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UK says has agreed draft Brexit deal with EU

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) met Prime Minister Theresa May near the Belgian border to try to make progress on a Brexit deal and remember the fallen of the battlefields of the Somme
Philippe HUGUEN (AFP/File)

Britain has agreed a draft Brexit deal with the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May announced Tuesday, but she must still get it through her cabinet and the deeply divided parliament in London.

May briefed ministers about the outline deal on Tuesday ahead of a special cabinet meeting on Wednesday afternoon to sign off the text, her Downing Street office said.

"Cabinet will meet at 2:00pm (1400 GMT) tomorrow to consider the draft agreement the negotiating teams have reached in Brussels, and to decide on next steps," the statement said.

The pound surged on currency markets following the news, rising by 1 percent against the dollar and 0.5 percent against the euro compared to late Monday.

If ministers agree the deal, which runs to hundreds of pages, London hopes the EU will call a summit later this month so the bloc's leaders can give their approval.

A European source confirmed to AFP that an agreement had been struck on a technical level, but said it still needed political approval in London and Brussels.

Ambassadors from the other 27 EU member states will meet on Wednesday afternoon, diplomats said.

- 'Unacceptable' -

May still faces substantial opposition to her strategy in the House of Commons, which must approve the agreement before Brexit on March 29.

Some ministers have publicly disagreed over what they want from the deal, particularly on the fraught issue of Ireland, and civil servants are braced for possible resignations.

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, a leading Brexit supporter who quit the government in July over May's strategy, said he would not support the deal.

Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS (AFP)

"I think that the right thing for them (ministers) to do is to advise the prime minister that this would not be acceptable," he told the BBC.

"It patently fails to fulfill the mandate given by the British people in (the EU referendum) in June 2016."

Another leading Brexiteer in May's Conservative party, Jacob Rees-Mogg, added: "What we know of this deal is deeply unsatisfactory."

Highlighting the risks that remain, just hours before the announcement from London EU officials published a contingency plan for a 'no-deal' Brexit.

The European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, said it must prepare for "all outcomes" and "contingency measures in narrowly defined areas" may be needed to protect the EU's interests.

In one measure, it said it will offer visa-free travel within the bloc to Britons, but this was conditional on similar measures from Britain.

May's cabinet earlier received an update on Britain's preparedness for a "no deal" scenario, as it has for several weeks now, with speculation that the moment to trigger the plans is fast approaching.

A leading British food manufacturer Premier Foods revealed on Tuesday it will start stockpiling ingredients in case of disruption at the borders.

- Irish backstop -

British and EU negotiators had stepped up their talks in recent days.

Failure to secure agreement this month would mean delaying the deal until a summit in mid-December, leaving little time for May to get it through parliament.

The talks were stuck on how to avoid border checks between British Northern Ireland and Ireland after the UK leaves the EU's single market and customs union.

London suggested that until a wider trade deal is agreed that resolves the problem, Britain could temporarily stay aligned with the bloc's trade rules -- as long as it can exit the arrangement when it wants.

PRU/AFP/File

But the EU was insisting on another fall-back option in which Northern Ireland alone remains part of the single market.

May's Northern Irish allies in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), strongly oppose this, arguing that it undermines the integrity of the United Kingdom.

Pro-Brexit MPs like Johnson also fear Britain could end up being locked in an endless customs union with the EU.

Ireland's RTE television reported that the draft deal comprises "one overall backstop" encompassing elements of both the UK-wide and Northern Ireland only arrangements.

May's deputy David Lidington had earlier promised the government would publish legal analysis on the deal following pressure from Tories and the main opposition Labor party.

Elements of the divorce deal already agreed include Britain's exit bill of around £39 billion (45 billion euros, $50 billion) as well as a guarantee on EU citizens' rights.

It also provides for a 21-month transition after Brexit during which London would follow EU rules, for both sides to negotiate a new trade relationship

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