Britain and EU reach Brexit breakthrough

British Prime Minister Theresa May (left) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the European Commission in Brussels, on Dec 8, 2017.
British Prime Minister Theresa May (left) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the European Commission in Brussels, on Dec 8, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

Both sides come to 'compromise' on terms of split, paving way for start of trade talks

BRUSSELS • Britain and the European Union reached a "compromise" on the terms of their divorce yesterday, clearing the path for talks on what businesses are keenest to nail down - the nature of the post-Brexit future.

The deal paves the way for the start of arduous trade talks between Britain and its biggest commercial partner, easing immediate pressure on British Prime Minister Theresa May and boosting hopes of an orderly Brexit.

The breakthrough came after Mrs May rushed to Brussels before dawn with an offer for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker: a financial settlement, an agreement on Europeans living in Britain and a solution for keeping open the border that divides the island of Ireland after the split.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said it was not possible to put a concrete figure on Britain's divorce bill, but Britain said it could cost between £35 billion (S$63.5 billion) and £39 billion. Britain also agreed to protect the rights of some three million European citizens with a mechanism to give them recourse to the EU's top court if they feel they are being treated unfairly.

But Ireland's demands that Brexit should not lead to the return of checkpoints on the border with Northern Ireland, which it said could jeopardise the peace process in the north, proved the biggest stumbling block at the end. "In Northern Ireland, we guarantee there will be no hard border," Mrs May told a press conference with Mr Juncker.

The issue required delicate four-way talks as the Northern Irish party that holds the balance of power in London wielded a powerful veto until the last minute. Party leader Arlene Foster said lawmakers could still vote down a final exit deal if they are not happy. "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and how we vote on the final deal will depend on its contents," she said.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar welcomed the deal, saying his government would remain "vigilant" in upcoming negotiations.

The European Commission said the second phase of negotiations could begin immediately, ending the impasse over the status of the Irish border. Its recommendation that sufficient progress has been made will now go to the European Union summit of leaders taking place next week. Mrs May said she expected a formal agreement to be approved at the summit.

"Prime Minister May has assured me that it has the backing of the UK government. On that basis, I believe we have now made the breakthrough we need," Mr Juncker told the news conference.

European Council President Donald Tusk said: "The most difficult challenge is still ahead."

By accepting most of the EU's demands, Britain has now won the prize it has been seeking since March - the right to start discussing relations between the two when Britain parts ways with the bloc.

But it does not all end in March 2019, when the UK is slated to depart. The second phase will be even more delicate and important than the first - German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said it will be far more complex than the divorce proceedings of the last eight months.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2017, with the headline 'Britain and EU reach Brexit breakthrough'. Print Edition | Subscribe