EU leaders gathered on Sunday to make a formal offer of a Brexit package deal to Prime Minister Theresa May that she and they hope can survive fury in the British parliament to ease Britain out of the bloc in March.
After 18 months of negotiation, including some last-minute brinkmanship from Spain seeking guarantees of a role in the future of Gibraltar, the 27 national leaders will endorse terms for withdrawal and an outline of future EU-UK ties at a tightly choreographed summit that will conclude with a visit from May.
The biggest question now facing the European Union is whether May’s divided minority government can steer the deal, which foresees London following many EU rules to keep easy trade access, through fierce resistance in parliament in the coming weeks from both supporters and opponents of Brexit.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, among the first to arrive, refused to be drawn on what might happen if the deal fails, saying it was up to British lawmakers to decide.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country is one Britain’s closest trading partners, praised May’s handling of the difficult negotiations and said he was confident that she could see the deal through the London parliament.
Saying the EU “hates” Brexit, Rutte said: “Nobody’s winning — we are all losing.” But, he said, the deal was an acceptable compromise for all that gave May a chance to clinch a solution.
Grybauskaite said there were at least four possible outcomes if the British parliament blocks the package and named three – that Britons would hold a second referendum, hold a new election to replace May or return to Brussels to try and renegotiate the package. A fourth is that Britain will simply crash out of the bloc on March 29 without legal clarity.
Both sides have been making preparations for such a “no deal” scenario, though the EU insists Britain has more to lose. The pound has strengthened since the deal came together over the past 10 days, but companies and investors remain nervous.
Summit chair Donald Tusk said “no one will have reasons to be happy” when Brexit is concluded but quoted British rock star Freddie Mercury of Queen, who died 27 years ago on Saturday, to say: “Friends will be friends right till the end.”
The 27 EU national leaders will gather for an hour or so to formally endorse both a detailed treaty setting out the terms on which Britain will leave in an orderly manner in March and a declaration outlining how Britain can keep close to its biggest market by following many EU rules after a 2-4-year transition.
They will then meet May briefly as she seeks momentum to get the package through the British parliament in the coming weeks.
The Democratic Unionist Party, whose votes from Northern Ireland have helped May to govern since she lost her majority in a misjudged snap election last year, said it would try to block a Brexit deal it called “pitiful” – partly because it binds London to many EU rules it will no longer help set and partly as the DUP fears it could weaken the province’s ties to Britain.
No one knows what will happen if parliament rejects May’s plan, which she and EU leaders say is the best deal available.
In an open letter to the nation, published on Sunday, May said she would campaign “heart and soul” to get her Brexit deal through: “It will be a deal that is in our national interest – one that works for our whole country and all of our people, whether you voted Leave or Remain,” she said.
Sunday newspapers said different factions in her own Conservative party were preparing alternative plans to keep Britain closer to the EU should her deal fail as many expect.
Wrangling over how to keep open troubled Northern Ireland’s land border with the EU without creating disruptive customs barriers with the Irish Republic dogged much of the 18 months of talks before accords were struck this month. Another relic of the imperial past, Britain’s 300-year-old naval base on Spain’s southern coast, threatened to derail plans at the last minute.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez threatened to boycott Sunday’s meeting if he did not get amendments to the deal to ensure Madrid gets a say in Gibraltar’s future ties with the EU.
After officials wrangled through the night, he announced on Saturday afternoon that he had such written pledges. Brussels officials said those essentially confirmed what most EU leaders had already understood – that Spain must have a binding say over how any future EU-UK trade pact might affect Gibraltar.
May will meet Sanchez for face-to-face talks during the summit, officials said.