EU leaders in Brussels have praised the Brexit deal but want to see the UK hold true to the accord until a special summit on Sunday. After that, there will be no renegotiations. DW's Bernd Riegert reports from Brussels.
In a tremendous moment of unity in Brussels, the 27 national European Union ministers backed the draft of the terms of Britain's exit from the bloc.
At least that what the EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and Austria's EU minister, Gernot Blümel said after a brief meeting Monday. Austria currently holds the presidency of the Council of the European Union.
From the EU's standpoint, the only question still open is a possible extension of the transition phase. The current transitional period, during which the bloc's future cooperation with the United Kingdom must be finally negotiated, ends in December 2020.
At the insistence from Westminster, a once-off extension is now on the cards. By the end of the week, both the EU and the UK want there to be a concrete date for the exit. British Prime Minister Theresa May has proposed a deadline as late as the general election scheduled for 2022.
Extension of the transitional period?
The date of the exit is a contentious issue in British domestic politics. As long as the transition period continues, everything remains as is. If no deal has been struck by the end of the transition period, an emergency regulation, the so-called "backstop," will take effect. The backstop agreement is a stipulation to ensure that there would be no "hard" border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.
This would simply be achieved by keeping the UK and Northern Ireland in a permanent customs union with the EU. But such a compromise is like a red rag to a bull for the Brexit hardliners among May's Conservative party. That's because a customs union means that the UK could not completely extricate itself from the EU and would not have the liberty to strike up independent trade agreements with the United States, India or China. The promise to "take back control" would not be kept.
Avoid backstop with the customs union
The "backstop" arrangement should never come to pass because thorough cooperation must be negotiated beforehand. This would also provide clear regulation on the border issue between Northern Ireland and Ireland. At least that's what May, who is under heavy pressure, has promised again in recent interviews. To underpin this promise, she intends to return to Brussels to personally negotiate the exact wording of the "political declaration."
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The declaration is to set out the objectives of the future relationship between the EU and the UK. It covers a broad range of topics, from cooperation on security issues to a comprehensive trade agreement such as the unhindered, tax-free exchange of goods and services.
Visa-free travel is also on the cards, as is bilateral access to fishing grounds, and the UK's participation in certain EU programs for a fee.
'Political declaration' to provide clarity
The so-called "political declaration," together with the actual withdrawal agreement, is to be formally signed off on this Sunday at a special summit of the EU.
In Brussels, some EU diplomats believe that the political declaration is so broad and ambitious that it almost verges on membership.
The question on everybody's lips is why Britain left the bloc in the first place. According to EU diplomats, it seems as though May was just doing her best to give the impression that leaving the EU would actually benefit Britain. But in reality, under the current draft agreement, which outlines the rights of EU citizens and the financial contributions made by the UK, nothing substantial will change.
Keep calm and carry on?
According to Barnier, the EU's Brexit negotiator, it is now up to London to honor the terms of the agreement. "We must all remain calm now," said Barnier after the meeting of European ministers. "We are in fact at the decisive moment in this process."
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The big question is whether the British prime minister will survive politically until the summit on Sunday; to do so, May must stave off a vote of confidence from her party — as the Brexit hardliners are threatening.
"Breakups are never easy," said the Austrian Minister for EU Affairs, Gernot Blümel. But on both sides is the desire to settle amicably, he believes.
"We have the divorce papers on the table. Forty-five years of a difficult marriage are coming to an end," Blümel said. "A fair deal is on the table. Both sides have compromised."
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas hoped after the meeting in Brussels that all sides would deal "responsibly" with the compromise reached.
Maas warned of the alternatives to the deal: "The consequences of an unregulated Brexit are incalculable. Nobody can have an interest in that"
Without a withdrawal agreement, which must also be approved by an extremely fractured Parliament in London in December, the UK is set to leave the EU on March, 29, 2019 — without a transitional period. Major disruptions in trade, multinational industrial production and travel could result.