European Union prepares to sign off on Withdrawal Agreement as Brexit day approaches

London England. Boris Johnson MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip was elected leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party

London England. Boris Johnson MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip was elected leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party

On Thursday, Britain's withdrawal from the EU cleared a hurdle at the European Parliament as MEPs on its constitutional committee voted by 23 to three to recommend that a full sitting of the parliament next week formally sign off on the accord, under which Britain will end its four decades of membership on January 31.

Von der Leyen tweeted: "Charles Michel and I have just signed the agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU, opening the way for its ratification by the European parliament".

The UK will keep a copy of the agreement while the original will return to Brussels, where it will be stored in an archive along with other historic worldwide agreements.

And, in another move to prepare Brussels for relations with Britain as an outside power, the European Commission named an ambassador - veteran diplomat Joao Vale de Almeida - to London. "Things will inevitably change but our friendship will remain".

A political declaration on the outlines of the future relationship, which has already been given the political seal of approval in London and the European Union capitals, will set the parameters of the talks to come as the two negotiating teams seek to replace the terms of the UK's 45 years of membership with new arrangements. "We start a new chapter as partners and allies".

Boris Johnson has called for the "rancour and division" of the past three years to come to an end after his Brexit bill was finally approved by Parliament.

Earlier in Brussels, the signing was conducted before dawn in the European Council's headquarters, as chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier looked on.

No reporters or photographers were allowed to witness the low key ceremony, despite news agencies offering to organise a pool.

The formal announcement was made in the Commons by deputy speaker Nigel Evans on Thursday, who told MPs: "I have to notify the House in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967 that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following act: European Union Withdrawal Agreement Act 2020".

But officials have expressed cautious optimism that some kind of agreement can be reached.

The EU's negotiating position, known as a mandate, is due to be adopted on 25 February by EU ministers attending a general affairs council, and formal negotiations will then begin on the future relationship.

The UK government is also demanding the post-Brexit right to set its own rules on politically sensitive issues such as environmental standards and workers' rights.

Johnson insists that he will not extend the end-of-year negotiation deadline, while Brussels says a comprehensive deal will take much more time.

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