BRUSSELS — Against the tough odds, Boris Johnson hammered out a last-minute compromise Brexit deal with his skeptical, fatigued European counterparts on Thursday, Oct. 17, raising the prospect that Britain could finally be out of the European Union by the end of the month.
Now the hardest part: Johnson will have to win approval for his draft deal in the fractious British Parliament, beginning with an extraordinary and rare sitting of the House of Commons on Saturday.
"This is a great deal for our country — the U.K. — and our friends in the E.U.," Johnson said Thursday night in Brussels after his negotiators agreed to a 63-page draft text. "Now is the moment for our parliamentarians to get this done."
To scare the House of Commons into submission, and to fulfill a political pledge, Johnson hoped his fellow leaders in Brussels would rule out any further delays beyond the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline. They refused.
The 27 ambassadors to the E.U. have been asked to stick around Brussels over the weekend, so they can handle any fallout from the British Parliament votes. U.K. law requires Johnson to seek an extension if a deal isn't approved by Saturday. And E.U. leaders would likely grant one, to avoid the potential economic chaos of a sudden break without a managed transition.
But they are also ready to be done with Brexit. Nobody in the E.U. capital seemed especially excited about the signal event of landing a deal. Nobody extolled. Even Johnson seemed to prefer to talk about his party's plans for health care and railroads — anything but Brexit.
The leaders deflected questions on Thursday about what-ifs.
"We didn't negotiate an agreement with the idea it would be rejected by the British Parliament," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a news conference. "We haven't focused on what will happen if the British Parliament doesn't accept the withdrawal agreement."
But there are some worrying signs for Johnson's fortunes in London. Already, some hardcore Brexiteers are saying they will hold out against him, the Labour Party is opposed, and Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party is in rebellion.
"It is our view that these arrangements would not be in Northern Ireland's long-term interests," the Democratic Unionist Party said in a statement. "Saturday's vote in Parliament on the proposals will only be the start of a long process to get any withdrawal agreement bill through the House of Commons."
Until now, the 10 members of that party — who are committed to serving their Protestant, pro-British, socially conservative base — have held outsize power over the shape of Brexit. Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May, needed them to prop up her government after her Conservative Party lost its parliamentary majority in 2017 elections. In exchange, they extracted a promise that the government spend 1 billion pounds (about $1.3 billion) in Northern Ireland.
Johnson's parliamentary math is different. He isn't singularly dependent on them. But he still needs the backing of lawmakers from other parties, and plowing ahead without the Democratic Unionists is a risky strategy.
At his news conference, Johnson only took questions from British reporters who cover Westminster. And almost every question was about Johnson's chances of passing his departure agreement — something May failed to do three times.
Johnson said he was "convinced" that when lawmakers read it, "they will want to vote for it."
In grand understatement, Johnson said Brexit "hasn't always been an easy experience for the U.K. It's been long, it's been painful, it's been divisive."
On Saturday, he is seeking a yes-no vote on the deal, asking lawmakers to support it or opt for a no-deal exit. Opposition lawmakers have indicated that they have other ideas. They are staging a series of votes on different amendments, including one that would require a public referendum.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said the agreement reached on Thursday was an "even worse deal" than May's and that the "best way to get Brexit sorted is to give the people the final say in a public vote."
Under the deal — which focuses mostly on the split from the E.U., not on how the two sides will work together in the future — Britain would leave the bloc but would continue to apply E.U. rules until the end of 2020. E.U. and British negotiators would try to hammer out a trade deal and other elements of their future relationship in the meantime. The transition period could be extended up to two years if both sides agree.
The deal suggests a harder break than ever envisaged by May, with Britain potentially taking a sharply different line on trade, taxes and regulations. May's plans would have left Britain tightly integrated with the E.U.
Under Johnson's plan, only Northern Ireland is committed to remaining largely aligned with the bloc, at least for now, even though it is leaving the E.U. along with the rest of the United Kingdom.
The trickiest part of the talks always centered on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain in the European Union.
Borderless movement has been a key part of the Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of violence in the region, but it was challenged by Brexit.
In his brief comments in Brussels, Johnson praised the deal as one that protects the peace in Ireland. He discounted concerns that the deal cleaves off Northern Ireland and surrenders it to never-ending E.U. tariff and customs laws, as the Northern Ireland unionists assert. Johnson asserted the deal leaves the United Kingdom "whole" and "means that Northern Ireland and every part of the U.K. can take part in not just free trade deals, offering our tariffs, exporting our goods around the world, but it also means we can take, together as a single United Kingdom, decisions about our future — our laws, our borders, our money and how we want to run the U.K."
Elements of the new deal crossed red lines that previous British leaders ruled out. British authorities will have to conduct customs checks in the Irish Sea for goods moving inside their own country, as Northern Ireland would remain locked into most E.U. regulations and trade rules.
But the E.U. also made significant concessions that it had previously said were impossible. Every four years, a quorum of Northern Ireland lawmakers would vote on whether they wanted to stay so closely aligned with the European Union, offering a voice to the range of communities there.
If they decline, that would likely require a hard border, something the E.U. had previously refused to countenance.
And Northern Ireland's tax rules could be different enough from Europe's that some leaders fear they could lead to smuggling and other attempts to exploit the situation.
Still, E.U. leaders tried to stay upbeat.
"It's really for everyone much better if we agree and we are able to come here with a positive message," said Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, who just last month railed at Johnson after meeting with him in Luxembourg.
Thursday, Bettel and Johnson were all hugs: As the meeting got underway, Bettel strode up to the British leader with a gentle smile. The two men pumped hands. Then Johnson draped his arm around Bettel's shoulders and said something that made Bettel guffaw.
There was also deep sadness among many of the leaders on Thursday, with a palpable sense that the real Brexit day is finally drawing close after several delays.
"I have mixed feelings today," said Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. "It's a little bit like an old friend that's going on a journey or an adventure without us, and we really hope it works out for them. But I think there will always be a place at the table for the United Kingdom if they were ever to choose to come back."
The Washington Post's Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.
This article was written by Michael Birnbaum, William Booth and Quentin Ariès, reporters for The Washington Post.