After many months of talks, negotiators for the United Kingdom and the European Union have reached a Brexit breakthrough: a draft agreement on how the U.K. will leave the EU at the end of March. The text of the agreement, which runs to hundreds of pages, has not been released, but U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is already busy trying to sell the agreement to Cabinet members in private meetings Tuesday evening at London's 10 Downing Street.
In the meantime, May's many critics inside her own Conservative Party have attacked the agreement, calling it a surrender to the EU that compromises the integrity of the United Kingdom. Brexiteers are particularly incensed that the agreement reportedly calls for the U.K. to remain inside and subject to the rules of the European Union's customs area until both sides can strike a new trade deal and find a way to avoid building new customs posts between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
"For the first time in a thousand years this place, this Parliament, will not have a say over the laws that govern this country," former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the BBC. "It means having to accept rules and regulations over which we have no say ourselves."
For months, the biggest sticking point between the U.K. and the EU has been how to avoid a "hard" border on the island of Ireland. Currently, the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the European Union, is seamless and practically invisible. Brexit could change that and force the need for customs posts that would anger the thousands of people who cross the border each day.
Many also fear such posts could also spark a return to violence from the era of "the Troubles," a conflict from the 1960s to the late 1990s between predominantly Protestant unionists who wanted to remain part of the U.K. and largely Catholic republicans, which cost more than 3,600 lives.
On Tuesday, RTE, the Irish state broadcaster, reported that the Brexit agreement might — under certain conditions — require Northern Ireland to be more closely aligned in some regulations with the EU than the U.K. That has not been confirmed, but the report was enough to anger Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party.
"An agreement which places new trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain will fundamentally undermine the constitution and economic integrity of the United Kingdom," said DUP leader Arlene Foster.
The Democratic Unionist Party has just 10 seats in Britain's House of Commons, but it has outsize power. The party is propping up May's Conservative Party, which does not have a parliamentary majority, and can provide crucial votes on issues. Without the DUP's support, getting a Brexit withdrawal agreement through Parliament could prove far more difficult.
On Wednesday afternoon, May will discuss the agreement with her Cabinet. Many in the U.K. will be watching to see whether it backs her or there are high-profile resignations, which could undermine her plans.
If the Cabinet meeting goes well, the EU is expected to schedule a summit toward the end of this month in Brussels to vote on the deal. The agreement would then move to the British Parliament in December, where it could face its biggest battle.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Now to Europe and a breakthrough on Brexit. Negotiators for the United Kingdom and the European Union have reached a draft agreement on how the U.K. will leave the EU next March. This comes after many months of work.
The text of the agreement has not been released, but already it's drawing harsh criticism and raising questions about whether Prime Minister Theresa May can get her Cabinet behind it, let alone the British Parliament.
NPR's Frank Langfitt joins us from London. Hi, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Well, we haven't seen the plan, but what do we know about it?
LANGFITT: Well, we know that it lays out - the most important thing is that it lays out a solution for the biggest sticking point now for months, which has been how to avoid building custom posts on the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. And the plan calls for the United Kingdom to stay inside an EU customs area until they can come up with a new free-trade agreement and figure out some way to solve this problem.
But there are already reports out tonight - and this is going to sound really technical, but it's important. Some regulations in Northern Ireland, which is a part of the U.K., would be more aligned with the European Union than the rest of the United Kingdom. And this, if true, could generate a lot of opposition as - as we may see tomorrow.
SHAPIRO: Remind us why this border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, part of the U.K., has become such a big issue.
LANGFITT: Well, there are two reasons. One is that, honestly, Ari, this was never really discussed in the runup to the 2016 referendum on this issue. But basically, by the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, it creates a new border because they'll be - not be in the same sort of trading area. There's a need to put up a border, and of course, the political strife in that country, the troubles, all of that, the border was a very sensitive area before. It's been wide open for many, many years, and people are very happy. The difficulty here is if there's a new alignment, if basically Northern Ireland feels like it's more aligned with Ireland, this could trigger a lot of political bad feelings.
The other thing is there's a political problem here for Theresa May, her conservative party. She relies on a Northern Irish party to prop her up in parliament. They're not happy with what they've heard so far about this deal. And they might withhold votes, and they could actually scuttle it.
SHAPIRO: Oh, so she really can't afford to alienate them.
LANGFITT: No, she cannot.
SHAPIRO: Well, even though most British politicians have not seen the plan, people are already responding...
SHAPIRO: ...Some of them negatively. Tell us about that.
LANGFITT: They were ready for it.
LANGFITT: Absolutely. What they're saying - the critics, a lot of the Brexiteers - were already kind of ready to go after Theresa May on this. And they're saying the agreement traps the United Kingdom inside the European Union, perhaps for a very long time. Boris Johnson, he's a former foreign secretary here. He resigned in July over the prime minister's Brexit plan. Here's what he had to say today on Britain's Sky News.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BORIS JOHNSON: This is just about as bad as it could possibly be. And what you've got is not only the U.K. remaining within the customs union forever and a day - so we can't really do free-trade deals. We can't take back control of our laws.
LANGFITT: And I want to point out here, Ari, that Boris Johnson is also widely seen as wanting to be the next prime minister.
LANGFITT: So remember, when he's talking like this, people don't think it's just purely his opinion. They also - many people see this as also a part of a political plan...
LANGFITT: ...To make it to 10 Downing Street.
SHAPIRO: Well, if the prime minister does get her Cabinet to sign onto this Brexit deal, which is not a sure thing...
SHAPIRO: ...What are the hurdles that she then faces getting it through parliament?
LANGFITT: Well, I think tomorrow, first thing is to see what happens in the Cabinet and if there are any - possibly any high-profile resignations that - if she gets through that, then the European Union is expected later this month to have a meeting to perhaps approve the agreement in Brussels.
But still, the big problem, as you're pointing out, Ari, is getting this through parliament. You know, her own - the - the party that's backing her right now in parliament doesn't like this. Labour would like to see this fail. So she could have very tough math getting this done before Christmas.
SHAPIRO: And if she doesn't get it done, is she out as prime minister?
LANGFITT: I - wow. I don't know what would happen then. I think that you would have the party in the government kind of frozen. There could be a call for her - what we call a vote of no confidence. Then the risk there for the Tory Party, her party, is they could lose to the Labour Party in a general election. So very unpredictable, very high stakes here.
SHAPIRO: And you'll continue following it.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London, thank you so much.
LANGFITT: Thanks, Ari.
(SOUNDBITE OF HINT SONG, "COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.