In normal circumstances, one could wonder how the U.K.’s embattled Prime Minister Boris Johnson could send two contradictory letters to European leaders at the same time—one asking for a delay to Brexit, the other asking for them to ignore his request.
The United Kingdom’s disorderly progress toward leaving the European Union, however, could rarely be described as “normal.”
On Saturday, Johnson suffered yet another defeat in a House of Commons vote when a Member of Parliament whom he expelled from his own party proposed an amendment that said MPs should withhold support for any Brexit deal with the European Union until the legislation implementing the withdrawal bill has been passed first. It won by 322 votes to 306.
What does the latest Withdrawal Agreement say?
Under the latest version of the U.K.-EU Withdrawal Agreement, the whole of the United Kingdom (which, therefore, includes Northern Ireland) will leave the EU customs union. This enables the United Kingdom to strike trade deals with other countries in the future.
It also ditches the “backstop,” the controversial insurance policy designed to prevent a return to physical checks on the Irish border, and instead draws a new customs border in the Irish Sea. Goods travelling onwards to Ireland will have to pay a duty tax, whereas they will not in Northern Ireland.
But much of the content of former PM Theresa May’s thrice-defeated deal remains.
For example, there will be a transition period lasting until December 2020 whereby all of the current rules stay the same while the United Kingdom and European Union continue to negotiate their future relationship. The transition period can be extended (depending on agreement between both parties) but only for a period of one or two years.
U.K. citizens in the European Union, and EU citizens in the United Kingdom, will retain their residency and social security rights after Brexit. Freedom of movement rules—one of the key issues that pro-Brexit supporters want to stop—will also continue to apply during transition. Anyone who remains in the same EU country for five years will be allowed to apply for permanent residence.
In terms of sorting the U.K. and EU’s future relationship, a non-legally binding political declaration says both sides will work toward a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), and a high-level meeting will be convened in June 2020 to take stock of progress toward this goal.
The text also contains a new paragraph on the so-called “level playing field” to “uphold the common high standards […] in the areas of state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, climate change, and relevant tax matters.”
The so-called Letwin amendment prevents the government from paying “lip service” to the Benn Act, which states the United Kingdom cannot leave the European Union without attempting to get a deal or an extension by Oct. 31.
MPs backed it over fears the government—which has consistently said Brexit will happen on Halloween—would in theory support a deal with the European Union, only for it to subsequently flounder when the legislation underpinning it (still not finalized) failed to attract enough support, thereby allowing a no-deal Brexit to occur.
The United Kingdom is still set to leave the European Union in 10 days’ time unless an extension is agreed.
Johnson, who has failed to win a single vote in Parliament in the 88 days since he formed a government, was subsequently forced to pull his plans for a fourth “meaningful” vote with MPs on Saturday on the latest version of the Withdrawal Agreement he negotiated with the European Union. Johnson’s plans to seek another “yes/no” vote Monday were scrapped when the Speaker, who presides over Commons debates, denied the government’s request under Parliament’s rulebook, Erskine May, which says debating the same matter—unchanged in either substance or circumstances—twice is against parliamentary rules.
The Speaker said it would be “repetitive and disorderly” to debate it again.
This latest setback leaves Johnson with even less time to get MPs to vote on whether to accept the Withdrawal Agreement that he agreed to with EU leaders mid-October.
Speaking after the Commons defeat on Oct. 19, Johnson told MPs that “I will not negotiate a delay with the EU, and neither does the law compel me to do so.”
But later that day, after possibly receiving legal advice with regard to the requirements of the Benn Act, Johnson begrudgingly wrote to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, to formally seek a Brexit extension until Jan. 31, 2020. And in an apparent act of defiance, the Prime Minister did not even sign his own letter.
In a separate, signed, and longer letter addressed personally to Tusk, however, Johnson pushes for the European Union to turn down the request. “While it is open to the European Council to accede to the request mandated by Parliament or to offer an alternative extension period … my view, and the government’s position, [is] that a further extension would damage the interests of the United Kingdom and the EU, and relationship between us.”
The European Union is now considering how to respond to the U.K.’s request for a delay, but has said Saturday’s developments did not mean the deal had been rejected.
Meanwhile, following the Speaker’s decision, Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit coordinator for the European Parliament, has advised MEPs on the Brexit Steering Group to postpone further preparations until U.K. lawmakers decide whether they will back the Withdrawal Agreement or not.