Britain narrowly voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU
Brussels (AFP) - European Union leaders endorsed a hard-fought Brexit deal with Britain on Thursday, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces an uphill battle getting it through the British parliament.
A summit of EU leaders “endorsed this deal and it looks like we are very close to the final stretch,” EU Council summit host Donald Tusk told reporters after the meeting.
European leaders said they hoped the deal would pass. But despite optimism from Johnson, British opposition parties and Johnson’s own allies in the House of Commons were quick to warn they would not support it when it goes to a vote in a special sitting on Saturday.
If the deal is defeated, the prime minister is obliged under British law to ask EU leaders to postpone Brexit beyond the current October 31 deadline for what would be the third time.
Johnson insisted he was “very confident” MPs would back the deal, but the immediate response from all opposition parties and even his coalition partners was hostile.
Juncker sought to focus MPs’ minds, saying there was no need for a delay.
“We have a deal, and this deal means there is no need for any kind of prolongation,” he told reporters – although the decision will be for EU leaders, not him.
- ‘Get Brexit done’ -
Johnson, a leader of the 2016 Brexit referendum vote who has vowed to leave the EU at the end of this month, said he had secured a “great new deal that takes back control”.
He urged MPs “to come together to get Brexit done, to get this excellent deal over the line and to deliver Brexit without any more delay.”
The deal is a personal victory for Johnson, who was told repeatedly by EU leaders that they were not open to reworking a deal initially inked last year.
The pound rose on news of the deal, but then sank again
But it could quickly turn to defeat if the House of Commons – which rejected a previous divorce text three times – again refuses to play ball.
The immediate reaction was negative.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up Johnson’s Conservatives, said it “will be unable to support these proposals”.
The main opposition Labour, Scottish National and Liberal Democrat parties also spoke out against it.
Their response sent the pound sinking again after it had earlier risen to five-month peaks on news of the deal.
- ‘No Irish border’ -
The draft agreement was forged just weeks before Britain was due to leave the bloc, ending more than four decades of close economic and political ties with its nearest neighbours.
Weeks of tense negotiations focused on changing the arrangements to keep open the border between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
All sides agree they do not want infrastructure on the frontier, to avoid exacerbating tensions over Britain’s control of Northern Ireland that caused decades of deadly violence up until the 1990s.
The new plan would keep the United Kingdom as a single customs territory, allowing it to strike international trade deals, but requiring London to levy EU tariffs on certain goods passing through Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland would also follow the EU’s rules on agricultural, food and industrial goods.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called on MPs to approve the deal
“There will be no border on the island of Ireland and the (EU’s) single market will be protected,” Juncker said.
But it would involve some customs and tax checks between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, and the DUP warned the plans “undermine the integrity of the union”.
Northern Ireland’s regional assembly would be given a vote every four years on whether to maintain the arrangements, but the DUP warned that did not go far enough.
- Referendum call -
Johnson has assured his European counterparts that he can get the deal through parliament, and French President Emmanuel Macron said he was “reasonably confident” the deal could be ratified.
But he has no majority among MPs, and his threat to leave the EU with or without a deal this month has exacerbated existing divisions in parliament.
Chronology of Brexit negotiations
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the only way out was for a second referendum, amid speculation such a motion could be put to MPs at Saturday’s sitting.
However, it is not clear there is enough support in the House of Commons for a new referendum, and Johnson’s government is strongly opposed.
Opinion polls show Britons remain deeply divided over Brexit, although the balance has shifted slightly in favour of staying in the EU.
Labour’s objection to the current deal is focused on changes to the political declaration on future trade ties which accompanies the divorce terms.
It paves the way for much looser ties between Britain and the EU than was previously envisaged, as part of a free trade agreement.