The European Union and United Kingdom have reached a post-Brexit free trade deal, officials announced Thursday – just days before the U.K. is scheduled to finalize its departure from the bloc at the end of the year.
"So we have finally found an agreement. It was a long and winding road but we have got a good deal to show for it," E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at a press conference.
The deal should avert a chaotic economic break between the two sides on New Year’s Day after fears of lines at ports and tariffs between the two sides if no deal was achieved.
The E.U. leader declared relief at a deal being reached but also said that "parting was such sweet sorrow" as the yearslong saga came to a close, and the U.K. would finalize its departure after 47 years from what started out as a simple trading bloc and expanded its power and influence over decades of agreements.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was more victorious, tweeting, "The deal is done" as his E.U. counterpart was speaking.
He then told Brits that he was "very pleased to tell you that we have completed the biggest trade deal yet, worth £660 billion a year, a comprehensive Canada-style free trade deal between the U.K. and E.U."
“It achieves something that the people of this country instinctively knew was doable but they were told was impossible -- 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.
Britain formally left the bloc in January, leading to a transition period until the end of 2020 to allow negotiators to thrash out a free trade deal. But both sides had at times struggled to find agreement, exacerbated by the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, which shuttered travel as well as in-person contact -- while also drawing attention and resources away from what otherwise would have been the number-one issue for the U.K.
The agreement now goes to the 27 E.U. nations seeking unanimous approval, as well as the blessing of the E.U. and British parliaments. Johnson said Parliament would vote on Dec. 30.
It marks a dramatic end to yet another part of the at-time relentless Brexit saga that has seen a number of twists and turns since Brits voted to leave in 2016. The deal had appeared doomed just weeks ago, with issues such as E.U. fishing rights in U.K. waters proving to be a sticking point and Johnson warning Brits that they should prepare for no deal.
Reuters reported this week that E.U. negotiators were prepared to cut the value of its fish catch in British waters by about 25%, but Britain wanted a 30-35% reduction. Meanwhile, the U.K. wants to limit E.U. access over three years, while the E.U. wants a six-year timeframe. Von Der Leyen said that a five-and-a-half-year timeline had been established, but other parts of the deal were not immediately available.
But after resolving the remaining fair-competition and almost all fisheries issues on Wednesday, negotiators combed through hundreds of pages of legal text that should become the blueprint for a post-Brexit relationship.
The details are likely to be scrutinized and widely debated ahead of its ratification in London and from European nations. It will remain to be seen if key Eurosceptics in Johnson's Conservative Party will accept it.
But Nigel Farage, one of the architects of the original Brexit referendum, declared victory ahead of the announcement – even as he expressed possible reservations about the details of the accord.
"On the big stuff, the war is over," he said.
Despite the breakthrough, key aspects of the future relationship between the 27-nation bloc and its former member remain uncertain. But it leaves the mutually dependent but often fractious U.K.-E.U. relationship on a much more solid footing than a disruptive no-deal split.
Johnson will now claim to have delivered on the promise that won him a resounding election victory a year ago: “Get Brexit Done.”
Over the past few days, Johnson and von der Leyen have been drawn more and more into the talks, with Johnson jetting over to Brussels earlier this month to help break the deadlock.
Rumors of a pre-Christmas trade deal surfaced in recent days based on progress on the main outstanding issues: fishing, fair competition and resolution of future disputes.
In their press conferences, both leaders expressed hope of a continuing relationship between Europe and the U.K., with Johnson hoping that it could actually lead to more trade from British businesses in Europe, rather than less as many have expected.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.