LONDON — Britain and the European Union on Friday cleared the way to start a crucial new round of talks on British withdrawal from the bloc, announcing a breakthrough after months of deadlock, an internal political standoff in London, and a dispute over the future of the Irish border.
The deal would avoid a “hard” border in Ireland; set Britain’s divorce bill at between $47 billion and $52 billion, roughly double its original offer; and establish judicial protocols to protect the rights of the 3 million European citizens in Britain and the million British citizens in the European Union.
Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain made a predawn flight to Brussels to make the announcement with Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, after May wrapped up tough negotiations with the small Northern Irish party on which her government depends.
The accord still needs the approval of EU leaders, but May apparently convinced negotiators that enough progress had been made in talks on Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc to move on to a new phase of difficult negotiations early next year.
The agreement, a rare step forward in the nearly nine months since Britain formally announced that it would leave the bloc, should allow the start of negotiations on future trade relations with the bloc, as well as on a period of transition for the time immediately after Britain’s scheduled departure in March 2019, during which a full trade agreement can ideally be worked out.
A trade and transition agreement will have to be concluded well before the exit date — probably by fall 2018 — in order to provide time for it to be ratified by member nations and by the European Parliament.
May came back to Brussels after several days of negotiations in London with the Democratic Unionist Party, led by Arlene Foster, over language to rule out a “hard border” between Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, part of the European Union.
May relies on the 10 votes that Foster’s party has in Parliament.
May had to break off talks earlier in the week when Foster suddenly objected to a draft British-EU statement on the border, while the government in Dublin was demanding pledges that there would be no re-imposition of controls on the Irish frontier after Britain leaves the European Union.
But a deal was worked out overnight, and Juncker said the commission was satisfied that “sufficient progress” has been made.
While negotiators managed to finesse the Irish border issue to reach this agreement, the matter seemed far from settled. It will now go to trade negotiators, and Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of Ireland noted approvingly that there was now a “backstop arrangement,” in case they do not resolve the issue.
Under that deliberately ambiguous formulation, Northern Ireland and perhaps all of the United Kingdom would maintain “full alignment” with European rules as needed to “support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement” that ended the Troubles in the North.
The haziness surrounding the arrangement was cause for concern for Foster and the Democratic Unionist Party, who are determined above all to avoid a situation in which the rules governing Northern Ireland diverge from those for the rest of the United Kingdom. That direction, they fear, would ultimately lead to reunification with the South.
So, while welcoming the idea there would be no “red line,” or border, running through the Irish Sea, Foster said, “We cautioned the prime minister about proceeding with this agreement in its present form, given the issues which still need to be resolved and the views expressed to us by many of her own party colleagues.”
But that snag, should it develop at all, lies in the future, while Friday was portrayed as a day for celebration, however muted by recognition of the hard road ahead.
“This is a difficult negotiation but we have now made a first breakthrough,” Juncker said. “I am satisfied with the fair deal we have reached with the United Kingdom.’’
“If the 27 member states agree with our assessment, the European Commission and our chief negotiator Michel Barnier stand ready to begin work on the second phase of the negotiations immediately,” he said.
The heads of the member states will meet next week and are expected to confirm the deal next Friday.
“This government will continue to govern in the interests of the whole community in Northern Ireland and uphold the agreements that have underpinned the huge progress that has been made over the past two decades,” May said in a statement on the British government’s website.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who had said the union could “go whistle” if it thought it would get a hefty payment, congratulated May on “her determination in getting today’s deal.” Environment Secretary Michael Gove said she had “confounded her critics.”
The lone dissenter, it seemed, was Nigel Farage, former leader of the UK Independence Party, who said on Twitter that the deal was “good news for Mrs May as we can now move on to the next stage of humiliation.”
Assuming that EU leaders agree at their summit meeting in Brussels to proceed, detailed trade negotiations will begin soon, probably early in the new year.