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Tuesday 28 November 2023 Dublin: 3°C
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There are three main differences between Theresa May's Brexit deal and Boris Johnson's one

Boris Johnson has been bullish about the UK leaving the EU on 31 October – will these changes help him?

THE KEY DIFFERENCES between Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, and Boris Johnson’s version of it are the alternative arrangement  to the Irish backstop, a consent mechanism for the Northern Ireland Assembly, and the level-playing field provision. 

The vast majority of the Withdrawal Agreement is untouched from its original format – with the changes focused on the two elements that pro-Brexit MPs took issue with the last three times a vote was taken on it (although the financial settlement has been reduced from £39 billion to £33 billion because of the extension).

Today’s vote in the House of Commons will clarify whether there was a legitimate concern over these elements, which Brexiteers claimed would locked the UK in a customs union that restricted the it from future trade deals, and agreeing to rules that would make the UK less competitive post-Brexit.

Despite nothing much in the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement having been changed, the things that have been changed are complicated to explain.

1. The backstop is gone

The backstop, was a plan B in the Withdrawal Agreement that would be implemented if an alternative agreement to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland couldn’t be found.

It would keep Northern Ireland aligned to the European Union’s Custom Union and Single Market, which Brexiteers argued would mean the UK couldn’t avail of future trade deals (Theresa May rejected a Northern Ireland-only backstop in favour of a UK-wide one in order to protect ‘the integrity of the union’). 

The backstop’s replacement is similar to the original Northern Ireland-only backstop, with the additional issue of consent to make the mechanism less “antidemocratic”.

In short, it means that Northern Ireland will remain aligned to the EU’s Custom Union, but will be in the United Kingdom’s custom territory, meaning that if there are future trade deals struck, Northern Ireland would avail of them.

In practice, this would mean that if goods are sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, no tariffs apply. If goods are sent from Great Britain through Northern Ireland to Ireland, tariffs will apply, but they will be collected at ports and airports – effectively putting a customs border along the Irish Sea.

For goods sent from Ireland to Northern Ireland, there would be no tariffs, and for goods travelling from Ireland through Northern Ireland to Great Britain, there would be tariffs collected at the Irish Sea customs border.

2. Consent

This was an important part of the discussions, as it proved difficult to capture what true “consent” from Northern Ireland would be. 

If the Withdrawal Agreement is passed by the House of Commons today, this arrangement will come into effect at the end of the transition period, which will end in December 2020 (or December 2022 if it’s extended).

Four years after that, (but two months before the deadline), the Northern Ireland Assembly will get a vote on whether to keep this customs arrangement, or default to “existing” WTO rules. 

Speaking to reporters in Brussels yesterday, the Taoiseach said: “So there is of course an outside chance that at some point in the latter part of the next decade… [an] Assembly might decide to opt out of alignment, opt out of the Single Electricity Market, opt out of the new customs arrangement.

But I’m confident that’s not going to happen, because I think that people in Northern Ireland, businesses in the Northern Ireland, farmers in Northern Ireland are going to see and experience the benefits of this arrangement.
But if there’s a risk we’re taking, the risk we’re taking is one on democracy, and saying to people in Northern Ireland that you determine your future and this is something I can stand over.

On the vote itself, if a simple majority is achieved (so half of the total of votes cast, plus one more vote at least), it would extend the arrangements for another four years. 

If they receive a cross-party consensus, meaning a majority of 60%, and at least 40% support from unionists and nationalists, then the arrangements will be extended by eight years. 

If there’s no Stormont Assembly in four years’ time, those elected will be reconvened for a vote on which direction to take Northern Ireland in.

Although the DUP is opposing the deal over customs, consent and VAT reasons, and fears that it would severe the North’s link with the rest of the United Kingdom, the Taoiseach said that in his view, it did not change its “constitutional status”.

If this agreement is ratified and it is fully implemented, the queen will still be the queen; the pound will still be the pound; people will still post letters in Royal Mail red letterboxes, Northern Ireland will still be part of the United Kingdom.

3. The Political Declaration

The “level-playing field” provision was another sticking point for UK-EU negotiators. It essentially aimed to create a base level of standards for labour rights, the environment, tax and state aid rules. 

This is so as to ensure state aid rules aren’t used by either side to boost their own companies; labour rules aren’t lowered in order to increase company profits; or environmental standards aren’t renegned upon in order to become more competitive post-Brexit.

This had been a legally-binding agreement contained in the Withdrawal Agreement – it’s now stated in the Political Declaration:

“the Parties agree to develop an ambitious, wide-ranging and balanced economic partnership. This partnership will be comprehensive, encompassing a Free Trade Agreement, as well as wider sectoral cooperation where it is in the mutual interest of both Parties.

“It will be underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition, as set out in Section XIV of this Part. It should facilitate trade and investment between the Parties to the extent possible, while respecting the integrity of the Union’s Single Market and the Customs Union as well as the United Kingdom’s internal market, and recognising the development of an independent trade policy by the United Kingdom.” 

Reference to a customs union as the baseline for a future trade deal, and UK alignment with EU regulations have also been removed.

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