EU leaders approved an agreement on the UK’s withdrawal and a political declaration on future ties with the bloc on November 25th, with UK Prime Minister Theresa May insisting it was the ‘best and only deal possible’. Gathering on the cold and foggy Sunday morning in Brussels (from 8.30am local time), heads of state and government from across the EU took less than one hour to give their blessing. There was no formal vote, with the EU-27 leaders putting on a united front to back the treaty. They said the endorsement – which still needs to be approved by the UK Parliament on December 12 – paved the way for an “orderly withdrawal”. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, May called on both ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ voters to unite behind the deal, insisting the British public ‘do not want to spend any more time arguing about Brexit’. At the same meeting, the remaining EU 27 leaders published a separate statement without the UK that pledged to protect their own interests, on a range of issues from fishing to fair competition to the rights of citizens. The European Council “will demonstrate particular vigilance as regards safeguarding the rights and interests of citizens, the necessity to maintain ambitious level playing field conditions, and to protect fishing enterprises and coastal communities” – of particular importance to Ireland’s fishing fleet. They emphasised that a fisheries agreement that builds on “existing reciprocal access and quota shares” is a matter of priority, with commentators suggesting the UK is unlikely to have things all its own way, when it comes to access to EU markets for UK fish producer and access to UK fishing water for EU trawlers.
Uphill battle to get deal through parliament
May secured the backing of her Cabinet on November 14th on the draft withdrawal agreement reached with EU negotiators in Brussels, including provisions that would prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland. The 585-page legally binding text proposes that the whole of the UK remains in the customs union with the EU, while a new trade deal between the two sides is agreed. The so-called ‘UK-wide backstop’ - establishing a shared customs territory, with Northern Ireland applying some additional rules for goods to ensure a free-flowing border - would only be used if the two sides fail to reach a broader future trade agreement within a 21-month transition period. Following a marathon 5-hour Cabinet session, which wound up at around 7pm London time, May told reporters outside Downing Street that Ministers had had a “long, detailed and impassioned debate” and had taken the “difficult” decision to back the draft Brexit deal. She described the lengthy text as the “best that could be negotiated”, acknowledging there would be “difficult days ahead”. May alluded to the “collective agreement” to the draft accord and the framework on future relations, rather than unanimous support, with media reports suggesting about a third of the Cabinet - 11 out of 29 Ministers in attendance spoke out against the deal. The Conservative leader said it was her job to explain decisions, adding that she firmly believed “with my head and my heart that this is in the best interests of our entire UK”. The alternatives “were a no deal Brexit or not leaving the bloc at all”, she elaborated.
Rose O’Donovan is the Editor-in-Chief of the Brussels-based publication AGRA FACTS.