Negotiators from the UK reached an agreement with officials in Brussels Thursday that could pave the way for Britain to finally break 46 years of ties with the European Union this month. The pound rose.
The withdrawal agreement was completed just in time for EU leaders to assess it when they meet in the Belgian capital. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hailed it as “fair and balanced.” The deal now needs the backing of the UK Parliament, with a vote expected on Saturday.
That’s the final, treacherous hurdle for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to clear before he can complete his ambition of leading Britain out of the EU. Earlier on Thursday Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party signalled it did not accept key aspects of the agreement being drafted. That position did not change after confirmation of the deal.
Without a majority in Parliament, Johnson’s attempt to win approval could still founder. He’s lost a string of crucial votes since taking office in July. Nevertheless, the prime minister announced the deal with an upbeat statement.
We’ve got a great new deal that takes back control — now Parliament should get Brexit done on Saturday so we can move on to other priorities like the cost of living, the NHS, violent crime and our environment #GetBrexitDone #TakeBackControl
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) October 17, 2019
Pull it off, and Johnson will draw a line under three years of political turmoil since the UK voted to leave the world’s biggest trading bloc. That journey has strained its relationship with historic allies, soured the political debate at home, and tested the patience of voters.
Negotiators in Brussels and London this week have gone from optimism to dismay and back again, with the pound twitching at every murmur. It rallied on news of the deal, touching $1.2990 before paring gains.
In a revised political declaration, the two sides pledged to:
- Establish a wide-ranging free trade agreement;
- Reach a deal on services that goes beyond WTO levels;
- Agree equivalence for financial services firms;
- Allow free movement of capital;
- Establish visa-free travel for short-term visits;
- Commit to a level playing field, with common high standards in state aid, competition, welfare, tax, and environmental matters.
Now, the many predictions about the costs or benefits of Brexit may be put to the test. At the very least, businesses and travellers will be spared the inevitable disruption that would have been triggered by Britain crashing out without a deal. For both sides, the agreement is a chance to move their political agendas on and to start focusing on their future trading relationship.
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told reporters in Brussels that he believes the deal can be ratified by the end of October. He called it a “fair and reasonable basis for an orderly withdrawal” by the UK.
In a nod to the painful wrangling of the past three years, he also compared getting the deal done to climbing a mountain.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for a second referendum, saying in Brussels that Johnson’s deal — which he described as a “sell-out” — was worse than that put forward by predecessor Theresa May.
Most importantly Johnson, who became the face of Brexit during the 2016 referendum campaign, needs to convince the DUP he is not selling them out and to persuade Brexit true-believers that this is a real separation rather than a pointless fudge. It is not clear — even now — how much backing his position has from DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose view will be crucial.
Certainly, the die-hard Brexiteers who helped her to destroy May’s premiership are sounding like they could hold their noses and let Johnson’s deal fly.
“The deal sounds like it could well be tolerable,” said Steve Baker, who leads that faction in Parliament.