The UK government and Brussels have announced that they have agreed on a revised withdrawal agreement and political declaration.

The new deal covers rules on how Britain and the EU will trade with each other, as well as various other arrangements, until a full UK-EU trade deal is struck.

The agreement potentially means a “no-deal” Brexit could be avoided.

But Boris Johnson still needs to find a majority in parliament to ratify it – and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party have already said their 10 MPs will not back the Prime Minister.

How does Boris Johnson’s deal differ from the one that Theresa May failed to get past the House of Commons?

Northern Ireland

Backstop scrapped 

The UK and Irish governments have both said they do not want to introduce customs checks or infrastructure at the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

There were fears that this would breach the Good Friday Agreement – the multi-party agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland after decades of violence between Irish nationalists and unionists.

Negotiators have been wrestling with the problem of how to avoid a return to a so-called “hard border” throughout the Brexit process.

Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement came with a so-called “backstop”. This would have kept Northern Ireland aligned with many of the rules of the EU’s single market, and kept the whole of the UK in a common EU customs territory until an alternative arrangement could be worked out.

Crucially, the backstop arrangement would have continued indefinitely until the UK and EU decided to scrap it.

It removed the need for border checks in Ireland, but proved unpopular with unionists and Brexiteers – and ultimately led to her deal being defeated three times in parliament and the end of her career as PM.

The backstop has now been dropped.

New customs arrangements 

The new agreement still avoids customs checks on the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, hopefully easing fears of a return to violence.

It will see the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, leave the EU’s customs union, which means Northern Ireland will be included in future British trade deals.

But Northern Ireland will continue to follow many EU rules on food safety and other standards.

UK customs officials will now check goods entering Northern Ireland from mainland Britain, ensuring EU rules are maintained.

It’s likely that importers in Northern Ireland will now have to pay EU tariffs on goods shipped in from the rest of the UK.

Then they would then reclaim extra charges if they could prove they had not sold the goods on in the Republic of Ireland.

The likely complexity of the arrangements and the added administrative burden for businesses has led to criticism of this approach from the DUP and some economists.

Row over ‘consent’ 

Four years after the end of the transition period (which runs out in December 2020), members of the Northern Ireland assembly at Stormont will vote on whether to keep the rules in place.

But the vote will only need a simple majority instead of the “petition of concern” mechanism introduced after the Good Friday Agreement to ensure there is cross-community support for legislation.

Essentially, the new deal robs unionists of the power to veto the arrangements.


The Brexit Party say that the deal “signs the UK up to” a “European army”.

The idea that the EU is pushing for a joint military force has been knocking around for a while.

Last year, German chancellor Angela Merkel said: “We have to look at the vision of one day creating a real, true European army.” She was echoing a statement by Emmanuel Macron, who told an interviewer: “we will not protect the Europeans unless we decide to have a true European army.”

But these comments aren’t quite the same as actually committing to making the idea a reality. Indeed, neither country, nor the European Commission, has put forward concrete proposals for combined armed forces.

So how does this relate to the Brexit deal?

We assume the Brexit Party are talking about a section in the Political Declaration that says “the Parties [i.e. the UK and the EU] agree to consider” a number of defence policies, including UK “collaboration in relevant existing and future projects of the European Defence Agency” and “collaborative defence projects.”

The language in the latest iteration of the Political Declaration is actually weaker than the version Theresa May struck: the former PM committed the UK to “enable” the policies, while the new version only promises to “consider.”

In either case, these policies are a long way short of an “EU army”.

Workers’ rights

Some critics have claimed the new deal reduces the commitment to maintain workers’ rights.

The first Withdrawal Agreement included an article on “non-regression of labour and social standards”, which makes commitments on things like “fundamental rights at work, occupational health and safety, fair working conditions and employment standards”.

The original text said the EU and UK “shall ensure that the level of protection provided for by law, regulations and practices is not reduced below the level provided by the common standards applicable within the Union and the United Kingdom”.

However, this entire section has been removed from the new Withdrawal Agreement. Instead, the issue is covered in the accompanying Political Declaration, which is not legally binding.

It now says: “The Parties should uphold the common high standards applicable in the Union and the United Kingdom at the end of the transition period in the areas of state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, climate change and relevant tax matters.”

According to the House of Commons Library, the Political Declaration is “not a binding legal document and it is unlikely that it will bind the parties to anything beyond a commitment to negotiate for a future relationship in good faith.”

So although there is still a formal commitment to maintain “high standards” in these areas, it appears to have been legally watered down since Mrs May’s deal.

It will be for the British government (and voters, if an election is called) to determine how closely the UK sticks to this commitment.