London | British Prime Minister Theresa May today hailed a “breakthrough” after hours of being locked in with Cabinet ministers at her official country retreat of Chequers to chair what was dubbed as a “make-or-break” Brexit meeting.
In a statement at the end of the 12-hour marathon summit, she said the Cabinet has agreed to “our collective position” for Britain’s future negotiations with the European Union (EU).
“Our proposal will create a UK-EU free trade area which establishes a common rule book for industrial goods and agricultural products. This maintains high standards in these areas, but we will also ensure that no new changes in the future take place without the approval of our Parliament,” May said. She claimed that the new plan would avoid “friction” in terms of trade, protect jobs and livelihoods, as well as meet the open border commitments in Northern Ireland.
“We have also agreed to a new business-friendly customs model with the freedom to strike new trade deals around the world,” the British prime minister said, adding that her government would publish a white paper next week to set out more details. She was expected to push her top team, divided sharply in favour of or against a hard exit from the EU, to agree plans that would see Britain remaining in full regulatory alignment with the EU on goods, but not services.
May, who faced one of her biggest challenges yet over the issue of Britain’s exit from the 27-member economic bloc following a referendum in favour of Brexit two years ago, had warned her ministers that they have “a duty” to reach an agreement on Friday. Ahead of the meeting, she said the Cabinet had “a great opportunity – and a duty to set an ambitious course to enhance our prosperity and security outside the European Union – and to build a country that genuinely works for everyone”.
However, the divide between Eurosceptic and more pro-EU ministers over the terms of how closely the UK should stick to EU rules after Brexit posed a big challenge. “I’m pretty confident we will end up with a concrete position which everybody is able to sign up to,” said Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, hours before the meeting.
Under details of the meeting at Chequers, a 16th century home in Buckinghamshire used as the British PM’s official country retreat, the ministers were expected to hand over all their smartphones and devices to ensure complete focus on thrashing out an agreement and also to prevent any leaks from the crucial meeting.
The more Brexiteer ministers, led by UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson, are said to have gone into the meeting still unconvinced by May’s proposals. Seven of them had met at the Foreign Office on Thursday evening to discuss the plans before the Friday meeting.
Opposition Labour’s Keir Starmer, shadow minister for Brexit, said a workable agreement that could be taken to the EU was needed and “simply a truce in the Cabinet was not good enough for Britain”. The aim of Friday’s meeting was to agree a UK proposal on how future relations with the EU should work after
Britain leaves on March 29 next year, the details of which would then be published in a white paper next week. That would then be the subject of negotiations with the EU, a process that is expected to create some further hurdles. But with her Cabinet’s backing, May has crossed one major hurdle.