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May says UK cabinet backs draft Brexit deal with EU

Reuters | Theresa May addresses reporters outside Downing Street following Wednesday's crunch cabinet meeting.

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.

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"The collective decision of cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration," May said outside her Downing Street office after a five-hour-long meeting she described as "impassioned".

Speaking over protesters shouting anti-Brexit slogans from the end of Downing Street, she said the deal, 585 pages long, was the best that could be negotiated.

"I firmly believe with my head and my heart that this is a decision in the best interests of the entire United Kingdom," May added.

Minutes later, 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.

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May’s cabinet is splintered on Brexit, with some senior ministers opposed to provisions that could keep the UK closely tied to the European Union for years to come.

A senior Eurosceptic lawmaker said the cabinet decision was a majority decision, not a unanimous one. Asked if anyone had threatened to resign, a senior government official who declined to be named said "nobody", adding: "The PM used the word 'impassioned' for a reason, and clearly there are strongly held views on this subject, which we acknowledge."

Plan to avoid 'hard' border

The announcement of the deal on Tuesday prompted a wave of criticism from eurosceptics in May's Conservative party, as well as her Northern Irish allies, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

"I know that there will be difficult days ahead," May said, adding that intense scrutiny of the agreement was "entirely understandable".

"But the choice was this deal, which enables us to take back control and to build a brighter future for our country, or going back to square one with more division, more uncertainty and a failure to deliver on the referendum."

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Barnier said the two sides had crucially found the right formula to avoid a "hard" border between British Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland -- the main sticking point in the talks.

The agreement sees the whole of Britain staying in a customs arrangement with the EU as a "backstop" if the two sides fail to reach a broader agreement within a 21-month transition.

EU Council president Donald Tusk's office said he would give a Brexit statement on Thursday in which he could announce the date of a snap EU-UK summit aimed at finalising the deal.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he expected the 28 leaders to meet on November 25.

Battle in parliament awaits

If, as is widely expected, the EU backs the deal, May will still have to push it through the British parliament, where her government holds only a razor-thin majority.

May would need strong support from her own Conservative Party, where some eurosceptics claim the deal will leave Britain a vassal state, bound to EU rules that it has no say in making.

"I cannot support the proposed agreement in parliament and would hope that Conservative MPs would do likewise," Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of an influential group of pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers, wrote in a letter to his party colleagues.

Her coalition partners from the DUP have also threatened to vote against the agreement if they find it splinters the province from the rest of Britain.

"If she decides to go against all of that, then there will be consequences," DUP leader Arlene Foster said.

Foster later said she had held a "frank meeting" with May Wednesday night to discuss the draft deal.

"She is fully aware of our position and concerns," she said on Twitter.

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.

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called it a "botched deal".

Brexit: 'May will tell Conservatives to support deal or face uncertain elections'

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS, AP)

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