Negotiators from Britain and the European Union have struck a proposed divorce deal that will be presented to politicians on both sides for approval, officials in London and Brussels announced Tuesday.
After a year and a half of stalled talks, false starts and setbacks, negotiators agreed on proposals to resolve the main outstanding issue: the Irish border.
British Prime Minister Theresa May's office said the Cabinet would hold a special meeting Wednesday to consider the proposal. Its support isn't guaranteed: May is under pressure from pro-Brexit ministers not to make further concessions to the EU.
Ambassadors from the 27 other EU countries are also due to hold a meeting in Brussels on Wednesday.
May told the Cabinet earlier Tuesday that "a small number" of issues remain to be resolved in divorce negotiations with the European Union, while her deputy, David Lidington, said the two sides are "almost within touching distance" of a Brexit deal.
Britain wants to seal a deal this fall, so that Parliament has time to vote on it before the UK leaves the bloc on March 29. The European Parliament also has to approve any agreement.
Negotiators have been meeting late into the night in Brussels in a bid to close the remaining gaps.
The main obstacle has long been how to ensure there are no customs posts or other checks along the border between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Brexit.
Irish national broadcaster RTE said the draft agreement involves a common customs arrangement for the U.K. and the EU, to eliminate the need for border checks.
But May faces pressure from pro-Brexit Cabinet members not to agree to an arrangement that binds Britain to EU trade rules indefinitely.
May also faces growing opposition from pro-EU lawmakers, who say her proposed Brexit deal is worse than the status quo and the British public should get a new vote on whether to leave or to stay.
If there is no agreement soon, UK businesses will have to start implementing contingency plans for a "no-deal" Brexit — steps that could include cutting jobs, stockpiling goods and relocating production and services outside Britain.
Even with such measures in place, the British government says leaving the EU without a deal could cause major economic disruption, with gridlock at ports and disruption to supplies of foods, goods and medicines.
On Tuesday, the European Commission published a sheaf of notices outlining changes in a host of areas in the event of a no-deal Brexit. They point to major disruption for people and businesses: UK truckers' licences won't be valid in the EU, British airlines will no longer enjoy traffic rights, and even British mineral water will cease to be recognized as such by the EU.
The EU said Tuesday it was proposing visa-free travel for UK citizens on short trips, even if there is no deal — but only if Britain reciprocates.
"We need to prepare for all options," EU Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said. On a deal, he said: "We are not there yet."
Meanwhile, official figures suggest Brexit is already having an impact on the British workforce.
The Office for National Statistics said the number of EU citizens working in the country — 2.25 million— was down 132,000 in the three months to September from the year before. That's the largest annual fall since comparable records began in 1997.
Most of the fall is due to fewer workers from eight eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004.
Jonathan Portes, professor of economics at King's College London, said the prospect of Brexit "has clearly made the UK a much less attractive place for Europeans to live and work."
Brexit: key dates
From the shock Brexit vote to a tentative deal on the outlines of a withdrawal agreement, here are the milestones on Britain's rocky road out of the European Union.
Britons vote to leave
In a referendum, Britons on June 23, 2016, choose to end their membership of the EU by 52 percent to 48 percent. The shock result prompts the resignation the next day of Conservative prime minister David Cameron, who had called the referendum and led the campaign to remain in the EU. In a race to replace him, Brexit campaigner Boris Johnson withdraws at the last minute and Theresa May, Cameron's interior minister for six years, becomes prime minister on July 11.
On January 17, 2017, May gives a major speech setting out her Brexit strategy, saying Britain will also leave Europe's single market. On March 13, Britain's parliament gives final approval to a bill empowering May to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty which lays out the process for leaving the union.
Exit process triggered
With a letter to EU President Donald Tusk on March 29, formally announcing the intention to leave, the government sets in motion Article 50. Its two-year timetable for withdrawal is set to wind up by March 29, 2019.
To capitalise on the perceived weakness of the opposition Labour party and strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations, May calls a snap election for June 8. Her gamble backfires as the Conservatives lose their parliamentary majority. They are forced to strike a deal with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to be able to govern. The issue of British guarantees to keep an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit becomes a key sticking point in negotiations.
First terms agreed
Britain and the EU reach a deal on some key terms of the divorce in early December 2017 after all-night negotiations. They include Britain's EU bill as part of the settlement. European Union leaders give the go-ahead for the next stage of Brexit talks, including on how Britain will continue to trade with the bloc after the split.
Brexit bill passed
A bill enacting the decision to leave the EU becomes law on June 26, 2018, following months of debate and after receiving the formal assent of Queen Elizabeth II. The bill transfers decades of European law onto British statute books and enshrines "Brexit day" as March 29, 2019.
Top minsters quit
On July 6, May wins agreement from her warring cabinet to pursue "a UK-EU free trade area" that would retain a strong alignment with the EU after Brexit. Two days later David Davis, the eurosceptic Brexit minister, quits as does his deputy. May is giving "too much away too easily", Davis says. In a major blow, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also resigns on July 9, having criticised the Brexit blueprint in private, and becomes a leading critic of May's plans through a weekly column in the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
UK says draft deal agreed
The European Union on November 13 publishes contingency plans for a "no-deal" Brexit. But a few hours later, May's office says negotiating teams in Brussels have reached a draft agreement, which will be considered by the cabinet on November 14.