(CN) — After four and a half years of acrimonious debate over Brexit, the House of Commons on Wednesday overwhelmingly backed a trade deal the British government reached with the European Union to keep goods flowing across the English Channel after Britain leaves the bloc on New Year’s Day.
With backing from the opposition Labour Party, the Conservative-led British Parliament approved the deal in a 521-73 vote. Earlier in the day, European leaders signed off on the deal. Afterwards, the 1,200-page document was flown by a Royal Air Force plane from Brussels to London.
After months of tense negotiations and brinkmanship, the trade deal was reached on Christmas Eve, only one week before the United Kingdom formally exits the EU on New Year’s Day after an 11-month transition period.
With the clock winding down, both sides are rushing to ratify the deal. In London, it still needs the approval of the unelected House of Lords, but that chamber is not expected to block it. Next, it will be signed into law by Queen Elizabeth II. On the EU side, the European Parliament will ratify it in the weeks ahead.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. has been “bedeviled” by its relationship with Europe ever since the end of World War II and that Brexit brings “resolution” to the issue. The U.K. joined the bloc in 1973.
“Now, with this bill, we will become a friendly neighbor” to Europe, he told the House of Commons before the vote on the trade deal.
Johnson, a former London mayor, was among the few Conservative Party politicians to support the idea of leaving the EU during the 2016 referendum and rose to the premiership after helping orchestrate the downfall of his predecessor, Theresa May. Johnson and other pro-Brexit Tories in early 2019 blocked a previous trade deal May and the EU had negotiated. But that deal was anathema to Johnson and his Conservative allies because they argued it kept the U.K. too tied to EU rules and laws.
This new deal appears to give the U.K. much more freedom from EU rules and laws, although some on the pro-Brexit side still feel that the new deal keeps the U.K. too aligned to the EU.
Keir Starmer, the leader of the center-left Labour Party, urged his party to vote for the deal because he said it was better than having no deal.
Labour opposed Brexit and fought hard to stop it from happening. In 2019, during the height of clashes over Brexit in Parliament, many Labour members wanted to hold a second referendum on Brexit.
“A thin deal is better than no deal,” Starmer said before the vote. “It is a basis to build on in the years to come.”
Without a trade deal, he said British businesses would be “driven to the wall” by getting hit with EU tariffs and quotas.
Among those voting against the bill were members of the Scottish National Party, the main party in Scotland, and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats. One Scottish National Party member, Kirsty Blackman, even called the trade deal “a steaming mug of excrement” during the debate before the vote. She, like most other House members, made her statements via video because much of parliament’s business has gone online due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In the Brexit referendum, 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU. The Scottish National Party has railed against Brexit and the Tory party for pushing the U.K. out of the EU. Now, the party is pushing to hold a new referendum on Scottish independence. Many Scots want an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU.
The trade deal will largely allow about $900 billion in trade to continue uninterrupted across the English Channel and lifts a major shadow over Britain’s future.
Under the deal, the EU and the U.K. are agreeing to cooperate on economic, social, environmental, fisheries and security issues and are establishing a framework to settle disputes. The deal does not cover issues related to cooperation on foreign policy, external security and defense.
In signing the deal, the U.K. is agreeing to respect EU rules and standards, EU leaders say. A major concern for the EU is to prevent U.K. companies from producing goods using different standards and thereby undercutting EU companies.
Still, the deal also frees the U.K. from EU laws and regulations, Johnson said. It also allows the U.K. to control immigration. Many Brits backed Brexit because they didn’t like the increasing number of EU nationals and people from outside the EU moving into the U.K.
The trade deal doesn’t cover some sectors, most importantly for the U.K. the trade in services, including financial services. Services make up about 80% of the British economy. In the coming months and years, both sides are expected to continue negotiating how to treat such areas as financial services and professional qualifications.
Even with the deal, as of Jan. 1 there will nonetheless be new customs checks and more red tape for goods going between the EU and U.K. because the U.K. is dropping out of the EU’s customs union. Northern Ireland is an exception to that because it will remain largely aligned to EU rules and regulations, a condition set in place to avoid the return of customs checks along the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Both sides saw such an arrangement as crucial to prevent sparking sectarian tensions in a region still recovering from decades of violence during the Troubles.
Another key element in the deal was an agreement over fisheries. European fishermen, particularly French ones, rely on fish they catch in British waters. Under the agreement, European fishermen in 2026 will lose about 25% of the stocks they currently catch.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.