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LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May corralled her Cabinet inside an English country house for a long, hot day Friday, and announced that the divided government had finally agreed on a plan for a future free-trade deal with the European Union.
The proposal aims to keep the U.K. and the bloc in a free-trade zone for goods, but not for services, which make up the bulk of the British economy.
After almost 12 hours of talks at Chequers, the prime minister’s country retreat, May said that “the Cabinet has agreed our collective position for the future of our negotiations with the E.U.” — a pronouncement akin to the British government equivalent of white smoke from the Vatican announcing the election of a new pope.
But getting the Conservative government to agree with itself may be the easy part.
As ministers met behind closed doors — and without their phones, to prevent snooping and leaks — the E.U.’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, warned the bloc would not accept anything that treated the union’s single market, which allows the free flow of goods and services, as a “big supermarket.”
After the British statement, Barnier tweeted that the E.U. would “assess proposals to see if they are workable & realistic.”
At first glance the British proposals sit uneasily with repeated E.U. warnings that the U.K cannot “cherry pick” the benefits of E.U. membership, such as access to the tariff-free customs union and single market, without accepting the responsibilities, which include allowing the free movement of E.U. citizens to the U.K.
The U.K. is firm that it will end free movement, as well as the jurisdiction of the E.U.’s top court in British affairs.
In a tacit acknowledgement that Brussels may not like the proposals, the British government also said it would step up preparations for a “no deal” Brexit — though it said it strongly favored an agreement.