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Brexit: Cabinet backs draft agreement

Media captionTheresa May says she believes with her “head and her heart” that it is in the best interests of the UK

The cabinet has backed a draft withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU, Theresa May has said.

The prime minister was speaking after what she said was a “long, detailed and impassioned debate” in a five-hour cabinet meeting.

She said it was a “decisive step” in the progress of Brexit, and would allow the agreement to be finalised in the coming days.

The EU’s chief negotiator said it was in both sides’ interests.

But leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg described it as a “rotten deal”.

The 585-page draft withdrawal agreement has now been published, alongside a shorter statement setting out what the UK and EU’s future relations will look like.

European Parliament Brexit lead Guy Verhofstadt said the agreement “will make a Brexit possible, while maintaining a close relationship between the EU and UK, a protection of citizens’ rights and the avoidance of a hard Irish border”.

Criticism of the draft agreement has focused on how this hard border can be avoided.

What’s in it?

The draft agreement covers so-called “divorce” issues. It includes a commitment to protect the rights of EU nationals in the UK and Britons living in the EU to continue living, working and studying.

There is also a planned 21-month transition period after the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, and a “financial settlement” from the UK, thought to be about £39bn.

And the most contentious part of the negotiations is a “backstop”, which aims to guarantee that physical checks will not be reintroduced at the border with the Irish Republic, in the event this is not settled by a UK-EU trade deal.

Both sides have resolved to ensure the backstop is not necessary by coming up with alternative arrangements.

Speaking at a press conference, EU negotiator Michel Barnier said if this is not possible by July 2020, the transition period could be extended – and if it is still not settled by the end of the transition, the backstop would “kick in”.

This would involve a joint UK-EU “single customs territory”, so customs checks are not needed on the border.

Northern Ireland would stay aligned to the EU single market rules that are “essential for the avoidance of a hard border”, Mr Barnier added.

He said the backstop plan had “evolved considerably” and had been based on the UK’s proposal.

‘Splitting up UK’

Some Tory MPs are angry, claiming it could mean the UK is tied to EU rules for years to come.

Mr Rees-Mogg, who has written to MPs urging them to oppose the proposals, told BBC Radio 5 Live it was “a pretty rotten deal”, keeping the UK in the EU’s customs union and “splitting up” the UK.

Despite winning the backing of her cabinet, the prime minister faces a battle to get the completed deal through Parliament.

The Democratic Unionist Party – which gives the government the support it needs to win key votes – has joined opposition parties in criticising it.

The cabinet meeting lasted longer than expected, with some ministers believed to hold reservations about the “backstop” to guarantee no hard border.

‘Decisive choice’

Afterwards, Scottish Secretary David Mundell said there had been no cabinet resignations and appealed to Conservative MPs to support the package.

In her statement, Mrs May said it was “the result of thousands of hours of hard negotiation with EU officials”.

She added: “I firmly believe with my head and heart that this decisive choice is in the best interests of the entire UK.”

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