EUROPEAN Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier talks to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen following their statement on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations in Brussels on Thursday. [Right] Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves after holding a remote press conference to update the nation on the post-Brexit trade agreement, inside 10 Downing Street in London. Britain said an agreement had been secured on the country’s future relationship with the EU.—Reuters / AFP
EUROPEAN Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier talks to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen following their statement on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations in Brussels on Thursday. [Right] Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves after holding a remote press conference to update the nation on the post-Brexit trade agreement, inside 10 Downing Street in London. Britain said an agreement had been secured on the country’s future relationship with the EU.—Reuters / AFP

BRUSSELS: Just a week before the deadline, Britain and the European Union struck a free-trade deal on Thursday that should avert economic chaos on new year’s day and bring a measure of certainty for businesses after years of Brexit turmoil.

Once ratified by both sides, the agreement will ensure Britain and the 27-nation bloc can continue to trade in goods without tariffs or quotas after the UK breaks fully free of the EU on Jan 1.

Relief was palpable all around that nine months of tense and often testy negotiations had finally produced a positive result.

The Christmas eve breakthrough was doubly welcome amid a coronavirus pandemic that has left some 70,000 people in Britain dead and led the country’s neighbours to shut their borders to the UK over a new and seemingly more contagious variant of the virus spreading in England.

“We have taken back control of our laws and our destiny,” declared British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who posted a picture of himself on social media, beaming with thumbs up.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said it was a long and winding road, but “we have got a good deal to show for it”.

She added: “It is fair, it is a balanced deal, and it is the right and responsible thing to do for both sides.”

The 27 EU countries and the British and European parliaments still need to vote on the agreement, though action by the European body may not happen until after the Jan 1 breakup. Britain’s parliament is set to vote on Dec 30.

France, long seen as Britain’s toughest obstacle to a deal, said the uncanny steadfastness among the 27 nations with widely varying interests was a triumph in itself.

“European unity and firmness paid off,” French President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement.

And German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that unity will now probably result in all the EU nations backing the deal: “I am very optimistic that we can present a good result here.”

It has been over four years since Britons voted 52% to 48% to leave the EU and in the words of the Brexiteers campaign slogan take back control of the UK’s borders and laws.

It took more than three years of wrangling before Britain left the blocs political structures last January. Disentangling the two sides economies and reconciling Britain’s desire for independence with the EU’s aim of preserving its unity took months longer.

Devil in the detail

The devil will be in the detail of the 2,000-page agreement, but both sides claimed the deal protects their cherished goals. Britain said it gives the U.K. control over its money, borders, laws and fishing waters and ensures the country is no longer in the lunar pull of the EU.

Von der Leyen said it protects the EUs single market and contains safeguards to ensure Britain does not unfairly undercut the blocs standards.

If Britain were to quit the EU with no agreement governing trade, the two sides would reinstate tariffs on each other’s goods.

Johnson’s government acknowledged that a chaotic no-deal exit or a crash-out, as the British call it would probably bring gridlock at the country’s ports, temporary shortages of some goods and price increases for staple foods. The turmoil could cost hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Published in Dawn, December 25th, 2020

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