European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has insisted that there can be no further delay to Brexit, as Boris Johnson urged MPs to “come together” behind the deal the pair agreed to take the UK out of the EU at the end of this month.
The comment appeared designed to put pressure on MPs not to vote down the new withdrawal agreement and demand a second referendum in an emergency sitting of the Commons on Saturday.
Despite immediate announcements from Labour and his DUP allies that they would not back the deal, the prime minister claimed to be “very confident” of securing victory in what is certain to be a razor-edge vote.
Presenting himself as a unifier, three years after he led the Vote Leave campaign which split the nation, he issued an appeal for parliamentarians to “come together and get this thing done”.
And in a direct plea to Arlene Foster’s DUP, he insisted the country can leave the bloc “as one United Kingdom” and “decide our future together”.
In a press conference shortly after the other 27 EU leaders meeting in the European Council unanimously approved the deal, a somewhat subdued Johnson said: “We’ve been at this now, as I say, for three and a half years. It hasn’t always been an easy experience for the UK. 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.”
The deal was announced shortly after 10am UK time, following two early-morning phone calls between the prime minister and Mr Juncker.
It appalled the DUP by removing their veto on Northern Ireland’s future relations with the EU, allowing a customs border in the Irish Sea and placing the province within the EU regime for VAT.
In an uncompromising statement, the Northern Irish party said the deal was “not acceptable” and would “drive a coach and horses” through the Good Friday Agreement.
But it is understood that Mr Johnson decided the previous evening that he would have to risk sacrificing DUP support to seal an agreement which might allow him to live up to his “do or die” pledge to quit the EU by 31 October.
He headed straight into a meeting with Juncker after flying to the Belgian capital by RAF jet in the early afternoon.
Afterwards, the European Commission president was insistent that there was no further option for “prolongation” of negotiations.
“We have concluded a deal and so there is not an argument for further delay. It has to be done now,” Mr Juncker told reporters on the doorstep of the European Council summit.
“We have a deal. The British prime minister has to make sure that the deal will pass the hurdles of Westminster. I have to make sure it will pass the hurdles of the European Parliament, that’s all.”
However, experts insisted that Mr Juncker had no power to rule out an extension to the Article 50 Brexit process if Mr Johnson requests one, as the law requires him to if MPs reject his deal in the fourth “meaningful vote” on Saturday.
The author of Article 50, Lord Kerr – a supporter of the People’s Vote campaign for a second referendum – said: “The commission attempted to press the council to reject an extension to the deadline in March and the council rejected their advice. I would expect the same thing to happen now should parliament reject – as I expect it will – this very bad proposal.”
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer denounced the new agreement as “a far worse deal than Theresa May’s”.
He warned: “It paves the way for a decade of deregulation. It gives Johnson licence to slash workers’ rights, environmental standards and consumer protections.”
The accord was condemned as “a disaster for working people” by the TUC’s Frances O’Grady, while the CBI raised “serious concerns” about the prospect of losing decades of free and frictionless trade with the UK’s largest market.
While taoiseach Leo Varadkar defended the deal as upholding the Irish peace process, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds was highly critical of Mr Johnson.
“He has been too eager by far to get a deal at any cost, and the fact of the matter is, if he held his nerve and held out he would, of course, have got better concessions that kept the integrity, both economic and constitutionally, of the United Kingdom,” Mr Dodds said.
Joining Mr Juncker, European Council president Donald Tusk and chief negotiator Michel Barnier in expressing regret at the UK’s departure, Mr Varadkar said there would always be “a place at the table” for Britain if it chose to rejoin.
Barnier told reporters: “I too very much regret Brexit. I deeply regret it. However, we respect it, it was a sovereign choice of a majority in the UK.”
Asked what his message was to the 48 per cent of British voters who supported Remain, Mr Tusk said: “I regret that it was only 48 not 52.”
Johnson himself described the agreement as “a great deal” which got rid of the contentious “backstop” for the Irish border and allowed the government to focus on other domestic priorities, as well as forging free trade agreements elsewhere in the world.
Under the agreement, Northern Ireland will stay inside the UK customs territory, but UK authorities will have to collect EU tariffs for goods that are “at risk of entering the single market”. Northern Ireland will stay inside the EU’s VAT regime, though UK authorities will be responsible for collecting the tax.
Johnson ditched plans to scrap commitments to a “level playing field” on environmental, social and labour rights.
Despite Downing Street’s insistence that the deal can get through parliament before 31 October, it would be unprecedented for such a major international treaty to pass parliament in such a short time.
However, the EU27 indicated that they believed it would be possible to ratify the deal within the next 14 days, asking the commission and European parliament to “take the necessary steps to ensure that the agreement can enter into force on 1 November 2019, so as to provide for an orderly withdrawal”.
And it is understood that if the deal passes on Saturday, the government is ready to start the process of getting a withdrawal agreement bill through parliament on Monday, and will expect MPs to sit for extended hours if necessary to get it onto the statute book by the end of the month.
Mr Juncker said the commission would be ready to begin negotiations on future EU/UK trade relations the day after withdrawal, which is also due to be the first day in office of his successor Ursula von der Leyen.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies