EU chiefs have demanded that Britain accepts freedom of movement during a Brexit transition phase, after it confirmed today that we can finally start talking about a trade deal.
Guidelines issued today from Brussels say Britain must continue to “participate” in the Customs Union and Single Market – along with abiding by rules on unlimited EU immigration.
Today European leaders unanimously agreed we can finally move on to phase two of Brexit talks, which will discuss a transition agreement and a future trade deal.
The news was announced in a tweet from EU boss Donald Tusk, with Theresa May hailing the breakthrough “an important step on the road to delivering a smooth and orderly Brexit and forging our deep and special future partnership.”
But in the guidelines adopted today it said: “the United Kingdom will continue to participate in the Customs Union and the Single Market (with all four freedoms)” during any transition deal after March 2019 – and will have to abide by rulings from the hated European Court of Justice.
Talks will start in the New Year on agreeing a time-limited transitional arrangement with the bloc – but during that time we won’t have a say in the creation of any new EU rules, or be allowed to sit on any of their bodies.
This afternoon the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank accused Mrs May of putting “Brexit on hold” and risked trapping the UK in a soft Brexit.
The Prime Minister promised today to make “rapid progress” on an implementation period “to give certainty to businesses and individuals”.
And she vowed to begin talks about our future relationship “straight away” to help “build a Britain fit for the future”.
A jubilant and upbeat Mrs May told Sky News today that we are on the road to a Brexit that will “make Britain prosperous, strong and secure.”
“Real negotiations” on a future trade deal are not expected until March, Jean Claude Juncker said earlier – but Donald Tusk confirmed that ”exploratory” chats between the UK and the EU will take place in the coming weeks.
Praising the hard work of EU negotiator Michel Barnier and Mrs May, Mr Tusk said this lunchtime: “We should have guidelines and start negotiations next year.”
Mr Juncker described the Prime Minister – who he started talks with at 7am last week – as a “tough, smart, polite and friendly negotiator”.
However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned that it would involve “even tougher negotiations” than before.
EU leaders throughout the summit have said now is the time for Theresa May to start outlining exactly what she wants from a future relationship with the bloc.
The agreement from the leaders also stressed that “negotiations in the second phase can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken during the first phase are respected in full and translated into legal terms as quickly as possible”.
It says that while a trade deal can’t be signed until we officially quit the bloc, the EU are “ready to engage in preliminary and preparatory discussions” to get ready to put pen to paper as soon as we’re out.
Ministers will meet next Tuesday to start discussing Britain’s ‘end state’, but the discussions are likely to be stormy and will take a while to come to an Cabinet-wide agreement.
No10 aides are now drawing up plans for a series of war Cabinet meetings throughout January to try to bridge the gap by February.
The PM is then likely to make her third big Brexit speech to spell out what the Government’s formal requests to Brussels are.
EU27 leaders gave Mrs May a round of applause last night for her commitment to a smooth Brexit, ahead of today’s green light.
Mrs May told leaders over a dinner of roast langoustine followed by a festive log with a twist: “I believe this is in the best interests of the UK and the European Union. A particular priority should be agreement on the implementation period so we can bring greater certainty to businesses in the UK and across the 27.”
As he arrived this morning, the European Commission President Juncker said he had “extraordinary faith in Theresa May” but warned that the next phase of talks will be much harder.
Austrian Prime Minister Christian Kern said there was a “very good” atmosphere and “everyone appreciated her efforts” to a smooth exit from the EU.
And last night European leaders sided with Mrs May and insisted they want to negotiate with her, and not MPs over Brexit.
EU bosses at a summit with the PM were swift to come to her rescue over her titanic Brexit stand off with the House of Commons.
In a blow to rebel MPs’ hopes of sending Mrs May back to strike a better deal, Luxembourg’s PM Xavier Bettel insisted: ”Westminster should trust that Theresa May will do the best for the UK.”
An aide to French president Emmanuel Macron added: “Mrs May is our main negotiating partner.”
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said May was a “formidable political operator” who should not be underestimated.
But today Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was asked what could happen if MPs reject a Brexit deal – and said that talks could be extended.
Giving hope to some rebels, he told Sky News: “I don’t think that any issue of extension would be on the European side.”
And he added that he thought the UK was now heading for a “softer Brexit” because of Wednesday night’s defeat in the House of Commons.
Earlier this week Mrs May was humiliated when a group of 11 Remoaner Tories voted against the Government to force MPs to have a final vote on our Brexit deal, but she was determined not to let it throw her off course.
Boris Johnson insisted that Brexit CANNOT be stopped and that the vote wouldn’t make any difference in the long run.
Now it is expected that the Government will dramatically water down her plans to set the Brexit date in stone, after fears there could be a further revolt next week.
One insider said: “We’re looking into what happens next. But we don’t really want to risk another defeat.”
And predicting trouble in the House of Lords when the EU Withdrawal Bill comes there next year, Mrs May is preparing to appoint more Tory peers.
The Times says more additions to the already huge upper chamber will happen “within weeks” to help bolden up her support.
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