Senior members of Theresa May’s government have backed her breakthrough deal in the Brexit talks, which includes paying more than £30bn to Brussels.
The agreement on the size of the so-called “divorce bill”, along with guarantees on citizens’ rights and the status of the Irish border after Brexit, came after a night of frantic diplomacy.
Negotiators said it delivered the required “sufficient progress” to move on to the next phase of talks – but these are likely to be even tougher.
European Council President Donald Tusk warned the most difficult challenge is still ahead, adding: “So much time has been devoted to the easiest part of the task. Now, to negotiate a transition arrangement and the framework for our future relationship we have de facto less than a year.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May hailed the deal as a “hard-won agreement in all our interests” – and senior members of her top team have publicly backed her.
While criticism among Leave-supporting MPs has been muted so far, there have been hints of some discontent.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the deal is the result of compromise and he is recommending EU leaders approve moving onto the next phase, which will cover the future trading relationship and the terms of the transition, at a summit next week.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tweeted his congratulations to the PM, praising her “determination in getting today’s deal”.
Congratulations to PM for her determination in getting today’s deal. We now aim to forge a deep and special partnership with our European friends and allies while remaining true to the referendum result – taking back control of our laws, money and borders for the whole of the UK.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) December 8, 2017
Mr Johnson – a Vote Leave figurehead in the referendum campaign – had previously said the EU could “go whistle” if it asked for a hefty sum from Britain.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who like Mr Johnson campaigned for Leave, described it as a “significant personal political achievement” which will mean there is more money for the NHS.
Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd also welcomed the news:
1/2 Delighted we’ve reached an agreement which will give both Europeans here in the UK and British citizens in the EU binding guarantees about their residence rights.
— Amber Rudd MP (@AmberRuddHR) December 8, 2017
2/2 I hope this will now give those concerned real peace of mind. We are building a new system so that the application process will be smooth and simple. For now, EU citizens in the UK, do not need to do anything.
— Amber Rudd MP (@AmberRuddHR) December 8, 2017
The breakthrough came after Mrs May and Brexit Secretary David Davis flew to Brussels to finalise the details of a joint document setting out proposals for the key divorce issues.
Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster, who blocked a previous agreement on Monday, was brought onside in the early hours of Friday.
She said there had been “substantial changes” to the text which mean there will be “no red line down the Irish Sea” and no “special status” for Northern Ireland.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said it was a “significant day” for Ireland, with Dublin achieving “all that we set out to achieve in phase one of these negotiations”.
The size of the Brexit bill is significantly lower than has been suggested in the past – some estimates had put it at £50bn or more.
It will be paid over several years and the exact figure will not be known for some time, although it is estimated at £35-£39bn (€40-45bn).
But while the breakthrough represents a victory for the PM, elements of the deal have caused disquiet.
A particular source of comment is a passage that covers what happens on the island of Ireland in the event no trade deal is agreed.
It says that the UK will keep “full alignment” with elements of the EU’s single market and customs union which support the economy of the island of Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement – something proponents of a clean break from Brussels are unlikely to be happy with.
Former Brexit minister David Jones has warned this could hinder Britain’s ability to sign free-trade deals with other nations.
The European Court of Justice will continue to have a role overseeing EU citizens’ rights in the UK for eight years after Brexit, something many Brexiteers view as anathema to “taking back control”.
Downing Street said only two or three cases a year are expected to be referred to the ECJ for “interpretation”, adding that the court would not have the power to call in cases.
The “divorce bill” has long been a source of controversy, with some arguing Britain should not be handing over such a large sum of money.
Mrs May said the settlement would be “fair to the British taxpayer”, but one senior Tory MP – speaking on condition of anonymity – told Sky News there would be “incredible concern” from the public.
They added: “It does make it much more difficult to make the case that we haven’t got any money for public spending priorities at home.”
On the “full alignment” issue, Mr Johnson appeared to try to placate potential concerns from the Conservative ranks.
In response to a tweet from chief whip Julian Smith, which included a picture of him meeting Mrs May on Thursday, the Foreign Secretary said:
Tory MPs Owen Paterson and John Redwood used Twitter to express their concerns:
Big improvement on Monday text @EU_Commission has moved a long way. Still problematic areas inc Clause 49 (full alignment), role of ECJ & money. At last we are moving to free trade discussions. Problem areas must be debated & resolved. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed
— Owen Paterson MP (@OwenPaterson) December 8, 2017
We need to remember that leaving on the WTO option means no add’l payments to the EU, whilst taking back control of our borders, our laws & our money. A good deal has to be better than this, otherwise the Government’s mantra that No Deal is better than a bad deal should apply.
— John Redwood (@johnredwood) December 8, 2017
UKIP leader Nigel Farage was scathing, describing the deal as a “capitulation”:
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the deal “could have been done some time ago” and called for more detail from Mrs May on the transition and “what regulatory framework there will be in the future”.
This echoes earlier comments from Mr Tusk, who asked for “more clarity” from Britain on what the future trading relationship will look like.
“While being satisfied with today’s agreement, which is obviously a personal success for Prime Minister Theresa May, let us remember that the most difficult challenge is still ahead,” he said.
Under Mr Tusk’s proposals, there will be a transition of around two years after March 2019.
The UK will be required to respect EU law – including any legislation passed without Britain’s involvement – observe budgetary commitments and the oversight of the ECJ.