The European Union and the United Kingdom have reached a provisional deal on “Brexit” — the process through which the U.K. will leave the E.U. The deal still has to pass through Britain’s House of Commons (which will be hard) and be formally ratified by the member states of the European Union (which will probably be easier). Even if it gets over both hurdles, it will be only the beginning of a longer process, under which Britain negotiates its future relationship in the European Union. Nonetheless, it marks important progress.
Ireland got what it wanted.
When British voters went to the polls in the Brexit referendum, few of them were thinking about the relationship with Ireland. Nonetheless, this relationship turned out to be the single-most-important factor complicating the Brexit negotiations. The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland share a border, a vexed history and the risk of a resurgence of terrorism, which largely ceased when the Good Friday Agreement provided a long-term framework for the Ireland-Northern Ireland relationship. When Britain leaves the E.U., it will leave the common customs and market arrangement that allowed border posts to be largely abandoned. Irish politicians on both sides of the border feared that this might lead to a resumption of terrorism. They also worried about the economic damage of a hard border.
Concerns in the Republic of Ireland led the E.U. to push for a resolution of the border question as a key precondition for Brexit. British politicians and negotiators accepted this at first, but later seemed baffled and frustrated at the E.U.’s willingness to protect Ireland’s concerns. After all, Britain is a big state, and Ireland a little one. Some British politicians seem to think that Ireland’s independence is a quaint historical accident. However, British efforts to peel away Ireland’s European supporters failed. Thanks to assiduous diplomacy, Ireland succeeded in shaping the E.U. understanding of its interests in negotiations, so that Ireland’s position played a central role.
The arrangement that has been reached is a complex one under which Northern Ireland will still be part of the United Kingdom’s customs union (so it can be part of trade deals that the U.K. makes), but in which it will effectively operate under E.U. rules. This is a major negotiating success for Ireland, which has secured a deal that protects its core interests in political stability, while also preserving economic relations between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar will be very happy.
Boris Johnson didn’t do too badly either.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is notorious for the flexibility of his views. He has changed his attitude toward Brexit as dictated by his political ambitions. The past few months have seen chaos, as Johnson’s efforts to push through a hard-line Brexit saw him losing an unprecedented court action against his decision to close Parliament and effectively being accused of having lied to the queen.
Political observers — including European and Irish officials — have always assumed that his priority is to remain prime minister rather than to push through a hard-line Brexit. His difficulty has been that it seemed nearly impossible to solve the Brexit problem given the math in Britain’s Parliament and in his own party. Previous efforts to push through a deal on Brexit have failed and have split the Conservative party, as anti-Brexiters voted with Labor and pro-Brexiters refused to embrace any Brexit deal that didn’t free the U.K. from E.U. economic rules. The final problem was that Johnson’s government relied on votes from Northern Ireland’s hard-line Democratic Unionist Party to stay in office. It seemed impossible to craft a deal that would be acceptable to the E.U. while keeping Conservatives on board and not alienating the Unionists.
The current deal won’t please the Unionists (see below). Nor is it clear that it will make it through Parliament. What it does do is allow Johnson to say that he has made a deal and, most likely, to fight a general election with a Conservative Party united behind him. Even though the deal is far from the “no-deal Brexit” that Johnson threatened, and makes substantial concessions to the E.U. and Ireland, Johnson has succeeded in keeping the support of his pro-Brexit hard-liners. Opinion polls suggest that his party is leading and may have good prospects if Johnson calls an election, whether the deal fails or succeeds. Whatever happens with Brexit, Johnson has a very good chance of remaining prime minister, and that is what Johnson cares about.
The Unionists are opposed.
In the end, it was the Unionists who lost out. The deal makes some concessions to their position (providing a veto on the new arrangement for Northern Ireland’s Assembly, if it ever manages to start meeting again, although not to the Unionists alone), but beneath the technical language, it creates a new barrier between Northern Ireland and the British mainland. The Democratic Unionist Party leader, Arlene Foster, has come out against the deal.
Nonetheless, even Democratic Unionists may not be too unhappy with a deal — as long as their own fingerprints aren’t on it. Many traditional Unionist supporters in the Northern Ireland business community and farming community were less worried about the uncertain long-term constitutional implications of a deal that perhaps brings Northern Ireland a little closer to the Republic of Ireland and more concerned with the short-term impact on the economy and political stability of a hard Brexit, which would probably have led to new customs posts along the border. They are likely to accept the outcome, and the politicians they support may similarly be quietly relieved, even if they would never admit it in public.