Final stage of May's torturous Brexit journey lies ahead

Final stage of May's torturous Brexit journey lies ahead
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After a marathon meeting on Wednesday afternoon, the British cabinet agreed to support the terms of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal agreement with the European Union.

In what was, without doubt, one of the most historical cabinet decisions in decades, May won the backing of pro- and anti-EU government ministers, despite rumours of impending resignations.

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Speaking outside 10 Downing Street immediately after, May, who has battled ferociously to keep her minority government together since losing her parliamentary majority last year, stressed, "I firmly believe with my head and my heart this is a decision which is in the best interests of our entire United Kingdom."

On Thursday, May will deliver a statement in the House of Commons outlining the central elements of the Brexit divorce negotiations.

The text of the withdrawal agreement runs to over 400 pages and outlines the terms under which Britain will leave the EU after 45 years of membership. The most significant aspects include protecting the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and British citizens living in EU member states.

These rights, for millions of people, have been guaranteed. Additionally, it covers the divorce bill. To exit the EU, Britain will pay the equivalent of $45 billion, money that Britain legally agreed to contribute to the EU before the 2016 referendum; it will also cover costs incurred during the transition period, which will end in 2020. The transition period can be extended by mutual agreement. 

Crucially, it is during the transition period that the new trade relationship between Britain and the EU will be negotiated. Even though London is leaving the world’s largest free-trade area with a market of over 500 million people, access to the EU’s internal market is seen as vital to the British economy.

During tough talks in Brussels since late 2016, the EU flatly refused to discuss the divorce deal in parallel with a separate negotiation on the shape of a trade deal.

The withdrawal agreement includes a short, non-binding political declaration on the future trade relationship but the nature of that relationship remains unclear, including what access and on what terms Britain can trade in goods and services with the EU after 2020. 

The third and most politically challenging aspect of Wednesday’s withdrawal agreement involves Northern Ireland, which is part of Britain, and its land border with the Republic of Ireland.

Since losing her parliamentary majority last year, May’s minority government has ruled with the support of the pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland.

While both London and Dublin wanted to avoid the return of a hard, physical border, the DUP has exerted significant political pressure on May to ensure that Northern Ireland does not remain effectively locked into an EU customs arrangement while the rest of the U.K. leaves the EU, feared by many in the DUP as the first step toward a possible reunification of the island of Ireland.

In the end, the agreement means the whole of the U.K. will remain within the EU’s customs union while a trade deal is negotiated.

On paper, the outcome, though scant on details regarding the future trade partnership between London and Brussels, represents the best arrangement May was ever likely to secure before Britain formally leaves the EU on March 29.

Despite months of intense negotiations on the terms of Brexit, her biggest obstacle remains: convincing a majority of MPs in a deeply divided British Parliament to support the deal when it comes to a formal vote later this year.

Despite the historic nature of Wednesday’s cabinet decision, the last stage of May’s most tortuous Brexit journey lies immediately ahead.

Michael J. Geary is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., and associate professor of European history at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.