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Theresa May gets cabinet approval for her draft Brexit deal

It’s a major breakthrough, but she could face broader resistance to the plan she called “the best agreement that could be negotiated.”

Theresa May Leaves Downing Street For PMQs
Prime Minister Theresa May on November 14, 2018.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has a potential Brexit deal — and it just cleared its first major hurdle.

May announced Wednesday, after a marathon five-hour meeting with her cabinet, that her ministers have agreed to a draft agreement on the terms of the United Kingdom’s exit — or “Brexit” — from the European Union, more than two years after the UK voted to leave.

“I firmly believe it’s the best agreement that could be negotiated,” May told reporters outside 10 Downing Street. She added that this was a “decisive step,” but acknowledged there would be “difficult days ahead” as she tries to sell her plan to the rest of Parliament.

The European Union and the United Kingdom have been scrambling to reach an agreement by the end of the year, to give both the UK and EU parliaments time to ratify it before the approaching March 29, 2019 deadline.

At that point, the UK will leave the EU — deal or no deal. And the consequences of a “no-deal” Brexit could be dire.

Both the UK and the EU want to avoid that scenario, and the existence of a nearly 600-page plan is a promising sign. But a lot of hurdles remain, the biggest one being May’s own Conservative Party, which is split between those who want a less dramatic break with the EU and hardline “Brexiteers” who want a clean and decisive split. The border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU, has also proven to be a huge sticking point in negotiations.

Opposition from within the UK could kill any Brexit deal, even if the 27 European member-states and the EU parliament go along with it.

May has now passed the first critical test: getting her ministers to back her plan. But a Brexit deal is far from done — and the March deadline is inching closer.

Here’s a basic overview of what you need to know.

The Irish border was one of the Brexit deals biggest sticking points

The UK and the EU are in the midst of trying to finalize the terms of their breakup, a tangled process that’s gone on for more than a year.

Some aspects of the agreement have already been worked out, but neither side has been able to agree on the fundamental question of what the post-Brexit relationship would look like. (You can read our full Brexit explainer here.)

At the center of this is the thorny question of the Irish border. The UK’s membership in the EU helped preserve an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which is a critical pillar of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. That agreement ended decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland between the largely Protestant population who wanted to stay within the UK, and Catholics, who identified more closely with the Republic of Ireland.

Brexit potentially threatens this open border and the past two decades of relative peace. However, the EU and the UK believe that they’ll be able to work something out in a future trade deal to be negotiated during a 21-month transition period after March 29, 2019.

The EU, though, has insisted that any withdrawal agreement include a “backstop” — basically, a guarantee that even if the EU and the UK don’t reach a trade agreement by the end of the transition period (December 2020), an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland will remain in place, no matter what.

But determining what that “Irish backstop” would actually look like is another issue.

The EU had proposed that Northern Ireland essentially maintain the status quo and remain in the EU customs union and its regulatory area — which means the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland follow the same rules, so there’s no need for customs and border checks.

But May has rejected any plan that treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK because it would effectively create a hard border within her own country.

Instead, she has proposed her own solution: to keep all of the UK in the customs territory during the transition period.

This, however, was unpalatable to the EU because they didn’t want to put a time limit on the backstop, and they objected to her broader plan, which they saw as the UK “cherry-picking” parts of its relationship with the EU that it likes, while throwing out the ones it doesn’t.

Oh, and there’s just one more thing complicating this scenario: May relies on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to keep her government in power. The DUP has stubbornly refused any compromise and called any plan that treats Northern Ireland differently from the UK a “blood-red line.”

That’s left the UK and EU at a standstill. Until now. Maybe.

May’s proposed Brexit deal

May presented the draft Brexit proposal to her cabinet on Wednesday. The meeting lasted about five hours, but ultimately May secured their backing with a not-exactly-inspiring argument: This is the best deal Britain is going to get, so take it or leave it.

“When you strip away the detail, the choice before us is clear,” May told reporters. “This deal, which delivers on the vote of the referendum, which brings us back control of our money, laws and borders, ends free movement, protects jobs, security and our union — or leave with no deal, or no Brexit at all.”

The draft plan was published in full after her meeting. According to the Guardian, it resolves the question of the status of millions of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in the EU. It also settles the divorce bill — or how much the UK will pay the EU for forcing everyone to go through this whole process. (This is expected to be about £39 billion pounds, which is about $50 billion.)

This plan also provides a safeguard solution to the Irish border question, which will go into effect if the UK and the EU can’t reach a deal during that transition period. It involves concessions from both the EU and UK, so a lot of people are probably going to be unhappy.

The “backstop plan” is that the entire UK will stay in the EU customs union. But Northern Ireland will still remain within some parts of the EU single market, which means it will have to follow somewhat stricter regulatory standards compared to the rest of the UK.

This has created a brand-new Brexit metaphor: the “swimming pool.” Think of Northern Ireland in the deep end, having to follow more EU regulations, and the rest of the UK in the shallow end, with less stringent rules.

The UK will also have to follow this arrangement until an independent panel is assured there’s no chance of any return to a hard Irish border, according to Business Insider.

What’s next?

This draft Brexit plan, of course, is not even close to a done deal. May has gained the support of her cabinet, but now she has to sell the plan to the rest of Parliament.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, signaled the EU’s confidence in the arrangement after May spoke. He said the two sides had reached an “important moment in this extraordinary negotiation.”

But plenty of people have already bashed the deal based on its broad outlines. Hardline Brexiteers in May’s own party hate it because it still ties the UK to the EU customs union — and they fear that it will “trap” the country in a long-term relationship with Europe. And Northern Ireland’s DUP finds it untenable because it still treats Northern Ireland differently than the rest of the United Kingdom.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said it was “unlikely” that this would be a good deal for Britain, but he hasn’t committed to a definite position yet. “Labour has been clear from the beginning that we need a deal to support jobs and the economy — and that guarantees standards and protections,” Corbyn said. “If this deal doesn’t meet our six tests and work for the whole country, then we will vote against it.”

The EU has tentatively scheduled an emergency summit at the end of November to finalize the Brexit deal. But even after that, the deal has to face the UK Parliament, where its future may be precarious. There are no guarantees May will have enough votes to get it passed, which would put the UK even closer to a no-deal Brexit scenario.

May may also soon face a leadership challenge as early as Thursday, meaning her party could call a no-confidence vote and try to oust her as prime minister. Rumors of such a challenge intensified Wednesday, led by pro-Brexit conservatives who feel that May capitulated to the EU.

It’s not clear if there are enough votes in Parliament to actually force May to step aside, but it’s an ominous sign as she tries to rally support for her draft deal.

Another challenge could be the Labour Party, which has its own intra-party splits on Brexit, including whether it should support a second referendum and punt Brexit back to the people.

This draft withdrawal agreement is a huge breakthrough for the UK and the EU. But the Brexit drama is far from over.

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