Brexit: An idiot's guide to the United Kingdom leaving the European Union

From Bino to Remoaner, we give you the essential tools to hold a Brexit pub conversation

As the deadline for Brexit approaches and the talking goes on... and on, you need to be able to hold your own in Brexit discussions. Do you really know what the backstop is? Do you think Norway plus might be a way through? Do you know the different rules for delaying and rescinding article 50? And what the hell is Bino? We're here to help. If we are missing anything do let us know by emailing, or

Brexit basics

Brexit - A combination of the word Britain and exit was coined in 2012 to describe the idea of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. So it should probably have been Ukexit but Brexit trips off the tongue better.

Peter Wilding, the managing director of the British Influence think tank, is credited with coining the term Brexit. Wilding was former Conservative party leader David Cameron's media and policy director of the Conservative Party in the EU from 2005 to 2008.

Wilding, who campaigned for the UK to remain within the EU, first used the phrase in 2012 before it was first used publicly by Cameron. Brexit is a first cousin, once removed, of Grexit, which was used to describe Greece's possible departure from the euro zone during the economic crisis.


David who? David Cameron is the former Conservative Party leader and British prime minister. He romped home with a big majority in 2015 riding a wave of a promise he gave to Tory hardliners to hold an in/out referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union. The feeling is neither he, nor anyone else, really believed the vote would pass. His election victory is now a distant memory. Cameron is rarely seen but is sometimes spotted avoiding members of the media as he jumps into a black Range Rover. Or as Eastenders star Danny Dyer put it, Cameron, who he labelled a "twat", was in France "with his trotters up" while everybody else was dealing with the Brexit calamity.

Theresa May - Ok, so unless you've been living under a large rock with no wifi, you'll know that Theresa May is the Conservative Party leader and current British prime minister. At least as long as nobody else on the planet wants the job. She became British prime minister in July 2016 in the wake of the Brexit vote and the resignation of Cameron. May who will be 63 in October 2019, was first elected an MP for Maidenhead in 1997 and served as British home secretary (basically, our minister for justice) from 2010 to 2016.

Article 50 - This is the "get out clause" of the Treaty of Lisbon. It grants an EU member state the power to quit the bloc unilaterally. Once triggered, it gives the departing country two years to negotiate an exit deal. Theresa May triggered the UK's exit on March 29th, 2017, scheduling Brexit for 11pm on March 29th, 2019, and starting the countdown clock. A European Court of Justice ruling has said the UK can unilaterally withdraw its article 50 application but extending it, thereby postponing the exit, would require unanimous agreement from the European Council, the group of EU heads of state and government.

The Withdrawal Agreement - This is the deal reached in November 2018 between May and the European Union on the terms under which Britain would exit the EU. Also known as the "WA", the "divorce deal" and "Theresa May's deal" it includes a transition period of two years (and possibly longer) after Britain leaves when not much would change. It also contains a provision called the backstop that will kick in to keep the Irish Border open in the event that trading and border arrangements sufficient to achieve this aren't reached during the transition period.

Apart from the backstop, the key issues it covers are the mutual rights of EU and UK citizens now living in each other's territory and the UK's financial obligations to the EU (often referred to the the "divorce bill"). It is not yet ratified as it is facing strong opposition in the House of Commons. The European Parliament also needs to approve it.

The Political Declaration - This is a separate document also agreed in November 2018 between the two sides setting out how they hoped the future relationship will develop in key areas including trade, political and security co-operation and so on. Unlike the withdrawal agreement, this is a political (not a legal) document. So it could be tweaked to try to bring the UK parliament on side.

Backstop: The backstop, part of the withdrawal agreement, is a kind of insurance policy that will kick in to ensure that there is no hard border in Ireland, no matter what the outcome is of future trade talks between the UK and the EU. The agreement involves a transition period, a kind of standstill when most current arrangements would apply until the end of 2020, at least. It can be extended up to the end of 2022. If a trade deal between the EU and UK is not finalised in this time or is not far-reaching enough to ensure that no border checks are needed, then the backstop kicks in. It would involve the whole of the UK staying in a customs union with the EU and the North also sticking to some of the rules and regulations set down in the EU single market. Both sides say they want to avoid using the backstop, or if it is triggered to ensure this only happens for a short period. The term comes from cricket; it is a fielding position where the backstop stands behind the wicket-keeper to stop the ball reaching the boundary and prevent the batting team from scoring should the wicket-keeper miss it.

Transition period: This is the standstill period which would start immediately the UK leaves on March 29th under the withdrawal agreement. The UK would remain in the EU trading bloc - as a member of the single market and customs union and the rights of business and citizens would remain. The transition period - sometimes referred to by the UK government as the implementation period - would last at least until December 2020. There is scope to extend it until December 2022, at the latest. Brexit supporters don't like it as it would keep the UK tied to EU laws, but with no say in how these are changed.

Arch Brexiteer - A Brexiteer with a cherry on top, imagine if Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson had a love child with the Incredible Hulk's angry sister

No-deal Brexit: This means the UK leaving at the end of March- or at some later date if an extension is agreed - without the withdrawal agreement being ratified. This would mean that all the UK's legal links to the EU would end overnight, new trading rules and regulatory regimes would come into effect immediately. It has led to warnings of economic chaos for the UK and Ireland and more widely in some sectors such as car manufacturing.

The EU Single Market - The body of rules, regulations and practices designed to allow free movement of people, capital, goods and services across the EU.

The EU Customs Union - The agreement that goods can move freely within the EU with no tariffs, or special import taxes, being applied as they move from one country to another. It also involves common agreed tariff levels on goods coming into the union from outside - meaning that once they enter the EU they too can also circulate freely.

Brexit lingo - the everyday phrases 

Brexiters - these are simply people in favour of Brexit. Brexiteers are Brexiters, but not necessarily the other way around.

Brexiteers - If Brexit and the Three Musketeers had a love child it would be a Brexiteer. The term is used to describe those who are fervently in favour of Brexit to the point, perhaps, where they would carry a sword to make their point. Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson are Brexiteers, although we are in no way suggesting they would resort to violence to further their cause.

Arch Brexiteer- A Brexiteer with a cherry on top, imagine if Jacob Rees-Mogg or Boris Johnson had a love child with the Incredible Hulk's angry sister.

Remainer - Somebody who voted against the UK leaving the European Union. Can sometimes be heard apologising to the Irish nation on radio and television news programmes or sitting in tears in a hipster cafe in central London reading Fintan O'Toole's latest Irish Times column.

Remoaner - A derogatory term used by Brexiters, Brexiteers or Arch Brexiteers to describe a Remainer. Calling someone a remoaner is up there with calling your female work colleague a nag.

Red Lines - Issues where compromise is not an option. Everyone from the Democratic Unionist Party to the Dublin Government to the British government to the Conservative party hardliners to the European Union itself have their own favourite red lines. There are so many red lines, it very quickly after June 2016 began to look like a big bowl of spaghetti and red pesto. There is a lot of talk now, in particular, about whether Theresa May will move any of her "red lines" to try the break the logjam and win House of Commons support for her deal.

Strong and stable - British prime minister Theresa May called a snap election in April 2017 saying the UK needed a "strong and stable" government because of Brexit. It is an expression she would live to regret after she lost her majority and was forced to rely on the Democratic Unionist Party to prop up her minority government. The DUP are among the most vociferously opposed to the withdrawal agreement Theresa May negotiated with the EU and to the backstop. The institutions expected to guarantee strong and stable society in the UK and other democracies are now very weak and unstable.

Brino or Bino - "Brexit in name only" is the position the United Kingdom might find itself in if it were to leave the EU on terms dictated to it whereby the country must align itself to such an extent that it would operate in almost the same fashion as if it were inside the EU. So it would have left the European Union but would be still subject to the same trading rules and legal obligations. Bino is the worst case scenario for those who want Brexit.

Irexit - A second cousin of both Brexit and Grexit, this describes Ireland's exit from the European Union, which of course if very unlikely to happen any time in the near future. The most recent Eurobarometer survey shows Irish people to be more than happy with EU membership, notwithstanding our relationship with European authorities during the economic crash.

Regrexit: The feeling of regret and guilt for voting in favour of Brexit. The phenomenon was felt as soon as the morning after the vote in June 2016 as it is thought many voted for Brexit as a protest against other issues with the assumption it would not pass. Doh!

Nebulous - What Theresa May accused European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker of calling her during a Brussels showdown in December. That's according to lip-readers. He was calling "the British position" nebulous, he insisted. The whole episode was caught on camera and the entire world collectively wished Mammy and Daddy would stop arguing. Explaining the episode afterwards May said: "I had a robust discussion with Jean-Claude Juncker. I think that's the sort of discussion you're able to have when you've developed a working relationship and you work together. And what came out of that was his clarity that when he used that particular phrase he'd been talking about the general level of debate. I had further conversations with him through the morning," she said.

Nebulous (2) - Lady Sylia Hermon described the proposals in an amendment supported by Theresa May's government to come up with an "alternative" to the backstop as nebulous.

Hard border - This refers to the situation where border checkpoints by police and/or soldiers would be erected to regulate the movement of people and goods between the Republic of Ireland, which will continue to be in the EU and Northern Ireland, which will remain in the UK and therefore outside the European Union. The idea strikes fear into the hearts of most people on the island of Ireland and many in Britain given how much a target border infrastructure was for paramilitaries during the Troubles. Not to mention the disruption a hard border would cause to everyday life in border communities. The backstop was set up specifically to avoid the hard border.

Soft or frictionless border - This describes how the Border between the Republic and Northern Ireland operates now. People can move freely back and forth without even knowing which jurisdiction they are in. Think leaving Forkhill to visit your Aunty Mary in Dundalk without getting stopped by a soldier to ask what's in the boot of your car. Goods can move freely too, with no hindrance or checks, though there are police operations against smuggling.

The buzzwords 

Second referendum - This is a mechanism deployed in Ireland several times, designed to allow people who feel regrexit to have another bite at the cherry. Those who want a second vote say the electorate was led down the garden path the first time around, while those against it say the people have already spoken. If a second referendum were to be held it remains unclear which side would win. Remember that snap UK election Theresa May called in 2017 seeking a strong mandate from the people? They ended up with a lame duck administration propped up by the arch-Brexiteer Democratic Unionist Party. Dealing with the electorate is like trying to herd cats - anything could happen.

Unless and until - The phrase used many, many times, to describe how long the provisions of the backstop would stay in place, i.e. unless or until there is an agreement that ensures no hard border in Ireland. Tánaiste Simon Coveney has been saying it at the drop of a hat. For Brexiters, Brexiteers and arch Brexiteers it is the proverbial nails on the Brexit blackboard.

Time-limited backstop - A key problem in the UK parliament with the backstop plan is that – after the transition period – it commits the UK to stay in a customs union with the EU until another solution is found to the Irish border issue. For this reason there are demands to put a time-limit on the backstop. However, for Ireland and the EU this goes against the " unless and until" commitment.

Alternative arrangements - The UK argues that there are other ways to control goods flowing across the Irish border, apart from physical infrastructure. And so these are alternatives to the backstop . These include advanced customs processes and the use of specialist technology to monitor the movement of goods. The EU has promised in the draft withdrawal agreement to assess alternatives to the backstop with the UK, but has pointed out that there is no border anywhere between two trading zones where some checks do not take place .

Maxfac - Maximum facilitation or "maxfac" is a phrase often used by Brexiteers to describe the idea that technology and customs processes can be used to avoid a hard border with infrastructure.

The Malthouse Proposal - a plan which has found support in the Conservative Party late in the day, for the UK to exit the EU and replace the backstop with a free-trade deal with the EU combined with the use of technology to do away with customs checks. It also proposes to extend the standstill transition period until the end of 2021. It sounds like it was dreamt up in a pub but in fact it was brokered by housing minister Kit Malthouse.

Soft/Softer Brexit - It had been thought that Theresa May, following the rejection of her original deal in the House of Commons, might try to reach agreement on a softer version of Brexit. A softer Brexit would mean the UK remaining more closely aligned to EU rules and regulations and probably also remaining in a customs union with the EU. However there has as yet been no effort to reach this kind of deal with Labour, whose support May would need to get this over the line in the House of Commons.

Canada ++ - This is the idea that the UK would end up, after Brexit, in a free trade deal with the EU similar to the one completed with Canada but hopefully involving an even closer relationship (hence, plus, or plus plus). The trading arrangements between the two sides are only due to be negotiated after Brexit takes place. If there is a no-deal Brexit and no agreement on the terms on which the UK leaves, it is not clear what the options will be for future negotiations.

Norway - A Scandinavian country's name but also used to describe the way Norway trades and relates to the European Union. The Norway model might be considered Bino by Brexiters as it would involve staying in the EU single market and subject to its rules (though overseen by a separate court). Norway-plus is sometimes used to refer to a Norway-style deal with additional membership of a customs union with the EU. This would solve the Irish Border problem but would be too close a relationship for the Brexiteers.

WTO rules - If the UK leaves the EU without a deal, then it will trade with the EU and everyone else – on the basis of rules set down by the World Trade Organisation. This would involve tariffs, or special import taxes, on goods moving in and out of the UK to EU and third country markets. The UK would hope to maintain existing trade links, negotiated by the EU, with many other countries and also to do a future trade deal with the EU. There is debate on whether, immediately after leaving, the UK would immediately invoke WTO rules. It is meant to deal with all countries with which it does not have a trade deal the same, but enforcement of this is via a long drawn-out disputes process.

Patrick  Logue

Patrick Logue

Patrick Logue is Digital Editor of The Irish Times

Cliff Taylor

Cliff Taylor

Cliff Taylor is an Irish Times writer and Managing Editor

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times