What does the agreement say about Northern Ireland?
The most important novelty in the agreement has everything to do with Northern Ireland. Chief European negotiator Michel Barnier said it was very important for the EU to keep the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic open, and to maintain the integrity of the European internal market.
It was important to Boris Johnson that Northern Ireland could stay in the British customs area.
In the new agreement, Northern Ireland will soon be subject to British customs rules on paper. In practice, it will continue to follow EU rules, eliminating the need for border controls with Ireland.
This idea was already put on the table by the EU in February 2018, but was not approved by London at the time. The EU requires firm guarantees that the Irish-Northern Irish border will not become a smuggling route to the EU for goods from the rest of the world.
What are the four parts of that customs agreement?
- First, all EU rules remain in force on goods in Northern Ireland.
- Secondly, Northern Ireland remains in the UK customs area at the same time. In this way they remain part of the British trade policy and they also become a gateway to the European single market. The UK authorities will apply UK rates to goods from third countries as long as they are not transported to the internal market. If so, then European customs rates will apply.
- Thirdly, a technical solution has been devised about VAT.
- And the Northern Ireland parliament can decide by simple majority whether they agree with this. The DUP does not receive veto in Belfast, as they demanded.
Barnier emphasized that the customs agreement is important, but “what counts in the end is preserving Northern Ireland peace.”
How much time is left to conclude a trade agreement?
It is the first time that a Member State has left the Union, the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016. With the agreement, the United Kingdom will have until December 2022 to conclude a trade agreement with the EU.
During that transitional period everything remains the same for London – it follows the EU rules, pays the EU contribution – except that it is no longer at the table where the decisions fall.
Why is the Northern Irish DUP against?
The agreement provides for a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
A border on the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland remains officially part of the United Kingdom, but practically it remains very close to the European Union.
This separate status was also proposed by Theresa May at the time, but that was met with a veto from the DUP.
Then came the backstop, a guarantee that the whole of the United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland) will stay with the EU customs union as long as no free trade report has been concluded between the British and the EU.
The DUP agreed to the backstop, but Johnson and the other brexiteers found that unacceptable.
May’s agreement was voted down three times earlier this year in the Lower House, which led to her fall.
The political landscape has now changed. The DUP is internally divided over the original plan, but the Brexiteers will agree.
They see it as a last chance to save Brexit and also fear the Johnsons resignation, followed by the arrival of a left-wing government under Jeremy Corbyn or an EU-minded coalition.
DUP leader Arlene Foster is particularly concerned about the idea that customs officers will be exercising controls on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
This is necessary because the British no longer want to be part of the European Customs Union and because a border across mainland Ireland is not feasible.
The alignment of VAT in both Irelands is also a concern. Brussels is afraid of a further increase in smuggling between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Smuggling is already taking place.
To anchor his position before the vote, British Prime Minister Johnson may try to accommodate the DUP in a different way.
This is possible in the form of money. Two years ago, as a minority government leader, May gave Northern Ireland a billion pounds in exchange for tolerance support. Political concessions are also coming into view.
The British government wants abortion and same-sex marriage to become legal in Northern Ireland too. The Protestant-Christian DUP, the party of “Dr. No” Ian Paisley, is strongly against that.
What are the following steps?
Chief negotiator Barnier spoke this morning about a “fair and reasonable agreement.” The European government leaders are expected to approve the agreement this afternoon.
Then it’s Saturday at the British House of Commons and finally at the European Parliament. It is uncertain whether all of this will be possible before the intended brexit date of October 31, the departure date for the United Kingdom may have to be delayed by a few weeks.
Three times before, the British parliament rejected a draft agreement on the Brexit. It then cost Prime Minister Theresa May her political career.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has always said that his country will leave the EU on 31 October, with or without a deal. An agreement is preferred because without regulation economic and financial chaos are inevitable.
What if the agreement is not approved by the British parliament?
The Lower House meets on Saturday. If Johnson fails to get the brexit agreement approved, then the political chaos in London reaches a new high. Johnson may then resign to force elections. In that case, a postponement of the Brexit by a few months is unavoidable.
If the House of Commons agrees, then the end of British EU membership after 46 years on 1 November is a fact.