May heads to Brussels ahead of EU summit

Theresa May during a meeting with Chancellor of Austria Sebastian KurzImage copyright

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Theresa May is facing obstacles to her Brexit plan at home and in Europe

Theresa May is heading to Brussels later ahead of a critical EU summit to formally sign off the Brexit deal.

The prime minister will hold talks with top EU officials, before leaders of all 28 countries meet to endorse the agreement on Sunday.

However, Spain has said it will not attend unless a last-minute spat over Gibraltar is sorted out.

Even if the EU approves the deal, Mrs May must still persuade enough MPs to support it which could prove difficult.

Meanwhile the leader of the DUP – which Mrs May relies on for support in Parliament – will reiterate her opposition of the deal at her party conference later, after threatening to look again at the confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives if it gets through Parliament.

What will happen at the summit?

On Saturday, Mrs May will meet with the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, and European Council President Donald Tusk for talks.

Then on Sunday, EU leaders will meet for the special Brexit summit. They will be asked to approve two key Brexit documents:

  • The political declaration, which sets out what the UK and EU’s relationship will be like after Brexit – outlining how things like UK-EU trade and security will work
  • The EU withdrawal agreement: a 585-page, legally-binding document setting out the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU. It covers the UK’s £39bn “divorce bill”, citizens’ rights and the thorny issue of the Northern Ireland “backstop” – to keep the border with the Republic of Ireland open, if trade talks stall.

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Media captionWhat’s in the political declaration?

BBC News correspondent Kevin Connolly said some member states are “suspicious of the possibility the UK might be attempting some last-minute negotiations” on Saturday.

There is no formal vote on Sunday but the EU expects to proceed after reaching a consensus.

Why is Spain unhappy?

Spain has raised last-minute objections to how the issue of Gibraltar – a British Overseas Territory with 30,000 residents, 96% whom voted to remain in the EU – has been handled in the Brexit talks so far.

It wants the UK to publish a written statement promising that Spain will be directly consulted on questions relating to Gibraltar during its future trade negotiations with the EU.

On Friday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said he will not decide whether to attend Sunday’s summit until the assurances are provided.

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Mr Sanchez is pro-European and it is not in his nature to scupper EU plans, the BBC’s Katya Adler said

Although one country on its own cannot block the withdrawal agreement being approved, there is “no way the EU can rubber stamp a text when an existing member is so strongly opposed”, said BBC News’ Europe editor Katya Adler.

Gibraltar is believed to be the only outstanding issue ahead of the summit.

France, Denmark and the Netherlands had raised concerns over what the political declaration said about fishing rights in UK waters – but this issue is understood to have been resolved.

What happens after the summit?

If the EU signs off the withdrawal deal, Mrs May will then need to persuade MPs in her own Parliament to back it.

A vote in Parliament is expected to happen in December.

Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP and the DUP have all said they will vote against the government’s deal.

Some of Mrs May’s own Conservative MPs – the hardline Brexiteers – are also highly critical of the deal and are unlikely to support it, while other Remainer Tory MPs may also vote against it.

If MPs back the deal, it then has to be ratified by the European Parliament.

Once the UK leaves the EU on 29 March 2019 – which will happen with or without a deal – the details of a long-term trade deal will be worked out during a 21-month transition period until December 2020.

But if the deal is defeated, a number of things could happen – including leaving in March without a deal, a second attempt to get the Brexit deal passed, another referendum or a general election.

What does Theresa May say about the deal?

On Friday, the PM said the UK should not hope for a “better deal” from the EU if MPs reject her Brexit agreement.

But she declined to say whether the UK would be better off outside the EU, saying only it would be “different”.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph said it has seen leaked Cabinet papers which suggest the PM is planning to “reframe the Brexit debate around migration” – by planning restrictions on low-skilled migrants coming to the UK – in a bid to attract the support of hard Brexiteers ahead of the House of Commons vote.

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Media captionMichael: “What in your honest opinion is better for the UK, your deal or the deal we had if we stayed in the EU?”

Does the DUP’s support matter?

Yes. After the 2017 general election, Mrs May’s Conservative Party got 318 seats – four short of the number she needed to rule with a majority government.

The DUP formed a confidence and supply agreement with the Tories, promising that its 10 MPs would vote with the government, and therefore enable it to win key votes in Parliament.

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Your guide to Brexit jargon

The DUP opposes the Brexit deal because of the “backstop” – the last resort back-up plan to make sure a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland never happens.

It will only come into effect if the UK and EU fail to agree a long-term trade deal. But the backstop would mean that Northern Ireland – but not the rest of the UK – would still follow some EU rules on things such as food products.

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