(CN) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the European Union frantically sought to hammer out a deal Wednesday to allow the United Kingdom to cut ties with its European neighbors on amicable terms.
Throughout the day, negotiators reportedly were close to announcing a deal to pave the way for the U.K.’s departure from the EU, but by late Wednesday British news outlets reported that Downing Street was not ready to say a deal had been struck.
Still, it remains very unclear if any proposed deal can muster enough votes in Britain’s deeply divided House of Commons to win passage.
The U.K. is slated to leave the EU on Oct. 31. Johnson, a hardcore Brexit backer, has vowed to lead the U.K. out of the EU on that date with or without a deal, but Parliament has requested him to delay an exit until Jan. 31 if he can’t come up with a deal. Johnson's government has infuriated many by saying it may not carry out Parliament's request.
Negotiations entered a chaotic and intense phase on Wednesday on the eve of a summit where European leaders will take up the issue of Brexit on Thursday and Friday. Talks were expected to continue Thursday.
Discussions are focused on the issue of Northern Ireland and how to ensure that it remains tied to the U.K. while also tied to the EU. Northern Ireland, its open border with Ireland and maintaining peace in the troubled region have become major stumbling blocks in the U.K.’s plans to exit the EU.
Wednesday was marked by contradictory media reports about where the negotiations were. The text of any deal and its terms remained confidential as of Wednesday evening, and also very fluid.
Several news outlets said Johnson was ready to keep Northern Ireland closely aligned to EU rules and laws and to draw a customs border down the Irish Sea – meaning all of the island of Ireland would be in effect aligned to the EU. Ireland, an EU member, insists on making sure that people, goods and services can continue to move freely across the invisible border between Ireland and Northern Ireland as they do today.
The problem with turning the Irish Sea into the border is that many in Northern Ireland, especially the large pro-British Protestant population that backs the Democratic Unionist Party, see this as treating them differently from the rest of the U.K. The DUP has opposed drawing a border down the Irish Sea and Johnson’s Conservative Party relies heavily on their votes in Parliament. The DUP’s concerns with the status of Northern Ireland largely were responsible for scuttling a previous deal former Prime Minister Theresa May spent three years working on with the EU.
The DUP's leader, Arlene Foster, spent the day in London in negotiations and entered Downing Street at least three times, according to news reports. The DUP was reportedly split over proposals offered by Johnson's government.
In Toulouse, France, where EU leaders are meeting, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the negotiations over Brexit were in a “final sprint” and she expressed optimism that the two sides could reach an agreement.
Any deal that Johnson comes up with is due to be presented to the House of Commons on Saturday. Parliament hasn't sat on a Saturday in 40 years.
Tensions over Brexit have been high for months and there is no telling when Britain will return to politics as normal. The country is deeply divided over the issue and there is growing momentum to reverse the 2016 referendum altogether. In 2016, 52% of U.K. voters chose to leave the EU, but polls show that if the referendum were to take place today a majority might vote to remain in the EU. Support for EU membership is particularly strong among young people.
On Wednesday, the Labour Party, the main opposition, said they would seek to attach a requirement to hold a second so-called confirmatory referendum to any deal Johnson comes up with. Those opposed to Brexit say holding a second referendum is the best way for the U.K. to figure out what a majority of people truly want. They argue that the public in 2016 did not understand all the complexities of Brexit and that now, three years later, people are much more informed.
Even if a deal over Brexit is reached, or if the U.K. abandons the EU without a deal, the chaos will continue and the fighting may only get more intense. Under any scenario where the U.K. leaves the EU, the U.K. and the EU will still need to hash out their future relationship on trade, politics, security and a host of other issues. Under the deal negotiated by May, the U.K. remained committed to the EU and its rules governing many areas, but that close relationship is not guaranteed under the Johnson government.
Leaving the EU also will bring about other conflicts within the U.K. For example, Scotland's drive for independence may grow stronger, especially if any deal Johnson secures allows Northern Ireland to remain closely aligned to the EU and its marketplace while leaving Scotland tied exclusively to the U.K.
A majority of Scots voted against Brexit and Scotland's leading politicians are vehemently opposed to Brexit, arguing that Scotland should remain closely aligned with the EU. Calls for Scottish independence have grown since the 2016 referendum.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)Follow @cainburdeau
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