The UK’s withdrawal agreement from the European Union has been approved by EU leaders, its chief official Donald Tusk has announced.
The 27 leaders gave it their backing after less than an hour’s discussion in Brussels.
Mr Tusk signalled on Saturday that the deal would be approved after Spain withdrew last-minute concerns over Gibraltar.
The deal needs to be approved by the UK Parliament, with many MPs opposed.
Mr Tusk, the president of the European Council, broke the news on Twitter.
It follows more than 18 months of negotiations between the two sides, which began when the UK triggered Article 50 in the wake of the 2016 referendum leave vote.
The UK is scheduled to leave the EU on 29 March 2019.
The UK Parliament is expected to vote on the deal in early December but its approval is by no means guaranteed. Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, the DUP and many Conservatives MPs are set to vote against.
Prime Minister Theresa May has appealed to the public to get behind the agreement, arguing it is the best deal she could have struck – and honours the result of the Brexit referendum.
What has the EU decided?
The EU leaders have approved the two key Brexit documents:
- 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 Northern Ireland “backstop” – a way to keep the Irish border open, if trade talks stall
- The political declaration, which sets out what the UK and EU’s relationship may be like after Brexit – outlining how things like UK-EU trade and security will work
There was no formal vote on Sunday, with the EU proceeding by consensus.
In a one-page document confirming its decision, the European Council said the deal would pave the way for the UK’s “orderly withdrawal” and it wanted the “closest possible” relationship in the future.
Before the meeting, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said the UK’s departure was a “tragedy” for the EU, adding that there are “no smooth divorces”.
While the rest of the EU wanted it settled as soon as possible, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said there were a number of possible outcomes if the UK Parliament rejected the deal, including an extension of the negotiations or another referendum.
The BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg said European leaders were making clear that while they were not happy about the UK’s exit, this was the best and only deal on offer.
The next summit of European leaders, she pointed out, is currently scheduled the day after the crunch parliamentary vote is likely to take place.
What happens next?
Mrs May will now need to persuade MPs in the UK Parliament to back it.
She is expected to spend the next fortnight travelling the UK trying to sell the deal before a parliamentary vote in the second week of December.
If MPs reject the deal, a number of things could happen – including leaving with no deal, an attempt to renegotiate or a general election.
Our political editor said while it looked tough for Mrs May to get MPs to agree, a lot could change in two weeks and it was “too early to tell” whether she could persuade the public that it was in the national interest.
According to the Sunday Times, Chancellor Philip Hammond is working with other Cabinet ministers to try to persuade Mrs May to opt for a softer Brexit deal, which they believe could get through Parliament if her original deal is rejected.
And the Sunday Telegraph reported several senior ministers are working on a plan B – for a Norway-style relationship with the EU.
The agreement will also have to go back to the European Council, where a majority of countries (20 out of 27 states) will need to vote for it.
It will also need to be ratified by the European Parliament, in a vote expected to take place in early 2019.
What are Mrs May’s critics saying?
Former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said he would find it “very, very difficult” to support the agreement as it stood.
“I don’t believe that, so far, this deal delivers on what the British people really voted for,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge show. “I think it has ceded too much control.”
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon – who wanted to stay in the EU – said it was a “bad deal” and Parliament should consider “better alternatives”, such as remaining in the single market and customs union permanently.
And Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster – who wants to leave the EU – said her party’s parliamentary pact with the Conservatives would be reviewed if MPs approved the deal.
She told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show the agreement as it stood would leave Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK “still within European structures with no say in its rules”.