Despite pronouncing that he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than ask the European Union to delay the Oct. 31 deadline for Britain’s departure from the EU, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson last weekend informed EU Council President Donald Tusk that he would in fact need additional time to win parliamentary support for his new plan.
His humiliation is the product of his own behavior, the toxic legacy of a lack of seriousness and commitment to any plan or principle. Yet Johnson can take some solace in the vote that forced his retreat: He may have sufficient support for his proposal, even if it takes longer than anticipated.
Johnson has had a singular experience in the few months he became prime minister. He has lost every major vote before Parliament. He had hoped to force the legislature’s hand and back his strategy of threatening a hard, “no deal” Brexit if the EU did not revise the agreement that had been reached with his predecessor, Theresa May. Parliament revolted against the strategy and Johnson’s tactics — suspending or “progroging” the body to reduce the time it could debate his policy — instead passing legislation that prevented him from pursuing “no deal.”
Last week, British negotiators secured a new deal with the EU. As ever, a central issue is the future of Northern Ireland. The dilemma is simple: If Britain is to separate itself from the EU, a border with customs, immigration and other checks is required between the United Kingdom and the EU. But the EU, Ireland (which is a member of the union) and many British politicians insist that any deal must not create a hard border between the two halves of the island, as it would undo a key feature of the 1998 Good Friday agreement that ended decades of bloody sectarian violence.
At the same time, Northern Irish politicians who are a key part of Johnson’s government are adamant that there can be no border between their province and the U.K. as a whole. The prospect of such a border prompted them to reject Johnson’s proposal on Saturday. The vote was on an amendment to the proposal, and demanded that no deal could be passed until Parliament agreed on the details of legislation required to enact the Brexit proposal. The amendment passed by a vote of 322 to 306.
Johnson insists that the legislation can be passed this week, but he still sent three letters to the EU, one of which asked for the extension of Brexit to January 2020 as mandated by previous legislation and another in which said he did not want to prolong talks over Brexit. The EU is expected to agree to the extension.
Rejection of his new deal was the product of doubt and suspicions about Johnson’s intentions. The amendment was introduced by a supporter of Brexit who had been expelled from Johnson’s own Conservative Party for rejecting a “no-deal” departure. He, like the other 321 parliamentarians, feared that Britain could “accidentally” have a no-deal exit if Parliament voted for the new agreement but did not hammer out details. Johnson’s history of saying anything and changing positions prompted them to keep him and the government on a very short leash.
Johnson can take heart. The vote shows a majority of five for the agreement, even without the support of the hard-line Northern Irish parliamentarians who now oppose the deal. Unfortunately, the requirement that enacting legislation be passed before Brexit proceeds opens the door to meddling by the opposition. With Britain deeply divided by Brexit — some polls indicate a second referendum on the issue, if held, would back “remain” — the prospect of such mischief is real.
In short, uncertainty persists. That may not be bad. Both Britain and the EU need more time to prepare for the border that will emerge, eventually, somewhere, between the two parties. Yet uncertainty undermines confidence and businesses are growing impatient. Roughly 1,000 Japanese companies invested in Britain because they viewed it as a doorway to Europe; with the terms of their future relationship unclear, that approach must be reassessed.
Johnson argues that the U.K., freed from the EU, can become the Singapore of Europe, negotiating trade agreements around the world on more favorable terms than before. Critics say he is naive. Trade partners will not invest diplomatic resources in such a small economy and divorced from the EU, London loses leverage in negotiations.
Johnson has declared Japan a priority for those deals. That makes sense. Japan is the world’s third-largest economy and trade between the two countries last year was nearly £30 billion, an 8 percent increase from the year before. Japanese companies employ 150,000 people in the U.K. But Johnson also needs agreements with the EU and Brussels. It is not clear how much bandwidth there will be in London for them all.
Japan has a long relationship with Britain. We must ensure that it endures as Brexit places a strain on both our countries.