European Parliament ratifies EU-UK trade deal

MEPs in the European Parliament have voted to ratify the EU-UK trade deal nearly four months after the Brexit deal came into effect.

The lawmakers voted overwhelmingly in favour of formally approving the deal with 660 votes in favour, 5 against, and 32 abstentions.

While the move is largely symbolic with few real-world ramifications, it marks the end of the road.

The vote concludes the years-long Brexit process and opens a new era where close collaboration between Brussels and London is expected to coexist with constant wrangling and disagreements.

The deal, which has already been ratified by the UK, conditionally came into force on December 31, 2020, but has technically still been open to debate since then.

EU leaders lauded the move on Twitter, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saying she “warmly welcomed” the decision and President of the European Council, Charles Michel, echoing her words, adding: “It marks a major step forward in #EU-#UK relations and opens a new era.”

The UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Frost, said he “hugely welcome the overwhelming vote” and hoped “we can now begin a new chapter together as Europeans, characterised by friendly cooperation between sovereign equals”.

The Briton also thanked the European Commission and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier, for “helping get us here”.

Brexit was a ‘failure of the European Union’

Michel Barnier, who until earlier this year was the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, addressed the parliament before it voted on Tuesday, calling Brexit a “failure of the European Union” and urged both the EU institutions in Brussels and the national governments across the continent to draw lessons from the UK’s departure.

“This is a divorce, it’s a warning,” he said. “Why did 52 (per cent) of the British (population) vote against Europe? There are reasons for that: social anger and tension which existed in many regions in the UK but also in many regions of the EU.”

During his speech, the Frenchman reflected candidly on the more than four years of work that led to the landmark agreement in December. Calling the UK a “great country, neighbour, partner and friend”, Barnier asked to preserve the spirit of cooperation across the English Channel.

“We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us,” he said, quoting the words of Jo Cox, the British Labour MP who was murdered in the lead-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Barnier praised the new UK-EU agreement for protecting the rights of EU citizens, the integrity of the single market and peace on both sides of the Irish border. He also thanked the 27 member states and European lawmakers for maintaining unity throughout the “very difficult negotiations”.

‘Unilateral decisions will get us nowhere’

Also speaking before MEPs was von der Leyen, who thanked Barnier for “guiding us through this task”.

Von der Leyen said the EU-UK partnership was “forged together over decades” and will serve to contribute “towards the prosperity, security and global power of our continent”.

But her speech came with a number of caveats related to the “sheer scale of the task ahead” and the potential setbacks and controversies that might occur.

Von der Leyen said the new EU-UK trade deal “comes with real teeth”, referring to the dispute settlement mechanism and the provisions that would allow the EU to take “unilateral remedial measures where necessary”.

“Let me be clear: We do not want to have to use these tools. But we will not hesitate to use them if necessary. They are essential to ensure full compliance with the TCA and the Withdrawal Agreement, which were both negotiated in such fine detail and agreed by both sides,” she told MEPs.

Disagreements have already taken place: earlier this year, the UK accused the EU of undermining the Northern Ireland Protocol when the Commission increased scrutiny over EU-produced coronavirus vaccines. Weeks later, the Commission accused London of breaching the protocol when London decided to extend a grace period on exports certificates.

This led the European Parliament to postpone the final ratification on the EU-UK trade deal, which will now take place four months before its conclusion in December.

“We have obviously seen a number of issues arise since then. Some were to be expected, others are teething issues and many are the consequence of the type of Brexit the UK chose. But regardless of the reasons, we need to focus on joint solutions. Unilateral decisions will get us nowhere,” von der Leyen said.

The Commission President ended her intervention on a positive note, saying the trade deal will allow the EU to move forward: “We know it will not always be easy and there is a lot of vigilance, diligence and hard work ahead but while today’s vote is obviously an end, it is also the beginning of a new chapter.

“The choice is now whether today’s vote will be the high watermark for EU-UK relations for the next decades or whether we see this as the foundation of a strong and close partnership based on our shared interests and values.”

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