Michel Barnier said Theresa Mays withdrawal draft agreement is decisive crucial step for Brexit.
The European Unions chief Brexit negotiator said the UK and EU have already got the basis for a future trade deal during a press conference in Brussels after Theresa May managed to secure the cabinets backing this evening.
He said: This agreement is a decisive and crucial step in concluding these negotiations.
He added: We have reached a crucial stage, an important moment in this extraordinary negotiation, which we entered into at the request of the United Kingdom.
There is still a lot of work… the path is still long and may well be difficult to guarantee an orderly withdrawal beyond the ordinary withdrawal, beyond the ordinary separation, to build something – to build an ambitious and sustainable partnership with the United Kingdom.
He stressed again: There is still work to be done.
During his statement Barnier also set out the contentious Northern Ireland backstop, aimed at avoiding a hard border with Ireland if there is no wider deal:
He said if there was no final agreement at the end of the transition in 2020, there would be an EU-UK single customs territory and Northern Ireland would therefore remain in the same position as Great Britain, avoiding a customs border in the Irish Sea.
He said Northern Ireland will remain aligned to the single market rules that are essential for avoiding a hard border.
And that the UK would apply the EUs customs code in Northern Ireland and would allow Northern Irish businesses to bring goods in to the single market without restrictions.
Barnier said the draft agreement made clear Northern Ireland would retain unfettered market access to the rest of the UK.
He continued: For competition to be open and fair in such a single customs territory we have agreed provisions on state aid, competition, taxation, social and environmental standards.
This will guarantee that both EU and UK manufacturing will compete on a level playing field.
An essential condition for the single customs territory to cover fisheries and aquaculture products will be to agree between the Union and the UK on access to waters and fishing opportunities.
Turning to the declaration on the future relationship, Barnier said it proposed an ambitious partnership, which we want, which is a free trade area based on regulatory and customs co-operation, in depth and with a level playing field.
He added: Our objective is to abolish customs duties and quotas for all goods based on what we are proposing in the withdrawal agreement – a single customs territory.
There would be a new agreement on fisheries and sectoral agreements in transport and energy.
The future relationship would also cover justice, security and foreign policy co-operation.
He indicated it could be possible to agree the final trade deal within the transition period, due to expire at the end of 2020 – although it may be possible for that to be extended.
Barnier said: I dont think that these agreements will need as much time as were needed for other trade agreements with countries which were much further away in regulatory terms, in terms of standards, and also geographically.
I think that it is feasible to construct the essentials of this future partnership within this short transition period, because we have got the basis.
Barnier said it was an option for the transition period to be extended by common agreement, but we havent fleshed out how that could be done.
He refused to be drawn on what would happen if MPs rejected the Brexit deal.
He added: The British discussion is very stimulating but I wont make any comments… Mrs May said this is the best possible agreement in the current circumstances.
Barnier told reporters that we have reached a crucial stage, an important moment in this extraordinary negotiation but the path is still long and may well be difficult to achieve an orderly withdrawal and an ambitious and sustainable partnership.
DUP leader Arlene Fosters said she had a frank meeting with May, following the cabinet meeting, and added that she was fully aware of their position and concerns.
Before her meeting with May, Fosters said she would not agree to a situation in which Northern Ireland was left adrift from the UK during a press conference in London.
The partys Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the proposed deal had the potential to lead to the break-up of the UK, adding: That is not something we can support.