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Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal mostly ‘cut and pasted’ from May’s

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street to head for the House of Commons as parliament discusses Brexit, sitting on a Saturday for the first time since the Falklands War, in London, October 19, 2019.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Downing Street to head for the House of Commons as parliament discusses Brexit, sitting on a Saturday for the first time since the Falklands War, in London, October 19, 2019. Simon Dawson, Reuters

Prime Minister Boris Johnson still faces an uphill battle getting his Brexit deal approved by the UK parliament. But except for replacing the contentious “backstop” with proposals to ensure an open border in Ireland, his agreement is similar to that of his predecessor – which was rejected by legislators three times.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has touted his Brexit agreement as a “great new deal that takes back control” – but less than 5 percent of it differs from his predecessor Theresa May’s proposal (which he voted against twice), according to an analysis by The Guardian.

“Most of the Johnson deal is cut and pasted from Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement,” according to Jill Rutter, programme director at the Institute for Government, in a Twitter post. 

If the House of Commons eventually passes the prime minister’s agreement, the UK would pay a “divorce bill” on its outstanding commitments to the EU budget, estimated at £33 billion (€33.4 billion). The rights of EU citizens living in the UK and British subjects in the EU would also be guaranteed.

There would still be a “transition period”, during which the two sides would discuss their future relationship, while the UK would remain under EU rules until December 2020, when the UK would leave the EU single market and customs union.

Johnson plans to strike a free-trade deal with the EU during the transition period. The kind of arrangement the prime minister envisages – in which there would be no tariffs or quotas on trade between the EU and the UK, but there would be regulatory barriers because of the latter being outside the single market and customs union – would cost Britain between 4.9 and 6.7 percent in GDP growth over 15 years, according to the government’s own analysis.

Irish border ‘moves, in effect, into the Irish Sea’

The only part of the deal that has been changed relates to Northern Ireland, with the controversial “backstop” removed. The original proposal would have kept the UK under some EU rules until both sides agreed on new arrangements to ensure an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – a key feature of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence.

The backstop was anathema to many right-wing Tory backbenchers – who provoked May’s downfall by repeatedly rejecting her deal, and then formed the bedrock of support for Johnson’s successful Conservative leadership campaign – because it could have kept the UK bound to some EU laws indefinitely.

Under Johnson’s agreement, the Northern Irish border will remain open; there will be no customs checks on the frontier between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. Instead of the backstop to guarantee this, there will be customs checks on goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

This means that the Irish border “moves, in effect, into the Irish Sea”, noted Katy Haywood, a senior fellow at the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank, in a Twitter post.

Customs checks in Irish Sea ‘real problem for DUP’

Northern Ireland will still abide by EU laws for at least four years after the transition period ends in December 2020. At the end of that four-year period, the Northern Irish regional parliament will vote by a simple majority on whether to stay aligned with EU rules, regardless of whether the assembly is sitting. If at least 60 percent of representatives – and at least 40 percent of both the unionist and nationalist blocs – vote in favour, the arrangement will continue for another eight years.

Unsurprisingly, the prospect of a de facto border in the Irish Sea means that Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) plans to vote against Johnson’s deal. The hardline unionist party is the Tories’ ally in Westminster, and the Conservatives’ lack of a parliamentary majority means its 10 MPs are key to getting any legislation passed. “It isn’t Brexit for the whole of the United Kingdom,” the DUP’s deputy leader Nigel Dodds told journalists.

“The hard border in the Irish Sea is a real problem for them,” wrote Jonathan Powell, former prime minister Tony Blair’s chief negotiator for the Good Friday Agreement, in the Irish Times this week.

“It will grow wider over time as the UK diverges in terms of regulation and as we introduce new tariffs,” Powell continued. “And that widening border will threaten their British identity.”

Under Johnson’s deal, Northern Ireland will remain in the UK customs territory for trade with countries outside the European single market – so the province will be included in any post-Brexit trade deals the UK makes with such nations.

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