Brussels/London, 24 December 2020 (dpa/MIA) – Britain and the European Union have struck a historic post-Brexit trade deal just days before London was set to free-fall out of the bloc’s tariff-free single market on January 1.
“A deal is done,” a British government spokesperson said, hailing the “fantastic news for families and businesses in every part of the UK.”
The breakthrough comes after months of deadlock, and allows both sides to swerve around heavy trade barriers.
“We have signed the first free trade agreement based on zero tariffs and zero quotas that has ever been achieved with the EU,” the British source added.
“We have finally found an agreement,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a press conference in Brussels. “It was a long and winding road.”
While negotiators can breathe a sigh of relief, the timeline is now too tight for ratification before the end of the post-Brexit transition period. London thinks it can get the job done in one week, but it won’t be possible on the EU side.
The massive deal – which covers not just commercial relations, but also future terms of police and justice, transport and energy cooperation – therefore looks set to be applied provisionally for the first days of the new year.
After almost 10 months of high-stakes talks, it all came down to fish and competition.
From the get-go, the EU pushed for assurances on like-for-like social and environmental standards and on state aid to stop British companies undercutting their own.
London argued that this stringency on the so-called level playing field was excessive and that the whole point of Brexit was to “take back control” of its laws and borders. The other major stumbling block was how to arrange fisheries in future, with the EU set to lose automatic access to fishing in fertile British waters.
London threatened on several occasions to walk away from the table, and hopes for a deal faded in recent weeks.
Sudden movement came on Wednesday afternoon, with EU sources reporting that a solution on competition had been thrashed out. Then, finally, came rapprochement on the slippery question of fish.
Four-and-a-half years after a slim majority voted to leave the EU in a British referendum, the closely linked partners have now finalized their turbulent divorce.
London could have stayed in the customs union or single market, but it was not willing to accept the curbs on its regulatory freedom demanded by the EU.
Britain will leave both these cost-cutting frameworks when the 11-month transition period allotted for trade talks ends next Friday.
Once seen as only a remote possibility, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit had looked increasingly likely in recent weeks. Without a deal, trade would have been subject to the minimalist tariff-reducing rules of the World Trade Organization. Prices on imported goods like food or medicine would have risen substantially in many cases, and supply chains would be slowed by new formalities at the border.
In 2019, half of British imports came from the EU, and two-fifths of British exports went to the EU.
The four years after the Brexit referendum have seen three British prime ministers, four chief negotiators, two general elections and countless missed deadlines.
Since London’s official departure in January, the two sides have been battling to secure a free trade deal before the end of the year – a feat disrupted by the global outbreak of Covid-19.
The coronavirus crisis has shaken Britain. Nearly 80,000 people have now died there with or from Covid-19 – and now a new, highly infectious variant of the coronavirus is also spreading, pushing the National Health System to its limit.
The British government itself has predicted a historic 11.3-per-cent economic slump this year.
Researchers at King’s College London estimated that leaving without a deal would have hit the British economy two to three times as hard as the Covid-19 crisis.
London also got a taste of disruption in recent days with huge lines of lorries building up as neighbouring EU countries closed their frontiers in a bid to keep the new variant at bay.