The post-Brexit trade agreement is now a done deal

The European Parliament has finally ratified the U.K.’s post-Brexit trade agreement with the European Union, bringing the long-running saga of the country’s departure closer to its conclusion.

The Council of the EU, representing the bloc’s 27 governments, still needs to ratify the agreement, but that will likely be a rubber-stamping exercise. Members of the European Parliament backed ratification by 660 votes to five, with 32 abstentions. Most people in Europe will be happy to see the back of the affair, even though few are keen on a trade deal that is unprecedented for erecting barriers rather than dismantling them.

“The agreement voted today lays the foundation for a new EU-U.K. relationship,” tweeted David Sassoli, the president of the European Parliament, after Tuesday’s debate on the agreement’s ratification. “It will not be as frictionless as what came before, but it is in all our interests to make it work.”

The agreement was struck on Christmas Eve, just days before the Brexit transition period—in which most terms of the U.K.’s EU membership continued to apply despite its departure at the end of January 2020—ran out.

Although the deal avoided tariffs and quotas on most goods, it created many regulatory hurdles for companies on both sides of the newfound divide, when trading with the other side.

The European Parliament (unlike the British Parliament) decided to take its time in scrutinizing the terms, but the trade agreement nonetheless came into effect at the start of January. In the ensuing month, British goods sales to the EU fell by a stunning 42%, with food exports being particularly hard-hit. Imports from the EU fell by 29%.

In February, there was a weak rebound in European exports to the U.K., despite a stronger improvement of nearly 47% in British exports to the EU.

Perhaps most consequentially in the long term, the Brexit withdrawal agreement (which preceded the trade deal) created a quasi-border in the Irish Sea between Britain and the province of Northern Ireland, which has the U.K.’s only land border with the EU. The situation is politically perilous, reviving old and sometimes violent arguments over the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

Responding to those tensions and to the more general issue of new red tape, the British government in March unilaterally extended a grace period for Irish Sea border checks on agri-foods and parcels. The EU responded by launching legal action against the U.K. for breaking the Brexit accord.

“Ratification of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement is a decisive step forward, but it’s far from the end of the process for business,” said Tony Danker, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, in a statement after the European Parliament vote’s results were announced on Wednesday morning.

“The next phase is normalizing relations between the U.K. and EU, in order to smooth trade and maximize the benefits of the new economic partnership.”

Driving home the importance of the trust issue, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen welcomed the agreement’s ratification by tweeting that the deal “marks the foundation of a strong and close partnership with the U.K. Faithful implementation is essential.”

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