UK, EU reach Brexit but now PM Johnson must win over parliament

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson shakes hands with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker during a press point at EU headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019. (AP)
Updated 17 October 2019

UK, EU reach Brexit but now PM Johnson must win over parliament

  • The key hurdle to a Brexit deal was finding a way to keep goods and people flowing freely across the border between EU member Ireland and the UK’s Northern Ireland after Brexit
  • Johnson insists that all of the UK — including Northern Ireland — must leave the bloc’s customs union, which would seem to make border checks and tariffs inevitable

BRUSSELS: European Union leaders unanimously backed a new Brexit deal with Britain on Thursday, leaving Prime Minister Boris Johnson facing a battle to secure the UK parliament’s backing for the agreement if he is to take Britain out of Europe on Oct. 31.

Speaking after the EU’s 27 other leaders had endorsed the deal without Johnson in the room, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker declared himself pleased that an agreement had been reached but unhappy to see Britain go.

“All in all, I am happy, relieved that we reached a deal,” he said. “But I am sad because Brexit is happening.”

Those sentiments were echoed by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and by Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, who has been a vocal opponent of Brexit.

“On a more personal note, what I feel today is sadness,” Tusk told reporters. “Because in my heart, I will always be a remainer. And I hope that if our British friends decide to return one day, our door will always be open.”

British and EU negotiators reached the agreement after successive days of late-night talks and nearly three years of heated discussions that have strained EU-UK ties at a time the bloc is facing a wave of euroskepticism, struggling to restart economic growth and take a stand against resurgent global powers China and Russia.

Johnson said he was confident that parliament, which will sit for an extraordinary session on Saturday to vote on the Brexit agreement, would approve the deal.

“When my colleagues in parliament study this agreement they will want to vote for it on Saturday and then in succeeding days,” he told reporters.

But the arithmetic in the vote is not simple.

The Northern Irish party that Johnson needs to help ratify any agreement, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has refused to support it, saying it is not in Northern Ireland’s interests.

The head of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said he was “unhappy” with the agreement and would vote against it. Labour has said it wants any deal to be subject to a public vote, but as yet has not indicated whether it will back any move for a second referendum on Saturday.

Johnson does not have a majority in the 650-seat parliament, and in practice needs at least 318 votes to get a deal ratified. The DUP have 10 votes. Parliament defeated a previous deal struck by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, three times.

Deutsche Bank estimated there was a 55 percent chance parliament would reject Johnson’s deal, and other analysts thought similar.

Johnson appears intent on presenting parliament with a stark choice — the deal he has struck or no deal — in the hope of securing just enough votes, including perhaps from the opposition benches, to secure a knife-edge approval.

“The PM’s position is that it’s new deal or no deal but no delay,” said a senior British government official.

If the deal is approved, economists said Britain was likely headed for a “fairly hard” Brexit, certainly a harder one than would have been the case under May’s deal.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said one positive with the Johnson deal was that it was clear Britain would become what the EU calls a “third country,” making it essential for the EU to work rapidly on reaching a free trade agreement with it.

“There is an essential difference compared with when Theresa May was prime minister,” said Merkel. “Then it was not clear how the future relations would look, whether membership of the customs union or not. Now it is quite clear.”

Johnson spoke to the other EU leaders for about 30 minutes during his first — and possibly last — summit in Brussels.

In a sign of the times for the bloc, which has never yet lost a member, he is expected to skip the second day of discussions on the EU’s future budget and tackling climate change.

As Britain took a step closer to leaving the EU after more than four decades, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar made a case for the union.

“As the leader of a small nation, I have felt enormous solidarity from our European partners,” he said, bidding farewell to Britain, “an old friend.”

“The unity that we have seen in the last few years is a lesson to us for the future... something we take forward for future negotiations. Not just with the UK, but the US and China and Turkey and others.”

Negotiators worked frantically this week to agree a compromise on the question of the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland, the most difficult part of Brexit.

The conundrum was how to prevent the frontier becoming a backdoor into the EU’s single market without erecting checkpoints that could undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of conflict in the province.

The agreement reached will keep Northern Ireland in the UK customs area but EU tariffs will apply on goods crossing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland if they are headed to Ireland and into the bloc’s single market.

The agreement scraps the “backstop,” a mechanism envisaged earlier that was designed to prevent a hard border being introduced on the island of Ireland, and would have bound at least parts of Britain to some EU rules.

However, the DUP, which supports Johnson’s government, said the new text was not acceptable — a step that could spur hard-line Brexiteers in his Conservative party to vote it down.

“These proposals are not, in our view, beneficial to the economic wellbeing of Northern Ireland,” the party said.

The uncertainty over parliament’s approval means that, two weeks before Britain is due to leave the world’s largest trading bloc, the possible outcomes still range from an orderly departure to a chaotic exit or even another referendum that could reverse the entire endeavour.


Top diplomat implicates Trump in explosive impeachment testimony

Updated 21 November 2019

Top diplomat implicates Trump in explosive impeachment testimony

  • Sondland said Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani led the effort at Trump’s direction to pressure Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky
  • Trump said he barely knew Sondland and had not spoken to him much

WASHINGTON: A senior US diplomat directly implicated President Donald Trump Wednesday in a scheme to force Ukraine to probe a political rival, in bombshell testimony to a televised impeachment hearing.
Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, told lawmakers he followed the president’s orders in seeking a “quid pro quo” deal for Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden in exchange for a White House summit.
Sondland said Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani led the effort at Trump’s direction to pressure Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky for the investigation and that top officials in the White House and State Department knew about it.
The unexpectedly damning testimony drew a sharp backlash from Trump who tweeted: “This Witch Hunt must end NOW. So bad for our Country!.”
Trump said he barely knew Sondland and had not spoken to him much, despite the senior diplomat having donated $1 million to his inauguration and testifying that he had spoken to the president some 20 times while ambassador.
Democrats said Sondland’s seven hours of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee had bolstered their case for Trump’s impeachment for what they have labeled “extortion.”
“Today’s testimony is among the most significant evidence to date,” said committee chairman Adam Schiff.
“It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery as well as other potential high crimes or misdemeanors.”
A succession of Democrats hoping to win the nomination to take on Trump in next year’s election also said the testimony had strengthened the case for impeachment as the issue dominated the opening exchanges in their latest televised primary debate.
Sondland said Trump directed him and two other senior diplomats to work with Giuliani.
From early in the year, Giuliani mounted a pressure campaign on Zelensky’s government to investigate Biden over his son Hunter’s ties to a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, and to probe a conspiracy theory espoused by Trump that Ukraine helped Democrats against him in 2016. Biden is one of the favorites to challenge Trump in next year’s presidential election.
“Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma,” Sondland told the panel.
“Mr Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky.”
Far from being a “rogue” operation outside normal US diplomatic channels, Sondland told the hearing top officials — including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — were kept constantly informed.
“We followed the president’s orders,” he said.
Like Trump a multimillionaire developer with a chain of high-end hotels, Sondland, who wore a $55,000 Breguet white gold watch to the hearing, fended off pressure from both Democrats and Republicans.
He had not implicated the president in earlier private testimony, when he answered scores of questions by saying he could “not remember.”
But subsequent testimony by other witnesses which had further implicated him in the Ukraine pressure scheme had jolted his memory, he said on Wednesday.
While he confirmed the linkage between the investigations and a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump, he would not attest to allegations that Trump froze $391 million in aid as well to Ukraine to add pressure on Ukraine.
“I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement” of the investigations, he said, contradicting testimony from two other diplomats.
In separate testimony, a Pentagon official appeared to undermine a key Republican defense in the impeachment battle, that Kiev did not even know until late August or even September about the July 18 aid freeze, rendering moot Democrats’ allegations that Trump had extorted Ukraine.
Laura Cooper, the Pentagon official in charge of Ukraine affairs, said Kiev voiced concern over a holdup in aid on July 25.
That was the same day that Trump told Zelensky in a phone call that he wanted a favor, asking for investigations into Biden specifically and the 2016 conspiracy theory.
“The Ukrainian embassy staff asked, ‘What is going on with Ukrainian security assistance?” she told the committee.
At the White House, Trump denied making the demand of Zelensky, citing Sondland’s own recall of their September 9 phone call on the Ukraine issue.
Reading from large-print notes, he said that he told Sonderland: “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.”
“If this were a prizefight, they’d stop it!” he said of the inquiry.
Speaking at the Democrats’ debate, Biden dodged a question on the role of his son but said the testimony had shown that “Donald Trump doesn’t want me to be the nominee.”
And Bernie Sanders, another of the frontrunners for the nomination, said Trump had been shown to be “not only a pathological liar” but also “the most corrupt president in the modern history of America.”