Brexit jargon: From backstop to no deal, 17 key terms explained

Much like the questions around the UK‘s future relationship with the European Union, the terminology thrown up by Brexit is complex, confusing and contentious.

Here is your brief guide to Brexit jargon, with an approximate reading time of five minutes:

Article 50

The exit clause within the Lisbon Treaty, the terms of which form the constitutional basis of the European Union. A member state must invoke the treaty before it can formally and legally leave the bloc. The UK triggered Article 50 on 29 March 2017, becoming the first EU member to do so.


A safety net provision within the withdrawal agreement which prevents a hard border being erected between Northern Ireland, a constituent part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, if a trade deal hasn’t been agreed between the EU and the UK by the end of the transition period.

Under the terms of the agreement, the whole of the UK will remain in a customs union in relation to trade in goods with the EU “unless and until” the bloc agrees there is no prospect of a return to a hard border.


The term for the UK’s move to renounce its membership of the European Union following a divisive referendum in June 2016. More than 33 million voters took part in the poll, with 52 percent deciding in favour of leaving.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has called the brokered withdrawal agreement the ‘best possible deal’ [File: Dylan Martinez/Reuters]

Canada model

Pursuing the so-called “Canada model” would mean the UK attempting to strike up a free-trade deal with the EU outside of the single-market model once it has left the bloc. Canada’s deal with the EU, known as the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), means it enjoys almost completely tariff-free trade in goods with the bloc. Under this model, the UK would not have to contribute to the EU budget and would not be bound by the single market’s laws, such as allowing for the free movement of people.

Customs Union

An agreement under which two or more countries agree not to impose taxes on imported goods from one another and to apply a common tariff on goods imported from countries not party to the agreement.

Under the terms of the EU’s customs union, goods that have been legally imported into the bloc can circulate throughout its member states with no further customs checks and member states are forbidden from negotiating trade agreements separately from the bloc.


This refers to the UK leaving the EU with a brokered agreement on the terms of its withdrawal and future trading arrangements with the bloc.

European Union

28-member political and economic bloc. More than 500 million people live within EU member states, according to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office.

Hard border

Because of Brexit, a physical border, controlled and protected by customs authorities, police or military forces could be erected between Northern Ireland, a constituent part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state.

This raises concerns about the future of the Good Friday Peace Agreement, a peace deal signed in 1998 which helped to end the Troubles – a conflict in Northern Ireland between nationalists in favour of uniting Ireland and unionists in favour of the country remaining part of the UK.

The Good Friday deal removed security checkpoints along the border and helped make it all but invisible. It did not mention borders or customs.

Discussions over the Irish border dominated EU-UK Brexit negotiations [File: Peter Morrison/AP]

Hard Brexit

There is no strict definition of hard Brexit, but it is generally accepted to mean a version of withdrawal from the EU which would see the UK leave the bloc’s single market and customs union. A hard Brexit would also likely see the UK stop paying into the EU’s budget and end freedom of movement, a founding principle of the union which permits citizens of EU member states to live and work in any part of the bloc.

Meaningful vote

Parliament’s December 11 vote on May’s proposed withdrawal agreement. Majority support will mean May can introduce a formal EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill to parliament for consideration and ratification in early 2019.

Majority opposition will force the government to put forward a new plan within 21 days. In such a scenario, a renegotiation of the existing deal, general election, second referendum and no-deal Brexit could all be possible outcomes.

No Deal

The UK leaving the EU with no brokered agreement on the terms of its withdrawal or future trading arrangements with the bloc.

Such a scenario could lead to serious economic disruption, with businesses and individuals throughout the UK and EU potentially affected.

Norway-style compromise

Under the so-called “Norway-style compromise” approach, the UK would remain in the bloc’s single market, otherwise known as the internal market or the European Economic Area, after it has formally left the union. As such, Britain would be able to trade freely within the bloc while also striking trade deals with non-EU countries. It would also have to make financial contributions to the EU budget and accept a significant proportion of the bloc’s law, however, including the continued free movement of people, goods, services and money.

People’s vote

The name coined by pro-remain campaigners for a possible second referendum on the UK’s EU membership. 

They argue that the vote leave movement misled the public about the benefits of quitting the bloc and claim the withdrawal agreement is a worse option for the UK than staying in the EU.

Calls for a second referendum have amplified in recent weeks [File: Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

Single Market

The EU’s single market covers all member states and four other countries – Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland – and permits people, goods, services and money to move around freely as within a single country. Common rules and regulations are devised, implemented and adhered to by its members.

Soft Brexit

There is no strict definition of soft Brexit, but it is generally accepted to mean a version of withdrawal from the EU which would see the UK remain part of the bloc’s single market and customs union, or both. A soft Brexit could also include UK concessions to aspects of the freedom of movement principle.

Transition period

The period during which negotiations on future trade arrangements between the UK and the EU will take place. It will begin when the UK officially exits the bloc, on March 29, 2019, and is scheduled to run until December 31, 2020. The withdrawal agreement allows for this to be extended, however, with speculation a trade deal could take at least two more years to settle.

Withdrawal agreement

British Prime Minister Theresa May‘s brokered deal with the EU on the terms of the UK’s departure. The 585-page draft agreement includes provisions on citizens’ rights, the transition period and the so-called “backstop arrangement” concerning the Irish border, among other things.

Read More

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.