Under EU law, a member state wishing to withdraw from the European Union is obliged to give notice; this is the ‘Article 50’ provision. It allows two years for negotiations on withdrawal to be completed. The time can be extended by unanimous agreement of all the member states. The UK Government gave the withdrawal notice in March 2017, meaning that withdrawal should have happened in March 2019. There would then be a ‘transition period’ (which the UK Government called ‘implementation period’) for negotiating the future relationship between the UK and the EU. This could last up to two years. During that time, the UK remains within the European Internal Market and customs union. It is subject to EU law but without participating in the EU institutions. This time is used to negotiate the future relationship between the UK and the EU. In the event, 31 December 2020 was set as the date for ending the transition period, leaving a little under two years for negotiation after the intended withdrawal date.
In the event, negotiations on withdrawal and getting Parliament to accept a deal took longer than anticipated and the two sides agreed to extend the negotiating period three times. The UK finally withdrew from the EU in February 2020, after Boris Johnson’s Conservative Government gained a parliamentary majority at the General Election of December 2019. The UK could have requested an extension of the transition period to take account of the delays but it declined to do so. Consequently, the transition period still ends on 31 December 2020.
Should no agreement be reached and ratified before 31 December the UK will leave the European internal market and customs union without anything to replace them. This would mean that tariffs will be imposed on trade with the EU and UK standards on goods and services exported to the EU will no longer automatically be recognized.