We’ve been here before — a deal on the United Kingdom on leaving the European Union. And the House of Commons has rejected that deal on three previous occasions. Now, following the endorsement of the European Council and the backing of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Brussels on Thursday, all eyes are on the Westminster once more — and whether the rookie Conservative leader has enough political clout to get the new Brexit deal across the line, allowing the UK to leave the EU on October 31.
First and foremost, the new deal avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland, a precondition for any deal set between both side back in December 2018. But this time around that backstop — a guarantee that the border would remain open — has been removed. It was a clause that most opponents to the previously thrice-rejected Brexit deal had rejected as being repugnant.
The new deal proposes what in effect is a “two borders” solution where Northern Ireland remains aligned with the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU on the movement of goods including, critically for an island where agri-products and food are vital. In effect, the regulatory border and customs area shifts to the Irish Sea, with the island of Great Britain — Scotland, England and Wales — under its own regimen, and the island of Ireland, with both Northern Ireland and the Republic to the south operating in the EU customs regimen.
As things stand now, both Ireland and the UK operate outside the so-called Schengen visa area, with the two nations sharing a “Common Travel Area”. This arrangement will continue under the new agreement.
The Johnson government has also conceded that Northern Ireland will remain subject to the oversight of EU authorities — including the European Court of Justice — seemingly a trade-off that made the removal of that backstop more palatable to Brussels. Whether that is indeed the case will be decided later Saturday at Westminster. The EU altered its thinking on the backstop to agreeing to let Northern Ireland remain in the UK’s own internal customs union, but also part of the wider EU customs zone.
This duality would allow the UK to collect tariffs on EU goods heading to Northern Ireland, with businesses and traders in the British-ruled province permitted to claim refunds on the difference n tariffs if those goods remain there or are exported back into the UK. But if exporters avoid Britain and move goods directly from continental Europe through Ireland and avoid the UK, that tariff nightmare is avoided.
What makes this deal attractive to Brexiteers is that they can fast track a free-trade agreement with the EU — one of their key goals in wanting the UK to leave the EU in the first instance.
Coming down to the wire, Johnson agreed to retain the strong commitments given by previous prime minister Theresa May that the UK would remain closely aligned with the EU. The last thing Brussels wanted was the prospect of a low-wage, low regulatory state operating off its shores, undermining its social, environmental and tax policies
No deal Brexit
For Brussels, the counterbalance means that the consequences of a no-deal Brexit have been avoid in the short term, peace and security on the island of Ireland has been reinforced, there are no border checks, there’s a transition period and that free trade agreement will benefit EU-UK relations down the road.
Through the negotiations on the current deal, the Johnson team had been pushing the notion that the deal be approved by both parties in the power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly. Because the Democratic Unionist party has a permanent majority there when the Assembly is working — it hasn’t sat in more than 1,000 days in an intractable dispute over Irish language rights — this element was rejected by EU negotiators.
The new deal has shifted language, allowing for a majority in the Stormont government to review the arrangements for a four-year period, with the first vote coming by December 31, 2024. If it’s rejected, there’s a two-year cooling off period. Right now, given that Northern Ireland voters backed staying in the EU by a large majority, and have expressed concerns over the threat Brexit meant to the economy based on trade north and south, voting against the deal would be political suicide for the DUP.
Vote in Westminster
The deal then clearly isolates the DUP who are out of sync by supporting Brexit. That’s one of the key reasons they say they can’t support the deal in Saturday’s vote in Westminster.
Coming down to the wire, Johnson agreed to retain the strong commitments given by previous prime minister Theresa May that the UK would remain closely aligned with the EU. The last thing Brussels wanted was the prospect of a low-wage, low regulatory state operating off its shores, undermining its social, environmental and tax policies.
Now, after three years of talks, it all comes down to Saturday’s parliamentary arithmetic. And we’ve all be there before. Trouble is, no one knows what happens if the deal is rejected.
Mick O’Reilly is the GulfNews Foreign Correspondent based in Europe