Think tank IPPR has warned that the Brexit trade deal struck at the 11th hour “isn’t far off a no deal” and will introduce major barriers to trade.
Boris Johnson hailed the historic trade deal struck with the EU as a “new beginning” for Britain that resolves the European question that has “bedevilled” British politics for generations.
Following months of negotiations, an agreement was finally struck on Christmas Eve between the two sides with the Prime Minister subsequently announcing the UK had “taken back control” of its future.
But Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer branded it a “thin” deal – even though he admitted his party would back it in a vote, which is expected to take place in the Commons next week.
“Isn’t far off a no deal”
Marley Morris, IPPR Associate Director for Immigration, Trade and EU Relations, said: “For a deal with the UK’s closest neighbour and largest trading partner, this agreement is remarkably weak. In many respects this agreement isn’t far off a no deal.
“Crucially, this deal will not prevent the introduction of major trade barriers between the UK and the EU in one week’s time.
“While undoubtedly better than a no deal outcome, this deal offers little in critical areas of trade – including on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, on financial services, and on technical barriers to trade.
“Despite the Prime Minister’s claim that there will be ‘no non-tariff barriers to trade’, new customs and regulatory controls are set to kick in on January 1st which are likely to cause considerable disruption.
“Even where the deal offers benefits through maintaining tariff-free trade, it is not clear whether businesses will have time to prepare to meet ‘rules of origin’ requirements and so may end up being forced to pay tariffs in any case.”
Scrutiny of the Brexit trade agreement with the European Union has begun after the full document was published less than a week before it is due to be implemented.
Both sides published the treaty running at up to 1,255 pages on the morning of Boxing Day, as Boris Johnson works to persuade Eurosceptic Tories to back it as the “right deal” for the country.
The Prime Minister acknowledged “the devil is in the detail” but insisted it would stand up to inspection from the European Research Group (ERG) of Brexiteers, who will assemble a panel of lawyers to examine the full text.
His message to Tory MPs came as the EU’s 27 member states indicated they will formally back the deal agreed by the UK with Brussels’ officials within days.
Here is the text of the draft EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement | European Commission https://t.co/RyM6t3T2aY— Eric Mamer (@MamerEric) December 26, 2020
Diplomats in festive jumpers
EU ambassadors were briefed on the contents of the deal by Michel Barnier, who led Brussels’ negotiating team in the talks with the UK.
After a highly unusual meeting on Christmas Day – with at least one diplomat wearing a Santa hat and another in a festive jumper – they agreed to write to the European Parliament to say they intend to take a decision on the provisional application of the deal.
The timing of the Christmas Eve deal forced politicians and officials in the UK and Brussels to tear up their plans.
MPs and peers will be called back to Westminster on December 30 to vote on the deal, but MEPs are not expected to approve it until the new year, meaning it will have to apply provisionally until they give it the green light.
The agreement will almost certainly be passed by Parliament, with Labour supporting it, as the alternative would be a chaotic no-deal situation on January 1.
But Mr Johnson is keen to retain the support of the Eurosceptics on his benches who helped him reach No 10.
On Saturday, Conservative former Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers told BBC Breakfast: “I very much hope this treaty stands up to scrutiny and I hope to be able to support it.
“But I was elected on a manifesto which promised to get Brexit done so I need to read (the document) before I can work out whether this actually enables us to do that or whether it traps us in the regulatory orbit of the European Union.”
“I truly believe this is the right deal for the UK and the EU“
Mr Johnson messaged Tory MPs on WhatsApp as he tried to get them all on side.
“I truly believe this is the right deal for the UK and the EU,” he wrote.
“We have delivered on every one of our manifesto commitments: control of money, borders, laws, fish and all the rest.
“But even more important, I believe we now have a basis for long-term friendship and partnership with the EU as sovereign equals.”
He added that “I know the devil is in the detail” but the deal will survive “ruthless” scrutiny from the “star chamber legal eagles”.
The “star chamber” is the nickname given to the panel assembled by the ERG, including veteran Eurosceptic Sir Bill Cash.
Cabinet minister Michael Gove, writing in The Times, said the deal will create a new “special relationship” – a term usually used to refer to UK-US links – and end the “ugly” politics since the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Greetings from #ChristmasCoreper ! Congratulations to @MichelBarnier and EU nego team for EU-UK agreement of 1,246 pages in such little time. Now a big challenge for all to adapt quickly to new situation #BrexitDeal (pic @EUCouncilPress) pic.twitter.com/01FSwzrtGn— GregorSchusterschitz (@GSchusterschitz) December 25, 2020
No country in the world will be subject to as many export rules to us as the UK
Officials in Brussels and the capitals of EU states are also beginning to scrutinise the deal, with another meeting of ambassadors expected before the new year, possibly on December 28.
The European Commission has also announced a £4.5 billion fund to help regions and industries within the bloc which will be hit by the UK’s withdrawal from the single market and customs union – including fishing communities who face losing out as the UK takes a greater share of stock in British waters.
French Europe minister Clement Beaune said it was a “good agreement” and stressed the EU had not accepted a deal “at all costs”.
He told broadcaster Europe 1 “we needed an agreement less than the British” as “for them, it was a vital need”.
Mr Beaune said British food and industrial products entering the European single market after January 1 will not pay customs duties “but will have to meet all our standards”.
“There is no country in the world that will be subject to as many export rules to us as the UK,” he said.
Mr Johnson used his Christmas message to sell the deal to a public weary of Brexit after years of acrimonious wrangling since the referendum.
“Glad tidings of great joy”
Brandishing a sheaf of papers he said it offered “glad tidings of great joy”.
The deal covers trade worth about £660 billion and means goods can be sold without tariffs or quotas in the EU market.
The share of fish in British waters that the UK can catch will rise from about half now to two-thirds by the end of the five-and-a-half-year transition.
At a Downing Street press conference on Christmas Eve, Mr Johnson said “we will as a result of this deal be able to catch and eat quite prodigious quantities of extra fish”, with £100 million for the industry to modernise and expand.
But Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, said there will be “frustration and anger” across the industry, telling the PA news agency: “In the end it was clear that Boris Johnson wanted an overall trade deal and was willing to sacrifice fishing.”