Boris Johnson celebrates Brexit deal. Flickr/Number 10
After all that – Britain and the European Union have secured an historic free trade agreement a week before the end of the Brexit transition period, covering the movement of goods as well as the future security relationship. The deal comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took personal control of the talks in recent weeks, achieving a major breakthrough on fishing rights.
On Christmas Eve, Downing Street hailed the agreement as a victory for the UK, with a spokesperson telling journalists that “we have signed the first free trade agreement based on zero tariffs and zero quotas that has ever been achieved with the EU.”
Speaking from Downing Street, Boris Johnson said: “We have taken back control of every jot and tittle of our regulation in a way that is complete and unfettered,” adding that it is now “up to us all together as a newly and truly independent nation to realise the immensity of this moment and make the most of it.”
The Prime Minister made an effort to show that he intends to make immediate use of the UK’s new-found regulatory freedom, noting that both Britain and the EU will benefit from the “stimulus of regulatory competition.” He also announced a new Turing scheme to replace Erasmus, which will send British students “not just to European universities, but to the best universities in the world.”
Johnson’s two immediate predecessors, David Cameron and Theresa May, both praised the agreement. “It’s a good end to a difficult year with some positive news. Trade deal is very welcome – and a vital step in building a new relationship with the EU as friends, neighbours and partners. Many congratulations to the UK negotiating team,” said Cameron, while May said it “provides confidence to business and helps keep trade flowing.”
In Brussels, the tone was more sombre, with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saying during a press conference that “at the end of a successful negotiation, I normally feel joy, but today I only feel quiet satisfaction and, frankly speaking, relief.”
Von der Leyen added: “I know this is a difficult day for some, and to our friends in the United Kingdom, I want to say that parting is such sweet sorrow but, to use the line from TS Eliot, what we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is often a beginning. So, to all Europeans, I think it is time to leave Brexit behind.”
EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier began his statement with a play on his famous line about impending Brexit deadlines. “The clock is no longer ticking,” he said.
Following the announcement of a deal, the European commission sent the draft treaty to member states, with ministers on the council of the EU expected to agree on provisional application of the treaty on 1 January. The UK parliament will meet on Wednesday, December 30 to ratify the treaty – it is expected to pass comfortably.
Downing Street is focused on winning the support of the European Research Group of Conservative eurosceptic backbenchers, who have said they will convene a Star Chamber of lawyers to scrutinise the treaty before the vote. Johnson briefed members of the group on the contents of the deal before the announcement.
Those close to the Prime Minister were comforted by Nigel Farage’s response, which was less oppositional than expected. The former Brexit Party leader said: “Boris will be seen as the man that finished the job. Perhaps not perfectly, but he’s done what he said he’d do, on the big picture. … The war is over. It has gone on for decades in this country… now we’re out.”
Johnson distanced himself from the warlike language though, choosing instead to highlight future cooperation.
Labour leader Keir Starmer is expected to announce his intention to whip his party to vote for the deal.