In a hard-won victory, British Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday persuaded her Cabinet to back a draft divorce agreement with the European Union, a decision that triggers the final steps on the long and rocky road to Brexit.
But she still faces pitfalls and threats from her domestic opponents as she tries to navigate the UK’s orderly exit from the EU.
May hailed the Cabinet decision as a “decisive step” toward finalizing the exit deal with the EU within days. It sets in motion an elaborate diplomatic choreography of statements and meetings.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier declared there had been “decisive progress” - the key phrase signaling EU leaders can convene a summit to approve the deal, probably later his month.
Crucially, Barnier said that “we have now found a solution together with the UK to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.”
But the agreement, hammered out between UK and EU negotiators after 17 months of what Barnier called “very intensive” talks, infuriated pro-Brexit lawmakers in May’s Conservative Party, who said it would leave Britain a vassal state, bound to EU rules that it has no say in making.
Those “hard Brexit” voices include several ministers in May’s Cabinet. Emerging from the five-hour meeting in 10 Downing St., May said the Cabinet talks had been “long, detailed and impassioned.” She said there had been a “collective decision” to back the deal, though she did not say whether it was unanimous.
“I firmly believe, with my head and my heart, that this is a decision which is in the best interests of the United Kingdom,” she said.
And in a warning to her opponents, May said the choice was between her deal, “or leave with no deal; or no Brexit at all.”
If the EU backs the deal, as it likely will, it must be approved by Britain’s Parliament. That could be a challenge, since pro-Brexit and pro-EU legislators alike are threatening to oppose it.
Pro-Brexit lawmakers say the agreement will leave Britain tethered to the EU after it departs and unable to forge an independent trade policy.
On the other side of the argument, pro-EU legislators say May’s deal is worse than the status quo and the British public should get a new vote on whether to leave or to stay.