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.


Philippine president defends new anti-terror law

Updated 09 July 2020

Philippine president defends new anti-terror law

  • Rights groups fear law will target critics, stifle free speech

MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday defended the country’s new anti-terror law, saying that law-abiding citizens had no reason to fear it.

The new law criminalizes acts that incite terrorism “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners or other representations.”

The law also grants the president power to create an anti-terrorism council that could tag individuals and groups as terrorists; allows authorities to detain suspected terrorists without charge for up to 24 days; and permits the government to conduct 90 days of surveillance and wiretaps.

Speaking for the first time about the controversial legislation since it was signed on July 3, Duterte stressed that the bill would
be used to protect the country from terrorism.

“For the law-abiding citizen of this country, I am addressing you with all sincerity: Do not be afraid if you are not a terrorist, if you don’t destroy the government, blow up churches or public utilities ... just to see the nation fall,” Duterte said in a taped address.

He stressed that the new anti-terror law was a much-needed legal weapon that the government could use to fight terrorism, citing attacks in Mindanao which “have killed many people” and threatened peace and order in the southern part of the archipelago.

He described the country’s democracy as “a little bit shaky” and emphasized that it was his obligation to defend and protect the nation from those who intended to destroy it.

“Once you blow up a church, blow up a marketplace ... the right to defend itself accrues to the government heavily,” he said, adding that “if you kill people, I will really kill you.”

Duterte also took a swipe at the country’s communists, branding them terrorists for their continued rejection of the government’s call for peace.

“They think that they are a different breed. They would like to be treated with another set of law. When, as a matter of fact, they are terrorists,” Duterte said, lamenting that he had spent most of his days as a president “trying to figure out and connect with them on how we can arrive at a peaceful solution.”

The anti-terror law has been widely criticized, with many groups and personalities saying it is prone to abuse. 

As of Wednesday, five petitions had been filed before the Supreme Court, questioning its constitutionality and seeking a temporary restraining order to stop its implementation temporarily.

Among the provisions of the law being questioned by the petitioners are the definition of terrorism and the arrest of suspects without a warrant and their prolonged detention.

Rights groups described the new law as yet “another setback to human rights” in the country.

Bangsamoro Chief Minister Ahod “Al Haj Murad” Ebrahim said that the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) respected Duterte’s decision to sign the law.

He added that the BARMM was open to engaging with the government to address terrorism, recommending Bangsamoro representation in the Anti-Terrorism Council.

Bangsamoro leaders had previously called on Duterte to veto the measure to allow Congress to review and address some of the law’s controversial provisions but, since it has been signed into law, Ebrahim said: “We trust that the president will ensure that the concerns and apprehensions of the Bangsamoro people on some provisions of the law will not happen.”

The Anti-Terror Act will take effect 15 days after being signed into law.