Explainer: EU endorses May’s Brexit deal as it enters the British Parliament for a floor test

By Prarthana Mitra

British Prime Minister Theresa May and 27 other European Union leaders finally have a Brexit deal, after a summit on Sunday at Brussels. After 18 months of long drawn-out negotiations, the 600-page formal treaty comes with a 26-page declaration outlining free trading relationship and a package for close future ties.

With all that said and done, May now faces a massive roadblock leading up to the divorce from the European trade bloc scheduled for March 2019. Amidst furious opposition in the British parliament, she now has to convince her government to back the treaty when the Brexit bill goes to a floor vote in the coming weeks.

What does the Soft Brexit constitute?

The deal retains several EU rules to keep easy trade access and discusses the post-Brexit status of UK citizens in the EU and EU nationals living in the UK. It also includes the Irish “backstop”  which ensures that the politically sensitive border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU country) remains open.

Following the meeting, all the EU leaders joined May in endorsing the Brexit package, which will be implemented with little to no change during the 21-month transition period. The hard details of the trade and security cooperation will be figured out in the meantime.

Together, they sought momentum for the deal to pass the British parliament, following which the European Parliament will ratify it.

What the EU leaders said about the deal

French President Emmanuel Macron remarked that the deal was neither cause for celebration nor mourning. While respecting Britain’s free choice, he noted that the Brexit vote proved how badly Europe needed reform. He further stressed that Paris would continue to hold Britain to tight EU regulations and climate accord norms, in return for easy trade access.

European Union chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters prior to the signing that he believed May would find a way to get it passed with parliament approval. Michel Barnier, another key figure responsible for drawing up the withdrawal treaty, restated the belief and reassured, “We will remain allies, partners and friends.”

He called it “a sad day”, saying Brexit was a “tragedy” and even if it would be tough on both sides, “I would vote in favour of this deal because this is the best deal possible for Britain,” Barnier added.

Plan B and other possible outcomes

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite disagreed, saying that the exit process was “far from over,” suggesting four other outcomes if Britain fails to agree with the terms of this deal. The spectre of a second referendum has been looming large ever since hostility mounted after May’s unveiling of the proposed agreement.

It could go either way: replace May, or return to renegotiating with Brussels. In other words, May’s political future rides on passing the agreement.

The most extreme option would see Britian walking out of EU on March 29 without a deal or legal clarity, a move which would be bad for the EU, and likely catastrophic for Britain. “Planes would be grounded, ports would be clogged, food would rot, and garbage would pile up, and those are just some of the possible scenarios,” writes Vox.

Britain opposes Brexit: Pushback from all sides

Although Dutch Prime Minister and longstanding ally Mark Rutte praised May’s handling of the difficult negotiations, the opposition to the divorce deal, coming from Brexiteers and pro-remainers alike, has been unprecedented.

While conservatives want a more decisive break from the EU, those who favour closer alignment with the EU think this severs too many ties to EU, and could render Britain weaker and worse off economically. Both May’s party and the Labour opposition have argued that she has conceded too much, and promised to veto it in the parliament, which now leaves May with four months to convince lawmakers otherwise.

Even hardline loyalists and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which has had unwavering support for May’s government so far and without which the conservatives have no majority, called the draft deal “pitiful”.

A major reason for the conflict over the Brexit agreement is the breach of the “fundamental” assurance given to the DUP that Northern Ireland would not be separated from the rest of the UK. Spain also threatened to derail the talks last week, over future trade arrangements and security relations relating to Gibraltar, a small British island on the southern tip of Spain.

May sticks to the talking points

Following an impassioned debate with her cabinet last week, May had pleaded with her MPs to back her, saying that delivering the deal was “in the national interest” and any move to block it would take negotiators “back to square one, more uncertainty, more division”.

In an open letter on Monday, she wrote she would fight with heart and soul to get it passed, adding, “It will be a deal that is in our national interest — one that works for our whole country and all of our people, whether you voted Leave or Remain,” she said.

Even though May stresses that her Brexit deal will allow the UK to take back control of its “money, laws and borders”, very few conservatives and none in the opposition believe that it is a very good idea. May requires seven more votes besides her own party’s in favour of the deal — a prospect that looks very unlikely and leaves May without a crawl space for further negotiations. As Rutte replied when asked if the EU might make more concessions, “This is the maximum we can all do.”

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius


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