BRUSSELS (AP) – Negotiators from the European Union and Britain worked through the night and until Christmas Eve to put the finishing touches on a trade deal that is expected to prevent a chaotic economic imbalance between the two sides next week.
Trade will change independently of all this on January 1, when the United Kingdom leaves the bloc’s single market and customs union. But both sides have been working furiously to avoid a nightmare scenario, in which the imposition of tariffs and fees would cost billions in trade and hundreds of thousands of jobs and, potentially, bottling ports that many goods would find difficult to pass. That possibility was clearly illustrated this week, when a brief French blockade of British trucks because of concerns about the coronavirus created chaos in ports that are still being resolved.
After resolving almost all remaining points of conflict, negotiators combed through hundreds of pages of legal text on Thursday that is expected to become the model for a post-Brexit relationship.
As during much of the nine-month negotiations, the issue of EU fishing fleets in British waters proved to be the most intractable and controversial, with negotiators still discussing quotas for some individual species as dawn came and went.
Still, sources on both sides said the long and difficult negotiations were on the verge of ending as negotiators, holed up at the EU headquarters in Brussels with a stack of pizzas, worked to deliver the text to their leaders on Thursday.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said there appeared to be “some sort of last-minute problem” with fish, but it was not surprising. He said he expected announcements of a London and Brussels deal “today.”
The agreement would then go to the 27 EU nations seeking unanimous approval, as well as the approval of the EU and UK parliaments. These approvals are expected to be obtained.
The British currency, the pound, rose due to expectations of a deal, rising 0.5% against the dollar, to just under $ 1.36.
It has been four and a half years since the British voted 52% -48% to leave the EU to – in the words of the Brexiteers’ campaign slogan – ‘take back control’ of UK borders and laws.
It took more than three years of contention before Britain left the bloc’s political structures on January 31. Negotiating how to separate economies that were closely linked as part of the EU’s single market for goods and services took even longer.
Despite the apparent progress, the main aspects of the future relationship between the 27-nation bloc and its former member remain uncertain. But that leaves the relationship between the UK and the EU mutually dependent and often turbulent – and its 675 billion pounds ($ 918 billion) in annual trade – on a much more solid basis than a break without a deal.
If a deal is announced, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson will be able to claim that he fulfilled the promise that earned him a resounding electoral victory a year ago: “Make Brexit”.
Even with an agreement, trade between Britain and the EU will face customs controls and other barriers on January 1. But a deal would avoid the most disastrous effects of tariffs and fees. Britain withdrew from the EU on 31 January and an economic transition period expires on 31 December.
Johnson has always insisted that the UK will “prosper enormously” even if no agreement is reached and the UK has to negotiate with the EU under the terms of the World Trade Organization as of January 1.
But his government has acknowledged that a chaotic exit is likely to bring about a stalemate in Britain’s ports, temporary shortages of some products and increases in staple food prices. The tariffs will apply to many UK exports, including 10% on cars and more than 40% on sheep, affecting the UK economy as it struggles to recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
In recent days, Johnson and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have been increasingly drawn to the talks, speaking on the phone in an attempt to unblock negotiations that have dragged on for months, hampered by the pandemic and both sides’ opposite views of what Brexit entails.
Rumors of a trade deal before Christmas have emerged in recent days based on progress on the main outstanding issues: fair competition, future dispute resolution and fishing.
The EU has long feared that Britain would undermine the bloc’s social, environmental and state aid rules in order to gain an unfair advantage with its exports to the EU. Britain said that having to comply with EU rules would undermine its sovereignty.
A compromise was finally reached on the “equal conditions” issues, leaving the economically smaller, but extremely symbolic, issue of fish as the end point. EU maritime nations are trying to maintain access to the waters of the United Kingdom, where they have been fishing for a long time, but Britain insists it must exercise control as an “independent coastal state”.
A huge gap between the two sides of the fisheries has been gradually narrowed until it finally appears to be bridgeable.
Johnson’s large conservative majority in parliament must ensure that the Brexit trade deal is approved, but any deal will be criticized by his party’s Brexit supporters. The party’s Eurosceptic European Research Group said it would carefully examine any agreement “to ensure that its provisions genuinely protect the UK’s sovereignty after we leave the transition period later this year.”
The European Parliament has warned that it is now too late to approve the agreement before January 1, but an agreement can be provisionally put into practice and approved by EU lawmakers in January.
Companies on both sides are calling for an agreement that will save tens of billions in costs.
Although both sides economically suffer from the failure to secure a trade deal, most economists think Britain would be more affected because it is smaller and depends more on trade with the EU than the other way around.
No law reported from London.
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