British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and leaders of the European Union reached a tentative agreement on Thursday for the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU.
The final agreement is similar to the deal that Johnson proposed earlier in October. While the deal is substantially similar for England, Scotland, and Wales as former Prime Minister Theresa May’s rejected plan, its treatment of Northern Ireland is dramatically different than previous attempts at a negotiated withdrawal agreement. The controversial “backstop,” which would have ensured that the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland remained open and without checkpoints indefinitely, was dropped from the proposal. In its place, Johnson’s new deal proposes for Northern Ireland to exit the EU customs union along with the rest of the UK, joining in any future trade agreements made by the UK. However, Northern Ireland would still remain within the EU regulatory market and pay EU taxes on goods. Goods destined for Northern Ireland from the other members of UK would be inspected and taxed based on UK-EU customs at ports of exit from England, Scotland, and Wales before they arrived in Northern Ireland. If the goods were then sold within Northern Ireland, the vendor could apply for a refund of those customs. The Northern Ireland Assembly would meet every 4 years to renew this economic relationship.
In a statement, Johnson called the deal a “great deal” for the UK and a “very good deal” for the EU. He added that the deal represents the best chance for the UK to “decide our future together” and “take back control, as the phrase goes, of our money, our borders, our laws, together.”
EU president Donald Tusk said that the new deal “allows us to avoid chaos and an atmosphere of conflict between the EU27 and the United Kingdom.” However, he lamented the Brexit decision, saying “in my heart, I will always be a Remainer” and that the “door will always be open” if Britain wishes to rejoin the EU.
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called for rejecting the deal, describing it as a “race to the bottom” and “an even worse deal than Theresa May’s.”
Most worrying for Johnson, though, is the vocal opposition to the deal by the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP, which controls 10 seats in the House of Commons, have been stalwart allies of Johnson’s government. In a press release, the DUP warned that it will be “unable to support” the proposal. The statement described the imposition of the new split economic scheme for Northern Ireland as a “bad deal” for the country, subjecting them to higher taxes and different regulation from the rest of the UK with no say in their implementation. Without the seats controlled by the DUP and with the continued defection of moderate Conservative party MPs, it is unclear if Johnson will have the majority necessary to pass the deal unless he can convince members of the Labour Party to cross the aisle.
The House of Commons agreed on Thursday night to sit in a special Saturday session on October 19 to consider the proposal. This is only the fifth time the body has met on a Saturday in the last century. If Parliament does not ratify the new agreement, Johnson will be required by the Benn Act passed in September to seek an extension of the Brexit deadline.