LONDON — After months of struggle and delay, feints and setbacks, Brexit negotiators for Britain and the European Union have finally produced a draft agreement that sets out how the country will exit the political and economic union it helped create a generation ago.
The withdrawal deal, a technical tome written in euro-legalese and said to exceed 400 pages, will be discussed at an emergency cabinet meeting called by Prime Minister Theresa May for Wednesday afternoon.
May’s spokesman said cabinet ministers have been invited to begin reading the documents ahead of the meeting, where “next steps will be considered” over Britain’s exit from the world’s biggest and richest free trade zone.
What will happen at the cabinet meeting is unknown — although May’s supporters say the prime minister would not be presenting the draft deal if she didn’t think she could muscle it through.
It is possible, however, that some cabinet members, finally faced with the text of May’s softer, slower-moving compromise deal, will balk — and resign or seek delay or press for a return to the negotiating table.
But if the cabinet endorses May’s proposed withdrawal terms, the next step would be a Brexit summit attended by leaders of the E.U.’s remaining 27 member states in Brussels later this month, with Nov. 24 and 25 penciled in as possible dates.
Following approval by the European leaders, the treaty would go to the British Parliament, where it would face an uncertain fate.
The Telegraph newspaper reported that there could be two cabinet meetings on Wednesday: “one to present the deal and another to approve or reject it.”
Whatever happens, this deal is just the first stage of the lengthy process of ratifying Britain’s withdrawal from the E.U. To follow are negotiations over Britain’s future trade, security and economic relations with Europe — including side deals about immigration levels.
For the past two years, the greatest debate over Brexit has not been waged between Brussels and London, but within May’s fractious Conservative Party, composed of “leavers” and “remainers.”
Hard-line Brexiteers have pushed for a decisive split from European bureaucrats and courts, from E.U. rules and regulations, while others, led by May, have sought a softer Brexit, a bundle of compromises that keep Britain more closely aligned with Europe, to better protect the British economy.
On Tuesday, arch-Brexiteer Boris Johnson, who quit his job as foreign secretary over May’s proposals in July, told the BBC that he hoped the cabinet would “chuck it out.”
“It’s vassal state stuff. For the first time in a 1,000 years, this place, this parliament will not have a say over the laws that govern this country,” Johnson said.
Johnson and his allies have said May’s Brexit would leave Britain “a rule taker” vs. “a rulemaker,” subject to following Brussels laws for trade, without having much say in how they are written.
The leaders of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which helps prop up May’s minority government, sounded skeptical about the deal.
Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman, told the BBC that they will be reading the agreement closely to ensure that Northern Ireland isn’t treated differently from the rest of Britain. “The rumors we are hearing so far would indicate that that’s not going to be the case,” he said.
Details of the draft withdrawal were not released to the public Tuesday.
How to avoid the return to a hard border between Northern Ireland, which will remain in Britain, and the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of E.U., has been one of the toughest issues facing the negotiators.
The Europeans have insisted that in the case that a future free-trade deal is not secured, Northern Ireland should remain in the European customs union. May has said that is not acceptable because it undercuts the sovereignty of Britain.
May has previously said that it would be either her withdrawal deal or no deal at all, which many think would trigger severe economic disruption. But some of her critics said there were more options to explore.
The leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, tweeted: “If the PM’s ‘deal’ satisfies no-one and can’t command a majority, we mustn’t fall for her spin that the UK crashing out of EU without a deal is then inevitable — instead we should take the opportunity to get better options back on the table.”
Most lawmakers in the opposition Labour Party are expected to vote against the plan if and when it reaches Parliament. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “We will look at the details of what has been agreed when they are available. But from what we know of the shambolic handling of these negotiations, this is unlikely to be a good deal for the country.”
Quentin Ariès in Brussels and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.