Friday

3rd Feb 2023

EU leaders back Brexit deal as Johnson faces Westminster

  • British PM Boris Johnson at the EU summit on Thursday sitting between the prime ministers of Malta and Slovakia (Photo: Council of the European Union)

Leaders of the EU-27 member states on Thursday (17 October) evening unanimously endorsed the revised Brexit deal agreed earlier in the day by EU and UK negotiators.

"The European Council endorsed this deal and it looks like we are very close to the final stretch," EU council president Donald Tusk told reporters.

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The move means the onus is now on British prime minister Boris Johnson to secure the backing of the UK parliament on Saturday for the revised divorce deal.

The draft deal also needs to be ratified by the European parliament, and its president David Sassoli said on Thursday they are "ready" to examine the text and "adopt the necessary procedure so that the time limits are respected".

The UK is to leave the bloc on 31 October, but the deal provides for a transition period until the end of 2020, which can be extended for up to two years.

Johnson spoke to fellow leaders during Thursday afternoon about the deal only agreed a few hours previously, and answered a handful questions on internal political mood in the UK, an EU official said.

Johnson then left the room, and the 27 leaders continued discussing Brexit for a little over an hour, before adopting the text endorsing the deal.

Hours earlier EU and UK negotiations clinched the deal, which replaces the backstop, after marathon talks. That controversial arrangement was aimed at avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland which could undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement ending decades of conflict there.

EU council president Donald Tusk said the key change in the new deal is Johnson's "acceptance to have customs checks at the points of entry into Northern Ireland".

Under the new draft, Northern Ireland remains part of the UK's customs territory, but tariffs will apply on goods crossing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland if they are headed to Ireland and into the EU's single market. Northern Ireland will also retain some EU rules on goods.

The continuation of that new system would be conditional on the consent of the Northern Ireland assembly after four years from its start.

The EU and the UK also agreed to now pursue an "ambitious free trade agreement" without quotas or tariffs.

The Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) immediately said they will not support the deal, as they fear it will drive a wedge between the Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Opposition Labour MPs have also criticised the agreement for not securing close enough ties with the EU, and fearing it would weaken social and environmental standards - making the approval difficult for Johnson in the House of Commons, where he has no majority.

"This is our chance in the UK as democrats to get Brexit done, and come out on 31 October," Johnson told reporters in Brussels.

Leaders have kept quiet for now on the possibility of any further Brexit extension in case the deal does not go through Westminster.

Previously EU officials said leaders could agree to a longer Brexit deal if there is a political reason, such as an election for instance.

'Sadness'

The bulk of the EU-UK deal was agreed almost a year ago, which was then rejected three times by the British parliament, mainly over the backstop.

Over the last months, frustration has been growing among EU countries with the British political crisis that stalled the UK's orderly withdrawal from the EU.

On Thursday, EU leaders expressed their disappointment over Brexit.

"I feel sadness today. Because in my heart, I will always be a Remainer. And I hope that if our British friends decide to return one day, our door will always be open, Tusk said.

"All in all, I am happy, and relieved that we reached a deal, but I am sad because Brexit is happening," Juncker told reporters.

"I would like to say today to the 48 percent that they were right," he quipped, referring to the share of British voters voting to remain in the EU in 2016.

After the meeting, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar praised the strength of EU unity that supported Ireland's instance on keeping the border on the island of Ireland open.

"The unity we have seen is a lesson for us for the future, how Europe can achieve its objectives if we are united, that can be something we take forward into future negotiations, not just with the UK, but also with the US, China, or Turkey," Varadkar said.

"Small states are protected and respected [in the EU]," he added.

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