The government and the European Union’s Brexit negotiating team have announced they have reached a revised agreement for the UK’s exit from the bloc ahead of a European summit today.
The revised agreement removes mention of the backstop arrangement for Northern Ireland, which under the deal agreed by former PM Theresa May could have kept the UK in the EU’s customs territory. The new arrangements mean that Northern Ireland would instead apply EU rules on tariffs and quotas to avoid a hard border with Ireland, but would also remain in the UK's customs territory.
This will mean that businesses moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will have to claim back tariffs, dependent on whether they are levied in any future trade agreement between the UK and the EU. The revised political declaration on the aims for a future trade deal stated that it should aim to “ensure no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors with appropriate and modern accompanying rules of origin, and with ambitious customs arrangements that are in line with the parties' objectives and principles”. However, the free trade agreement pledge is altered from the previous pledge to “a trading relationship on goods that is as close as possible”.
The scheme would also mean that Northern Ireland could benefit from UK trade deals, although businesses may need to claim back tariffs if these differ between the UK and the EU.
The new arrangements would also need to be approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont, which has not met since early 2017. Officials have been running the administration in the absence of ministers since power-sharing arrangements between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party collapsed.
For the customs arrangements to remain in place, they will need the support of either a majority of assembly members present and voting from both the unionist and nationalist designations at Stormont; or 60% of those present and voting, including at least 40% of both designations.
Most other elements of the original withdrawal agreement remain unchanged. However, the UK's commitment to maintain a “level playing field” on social and environmental protection and regulations with the EU has been removed from the legally-binding text. It has been added instead to the political declaration, meaning it will be decided in the free-trade negotiations.
Boris Johnson – who is travelling to Brussels for the two-day European Council – announced the breakthrough on Twitter.
"We’ve got a great new deal that takes back control – now parliament should get Brexit done on Saturday so we can move on to other priorities like the cost of living, the NHS, violent crime and our environment," the prime minister said.
This new deal ensures that we #TakeBackControl of our laws, borders, money and trade without disruption & establishes a new relationship with the EU based on free trade and friendly cooperation. #GetBrexitDone #TakeBackControl
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) October 17, 2019
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker tweeted: "Where there is a will, there is a deal – we have one! It’s a fair and balanced agreement for the EU and the UK and it is testament to our commitment to find solutions. I recommend that [the EU Council] endorses this deal."
MPs are expected to vote on the deal on Saturday. It is not yet clear if the government has the required votes to pass the deal as the Democratic Unionist Party has said in a statement that “as things stand, we could not support what is being suggested on customs and consent issues, and there is a lack of clarity on VAT”.
"We will continue to work with the government to try and get a sensible deal that works for Northern Ireland and protects the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom."