UK, EU hail new Brexit deal, but Parliament sign-off hangs in balance

PTI
Thursday, 17 October 2019

"We've got a great new deal that takes back control," Johnson tweeted

LONDON: The UK and the European Union (EU) on Thursday declared that they have agreed a new Brexit deal for Britain's withdrawal from the 28-member economic bloc within the October 31 deadline.

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed the agreement as a "great new deal", EU President Jean Claude-Juncker branded it a "fair and balanced agreement" as he recommended it for member-countries to be ratified at an EU summit underway in Brussels this week.

However, the new deal continues to hang in the balance as it remains to be seen if Johnson would have the required numbers in Parliament to get it through. He is faced with an open revolt by the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which supports his Conservative Party government in the Commons.

"We've got a great new deal that takes back control," Johnson tweeted, just before heading to Brussels to join other EU leaders for the crucial summit.

Juncker took to Twitter to say: "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."

In a letter recommending the deal to European Council President Donald Tusk, Juncker wrote: "It is high time to complete the withdrawal process and move on, as swiftly as possible, to the negotiation on the European Union's future partnership with the United Kingdom."

Both leaders have urged their respective Parliaments, in the UK and EU, to back the new deal which is heavily similar to the agreement struck by Johnson's predecessor Theresa May.

The crucial difference lies in the missing controversial backstop, which hard Brexiteers had opposed as a threat of being tied to EU rules long after Brexit.

A Downing Street spokesperson confirmed the deal gets rid of the backstop the "insurance policy" to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, which saw Theresa May's version of the deal defeated several times in the House of Commons.

But almost immediately the DUP made it clear that it cannot sign off on the deal as it stands due to concerns that Northern Ireland would be treated differently from the rest of the UK on customs and VAT.

"We have been involved in ongoing discussions with the government. 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, a DUP statement 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 UK," it added.

The Opposition parties are equally opposed to the deal, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn saying the deal sounded "even worse" than what was negotiated by Theresa May, and "should be rejected" by MPs.

"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," said Corbyn, as he called for a second referendum.

Anti-Brexit Liberal Democratic leader Jo Swinson added her party would not support the deal as it was bad for the UK economy.

"The next few days will set the direction of our country for generations, and I am more determined than ever to stop Brexit, she said.

Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon also said her party's MPs would vote against the deal and anti-EU Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage also called for the deal to be rejected.

The House of Commons will sit on Saturday, the first weekend sitting in 37 years, to discuss the proposal following the EU summit in Brussels. The government will put forward the new agreement for a vote, which it said had the support of the UK Cabinet.

Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator on Brexit, said the deal agreed would last until the end of the transition period, which is due to finish at the end of 2020. The UK has also agreed to pay its financial commitments to the EU the so-called divorce bill estimated to be 39 billion pounds.

"This text should provide legal certainty in every area where Brexit, like any separation, creates uncertainty," he said of the agreed text.

The new deal rests on the fact that Northern Ireland will remain aligned to a limited set of EU rules, notably related to goods. The region will be in the UK's customs territory, but will "remain an entry point" into the EU's single market the point of contention for the DUP.

And, Northern Ireland representatives will be able to decide whether to continue applying such rules for the region every four years. That decision would be based on a simple majority, rather than requiring a majority of both unionists and nationalists those for closer alignment with the UK and those opposed to it to support the rules in order for them to pass.

The DUP has been in a confidence and supply agreement with the Conservative Party since the 2017 election, which, in the past, gave the government a working majority. But after resignations and the removal of the party whip from more than 20 Tory MPs in recent weeks, Johnson now faces an extremely unfavourable arithmetic in the Commons to get any bills through.

Johnson took charge on the central pledge of getting Brexit done within the deadline, with or without a deal, but his hands have since been slightly tied after the Parliament voted to bind him to seek an extension unless a deal had been agreed in time for a crucial EU summit in Brussels this week.

Britain had voted to leave the EU in a referendum in June 2016 by 52 per cent to 48 per cent. 

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