The crowd of journalists, functionaries, trade association reps, and political junkies hovering in Brussels for fresh Brexit news grew over the course of the last week following what appeared to be a positive meeting between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. That meeting set the stage for what became intensified EU-UK negotiations over the weekend culminating in agreement at this week’s European Summit on a revised Withdrawal Agreement to govern an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU. The prevailing view that getting the EU back to the table might be a mountain too high for the UK to climb gave way to realisation of what long had been suspected: the EU has wiggle room.
Following months of emphatic statements by the EU that the agreement negotiated by predecessor Prime Minister Theresa may could be “re-opened” for negotiation, the EU did just that. The UK reversed its earlier rejection of any customs border that could “carve up” the UK and the EU rescinded its long-standing insistence that the UK, as a non-Member State, could not conduct customs checks for the EU. These concessions laid the groundwork for a unique arrangement whereby Northern Ireland would be part of the UK’s customs territory but also would be required to follow EU customs rules. Checks on goods exported from England, Wales and Scotland that present a risk of entering the EU market, i.e., not remaining in Northern Ireland, would ensure payment of EU tariffs The arrangement does not require any change on the side of the EU.
Crucial to reaching agreement was a new “consent mechanism” that gives Northern Ireland power to decide whether to continue or terminate the arrangement after four years and every four years after. It was this consent mechanism that enabled the EU to abandon its previously untouchable “backstop” that would have kept the UK permanently in the EU’s customs union if the EU and the UK were unable to conclude a trade deal by the end of a transition period scheduled under the Withdrawal Agreement to end on 31 December 2020.
The big question is whether Johnson can summit the next challenge. With a minority government, Prime Minister Boris Johnson must keep the party faithful, but also convince others to cross party lines, to obtain the 320 votes in the UK Parliament to ratify the revised Agreement. The vote will take place in an extraordinary sitting on Saturday, 19 October. Further complicating matters, opposition parties intend to push for a second referendum but are yet to agree on the best way to achieve it. Should Johnson fail to achieve a majority, the Benn Act, passed by the Parliament in September to avoid a “hard” Brexit, requires the Prime Minister to write to the EU before midnight to seek an extension until 31 January 2020. The vigil outside the UK Parliament is in full swing but with much less hope of white smoke.