London – British Prime Minister Theresa May has defended her anguished draft divorce deal with the European Union before rowdy lawmakers and a splintered cabinet that threatens to fall apart.
On one of the biggest days of her political career and with the fate of her government at stake, a determined May told parliament on Wednesday she had secured the best deal possible for Britain.
“What we have been negotiating is a deal that does deliver on the vote of the British people,” she told MPs in her first public comments since EU and UK negotiators finally settled on a draft Tuesday.
The framework agreement capped a year-and-a-half of negotiations aimed at unwinding nearly 46 years of British EU membership.
Suffering economic uncertainty in the wake of the global financial crisis and fearing an influx of migrants, Britons voted by a 52-48 margin in June 2016 to break from Brussels.
Should May survive a cabinet session that started later in which ministers were expected to either back the draft or quit, Britain and the bloc will hold a Brexit summit on November 25.
The pound surged following Tuesday’s initial announcement, which came just as the EU stepped up preparations for a potentially catastrophic “no deal” breakup on March 29.
But it has since pared most of those gains as the strength of resistance to May became apparent from both those who want a cleaner break with Brussels and those who think Brexit is a disaster.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party who is seeking early elections, called the entire negotiations process “shambolic”.
“This government spent two years negotiating a bad deal that will leave the country in an indefinite half-way house,” he said.
Former prime minister Tony Blair, a staunch defender of the EU, said Britain was losing its voice in Brussels and gaining little in return.
“It isn’t a compromise but a capitulation,” said Blair.
And Conservative Party MP Peter Bone, a leading eurosceptic, accused May of “not delivering the Brexit people voted for”.
“Today you will lose the support of many Conservative MPs and millions of voters,” he warned the British leader.
– Irish backstop –
Angry Brexit supporters and critics rallied outside May’s office on Downing Street as she tried to get her disgruntled ministers to line up behind the deal.
“It sells out the country completely. We will be a vassal state of the EU,” said Lucy Harris, who founded the Leavers of London group.
In Boston, the town in England with the highest Brexit vote in Britain, residents agreed.
“It’s crap,” retiree Kathrine Denham, 74.
“She’s reneging on everything we voted for,” she said.
Map and key statistics on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland
More ominously, the Northern Irish party which props up May’s government threatened to break their alliance over leaks about a special arrangement for the British province.
An EU official told AFP that the final deal includes a so-called “backstop” in which the whole United Kingdom will remain in a customs arrangement with the EU.
Northern Ireland would have special status under the proposals, meaning that some checks may be required between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country.
Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), told Sky News that these were “worrying times.”
“We cannot be separated from the rest of the UK,” she said.
In Scotland meanwhile, the pro-independence and europhile government also questioned the deal, asking why Northern Ireland should have a special status that would effectively keep it in the European single market.
– ‘Short notice’ –
European sources in Brussels told AFP that if May wins the backing of her cabinet, Wednesday’s simultaneous meeting of EU ambassadors could be followed by a second get-together on Friday and a pre-summit meeting of EU ministers on Monday.
The talks were stuck for months on how to avoid border checks between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, if and until London strikes a new trade deal with Brussels.
How does a country leave the EU
The deal reportedly allows for a review mechanism that Britain could use to try to leave the backstop arrangement — a key demand of Conservative eurosceptics.
Former Tory party leader William Hague warned Brexiteers that they could sabotage the whole process if they failed to back May’s plan.
“If they vote down a deal because they are not happy with the details, the consequences may be that Brexit never happens,” he said on the radio.
The Evening Standard countered with a front page that mocked May’s oft-repeated phrase about Britain taking back control of its destiny, declaring: “EU takes back control”.
By Dmitry Zaks and Alice Ritchie