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Final Brexit deal is within grasp, says PM after breakthrough in Brussels

Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement about Brexit outside 10 Downing Street, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday November 22, 2018. See PA story POLITICS Brexit. Photo credit should read: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire

By Andrew Woodcock, Press Association Political Editor

Theresa May has declared that final agreement on Brexit is "within our grasp" following a breakthrough agreement on future relations between the UK and EU.

Speaking outside 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister said a political declaration on post-Brexit relations agreed with Brussels is "the right plan for the UK" which will set the country on course for a brighter future.

The draft declaration was agreed in principle on Thursday morning, after negotiators worked through the night on new directions issued by Mrs May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker when they met in the Belgian capital on Wednesday evening.

The breakthrough cleared the way for a special summit in Brussels on Sunday, at which leaders of the remaining 27 EU states are expected to give their stamp of approval to both the future framework and a separate withdrawal agreement setting out the terms of the UK's departure.

Mrs May briefed members of her Cabinet on the new text in a conference call and was addressing MPs in a statement to the House of Commons later in the day.

Speaking outside Number 10, she said: "This is the right deal for the UK. It delivers on the vote of the referendum, it brings back control of our borders, our money and our laws and it does so while protecting jobs, protecting our security and protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom."

Confirming that she would return to Brussels on Saturday for further talks with Mr Juncker ahead of the summit, she added: "The British people want this to be settled, they want a good deal that sets us on course for a brighter future.

"That deal is within our grasp and I am determined to deliver on it."

Agreement on the text was announced by European Council president Donald Tusk, who said in a tweet: "I have just sent to EU27 a draft Political Declaration on the Future Relationship between EU and UK.

"The Commission President has informed me that it has been agreed at negotiators' level and agreed in principle at political level, subject to the endorsement of the leaders."

Downing Street has always stressed that the 585-page legally binding withdrawal agreement setting out the terms of the UK's departure from the EU - including a "divorce bill" estimated at £39 billion - can only be finalised alongside the shorter declaration setting out the two sides' aspirations for their future relations.

Mrs May will hope that the prospect of an ambitious free trade deal set out in the 26-page declaration will win over some of the Conservative MPs who have voiced deep misgivings about her plans.

The new text calls for an "ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership" covering trade, law enforcement, foreign policy, security and defence, which could take the form of a Ukraine-style Association Agreement.

It confirms that the future relationship must respect the sovereignty of the UK and its right to develop an independent trade policy and end the free movement of EU nationals.

And it leaves open the possibility of using technological solutions to keep the Irish border open after Brexit.

But other elements of the declaration could anger Brexiteers, including:

- Plans for a "free trade area, combining deep regulatory and customs co-operation", building and improving on the "single customs territory" provided for in the withdrawal agreement;

- A commitment to "work together" on safeguarding workers' rights and consumer and environmental protections;

- Provisions to ensure a "level playing field" on business competition, which could cover areas including state aid, climate change laws and tax;

- A role for the European Court of Justice in providing "binding" rulings on the interpretation of EU law in any disputes between the two sides.

The document envisages negotiations beginning immediately after the formal date of Brexit on March 29 2019, with high-level conferences every six months. Agreements on "equivalence" of financial services regulations and access and quotas for fishing should be reached in time to come into effect at the end of the transition period on December 31 2020.

The new text was dismissed by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as "lots of unicorns taking the place of facts about the future relationship".

"Fair play to the EU for pushing it as far as possible, but it adds up to a blindfold Brexit," said Ms Sturgeon.

"Difficult issues unresolved - so extended transition/backstop almost certain."

Leave-backing Tory MP Marcus Fysh said that the political declaration made Mrs May's withdrawal agreement "even more toxic".

And a source from the European Research Group of eurosceptic Conservative MPs said: "The political declaration is not legally binding, vague, aspirational and little more than a smokescreen to cover up the fact that the permanent relationship is the customs union backstop.

"The withdrawal agreement gives away £39 billion for no guaranteed free trade agreement in return. What it does guarantee is the UK would be stuck as a vassal state accepting EU laws and trade policy unless the EU decides to release us."

Opponents of Brexit were also critical of the new document.

Conservative MP Philip Lee, who quit the Government in protest at its handling of Brexit, said it "reads like a letter to Santa".

And Labour MP Chuka Umunna, a leading supporter of the People's Vote campaign for a second referendum, said: "This political declaration is just that - a political declaration. It is entirely aspirational and doesn't finalise anything.

"Years of uncertainty and endless negotiations would lie ahead - discouraging investment long into the future.

"In short this is a terrible offer to the British people and one that the people should have the opportunity to turn down in favour of keeping our current deal as members with a say over decisions that affect our future."

It remains unclear whether further negotiation will be needed on Sunday or whether the summit will be a simple rubber-stamping exercise.

The PM has faced a strong pushback from Spain over the status of Gibraltar, while France is understood to have sought amendments to wording on fishing rights in UK waters.

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