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Last-minute Brexit deal struck before EU summit


Michel Barnier, EU Commission representative for the negotiations on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom, speaks at the Newspaper Congress of the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers on Sept. 24, 2019, in Berlin. Tribune News Service

By Ella Joyner And Helen Maguire
German Press Agency

BRUSSELS – Brexit negotiators sealed a last-minute deal just hours before the start of a crunch EU leaders' summit on Thursday, following days of intensive talks in Brussels.

British premier Boris Johnson praised the "great new deal" that allows London to take "back control," while European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker feted it as "a fair and balanced" agreement to smooth Britain's departure from the European Union.

The agreement "is testament to our commitment to find solutions," Juncker wrote on Twitter, recommending that EU leaders endorse it at Thursday's summit.

The document will be reviewed by EU capitals before they formally sign off on it. The deal will then need to be ratified by the British parliament and the European Parliament.

The new deal drops the unpopular backstop – the clause in the withdrawal agreement designed to avoid a hard Irish border – and ensures Britain would leave the customs union with the European Union, Johnson wrote on Twitter.

It is this issue in particular that has long snarled Brexit negotiations.

The parliament in Westminster, where Johnson does not control a majority, is deeply divided on Brexit, leaving the outcome of any vote on the new deal uncertain.

The main opposition Labour party, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish National Party all indicated Thursday they would not back the new deal.

It remained unclear whether Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) still rejects the deal as they indicated earlier Thursday.

Johnson is hoping for the support of the DUP in particular to push an eventual deal through parliament before Britain's planned departure date on Oct. 31. Their opinion could also sway Conservatives in his own party.

According to the EU's lead Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, the new deal delivers "legal security, certainty there where Brexit, like every separation, creates insecurity."

He expressed confidence that the deal negotiated by Brussels and London can be ratified by Oct. 31, while calling on parliament in London to "take responsibility" when it votes on the revised accord.

He outlined four key elements of the deal, which overhauls an earlier divorce agreement rejected by British lawmakers. Under it, Northern Ireland will remain aligned to a "limited set" of EU rules, notably related to goods. Checks will take place at points of entry to the territory, Barnier said.

To "square the circle" on customs – keeping Northern Ireland in Britain's customs territory but aligned with EU duties – Barnier says a dual customs regime will apply, depending if goods are destined to stay in Northern Ireland or end up in the EU.

Parliament in Belfast will be able to vote in regular intervals on whether to keep abiding by these rules. A simple majority would extend the arrangement every four years.

Finally, last-minute concerns over value-added tax fraud have also been resolved, Barnier said.

Thursday is not the first time that Brussels and London have signed off on a withdrawal agreement.

An earlier deal negotiated by Johnson's predecessor Theresa May was rejected by parliament in Westminster three times.

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