BRUSSELS: Britain and the European Union on Thursday finally struck a post-Brexit trade deal that they hope will cushion the economic blow of the UK’s departure from the bloc after months of tortuous negotiations.
“The deal is done,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted, declaring that the UK would remain Europe’s ally and “number one market”.
“We have finally found an agreement,” the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said.
“It was a long and winding road, but we have a good deal at the end of it,” she said. “The single market will be fair and remain so.”
Britain formally left the EU in January after a deeply divisive referendum in 2016, the first country to split from the political and economic project that was born as the continent rebuilt in the aftermath of World War II.
But London remains tied to the EU’s rules during a transition period that runs until midnight on December 31, when the UK will leave the bloc’s single market and customs union.
The final 2,000-page agreement was held up by a last-minute dispute over fishing as both sides haggled over the access EU fishermen will get to Britain’s waters after the end of the year.
Von der Leyen said that although the UK would become a “third country” it would be a trusted partner.
“This agreement is in the United Kingdom’s interest, it will set solid foundations for a new start with a long term friend,” she said.
“And it means that we can finally put Brexit behind us and Europe is continuing to move forward.”
Johnson — who rode to power pledging to “get Brexit done” — insisted it was a “good deal for the whole of Europe and for our friends and partners as well”.
“It will not be a bad thing in my view to have a prosperous, dynamic and contented UK on your doorstep,” he said from Downing Street.
Leaders around the continent were quick to herald the 11th-hour accord that heads off the threat of Britain crashing out of the EU after 47 years of shared history with no follow-on rules.
Irish premier Micheal Martin — whose EU member state would have been hard hit by a no-deal — said the accord was the “least bad version of Brexit possible”.
“There is no such thing as a ‘good Brexit’ for Ireland. But we have worked hard to minimise the negative consequences,” he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was “confident” that the deal was a “good outcome” as it now goes over to EU member states to agree.
For French President Emmanuel Macron — often portrayed as a bogeyman by the British tabloids — “Europe’s unity and firmness paid off”.
EU states to ratify
Following the announcement of the political accord, von der Leyen’s Commission will send the text to the remaining 27 European member states.
They are expected to take two or three days to analyse the agreement and decide whether to approve its provisional implementation.
The UK parliament will also have to interrupt its end of year holidays to vote on the deal before the December 31 cut-off.
Once it is signed off and the text published in the EU’s official journal it will go into effect on January 1 when Britain has left the bloc’s single market.
The European Parliament will then have a chance to retrospectively approve the deal in 2021, speaker David Sassoli said.
Assuming the process goes as planned, the negotiating teams will have agreed the mammoth deal in record time.
But with Britain outside the EU single market and customs area, cross-Channel traders will still face a battery of new regulations and delays.
Economists expect both economies, already weakened by the coronavirus epidemic, to take a hit as supply chains are disrupted and costs mount.
Despite this, the threat of a return to tariffs will have been removed, and relations between the former partners will rest on a surer footing.
All sides will look to put a positive spin on the deal to make it look like they gave did not give too much away.
But it will be seen as win by Johnson, as well as a success for von der Leyen and her chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who led almost 10 months of intense talks with Britain’s David Frost.
After the shock 2016 referendum, in which British voters narrowly chose to leave the union, Brexiteers boasted that they could win the “easiest trade deal in history”.
But European capitals were concerned that if such a large rival on their doorstep were to deregulate its industry their firms would face unfair competition.
Brussels insisted the only way to keep the land border between Ireland and the UK open was to keep Northern Ireland, a British province, within its customs union.
And members balked at giving up access to Britain’s rich fishing waters, which support fleets in France, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland and the Netherlands.
It was the question of fish that emerged as the last stumbling block as late as this week, when member states — led by France — rebuffed UK demands.
London pushed to reduce EU fishing fleets’ share of the estimated 650-million-euro annual haul by more than a third, with changes phased in over three years.
The EU was insisting on 25% over at least six years.
In the end, the final agreement settled on the EU’s figure but cut the length of the transition period during which it would be phased in to five-and-a-half years, an EU official said.
After this time access to Britain’s fishing grounds will be negotiated on an annual basis.
The spectre of yearly uncertainty had caused major concern for European fishing communities whose political symbolism far outweighs the sector’s economic worth.
But Barnier insisted after the deal was struck that the EU “will support its fishermen and women. It will accompany them”.