LONDON (Reuters) – Britain struck a draft divorce deal with the European Union after more than a year of talks, thrusting Prime Minister Theresa May into a perilous battle over Brexit that could shape her country’s prosperity for generations to come.
While officials choreograph the first withdrawal of a sovereign state from the EU, May’s ultimate test will be whether she can get the deal approved by the British parliament where hardline Brexiteers accused her of surrendering to Brussels.
The British cabinet will meet at 1400 GMT on Wednesday to consider the draft withdrawal agreement, a Downing Street spokesman said after Irish and British media were leaked details of the breakthrough.
But May has struggled to untangle nearly 46 years of EU membership without damaging commerce or upsetting MPs who will ultimately decide the fate of the divorce accord.
“The trick will be for Theresa May, can she satisfy everyone?” said Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader of the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which props up her minority government.
“It is going to be a very, very hard sell, I would have thought, but let’s wait and see the actual detail,” Dodds said.
Sterling, which has seesawed since reaching $1.50 just before Britain’s 2016 referendum that saw a 52-48 percent margin for leaving the EU, surged on news of a deal but then erased some gains as opponents lined up to criticise May.
Brexit will pitch the world’s fifth largest economy into the unknown and many fear it will help to divide the West as it grapples with both the unconventional presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.
Supporters of Brexit say that while the divorce might bring some short-term instability, in the longer term it will allow the United Kingdom to thrive and also enable deeper EU integration without such a powerful reluctant member.
A senior EU official confirmed that a draft text had been agreed. EU leaders could meet on Nov. 25 for a summit to seal the Brexit deal if May’s cabinet approves the text, diplomatic sources said.
The EU and Britain need an agreement to keep trade flowing between the world’s biggest trading bloc and the United Kingdom, home to the biggest international financial centre.
By seeking to leave the EU while preserving the closest possible ties, May’s compromise plan has upset Brexiteers, pro-Europeans, Scottish nationalists, the Northern Irish party that props up her government, and some of her own ministers.
To get the deal approved she needs the votes of about 320 MPs in the 650-seat parliament.
She will have a mountain to climb.
Prominent Brexiteers such as Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said May had sold out the United Kingdom and that they would oppose it.
“It is a failure of the government’s negotiating position, it is a failure to deliver on Brexit, and it is potentially dividing up the United Kingdom,” Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said.
The opposition Labour Party, which has said it would oppose any agreement that does not retain “the exact same” economic benefits that it now has with the EU, said it was unlikely the announced deal was right for Britain.
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“It is vassal state stuff,” Johnson said, adding that he would vote against such an unacceptable accord. “Chuck it out.”
In one of the most significant steps by a British leader since World War Two, May formally began Britain’s divorce in March 2017, ushering in tortuous negotiations.
As deadlines passed, negotiators raced to get a deal in overnight sessions at the European Commission’s modernist Berlaymont building in Brussels.
With less than five months until Britain leaves the EU, the so-called Northern Irish backstop was the main outstanding issue that held up the deal.
The backstop is an insurance policy to avoid a return to controls on the border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU member state Ireland if a future trading relationship is not agreed in time.
It remained unclear what had been agreed on the Irish border. The British government supplied no immediate details on the Brexit deal text, which runs to hundreds of pages.
According to Irish broadcaster RTE, the backstop would come in the form of a temporary UK-wide customs arrangement, with specific provisions for Northern Ireland which go deeper on the issue of customs and alignment with the rules of the EU single market than for the rest of the United Kingdom.
It will also include an agreed review mechanism, RTE said, adding that it understood there was still “further shuttling” to be done between London and Brussels.
The pro-Brexit DUP has ruled out any deal that treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK.
Additional reporting by William James, Kylie MacLellan, Andrew MacAskill, Kate Holton and Alistair Smout in London and Alistair Macdonald in Brussels; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge, editing by David Stamp, William Maclean