May wins narrow cabinet backing for Brexit deal

British Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a statement to the press outside 10 Downing Street in London, Britain, 14 November 2018. Prime Minister Theresa May has held an emergency Brexit cabinet meeting seeking to sell her Brexit deal to her cabinet ministers.

Updates with Raab resignation

British Prime Minister Theresa May narrowly won the support of her cabinet for a draft divorce deal with the EU on Wednesday night (14 November), making yet another unexpected breakthrough in the Brexit negotiations.

However, only hours later, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab resigned, saying he could not support the terms of the deal, in a fresh illustration of the uphill battle May faces to push the deal through.

After a five-hour meeting with UK ministers, the British prime minister announced she had full backing to move ahead with her Brexit plan, though observers said the backing was far from unanimous.

“The collective decision of cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration,” May said outside her 10 Downing Street office.

Referring to the marathon meeting, May declared she engaged in an “impassioned debate” with her ministers and there “will be difficult days ahead”.

In her brief press point, May acknowledged that she could face even stronger resistance when she takes the text to parliament for approval next month.

“This is a decision that will come under intense scrutiny and that is entirely as it should be and entirely understandable,” she said in reference to the impending parliament vote.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove, a leading figure in the ‘Leave’ campaign, is believed to have been the only senior ‘Leave’ supporting minister to have backed the deal.

Eleven out of May’s 29 cabinet members are believed to oppose the draft deal, and while she has majority support in cabinet for now, and has not seen any new ministers resign their posts, observers say a vote of no confidence by Conservative MPs could be tabled against May this week.

Chief among their concerns is that the UK appears to have climbed down substantially on the Irish backstop, which guarantees that there will be no border on the island of Ireland after the end of a transition period starting at the end of March, and would not be able to unilaterally withdraw from the backstop arrangement.

The withdrawal agreement also leaves the option for the UK to extend the transition period, with the UK continuing to pay for access to the single market.

The 585-page draft Brexit agreement in a nutshell

The European Union has published on Wednesday (14 November) the 585-page draft Brexit deal aimed at ensuring a smooth divorce next March and outlining a transition period for both sides to adjust to the break.

‘Sufficient progress’

After May’s cabinet gave a qualified green light, EU leaders followed suit.

“Tonight, in my responsibility as the EU negotiator, I consider that we have achieved decisive progress,” Michel Barnier, chief Brexit negotiator of the European Commission told a full press room late on Wednesday night.

President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, notified Donald Tusk, head of the European Council who is expected now to call for an extraordinary summit to be held in the coming days. 

The agreement “represents a decisive step to conclude the negotiations”, Barnier highlighted but insisted that it is not the end of the process.

The 585-page “precise and detailed” document that sets down the conditions for the UK to leave the EU still needs to be agreed by the EU-27 and voted on by the European Parliament.

Guy Verhofstadt, the Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, praised the agreement and said it will make it possible “to maintain a close relationship between the EU and the UK”.

The seven-page declaration on future relations, which accompanies the withdrawal agreement, is low on detail, but commits to an ambitious free trade agreement covering financial services and services and investment, continued UK involvement, continued free flow of data and, on a case-by-case basis, with EU defence and security policies.

Tusk will meet Barnier on Thursday morning and is expected to call for an extraordinary summit, possibly to be held on 25 November, which will be preceded by intense technical work at sherpa and ambassador level so that the agreement can be fully finalised.

The Irish, Austrian and Belgian prime ministers were among the first to express their views on the deal and they both agreed the work is not done yet.

“There is still a long way to go but I believe the draft agreement published today is a very solid step on the journey,” Irish PM Leo Varadkar said. “We will now analyse the texts carefully in order to check their compatibility with our European values,” his Belgian counterpart Charles Michel added.

The draft Brexit agreement endorsed by the British government will allow Britain to leave the European Union while keeping a close relationship with the bloc, the European Parliament's point man on Brexit Guy Verhofstadt said.

"While I hope one day the UK will return, in the meantime this agreement will make a Brexit possible, while maintaining a close relationship between the EU and UK, a protection of citizens rights and the avoidance of a hard Irish border," the former Belgian premier said in a statement.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he was very pleased British and European Union negotiators had reached a draft agreement on the terms of Britain's departure from the bloc.

"That is a great relief," Maas said in a statement.

"Britain's exit from the EU is, and remains, a decision that we regret. Nevertheless, we want to continue to have as close as a relationship as possible with our British friends. We have now come a decisive step further."

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