Boris Johnson’s new Brexit deal sets stage for Saturday showdown in London

, by Juuso Järviniemi

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Boris Johnson's new Brexit deal sets stage for Saturday showdown in London
Boris Johnson has succeeded in striking a deal with the EU. Arno Mikkor

After a last-minute scramble, and against all odds, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has managed to renegotiate Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Though Jean-Claude Juncker already says “Brexit is happening”, it’s still far from clear whether Johnson can get his deal through the British Parliament.

On Saturday, just a handful of votes may decide whether the deal passes, or whether Johnson is forced to ask for a new extension. Meanwhile, up to a million pro-Europeans will be marching down London’s streets calling for a new Brexit extension and a referendum.

What’s in the new Brexit deal?

The negotiations had already long been declared closed, but Boris Johnson was determined to change Theresa May’s original Brexit deal that he voted against last winter. As always, the main sticking point was the question of Northern Ireland. Johnson was always deeply opposed to the so-called “backstop” solution, and he did manage to replace it.

However, like Theresa May’s deal, Boris Johnson’s solution also separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. The British negotiators accepted customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, so that checkpoints don’t need to be arranged at the contentious Northern Irish border.

In terms of regulation, Northern Ireland will remain aligned with the EU. The new Brexit deal includes a transition period until the end of 2020, “during which nothing will change”, in the words of the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. After that, if no new solution has been found by then, the Brexit deal’s provisions for preventing a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and Ireland will apply for four years – effectively, a backstop with a different name.

Finally, in around 2025, the Northern Irish Assembly would be asked whether to keep being aligned with EU regulations. The assembly can accept a four-year extension, or an eight-year one if the extension gets enough support from both British-minded Unionists and Irish-minded nationalists. The eight-year extension would take us to the 2030s. Simple as that.

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose support has been crucial for the Conservative government over the past two years, stated that it cannot support the deal. The party believes the trade arrangements of the new deal set Northern Ireland too far from the rest of the UK.

At the same time, the Labour Party is also set to vote against the deal on Saturday. The party’s main Brexit spokesperson Keir Starmer tweeted that the “Political Declaration” attached to the deal, which gives non-binding commitments on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, details an unacceptably distant economic relationship between the UK and the EU.

Some observers pointed out that legal obligations for the UK to maintain a “level playing field” for trade with the EU by not slashing its standards are no longer in the deal, but rather in the non-binding “Political Declaration”. However, the EU is expected to require the UK to align with it before a future free trade agreement can be agreed.

Westminster drama on a Saturday

This week, the UK Parliament will have its first Saturday sitting since the Falklands War in 1982. As per the “Benn Act” passed in Parliament last month, Boris Johnson must request a Brexit extension by Saturday night unless British MPs back a new deal by then. Saturday will be the opportunity for MPs to vote for Johnson’s deal and thus obviate the need for an extension. If the deal wins the Parliament’s backing on Saturday, formal ratification would still have to take place at another date.

Given that Labour and the DUP are against the deal, Boris Johnson faces an uphill struggle to get the deal through. Besides his own party, and the 21 MPs he has kicked out of his party since becoming Prime Minister, Johnson will need support from more than a dozen Labour MPs to get a majority behind his deal.

At the same time, the pro-Remain People’s Vote campaign will hold a large-scale march in London. Like in March, more than a million people are expected to join the march on Saturday. To complete the circus, the same day will also see an Extinction Rebellion protest in London.

Will there be a new Brexit extension?

The People’s Vote campaign calls for a new referendum on Brexit. Whether the referendum is on Boris Johnson’s deal or on something else, it’s clear that a public vote can’t be held without yet another Brexit extension. At the European Council meeting today, Jean-Claude Juncker already said there is “not an argument for further delay”, and that Brexit “has to be done now”. However, today’s European Council conclusions on Brexit don’t comment on the topic of extension at all. At a press conference, Donald Tusk said he would “consult member states to see how to react” if the UK requests a new extension – in other words, the door for an extension is not yet closed.

So far, the EU has appeared willing to grant an extension for the UK to have a new election, or a new Brexit referendum. This Saturday, the UK Parliament could in theory endorse a referendum, but such an option seems unlikely. Unless Johnson finally wins a parliamentary vote – after a long series of defeats since becoming Prime Minister – it may well be that the UK Parliament once again votes ‘against something, but not for anything’.

At the same time, the only thing holding the UK back from a snap election is the pro-European opposition parties’ insistence that a Brexit extension has to be secured before the Parliament closes down for the election campaign. Patience in some EU capitals is wafer thin, but at the same time everyone can see that a new election – and hopefully a new majority government capable of ending the Westminster deadlock – is in sight.

Having secured a new Brexit deal at the last minute, EU leaders might be called on to save the UK from a no-deal exit one more time if Johnson loses on Saturday. Only time will tell if it’s “one more time”, or “just one last time”.

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