnson’s Europe adviser last year. Mr Frost is expected to negotiate directly with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.   

April/May 2020: Trade talks between the UK and EU – as well as talks with other nations – will intensify. If major progress has not been made with Brussels then there is likely to be increasing pressure on Mr Johnson to agree to extend the transition period. The terms of Britain’s divorce from the bloc state that the standstill will finish on December 31 and the PM has been adamant he will not agree to an extension. But the Withdrawal Agreement does include a pressure valve mechanism which states that the transition can be prolonged by one or two years if both sides agree. The EU has already said it does not believe the transition period is long enough to finalise a comprehensive agreement so if talks stall in the first half of the year then Brussels could step up demands for a delay. 

June/July 2020: The Withdrawal Agreement states that a decision to extend the transition period must be agreed by both sides before July 1, 2020 if it is to go ahead. The PM is expected to stick to his guns and refuse to agree to a delay, setting the stage for transition to end in December, with or without a full deal in place. 

July to November 2020: Assuming no transition extension has been agreed, the second half of the year will be fraught with activity as the UK and EU rush to get everything decided. The UK will also be hoping that by this time agreements with Japan and the US will be taking shape, putting pressure on Brussels to work quickly.

Brexit plagued Theresa May’s time as prime minister as she failed to persuade MPs to support her EU divorce deal. She is pictured at a summit in Brussels in March last year

September/October 2020: Downing Street is thought to want to have a trade deal with Japan in the books by the autumn to show the EU and the rest of the world it means business. It would be the UK’s first post-Brexit trade deal.

November 3, 2020: The date of the US presidential election. The White House has said it wants a trade agreement with the UK in place before the end of the year and will not want talks to clash with Donald Trump’s bid for re-election. That means a US-UK trade deal could be done and dusted before November. 

December 2020: The UK and EU will either be on course to end the transition period with a full agreement in place or just a partial agreement. EU bosses have suggested that a lack of time will mean having to prioritise certain issues during talks, potentially leaving others to be resolved at a later date. The UK believes it is possible to get everything done. If no extension has been agreed then the two sides will be going their separate ways regardless.

December 31, 2020: The point at which the Brexit transition period will come to an end and when EU rules and regulations will cease to apply to the UK.

January 1, 2021: EU freedom of movement will be brought to an end and the UK’s new post-Brexit immigration system will be rolled out. The Australian-style points-based system is expected to treat migrants from across the world the same, ending preferential treatment for those from Europe. 

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