By Laura Rong
BOLOGNA, Italy — The crucial question of whether the United Kingdom will leave the European Union remains uncertain as the October 31 deadline for reaching a Brexit compromises rapidly approaches.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson suspended the British parliament for five weeks in a perceived attempt to prevent any further action that would delay Brexit. However, the Supreme Court ruled that it was illegal to stop members of parliament (MPs) from carrying out their duties in the run-up to the Brexit deadline on October 31. According to a poll, more than 30% of UK citizens oppose Johnson’s new deal, while another 40% remain undecided regarding the proposal.
While Brexit hinges upon a wide variety of issues, the status of Northern Ireland is particularly significant. Presently, Ireland and the UK participate in the EU’s single market and customs union, meaning traded products are exempted from customs inspection or verification of quality in cross-border transactions. After Brexit, all this could change—the two parts of Ireland may be located in different customs and regulatory regimes, which could result in new standards of inspection at the border. Of pivotal importance to Johnson’s proposal is the inclusion of a border proposal for Northern Ireland to align with the EU’s single market, eliminating the need for a hard border between the EU and Ireland.
In an interview with the SAIS Observer, Christopher Hill, professor of European Research Seminar and Foreign Policy Analysis at SAIS Europe, said Johnson is being coerced to reach a compromise in his own rhetoric, and that he would likely agree to further concessions with the aim of cementing a deal with the EU.
“I think Mr. Johnson is in a difficult position because he has made it so clear that he wants to avoid any extension, and at the same time that he’s willing to go ahead with no deal on the one hand,” Hill said. “And on the other hand, he wants to have the advantage of going to a general election to be able to say, ‘I settled the Brexit problem’, so he proposed this compromise.”
Jennifer Varney, professor of English language at SAIS Bologna, said it’s striking to her that Johnson has proposed to solve the Irish backstop problem by introducing not one, but two borders.
“His proposal displays a shocking insensitivity towards, and perhaps misunderstanding of, the delicate balance that was achieved in the Good Friday Agreement,” Varney said in reference to the 1998 deal between the UK and Northern Ireland bringing peace to the region and notably the removal of a hard border between the two countries.
Daniel Hinds, an Irish student at SAIS Europe, said that the installation of a border would put people with families on both sides in danger, and that citizens need more detailed information about a border plan.
“The biggest annoyance for people in Ireland is what seems to be Boris Johnson and the English government’s lack of understanding and appreciation of the political situation in Brexit.” Hinds said.
In terms of trade, Hinds believes the new deal will drastically affect people in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as the majority of Irish exports are transported through the UK.
“It will drastically affect the economic growth of Ireland,” Hinds said. “It will drastically affect the agricultural sector, which has a large part of its exports to the UK. So people’s livelihoods are at risk.”
Furthermore, Hill predicts that if the UK fails to leave by the end of the month, Brexit may be even further delayed in order to leave room for further negotiation.
“I cannot imagine that there would be another date for leaving, until say, March 29, 2020, which would be exactly a year on from the date which we were originally supposed to leave on,” Hill said. “Now at the moment, especially to the Brexiters, it seems like a very serious delay, but in the long perspective, it’s not a long time.”
According to Hill, Britain is facing the most serious conflict in British politics since World War II. The EU is ready to grant the UK another extension, but whether Johnson will agree to further delay the date to leave remains uncertain.