Boris Johnson Has Sacrificed Quite a Few Lambs

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There was much backslapping in Brussels on Thursday after the unthinkable on Brexit finally became reality: A deal between the U.K. and the European Union that allowed both sides to claim victory.

After months of hostility, exasperation and hardball tactics, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was able to say he’d secured the “new deal” he’d pledged to deliver ahead of the Oct. 31 Brexit date. Meanwhile, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, could say the new changes stuck to the bloc’s red lines and protected the integrity of the single market, while keeping intact most of the original withdrawal deal agreed with Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May.

Given that the hurdle of U.K. parliamentary ratification is still to come (a hurdle that May failed to clear three times), one can’t assume this is done. Nonetheless it’s worth reflecting on the sacrificial lambs offered up by both sides to get this breakthrough. On balance there’s more reason for bleating on the U.K. side, which explains both the opposition of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party and the broader challenge for Johnson of driving this through the House of Commons.

In fairness to him, the “backstop” mechanism (designed to prevent a return to a hard border in Ireland) is gone. This was Johnson’s chief demand when he entered Downing Street in July; he believed the backstop would have kept the whole of the U.K. trapped in the EU’s customs union, hampering its ability to pursue trade deals. Naturally he’s selling its removal as a major victory.

But Johnson had to make a big concession in return: Northern Ireland, while legally staying part of the U.K.’s customs territory, will have to apply EU customs rules and tariffs and align closely with European regulations on most goods. It’s very similar to the Northern Ireland-only backstop that was proposed by the EU to Theresa May. She rejected it outright as it means an effective border in the Irish Sea between the U.K. mainland and Northern Ireland. How times have changed under her successor Johnson, who once would have lambasted such a compromise as treasonous. 

One place where time rarely changes, of course, is in the headquarters of the DUP, the parliamentary allies of Johnson’s ruling Conservative Party. They, with some justification, have been quick to seize on his Irish Sea customs fudge as undermining the “integrity” of the U.K, warning that Northern Ireland’s economic well-being is at risk.

The DUP are the noisiest opponents in Johnson’s camp to his deal, and they could upset his ultra-tight arithmetic in trying to get it passed by Parliament. That the European Court of Justice would enforce this mechanism also makes Johnson’s chest-beating about “taking back control” from continental courts look pretty hollow.

In fairness, the EU has budged a lot by agreeing to the principle of “consent,” where the Northern Ireland assembly would have to agree periodically to carrying on with the Irish Sea mechanism. Yet Brussels didn’t concede on Johnson’s initial DUP-placating proposal, which would have given Arlene Foster’s party a veto over the consent process. Instead this will be a simple majority decision in the assembly, which was enough to guarantee the DUP’s resentment.

Johnson could congratulate himself too over restricting the inclusion of a U.K. commitment to a “level playing field” on social protection, the environment and other regulations to the so-called political declaration (a non-binding annex to the main withdrawal agreement). Some might think that keeps the Brexiter dream of a deregulated “Singapore-on-Thames” alive. But the U.K. still needs to strike a decent trade deal with the EU, and a level playing field will be one of the prices it has to pay.

It’s too crude to say that one side has “lost” more than the other here. If a deal ends up going through, the EU is about to say goodbye to an important member and the Brits will have to forgo the joys of the single market. Still, Johnson’s sacrifices are big enough to make his parliamentary victory far from assured.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels. He previously worked at Reuters and Forbes.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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