British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has taken a bold gamble by agreeing to a Brexit deal with the European Union two weeks before the deadline to leave the bloc even though it faces an uncertain future in Parliament and alienates his key political allies.
Mr. Johnson announced the withdrawal agreement with great optimism early Thursday morning after four days of intense negotiations and just before the start of an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels. He called it an “excellent deal … that can be incredibly positive both for the U.K. and for the EU.” He called it a “testament to our commitment to finding solutions. It provides certainty where Brexit creates uncertainty.”
The agreement includes the latest attempt by the U.K. and EU to resolve the controversial issue of how to maintain an open border between Ireland and the province of Northern Ireland after Brexit. It includes several changes to what’s known as the backstop provision that would keep Northern Ireland aligned with EU rules to ensure the free movement of goods.
The EU leaders unanimously endorsed the pact. Donald Tusk, the head of the EU Council, which represents the leaders, said it “allows us to avoid chaos and an atmosphere of conflict between the EU and the United Kingdom.” He added that the EU will work toward ensuring the European Parliament ratifies the pact, and told reporters: “Now the ball is in the court of the U.K.”
The agreement would pave the way for Britain to formally leave the EU on Oct. 31, something Mr. Johnson has promised since he became Conservative Party Leader, and Prime Minister, in July. But he faces an uphill battle in the House of Commons, which will hold a special session on Saturday to consider the agreement. If it’s rejected, Britain could be headed for another Brexit delay, a snap election, a referendum or a no-deal departure on Oct. 31.
The Conservatives don’t hold a majority in the Commons, and the number of Tory MPs has been shrinking steadily. As a result, Mr. Johnson will struggle to find enough support among opposition MPs and the 21 Tories he expelled from the party last month because they voted against the government on a Brexit matter. On Thursday, he also lost the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 MPs have helped prop up Mr. Johnson’s minority government. “These proposals are not, in our view, beneficial to the economic well-being of Northern Ireland and they undermine the integrity of the union,” the DUP said in a statement.
Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn also came out against the agreement and said his party will push for a referendum on it. “This sell-out deal won’t bring the country together and should be rejected,” he said. “The best way to get Brexit sorted is to give the people the final say in a public vote.”
If Parliament rejects the deal on Saturday, Mr. Johnson will be forced to seek a three-month extension to the Oct. 31 deadline. A law MPs passed last month requires the Prime Minister to request an extension if he has no agreement by Oct. 19. Mr. Johnson has indicated he will look for a way around the law and could attempt to get support to call an election. On Thursday, he held out hope the deal would pass. “I’m very confident that when my colleagues in Parliament study this agreement, that they will want to vote for it on Saturday,” he told reporters.
Mr. Tusk said on Thursday that the EU would consider a request for an extension and several EU leaders have made it clear they would agree to a delay.
Mr. Johnson faces the same Parliamentary challenge that confounded his predecessor, Theresa May. She reached a Brexit deal with the EU last year, but MPs rejected it three times, despite modifications. A group of Tory MPs, led by Mr. Johnson, argued that her deal would align the U.K. too closely with the EU. Differences in Mr. Johnson’s agreement could make it more palatable to rebel Tories.
Unlike Ms. May’s deal, Mr. Johnson’s agreement would formally pull the U.K. out of the EU’s customs union, which allows for the tariff-free movement of goods. The EU has been adamant that Northern Ireland remain in the customs union to keep the Irish border open. Mr. Johnson has insisted the entire country had to leave so Britain could pursue a unified trade policy.
Under Mr. Johnson’s deal, Northern Ireland would withdraw from the customs union but still adhere to EU regulations. That would keep the border open but also allow Mr. Johnson to say the U.K. has left the bloc. Mr. Johnson’s deal would give the Northern Ireland Legislature the power to withdraw from the terms once every four years. And the U.K. would remain in the EU for transition period from Nov. 1 to the end of 2020, but not participate in most of its institutions.
However, the and others say the deal effectively would create a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., because goods shipped to the province would have to conform with EU regulations and tariffs. And they say the consent provision would violate the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence and created the framework for the Northern Ireland assembly. Under that agreement, a majority of unionist and nationalist parties must approve most measures debated in the assembly, effectively giving each a veto. The consent power in the withdrawal agreement would eliminate the vetoes by requiring only a simple majority of all members. The assembly has been shut down for nearly three years because of a dispute between the and Sinn Fein.
“The deal which Johnson has struck demonstrates both his determination and the exasperation of the EU,” said Victoria Honeyman, a lecturer in British politics at the University of Leeds. “There has been movement on certain issues, but they may well have cost Johnson any chance of getting them through the Commons."
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