The UK Parliament still needs to vote. And the math is tight.
The European Union and the United Kingdom have a Brexit deal — again.
After days of furious negotiations, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government and the EU achieved a revised agreement that would take the UK out of the EU. The two sides had been at a stalemate for months, but they achieved a late breakthrough just two weeks before the Brexit deadline of October 31.
“We’ve got a great new deal that takes back control — now Parliament should get Brexit done on Saturday so we can move on to other priorities,” Johnson announced.
EU leaders expressed similar optimism. “Where there is a will, there is a #deal – we have one! It’s a fair and balanced agreement for the EU and the UK and it is testament to our commitment to find solutions,” Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, announced Thursday on Twitter.
But although both the UK and the EU are signaling victory, this is definitely not a done deal yet. EU leaders have signed off. But Johnson still needs to get it through a Parliament where he’s lost his majority.
That means the prime minister needs to get everyone who voted for former Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal on board with his new agreement — and then some, from the hardcore Brexiteer holdouts, to the Conservative members who either defected or got kicked out of the party last month, to a handful of opposition Labour Party members.
Complicating matters: It looks like Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) won’t be handing Johnson its 10 votes because they oppose this version of the Brexit deal.
Parliament is supposed to be sitting for a marathon “Super Saturday” session this weekend during which the fate of Johnson’s Brexit deal is likely to be determined — along with, perhaps, the future of Britain.
What to know about this “great” new Brexit deal
The EU and the UK made changes to both the withdrawal agreement — the divorce settlement that sets the terms of the breakup and sets up a post-Brexit transition period — and the political declaration, which lays out the prospect of the future relationship between the EU and the UK.
What’s changed in the withdrawal agreement is the format for the so-called “Irish backstop,” which has been the major sticking point in the Brexit deal for the better part of the past year.
To recap, the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, as it’s technically called, is a safeguard in the Brexit withdrawal agreement to guarantee that, no matter what happens with the future EU-UK relationship, the border between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which is an EU member-state) remains free of infrastructure and physical checks on goods.
This commitment was seen as vital to the peace process in Northern Ireland. That’s because that border was heavily militarized during the Troubles, the decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland between “nationalists,” who identified more closely with Ireland and sought a united Ireland, and “unionists,” who identified more closely with Britain and wanted to remain part of the UK.
During that period, the border became both a symbol of the divide and a very real target for nationalist paramilitary groups such as the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
A 1998 peace deal, known as the Good Friday Agreement, formally ended the conflict. That agreement included greater cooperation between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which meant softening the border between the two. Today, that border is all but invisible.
Then the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016. That meant that once the UK left, the Irish border wouldn’t just separate Northern Ireland and Ireland anymore — it would be the dividing line between the EU and the UK. And since the two would have different rules and regulations for trade and commerce, there would have to be some sort of inspection stations or checkpoints established on that border.
That led many to fear that a “hard” physical border would have to once again be erected, potentially refueling violence. And, indeed, the New IRA — an armed paramilitary group that splintered off of the IRA — said just this week that any Brexit-related border infrastructure would be considered “a legitimate target for attack and armed actions” by its members. It would also be extraordinarily damaging for the economy on the island of Ireland, which is closely intertwined.
How to balance the two positions — the UK’s desire to leave and the need to keep the Irish border open — has been the impossible issue of Brexit. So the two sides came up with a fudge: the “backstop.” Under the plan agreed to by May and the EU last year, the entire United Kingdom would remain part of the EU customs union, which would have kept all of Britain in the same trading scheme as the EU.
But this was unacceptable to Brexiteers who wanted to full break with EU rules and institutions, and so they kept voting down the deal.
So now there’s a replacement backstop, if you will.
This new plan will instead keep only Northern Ireland closely aligned with the EU rules, specifically on goods. This avoids any checks on the island of Ireland, though they will still have to happen on goods moving to or from the island of Ireland from the rest of Britain.
But the whole of the United Kingdom — including Northern Ireland — will get to leave the EU customs union. The arrangements are kind of complicated — for example, the UK will have to apply and collect EU tariffs if any goods going from the rest of Britain are at risk of entering Ireland, otherwise known as EU territory.
So there are clearly some things to be worked out here; but all of the UK leaving the customs union means it can negotiate independent trade deals (something that’s really important to Brexiteers). It also means Johnson can say (and maybe run an election on the fact) that he took all of the UK out of the EU customs union, a big reason many opposed the previous Brexit deal.
Another addition to this version of the deal is the ability for the Northern Irish government to have a say. The Assembly in Northern Ireland will be able to vote to continue the arrangements four years after they go into effect. (That’s 2021 or 2023, depending on how long the transition lasts.) It will just need a simple majority, rather than needing the majority of unionists and nationalists, which avoids one group getting a veto.
Northern Ireland hasn’t had a government since 2017, and if that continues, then the arrangements will remain until one is in place to vote on them. If Stormont (what NI’s seat of government is called) decides to exit this setup at any point, there’s a two year grace-period before it officially ends, ideally to work out another alternative.
There are other components of the deal, but these are the key elements. This setup sounds just a little bit like the original Northern Ireland-only backstop plan the EU had first proposed, which former Prime Minister May had previously said was unacceptable.
But both the EU and the UK made concessions. The EU stayed firm on its position that safeguards needed to be in place for the Irish border, and Johnson got the UK out of the EU’s regulatory regime. It’s an imperfect deal, but, for now, both sides can sell it as a win.
Everything else in the withdrawal bill is pretty much unchanged, and the same as what May brought back last year. Johnson did get some tweaks to the political declaration, which sets the framework for future negotiations on the EU-UK relationship. While there’s still likely something for everyone to hate, the political declaration points to a future relationship built on a much harder Brexit, rather than close alignment with EU rules.
So that’s it, right? Johnson “got Brexit done” before the October 31 deadline?
Well, not exactly.
New Brexit deal, same old Parliament
“I do think this deal represents a very good deal for the EU and the UK,” Johnson said in Brussels on Thursday, after the agreement had been reached.
But now the prime minister has to sell the deal to Parliament. And that’s not going to be easy.
May’s Brexit deal was defeated three times. Johnson has scrapped its most controversial element, which should win him the support of some of the hardcore Brexiteers who previously rejected May’s deal.
The problem for Johnson right now is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP says it will oppose Johnson’s plan because it treats Northern Ireland differently than the rest of the UK. “These proposals are not, in our view, beneficial to the economic well-being of Northern Ireland and they undermine the integrity of our Union,” the party wrote in a statement.
The DUP used to have an outsized voice in this debate, because its 10 votes gave the Conservative government its majority. But since Johnson has lost his majority anyway, their influence has waned — but their opposition could still deter some Conservatives. And these are 10 votes that he can’t really afford to lose.
Still, Johnson may be confident that he’ll be able to win back some of the Conservative defectors and peel off some Labour members who represent Leave-voting districts. But the math is going to be very, very tight for probably one of the most consequential political decisions MPs will have to make.
Parliament is expected to vote on Johnson’s deal Saturday.
This will be the first time Parliament has sat on a Saturday since the 1980s and the Falkland Wars. So it’s going to be momentous, and probably very complicated, because this is Brexit, and it always is.
Is the UK going to leave the EU on October 31?
If Johnson’s deal passes on Saturday, if he can get the votes, then then the UK would leave the European Union on October 31.
Passing a deal is just phase one. The UK will also need to implement the deal into UK law through legislation. Given that there are literally just two weeks until October 31 and this is, I don’t know, quite a huge deal, it seems not unlikely that Parliament might need more time to debate. So there’s a chance that the UK will need a technical extension to get this sorted out.
But even if that happens, Johnson will have achieved what many people (including Vox) were skeptical he could achieve: a workable Brexit deal that passed Parliament. He will have gotten Brexit done.
Of course, there’s no guarantee that Johnson’s deal will pass right now.
That’s where things get interesting.
Saturday’s date is October 19, which might sound familiar — that was when Johnson would be required by law to go to the EU and ask for an extension if he didn’t have a new deal.
The question is how this will work now. Technically, Johnson has deal — but Parliament hasn’t voted for it yet. Johnson’s government has previously said he will send a letter to the EU asking for an extension by October 19, but some are worried that the prime minister might try to find some legal loopholes to get around this.
The EU would have to agree to any extension. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker indicated Thursday that there would be no delay. “We have concluded a deal,” he said. “So there is not an argument for delay. It has to be done now.”
But Juncker has no say on an extension — that falls to the 27 leaders of EU member-states. People like French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel — and, most importantly, Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister. The Irish stance, for all the complicated reasons having to do with the Irish border, has always been that an extension is better than a no-deal Brexit.
Also, let’s be real: The EU wants this deal to pass, too, mostly having lost hope of cancelling Brexit, and they’re not going to advertise that they’re open to giving extensions as Parliament prepares to vote. They would like MPs to act with a sense of urgency. The EU also would like to get Brexit done.
Which is to say, an extension almost certainly isn’t off the table, if the UK requests one and the EU obliges. Otherwise the default will be a no-deal Brexit, where the UK crashes out on the October 31 without any arrangements in place.
And these are just some of the baseline scenarios that can happen. Parliament is probably going to fight to amend Johnson’s Brexit deal, which can lead to all kinds of things — including perhaps a second referendum to put Johnson’s deal back to the people. (Not even joking.)
Which is all to say, Brexit chaos is entering a new phase. But it’s not close to being over.
Author: Jen Kirby