from The Water's Edge

The President's Inbox: The "Do-or-Die" Brexit Deal with Sebastian Mallaby

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson argues for his Brexit deal in the House of Commons on October 19. Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament

October 23, 2019

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson argues for his Brexit deal in the House of Commons on October 19. Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament
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This week’s episode of The President’s Inbox is live. I sat down with Sebastian Mallaby, CFR’s Paul A. Volcker senior fellow for international economics, to discuss the deal that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson struck last week with the European Union (EU). The United Kingdom (UK) will crash out of the EU in just eight days if Brussels doesn’t grant an extension or if Parliament doesn’t endorse Johnson’s deal. Here are three takeaways from our conversation.

1. Johnson got a deal by doing something he had previously vowed not to do. In February 2018, Brussels proposed a Brexit deal that would have effectively kept Northern Ireland in the EU on commercial terms while letting the rest of the UK depart. Then-Prime Minister Theresa May said that “no United Kingdom prime minister could ever agree to” erect a customs border in the middle of the Irish Sea. Johnson at the time sided with May. But his plan does just that.

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2. Johnson’s “do or die” tactics have rubbed even some Brexit supporters in Parliament the wrong way. The prime minister has run roughshod over many of the norms—and some of the rules—of British parliamentary politics in pursuit of his deal. That ironically has made it harder for him to get it passed. Even some members who want out of the EU don’t trust what he will do next.

3. Brexit may be a never-ending saga. We taped the podcast before the House of Commons voted yesterday on the Withdrawal Agreement bill. However, Sebastian anticipated how the vote would unfold. Members of Parliament (MPs) essentially took one step forward and one step back. They first voted to advance the withdrawal bill to the next stage of the parliamentary process, marking the first time a majority of Parliament had embraced any Brexit plan. But they then voted down Johnson’s proposal to hold a final vote in three days. Johnson responded to the rebuff by saying he would “pause” the bill. So a Halloween Brexit looks to be off the table—unless the EU surprises everyone by refusing to grant an extension. Even if Johnson pulls off a parliamentary Hail Mary and somehow gets a Brexit deal done before October 31, many more decisions will need to be made before the UK’s divorce from the EU becomes final—if it ever does.

The New York Times has a useful explainer on what is actually in Johnson’s Brexit deal and how it differs from the one that Theresa May negotiated. If you prefer visual explanations, the BBC has put together a three-minute video overview of the deal.

Much of the opposition to the deal that former Prime Minister Theresa May struck with the EU was over the so-called Irish backstop. Back in February, Vox took a crack at explaining why it alarmed so many in the Leave camp. As Sebastian and I discussed, Johnson solved the problem by jettisoning the backstop. But that cost him the support of members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Union Party, who are especially alarmed by Johnson’s solution. They say it “drives a coach and horses” through the 1998 Good Friday (or Belfast) Agreement to settle “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland.

One of the questions dogging the Brexit debate is whether British voters have changed their mind on leaving the EU. A review of the polls shows they continue to disagree on how to proceed. None of the options commands a majority, and a sizable bloc of voters is seemingly throwing their hands up in the air and saying they don’t know what to do. The polls show that if British voters had a chance to vote a second time that Remain would win narrowly. That is not because people have changed their minds. It’s instead because of demographic change. Older voters, who generally favor Leave, have died, while young people, who generally favor Remain, can now vote.

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Another question dogging the Brexit debate is whether Johnson’s deal—or any deal, for that matter—will lead to the UK’s dissolution. The Economist noted that the extended negotiations over Brexit have increased support in Scotland for another independence referendum. In a similar vein, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff wrote in the Financial Times that Johnson’s plan for a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK may spur calls for a united Ireland.

One final thing. Sebastian knows a lot about Johnson. The two went to high school and college together, something Sebastian discussed when he was on The President’s Inbox back in July.

Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.

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