The draft Brexit agreement has cleared its first crucial obstacle. British Prime Minister Theresa May said Wednesday the tentative deal, which charts the U.K.’s exit from the European Union, has earned the support of her Cabinet of closest ministers.
“This is a decisive step, which enables us to move on and finalize the deal in the days ahead,” May explained to reporters outside the prime minister’s residence at No. 10 Downing St. “These decisions were not taken lightly, but I believe it is firmly in the national interest.”
The prime minister’s remarks were brief, deliberate — and spoken over the bellows of demonstrators gathered near the media. The scene made another thing clear: Cabinet approval is only the first step on the draft deal’s rather daunting path to adoption.
Dozens of British lawmakers across the ideological spectrum have already expressed their skepticism — or outright rejection — of the draft. Many of them began doing so even before they got a look at its formal details. Some of the loudest critics have come from within May’s own Conservative Party.
“Is the prime minister aware that, if the media reports about the EU agreement are in any way accurate, you are not delivering the Brexit people voted for and today you will lose the support of many Conservative [members of Parliament] and millions of voters across the country?” Peter Bone, a Conservative hard-line Brexit supporter, told lawmakers Wednesday.
Many Conservatives are upset that the deal does not go far enough in separating the U.K. from the EU’s single market. They argue that several of the provisions in the 585-page draft agreement — now published in full online — leave the U.K. subject to EU regulations in several of the most contentious areas of the divorce, including a long transition period and protections for British and EU nationals abroad.
But perhaps the most divisive issue covered in the agreement comes some 300 pages in: the thorny matter of Northern Ireland.
Under the 20-year-old Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of sectarian violence, the U.K. region shares an open land border with the Republic of Ireland, a committed member of the EU. That border has spelled trouble for negotiators, since it appears to run contradictory to a Brexit that would largely close U.K. borders to the EU’s single market.
It’s also trouble for May, in particular, since her fragile governing coalition depends on the support of the relatively tiny Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Though a majority of the region in 2016 voted to remain in the EU, the DUP has vehemently objected to a deal leaving it “tied to EU regulations.”
“It’s a poor deal. It’s a bad deal. It’s a deal that [May] said she’d never accept,” Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesperson, told the BBC on Wednesday. “And I think that when it comes to the House of Commons, she’s going to find that there are many people who share that view.”
The draft has also come in for criticism from some of the more usual suspects — May’s rivals in the Labour Party and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, both of whom had campaigned to remain in the EU. In this case, Sturgeon’s complaint is the opposite of the one voiced by the DUP: She is upset with Scotland’s greater distance from the EU.
“It would take Scotland out of the single market, which would be bad enough in and of itself, but it would do so while leaving us competing for investment and jobs with a Northern Ireland that would effectively be staying in the single market,” Sturgeon told British broadcaster ITV. “That would be the worst of all possible worlds.”
That said, the deal is far from dead. It has the backing not just of May’s Cabinet but of many EU members too — including the taoiseach (prime minister) of the Republic of Ireland, Leo Varadkar. He praised the agreement as “a very solid step on the journey.”
EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier described the deal in similar terms when speaking to reporters in Brussels. “I have the feeling that we have taken a very decisive, and fundamental step today towards an orderly withdrawal,” he said.
The next step is expected to come Thursday, when May plans to pitch the deal in an address to the House of Commons in London. “It’s my job as prime minister to explain the decisions that the government has taken, and I stand ready to do that, beginning with a statement in Parliament,” she vowed Wednesday.
“When you strip away the detail, the choice before us is clear: This deal which delivers on the vote of the referendum, which brings back control of our money, laws and borders; ends free movement; protects jobs, security and our union,” she added. “Or leave with no deal — or no Brexit at all.”