European Union leaders meet today Sunday to approve a historic Brexit deal, which British Prime Minister Theresa May said would deliver her country a brighter future.
At a special summit in Brussels that was almost derailed by a row over Gibraltar, the other 27 leaders will gather to sign off the agreement before Mrs May joins them to mark the milestone.
Forged during 17 months of tough negotiations, the deal covers financial matters, citizens’ rights, Northern Ireland and a transition phase, and sets out hopes for future security and trade ties.
But it is not the final stage, as the House of Commons in London must still approve the deal before Brexit day on March 29 next year – and many Members of Parliament have warned that they will not back it.
Until the agreement is approved, all sides are still planning for the potentially disastrous possibility that Britain ends its four-decade EU membership with no new arrangements in place.
EU Council President Donald Tusk, who has always said he would prefer Britain not to leave, said on the eve of the summit that “no-one will have reasons to be happy” when Brexit happens.
But he said terms had been agreed that would “reduce the risks and losses”, and recommended that EU leaders sign off on the deal.
Eurosceptics in Mrs May’s Conservative party and their Northern Irish allies warn that they will not support the agreement when MPs vote as expected next month.
But in an open letter to the nation on Sunday, Mrs May said it delivered on the 2016 referendum vote to leave, and was a deal for a brighter future.
“It will be a deal that is in our national interest – one that works for our whole country and all of our people, whether you voted ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’,” she wrote.
Britain remains deeply divided over the decision, but the prime minister said that finally leaving could be “a moment of renewal and reconciliation”.
“It must mark the point when we put aside the labels of ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ for good and we come together again as one people,” she wrote. “Parliament will have the chance to do that in a few weeks’ time when it has a meaningful vote on the deal.”
Mrs May arrived on the eve of the summit for final talks with Mr Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, after which Mr Tusk’s spokesman tweeted: “We are on track for tomorrow.”
But nothing in the negotiations has gone smoothly and the summit risked being derailed by a late objection to the deal by Spain over the British territory of Gibraltar.
Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez threatened to reject it unless his country kept a veto over future changes to EU ties with “The Rock”, which borders Spain and which it has long claimed.
The impasse was resolved when Britain promised to continue bilateral talks with Madrid after Brexit – although that itself caused further tensions.
Mr Sanchez claimed that discussions would cover the co-sovereignty of Gibraltar, something residents overwhelmingly rejected in a 2002 referendum.
Mrs May was quick to correct her Spanish counterpart, saying: “The UK’s position on the sovereignty of Gibraltar has not changed and will not change.”
In legal terms, Spain’s disapproval would not have halted the divorce settlement. But it would have been an embarrassing split for EU leaders who have proved remarkably united in the painful negotiation.
British MPs are most concerned about an arrangement in the withdrawal agreement to keep open the border between British Northern Ireland and Ireland, which could see the province follow EU rules for years.
But there are also concerns in EU capitals about fishing rights and commercial rules Britain must follow to maintain access to the bloc’s markets.