The faces said it all. The smiles of the European leaders crowded round Boris after the Brexit deal was struck. The deal his opponents – no, pretty much everyone – said was impossible.
So what’s in it? The detail is still opaque, but subject to gremlins in the fine print, the key points appear to be:
- Britain leaves the EU single market and customs union. Period.
- The parties say they will agree a zero-tariff-and-quota free trade agreement (FTA) during a short transition.
- Northern Ireland gets a curious hybrid status. It will have to align with EU rules on the production and taxation of farm products and goods (perhaps differing from mainland Britain’s rules) but at the same time will have free trade with Britain by virtue of being inside the UK customs union. Confusing but probably workable.
- This status can be changed by a majority of Northern Ireland’s electorate.
The parliamentary opposition is in spectacular disarray.
Opponents say Boris’s deal is ‘worse’ than Theresa May’s Brexit deal (translation: her deal was better because it kept the UK locked into the EU customs union). There is bold talk of rejecting the deal in the special Parliamentary session being held on Saturday morning (a double blow for MPs who are rugby fans). Rejection looks like open commitment to overturning the popular vote to leave the EU – and risking a ‘no-deal’ outcome. Courageous.
At the same time, Boris faces two threats from the pro-Brexit forces.
First, those MPs who prefer a ‘no-deal’ outcome worry that the deal leaves them too close to the EU – see this list of problems. But they risk letting the best be the enemy of the good. Their calculus: take the deal and fight for even more later – or reject and hope for ‘no-deal’. They should recall that Vote Leave only got 51.9% in the referendum.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s main unionist party is “unable to support” the deal because unionists will not be able to trigger Northern Ireland’s exit from ‘hybrid status’ on their own. While this might be a signal for future problems, it is unlikely to secure support from those Conservative party MPs who are also strong unionists.
Even if Boris loses Saturday’s parliamentary vote, odds are he will bring it on again (rather like his failed predecessor, Theresa May). The difference is that this time, the deal really is Brexit; the EU wants it; and he is more likely to win.
Help from the EU will be important. Perhaps the most brutal signal the EU could send wavering parliamentarians is to tell them to accept the deal or it will eject the UK from the EU on 31 October (perhaps with a temporary standstill for a general election – which Boris is expected to smash).
It may be time to think beyond the deal to how the future relationship develops.
The EU leadership seems profoundly relieved to have achieved a basis for future co-operation. If they can put the hard words of the negotiations behind them and offer half-decent terms for the promised FTA (the key is not trying too hard to tie the UK into the EU regulatory model), then the future relationship looks promising. The sort of co-operative relationship Brexiteers said was in the EU’s interest – and which Remainers said was unattainable.
But some ‘no-dealers’ will be hoping that the EU sticks with its unfortunate habit of trying to dominate the relationship. A failed FTA negotiation would free the UK to exit the transition on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms, with more flexibility to determine its future regulatory and trading model. Better yet, the bad blood would drive the parties further apart politically .
Sorry – but the Brexit debate is far from over. Or at least the debate on the underlying question of ‘how close to Europe’.
And the forces are re-aligning at pace. The Boris-led Conservative party has in 24 hours emerged as the champion of a close but business-like relationship with Europe. How the other parties react remains to be seen.
But hey – it could be moot. A Scottish court is being petitioned to stop Boris’s deal. That would be fun.