Brexit timeline: The U.K. is finally quitting the EU. Here’s how it came to this

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COVID-19 is causing a deep divide across the United Kingdom in the wake of the Brexit vote. As Redmond Shannon reports, the pandemic has renewed calls for Scottish independence. – Jul 21, 2020

Britain finally clinched a Brexit trade deal with the European Union on Thursday.

The deal comes four years after Britons voted to leave the economic union, and seven days before it quits one of the world’s biggest trading blocs in its most significant global shift since the loss of empire.

But how did it come to this?

The answers, like with so many things, require looking back.

The Brexit saga and the euro

After the Labour Party’s Tony Blair won a 1997 election, his finance minister Gordon Brown effectively ruled out joining the euro currency.

That meant one of the EU’s biggest economies would not be at the top table for decision making in the EU bloc, which sets out rules and regulations governing activities like trade throughout the union.

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READ MORE: Brexit trade deal finally reached between U.K. and EU

Over the next decade, that lack of decision-making power led to frustrations in the U.K. over the regulations being set in Brussels, where the EU governance and parliamentary bodies are based.

And when the Labour government lost to the Conservative Party in 2010, those frustrations aimed at Europe would come to define the tenure of new prime minister David Cameron.

Cameron, in a decision that has come to define his legacy, responded to party infighting and a challenge from eurosceptic rivals by promising in 2015 a referendum on whether the U.K. should stay in the EU.

That referendum was ultimately shaped by growing turmoil amid the euro zone crisis, fears about mass immigration and miscalculations by Cameron’s campaign to remain in the EU.

Britons voted to leave on June 23, 2016, by 52 per cent to 48 per cent.

Cameron resigned the morning after the vote and was replaced by Theresa May.

Theresa May, Article 50 and the road towards Brexit

May triggered Article 50, the formal EU divorce notice, in March 2017, setting an exit date of March 29, 2019 for Britain to leave — with or without a deal.

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In a bid to gain backing for her Brexit plan, she called a snap election for June 2017.

The gamble backfired.

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British PM Theresa May loses parliamentary majority in shock election – Jun 9, 2017

May lost her parliamentary majority and formed a minority government, supported by Northern Ireland’s eurosceptic Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

On Nov. 13, she reached agreement on the terms of Britain’s departure from the bloc with EU leaders.

But on Jan. 15, lawmakers voted 432-202 to reject the deal in the biggest parliamentary defeat for a government in modern British history.

Weakened by a series of defeats over her plans and forced to delay Brexit, May resigned in June 2019. Boris Johnson won the premiership.

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A win for Boris Johnson and the Brexiteers

After promising to be tougher with the EU, Johnson, in an attempt to undermine opponents of Brexit in the eyes of the public, ordered parliament to be temporarily suspended.

The decision was ruled unlawful by the Supreme Court.

But Johnson secured agreement from Ireland’s then-prime minister, Leo Varadkar, for changes to the previous deal that May had thrashed out with Brussels.

The slightly altered variant was approved by the EU in October 2019.

READ MORE: Canada, Britain reach short-term deal to avoid post-Brexit tariffs

Parliament , however, did not accept Johnson’s plan to fast track it into British law, and he abandoned attempts to pass it. Johnson’s next step — to call a snap general election in search of a majority that would approve his deal — was approved.

The Conservatives won a majority of 80 seats, their biggest since the 1987 election.

Johnson’s deal was approved by Parliament and Britain left the EU on Jan. 31, 2020.

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The new way forward on Brexit trade

Transition arrangements meant that Britain still remained a member of the EU, and most notably of its single internal market and customs union, in all but name until the end of 2020 — time that has been spent trying to negotiate a trade agreement.

Some $900 billion in annual trade was at stake, though only half of this is in goods, the main subject of the talks, as opposed to services, which make up the bulk of Britain’s economy.

The negotiations touched one of the EU’s most sensitive nerves — fear that a post-Brexit Britain could become a much more agile, deregulated competitor on its border by lowering standards and using selective state aid — while retaining free access to the huge EU market.

Britain repeatedly said it would not blink and that the EU had not grasped that it was now dealing with an entirely independent country.

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COVID-19: New survey shows Brits optimistic about post-pandemic future – May 23, 2020

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