What would a soft or hard Brexit actually mean for the UK?


We've heard a million times that Brexit means Brexit, but what about the strength of that Brexit? Will it be a gentle process that eases us apart or will it be a full-on cut-off?

Debate is raging and baffling us all (mainly because it sounds a lot like our preferences for breakfast), so we've outlined what it essentially, ahem, boils down to - either a soft Brexit or a hard Brexit.

What would a soft Brexit involve?

pair of flip flops with a Union Jack design (Rui Vieira/PA)
(Rui Vieira/PA)

This would leave the UK's relationship with the remaining EU countries as close as possible to the arrangements in place now and, for obvious reasons, is many of the Remainers' preferred option.

As the UK would no longer be a member of the EU, it would not have a seat on the European Council and it would lose its MEPs and its European Commissioner.

But it would keep unrestricted access to the European single market, so goods and services would be traded with the remaining EU states on a tariff-free basis and financial firms would retain their "passporting" rights to sell services and operate branches in the EU.

British passport (Anthony Devlin/PA)
(Anthony Devlin/PA)

It would make the UK like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, which are non-EU members of the European Economic Area. These countries enjoy this status in return for paying into EU budgets and accepting the "four freedoms" - movement of goods, services, capital and people.

It's thought likely that any soft Brexit deal would involve the EU insisting that Britain observes the four freedoms, which would mean continued free access for European nationals to work and settle in the UK.

What about a hard Brexit?

European Union flag in front of Elizabeth Tower in Westminster (Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA)
(Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA)

This would see the UK give up full access to the single market and membership of the customs union along with its membership of the EU. And, you guessed it, this is the option favoured by many Brexiters.

This arrangement would speed up the withdrawal process and give Britain full control over its borders, its ability to strike new trade deals, and the application of the law within its territory.

It's likely, initially at least, that the UK would fall back on World Trade Organisation rules for trade with its former EU partners, as well as around 50 countries around the globe with which the EU has free trade deals.

buildings and the marina in front of the Rock of Gibraltar (Ben Birchall/PA)
(Ben Birchall/PA)

This could see British goods and services subject to tariffs (adding 10% to the cost of exported cars, for example) while sectors such as agriculture could lose protections against cheap imports from abroad. And leaving the customs union would mean a significant increase in bureaucratic checks on goods passing through ports and airports.

Over time, the UK could be expected to seek new free trade deals with countries around the world to minimise these tariffs and non-tariff barriers - but nations such as the US and Australia have said that reaching an agreement with the EU will take priority.

Is there a third option?

Prime Minister Theresa May next to a union jack (Christopher Furlong/PA)
(Christopher Furlong/PA)

Well, Prime Minister Theresa May has insisted that the choice between a hard and soft Brexit is "a false dichotomy".

She's promised she'll negotiate a deal for Britain which will restore UK control over immigration and the independence of its judicial system from the European Court of Justice, while also maintaining free trade in goods and services and the "maximum freedom" for British companies to operate in EU markets.

This is an arrangement no country has managed to secure (as of yet) but May maintains that the status of the UK (as the EU's second-largest economy and its biggest financial centre, and a leading member of Nato with a seat on the G7 and the UN Security Council) gives it the clout it needs to negotiate a bespoke deal.

Workers adjust the flags of the Group of Seven members (Virginia Mayo/AP)
(Virginia Mayo/AP)

Her supporters argue that access to the UK market is such a prize for EU nations that they'll be ready to accept some compromise on freedom of movement.

Her critics, on the other hand, argue that making a special case for Britain would send an unhelpful signal to other EU states that there's a pain-free route on offer to shaking off the burdens of full membership - something which EU institutions and powerful nations, such as Germany, are keen to avoid.