24 March 2019
British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker leave to discuss draft agreements on Brexit, at the EC headquarters in Brussels on Nov. 21. Photo: Reuters
British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker leave to discuss draft agreements on Brexit, at the EC headquarters in Brussels on Nov. 21. Photo: Reuters

EU, Britain agree on draft deal for post-Brexit ties

Britain and the European Union agreed on a draft declaration that sets out a close post-Brexit relationship, though wrangling with Spain over control of Gibraltar must still be settled before EU leaders meet on Sunday in order to endorse the pact, Reuters reports.

“The British people want Brexit to be settled. They want a good deal that sets us on a course for a brighter future,” British Prime Minister Theresa May told parliament.

“The deal that will enable us to do this is now within our grasp. In these crucial 72 hours ahead, I will do everything possible to deliver it for the British people.”

May’s spokesman said the PM believes she can win a critical vote in parliament on the deal, expected next month, but many of those she needs to persuade appeared unconvinced.

Some fellow Conservatives seeking a cleaner break from the EU accused her of “betraying Brexit” while opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called the outcome of the negotiations “the worst of all worlds” for keeping Britain linked to the vast EU market but without a say in its rules, the report said.

After a draft treaty last week set the terms for Britain’s departure in March, May had met EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday, hoping to finalize an ambitious declaration on future ties that could help her secure backing at home for the entire Brexit package.

But the deal faces a rocky ride once it reaches a deeply divided British parliament, with hardline eurosceptic and staunch pro-EU factions, and various shades of gray in-between.

EU officials said there was a solid consensus that remaining niggles should not hold up a final deal for Sunday, as the other 27 governments go through the new paperwork.

The main question mark is whether Spain, seeing Brexit as an opportunity to swing the EU’s weight behind its 300-year campaign to reclaim Gibraltar from Britain, can be persuaded to remain patient.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez tweeted on Thursday night: “After my conversation with Theresa May, our positions remain far away. My government will always defend the interests of Spain. If there are no changes, we will veto Brexit.”

May is due to meet Juncker again on the eve of the summit, at 1700 GMT on Saturday, in principle to agree that the absolutely final text is ready for EU leaders to sign.

With Spain, France and other EU member states lobbying for various national vested interests in that political declaration – a 26-page wishlist on future trade and security ties separate from the 585-page withdrawal agreement – there was concern in Brussels that haggling could get out of hand and derail Sunday’s tightly choreographed formal summit of the 27 leaders with May.

While the withdrawal agreement only requires a qualified majority not unanimity, the EU always seeks consensus on such sensitive matters.

EU sources told Reuters that other demands from governments would now be parked in a separate page or two of short text to be endorsed at the summit.

French calls for access to British fishing grounds and insistence that post-Brexit Britain follow EU environment, tax, labor and industrial rules are largely drafted, leaving a gap for Spain’s concerns that Madrid be given an effective veto over applying any future deal to Gibraltar.

EU diplomats said they hope Spain could accept a statement, similar to one made before the withdrawal negotiations, that nothing in a future EU-UK treaty would apply to Gibraltar unless Madrid consented to that after bilateral talks with London.

The main text of the political declaration said the EU and Britain “agree to develop an ambitious, wide-ranging and balanced economic partnership.

“This partnership will be comprehensive, encompassing a free trade area as well as wider sectoral cooperation … will be underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field.”

Crucially for May, it commits the EU to looking for ways to avoid triggering a “backstop” clause intended to ensure the Irish border remains free of customs checks.

Those include, it says, technical and administrative means favored by May’s Brexiteer allies that could limit Britain’s need to keep its broader economic and trade rules in line with the continent.

The text said the post-Brexit relationship would respect “the integrity of the Union’s Single Market and the Customs Union as well as the United Kingdom’s internal market, and recognize the development of an independent trade policy by the United Kingdom beyond this economic partnership”.

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