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May 'faces difficult days ahead' - Foster and May's ‘frank’ Brexit meeting

By Our Political Staff

DUP leader Arlene Foster said she had a "frank meeting" with the Prime Minister lasting almost an hour last night after Theresa May secured Cabinet approval to proceed with her deal on UK withdrawal from the EU.

It came after an "impassioned" five-hour meeting featuring dissent from a number of ministers. Reports suggested as many as a third of the 28 ministers attending voiced doubts about the draft agreement drawn up by UK and EU negotiators after 19 months of talks in Brussels.

No vote was taken, but Cabinet backed the 585-page document - along with a shorter outline political declaration on future EU-UK trade relations - by consensus.

However, the PM faced a backlash from Tory Brexiteers, with Jacob Rees-Mogg saying he could not support it and hoped other Tory MPs would follow suit.

The DUP expressed deep reservations that the deal crossed its "red lines" throughout the day, and East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said his party will not back the "poor deal", which he controversially compared to a "punishment beating".

After Mrs May announced Cabinet approval outside 10 Downing Street, it is understood she met Mrs Foster and her deputy Nigel Dodds privately for around an hour. Mrs Foster described the meeting at the Prime Minister's office in the House of Commons as "frank".

"She is fully aware of our position and concerns," the DUP leader added in a terse tweet later.

It is understood that after the meeting Mrs Foster held a short meeting with Belfast-born Labour MP Kate Hoey, an ardent Brexiteer. Mr Dodds was said to have been "in deep conversation" with Tory MP Steve Baker, a leading figure in the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG), for around 25 minutes at around the same time.

One of the key elements the deal covers is the so-called 'backstop' intended to ensure there is no return to the hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic if negotiations on the future relationship have still not been completed.

The deal will create a single EU-UK customs territory with the UK continuing to follow EU tariffs and customs rules, avoiding the need for checks between the EU and UK - including between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

However, Northern Ireland will be required to remain aligned with what the EU calls "a limited set of EU rules that are indispensable for avoiding a hard border".

These include some EU single market rules, including legislation on VAT and excise in respect of goods, agricultural production, veterinary controls and state aid rules.

This crosses one of the DUP's red lines, and the party is expected to vote against the deal in Parliament.

Mrs Foster, whose party props up Mrs May's minority administration in the Commons, had earlier warned the PM there would be "consequences" if her deal treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK.

Mrs May described the debate around the Cabinet table as "long, detailed and impassioned", in a clear indication her proposals had come under intense challenge from ministers.

There were no threats to resign during the meeting, which ended with ministers toasting the agreement with red and white wine.

Rumours of possible walkouts continued to swirl around Westminster, however, and the level of Brexiteer discontent has raised expectations of further letters of no confidence in Mrs May from Tory MPs.

Sources said the delivery of letters to the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady was "imminent", with a total of 48 needed to trigger a vote on Mrs May's position.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker issued a statement that "decisive progress" had been made, clearing the way for a special summit for leaders of the remaining 27 EU states to give their stamp of approval, probably on November 25.

Speaking outside 10 Downing Street minutes after the crunch Cabinet meeting concluded, Mrs May acknowledged she faced "difficult days ahead" as she prepares to seek the backing of the House of Commons in what is expected to be the toughest vote of her parliamentary career. She said: "I firmly believe, with my head and my heart, that this is a decision which is in the best interests of the United Kingdom."

The text approved by the Cabinet will provide the basis of a legally binding treaty. It covers the future rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK nationals in the EU, the UK's £39bn "divorce" settlement, as well as protocols on Gibraltar and the UK sovereign base areas in Cyprus.

It also provides for a transition period after the UK leaves in March 2019 running to the end of 2020, with the option of a one-off extension if more time is needed to conclude an agreement on the future relationship.

Senior UK Government officials said the final text of the withdrawal agreement featured important gains for the UK on the backstop arrangements to be implemented if no trade deal can be reached.

The outline political declaration - which will be subject to further negotiation over the coming weeks - expresses an ambition to achieve zero tariffs and no quotas in EU-UK trade, something the officials said no other major economy had achieved.

The facilitated customs arrangements and "common rulebook" proposed in Mrs May's Chequers plan are replaced by the concept of a "sliding scale" of commitments and market access, which means the UK would not be tied to an off-the-shelf deal of the kind previously offered to countries such as Canada.

"We are for the very first time opening up a world where we can do the sort of trade deal the EU has never done before," one UK official said.

Under backstop arrangements designed to keep the Irish border open, if no trade deal is agreed by the end of the transition period in December 2020, a temporary "EU-UK single customs territory" would be established.

This could be terminated only by mutual consent of Brussels and London but each side would be legally bound to make "best endeavours" to bring it to an end by sealing a permanent deal on their future relations.

There will be a provision to allow the two sides to extend the transition to a fixed date rather than activate the backstop.

A five-person arbitration panel, with two representatives of each side and one independent member, will be set up to rule on disputes, with the chair chosen by drawing lots if members cannot agree. Mrs May described the deal as "the best that could be negotiated".

She added: "When you strip away the detail, the choice before us is clear - this deal, which delivers on the vote of the referendum, which brings back control of our money, laws and borders, ends free movement, protects jobs, security and our Union, or leave with no deal or no Brexit at all."

But arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg wrote to Tory MPs calling on them not to support Mrs May's plan, arguing the UK would "hand over £39bn to the EU for little or nothing in return". The deal is "unacceptable to unionists", will "lock us into an EU customs union and EU laws" and is "profoundly undemocratic", Mr Rees-Mogg said.

Belfast Telegraph

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