Michel Barnier hands over the 585 page Withdrawal Agreement to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, who chairs meetings of EU member states. EMMANUEL DUNAND-AFP
Agence France-Presse

European ministers signed off on Britain’s draft divorce deal yesterday as they launched a “painful” final week of negotiations on future cross-Channel ties.

Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and the Union’s Austrian rotating presidency said the negotiated text would be presented to EU leaders at a signing summit on Sunday.

“The first, difficult step is done,” said Austrian European affairs minister Gernot Bluemel, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, after the ministers’ meeting.

“A painful week in European politics is starting,” he warned. “We have the divorce papers on the table. Forty-five years of difficult marriage are coming to an end.”

While the EU 27 have remained publicly united through the 17-month negotiation, Britain’s political camps are fighting bitterly among themselves.

Conservative hardliners and May’s Northern Irish unionist allies have pledged to vote down the treaty despite the threat of a calamitous no-deal Brexit.

The opposition Labour Party, scenting a chance to topple May’s government, has also warned that its members will not support her deal.

EU officials are surprised by the furious debate and mostly refuse to intervene, but French minister for European affairs Nathalie Loiseau said both sides had “exhausted their margin to manoeuvre”.

Meanwhile, detailed discussions continue on a parallel political statement setting out the bloc’s ambitions for future relations with post-Brexit Britain and on a possible extension to the transition period.

Britain will leave the Union on March 29 next year, but remain within its single market for a further 21 months as negotiators seek a deal to avoid a potential breakdown in trade between the key economic partners.

If the parties struggle to find a deal before the end of this period, Britain can request a one-off extension. Barnier has suggested that this should expire at the end of 2022, but he said member states have yet to sign off on this.

“I think that during this week we’ll have a definitive proposition for this date. The decision will be made jointly between the United Kingdom and the 27,” Barnier said.

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