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13th Apr 2024

New Brexit deal drops Irish border backstop

  • UK prime minister Boris Johnson and EU council preisdent Donald Tusk meeting in New York during the UN General Assembly last month (Photo: Council of the European Union)

After marathon talks the EU and the UK agreed to a revised Brexit deal on Thursday (17 October), hours before EU leaders were due to meet in Brussels for a summit.

"We have arrived to an agreement on an orderly withdrawal and also on the framework on the future relationship," EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier announced to journalists in Brussels.

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"This agreement is a fair compromise between the EU and the UK," EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

The breakthrough came after intensive negotiations between EU and UK officials throughout Wednesday.

However, it all still may hinge on the consent of British prime minister Boris Johnson allies in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who on Thursday morning appeared to be rejecting the revised divorce agreement.

The deal was sealed later on Thursday in a phone call between Johnson and Juncker.

According to Barnier, Johnson told Juncker he was "confident in his ability" to get the necessary votes in the UK parliament, which is meeting on Saturday and has rejected three times an earlier version of the deal.

"I hope very much now that my fellow MPs come together in Westminster to get Brexit done, to get this excellent deal over the line, and deliver Brexit without any more delay," Johnson said in Brussels.

Barnier said he thinks the ratification is possible before the 31 October Brexit deadline.

EU leaders will discuss the deal on Thursday, and will likely endorse it politically, but will need more time to formally give their approval to the agreement, which can only come after the European Parliament also endorsed the deal.

Leaders will hear from the president of the European parliament, David Sassoli, later on Thursday on whether MEPs can vote on the deal next week at their plenary meeting in Strasbourg.

The Brexit deal agreed in December 2018 between the EU and the then prime minister Theresa May, has not changed much, but it was amended on the crucial issue of keeping the border open on the island of Ireland.

The crucial "backstop", an insurance policy that would have kept the entire UK in the EU's customs area and rejected by hardline Brexiteers, is out. A complex new mechanism was agreed that is permanent - but is also subject to consent of Northern Ireland's political leaders.

Backstop 2.0

The new mechanism means that Northern Ireland will stay in the UK's customs union - that will allow Johnson to argue that all of the UK will leave the bloc and arguing that future trade agreements will apply to the entire UK - but a set of EU rules on goods will continue to apply.

Related checks will happen when goods arrive to Northern Ireland, rather across the island of Ireland.

UK authorities will be in charge of applying EU custom rules in Northern Ireland, which will be the new entry point to the EU single market. It also marks a concession from the EU side.

"Squaring this circle", as Barnier described it, means the UK tariffs will apply to goods entering from third countries that are not at risk of entering the single market, and a list of exempted goods will be drawn up. No EU tariff will apply to personal goods either.

Those goods that might be destined to Ireland or the rest of the EU, will be subject to EU tariffs. The EU-UK joint committee will select those goods on a number of criteria, along with the exemptions.

"Discussions had been at times difficult, but we have delivered, and we have delivered together," Barnier said.

Consent

This system kicks in after the transition period ends at the end of 2020 - which can be extended by one or two years, and will be subject to consent of the Northern Irish assembly after four years to be continued.

The consent vote will take place every four years if it is done by simple majority, but if a positive vote is done with a cross-community support, the system is extended by another eight years until the next vote.

If consent is not granted, there is a two-year cooling off period during which sides need to find a new solution to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

If the regional assembly does not sit or vote, the system continues.

Unlike the backstop, it means that this system would not be replaced by a new free trade deal between the UK and the EU.

The UK and the EU has also agreed that their aim will be an "ambitious free trade agreement" after Brexit without tariffs or quotas.

Level playing field

Both sides have also committed to upholding high standards on environment, climate, workers' rights and other rules - an important guarantee for EU member states for maintaining the level playing field after Brexit.

The complicated arrangements are aimed at keeping the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 alive that ended the violence on the island of Ireland, and also protect the EU's single market.

"Since day one, three years ago, what really matters is people. The people of Northern Ireland and Ireland. What really matters is peace," Barnier said.

The French politician, who is likely to stick around for the free trade deal negotiations with the UK, said Brexit has been a "school of patience".

He said the most recent breakthrough came after Johnson met Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar ten days ago, and negotiations were given a new push.

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