More than four years after Britain voted to leave the European Union, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has made Brexit a reality by signing a sweeping agreement with the EU that covers everything from trade and security to how many mackerel each side can catch.
Mr. Johnson signed off on the agreement on Thursday along with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Ambassadors from the EU’s 27 countries were briefed on the deal by the bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, on Christmas Day – the start of a fast-track ratification process of a deal that comes into effect on New Year’s Day.
Mr. Johnson hailed the deal as the start of a new relationship with the EU and said that for the first time in more than 40 years, Britain will be free to set its own course. “We’ve taken back control of our laws and our destiny,” the Prime Minister said during a televised news conference in London. “We have taken back control of every jot and tittle of our regulation in a way that is complete and unfettered.”
Ms. von der Leyen took a more reflective tone and said the deal wasn’t necessarily something to celebrate. “Today, I only feel quiet satisfaction and, frankly speaking, relief,” she said during a news conference in Brussels. “I know this is a difficult day for some and to our friends in the United Kingdom, I want to say parting is such sweet sorrow.”
The 2,000-page treaty marks the end of Britain’s often tumultuous membership in the EU, which dates back to 1973 when the country joined the bloc’s forerunner, the European Economic Community. After decades of debate, Britain voted to leave the EU in June, 2016, by a narrow 52-per-cent majority.
However, it took until earlier this year for the country to take the first steps toward ending its relationship and on Jan. 1, 2021, Britain will be out of the EU’s single market and customs union, which guarantee the free movement of people, goods and services.
Thursday’s agreement came after 10 months of negotiations and an all-night session Wednesday. It covers a wide range of sectors and goes beyond deals the EU has struck with other countries including Canada.
The deal ensures that there will be no tariffs or quotas on any goods, including agricultural products, and customs checks will be simplified through a trusted trader program that’s similar to the system used by Canada and the United States. Both sides also agreed to set up a Partnership Council to settle trade disputes and they promise to co-operate on a host of security issues including counterterrorism and policing.
Mr. Johnson had to tread a fine line during the negotiations. He wanted assurances that Britain’s new-found sovereignty would be respected and that the country would no longer adhere to EU regulations. But he also needed to compromise in order to maintain commercial access to the EU, which is Britain’s largest trading partner.
He won some important symbolic victories. The European Court of Justice will have no role in settling trade disputes, something Mr. Johnson had made a priority in order to prove that Britain was no longer beholden to the ECJ.
He also won back control over British fish stocks, a highly emotional issue in many parts of Britain. Fishermen had complained for years that under the EU’s quota system, the country had lost out and that European boats routinely took at least half of the annual catch from British waters. The agreement calls for a 5½-year transition toward a new system that Mr. Johnson said will see Britain keep close to two-thirds of its fish.
But there were plenty of compromises and British exporters will face a host of challenges including increased paperwork and some non-tariff barriers.
Britain’s financial services sector will no longer enjoy unfettered access to the EU and the agreement calls for future talks on how that will be managed. British professional qualifications will also no longer be recognized automatically across the EU. That means doctors, nurses, dentists, engineers, architects and others will need to have their qualifications approved in EU member states where they want to practice.
The EU can also impose tariffs or take other trade action if Britain changes its regulations in a way that gives businesses an unfair advantage.
Mr. Johnson insisted that the agreement goes a long way toward easing non-tariff barriers but he acknowledged that there would be challenges. “I must stress to people getting ready for Jan. 1, that there will be change,” he said. “People should be aware of the change that is coming.”
Ms. von der Leyen also stressed that the EU had protected its interests. “The EU rules and standards will be respected,” she said referring to the agreement. “We have effective tools to react if fair competition is distorted and impacts our trade.”
Mr. Johnson is expected to seek approval from Parliament on Dec. 30 and it’s certain to pass. His Conservatives have a large majority and the opposition Labour Party said Thursday that it will back the deal. The European Parliament and each EU member state also have to ratify the deal. Several European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, gave the deal an initial thumbs up on Thursday but said they needed to study it more carefully.
There were some signs of disquiet. Britain’s Road Haulage Association said truckers would face “vast amounts of new paperwork processes” and representatives of the fishing industry expressed disappointment at the lengthy transition to a new fishing regime.
Business groups also offered largely muted support; “After four long years of uncertainty and upheaval, and just days before the end of transition, businesses will be able to muster little more than a muted and weary cheer,” said Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce.
The deal has also stoked calls for independence in Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly against Brexit in the 2016 referendum. Support for independence has been gaining in recent months and recent polls have put the “Yes” side firmly ahead.
On Thursday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon slammed the agreement as a disaster and renewed her call for a referendum on sovereignty. “It beggars belief that in the midst of a pandemic and economic recession, Scotland has been forced out of the EU single market and customs union with all the damage to jobs that will bring,” she said.
“Scotland now has the right to choose its own future as an independent country and once more regain the benefits of EU membership.”
With a report from the Associated Press
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