EU leaders Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel signed the post-Brexit trade deal agreed with Britain in a brief ceremony on Wednesday.
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The texts were then to be flown to London in a British Royal Air Force jet for the signature of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on the eve of Britain’s departure from the EU single market.
Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, Johnson vowed that Britain would work closely with the European Union after this Brexit deal takes full effect from January 1, as MPs debated the two sides’ mammoth trade pact.
“With this bill we are going to be a friendly neighbour, the best friend and ally the EU could have,” he told parliament.
London and Brussels will work “hand in glove whenever our values and interests coincide, while fulfilling the sovereign wish of the British people to live under their own sovereign laws made by their own sovereign parliament”.
The government intends to ram all stages of the 85-page European Union (Future Relationship) Bill through the Commons and the House of Lords in one day, before the EU trade deal takes effect at 11pm GMT on Thursday.
At that hour – midnight in Brussels – the UK will be entirely out of the EU, following an 11-month transition period in place since Brexit took legal effect and more than four years after Britons voted to leave in a divisive referendum.
The agreement averted the prospect of a cliff-edge separation that would have seen quotas and tariffs slapped on all cross-Channel trade, exacerbating strains in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit Britain harder than most.
Consequences taking shape
But not everything in the trade deal was well received in the UK. For one, British fishermen accused the government of selling them out. Secondly, services, which account for 80 percent of the UK economy, were largely omitted, and the City of London faces an anxious wait to learn on what basis it can continue dealing with the Europe Union in the future.
But a faction of arch-Brexiteers in Johnson’s ruling Conservative party gave their blessing to the EU agreement on Tuesday, and the main opposition Labour party signalled its reluctant backing, ensuring the legislation will pass.
Despite misgivings among some of his own MPs, who plan to abstain in Wednesday’s vote, Labour leader Keir Starmer said neutrality was not an option given the stakes for Britain as it unwinds nearly five decades of integration with the European mainland.
“But the consequences of it are yours, and yours alone,” he said, addressing Johnson’s government. “We will hold you to account for it, every second you are in power.”
Indeed, the full consequences of the agreement will only play out in the coming months, and UK businesses will still be grappling with the kind of customs red tape they have avoided for decades in trading across the Channel.
From January 1, there will no longer be free movement of people from Britain to the EU or vice versa.
The UK government is pulling out of the European student exchange programme, Erasmus, that has benefited tens of thousands of young people over the years.
Under the EU deal, musicians are not covered by exemptions allowing for free passage of short-term business visitors, sparking warnings that continental tours by UK bands will become unviable.
The many British owners of European holiday homes are finding that unless they apply for residency permits, they will face limits on how often they can visit their properties.
And Britons will face new bureaucracy if they want to take their pets with them to the EU.
Under the compressed legislative calendar, the European Parliament will only debate the Brexit deal after the New Year.
Pending that, EU member states gave their green light on Monday for the accord to take provisional effect before Thursday’s deadline.