Make-or-break week as Boris edges closer to Brexit deal

Make-or-break week as Boris edges closer to Brexit deal

(Reuters)

EU negotiators recently haughtily rubbished the idea of talks with the UK taking place over the weekend. They argued that, in the absence of serious negotiations, there was no justification to breach their sacred European working week. It seems, however, that there has been a realization that the most important event ever to affect the EU is about to unfold. With UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson pulling every diplomatic lever to deliver Brexit by the end of the month, both sides now remain chained to the negotiating table. 

The British government last week announced that Parliament would sit on a Saturday (Oct. 19) for the first time since Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982. Johnson will use the “Super Saturday” sitting to ask MPs to pass any deal he secures at this week’s EU summit. Where the prime minister was once faced by an intractable political conundrum, it seems he has mobilized his EU counterparts in a way that evaded his predecessor, as she missed Brexit deadline after deadline. Characteristically downbeat, European Council President Donald Tusk has suggested there is only the slightest chance of an agreement; but, as a dozen British officials, including chief Brexit negotiator David Frost, take part in the talks at the EU Commission, it does seem that a breakthrough is in sight.

Parliament and business leaders have groaned since Theresa May’s government proved itself wholly incapable of reaching a satisfactory agreement with the EU. Successive House of Commons defeats for Johnson then raised the specter of the UK tumbling out of the union without a deal, drawing attention to the severe economic consequences that would cause. Johnson has remained bullish throughout, hopeful of a deal that would satisfy both parties. In some respects, by massively increasing the prospects of a no-deal scenario, he may just have done enough to propel the EU into action. Both sides are now more cognizant than ever that their mutual economic prosperity and security hinges on reaching an agreement. 

The fate of the island of Ireland has been at the center of the negotiations. International observers may have failed to understand the magnitude of negotiations concerning Ireland, where, after a hard-won peace, the North remains part of the UK and the Republic firmly part of the EU. Any reinstatement of a hard border between the two would be not only devastating to the £60 billion ($75 billion) trade between Ireland and the UK, but would also magnify communal tensions that have existed for centuries.

Both sides are now more cognizant than ever that their mutual economic prosperity and security hinges on reaching an agreement.

Zaid M. Belbagi

The ruling Conservative Party, which was forced into a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) following an ill-timed election in 2017, was forced to confront this issue head-on as the DUP would never consider a deal that compromised Northern Ireland’s union with the mainland. Its support, which is crucial to getting a deal through Parliament, was highlighted by leader Arlene Foster stating: “Anything that traps Northern Ireland in the EU... will not have our support.” Johnson's revised proposals — designed to avoid concerns about a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit — were initially criticized by EU leaders at the start of last week. However, on Thursday, Johnson and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar held urgent talks on the matter, jointly stating that they could “see a pathway to a possible deal.”

The news of a potential deal was welcomed by the markets, with the pound rising as much as 2 percent against the US dollar to break above $1.27 on Friday — its highest level since Johnson took office. It increased more than 3.5 percent in two days, marking its biggest two-day rise since the financial crisis. The good news may continue into this week or be tempered following a meeting between Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron over dinner on Sunday. The outcome will be a key pointer as to whether a deal will be possible.

The UK is due to leave the EU at 11pm GMT on Oct. 31 and a European leaders’ summit on Thursday and Friday is seen as the last chance to seal a deal before that deadline. Johnson will have his work cut out for him, as Parliament is recalled for the Queen’s Speech on Monday. Should his deal gain parliamentary support, the House will have to work around the clock to deliver Brexit on time. Whether or not this is possible will be clear after the EU summit on Thursday. In any case, the dramatic events of the past two months will have to culminate in an election — a disruptive event at a time when the British establishment is at breaking point.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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