Britain reached a divorce agreement with the European Union on Friday, easing immediate pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May and boosting hopes of an orderly Brexit.
The agreement will clear the way for trade talks and a two-year Brexit transition period that will start when Britain leaves the EU on March 29, 2019.
Negotiators in London, Brussels and Dublin worked through the night before breaking an impasse over the status of the Irish border, the last major obstacle to the opening of trade talks which EU leaders are due to bless at summit on December 14-15.
Speaking before sunrise at the EU’s executive headquarters in Brussels after a hurried flight on a Royal Air Force plane, Prime Minister Theresa May said opening up trade talks would bring certainty for citizens and businesses about Britain’s future after quitting the EU.
“The most difficult challenge is still ahead,” European Council President Donald Tusk cautioned. “We all know that breaking up is hard. But breaking up and building a new relationship is much harder.”
May, looking weary after just a couple of hours sleep, spoke after European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced the breakthrough first in English and then in German and French.
The move to trade talks 18 months after the United Kingdom’s shock vote to exit the EU allayed some fears of a disorderly Brexit that could disrupt trade between the world’s biggest trading bloc and its sixth-largest national economy.
Facing 27 other members of the bloc, May largely conceded to the EU on structure, timetable and substance of the negotiations.
Moving to talks about trade and a Brexit transition was crucial for May’s own future after her premiership was thrown into doubt when she lost the ruling Conservative Party its majority in a snap election in June, unwisely called.
“I very much welcome the prospect of moving ahead,” said May, a 61-year-old Anglican vicar’s daughter who herself voted to stay in the EU in a referendum in June 2016 but has repeatedly insisted Britain will make a success of Brexit.
One senior British banker said the deal signaled that May would stay in power for now and that Britain was heading towards a much closer post-Brexit relationship with the EU than many had feared.
Draft guidelines showed the transition period, which would start on March 29, 2019, would last around two years. During that time, Britain will remain part of the customs union and single market but will no longer take part in EU institutions or have a vote.
It will also still be subject to EU law.
The leader of Britain's Labor Party wants May to provide more "clarity" about the deal struck with Brexit negotiators.
Jeremy Corbyn reiterated Friday that his opposition party supports "tariff-free" trade with the EU once Britain leaves the bloc and said he does not have enough information about the deal's regulatory framework.
He said he couldn't consider the deal a breakthrough — as some European leaders have claimed — "until I see more of it."
Pro-Brexit British politician Nigel Farage said the EU has gotten the better of Britain in divorce negotiations.
Farage, a European Parliament lawmaker for the UK Independence Party, tweeted that a deal in Brussels "is good news for Mrs. May as we can now move on to the next stage of humiliation."