Britain and the European Union on Friday cleared the way to start a crucial new round of talks on British withdrawal from the bloc, overcoming months of deadlock, an internal political standoff in London and days of controversy over the future of the Irish border.
The accord, which still needs to be approved by European Union leaders at a summit starting Thursday, contains a series of British concessions that should allow the start of negotiations on future trade relations with the bloc, as well as on a period of transition, for the time immediately after Britain’s departure, scheduled for March 2019.
With that moment fast approaching, Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, has been under growing pressure to achieve a breakthrough. Opponents have criticized the way she has conducted the negotiations, and British businesses have been increasingly anxious to know what rules will apply after British withdrawal, known as Brexit.
Mrs. May, who lost her parliamentary majority in elections earlier this year, has been assailed by numerous problems at home, where her cabinet is deeply divided over Brexit policy and two ministers were recently forced to quit over separate issues.
Although supporters of Brexit once insisted that Britain held all the cards in the withdrawal negotiations, it has been Mrs. May who has made nearly all the concessions.
Before discussing trade, European negotiators insisted on making “sufficient progress” on three “divorce” issues arising from Brexit: Britain’s outstanding financial commitments to the bloc, the rights of European citizens living in Britain, and the future of the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which will stay a member of the European Union.
That point seemed to have been reached early Friday morning, after Mrs. May traveled to Brussels to sign off on an agreement that was announced by Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission. Mrs. May had already roughly doubled her original financial offer to the bloc, to pay for commitments made while Britain was a member.
And after days of confusion, she has now offered enough assurances over the future of the Irish border to satisfy European negotiators, and the Irish government.
The government in Dublin had demanded pledges that there would be no re-imposition of controls on the Irish frontier after Britain leaves the European Union. Those controls were dismantled as part of a peace process that ended decades of sectarian conflict, known as the Troubles.
Although no one wants to see their return, avoiding customs checks would be a complicated task if the United Kingdom moves away from the European Union’s rules once it quits the bloc. Britain’s departure would likely mean that it would leave Europe’s customs union, which guarantees tariff-free commerce, and its single market, which lays down rules and standards for trade in goods and many services.
On Monday, Mrs. May’s earlier proposal to square the circle seemed to fall apart when it was opposed by Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, a small Northern Irish grouping upon whose 10 votes Mrs. May relies on in Parliament.