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EU, UK negotiators finalize post-Brexit trade deal

EU, UK negotiators finalize post-Brexit trade deal
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European Union (EU) and United Kingdom (U.K.) negotiators have reached a trade agreement, finalizing the terms for a formal break after four years of talks.

The agreement, which still has to be ratified by the European and British parliaments, came together after somewhat tense negotiations that were repeatedly stalled over an array of issues, notably fishing rights.

The details of the deal are still being rolled out, but the agreement will allow trade worth hundreds of billions of dollars to flow between the U.K. and the 27-member EU. 

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“We have finally found an agreement. It was a long and winding road, but we have got a good deal to show for it. It is fair, it is a balanced deal, and it is the right and responsible thing to do for both sides,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a press conference on Thursday.

The agreement came seven days before a deadline to reach a deal after the U.K.'s departure from the EU in January. The absence of an agreement would have left the two sides staring each other down on an array of trade issues and likely upended the close ties Britain shares with its continental partners. Still, the pact is expected to result in trade disruptions and disturbances at border crossings as the pact is implemented.

Should it be approved, the deal will take effect on Jan. 1, fulfilling the demands of a slim majority of British voters in a 2016 referendum who voted to break away from the EU.

Both sides declared victory on Thursday following negotiations. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson touted the deal as a win for British sovereignty and a fulfillment of his campaign promise to deliver a break from the EU.

“We’ve taken back control of our laws and our destiny. We’ve taken back control of every jot and tittle of our regulation in a way that is complete and unfettered,” he said at his own press briefing. “We will be able to set our own standards, to innovate in the way that we want … We’ll be able to decide how and where we’re going to stimulate new jobs and new hope.”

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Von der Leyen, meanwhile, said at her press conference that the EU fought hard to ensure that the U.K. will follow its rules and standards to gain access to the largest single market on the globe, saying the agreement was “negotiated from a position of strength,” a nod to economic heft the EU will still carry even without formal inclusion of the British economy.

As part of the deal, the U.K. will be forced to subscribe to “level playing field” principles in place to ensure that EU trading partners do not have an advantage over the continent by receiving state aid or implementing more lax environmental or labor regulations. British goods will also still have to face regulatory checks on goods at the border.

“It was the European Union that said very clear, if the United Kingdom wants access to the single market, the largest single market in the world without quota, without tariffs, then they are as a sovereign country, free to decide whether they play by the rules like every company in the single market,” von der Leyen said. “If they do not want to follow the rules, there will be quota, tariffs, so there is a price to pay for that.”

The deal comes as the U.K. and the EU grapple with the rapid spread of the coronavirus, which pushed a trade deal to the back burner for much of the year. However, the looming deadline pushed negotiators back into talks in order to avoid a “hard” Brexit, which would have significantly disrupted economies on both sides.

Still, the pact was nearly disrupted by an eleventh-hour disagreement over fishing rights in British waters, a top issue for coastal towns on both sides. Johnson had vowed that Brexit would return full control of British waters to British fishing crews, but European negotiators made it a priority to ensure continue access for their crews.

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“The EU and the UK agreed on a new framework for the joint management of fish stocks in EU and UK waters. The UK will be able to further develop British fishing activities, while the activities and livelihoods of European fishing communities will be safeguarded, and natural resources preserved,” the European Commission said in a summary of the deal.

The agreement marks a bookend to four years of talks since the 2016 referendum that exposed burgeoning divisions between the U.K. and its continental partners. However, both sides stressed their remaining ties following the pact.

“To our friends in the United Kingdom, I want to say, parting is such sweet sorrow. But to use a line from T.S. Eliot, what we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. So to all Europeans I say, it is time to leave Brexit behind. Our future is made in Europe,” said von der Leyen on Thursday.

“Although we have left the European Union, this country will remain culturally, emotionally, historically, strategically, geographically attached to Europe,” added Johnson.

— Updated at 11:49 a.m.