Britain and the European Union reached a last-minute trade agreement Thursday, paving the way for an end to more than four years of turmoil that has surrounded the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU — a departure slated to be finalized at year’s end.
After 11 rocky months of negotiations, the Christmas Eve deal set the terms for how the two will interact economically as separate entities by establishing dispute resolution mechanisms and fair competition rules, and resolving what had become heated disputes on fishing rights and other issues.
Although both sides made compromises, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared victory and framed the deal as icing on a cake of independence that the U.K. baked when it voted in 2016 to free itself of economic and bureaucratic strain that most Britons had come to associate with EU membership.
“We have taken back control of our laws and our destiny,” Mr. Johnson declared, circulating photos of himself beaming and flashing thumbs-up signs on social media.
Mr. Johnson told a Downing Street press conference that Britain had finally resolved a matter “that has bedeviled our politics for decades, and it is up to us all together as a newly and truly independent nation to realize the immensity of this moment and to make the most of it.”
He also appeared eager to temper the notion that Britain no longer considers itself European. “Although we have left the EU, this country will remain culturally, emotionally, historically, strategically, geologically attached to Europe,” he said.
“I think this deal means a new stability and a new certainty in what has sometimes been a fractious and difficult relationship,” Mr. Johnson said, reminding observers in the EU that “we will be your friend, your ally, your supporter and — indeed, never let it be forgotten — your No. 1 market.”
His comments coincided with similar celebratory exclamations from EU leaders, who sought to portray the trade agreement as a win-win for both sides.
“We now have a fair & balanced agreement,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a message on Twitter.
The deal requires ratification by the European and British parliaments but is expected to rapidly ease growing chaos that has surrounded cross-border commerce in recent days.
“It will protect our EU interests, ensure fair competition & provide predictability for our fishing communities,” Mrs. Von der Layen tweeted. “Europe is now moving on.”
The U.K. has remained part of the EU’s single market and customs union during the 11-month post-Brexit transition period. The Associated Press noted Thursday that, as a result, many people have noticed little impact thus far from Brexit.
On Jan. 1, however, the breakup will start feeling real. Even with a trade deal, goods and people will no longer be able to move freely between the U.K. and its continental neighbors without border restrictions.
EU citizens will no longer be able to live and work in Britain without visas— though that does not apply to the 4 million already doing so — and Britons can no longer automatically work or retire in EU nations. Exporters and importers face customs declarations, goods checks and other obstacles.
The U.K.-EU border is already reeling from restrictions placed on travelers from Britain into France and other European countries because of the new variant of the coronavirus sweeping through London and southern England.
With that as a backdrop, the deal was reached just more than a week before a deadline set for Britain to complete its split from the EU and set into motion a race to approve and ratify the agreement.
Both sides are expected to move quickly.
Although the British political landscape has been one of struggle since the country shocked the world with its 2016 vote to leave the EU, all indications are that the deal will quickly be ratified in London. The British Parliament is set to vote on Dec. 30.
Nigel Farage, the ultraconservative leader of the country’s Brexit Party, appears to have given the deal his blessing. The “deal is not perfect but it is a big moment,” he tweeted.
“This victory is a tribute to the ordinary men and women who stood up against the Westminster establishment — and won,” Mr. Farage said. “There is no going back.”
The deal was reached 4½ years after Britons voted 52% to 48% to leave the EU and, in the words of the Brexiteers’ campaign slogan, “take back control” of the country’s borders and laws.
It took more than three years of wrangling before Britain left the bloc’s political structures in January. Disentangling the two sides’ economies and reconciling Britain’s desire for independence with the EU’s aim of preserving its unity has taken longer, playing out over the past year.
Once ratified by both sides, the agreement will ensure Britain and the 27-nation bloc can continue to trade in goods without tariffs or quotas.
The devil will be in the details of the 2,000-page agreement, but both sides said the deal protects their cherished goals. Britain said it gives the U.K. control over its money, borders, laws and fishing waters and ensures the country is “no longer in the lunar pull of the EU.”
Tense and often testy negotiations gradually whittled differences between EU and British negotiators on the three key issues of fair competition rules, mechanisms for resolving future disputes and fishing rights.
The rights of EU boats to trawl in British waters — an economically minor but symbolically huge issue — was the last obstacle. Maritime EU nations were seeking to retain access to U.K. waters, where they have long fished, but Britain insisted it must exercise control as an “independent coastal state.”
Under the deal, the EU is giving up a quarter of the quota it catches in U.K. waters, far less than the 80% Britain initially demanded. The system will be in place for 5½ years, after which the quotas will be reassessed.
Mrs. Von der Leyen said the deal more broadly protects the EU’s single market and contains safeguards to ensure Britain does not unfairly undercut the bloc’s standards.
Mr. Johnson’s government, meanwhile, has acknowledged that a chaotic no-deal exit — or a “crash-out,” as the British call it — could have resulted in turmoil costing hundreds of thousands of jobs. Analysts say it would probably have triggered gridlock at the country’s ports, temporary shortages of some goods and price increases for staple foods.
To avoid that, negotiating sessions alternating between London and Brussels — and sometimes disrupted by the pandemic — gradually whittled down differences between the two sides.
Brexit has been championed and celebrated by the Trump administration, as well as by pro-sovereignty and nationalist political movements around the world. In many regions, the period was marked by public disillusionment with so-called establishment institutions, globalization and some multinational organizations.
Despite the jubilation in London, some observers argue that the political upheaval triggered by Brexit has been so damaging over the past four years that it has become hard for EU supporters not to view the entire ordeal as a victory for the Continent’s multinationalist cause.
Financial Times U.K. chief political commentator and U.K. editor at large Robert Shrimsley wrote Thursday that “whatever the U.K. may become in the future, no one can say the years since the 2016 referendum have projected a confident, independent nation.”
“The turmoil has done much to quell similar movements in other EU nations,” he wrote. “From the EU’s point of view, Brexit could not have gone much better.”
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.