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Barnier hails 'crucial step' towards Brexit deal

·Brussels correspondent
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier with the completed Withdrawal Agreement (Reuters)
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier with the completed Withdrawal Agreement (Reuters)

Over the past few months, Michel Barnier has carried a copy of the draft Brexit deal everywhere and referred constantly to how much of it had been highlighted in green to signal what had been agreed.

Just after 9pm Brussels time on Wednesday night, the EU’s chief negotiation said with satisfaction: “White is the new green.”

After more than fifteen months of intensive negotiations, the whole 585-page document has been agreed by EU and UK negotiators and accepted by the UK government.

“I consider that we have achieved decisive progress,” Barnier told journalists.

Although the French politician added that he has “no self-satisfaction” in saying so “for reasons which have to do with my regret about Brexit.”

Nevertheless, that was the long-awaited signal that a deal is now ready to be signed-off at an emergency summit of EU leaders on 25 November which European Council president Donald Tusk will formally convene on Thursday morning.

As Theresa May came under fire from all sides over the deal in London, Barnier urged people to “read calmly and closely the whole of the text.”

In a bid to win over critics, he stressed that the Irish border backstop, which was the final issue to be agreed, has “evolved considerably from the original EU proposal.”

“Over the last few weeks we have worked with the UK on the basis of their proposal,” he added, referring to the UK-wide customs union which would come into force if there is a gap between the end of the transition and the start of any free trade agreement.

In a further boost to the prime minister’s chances of getting the deal through parliament, Barnier raised hopes that the backstop would never be needed by saying a trade deal with the UK will not take as long as with other countries.

The french politician said the backstop was one of the areas where the UK and EU have found “common ground.”

Michel Barnier presenting the Brexit deal to journalists (Reuters)
Michel Barnier presenting the Brexit deal to journalists (Reuters)

But a joint statement on the future of trade raised fears that the EU is trying to use the backstop as the basis for the future trading relationship by making the temporary customs union permanent.

It said the UK and EU would create a free trade area “building on the single customs territory provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement.”

Brexit supporters will also be alarmed that the Withdrawal Agreement includes the possibility of an open-ended extension to the transition period.

Barnier also did May no favours by refusing to rule out the possibility that talks could be re-opened if MPs vote against the current deal.

Guy Verhofstadt, the chair of the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group, said the agreement would “make it possible to maintain a close relationship between the EU and the UK.”

Although he added: “I hope that one day the UK will come back home into the European family.”

The breakthrough came after nervous wait in Brussels for the emergency Cabinet meeting in London to conclude.

The meeting went on for so long that plans for Brexit secretary Dominic Raab to join Barnier at Wednesday’s press conference were scrapped.

EU ambassadors meeting in Brussels gave up waiting for white smoke and went home voicing concerns there would not be enough progress to do a deal this month.

May’s statement outside Downing Street came just in time for Barnier to declare “decisive progress” and set in train a series of events that will end with a summit of EU leaders on 25 November.

The French politician will meet Tusk in Brussels at 7am on Thursday morning before going to Strasbourg to meet Verhofstadt.

EU ambassadors will be briefed again on Friday before a meeting of Europe ministers from each member state on Monday.

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