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Brussels Brexit breakthrough: Early morning deal keeps temporary role for EU court

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Are the PM’s woes over?

Ministers are celebrating this morning as an agreement between the government and the European Commission put an initial Brexit deal within touching distance.

The final touches to the 15-page report were being made “as the prime minister and her staff danced and sang karaoke at the Downing Street Christmas Party”, according to the BBC’s Adam Fleming.

At 6am, powerful Commission official Martin Selmayr — known to EU politics nerds as “the Monster” — tweeted a picture of white smoke, signalling that a deal had been done.

Theresa May was already on her way to Brussels for an early morning press conference alongside Selmayr’s boss Jean-Claude Juncker, where a beaming PM announced “agreement in principle” on the three main issues: ex-pats, Ireland and cash.

Juncker doesn’t actually get to decide whether this is “sufficient progress” to allow Brexit talks to move on to trade. The deal still needs to be signed off by the leaders of the 27 other EU governments. But it’s looking good. Today’s agreement even made Ireland’s Leo Varadkar came over all Winston Churchill:

Leading Brexiteer Michael Gove was sent out to reassure Leave voters that that the deal was everything they could want, telling the Today programme that they should be “delighted” with the deal and that the prime minister had “confounded her critics”.

Nigel Farage was less impressed, obviously:

He’s got a point in the sense that the government has mostly given way in order to get a deal. Boris Johnson once said that Brussels could “go whistle” if it thought we’d would hand over any more cash. It’s now been agreed that, among other things, the UK will pay into the EU budget in 2019 and 2020 “as if it had remained”. The total divorce bill won’t be revealed for years yet, but is expected to be roughly between £35 billion and £39 billion (net).

But there’s been compromise on a couple of particularly controversial issues — such as the EU Court of Justice overseeing the rights of ex-pats.

Brexiteers had worried that giving the Luxembourg court any sort of role would give Europeans “the status of colonial occupiers” (copyright: Jacob Rees-Mogg). There will be a system for referring tricky legal issues to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), but only for eight years.

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The government is insisting that only two or three cases a year on citizens’ rights will reach Luxembourg. That would be in line with Institute for Government research we reported earlier, which shows that the ECJ only decides a couple of citizenship cases a year from the UK anyway.

Negotiators have also met halfway on another controversial citizens’ rights issue — the right to bring in partners using more family-friendly EU rules to get around the harsh UK laws.

The negotiators decided to give themselves a deadline extension on sorting out Northern Ireland:

But, importantly, there’s a commitment if all else fails to “full alignment” with the bits of the single market and customs union that mean no hard border in Ireland.

There’s also something in it for the Democratic Unionist Party, which vetoed an earlier version of the agreement on Monday. They’ve been promised that “in all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market”.

As both sides gear up for the next round of talks, the EU are already saying that Britain will have to stay in the customs union and single market if it wants a two-year transition period that will reassure businesses.

All this adds up to a pretty soft Brexit.

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