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U.K., EU reach post-Brexit trade agreement

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures at 10 Downing Street in London on December 24, 2020 as he holds a remote press conference to update the nation on the post-Brexit trade agreement.   | Photo Credit: AFP

Just a week before the deadline, Britain and the European Union struck a free-trade deal on December 24 that should avert economic chaos on New Year's 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 U.K. breaks fully free of the EU on January 1.

Relief was palpable on both sides 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 neighbors to shut its borders to the U.K. 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.”

“It is fair, it is a balanced deal, and it is the right and responsible thing to do for both sides,” she said in Brussels.

The 27 EU member states and the British and European parliaments both vote on the agreement, though action by the latter may not happen until after the Jan. 1 breakup. Britain's Parliament is set to vote December 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 four-and-a-half 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 U.K.’s borders and laws.

It took more than three years of wrangling before Britain left the bloc’s political structures in January 2019. Disentangling the two sides’ economies and reconciling Britain's desire for independence with the EU's aim of preserving its unity took months longer.

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.”

Ms. Von der Leyen said it protects the EU’s single market and contains safeguards to ensure Britain does not unfairly undercut the bloc’s standards.

Mr. Johnson's relief at striking a deal contrasted with his earlier insistence that the U.K. would “prosper mightily” even if no agreement were reached and the U.K. and the EU had to reinstate tariffs on each other's goods.

His 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.

To avoid that, negotiating sessions alternating between London and Brussels — and sometimes disrupted by the pandemic —- gradually whittled differences between the two sides down to three key issues: fair-competition rules, mechanisms for resolving future disputes, and fishing rights.

Mr. Johnson had insisted the U.K. would “prosper mightily” even if no deal were reached and the U.K. had to trade with the EU on World Trade Organization terms. But his government has acknowledged that a chaotic exit was likely to bring gridlock at Britain’s ports, temporary shortages of some goods and price increases for staple foods.

The EU has long feared that Britain would undercut the bloc’s social, environmental and state aid rules after Brexit, becoming a low-regulation rival on the bloc’s doorstep. Britain denies planning to institute weaker standards but said that having to continue following EU regulations would undermine its sovereignty.

A compromise was eventually reached on the tricky “level playing field” issues. The economically minor but hugely symbolic issue of fish came to be the final sticking point, with maritime EU nations seeking to retain access to U.K. waters where they have long fished and Britain insisting it must exercise control as an “independent coastal state,”

Huge gaps over fishing were gradually closed over weeks of intense negotiations in Brussels, even as Johnson continued to insist that a no-deal exit was a likely and satisfactory outcome to the nine months of talks on the future relationship between the EU and its ex-member nation.

It has been 4 1/2 years since Britons voted 52%-48% to leave the EU and — in the words of the Brexiteers’ campaign slogan — “take back control” of the U.K.’s borders and laws.

It took more than three years of wrangling before Britain left the bloc’s political structures on Jan. 31. Disentangling economies that were closely entwined as part of the EU’s single market for goods and services took even longer.

The U.K. has remained part of the single market and customs union during an 11-month post-Brexit transition period. As a result, many people so far will have noticed little impact from Brexit.

On Jan. 1, the breakup will start feeling real. The new year will bring huge changes, even with a trade deal. No longer will goods and people be able to move freely between the U.K. and its continental neighbors without border restrictions.

EU nationals will no longer be able to live and work in Britain without visas -- though that does not apply to the more than 3 million already doing so -- and Britons can no longer automatically work or retire in EU nations. Exporters and importers face customs declarations, goods checks and other obstacles.

The U.K.-EU border is already reeling from new restrictions placed on travellers from Britain into France and other European countries due to a new coronavirus variant sweeping through London and southern England. Thousands of trucks were stuck in traffic jams near Dover on Wednesday, waiting for their drivers to get virus tests so they could enter the Eurotunnel to France.

British supermarkets say the backlog will take days to clear and there could be shortages of some fresh produce over the holiday season.

Despite the deal, there are still unanswered questions about huge areas, including security cooperation between the U.K. and the bloc and access to the EU market for Britain’s huge financial services sector.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 11:34:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/uk-eu-reach-post-brexit-trade-agreement/article33412448.ece

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