Brexit terms: 22 phrases everyone's using but you were too afraid to ask about, explained

A jargon-buster for Brexit

Jon Stone
Tuesday 16 October 2018 10:41
What does a no-deal Brexit mean?

Brexit talks are nearing their conclusion and we’ll soon know whether there’ll be a deal or not.

If you’ve not been paying attention so far, now is a good time to start – but all the jargon can look daunting.

If you don’t know your Salzburg from your Single Market, or Cherry-picking from Chequers, here’s an explanation of some basic terms you need to know to understand Brexit.

Free trade agreement (FTA)

An agreement between two countries or trade blocs to reduce barriers to trade. Often involves reducing or eliminating import taxes or quotas, and recognising or following each-others’ regulations so companies can sell into other countries’ markets without bureaucracy.

Customs union

A free trade area in which all countries abolish tariffs between each other and charge the same tariffs to goods coming from outside the customs union. The EU has one. Countries in the bloc collectively do trade deals with other countries outside the bloc, because they all follow the same conditions. Labour wants to be in one with the EU after Brexit.

Single market

Free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour between all the countries in the EU; the so-called “four freedoms”. Not a specific thing or organisation, but rather the result of all EU agreements and countries following the same rules. A work in progress, but the most comprehensive trade agreement between sovereign countries on earth so far.


A free trade agreement like the one Canada has with the EU, but better (hence +++). Goods traded between the UK and EU have to be checked at the border but there wouldn’t be any import taxes. Brexiteers want it because it takes the UK out of the EU’s orbit compared to now; EU says it’s the only sort of deal possible within the Prime Minister’s red-lines.


Theresa May’s proposals for trade with the EU after Britain leaves, named after her official country residence where she locked her Cabinet in until they agreed to them. Rejected by the EU, and disliked by Tory eurosceptics.

Common rulebook

Part of Theresa May’s Chequers plan to keep bits of the single market it likes: the UK would follow EU rules for most goods that cross border. UK hopes this would mean no border checks would be needed, in combination with another deal on customs. EU says this is cherry-picking.

Facilitated customs arrangement

Another part of Theresa May’s Chequers plan: an attempt by the UK to eliminate customs checks between Britain and the EU without having to be in a customs union. UK would collect EU customs taxes for it and then forward them on. EU says it could never agree to delegating its customs responsibilities to a country that isn’t in the EU.

Norway option

A relationship with the EU like the one Norway has – close, but not inside it. UK would follow most EU rules but get better trade access to single market. Achieved through membership of the European Economic Area – a non-EU agreement.

Transition period

A 21-month period that would start on 29 March 2019, the date Britain is set to leave the EU. During this period, the UK would continue to follow all EU rules and free movement would continue; asked for by Theresa May to give the UK more time to prepare.


A summit held in the Austrian city of Salzburg in September. EU leaders rejected Theresa May’s Chequers plan and laid down the law, widely regarded as a humiliation for the Prime Minister.

Article 50

A legal mechanism from the EU’s founding treaty that member states use to leave the EU. A two-year period begins the day it is triggered in which the country can negotiate an exit. Britain’s is due to expire on 29 March 2019. Can be extended with consent of all EU member states. It’s legally unclear whether it can be revoked by Britain or not and the European Court of Justice will rule on this aspect in late November.

People’s Vote or Final Say

A call for a referendum on the final deal Theresa May brings back from Brussels, or a second referendum giving the option of staying in – depending on who you ask.

Lancaster House speech

The Prime Minister’s original Brexit speech, where she laid down her red lines about wanting to leave the single market, customs union, and end freedom of movement.


Negotiating principles the Prime Minister has laid down and said she will not cross: she wants to leave the single market, leave the customs union, end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and end free movement. Others have their own red lines: the Northern Irish DUP say they won't accept checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The EU says the UK can't cherry-pick the things it likes about the EU and keep them.

Hard border and Soft border

A soft border, relating to Northern Ireland, is what currently exists – there are no real border checks or often even a sign that you’re crossing between the UK and the Republic. A hard border would see the introduction of checks and might happen because of Brexit. A soft border is required by the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the Troubles.


A legal mechanism to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit, no matter what happens elsewhere. Insisted upon in order to preserve the peace process. Both sides are trying to negotiate one that they are both happy with, but it’s a major sticking point in talks.

Withdrawal agreement

A legally-binding deal the UK and EU want to sign before the UK leaves. Covers areas such as what happens to citizens living in other countries, who pays who what, and what happens to the Northern Ireland border. Does not include a trade deal, which is dealt with by…

Future relationship political declaration

A second agreement the UK and EU want to sign before Britain leaves next year. This agreement is not legally binding, but a political statement of intent by the two parties about what the two countries’ future relationship will look like – e.g. will it be Norway, Canada, Chequers… whatever. The actual future relationship will be negotiated after Britain leaves, probably during the transition period. Includes both trade and aspects on other areas like security cooperation.


What the EU calls British attempts to keep the bits of the single market it likes and ditch the bits it doesn’t like. Also called ‘cake’, or “having your cake and eat it”, after something Boris Johnson once said. Not allowed by the EU, which says it would ruin the integrity of the single market.

WTO rules

World Trade Organisation rules. The default rules of world trade for countries that are part of the WTO (164 are). What Britain will likely be trading with the EU on if there is no-deal. Not very flexible rules that would require customs checks and tariffs between Britain and the EU, which would be highly disruptive. Most countries don’t actually trade with each other on WTO rules and have some kind of agreement on top.

European Commission

The EU’s executive and civil service in Brussels, which has been in charge of Brexit negotiations so far. Reports to member states. Led by president Jean-Claude Juncker; its chief negotiator is Michel Barnier.

European Council

The 28 EU member state leaders – heads of state and government, depending on the country. For Brexit they meet as 27 without Theresa May. They meet four times a year for a summit in Brussels to set the bloc’s political direction – in the case of Brexit that means giving instructions to the Commission’s negotiators. Also have some extra summits every now and again (like Salzburg).

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments