Brexit explainer: What's in the deal, and what happens now?

Brexit explainer: What's in the deal, and what happens now?
From left: UK Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, and Michel Barnier, the EU's Chief Brexit Negotiator, ahead of the opening sessions of the European Council summit at EU headquarters in Brussels. Picture: PA

We are 1,211 days on from the British referendum in 2016 where it was decided the UK would leave the European Union.

Two Prime Ministers and two deals later, it appeared only a few days ago that we were heading for a disastrous crash-out Brexit at the end of this month.

But a week after a crunch bilateral meeting between Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson, a new version has been agreed between the EU and the United Kingdom. This deal, if cleared by the House of Commons, would allow Britain to leave the EU on October 31 in an orderly fashion.

Q1: But just what is in the new deal?

The EU and the UK have published two documents - a revised legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement and a “political declaration” of future intent.

Most importantly from an Irish perspective, the deal done in Brussels today removes the threat of a border on the island of Ireland.

Given the controversial backstop provision, aimed at avoiding a hard border, was rejected three times by the House of Commons, Johnson had to find an alternative option. Johnson and his advisors proposed a plan which would have seen Northern Ireland align with the Republic on single market rules on the movement of goods.

The benefit of this plan would have been to create the border in the Irish Sea.

While the EU saw it as a step forward, they did not accept it as it would have created a customs border, in Ireland.

Varadkar and Dublin also railed at the proposal to grant the North a vote every four years to opt into the arrangement, as it effectively gave the hardline Brexiteer party, the DUP, a veto.

Q2: So, just what changed?

Following his meeting with the Taoiseach in Liverpool last week, the British Government relented and conceded a customs border on the island of Ireland was not tolerable.

The new deal sees Northern Ireland remaining in the UK customs union after Brexit. However the North will also be subject to EU oversight and customs regulations, and most importantly the European Court of Justice (a previous red line of hardline Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg).

This creates a regulatory border along the Irish Sea and succeeds in avoiding a land border.

While this position is similar to what had been agreed with Theresa May in 2017, the new deal is far more complex.

Essentially, the backstop has been removed as the North remains in the UK customs union but for operational purposes it is also in the EU customs union.

Q3: But, just how will this complex mechanism work for farmers, hauliers and people moving in and out of the North?

As proposed by the deal, Britain will collect tariffs for the EU on goods heading into Northern Ireland. For goods remaining in the North or elsewhere in the UK, refunds will be claimed by businesses on tariffs charged.

Q4: What about the issue of consent and the thorny issue of a DUP veto?

Under the deal, the collapsed Stormont Assembly could opt out of the new arrangements by way of a simply majority, thus removing the prospect of a DUP veto. These new consent rules would be in place for four years from the end of the Brexit transition period, currently slated for December 2020.

Q5: What if the Assembly votes to opt out?

The deal provides for a two-year cooling off period and for the setting up of an EU-UK joint committee which would be tasked with ensuring the terms of the Good Friday Agreement are protected and upheld.

The deal also says that another opt-out vote cannot happen for eight years if the Assembly decided to vote on cross-community majority, the DUP's preferred option and the vote was rejected.

As defined by the Withdrawal Agreement, a cross-community support is a majority of members of the assembly who are present and voting, including a majority of the unionist and nationalists who are present and voting in the assembly.

Q6: One problem though, Stormont hasn't sat since early 2017?

Firstly, were Stormont to get up and running again but collapse again at a time when a decision was needed, the deal permits the status quo, as set out by the Withdrawal Agreement, to stand. It is thought by both Dublin and London that this provision could act as a good reason to avoid a future collapse of the assembly.

Q7: What about the VAT issue?

Under the deal, EU law will apply on VAT and excise in Northern Ireland and that the UK will be responsible for collecting VAT and excise duties. It is provided for that the UK can apply certain exemptions on goods moving across the island by way of derogations.

Q8: So what about the future?

Very importantly, both the EU and the UK have agreed to a “free-trade” where no tariffs will apply in a document called the “political declaration.”

Essentially, a roadmap of intent as opposed to a legally binding text, the declaration does reveal a major softening in the British position, insofar as Johnson and his team have agreed to align to the EU into the future.

Q9: So what happens now?

Given the deal has been endorsed by both the EU Commission and the EU Council [expected late Thursday], it now becomes a matter of pure domestic politics for the UK. A vote on this new deal will take place on Saturday in the House of Commons, but the DUP has said it is opposed to it as are the Labour Party. Johnson has little time to rally the numbers and defeat is quite likely.

Q10: What does Johnson do in the event of a defeat in the Commons?

On foot of the Benn Act, by law, Johnson as Prime Minister must seek an extension if a deal is not ratified by Saturday night.

But given his strong poll numbers, it is clear Johnson is keen on a General Election and it appears the most likely outcome.

Q11: So, from an Irish perspective, is it a good deal?

No form of Brexit is good for Ireland but this deal, in avoiding a border on the island of Ireland is certainly less catastrophic than a disorderly exit.

Q12: What about an election here?

Given Fianna Fáil made clear their willingness to allow the Government continue was contingent on Brexit, with a deal, the speculation of a November election has certainly gained traction. November 22 and 29 are the two most likely dates being spoken of. Denials from within Government of consideration of an early election are so far ringing hallow.

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