BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier sounded optimistic on Thursday, although recognising that challenges still lie ahead.
Barnier was referring to 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 was "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 a hard border with Ireland had been avoided by the inclusion of the recently-negotiated 'back stop,' but 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."
There are two more crucial steps for the process to take. One is the British parliament has yet to consider the draft agreement. It too has to be approved by the other 27 member countries of the European Union.
The draft withdrawal agreement is believed to require the UK to pay a financial settlement equivalent to $50 billion.
The European Parliament's Brexit chief Guy Verhofstadt welcomed the UK decision, saying the agreement will provide "protection of citizens rights and the avoidance of a hard Irish border".
"While I hope one day the UK will return, in the meantime this agreement will make Brexit possible, while maintaining a close relationship," he said in a statement.
Finland's Prime Minister Juha Sipila express a note of caution. "Decisions on both sides are still needed for a final agreement," she said in a tweet..
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said he was "very pleased."
"The result is a good one," he said.
Ireland's leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was particularly pleased with the progress made on Wednesday. He said all that he wanted in the agreement, particularly in relation to the Irish border, had been achieved. 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.