European Parliament Ratifies Brexit Deal

Four months after the United Kingdom officially began a new era outside the European Union, the European Parliament gave its approval to the EU-U.K. Brexit deal.

Michel Barnier, head of the Task Force for Relations with the UK , center, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, right, attend a debate on the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement at the European Parliament in Brussels on Tuesday. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool via AP)

(CN) — The European Parliament has overwhelmingly approved the deal setting out the terms of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, a stamp of approval that formalizes Brexit.

The parliament voted 660-5 in favor of ratifying the deal, with 32 abstentions. The vote took place late Tuesday and the tally was released Wednesday morning. Still, the Brexit deal won’t be ratified in full until EU ministers give their token blessing at a meeting at the end of April.

It was largely a symbolic vote because the Brussels-based parliament made up of elected representatives from the EU’s 27 member states was bound to approve a deal that took about a year to negotiate and prevented a catastrophic rupture in relations. The U.K. officially left the EU on Jan. 1.

Although the parliament’s approval is the last major step in the Brexit process, the U.K. and EU are almost guaranteed to continue wrangling over the meaning and effect of Brexit for years to come and many aspects of their relationship remain uncertain.

The Brexit deal is largely limited to goods going between the U.K. and EU and ensures that tariffs and quotas are not imposed, though additional customs paperwork is needed and trade between the two has fallen. But the deal does not cover other areas, most importantly financial and business services, which make up large portions of the U.K.’s economy. A separate deal on financial services is getting closer to approval.

The Brexit deal also contains a contested section on Northern Ireland that leaves that troubled region in line with EU rules. This arrangement was needed to ensure cumbersome and politically contentious border checks do not return between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

But the so-called Northern Ireland protocol has sparked protests among Protestants in Northern Ireland and led to legal challenges. Many Protestants feel they are being split off from the rest of the U.K. as the Irish Sea effectively becomes the border between Britain and the EU. Resentment is strong among Protestants against British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who they feel broke a promise he made not to allow a border to run down the Irish Sea. In the end, Johnson could only get his Brexit deal through the House of Commons by setting up this new quasi-border down the Irish Sea.

Since the U.K’s departure in January, there have been spats between the U.K. and the EU over fishing access in British waters, vaccine deliveries, the status of Gibraltar, a British territory next to Spain, and the implementation of the Northern Ireland customs rules. The EU accuses Johnson’s government of ignoring the Northern Ireland protocol.

After leaving the EU, the U.K. largely turned its back on the EU in the areas of defense and foreign affairs as it seeks to broaden its horizons by securing new trade deals, for instance with Asian nations and the United States, and solidifying its alliance with the U.S. by boosting its military spending by about $22 billion over the next four years. That boost – the U.K.’s largest increase in since the end of the Cold War – was announced last November as the U.K. prepared to leave the EU.

Johnson is pushing for a “global Britain” in the post-Brexit era and is seeking to build a new space command, an artificial intelligence agency and investing even more in the British navy. Many experts, though, doubt Britain will fulfill this vision and say it risks becoming less relevant globally and suffering economically in the long run from Brexit.

Before ratifying the deal, European politicians from varying parts of the political spectrum stressed that Brexit was a “historic mistake.”

Iratxe García Pérez, a Spanish politician and the head of the Socialists and Democrats group in parliament, said ratifying the deal prevents the U.K. from crashing out of the EU and causing economic havoc.

But she characterized Brexit as “the great lie of the British right” and that it “should cause people to reflect on how damaging voluntary isolationism can be.”

Many parliamentarians said the EU must be ready to defend its interests against the U.K. Many in the EU are concerned the U.K. will become a formidable rival in many areas and they want to make sure that Britain does not turn Brexit into an advantage for its businesses at the expense of European companies. For instance, there are worries the U.K. could weaken environmental and labor standards and thereby undercut EU businesses.

“The U.K. government should not misinterpret the vote as a sign that we are letting our guard down,” said Andreas Schieder, an Austrian politician with the Socialists and Democrats.

Renew Europe, a group of liberal party parliamentarians, called for “vigilance” in making sure Britain upholds its side of the bargain.

“Renew Europe is not yet convinced about the willingness of the British government to respect its commitments,” said Malik Azmani, a Dutch politician and one of Renew Europe’s leaders in parliament. “This agreement is no blank check; trust needs to be rebuilt.”

“Working with the current U.K. government means managing divergences instead of convergence, which has costs for both sides,” Azmani said.

Nathalie Loiseau, a French politician with Renew Europe, said she was worried about new tensions in Northern Ireland and an increase in “red tape towards European fishermen” seeking access to British waters.

Johnson said the deal’s ratification will provide “stability to our new relationship with the EU as vital trading partners, close allies and sovereign equals.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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