The UK and EU reached a post-Brexit trade agreement on Christmas Eve after four-and-a-half years of bitter negotiations and only a week to spare until the end of the transition period on Dec. 31.
“We have taken back control of our destiny,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a firm Brexit advocate, told a press conference on Thursday. “People said it was impossible, but we have taken back control.”
“We will be an independent coastal state,” he said. “We will be able to decide how and where to stimulate new jobs.”
Britain, Johnson said, had finally sorted out an issue that had “bedeviled” its politics for decades.
He added that “although of course the arguments with our European friends and partners were sometimes fierce, this is, I believe, a good deal for the whole of Europe.”
“We will be your friend, your ally, your supporter and indeed never let it be forgotten, your number one market,” he said.
“Although we have left the EU, this country will remain culturally, emotionally, historically, strategically, geologically attached to Europe – not least through the 4 million EU nationals who have requested to settle in the UK over the last four years and who make an enormous contribution to our country and our lives.”
At a separate news conference, 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. It is fair, it is a balanced deal, and it is the right and responsible thing to do for both sides.”
UK, EU both claim victory
The UK was keen to sell the benefits of Brexit, with an earlier Downing Street statement saying: “Everything that the British public was promised during the 2016 referendum and in the general election last year is delivered by this deal. We have taken back control of our money, borders, laws, trade and our fishing waters.”
“We have got Brexit done and we can now take full advantage of the fantastic opportunities available to us as an independent trading nation, striking trade deals with other partners around the world,” the statement added.
Von der Leyen stressed that the EU would continue to work with the UK, but that the EU would now move on from Brexit.
“We will continue cooperating with the UK in all areas of mutual interest. For example, in the field of climate change, energy security, and transport. Together we still achieve more than we do apart. And thirdly, we have secured five-and-a-half years of full predictability, for fishing communities, and strong tools to incentivize to remain so,” she said.
She continued: “Of course, this whole debate has always been about sovereignty. But we should cut through the sound bites, and ask ourselves what sovereignty actually means in the 21st century.
“For me, it is about being able to seamlessly do work, travel, study, and do business in 27 countries. It is about pulling our strength and speaking together in a world full of great powers. And in the time of crisis, it is about pulling each other up, instead of trying to get back to your feet, alone.
“The United Kingdom is a third country. But it remains a trusted partner. We are longstanding allies. We share the same values and interests, whether it be the COP 26 summit in Glasgow, or the upcoming UK G7 and Italian G20 presidencies, the European Union and the United Kingdom will stand shoulder to shoulder to deliver on our common global goals.”
Britain voted to leave the EU in a hotly contested 2016 referendum, 52% to 48%. It formally left the EU at the end of this January.
Since then, it has been in a transition period, which meant that the UK still followed EU rules while it worked out a new trading arrangement with its largest trading partner and the world’s largest single market.
Negotiations over the past year have been acrimonious, with disagreement focused on three key issues: fishing, which is economically unimportant but politically symbolic; the so-called level playing field, where the EU wanted to protect the integrity of the single market against unfair competition by ensuring the UK did not use excessive state subsidies or cut its regulatory standards while still having tariff- and quota-free access; and governance, which was how the deal would be enforced.
In a no-deal Brexit scenario, the UK would have traded with the EU on WTO terms as of Jan. 1, 2021. Britain insisted it would prosper in this scenario, to the incredulity of experts who pointed out the huge tariffs that would be placed on British exports to the EU.
This scenario has now been avoided. It has taken the UK four-and-a-half years, two elections, and three prime ministers to reach this point.
The text now has to be ratified on both sides, a tall order considering how late the agreement has been reached.
On the British side, the UK parliament in Westminster will have to ratify the deal, but it has already broken up for Christmas.
Local media are reporting that parliament could be recalled on Dec. 30 to push through the deal.
The pro-Brexit government has a majority of 80, but some backbenchers will still hold the government’s feet to the fire if they feel London has conceded too much sovereignty to Brussels.
The opposition Labour Party lost its traditional working-class base over its refusal to fully back Brexit, but young people and progressives who form the bulk of the party membership are adamantly opposed to Brexit. The party leadership is expected to back the deal, though there is room for rebellion among its backbenches too.
But the deal will almost certainly be passed by parliament, backbench drama notwithstanding.
On the EU side, there will not be enough time for the European Parliament to ratify the deal, so member states will have to approve the provisional application of the deal until it is formally ratified.
European leaders also weighed in on the last-minute deal.
In a statement, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the deal carries historic importance.
“I am pleased that the EU and Great Britain have reached an agreement and that future relations are clearly regulated. I thank the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his entire team,” she said.
Merkel said Berlin will examine the agreement in detail and quickly decide whether or not to support the negotiation’s outcome.
The UK will continue to be a good partner for Germany and the EU, she added.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also welcomed the agreement on Twitter, saying: “Good news: deal between the EU and the UK has been agreed. Interests and rights of European businesses and citizens guaranteed. The UK will be a central partner and ally for the EU and Italy.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, for his part, tweeted: “European unity and firmness have paid off. The agreement with the United Kingdom is essential to protect our citizens, our fishermen, our producers. We will make sure this is the case. Europe is moving forward and can look to the future, united, sovereign and strong.”
Spanish Premier Pedro Sanchez also said the member states will examine the agreement, adding that Spain and the UK will continue working to reach an agreement on Gibraltar, the British territory at the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula.
*Busra Nur Bilgic Cakmak in Ankara contributed to this story