How sublime it would be if Jean-Claude Juncker turns out to be the man who helps Boris Johnson “Get Brexit Done” after the European Commission’s president ruled out any further delays. Luxembourg’s former premier will have known exactly the impact his dramatic comments would have after he and Johnson revealed their new Withdrawal Agreement earlier today.
There was no doubt of his intent: “We have a deal so why should we have a prolongation?” Indeed, the only doubts at first were whether the French-speaker Juncker had actually said prorogation. But of course, the correct French word for extension is prolongation.
Asked again by reporters to clarify his statement after he and Johnson held their press conference in Brussels, Juncker repeated his knock-out blow. “Anyway there will be no prolongation. We have concluded a deal and so there is not an argument for further delay – it has to be done now.” He added that he hoped the UK’s Parliament would approve the deal: “I hope it will, I’m convinced it will. It has to.”
Assuming Juncker has the backing of the EU’s other 27 member states, he has done what Johnson has failed to do so far. He snookered those behind the Benn Act – which stops the UK from leaving the EU without a deal – and forces those opposing the deal into a corner. (My colleague, Alastair Benn, explains the background to the Benn Act which so many had hoped would be a silver bullet to knock out a no deal exit.)
Yet it is highly unlikely that Juncker would have made such a sensational claim without knowing he had the support of the EU’s 27 leaders who are meeting tonight and tomorrow at the council summit.
The Prime Minister will be praying the EU leaders back Juncker’s bold intervention by confirming that there will be no extension if the UK Parliament fails to vote for his deal at Saturday’s emergency sitting. If they do, MPs now face a binary choice: Johnson’s deal or No Deal on October 31.
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More crudely, if MPs from Labour, the Lib Dems and SNP refuse to vote for Johnson’s new proposal, it will have been their choice that the UK crashes out with No Deal.
What a stroke of genius, straight out of the school of canny EU craftsmanship: we give you this but it’s all or nothing. What would be fascinating to know is whether it was a decision that Johnson and Juncker cooked up between them to get his deal over the line, or an entirely impromptu remark from the president.
With only a few weeks left before his presidency runs out, Juncker may have felt that bringing together the UK and EU with an amicable and agreed deal was a fitting finale to his reign.
It would be understandable if Juncker wants to leave the EU having put Brexit to bed. And he really did look sad when he said he was “happy with the deal but sad about Brexit”. It was also a deal he could deliver on compared to the mounting problems on the EU’s other borders – whether it be in the north the populist Polish government intent on flouting EU laws on justice to the environment or protests in Catalonia. This was one deal he could bring to a close.
What happens next also promises to be explosive: MPs will meet on Saturday to make their decision, knowing now they have two choices. Johnson’s deal or no deal.
The biggest challenge Johnson faces is bringing the DUP on side by Saturday. But it could be that he’s gambled that they will either fall into line or that he can get enough votes without the DUP’s 10 MPs.
By far the most interesting part of this new Withdrawal Agreement is the political declaration, which outlines the parameters of the future trading arrangement. The words are warm and friendly, the talk is of future co-operation, shared values and shared rights of a common heritage based on geography, history and ideals.
Here’s one paragraph:
“The Union and the United Kingdom agree that prosperity and security are enhanced by embracing free and fair trade, defending individual rights and the rule of law, protecting workers, consumers and the environment, and standing together against threats to rights and values from without or within.”
On first reading, it’s a tough document for either Tory rebels or those in the Labour party – that includes its Brexiteers and Remainers – not to like. Infact, the outline is there for what you might even call an old-fashioned Brexit of the soft option. More cleverly, it’s an open book which still needs to be filled.