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Thursday, Nov 21, 2019

Boris Johnson strikes Brexit deal with EU; Commons next

The agreement announced in Brussels is an updated version of the December 2018 deal reached by former Prime Minister Theresa May.

india Updated: Oct 17, 2019 23:29 IST
HT Correspondent and Agencies
HT Correspondent and Agencies
London
After weeks of tortuous talks, British PM Boris Johnson’s government on Thursday reached an agreement with the European Union on leaving the bloc.
After weeks of tortuous talks, British PM Boris Johnson’s government on Thursday reached an agreement with the European Union on leaving the bloc.(Reuters image)
         

After weeks of tortuous talks, British PM Boris Johnson’s government on Thursday reached an agreement with the European Union on leaving the bloc, but faced an uphill task to secure the approval of the House of Commons on Saturday, with a key ally opposed to it.

The agreement announced in Brussels is an updated version of the December 2018 deal reached by former Prime Minister Theresa May. It was voted down thrice in parliament, prompting her resignation and Johnson staking his position on a “deal or no-deal Brexit”.

The latest agreement needs to be approved by the House of Commons and 27 parliaments of EU member-states before the scheduled Brexit date of October 31. Soon after the agreement was announced, there were already voices of dissent in London.

The agreement marks a compromise on the part of both London and Brussels on the key issue of Northern Ireland, with political and other implications on the geographically separated part of the United Kingdom on the island of Ireland.

Ever since negotiations began more than two years ago, the key hurdle has been finding a way to keep goods and people flowing freely across the border between EU member Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland — the only land border between the UK and the bloc. An open border is vital to the regional economy, and underpins Northern Ireland’s peace process.

May’s rejected deal contained a policy known as the backstop that kept Northern Ireland in harmony with EU trade and customs rules to eliminate the need for border checks. But that was opposed by Brexit-supporting British lawmakers, who said it would hamper Britain’s ability to strike new trade deals around the world.

Johnson has insisted that all of the UK -- including Northern Ireland -- must leave the bloc’s customs union, which would seem to make border checks and tariffs inevitable.

The proposed deal solves the problem by keeping Northern Ireland aligned with the rules of the EU single market for goods -- so border checks are not needed -- and also eliminating customs checks at the Irish border. Instead, customs checks will be carried out and tariffs levied by Britain on goods entering Northern Ireland that are destined for the EU.

That effectively means a customs border in the Irish Sea -- a compromise by the British government, which has for long said it opposed it.

But the EU has compromised, too, by allowing Northern Ireland special access to its single market. And the deal gives Northern Ireland a say over the rules, something that was missing from May’s previous rejected agreement. After four years, the Northern Ireland Assembly will vote on whether to continue the arrangement or end it.

But the Northern Ireland-based 10-member Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has been propping up the minority Conservative government since the 2017 mid-term election, remained upset with the new provisions, and announced its decision to vote against it.

The Johnson government is already in a minority, and lost 21 more Conservative MPs in September when they voted against the government on a motion to rule out a no-deal Brexit. Johnson now is dependent on opposition MPs to ensure the agreement’s approval.

Johnson called it a “great deal” and urged MPs to come together to approve it and deliver on the outcome of the 2016 referendum to leave the EU, which has since bitterly divided the United Kingdom, its politics and public discourse.

He said: “I do think this deal represents a very good deal for the EU and the UK. I think it is a reasonable, fair outcome and reflects the large amount of work undertaken by both sides.”

EU Commission president Jean Claude-Juncker called the agreement a “fair” one, and indicated that an extension to Brexit beyond October 31 will not be needed, now that an agreement is on the table.

As the scene shifted from Brussels to Westminster, there were little indications of a major shift among the pro-Remain and pro-Leave MPs in various parties from their past positions. Debate on the agreement is due to begin on Friday and a vote held on Saturday.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “From what we know, it seems the Prime Minister has negotiated an even worse deal than Theresa May’s, which was overwhelmingly rejected.”

“These proposals risk triggering a race to the bottom on rights and protections: putting food safety at risk, cutting environmental standards and workers’ rights, and opening up our NHS {National Health Service} to a takeover by US private corporations.”

“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,” he said.