Boris Johnson has agreed the terms of a Brexit deal, paving the way for a historic vote in the UK Parliament on Saturday that could finally see the UK leave the European Union. Negotiators in Brussels worked intensely on Wednesday and Thursday to reach an agreement on a revised version of the withdrawal agreement which both the UK and the EU welcomed.
The new Brexit deal is essentially the old Brexit deal with few key tweaks to the political declaration but the one major difference between Johnson’s and Theresa May’s deal is the Northern Ireland border. May’s deal included the backstop - a sort of safety net to keep the island of Ireland from a hard border in the event a thorough trade deal could not be established. This was widely criticised, faulted for keeping the UK tied to the customs union without a say in it.
In the new deal, Northern Ireland will be in the UK customs territory ‘forever’ and will benefit from any free trade deals the UK strikes. However, there will be a ‘special arrangement’ for Northern Ireland, ‘reflecting the unique circumstances there’. There will be no hard border between the two Irelands, as Northern Ireland will remain aligned with the single market on goods, but checks and procedures will take place at ports and airports, and not at the border. This means UK authorities will have responsibility for applying the EU rules in Northern Ireland. This will be underpinned by the principle of ‘democratic consent’, and Northern Ireland will have the ability to leave the arrangement through a vote in the NI Assembly. But this vote would not happen until four years after the end of the transition period that is due to run until the end of 2020 - so no earlier than January 2025. If the Northern Irish Assembly votes against the provisions, they would lose force two years later during which time the "joint committee" would make recommendations to the UK and EU on "necessary measures". If the Assembly accepts the continuing provisions by a simple majority, they will then apply for another four years. If the deal has "cross-community support" then they will apply for eight years, or until a new agreement on the future relationship is reached if that comes sooner.
During the Brexit talks, the EU worried that the U.K. could apply VAT rates to goods in Northern Ireland that were lower than those of the Republic of Ireland, undermining the single market. Under the Northern Ireland protocol, EU rules on VAT and excise duties will apply in Northern Ireland, with the U.K. responsible for their collection. However, revenues resulting from transactions taxable in Northern Ireland will be retained by the U.K. rather than being remitted to the EU. DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy Nigel Dodds put out a joint statement laying out their concerns with the draft VAT terms. The pair said: “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 new Political Declaration sets out the broad direction for the future relationship with the EU, with both sides committing to a "comprehensive and balanced Free Trade Agreement" with "zero tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions" between the two sides.
The next challenge for Johnson is to get enough support to pass the deal through Parliament, particularly from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Union Party, particularly as the Johnson's governing partners which lends the government 10 votes have already said they do not support.
"These proposals are not, in our view, beneficial to the economic well-being of Northern Ireland and they undermine the integrity of the Union," a party representative said.
They added that the party "will be unable to support these proposals in Parliament."
Labour have already called it a ‘sell-out deal’ with leader Jeremy Corbyn saying there should be a second referendum so that voters get the final say. He said the new deal was worse than the one Theresa May negotiated, which was rejected by Westminster three times.
If the deal is voted down in the U.K. parliament on Saturday, Johnson would likely have to seek another extension to negotiations under the terms of the Benn Act, a new law designed to prevent a no-deal Brexit. The EU could refuse to give the U.K. more time, which would leave MPs with the choice of backing Johnson’s deal or leaving without a deal.