When British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged members of Parliament to back his Brexit deal, he framed the looming vote as a chance to “heal the rift in British politics” and “bring the country together.” But in the end, Saturday mainly proved how difficult overcoming the deep Brexit divides will be: Parliament postponed Johnson’s moment of reckoning by voting to withhold approval.
The delay increases the likelihood of parliamentary manoeuvres that could derail or alter Johnson’s plans, but Johnson isn’t heading toward certain defeat. He could still secure approval for his deal, perhaps without having to make use of the Brexit extension beyond October 31, which Johnson was forced to request. After more than three years of uncertainty, there might be a tight majority for his agreement.
In case his deal is approved, Johnson is likely to celebrate himself as the man who got “Brexit done” — a phrase he has frequently used in the past. But in reality, the United Kingdom’s Brexit woes are here to stay. Many of the Brexit concerns that have been on Britons’ minds in recent years — a break-up of the United Kingdom or the possibility of severe economic ramifications, for instance — would remain a risk, even if Johnson’s deal is approved.
Northern Ireland is expected to remain at the Centre of the Brexit debate one way or another. So far, concerns have mostly focused on a “no deal” outcome, which would trigger the introduction of border controls and could disrupt the Good Friday Agreement.
That agreement ushered in a more peaceful era for Northern Ireland in the late 1990s, after a bloody conflict between Nationalists, who favoured unifying with the Republic of Ireland, and Unionists, who backed remaining part of the United Kingdom.
Johnson’s proposed deal would avoid the reintroduction of border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but only because it would, in practice, move the customs border into the Irish Sea, which separates the islands of Great Britain and Ireland.
Even though Northern Ireland would leave the EU customs union with the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland would — at least initially — in some aspects remain aligned with the European Union.
That’s a major headache for Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party (DUP), which has so far backed the Conservative Party in Parliament but won’t support Johnson’s deal. The party fears that his plans would drive Great Britain and Northern Ireland apart and could lead to Northern Ireland eventually unifying with the Republic of Ireland.
Even though Northern Ireland would leave the EU customs union with the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland would — at least initially — in some aspects remain aligned with the European Union
The Irish issue
“Paradoxically Johnson and Brexit may have done more for a united Ireland than the [Irish Republican Army] ever did,” Jonathan Powell, a former adviser to prime minister and Labour party leader Tony Blair, wrote in the Financial Times over the weekend. Poll numbers indicate that support for unification is on the rise in Northern Ireland.
Those advocating a break with the United Kingdom could see a similar rise in support in Scotland, where First Minister and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon has been rallying support for a second independence referendum. Five years ago, Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom, but — like Northern Irish voters — Scots predominantly backed remaining in the EU in 2016.
Last week, Sturgeon reiterated that “it is clearer than ever that the best future for Scotland is one as an equal, independent European nation.”
There is no indication that the approval of a Brexit deal would hurt Johnson’s critics in Northern Ireland and Scotland. In fact, the opposite might be true.
If Parliament passes his deal, the basics of the United Kingdom’s current relationship with the EU would remain unchanged until at least the end of next year, giving negotiators time to prepare a potential free-trade deal and settle other aspects related to future EU-British ties.
Ironically, all of this — including Johnson’s deal itself — would constitute a more radical break with the EU than even some Brexiteers proposed back in 2016.
Since 2016, however, the British electorate appears to have moved in the exact opposite direction. Whereas few “leave” or “remain” voters appear to have changed their minds on Brexit, polls have still started to show a consistent preference for remaining in the EU for at least a year.
Pollsters argue that the growing support for remaining in the EU is mostly due to demographic change. Younger Britons who have reached the voting age since 2016 are predominantly in favour of staying in the European Union.
As the idea of a confirmatory referendum on Johnson’s deal appears to be gaining momentum among the opposition Labour Party, there is a theoretical chance that British voters’ increasingly pro-remain attitude could still derail Johnson’s plans, even if Parliament passes the deal. The emphasis here, of course, should be on “theoretical.”
Brexit has consistently proved to be unpredictable. After more than three years, there does appear to be one certainty, however: Whatever happens, Brexit won’t just be “done,” as Johnson is suggesting.
Rick Noack is a specialist on Europe and international security issues