Britain and E.U. Reach Landmark Deal on Brexit

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The trade agreement comes after months of negotiations, and still leaves critical details to be worked out.


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By The Associated Press and Reuters

Britain and the European Union reached a landmark trade agreement on Brexit after 11 months of negotiations and just a week before a year-end deadline.

By Mark Landler and Stephen Castle
Dec. 24, 2020

LONDON — Britain and the European Union struck a hard-fought trade agreement on Thursday, settling a bitter divorce that stretched over more than four years and setting the terms for a post-Brexit future as close neighbors living apart.

The deal, which must be ratified by the British and European Parliaments, came together in Brussels after 11 months of grinding negotiations, culminating in a last-minute haggle over fishing rights that stretched into Christmas Eve, just a week before a year-end deadline.

Despite running to thousands of pages, the agreement leaves critical parts of the relationship to be worked out later. And it will not prevent some disruption to trade across the English Channel, since British exports will still be subjected to some border checks, adding costs for companies and causing potential delays at ports.

But it is nonetheless a landmark in the long-running Brexit drama — the bookend to Britain’s departure from the European Union in January and a blueprint for how the two sides will coexist after severing deep ties built over a 47-year relationship. A failure to come to terms could have left Britain and the European Union in a bitter standoff, poisoning relations for years to come.

“It was a long and winding road, but we have got a good deal to show for it,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm. “This moment marks the end of a long voyage.”

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Brexit began as a project to assert British sovereignty and throw off the constraints of Brussels. Fueled by anti-immigrant fervor and a belief that an independent Britain would fare better in a changing world, it became at times an insoluble riddle — how to unravel more than 40 years of ties without inviting chaos.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, right, won a landslide election victory in 2019 vowing to “get Brexit done.”Credit…Henry Nicholls/Reuters
As the debate played out, the world shifted around Britain. Rising populists like President Trump erected barriers to trade; the pandemic put globalism on the defensive; and the victory of Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the American presidential election called the go-it-alone ethos of Brexit into question.

To allow enough time to confront these issues, Britain agreed to continue abiding by most of the rules and regulations of the European Union until the end of this year while negotiators hashed out new arrangements to govern a vast cross-Channel trade, valued at more than $900 billion a year.

If approved, the agreement will take effect on Jan. 1, four and a half years after a narrow majority of people in Britain voted to leave the European Union, plunging the country into rancorous debate and political divisions.

For Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, who won a landslide election victory in 2019 vowing to “get Brexit done,” the deal allows him to fulfill that promise. He sounded triumphant when speaking shortly after the announcement. “We’ve taken back control of our laws and our destiny,” he said.

“For the first time since 1973,” Mr. Johnson said, “we will be an independent coastal nation with full control of our own waters.”

But to get there, the prime minister had to make significant concessions, especially on rules that cover state aid to businesses and European rights to continue fishing in those waters.

Britain will subscribe to “level playing field” principles, hewing closely to European Union standards and regulations for the foreseeable future. Should disputes arise, they will be settled through arbitration rather than the automatic penalties that the European Union had been demanding.

The European Court of Justice, anathema to Brexiteers, will have no role.

In fishing, the last issue to be resolved and the most politically sensitive, the sides agreed on a 25 percent reduction in quotas for European Union nations to be phased in over five and a half years. Britain had been pressing for a three-year transition, the bloc for 14 years.

The agreement does not cover services, such as London’s mighty finance sector, which account for about 80 percent of the British economy.


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