Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal has cleared its first hurdle in the European parliament after it was approved by a key committee of MEPs.
The withdrawal agreement was overwhelmingly backed on the parliament’s Constitutional Affairs committee by 23 votes in favour to three against.
It means the treaty will head to a vote for all MEPs next Wednesday, just two days before the UK is set to leave the EU.
MEPs will meet in Brussels for an extraordinary plenary session where they are expected to also give their blessing to the plan.
“It is a historical moment albeit a sombre moment for us,” said committee chair Antonio Tajani.
“A member state is leaving the EU. It’s not a moment for celebration. Although we firmly respect the sovereign decision of the British people, we deeply reject this outcome.”
Mr Tajani read out the names of British MEPs who had served on the committee and told them: “You will be missed”, receiving a standing ovation from other MEPs.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said of departing British MEPs after the vote: “We will miss their knowledge, their energy and their wit. Our doors will always be open for them.”
Brexit Party MEP Rupert Lowe, who sits on the committee, meanwhile described himself as “the first turkey to vote for Christmas”.
He added: “The deal stinks, but with no transition extension and a commitment to non-alignment, it can work.”
After Brexit the UK will lose all its MEPs, its commissioner, and seat on the EU’s council – though it will be bound by EU rules for at least the length of the transition period.
The withdrawal bill completed a parallel process in Westminster earlier this week, where it was finally approved by MPs after months of renegotiations and parliamentary shenanigans.
After the UK leaves at the end of this month it will be in a transition period until the next of 2021 under which free movement continues, alongside all EU rules. Negotiators will try and use this time to draw up a new trade relationship with the EU.
Boris Johnson has set himself the artificial deadline of the end of this year in order to negotiate a free trade agreement.