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BREAKING NEWS

Trump weakens May's hand, says Brexit deal 'good for EU'

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U.S. President Donald Trump talks to reporters on November 26, 2018.
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REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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US President Donald Trump dealt a major blow to Britain's Theresa May on Monday telling reporters that the draft Brexit deal could prevent the US and the UK from striking out a trade agreement.

Trump told reporters outside the White House that the Withdrawal Agreement — approved by EU leaders on Sunday — "sounds like a great deal for the EU."

"Right now if you look at the deal, (the UK) may not be able to trade with us. And that wouldn't be a good thing. I don't think they meant that," he added.

'Ambitious agreement' possible

Downing Street quickly rebutted Trump's take and said the political declaration, agreed with the European Union, allows the UK to sign trade deals with countries including the US.

"We have already been laying the groundwork for an ambitious agreement with the US through our joint working groups, which have met five times so far," May's office added.

But the US leader's comments are likely to fuel opposition to the deal, already virulent in Britain's Parliament.

At the crux of the opposition is the Irish "backstop", which allows for the implementation of a "single customs territory" should the UK and the EU fail to find a solution to the thorny issue of Ireland before the end of the transition period, scheduled for December 31, 2020. Northern Ireland is part of the UK, while the Republic of Ireland, in the south, is an EU member state.

Both the EU and the UK agree that a hard border between the two sides of the Irish island would endanger the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which put an end to three decades of deadly sectarian violence.

The Withdrawal Agreement is vague on how this customs arrangement would work as well as where and when customs checks would be carried out. May and politicians in Northern Ireland have said they would refuse any solution that would effectively create a hard border in the Irish Sea by treating Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.

The draft deal also opened the door to a possible extension of the transition period and stated that no side could unilaterally pull out.

For Brexiteers, that amounts to continued EU interference and, in effect, continued membership without any of the benefits. During the transition period, the UK will not be able to influence the bloc's decision-making but will, however, still have to abide by EU rules including not being able to ratify trade deals with third countries.

'Back to square one'

May has been on a PR blitz to gather support since the announcement that a deal had been reached, multiplying press conferences, interviews and speeches to Parliament.

"No one knows what would happen if this deal doesn't pass," May told the House of Commons on Monday.

"We can back this deal, deliver on the vote of the referendum and move on to building a brighter future of opportunity and prosperity for all our people.

"Or this house can choose to reject this deal and go back to square one. It would open the door to more division and more uncertainty, with all the risks that will entail," she added.

But with just two weeks to go before Parliament delivers its crucial verdict that could make or break the deal, May's strategy appears to have mostly failed.

'Act of national self-harm'

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle hate the deal including many in her Conservative Party who have publicly voiced their stance against it.

Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May's minority government, have said they would review their supply and confidence deal with May if the Withdrawal Agreement is passed.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said on Monday that supporting the deal would be an "act of national self-harm."

Other opposition parties, including the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats, have also said they would vote against it.

Undeterred, May, who has so far managed to cling to power despite her weakness, has vowed to put her "heart and soul" into promoting the deal before Parliament's vote on December 11.

In a last-ditch attempt, she has even challenged Corbyn to a televised debate, something she refused to take part in during the 2017 snap elections.