Did the historic trade deal with Europe end the affair of Brexit?

Did the historic trade deal with Europe end the affair of Brexit?
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Despite an eleventh hour conclusion and fear that talks were destined to fail, the trade deal reached between the European Union and the United Kingdom on Christmas Eve was finished in record time as this piece of history was created. At over 1,200 pages as well as some summaries and political declarations on a host of sensitive issues, it is the most detailed of any such trade deal the European Union, the largest trade bloc in the world, has ever negotiated. It has also been the most difficult and unlike any that Brussels has concluded with other trade partners.

Once the clocks strike midnight, the United Kingdom will formally exit its transition that has allowed it access to the European Union internal market under the same conditions it had before it left. Some obvious changes will take immediate effect. For instance, Britons will no longer enjoy the legal right, which they have had for over four decades, to live, study, work, or retire in the European Union. Britons took an estimated 66 million trips to the European Union in 2019 alone without the need for a travel visa. Now trips longer than 90 days will need one. At airports across the European Union, Britons will have to stand in different security lanes.

Likewise, European Union citizens who live in the United Kingdom or who plan to relocate there will need to either become British citizens or apply to the European Union settlement scheme. The British government is also advising its citizens to take out travel and health insurance since they will not be covered by the European Union health insurance scheme. Another tangible loss for British consumers will be free roaming for mobile phones, but firms have pledged not to add roaming charges for now.


From a business perspective, there will be no taxes or tariffs on products that cross the borders of the European Union and Wales, Scotland, and England, which is a positive development. Importers and exporters will still need to make customs declarations, and special products like plants, animals, and select food items will need additional licenses.

Northern Ireland remains an anomaly within the wider trade deal. There will be no actual customs border between it and the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the European Union. With the late conclusion to the deal, it is unclear how ready businesses in the European Union and the United Kingdom are for the tsunami of paperwork that will be needed to trade between both sides. The disruption could last several months.

After more than four tortuous years of talks since the referendum, does this bring the Brexit affair to an end? Unfortunately, the answer is no. The amount of bureaucratic red tape will likely harm the economy, notably in the United Kingdom, for years to come. Many other issues have not yet been settled in a treaty format, including tax regimes, subsidy controls, and financial services. On the latter, a political declaration with the deal aims to secure\ an official memorandum by the end of winter.

While a conclusion was reached on the sensitive issue of state subsidies, it remains to be seen how this will work in practice. The lawyers for the European Union will be keen to ensure the British government does not hand an unfair advantage in the form of state aid to companies in the United Kingdom to the detriment of companies based in the European Union, where stricter state aid rules have existed for decades.

Despite the claims from Boris Johnson, there are no winners in Brexit. The process ever since the referendum has cost the British economy billions of pounds. Businesses, consumers, students, and tourists on both sides of the English Channel have become victims of the folly of nationalists like Johnson who believe that clawing back greater amounts of sovereignty from Brussels is somehow compatible with a global economy.

A certain amount of closure has been achieved with the trade deal. Both the European Union and the United Kingdom can move on from a process that has overwhelmed the political environment in Brussels and London for over four years. Yet the devil is in the detail. We may have some respite in the short term, but the enactment of the trade deal is bound to ensure the Brexit affair is destined to continue for decades to come.

Michael Geary is a global fellow with the Wilson Center and a professor of European history for the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.