LONDON — Bleary-eyed political and business leaders across Europe were on Thursday digesting the 585-page Brexit deal, the latest milepost in the E.U. divorce saga gripping the world's fifth-largest economy.
Even as most were still finishing breakfast, the agreement was dealt a potentially fatal blow when one of its key architects, the U.K. Brexit Secretary, resigned in protest.
Dominic Raab quit Prime Minister Theresa May's government, saying her proposals could lead to the constitutional breakup of the United Kingdom. He is the second Brexit Secretary to have quit in less than six months.
It was one of four ministerial resignations early Thursday — casting doubt on May's claim to have secured the support of her cabinet — and came even before she addressed angry lawmakers in the House of Commons. The British pound slumped on the currency markets.
Lawmakers might not only vote against May's deal, but also hold a vote of no confidence in her government that could trigger another general election. A more likely scenario emerging Thursday was an internal leadership content in her Conservative Party that would see her replaced as party leader and prime minister.
The chief E.U. negotiator, Michel Barnier, hailed the draft deal as a "decisive step" in the 20-month process, which began when Britain voted in a June 2016 referendum to leave the trading bloc.
"If nothing extraordinary happens" a summit to finalize the agreement would be held later in the month, European leaders said early Thursday.
Not minutes later, however, the deal — and with it May's long-strained leadership of her party — was once again cast in doubt.
With only 134 days left until Britain's official departure,time is running out for Britain to leave with some kind of future plan for customs and border arrangements with the E.U., its biggest trade partner. Without it, the country could face chaos at ports — a scenario that has prompted the stockpiling of food and medicines.
Compounding the impasse, Britain's main political parties are divided on the issue, with an increasing number of lawmakers indicating a "no-deal" would be better than May's proposal.
"We're in the Brexs**t," read the headline in The Sun, Britain's bestselling tabloid newspaper.
Can the Brexit deal survive?
Getting any deal through parliament was always going to be difficult for May, who needs the votes of about 320 of the 650 lawmakers to support the agreement. The Conservatives are a minority government that is propped up by members of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
But the DUP will not back any deal that treats the British province differently from the rest of the United Kingdom, and the main opposition Labour Party said Thursday it would also vote against the plan.
A former minister, Iain Duncan Smith, said Raab's departure would likely kill the deal and could even lead to May's ouster in a party leadership challenge.
"The very man who was effectively her main negotiator — for him to resign I think is devastating," he said. "He's been aware of all these things and has clearly been raising the alarm and it sounds like he has been ignored. The reality is that the deal looks very dodgy."
May could still salvage her deal if she can sell it to the House of Commons, and appears determined to stick around.
"She is a fighter, to put it mildly," said Robert Peston, Political Editor of NBC News' British partner ITV News. He believes rebel lawmakers hope the threat of a leadership challenge will force her to change her mind on the deal. "We'll see," said Peston. "What is on public display is a Conservative Party at war with itself beyond anything I've ever witnessed."
What are the sticking points in the deal?
At the heart of the current stalemate is the state of the post-Brexit border between Ireland — an E.U. member — and Northern Ireland, one of the four nations that make up the U.K. The border region has been the focus of deadly violence in the past, and, after March 29, the Brexit deadline, it will be the only land border between the E.U. and Britain.
All sides agree there should be no customs checks or other infrastructure on the border — a key condition of a 1998 peace deal — but there is no agreement on howand where those checks should take place.
Another sticking point in talks has been Britain's insistence that any E.U.-aligned customs arrangement must be temporary. The E.U. says that, in order to guarantee an open border, it can't have a time limit.
May's draft plan reportedly involves a "swimming pool" solutionin which there would be no hard border but Northern Ireland would face deeper levels of regulation in order to allow frictionless trade with Ireland.
It means Northern Ireland will remain bound by E.U. laws on sales tax, farm subsidies and state aid - something unacceptable to many Conservatives.
Shailesh Vara, who was the first minister to quit Thursday, said: "It is a sad day when we are reduced to obeying rules made by other countries who have shown they do not have our best interests at heart. We can and must do better than this."
What else is in the deal?
The draft deal seeks a smooth divorce from the rest of the E.U. Without it, Britain would have to restore full border controls at its ports facing France, with the likelihood of huge delays in the supply of along key trading routes.
The deal proposes an emergency fix to ensure no return of a hard border on the island of Ireland, and keeps the status quo until the end of 2020, with an option to extend it once.
Access to fisheries would be renegotiated separately, and there would be some checks on goods crossing from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland to ensure compliance with E.U. standards.
The E.U.'s top court, the European Court of Justice, would remain the ultimate arbiter for issues specified in a finalized deal.
What happens next?
May hopes to calm the anger and press ahead. She told lawmakers that her plan was "in the national interest" and, more importantly, was likely the only feasible deal.
"The choice is clear: We can choose to leave with no deal, we can risk no Brexit at all, or we can choose to unite and support the best deal that can be negotiated," she said.
The deal requires the consent of the European Parliament as well as the British one and Barnier was set to travel to Strasbourg, France, to win over legislators there. The parliament's chief Brexit official, Guy Verhofstadt, has already welcomed the draft withdrawal agreement.
E.U. leaders will also meet Nov. 25 to endorse the deal.
"If nothing extraordinary happens, we will hold a European Council meeting in order to finalize and formalize the Brexit agreement," European Council President Donald Tusk said.