BRUSSELS, Belgium - The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier was cautiously optimistic on Thursday, following the approval by British Prime Minister Theresa May's cabinet of the final agreement governing Britain's withdrawal from the EU, which followed a lengthy meeting of the cabinet on Wednesday night.
The EU Brexit negotiator told a news conference in Brussels the British cabinet's approval as "decisive," in the chain of events to finalise the deal.
The publication on Wednesday of a 585-page draft withdrawal agreement represented another "crucial step in concluding these negotiations," he said.
The hard border with Ireland has been avoided by the inclusion of the recently-negotiated 'back stop,' but the EU negotiator said both parties remained resolved to come up with a process where it was not required.
"If we are not ready by 2020, we can extend the provision so we have more time, and if we are still not there with the future agreement after this, the backstop agreement would kick in," Barnier said.
"There will be a UK-wide single customs territory which Northern Ireland will remain in, and Northern Ireland will remain aligned to the rules of a single market essential for avoiding a border including on agriculture policy."
Ireland's leader Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said all that he wanted in the agreement, particularly in relation to the Irish border, had been achieved. Whilst he said Ireland was disappointed Britain was leaving the EU, which he said he believes will be bad for Ireland, he said: I am pleased that agreement has been reached between the EU and UK negotiators on a draft Withdrawal Agreement and an outline of the Joint Political Declaration on the future relationship, he said late Wednesday night. Decisive progress has been made and this paves the way for a special meeting of the European Council later this month.