Dhe special session had already begun when a small military plane landed at London City Airport. This contained the contract with the signatures that EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, the EU Council President, had put under the paper that morning. A courier took the document to Downing Street, where Boris Johnson was supposed to sign it after the debates in both Houses of Parliament – and then the Queen. The contract on future relations is due to come into force this Thursday at 11 p.m. local time, and despite (and a little because of) the hurry there was no doubt the day before that it would turn out exactly like this.
In contrast to Theresa May’s attempts to get her exit agreements through parliament, there was no tension over Westminster on Wednesday. It was more like January, when Boris Johnson had almost routinely enforced his version of the Withdrawal Agreement. Mass was read before the first MP could even speak, and the debate in the House of Commons, scheduled for just five hours, seemed to reflect that. Damian Green, once May’s deputy, called the debate time “laughable”. Others scornfully asked how this “nod” action was to be reconciled with the supposedly new sovereignty of parliament.
Scared moments for Johnson
For a few days, Johnson had to worry – not about the majority, but about the unity of his group. The Erz-Brexiteers only wanted to announce their voting behavior after a committee of constitutional lawyers had rummaged through the more than 1200 contract pages. In good time before the special session, the verdict came: after careful examination, it was concluded that the treaty “legally preserves the sovereignty of the United Kingdom”.
From that moment on, Johnson could proudly count on an absolute majority on his own. For the other parties it was no longer about tactical questions, but only about the type of their entry in the history books.
The small opposition factions decided to reject it: the Northern Irish DUP because they criticized Northern Ireland’s new special status, the Scottish Nationalists, the Liberal Democrats, the Welsh Plaid Cymru and the Greens because they never wanted to leave. Speaking for many in this group, Libdem Chairman Ed Davey said, “A deal that costs jobs, increases red tape, hits our service-based economy, undermines our police force and harms the future of our youth is a bad deal . “
The main opposition faction took a different stance. Labor leader Keir Starmer also criticized aspects of the agreement, especially the lack of regulations for the British service sector, but he supported it. It was “the only deal we have”, he argued and used the moment to fill in the trenches – also in his own party. “The argument between ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ is over, whichever side you were on,” said Starmer.
“New relationship between Great Britain and EU”
A few in his party saw it differently and refused to vote on the deal, but that didn’t change the overall picture. Starmer is clearly making efforts to leave the Corbyn era behind and to present his party – like himself – as supporting the state. We now have the opportunity to “shape a new future” on the basis of the agreement, he said, emphasizing that “we will always be European”.
It didn’t sound much different than the Prime Minister himself. Johnson urged MPs to “start a new chapter in our national history.” The agreement with the EU allows the UK to regain “control over our laws and our national fate”. He spoke of a “new relationship between Great Britain and the EU as sovereign equals”. This is accompanied by friendship, trade as well as common interests and values, “while both sides respect the other’s freedom of action and recognize that we have nothing to fear if we sometimes do things differently”.
From Johnson’s point of view, the separation really brings the two partners together: “At first we stood apart, then we became half-hearted, at times obstructive members of the EU. Now, with this treaty, we will become friendly neighbors – the best friends and allies the EU could have. “