When Britons voted in 2016 to leave the European Union after 47 years of membership, Brexiters said striking a free trade deal with the Eu would be simple and “one of the easiest in human history.”
It didn’t turn out that way.
But Thursday, after four years of talks marked by fractiousness and ill-temper and amid accusations of bullying, delusions and bad faith, there was some holiday cheer after London and Brussels finally struck a deal that will limit the economic damage both Britons and Europeans would have suffered in the absence of any agreement.
Both sides compromised and moved away from frequently emphasized ‘red lines’ to reach the deal. Britain formally exited the EU last January but had a year-long transition period allowing for free trade and free movement of people to continue uninterrupted until December 31.
Pro-Brexit headline writers immediately announced “Merry Brexmas” and praised Prime Minister Boris Johnson for delivering what he said he would. “The war is over,” beamed Nigel Farage, Brexit Party leader.
He added: “It’s not perfect, but goodness me, it's still progress.”
The pound rallied modestly on the news of the deal, but then slipped back.
Johnson proclaimed the deal, with an estimated overall value of $900 billion, the biggest trade agreement ever signed by the EU. “Everything that the British public was promised during the 2016 referendum and in the general election last year is delivered by this deal,” a Downing Street official said.
Using similar language to what Brexiters promised more than four years ago during the Brexit referendum campaign, he added: “We have taken back control of our money, borders, laws, trade and our fishing waters.”
Johnson tweeted a photograph of himself in Downing Street with two thumbs up. “The deal is done,” he announced.
The deal is done. pic.twitter.com/zzhvxOSeWz— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) December 24, 2020
Later at a press conference in London Johnson appeared triumphant, saying: “We have taken back our laws and destiny.” He added the deal will “protect jobs across this country” by allowing goods to be sold “without tariffs and quotas” in the EU. He said Britain will now control every "jot and tittle of our regulations.”
The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen dubbed the deal “fair and balanced,” as she announced, with obvious relief at a press conference in Brussels, “we have finally reached a deal.”
She said the EU and Britain also will cooperate when it comes to climate action and security. She said the negotiations had been a “long and winding road" but added, “we have a good deal to show for it.”
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said he was happy the clock is “no longer ticking.” He added that today is a “day of relief” but one tinged by “some sadness.”
British politicians who opposed Brexit said they were relieved a deal had been struck, but they warned Britain would be losing a lot from exiting the bloc.
Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, tweeted: “Before the spin starts, it’s worth remembering that Brexit is happening against Scotland’s will. And there is no deal that will ever make up for what Brexit takes away from us. It’s time to chart our own future as an independent, European nation.”
Before the spin starts, it’s worth remembering that Brexit is happening against Scotland’s will. And there is no deal that will ever make up for what Brexit takes away from us. It’s time to chart our own future as an independent, European nation.— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) December 24, 2020
Some Brexiters complained the agreement ties Britain too closely to the EU.
Even the final moments of negotiations were fraught and almost derailed.
For days both sides had indicated they were on the verge of a breakthrough. And starting Saturday, diplomats were telling reporters a deal was “imminent.” An announcement had been planned for Wednesday, and then early Thursday morning, only for hours to pass and diplomats to say some tweaks in the 2,000-page agreement were still necessary.
The delay in announcing a deal in the past 24 hours was mainly because of fishing quota numbers when it emerged the European Commission had been using out of date figures to calculate the reduction in the amount of fish stocks that EU fishermen will be permitted to catch in British waters as part of the trade deal.
The deal gives British exporters “zero-tariff, zero-quota” access to Europe’s Single Market. Any future disputes between Britain and the EU will not be adjudicated by the European Court of Justice (ECJ), a key point for Brexiters, who said if the ECJ policed the agreement it would undermine British sovereignty.
But British firms will have curtailed rights to sell services to the EU after January, affecting the banking and insurance sectors. Service industries account for 80 percent of total British economic output. Some international banks likely will shift more of their operations to EU countries because of the deal, analysts say.
Beginning in January there also will be additional customs checks on food, chemicals and medicines exported to the EU by Britain, which will add red tape and costs for British firms, likely reducing their price competitiveness, say analysts.
On fishing in British waters, Britain made major concessions allowing the EU fishing industry to give up only 25 percent of its current quota, a change that will be phased in over the next five and a half years, meaning that the EU fishing catch in British waters will decline 4.5 per cent annually.
Even though politicians breathed a sigh of collective relief on both sides of the English Channel, the “deal is far from the deep and ambitious relationship” both sides said they were aiming for shortly after the 2016 Brexit referendum, according to Sally Jones, a trade expert at Ernst & Young, an Anglo-American multinational professional services consultancy.
The hugely complex deal now will be pored over by trade lawyers and businesses. The agreement runs to more than 1,000 pages, plus hundreds of pages of annexes that cover future arrangements for trade, security and fishing, as well as scientific cooperation and regulatory alignment
The biggest sticking points in the haggling during the last few years between London and Brussels have been over regulatory alignment and fishing. Both sides were at loggerheads over shared regulatory rules, competition and safety standards, workers’ rights and environment laws and restraints on state subsidies to private businesses.
Europeans were determined to ensure British firms did not secure an unfair competitive edge over EU rivals. Lower standards and watered-down regulations mean lower costs and lower prices for finished goods.
The British Parliament will have to ratify the deal, but it already has recessed for Christmas. British lawmakers are likely to be recalled on December 30 to approve the last-minute agreement.
An EU official told Reuters news agency a provisional application of the deal will need to be approved by member states because there’s not enough time for the EU Parliament to ratify the agreement before the December 31 deadline, when Britain’s transition period.