They’re the two words both sides of Brexit negotiations have worked for months to achieve, though perhaps no one was more happy to hear them than Theresa May. After nearly seven months of negotiating the terms governing the United Kingdom’s impending exit from the European Union, the U.K. prime minister, alongside her EU counterpart Jean-Claude Juncker, announced Friday that the sides had struck a last-minute deal to satisfy the EU’s threshold of “sufficient progress”—one that addresses all the major issues that defined the first phase of negotiations and opens the way for both sides to move onto the next.
“Getting to this point has required give and take on both sides, and I believe that the joint report being published is in the best interests of the whole of the U.K.,” May said Friday at the EU headquarters in Brussels. “I very much welcome the prospect of moving ahead to the next phase to talk about trade and security, and to discuss the positive and ambitious future relationship that is in all of our interests.”
The 15-page progress report marks a stunning breakthrough for negotiations that have been defined by one obstacle after another—from the debate over citizens’ rights (May said the deal will guarantee the rights of both the 3.5 million EU citizens living in the U.K. and the 1.2 million Britons living in the EU); to the issue of how much the U.K. owes the EU to cover its existing financial obligations to the bloc (the final sum is estimated to be as much as 39 billion pounds). Until Friday, it was the last of the three major withdrawal issues—the fate of the Irish border—that threatened to derail the talks. Only after discussions that went “right into the early hours” Friday morning were negotiators able to agree to a deal that would prevent the return of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland (a member of the EU) and Northern Ireland (a part of the U.K.). Though the agreement—in which the U.K. pledged to follow the rules of the EU’s single market and customs union to prevent a hard border in the event of no deal—was praised by the Irish government, it only received cautious backing from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). That party, a partner in government with May’s Conservatives, had earlier this week threatened to veto any agreement preventing Northern Ireland from leaving the EU on the same terms as the rest of the U.K.