UK, EU reach Brexit but now PM Johnson must win over parliament

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson shakes hands with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during a press point at EU headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. (AP)
Updated 17 October 2019

UK, EU reach Brexit but now PM Johnson must win over parliament

  • The key hurdle to a Brexit deal was finding a way to keep goods and people flowing freely across the border between EU member Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland after Brexit
  • Johnson insists that all of the UK — including Northern Ireland — must leave the bloc’s customs union, which would seem to make border checks and tariffs inevitable

BRUSSELS: European Union leaders unanimously backed a new Brexit deal with Britain on Thursday, leaving Prime Minister Boris Johnson facing a battle to secure the UK parliament’s backing for the agreement if he is to take Britain out of Europe on Oct. 31.

Speaking after the EU’s 27 other leaders had endorsed the deal without Johnson in the room, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared himself pleased that an agreement had been reached but unhappy to see Britain go.

“All in all, I am happy, relieved that we reached a deal,” he said. “But I am sad because Brexit is happening.”

Those sentiments were echoed by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and by Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, who has been a vocal opponent of Brexit.

“On a more personal note, what I feel today is sadness,” Tusk told reporters. “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.”

British and EU negotiators reached the agreement after successive days of late-night talks and nearly three years of heated discussions that have strained EU-UK ties at a time the bloc is facing a wave of euroskepticism, struggling to restart economic growth and take a stand against resurgent global powers China and Russia.

Johnson said he was confident that parliament, which will sit for an extraordinary session on Saturday to vote on the Brexit agreement, would approve the deal.

“When my colleagues in parliament study this agreement they will want to vote for it on Saturday and then in succeeding days,” he told reporters.

But the arithmetic in the vote is not simple.

The Northern Irish party that Johnson needs to help ratify any agreement, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has refused to support it, saying it is not in Northern Ireland’s interests.

The head of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said he was “unhappy” with the agreement and would vote against it. Labour has said it wants any deal to be subject to a public vote, but as yet has not indicated whether it will back any move for a second referendum on Saturday.

Johnson does not have a majority in the 650-seat parliament, and in practice needs at least 318 votes to get a deal ratified. The DUP have 10 votes. Parliament defeated a previous deal struck by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, three times.

Deutsche Bank estimated there was a 55 percent chance parliament would reject Johnson’s deal, and other analysts thought similar.

Johnson appears intent on presenting parliament with a stark choice — the deal he has struck or no deal — in the hope of securing just enough votes, including perhaps from the opposition benches, to secure a knife-edge approval.

“The PM’s position is that it’s new deal or no deal but no delay,” said a senior British government official.

If the deal is approved, economists said Britain was likely headed for a “fairly hard” Brexit, certainly a harder one than would have been the case under May’s deal.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said one positive with the Johnson deal was that it was clear Britain would become what the EU calls a “third country,” making it essential for the EU to work rapidly on reaching a free trade agreement with it.

“There is an essential difference compared with when Theresa May was prime minister,” said Merkel. “Then it was not clear how the future relations would look, whether membership of the customs union or not. Now it is quite clear.”

Johnson spoke to the other EU leaders for about 30 minutes during his first — and possibly last — summit in Brussels.

In a sign of the times for the bloc, which has never yet lost a member, he is expected to skip the second day of discussions on the EU’s future budget and tackling climate change.

As Britain took a step closer to leaving the EU after more than four decades, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar made a case for the union.

“As the leader of a small nation, I have felt enormous solidarity from our European partners,” he said, bidding farewell to Britain, “an old friend.”

“The unity that we have seen in the last few years is a lesson to us for the future... something we take forward for future negotiations. Not just with the UK, but the US and China and Turkey and others.”

Negotiators worked frantically this week to agree a compromise on the question of the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland, the most difficult part of Brexit.

The conundrum was how to prevent the frontier becoming a backdoor into the EU’s single market without erecting checkpoints that could undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of conflict in the province.

The agreement reached will keep Northern Ireland in the UK customs area but EU tariffs will apply on goods crossing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland if they are headed to Ireland and into the bloc’s single market.

The agreement scraps the “backstop,” a mechanism envisaged earlier that was designed to prevent a hard border being introduced on the island of Ireland, and would have bound at least parts of Britain to some EU rules.

However, the DUP, which supports Johnson’s government, said the new text was not acceptable — a step that could spur hard-line Brexiteers in his Conservative party to vote it down.

“These proposals are not, in our view, beneficial to the economic wellbeing of Northern Ireland,” the party said.

The uncertainty over parliament’s approval means that, two weeks before Britain is due to leave the world’s largest trading bloc, the possible outcomes still range from an orderly departure to a chaotic exit or even another referendum that could reverse the entire endeavour.


Netherlands anti-curfew protests spark clashes with police, looting

Updated 25 January 2021

Netherlands anti-curfew protests spark clashes with police, looting

  • Vehicles burned, businesses at Eindhoven’s central train station looted
  • A Covid-19 testing center was set on fire on Saturday evening in the village of Urk

THE HAGUE: Protests against a curfew to curb the spread of Covid-19 in the Netherlands degenerated into clashes with police and looting in cities across the country Sunday, authorities and reports said.
Police used water cannon and dogs in Amsterdam, public television NOS reported, after hundreds gathered to protest the curfew which is set to last until February 10 and is the country’s first since World War II.
In the southern city of Eindhoven, police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd of several hundred, regional television Omroep Brabant reported. At least 30 people were arrested there, according to police.
A number of vehicles were burned and businesses at Eindhoven’s central train station were also looted, media reports said.
Dutch rail company NS called on travelers to avoid the Eindhoven station, where it said train circulation was interrupted due to the intervention of emergency services nearby.
Eindhoven mayor John Jorritsma told reporters that if the country continued “down this path, then I think we are heading for civil war.”
Incidents were also reported in The Hague, Breda, Arnhem, Tilburg, Enschede, Appeldoorn, Venlo and Ruremond.
A Covid-19 testing center was set on fire on Saturday evening in the village of Urk in the north of the country, local authorities said.
“The fire in a screening center in Urk goes beyond all limits,” Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said on Sunday.
Violators of the 9 p.m. to 4:30 am curfew, which Prime Minister Mark Rutte says is needed to bring case numbers down, face a 95-euro ($115) fine.
Exemptions are possible, in particular for people returning from funerals or those having to work, but on condition that they present a certificate.
Rutte also announced on Wednesday a ban on flights from Britain, South Africa and South America, and a cut in the number of guests allowed in people’s homes to one, from the previous limit of two.
New variants of the virus have led to deep concern in Europe, particularly a more infectious strain that first emerged in Britain.
The Netherlands was already under its toughest measures since the start of the pandemic, with bars and restaurants having closed in October, and schools and non-essential shops shut since December.
Dutch lawmakers on Thursday approved Rutte’s curfew plan, though on condition that it begin half an hour later than the original 8:30 p.m. start time.
The move had faced criticism led by far-right politician Geert Wilders, who called it “careless” and “disproportionate.”
“I stand here for freedom. I lost it myself,” said Wilders, who has for years been under round-the-clock security after receiving death threats.
“I do not accept that we unnecessarily... introduce curfews while there are alternatives.”
Rutte and his cabinet resigned on January 22 over a scandal involving child tax benefits, but they will continue to govern until elections in mid-March.