Brussels and London have dodged the cliff when they had almost both feet out. Seven days after the end of transition period agreed at the beginning of the year, and that Brexit went from being a political decision to a legal reality with all its consequences, the negotiating teams led by Michel Barnier (EU) and David Frost (United Kingdom) have managed to close the trade agreement that will regulate in the next years relations between the island and the mainland. Future access and quotas for EU fishermen to British waters has been the most difficult stumbling block to the end. The text should enter into force provisionally on January 1, because it is already clear that the European Parliament will not be able to ratify it before the end of 2020.
“This agreement will make history”, said the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, when announcing a pact that, according to European negotiators, has been closed at 2:44 p.m. on Christmas Eve. To the general relief in Brussels after 10 months of tortuous negotiation, plus the impact of the pandemic, is added that of being able to turn the page to the first and painful divorce of the Union. “We can finally leave Brexit behind,” celebrated Von der Leyen.
In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also made no secret of his satisfaction. “The agreement achieves something that the people of this country knew could be done, but they were told it was impossible: we have regained control of our laws and our destiny, completely and without restrictions,” he said in a hearing. in Downing Street to announce the news.
The agreement will allow, as of January 1, to largely maintain the commercial relationship between the two banks of the English Channel, a huge flow that moves goods worth more than 500,000 million euros a year. After leaving the club on January 31, the former member left the internal market and the customs union on December 31 for good. But thanks to the new agreement, a total and reciprocal opening of the markets will be maintained. There will be no fees in exchange for certain guarantees.
British companies will have unlimited access to a market of 450 million people. And European companies will be able to continue trading with the United Kingdom under the same conditions as at present, which keeps open a market to which they allocate 18% of their non-EU exports. If the text is accepted by the 27 governments of the EU, as seems highly probable, the treaty will mark the beginning of a new era in the continent’s relations with the United Kingdom after 47 years of difficult coexistence within the Union.
Boris Johnson, after reaching an agreement this Thursday. On video, his subsequent statements.
The end of the transition, this December 31, will complicate business contacts, by introducing customs and tax obligations. But the agreement reached this Thursday avoids the application of tariffs and import quotas, which will facilitate commercial exchanges and, above all, will allow to maintain the integration of the production chains that in sectors such as the automotive or aeronautical sectors cross from one side to another. another from the English Channel. “The United Kingdom has decided to renounce the rights and benefits of belonging to the Union. Our agreement does not offer these rights and advantages, but it allows us to establish a new relationship that we want to be fair ”, said the European chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.
Both parties expect turbulence in the coming months, and that is why they have negotiated mutual monitoring mechanisms and possible retaliation if the agreement is breached. Possible unfair competition from the UK worried the EU. Johnson won the election on the promise of flooding the impoverished north of England with infrastructure and technological investments. Brussels feared that London would launch to publicly subsidize national companies, lower taxes or lower its labor, environmental or consumer rights regulations to give its own companies a competitive advantage.
The last stumbling block in the negotiation, however, has revolved around a sector as traditional as fishing. After Brexit, London sought to prevent the entry of the continental fishing fleet into British-influenced waters (up to 200 miles), fishing grounds where European fishermen have fished for hundreds of years. It has been a haggling of figures, percentages and species. And enough years of transition for the European fishing industry to adapt to future cuts.
The final agreement provides for a transfer of 25% of the value of European catches to British companies in the sector. And a transition period of five and a half years at the end of which quotas will have to be negotiated with London. Barnier has recognized that the cut will force “to make an effort, but the EU will accompany the European fishermen”, alluding to the probable aid. The EU is already preparing a fund of 5,000 million euros to compensate the regions most affected by Brexit, which will include fishing areas.
The French government, in particular, lobbied in defense of its fishermen. Johnson had to save face against Scottish industry, the most powerful in the United Kingdom in this sector, at a time when independence aspirations have taken on new flight. “There is no agreement that can replace what Brexit took from us. The time has come to set the course for our future as an independent country and a European nation, ”wrote Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s chief minister, on Twitter minutes after hearing the news of the agreement.
The draft treaty, more than 500 pages in total, must now complete its processing. On the British side, Johnson may attempt to convene the House of Commons on December 30, but first he will need to make sure he has the Eurosceptic MPs on his side who longed for a clean and unconditional break with the European Union. The prime minister called his ministers on Wednesday night to ask them to help him “sell a deal” that “respects the sovereignty of both the UK and the EU.”
The debacle lived in the last hours, with thousands of truckers stuck in the British port of Dover After France closed the passage for 48 hours to prevent the spread of the new strain of coronavirus, it was a warning of what a hard Brexit would have meant and a spur to finally close the negotiating process. “The agreement means greater stability and certainty in what has sometimes been a difficult relationship,” said a relieved Johnson after the agreement was closed. With a conciliatory message for the EU after years of great tension: “We will continue to be your friend and ally, your greatest support and your main market.”
The European Research Group (European Research Group), which brings together dozens of Eurosceptic conservative MPs, has already announced that its steering committee and experts are ready to start reviewing the details of the agreed text as soon as it reaches their hands. It was this pressure group that maneuvered to stop the agreement that the previous prime minister, Theresa May, closed with Brussels. And they ended up causing his resignation and the coming to power of Boris Johnson.
And the Labor opposition, led by its new leader, Keir Starmer, also wants to leave behind the European debate, which divided its ranks as much as those of the Conservatives. Even if there are some foreseeable abstentions or votes against, Starmer is confident that his parliamentary group supports the text. “Some argue that we should remain neutral. I do not agree. Leading means making tough decisions, especially for a party that aspires to govern, ”he said when announcing his support for the text on Thursday. “It is not the agreement that we wanted, but it is preferable to the chaos that the lack of one would cause,” he said.
The process for the next few days seems easier on the EU side, although surprises cannot be ruled out. The treaty must be reviewed by the committee of permanent representatives of the 27 partners in Brussels, with the rank of ambassadors, which will meet this Friday in Brussels. The diplomatic green light, if there are no setbacks, will allow the signing and publication of the agreement. And the European Parliament could call a meeting of the chairmen of the parliamentary groups to give their first opinion on the text.
A ratification by the European Parliament before the end of the year is ruled out, so Brussels has looked for legal alternatives that do not leave any gap, to avoid possible border or customs chaos. The formula chosen has been to propose the application of the treaty provisionally until February 28, 2021. This deadline allows Parliament to pronounce itself in the first weeks of the year and before the text enters into force definitively.
The approval and entry into force comes four and a half years after the referendum in which the United Kingdom chose to leave the EU, an unprecedented decision in a European club that has continuously expanded since its founding with six members in 1958 at 27 with that counts today. The trade agreement reached this Christmas Eve, although limited compared to the relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom, is the most ambitious of all those negotiated by Brussels with a third country. And it has been achieved in a record time of just 10 months. “It has been like a roller coaster,” one of the negotiators pointed out after the pact. “One day you thought it was done and the next, that failure was inevitable. One day you thought that a point was going to be insurmountable and it was resolved immediately afterwards and another point that you took for granted became a seemingly impossible obstacle to overcome ”. The carousel, for now, is almost over.