The EU and U.K. agreed a new Brexit deal Thursday — but plenty of political hurdles remain before Britain exits the bloc.
Word of an agreement came as EU leaders were en route to Brussels for a crucial European Council summit. Negotiators have worked intensively in recent days hoping to clinch a new divorce decree before Thursday’s summit, and it seems they have met that deadline just under the wire.
However, once the text of the deal is agreed by EU27 leaders, it must then be ratified by both the U.K. and European parliaments. Several factions in the U.K. parliament were quick to voice their dissent, including Boris Johnson’s partners in government, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party who issued a strongly worded statement opposing the deal. The opposition Labour Party also criticized the agreement.
The DUP, who also blocked a previous pact negotiated by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, are key to any deal clearing the House of Commons, in part because Johnson does not command a majority and also because many Tory Brexiteers have said they are looking to the DUP when deciding how to vote.
Time is now tight given Johnson’s self-imposed deadline to pull the U.K. out of the European Union by October 31.
“This sell out deal won’t bring the country together and should be rejected” — Jeremy Corbyn, opposition Labour Party leader
A big obstacle had been how to redraw the so-called backstop provision on how to manage the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, in the event that an envisioned Brexit transition period ends on December 31, 2020 without a free-trade agreement in place.
The major breakthrough seemed to come when Johnson agreed to an EU demand for a single customs and regulatory border effectively placed in the Irish Sea, that would leave Northern Ireland following a “limited set” of EU customs rules related to goods but remaining in the U.K.’s customs territory. While that represents a clear rewriting of the deal the EU had previously negotiated with Theresa May, it is actually a return to a similar arrangement that May had proclaimed no British prime minister could accept.
In return, the EU27, notably with Ireland giving a green light, agreed to a mechanism that would give the joint government in Northern Ireland the ability to vote to exit the EU customs rules after four years.
Speaking at a press conference as the deal was announced, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said Northern Ireland would “benefit from the U.K.’s future trade policy” but that “Northern Ireland will also remain an entry point into our single market.”
“So what have we done to square this circle?” Barnier asked. The answer appears to be a creative fudge.
“U.K. authorities can apply U.K. tariffs on products coming from third countries so long as those goods entering Northern Ireland are not at risk of entering our single market,” he said. “However for goods at risk of entering the single market, U.K. authorities will apply the EU’s tariffs.” Barnier did not explain how officials would ascertain which goods might be at such risk for entry into the EU market.
He said that the two sides had resolved a disagreement over the application of value-added tax, but did not offer details.
The details of both the new customs arrangement and the new consent mechanism are likely to be among the most scrutinized sections of a legal text that will be delivered to EU diplomats by midday Thursday.
However, a senior official from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party insisted the party does not support the agreement between London and Brussels, pointing to an earlier statement issued by party leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds.
“As things stand, we could not support what is being suggested on customs and consent issues and there is a lack of clarity on VAT,” the pair said.
“We will continue to work with the government to try and get a sensible deal that works for Northern Ireland and protects the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom.”
A No. 10 spokesperson told a regular briefing of journalists that the prime minister had a call with the DUP last night, but could not confirm that he had spoken to them this morning. The spokesperson said he is “in regular contact” with the DUP.
Johnson spoke to Juncker twice on Thursday morning in the hours before the deal was announced but has not yet briefed his Cabinet, the spokesperson said. The two men held a brief press conference in Brussels Thursday afternoon during which Johnson said: “I just remind you of what I always say, that we are a quintessentially European country, solid European friends, neighbors and supporters and we look forward to working with you.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that it seems Johnson has negotiated an “even worse” deal than his predecessor Theresa May.
“This sell out deal won’t bring the country together and should be rejected. The best way to get Brexit sorted is to give the people the final say in a public vote.”
Corbyn told reporters as he arrived at a meeting of European Socialist leaders in Brussels. “It also appears to be a very high-wire act because [Boris Johnson] doesn’t have the support apparently of his own allies in parliament,” Corbyn added.
Asked whether Labour would push for a no-confidence vote in the Conservative government on Saturday, Corbyn said: “This weekend is the weekend to discuss the prime minister’s agreement … and parliament will vote on that on Saturday afternoon. I think other issues are for next week.”
EU and U.K. negotiators previously reached an accord on a Brexit divorce decree, but it was rejected three times by the British parliament, leading Theresa May to resign as prime minister.
🇪🇺🤝🇬🇧 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. I recommend that #EUCO endorses this deal. pic.twitter.com/7AfKyCZ6k9
— Jean-Claude Juncker (@JunckerEU) October 17, 2019
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 like the cost of living, the NHS, violent crime and our environment #GetBrexitDone #TakeBackControl
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) October 17, 2019
This article has been updated with additional details. Eddy Wax contributed reporting.