British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed confidence Sunday that she’ll be able to push the newly minted Brexit agreement through her nation’s Parliament, despite heated opposition from U.K. lawmakers vowing to block the deal that took nearly two years to negotiate with the European Union.
“This is the deal that is on the table. It is the best possible deal. It is the only deal,” Mrs. May said Sunday after her government sealed the agreement with leaders from the EU’s 27 other member nations dictating the terms of Britain’s departure from the bloc by early 2019.
During a meeting in Brussels, EU leaders took barely half an hour Sunday to rubber stamp a 585-page withdrawal treaty, setting the stage for Britain’s long-awaited, formal exit from the bloc in March — to be followed by a three-year transition period.
The deal, which EU and British officials have been negotiating amid heated politics on all sides since Britons shocked the world in June 2016 by voting to leave the bloc, must now be formally adopted by the British Parliament. If approved as it stands, Britain would exit March 29, but remain party to the EU’s single-market economy and bound by the bloc’s rules until the end of December 2020.
While the departure would mark the first time a member nation has exited the EU in the nearly half-century history of European unifying developments that led up to the 1993 establishment of the bloc, major issues remain.
The agreement stipulated that a transition period surrounding Britain’s departure could still be extended — stretching potentially into 2022 — if EU leaders and British lawmakers decide more time is needed to finalize new trade relations between the U.K. and the European bloc.
But even with such flexibility baked in, British critics pounced Sunday, claiming the deal is destined to slam the nation’s economy and accusing the May government of failing to fight hard enough for long-term assurances that Britain won’t be hit by harsh EU tariffs down the road.
Jeremy Corbyn, who heads the U.K.’s main opposition Labor Party, called the deal “the result of a miserable failure of negotiation that leaves us with the worst of all worlds.”
Mr. Corbyn vowed to block the deal in a Parliament vote, which the May government says could occur before the end of this year. Labor’s goal, Mr. Corbyn said, will be to vote the deal down, but then “work with others to block a no-deal outcome,” which most on Britain’s political landscape agree would be even worse for the British economy.
Labor, according to Mr. Corbyn, still has time to fight for a “sensible deal” that includes a permanent customs union between the EU and Britain and preserves unfettered British access the EU’s single-market economy, while also guaranteeing certain rights and privileges for British workers.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, whose Scottish National Party is the third-largest in the British Parliament, also expressed distaste on Sunday, saying lawmakers “should reject [the deal] and back a better alternative.”
Pro-Brexit former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said the deal “ceded too much control” to EU Parliament. And, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up Mrs. May’s minority Conservatives in Parliament, said it too would try to block the deal on grounds it binds London to too many EU rules that may weaken Northern Ireland’s ties to Britain.
Among other key points in Sunday’s agreement was a concession by Britain to pay roughly $50 billion to cover contributions to staff pensions and commitments to EU programs that the U.K. had previously agreed to make as a member of the bloc through 2020.
But Britain appeared to have scored a major concession in return, with Sunday’s deal asserting that British citizens living and working in EU member nations — as well as EU citizens living in Britain — will continue to have rights to live and work without visa or passport ramifications.
At the same time, one of the most contentious issues, that of fishing rights — specifically who has access to U.K. and EU territorial waters — remains unresolved. Sunday’s deal said only that the two sides should “establish a new fisheries agreement,” ideally by July 1, 2020.
Another contentious issue, that of potential changes along the border between the northern U.K. and Ireland, which will remain an EU member, appeared to be resolved. Sunday’s deal committed Britain and the EU to a so-called “backstop” solution to guarantee the Ireland-U.K. border remains free of customs posts or other obstacles once Brexit is fully formalized.
Mrs. May on Sunday acknowledged vast political and economic implications at play and promised British lawmakers will have their say on the deal before Christmas, saying it “will be one of the most significant votes that Parliament has held for many years.”
The prime minister stressed that Parliament has a duty “to deliver Brexit,” which British voters demanded in a nationwide referendum. “The British people don’t want to spend any more time arguing about Brexit,” she said. “They want a good deal done that fulfills the vote and allows us to come together again as a country.”
Still, some argued Sunday’s developments are likely only to lead to parliamentary gridlock. “It is true that the British people mostly don’t want to spend any more time arguing about Brexit,” according to an editorial published online late-Sunday by Britain’s Guardian newspaper. “But when leavers and remainers are united only in disliking Mrs. May’s solution, that offers no way forward.”
EU leaders were quick to warn that no better offer is available.
The last big obstacle to a deal was overcome on Saturday when Spain lifted its objections over Gibraltar, where Britain seeks to retain control of a 300-year-old British naval base.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Sunday that he was satisfied with British guarantees Madrid will at least be given a say in the future of the base between Spain’s southern coast and Morocco.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, meanwhile, pushed back against U.K. lawmakers threatening to block the deal in British Parliament.
“I am totally convinced this is the only deal possible,” Mr. Juncker said. “Those who think that by rejecting the deal that they would have a better deal will be disappointed the first seconds after the rejection.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her feelings were “ambivalent, with sadness, but on the other hand, also some kind of relief that we made it to this point.”
“I think we managed to make a diplomatic piece of art,” she said.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the deal regrettable but acceptable. “I believe that nobody is winning. We are all losing because of the U.K. leaving,” said Mr. Rutte. “But given that context, this is a balanced outcome with no political winners.”
Mrs. May said she wasn’t sad, because Britain and the EU would remain “friends and neighbors.”
“I recognize some European leaders are sad at this moment, but also some people back at home in the U.K. will be sad at this moment,” she told reporters, but insisted she was “full of optimism” about Britain’s future.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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