Britain and European Union strike last-minute post-Brexit trade deal

LONDON — With just days until the deadline, the United Kingdom and European Union agreed to a post-Brexit trade deal Thursday, signaling the end of a four-year saga that engulfed British politics and exposed a deep cultural divide that shows no signs of healing.

“I’m very pleased to tell you this afternoon that we have completed our biggest trade deal yet,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a televised press conference, championing the agreement that he said would be worth 660 billion pounds a year (about $890 billion).

The deal “achieves something that the people of this country instinctively knew was doable but which they were told was impossible,” he said. “We’ve taken back control of our laws and our destiny.”

Still, Johnson added: “Although we have left the European Union, this country will remain culturally, emotionally, historically, strategically, geographically attached to Europe.”

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, the E.U.’s executive branch, said at a separate news conference: “It was a long and winding road but we have got a good deal to show for it.”

She said rather than joy she merely felt “satisfaction and relief,” telling the British that “parting is such sweet sorrow” and urging the rest of Europe, “it is time to leave Brexit behind.”

Many experts welcomed the deal as a compromise and a good outcome for both sides — particularly given the alternative. It came just days before a deadline of Dec. 31 — after which the U.K. would have left E.U. rules without an agreement at all.

This “no-deal Brexit” is widely regarded as a nightmare scenario that would seriously hurt economies and cause logistical chaos on both sides.

Johnson’s deal will not avoid friction. It is what experts call a “hard Brexit” free trade agreement. It focuses largely on quotas and tariffs but will likely not avoid regulatory checks on goods at the border, something that experts have warned could cause disruption at ports, meaning price rises and even shortages.

Anti-Brexit demonstrators stand outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, on Dec. 9, 2020.Han Yan / Xinhua News Agency/Getty Images

The U.K. voted to leave the E.U. in 2016 and after years of tortuous politicking finally exited on Jan. 31 this year. Until Dec. 31 it is in a “transition period” with the remaining 27 E.U. countries, keeping the same rules while trying to negotiate a deal.

Negotiators have been shuttling between London and Brussels for months. For most of that time it seemed as though they would be unable to break the deadlock, which centered around how to stop Britain gaining an unfair advantage on its newly estranged neighbors, and fishing rights — an economically tiny but nonetheless symbolic sector of the British economy.

The full text of the agreement — said to contain some 2,000 pages — had not been published as of early Thursday evening.As well as removing tariffs and quotas, the deal will ensure future cooperation on science, law enforcement and financial markets, a U.K. government spokesperson said in a statement.

David Henig, U.K. director at the European Centre For International Political Economy, a think tank, described it as “a good deal for both sides.”

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Now that it’s been agreed by negotiators, the deal will need to be approved by E.U. leaders, who have been consulted constantly throughout the trade talks, and British lawmakers in the House of Commons, where Johnson holds a strong majority and the opposition Labour Party is not expected to stand in his way.

The initial Brexit vote was decided 52 percent to 48 but polls now consistently show that more people than not believe it was a mistake.

Brexit does still have millions of supporters. They see it as a way to break free from Europe’s shared rules, allowing Britain to strike its own trade deals and control its borders — usually a euphemism for tighter controls on immigration.

Johnson was one of the chief architects of the pro-Brexit campaign in 2016, and securing a deal makes good his long-running promise to “get Brexit done.” After years of pitched battles with anti-Brexit “Remainers,” Nigel Farage, another hardcore Brexit leader and ally of President Donald Trump, declared Thursday: “The war is over.”

But independent economists are almost united in agreeing any form of Brexit will damage the U.K. economically, an unavoidable consequence of leaving the world’s largest political and economic club — not to mention its largest trading partner.

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This year Covid-19 triggered the worst British recession in 300 years; the pain wrought by Brexit is forecast to be even worse, according to the government’s Office for Budget Responsibility.

The British government’s own estimates say even an ambitious trade deal between the U.K. and United States would not be enough to offset this damage.

Meanwhile political critics worry that in a world where Washington, Beijing and Brussels are vying for hegemonic influence, Britain leaving the E.U. will reduce it to a midranking outsider.

Then there’s the impact on the unity of the U.K. itself. The Brexit agreement means that there will be a controversial trade border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the rest of the country.

This means it will be easier for Northern Ireland to do trade with the Irish Republic, which is a separate country, at a time when some polls suggest growing support for Irish reunification.

Similarly, Brexit has coincided with growing support for an independent Scotland, where most people voted to stay in the E.U. but were outnumbered by the sheer weight of English voters.

“There is no deal that will ever make up for what Brexit takes away from us,” Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who leads Scotland’s devolved government, wrote on Twitter. She said it was time for Scotland to “chart our own future as an independent, European nation.”