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Brexit Consequences for the U.K., the EU, and the United States

Updated February 13, 2019

Brexit is the June 23, 2016, referendum where the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. The residents decided that the benefits of belonging to the unified monetary body no longer outweighed the costs of free movement of immigration. Brexit is the nickname for “British exit” from the EU. 

On March 29, 2017, the U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May submitted the Article 50 withdrawal notification to the EU. It gave the U.K. and EU until March 29, 2019, to negotiate an agreement.

In summary, the Brexit vote imposed these three hard choices on the U.K.:

1.    Keep May’s deal or one similar to it. The U.K. doesn’t have the economic clout to negotiate a better one. Many in Parliament vehemently disagree with that assessment.

2.    Leave with no deal, known as “no deal Brexit.” Many of May’s opponents favor this outcome. But without a trade agreement, ports would be blocked and airlines grounded. In no time, imported food and drugs would run short. Since the deadline is drawing near, many companies are preparing for this outcome. The opposition Labour party leader said he won’t meet with May unless she takes the “no deal Brexit” off the table

1.    Vote again on Brexit. Some of May’s opponents want to remain in the EU. Polls show the UK would reject Brexit if the referendum were held today. They argue that voters did not understand the economic hardships that Brexit would impose. On December 10, the European Court of Justice ruled that the U.K. could revoke its Brexit application unilaterally. No other EU body is needed to approve the withdrawal.

The Wall Street Journal analyzed a total of nine possible outcomes.

Current Status

The Prime Minister and the EU agreed to a 21-month transition plan on March 19, 2018. But on January 15, 2019, Parliament voted against the plan. It was a huge landslide of 432 opposed to only 202 in favor. The opposition was so overwhelming that Parliament voted over whether May should step down. May survived that vote of no-confidence.

On January 21, 2019, May submitted to Parliament a revised transition plan. It includes a “backstop” that keeps the U.K. in a customs union with the EU if they can’t reach a solution on the Ireland issue. She also would not hold another referendum.

The U.K. signed a bilateral trade agreement with Switzerland to avoid tariffs in case of a “no deal Brexit.”

The Prime Minister met with the EU leaders on February 7, 2019. The EU said it won’t agree to any changes to the existing plan, but behind-the-scenes talks are ongoing.

Some of May’s opponents won’t be happy until they to get rid of her and negotiate a “hard Brexit.”  That means leaving the EU with no restrictions other than a new free trade agreement.

Others want to extend the Article 50 deadline by three years. The EU would have to approve any extension.

Brexit Plan Summary

The agreement May negotiated has two parts. One is the binding withdrawal agreement. The other is a non-binding set of principles to guide future negotiations.

Under the plan, the U.K. remains within a “customs union” with the EU for an unspecified period. This continues the trade that both parties wanted. The two sides will not impose tariffs on each other’s imports. They are free to tax imports from other countries. Critics want the freedom to negotiate separate trade deals with other countries.

The U.K. retains complete access to capital. The 3 million European nationals living in the U.K. can continue to live and work in the country without work visas. The 1.3 million U.K. citizens can continue to do the same in the EU.

The U.K. would also abide by the European Court of Judgment and EU laws. But, since it’s no longer a member of the EU, the U.K. can no longer vote on the laws. That is similar to Norway’s relationship with the EU. But critics oppose this arrangement.

Since the U.K. remains in the EU customs union, it prevents a “hard border” between northern and southern Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the U.K. and southern Ireland is an independent country and a member of the EU. Until 1998, this was a militarized border due to sectarian violence that left more than 3,500 people dead.

But once the transitional period is over, this issue must again be confronted. The U.K. could only leave the customs union if it negotiates a trade agreement with the EU that eliminates border controls in Ireland. It might also find a technological solution that avoids border infrastructure.

The U.K. will pay a 50.7 billion euro “divorce bill.” It fulfills any remaining financial commitments.

The deal is similar to the “Jersey deal” offered by the European Council on August 9, 2018. The deal would keep the U.K. in the single market for trade while allowing it to restrict immigrants. In return, the U.K. must abide by all EU environmental, social, and customs rule. The deal is what the British dependency of Jersey already has. It would avoid borders between Northern Ireland and the U.K. or Ireland.

If the deal had been approved by Parliament, then the U.K. and EU would draft a detailed trade declaration. Another EU summit would rule on that declaration. Any plan must then be approved by the European Council, the 20 EU countries with 65 percent of the population, and the European and U.K. Parliaments.

Once those major hurdles were overcome, then the U.K. would copy the EU laws into its laws, which can later be amended or repealed.

Consequences of the Deal for the U.K.

May’s plan did not allow the U.K. to prohibit the free flow of people from the EU. That was the primary reason people voted for Brexit. They were concerned about an increase in refugees from Africa and the Middle East. 

Brexit’s biggest disadvantage is that it’s slowing the U.K.’s economic growth. Most of this has been due to the uncertainty surrounding the final outcome.

Uncertainty over Brexit has slowed the U.K.’s growth to 1.3 percent in 2018. U.K.’s Treasury Chief Philip Hammond reported that it would slow to 1.9 percent in 2019 and 1.6 percent in 2020. A resolution should allow the economy to improve to 2 percent in 2019. The British pound is 14 percent lower than before the referendum. That helps exports but increases the prices of imports. The pound would strengthen once a deal is approved.

Critics of the May’s plan said the U.K. must still follow EU guidelines and pay EU exit fees. But, since it’s no longer a member, it won’t be able to vote on those guidelines.

Consequences of a Hard Brexit

A hard Brexit without a trade agreement would eliminate Britain’s tariff-free trade status with the other EU members. Tariffs would raise the cost of exports. That would hurt exporters as their goods became higher-priced in Europe.

Even with a trade agreement, a hard Brexit could be disastrous for The City, the U.K.’s financial center. Companies would no longer use it as an English-speaking entry into the EU economy. The City of London reported that 5,000 jobs could be lost. That could lead to a real estate collapse. There are many new office buildings under construction that would sit empty. Housing prices have already started to fall.

The United Kingdom would lose the advantages of EU’s state-of-the-art technologies. The EU grants these to its members in environmental protection, research and development, and energy. 

Also, U.K. companies could lose the ability to bid on public contracts in any EU country. These are open to bidders from any member country. The most significant loss to London is in services, especially banking. Practitioners would lose the ability to operate in all member countries. A hard Brexit could raise the cost of airfares, the internet, and even phone services.

A hard Brexit would hurt Britain’s younger workers. Germany is projected to have a labor shortage of 2 million workers by 2030. Those jobs will no longer be as readily available to the U.K.’s workers after Brexit.

London is already losing many nurses and other health care professionals. In the year following the referendum, almost 10,000 quit. The number of nurses from Europe registering to practice in Britain has dropped by almost 90 percent.

Trade and travel on the island of Ireland would become more complicated under a hard Brexit.

Northern Ireland would remain with the United Kingdom. The country of Ireland, with which it shares a border, would stay a part of the EU. A hard Brexit would create a customs border between the two.

This could reignite The Troubles. It was a 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland between mainly Catholic Irish nationalists and pro-British Protestants. In 1998, it ended with the promise of no border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. It would also force 35,000 commuters to go through customs on their way to and from work. Some of those in Northern Ireland who want to remain in the EU could call for a referendum to rejoin the country of Ireland.

Prime Minister May rejected the EU proposal that there be a customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The United Kingdom is Ireland’s second-biggest export destination.

Under a hard Brexit, the U.K. could lose Scotland. It could join the EU on its own, as some countries within the kingdom of Denmark have. It may even have a referendum to leave the United Kingdom. 

Consequences of No Deal

The most likely scenario is that nothing happens before the March 2019 deadline. In that case, the U.K. would no longer be a member of the EU, and it would have no trade agreement. Custom delays could create food shortages. The U.K. is vulnerable because an extreme heat wave and summer drought caused by global warming have already reduced food output.

Tariffs would be reimposed. They are as high as 74 percent for tobacco, 22 percent for orange juice, and 10 percent for automobiles. That would hurt exporters. Some of that pain would be offset by a weaker pound.

Tariffs would increase prices of imports into the U.K. One-third of its food comes from the EU. Higher import prices would create inflation and lower the standard of living for U.K. residents.

Consequences for the EU

The Brexit vote has strengthened anti-immigration parties throughout Europe. As a result, Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has already announced she will not run for re-election. If these parties gain enough ground in France and Germany, they could force an anti-EU vote. If either of those countries left, the EU would lose its most robust economies and would dissolve.

On the other hand, new polls show that many in Europe feel a new cohesiveness. The U.K. often voted against many EU policies that other members supported. International Monetary Fund Director Christine Lagarde said, “The years are over when Europe cannot follow a course because the British will object.” She added, “Now the British are going, Europe can find a new  elan.” 

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