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The EU approved Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan — but will Parliament?

European Union leaders unanimously backed a Brexit deal with the United Kingdom on Thursday. The next major hurdle is for British Parliament to approve the agreement -- no easy feat for Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to Chatham House’s Robin Niblett about how the deal would handle the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and the outlook for passing it.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    European Union leaders unanimously backed a Brexit deal with the United Kingdom today. The next major hurdle is having the agreement approved by the British Parliament, no easy feat for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

    And the stakes for the United States are clear: The E.U. is America's largest trading partner, and the U.K. is one of America's closest allies.

    Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson threw his arms around negotiators and saluted European leaders for agreeing on new terms of their divorce.

    Johnson even did a full victory lap around the table, celebrating what he's compared to reaching the summit of Mount Everest.

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson:

    It's been long. It's been painful. It's been divisive. And now is the moment for us, as a country, to come together. Now is the moment for our parliamentarians to come together and get this thing done.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Much of the new deal is the old deal. The United Kingdom leaves the European Union after a transition period that ends in December 2020. British residents in Europe and European residents in the U.K. maintain their status. And Britain pays Europe about $45 billion.

    The sticking point has always been the border between Northern Ireland, a member of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, a country in the European Union. Right now, there's no physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and cars and goods can travel freely.

    To maintain that freedom, the new deal allows the entire United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, to strike trade deals and import goods under U.K. customs laws. But Northern Ireland would follow European Union regulations, and goods at risk of being exported from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland would fall under European Union custom rules.

    Today, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar praised the deal.

  • Prime Minister Leo Varadkar:

    It is a unique solution, one that recognizes the unique history and geography of Northern Ireland.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The new deal also reduces the chances that Northern Irish politicians could reject it, and could keep the U.K. more in line with European environmental and labor rules.

  • Question:

    How are you feeling, gentlemen?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, Johnson predicted members of the British Parliament, or M.P.s, would ratify the new deal.

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson:

    I hope very much now that my fellow M.P.s in Westminster do now come together to get Brexit done, to get this excellent deal over the line, and to deliver Brexit without any more delay.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But in today's Parliament, that's much easier said than done. Johnson's allies, the Northern Irish Democratic Union Party, criticized him and the deal.

  • Nigel Dodds:

    He has been too eager by far to get a deal at any cost.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And the largest opposition bloc, Labor, and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, vowed to reject it during a Saturday vote.

  • Jeremy Corbyn:

    We are unhappy with this deal, and, as it stands, we will vote against it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For a deeper look at the Brexit agreement and the challenges ahead, we turn to Robin Niblett. He is the director of the London think tank Chatham House.

    Robin Niblett, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    What are the two or three major aspects that have changed in this deal?

  • Robin Niblett:

    Well, the major thing that's changed is that Northern Ireland, from Boris Johnson's point of view and the E.U.'s point of view, is no longer the problem that it was.

    They have agreed to create, in essence, a border down the Irish Sea that hives off Northern Ireland from all of the problems that had been bedeviling the Theresa May deal. It means you don't need any kind of border structures or even border arrangements between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. So, that's number one.

    Number two, what that means is that Boris Johnson can now prepare to strike a real free trade agreement with the E.U. for the future relationship of the U.K. with the E.U. He's free to do a much more open type of relationship that allows the U.K. to diverge a bit from the E.U.

    And for the big Brexiteers, the people who championed Brexit from the beginning, the whole idea was to be able to strike big, new, exciting agreements with countries around the world.

    Now, with the Northern Irish problem resolved, he reckons he has that freedom. And that lets him have a better chance of getting parliamentary support to get this through Parliament, the British Parliament.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, as you just discussed just at the end there, he has to get it through British Parliament.

    What are the chances of that, given what we just heard from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party and Labor Party, both opposing it?

  • Robin Niblett:

    I think it's still a long shot.

    I mean, this has been so compressed in time. Labor are going to feel they're being bounced into even holding a vote on this on Saturday. What he's done is created a lot of antibodies.

    If he doesn't have the Democratic Unionist Party on his side, all things being equal, he's probably five votes short. And that assumes that all of those Conservatives that left the Conservative Party in disgust of him proroguing Parliament, it assumes they all come back on board.

    It assumes all the really fervent Brexiteers decide this deal is good enough. Even with all of that, if he doesn't have the Democratic Unionists, if he doesn't get any Labor people voting for him, he is going to be a few votes short.

    So, a critical thing for him is, can he get some of the Labor people, who represent districts that voted heavily to leave and are worried about this dragging on and on, and who don't really trust Jeremy Corbyn in any case, can he get a few of them over to vote on his side?

    He only needs 15, 10, something like that, to come his way, and he might scrape it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so if, at best, perhaps, he's about five votes short before he starts horse-trading, and if he can't succeed in that horse-trading, are we heading toward another election?

  • Robin Niblett:

    Ultimately, yes.

    He's under the gun then by law, a thing called the Benn Act, when Parliament kind of took control of the Order Book and took it away from him, to prevent a no-deal Brexit, he's obliged to send a letter to the European Commission asking for an extension all the way until the 31st of January.

    He's obliged to do that by Saturday evening, if Parliament doesn't approve this deal, by then. So, you can see the time is so compressed.

    I think, if he loses the vote, or if some Labor people cleverly try to add on a requirement for a confirmatory referendum to the deal, which is something I think the Conservatives would also oppose, he may choose to resign and say, look, over to you guys. I struck a deal. I had a deal with the E.U. You can't pass it. Good luck. You form a government. Let's see how you do.

    And he's hoping it would collapse, and then there would be the general election. And he would be in a strong, very strong position to win it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Would he be favored to win another general election?

  • Robin Niblett:

    The question for him is, will the Brexit Party, what used to be called the U.K. Independence Party, led by Nigel Farage, will they contest Boris Johnson, because they reckon this deal is a bit fuzzy and fudgy, or will they step back and give the Conservatives a carte blanche to run it?

    So, look, Labor is in a chaotic position at the moment. He has to be odds-on to get close to a majority.

    But what I fear is, we would end up with a pretty undecided hung Parliament even after another general election. I think this has still got a way to run.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Robin Niblett, head of Chatham House, thank you very much.

  • Robin Niblett:

    Thank you.

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