Brexit showdown in Commons on Saturday as UK, EU get nearer to divorce

Topics Brexit

CHALLENGES AHEAD: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at the European Union leaders’ summit in Brussels | Reuters
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission (EC), the administrative wing of the European Union (EU), threw a lifeline to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson by ruling out on Thursday an extension to the Brexit negotiation period beyond October 31. 

He said in answer to a question: “If we have a deal, we have a deal and there is no need for prolongation.”

This put pressure on wavering British MPs to seriously consider voting in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement, arrived at between the EC and the British government and announced earlier in the day. 

Johnson is obliged under a law passed by the House of Commons last month to apply for a three-month extension if the Commons does not endorse his deal and there is, consequently, a no-deal scenario. But if the EU spurns such a request, the default position is a no-deal.

The pound slipped against the dollar and the euro as it dawned on the currency markets in London that it would be difficult to obtain a parliamentary nod from the House of Commons to the deal.

Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU), of which it has been a member since its inception in 1993, apart from being part of its predecessor body for 20 years prior to that, continued to hang in the balance. 

The Withdrawal Agreement is a revised version of the one reached when Theresa May was prime minister. If accepted by all parties, it will trigger a transition period, in the course of which the two sides will endeavour to reach a free-trade agreement and the UK will also be free to seek trade pacts with countries outside the EU.

“We’ve got a great new deal that takes back control,” Johnson exultantly tweeted. The agreement is expected to be approved by heads of government of EU countries during the current two-day European Council summit, which concludes on Friday.

However, the deal needs majority support in the House of Commons, a directly elected body. There was uncertainty on Thursday as to whether Johnson could carry the House with him when it congregates quite unusually on Saturday. 

Johnson’s deal drops the “back-stop” arrangement, opprobrious to hard Brexiteers in the Commons. The new wording acknowledges “Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom”, but at the same time concedes it will de facto be a part of the EU’s customs union. 

There will in other words be a Customs and regulation border between Northern Ireland, which is on the island of Ireland, and mainland Britain in the middle of the Irish Sea, which flows between the two land masses. Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement embodies: “No Customs duties shall be payable for a good brought into Northern Ireland from another part of the United Kingdom by direct transport… unless that good is at risk of subsequently being moved into the (European) Union...” 

The same Article clarifies that Customs duties on goods shipped directly to Northern Ireland by a third country, such as India, “shall be the duties applicable in the United Kingdom”.

A deal against all odds is for the time being a victory for Johnson. Also, the British public after three and a half years of frustration and uncertainty is in a mood to “get Brexit done”.  A special Irish economic zone was necessitated to preserve the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which provides for free movements of people, goods, and services between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which will continue to be a member state of the EU, and has ushered in peace in previously terrorism-torn Northern Ireland.

But the hardline, protestant, and pro-British Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — the largest political formation in the region — posted a statement: “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.” 

This means the DUP not only objects to a customs and regulatory border on the Irish Sea, but to it not having veto powers to ratify and renew the deal. A simple majority in the Northern Irish Assembly, which has separatists as well loyalists, rival Catholics, and Protestants in its fold, will suffice.

The leader of the main Opposition party, Jeremy Corbyn, too, was negative. “From what we know,” he stated, “it seems the prime minister has negotiated an even worse deal than Theresa May’s, which was overwhelmingly rejected.” He warned it would put food safety at risk, would cut environmental standards and workers’ rights, and open up Britain’s free National Health Service “to a takeover by US private corporations”. 

The Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats are also committed to voting against Johnson’s deal.

While three-line whips will undoubtedly be enforced by all parties when the vote in the Commons takes place, an MP defying this does not lose his or her membership of the House. Johnson hopes the Conservative MPs who voted against a no-deal Brexit will support his deal, as will Labour MPs representing leave constituencies. 

But the endorsement of the 10 DUP MPs could be critical to cross the line.

In June 2016, the British electorate, rather against pollsters’ expectations, voted 52 per cent to 48 per cent in favour of leaving the EU. Then prime minister David Cameron, who called the referendum, resigned immediately. His successor, May, arrived at a consensus with Brussels, but could not convince the Commons. She, too, stepped down in July. 

Contrary to the rosy claims made by leavers in the referendum campaign, it has proved to be a tortuous experience for Britain to extricate itself from its deep-rooted 46-year relations with the EU.

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