Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s week included allegations that he groped a journalist, that he misdirected public funds to benefit an American businesswoman whom he was sleeping with, and that Donald Trump solicited his help to discredit the Mueller investigation. For once, he was probably happy for the pleasant distraction of Brexit.
This week in final offers: After weeks of speculation, Johnson’s government finally delivered its new Brexit proposal to the EU on Wednesday. It differs from the withdrawal agreement that Theresa May negotiated—and Parliament rejected three times—in that it drops the controversial “Irish backstop.”
If you’re just tuning in, the backstop was meant to prevent the imposition of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which many fear could imperil the region’s peace process and hurt its economy. If the U.K. left the EU’s customs union, goods would need to be checked as they cross the border. The backstop would prevent this by leaving the U.K. as a whole in the EU customs union until other arrangements could be worked out. Brexit supporters, including much of May’s Conservative Party, opposed this, as it could leave the U.K. under EU regulations and unable to negotiate its own trade deals indefinitely.
Johnson’s proposal—nicknamed “two borders for four years”—tries to sidestep the dilemma by taking all of the U.K., including Northern Ireland, out of the customs union in 2021 after a transition period, but leaving just Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market, meaning it would continue to be bound by EU rules on agricultural and industrial products. This arrangement would last for at least four years, after which time the Northern Ireland Assembly would get to vote on whether to stay within EU rules.
The proposal eliminates one problem but creates some others. For one, customs checks would still be required for goods crossing the Irish border, but the proposal suggests these wouldn’t have to take place at the border itself. Where they would take place is a little unclear. For another, it would create a new regulatory “border” between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The Democratic Unionist Party, the Conservatives’ coalition partners, previously suggested they would oppose any agreement that created a legal division between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country, but they seemed to have backed down from that stance in the name of getting Brexit done. (Plus, now that Johnson doesn’t have a majority anyway, their leverage isn’t what it was.)
This week in responses: The hope in 10 Downing Street is that they can now enter the “tunnel” in Brussels—jargon for intensive secretive negotiations—before a final deal can be hammered out at the all-important European Council summit on Oct. 17. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker welcomed the “positive advances” and said the EU is “ready to work 24/7 to make this happen.” Though he also noted some “problematic points.”
Others were even less enthusiastic. A statement from the EU Parliament said that Johnson’s proposal does “not match even remotely what was agreed as a sufficient compromise” in May’s deal to protect peace and stability in Ireland. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said his government “can not countenance” any deal that results in customs checks between North and South. Varadkar also ruffled some feathers by saying that the British public would prefer to stay in the EU.
It’s possible that this is all posturing ahead of negotiations and that the Europeans might put some pressure on the Irish to go along with it if a deal looks likely, but for now, the tunnel remains closed.
This week in no-deal: Chances for a new Brexit deal by Oct. 31 are looking vanishingly small, so what happens if the deadline passes? The so-called Benn Act, passed by Parliament before Johnson suspended the government last month, is supposed to prevent the country from crashing out of the EU without a deal by requiring the prime minister to write a letter asking for an extension to Jan. 31, if he hasn’t negotiated a new deal by Oct. 19.
Johnson has refused to write such a letter, which could mean he plans to resign, or that he just … won’t do it. Former Conservative Prime Minister—and Johnson foe—John Major has suggested Johnson could try to use “political chicanery” to get around the law. Johnson would certainly face legal challenge if he did that, and he hasn’t exactly had great luck in the courts so far. But it might be worth it for him to try anyway, if only to let himself go into the next election as the candidate who fought the political establishment to deliver Brexit.
And for all the talk of asking for an extension, it’s worth noting that the EU still has to grant one. Given how disruptive no-deal would be for the continent, the conventional wisdom is that the EU will agree, but it’s not guaranteed. France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has suggested that his country will block any extension unless the U.K. can overcome its internal political turmoil. “We are not going to go through this every three months,” he said. President Emmanuel Macron, who was the crankiest of the EU leaders when it came to granting the last extension, has suggested Brexit should be put on hold for two years so Britain can sort itself out.
In any event, the only way to really guarantee there won’t be a no-deal Brexit is to either reach a deal or call the whole thing off. Right now, we’re a long way from either.
In his speech to the Conservative Party Conference on Wednesday, the prime minister joked, “If Parliament were a reality TV show, then the whole lot of us, I’m afraid, would have been voted out of the jungle by now. But at least we would have the consolation of a speaker being forced to eat a kangaroo testicle.”
This week in marsupial organs: This week’s most characteristically Brexit exchange was between Johnson and House Commons Speaker John Bercow. It involved eating testicles.
Later, back in Parliament, the speaker, who was losing his trademark booming voice, remarked, “I just wanted to take the opportunity to confirm to the House that the state of my throat, which is purely temporary, is not down to the consumption of a kangaroo’s testicle. I wouldn’t eat it. It would probably be poisoned.”
Glad we sorted that out.
Days until Johnson’s negotiating deadline: 16
Days until current Brexit deadline: 28