EU unites to agree Brexit plan as May continues battle with her ministers
Northern Ireland secretary latest to sound warning that no deal would mean customs checks on Border
EU countries are set to unanimously back the Brexit deal regardless of developments in London this week.
All indications from Brussels, where EU foreign ministers met yesterday, are that the EU27 is pleased with the arrangement that provides for a UK-wide customs arrangement.
Irish officials had feared some push-back as they had initially insisted any special arrangements could be applied only to Northern Ireland.
However, as British Prime Theresa May continues to battle with her own ministers, the EU appears united. The agreement also must be approved by the European Parliament.
Manfred Weber, who leads the EU legislature's largest group, the centre-right European People's Party, said its initial assessment of the deal was "very encouraging, very positive".
"It must be clear to our British partners that there will be no renegotiation of this text that is now on the table," Mr Weber said in Berlin.
Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn said the deal "is the best one possible".
"There is no better one for this crazy Brexit," Mr Asselborn said as EU foreign ministers met in Brussels before a leaders' summit on Sunday at which the bloc intends to sign off on the deal.
It is understood Spain is the only country to have expressed reservations, insisting it needed more clarity on how Gibraltar, the British territory at the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula, would be dealt with.
It comes as EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the EU ministers "have agreed to the principle" of a one-off extension of the post-Brexit transition period if the two sides need more time to finalise a trade deal.
Under the divorce agreement, Britain agrees to be bound by EU rules during the transition. It is due to end in December 2020 but can be extended by mutual agreement if the two sides need more time.
Mrs May told business leaders yesterday she wanted a clean break from the EU before the next general election, which is scheduled for 2022.
She argues that abandoning the plan ahead of 'Brexit Day' on March 29, could lead to the exit being delayed or abandoned, or to a disorderly and economically damaging "no-deal" Brexit.
But Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said his MPs would vote against the current agreement and also try to block a "no-deal" exit.
He said "Labour will not countenance a no-deal Brexit" which could cause upheaval for businesses and people.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has made clear a no-deal Brexit will mean customs and regulatory checks on the island of Ireland.
She stressed that, while the UK government is committed to working to avoid a hard Border, World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules are "very clear" and checks would need to be carried out on consignments passing between two customs territories on a contemporaneous basis.
The Conservative MP also suggested UK and EU commitments outlined in last December's joint report on maintaining the common travel area - an agreement which allows free movement for UK and Irish citizens in Britain and Ireland - would also be thrown into doubt in a no-deal scenario.
Ms Bradley, who pitched the merits of the draft Brexit deal to business leaders in Belfast yesterday, said the report's undertakings to protect the Single Electricity Market (SEM) and ensure certain citizens' rights are upheld post-Brexit would also fall by the wayside if the UK crashes out.
"They are agreed as part of the withdrawal agreement, that is not something that is agreed in a no-deal situation," she said.
During the business briefing, Ms Bradley was asked to react to comments from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that a Border would be hard to avoid in a no-deal scenario.
The secretary of state was challenged on the apparent contrast between Mr Varadkar's statement and the UK government's oft-stated pos-ition that it is committed to ensuring no hard Border post-Brexit.
In response, she urged the audience to familiarise themselves with WTO rules on the need for checks to happen.