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Brexit: A guide to where we are

Theresa May

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Theresa May has agreed a draft Brexit deal with Brussels. What happens now?

The basics: A reminder

The UK is due to leave the European Union at 11pm on Friday 29 March, 2019. The reason the UK is leaving is because people voted by 51.9% to 48.1% for Leave in the 2016 referendum. The UK and the EU have spent more than a year trying to agree on how the divorce – as it’s often called – will work in practice and what post-Brexit relations will look like. A deal has been agreed by negotiators – it now has to get the stamp of approval from Theresa May’s cabinet, then MPs and, finally, the 27 other EU member states.

Will there really be a deal this week?

No. But there could be one next week if, as expected, EU leaders meet for a summit, which the Irish government says is set to happen on Sunday 25 November. MPs will then be given a few days to debate the deal, before voting on it some time before Christmas. Everything depends on Mrs May securing the backing of her cabinet first, however. She has told ministers – some of whom are very sceptical about her version of Brexit – that the agreement, while not perfect, is as good as the government can get.

Have they solved the Irish border issue?

This was the major sticking point in talks with Brussels. Both sides are committed to avoiding a return to a visible Northern Ireland border with guard posts and checks. They believe that bringing them back would put the peace process at risk.

But the two sides have not been able to agree how they can guarantee this – with the EU insisting on a “backstop” arrangement, which will kick in to avoid physical checks if whatever future trade deal the UK and EU agree does not manage to maintain the current open border.

The backstop within the agreed draft is believed to avoid a return to a “hard border” with the Republic by keeping the UK as a whole aligned with the EU customs union for a limited time.

What else is in the agreement?

It has not been published yet so we don’t know all the details. Leaks and briefings from EU sources suggest it will include:

  • Commitments over citizens’ rights after Brexit
  • A proposed 21-month transition period after the UK’s departure
  • Details of the so-called £39bn “divorce bill”
  • A decision point, in July 2020, on whether enough progress has been made to ensure an open Irish border after the post-Brexit transition ends. If not, the UK would be able to extend the transition period once, possibly until the end of 2021
  • Another option for the UK if the border issue isn’t solved at the decision point will be going into a “bare-bones” customs arrangement. That would cover all of the UK but would keep Northern Ireland aligned more closely with the EU’s customs rules and production standards

What about a trade deal?

A rough outline of a trade deal – what negotiators are calling a “political declaration” – will be published at the same time as the withdrawal agreement, but it will be much shorter. If all goes as planned, the details will be hammered out during the 21-month transition period, which is designed to bridge the gap between the UK officially leaving the EU and the new relationship kicking in.

So what happens next?

Even if she does get her top team to sign off the Brexit withdrawal agreement, Theresa May faces the fight of her life to get MPs to vote for it.

She does not have a Commons majority and many MPs on her own side – as well as Labour and the other opposition parties – are sceptical about her Brexit plans, or openly hostile to them. The DUP, which Mrs May relies on in key votes, have already said they are likely to vote against it, claiming it will lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.

All eyes are on the Brexiteers in the cabinet – will any of them resign in protest at the contents of the agreement? Ministers who have recently quit the cabinet claim the agreement will keep the UK under EU control and is not a proper Brexit.

If ministers back the agreement, focus will switch to the Commons vote.

If the only choice presented to MPs is Mrs May’s version of Brexit or no-deal, it could frighten enough waverers into backing her. That’s what Downing Street will be hoping. Labour and some Tories are trying to ensure other options are put to the vote as well.

If she loses the vote, we enter uncharted territory. She may seek to renegotiate with the EU but most expect her time in No 10 to end. There could be a general election and/or a new prime minister.

Some Tory and Labour MPs hope she will head that off by postponing Brexit day and calling another referendum, something she has consistently ruled out.

Brexit: A guide to where we are}

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