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WORLD | 26-11-2018 11:15

UK PM May begins Brexit hard sell before Parliament vote

After months of hesitation, stop-and-start negotiations and resignations, Britain and the European Union on Sunday finally sealed an agreement governing the UK's departure from the bloc next year.

British Prime Minister Theresa May convened her Cabinet and was to face Parliament on the newly-agreed Brexit deal today, as she begins the tricky task of selling the plan to a largely sceptical country.

May returns to a mutinous Parliament after sealing the agreement with European Union leaders at a summit in Brussels, where both sides insisted the divorce deal was the best and only option available. But she faces a big battle to win MPs' approval ahead of a vote next month, with lawmakers from all parties, including many of her Conservative colleagues, opposed.

"We can back this deal, deliver on the vote of the referendum and move on to building a brighter future... or this house can choose to reject this deal and go back to square one. It would open the door to more division and more uncertainty, with all the risks that will entail," she is to warn lawmakers, according to advance excerpts released by her Downing Street office.

The agreement sealed Sunday prepares for Britain's smooth exit from the EU on March 29, 2019, and sets out a vision for "as close as possible a partnership" afterwards.

It covers financial matters, citizens' rights, provisions to keep open the UK's land border with Ireland and arrangements for a 21-month post-Brexit transition phase.

The lengthy, legally enforceable divorce deal is accompanied by a short political declaration setting out hopes for future ties, including security, trade and migration.

EU leaders were quick to warn that no better offer is available.

"I am totally convinced this is the only deal possible," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said. "Those who think that by rejecting the deal that they would have a better deal will be disappointed the first seconds after the rejection."

For once, May was in complete agreement.

"This is the deal that is on the table," she said. "It is the best possible deal. It is the only deal."

Battle ahead

May will now embark on an intensive nationwide campaign to promote it – and the risks of no-deal – ahead of a vote by lawmakers on or around December 12, according to reports. However, the disparate anti-deal forces are readying for a fight, including the Labour main opposition.

Its Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer told BBC radio that if Parliament rejected the deal, May would either have to re-negotiate or hold a general election.

The government was to hold a special briefing on the Brexit deal for Labour MPs – an unusual but not unprecedented move.

Main opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called the deal "the result of a miserable failure of negotiation that leaves us with the worst of all worlds," and said his party would oppose it. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose Scottish National Party is the third-largest in Parliament, said lawmakers "should reject it and back a better alternative."

Arch-Brexiteers despise the agreement, arguing it keeps Britain too closely aligned with the bloc. Conservative former foreign secretary Boris Johnson branded the deal a "disaster" and a "humiliation" for Britain.

"We are a satellite state – a memento mori fixed on the walls of Brussels as a ghastly gaping warning to all who try to escape," the Leave campaign figurehead wrote in the conservative Daily Telegraph newspaper.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said European leaders were not speculating on alternatives to the deal.

"We don't want to give the wrong impression to people, whether they are passionate Remainers or passionate Brexiteers, that there is another agreement that can command the support of 28 member states. There isn't. It's this deal or a no deal scenario," he said.

Impact on GDP

In early afternoon deals, the pound edged up against the euro and dollar, while London's benchmark FTSE 100 index of leading share prices was up 0.7 percent.

Meanwhile, a report by the independent National Institute of Economic and Social Research found that trade with the EU, especially in services, was likely to be more costly after Brexit and have an adverse effect on living standards. "GDP in the longer term will be around four percent lower than it would have been had the UK stayed in the EU," the report said, a loss equal to around £1,000 per year per person.

Newspapers were split on whether to accept the deal, walk away or seek a new referendum. The Sun tabloid said it was "not a diplomatic compromise. It is a surrender." The Daily Telegraph said Britain should "not be afraid to walk away" from the "woeful terms" on offer.

Other newspapers were more conciliatory. "Choose May's Brexit or a leap into the abyss", said the Daily Mail, calling the alternatives "either implausible or deeply unpalatable." The Times said it was a "bad deal" but May had to convince MPs that "supposed Plan Bs are fantasies." The Daily Express said it was "far from perfect but the other choices are even worse". 

The Guardian said the second referendum bandwagon was "gathering momentum."

"Brexit is an economic and political disaster, fuelling, not healing divisions," it said.

- AFP

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