EU to agree Brexit deal as May issues letter appealing for public support
DUP ramps up pressure on British prime minister with call to 'bin the backstop'
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is in Brussels today for an EU leaders' summit at which all 28 governments are set to sign off on a Brexit divorce deal with the UK.
Last-ditch talks with Spain defused a row over Gibraltar which threatened to cancel the historic summit, which will effectively seal the UK's departure from the European Union on March 29 next after 46 years of membership.
Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez had threatened to oppose the 585-page Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and an accompanying 26-page political declaration, which will frame negotiations on future EU-UK ties after Brexit when all transition grace periods expire.
Irish officials remain happy that Ireland's key concerns over Brexit have been answered in the draft deal. But Mr Varadkar has publicly acknowledged that the agreement faces a difficult future amid fears that it will not be ratified by the British parliament.
Theresa May issued a direct plea to the public to support her Brexit deal as European Union leaders prepared to endorse the package.
The British Prime Minister will meet the other 27 EU leaders in Brussels after they have given their backing to the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration thrashed out by negotiators.
In a "letter to the nation", Mrs May said leaving the EU on March 29 2019 would mark "a new chapter in our national life" and there would be a moment of "renewal and reconciliation" after the bitter battles over Europe.
The almost 800-word message is an attempt to speak directly to the public to build support for her deal, which faces widespread opposition at Westminster including from both wings of her Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party which props up her administration.
Eurosceptic Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, a prominent critic of the Prime Minister, said: "With regard to the Withdrawal Agreement and the proposed future relationship 'never in the history of our great nation have so many been betrayed, so deliberately, for so little'."
But Mrs May said the deal "will honour the result of the referendum" by allowing the UK to "take back control" of its money, laws and borders.
"It is a deal for a brighter future, which enables us to seize the opportunities that lie ahead," she said.
She promised she would be "campaigning with my heart and soul" to win the vote in the Commons.
And "with Brexit settled" the UK will be able to focus on the economy, NHS, building homes and tackling the "burning injustices" in society, the Prime Minister added.
Once today's summit is concluded, the Brexit battle will switch back to Westminster where it is in serious danger of not being ratified by MPs. The Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 MPs underpin British Prime Minister Theresa May's minority government, yesterday ramped up their opposition to the Brexit deal at a conference addressed by radical Brexiteer Boris Johnson.
"The DUP wants a deal with the European Union. We understand that businesses, families and communities want certainty," the party's deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, said.
"But it is not this deal. It is not a deal at any price. Prime minister - bin the backstop," he urged May from his party's annual conference.
Mr Dodds insisted the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was "non-negotiable".
"It is still not too late for the prime minister to change course," he said.
Addressing the DUP conference in Belfast, former British foreign secretary Boris Johnson stressed the need to maintain the Conservatives' "crucial" confidence and supply deal with the DUP.
He warned of ruinous consequences for the UK if Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn came to power.
But the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, had already addressed that issue by saying a UK government led by Jeremy Corbyn would be preferable to the current Brexit draft deal.
Ms Foster told London newspaper The Times that she did not want to see Mr Corbyn become prime minister but warned it might become a reality.
Spain is understood to have secured guarantees of a major say in framing the EU's future relationship with the UK territory of Gibraltar.
Mr Sanchez had threatened to boycott today's summit and the row was compounded by German Chancellor Angela Merkel also warning that she would not attend the summit unless all outstanding rows were resolved.
British Prime Minister Theresa May was due to meet EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and summit chairman Donald Tusk last night for talks to finalise details of today's summit programme.
President Tusk, a former Polish prime minister, secured a deal with the Spanish prime minister at lunchtime yesterday to defuse the stand-off.
Other sidebar rows, notably a demand from France and other member states on access to British fishing waters, have also been parked.
The British government released a letter from the UK ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow, to the head of President Tusk's secretariat. It specified that Britain would make no presumption that any future EU-UK trade pact would apply to Gibraltar.