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article imageBritain faces major Brexit challenges after last-minute deal

By Germain MOYON (AFP)     Dec 25, 2020 in World

Britain is set for a new chapter Friday after securing a hard-fought post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union as EU envoys gave the accord, reached only after months of tortuous negotiations, a sober welcome.

"There was no great joy because a divorce is not really good news," one EU diplomat told AFP.

Member state envoys to the EU were "sober enough" in their response, the diplomat said, and the text -- all 1,200 pages and in English -- "will now be examined to make sure there are no hidden details which could cause a problem".

The envoys are expected to meet again on Monday to get the ratification process started, the diplomat added.

As for Britain, the accord means the country will now not tumble off a trade "cliff-edge" come January 1, avoiding a mountain of harmful tariffs and quotas.

But major changes are inevitable as London definitively quits the EU single market and free movement with the bloc comes to an end after nearly half a century of integration.

"We shouldn't underestimate the economic shock Britain will experience," another European diplomat told AFP.

Britain has been in a standstill transition period still subject to the bloc's rules since formally leaving the EU on January 31.

Standing in front of a Downing Street Christmas tree in a video message late Thursday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson vaunted the hundreds of pages of text as "a "good deal for the whole of Europe" and a "present" for Britain.

The address was "a victory speech", Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe think-tank, told AFP.

Britain's top 10 trading partners for exports and imports in 2019.
Britain's top 10 trading partners for exports and imports in 2019.
Jonathan WALTER, AFP

"Boris Johnson was elected Prime minister to get Brexit done, he has now definitively got Brexit done," Menon said.

Johnson has come under fierce criticism for his management of the country's coronavirus outbreak, which has so far left almost 70,000 dead, the heaviest toll in Europe.

In recent days, thousands of trucks have been backed up at Channel ports, after France and other European partners blocked crossings over rising cases of a new virus variant believed to spread faster.

With ferry and tunnel crossings unusually staying open on Christmas Day and British soldiers carrying out virus tests, there were signs of the logjam clearing on Friday.

Some had pointed out that the transport chaos, which raised fears of shortages of fresh produce, could be a glimpse of what awaited the country if it crashed out of the EU single market without a deal.

- Fishermen's fears -

The EU has offered Britain unprecedented tariff- and quota-free access to its single market of 450 million consumers.

But it has in return secured London's commitment to respect its always-evolving rules in some areas such as environmental protection, labour regulation and tax, aiming to avoid Britain undercutting companies inside the bloc.

Fish was one of the hardest sectors for Britain and the EU to strike a post-Brexit deal over
Fish was one of the hardest sectors for Britain and the EU to strike a post-Brexit deal over
GLYN KIRK, AFP/File

The UK has also signed up to guarantees that it will not abuse state aid to firms to seek an unfair advantage.

It was the question of fish that emerged as the last stumbling block this week when London pushed to reduce EU fishing fleets' share of the estimated 650-million-euro (£586 million, $790 million) annual haul by more than a third.

The final agreement settled on a 25-percent cut to be phased in over a five-and-a-half year period.

EU officials have promised to support their fishing sector through the painful cuts, a major downside of a deal European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called "fair and balanced" overall.

- 'Relief rather than celebration' -

For Britain, "that a deal has been agreed at all is in many respects a remarkable achievement," the Times newspaper said.

Nevertheless, the final package is "a source of relief rather than celebration", it added, with new restrictions including an end to free movement into the UK for European workers and into the EU for Britons.

EU ambassadors gathered to pore over the Brexit deal text on Christmas Day
EU ambassadors gathered to pore over the Brexit deal text on Christmas Day
Olivier HOSLET, POOL/AFP

Young people will be hit by Britain's withdrawal from the continent-spanning Erasmus student exchange programme, to be replaced by a home-grown scheme named after pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing.

"The deal is hardly the end of the process. Now that (Johnson) has delivered on his promise to get Brexit done, his challenge is to make a success of it," the Times warned.

The left-leaning Guardian was harsher, saying that "Johnson deserves no credit for dodging a calamity that loomed so close because he drove so eagerly towards it".

In fact, the newspaper added, the deal "prescribes an immediate downgrade for the UK economy".

And for Britain's heavyweight financial sector, "in the long run, the reality of Brexit will be either following EU rules or self-isolation", the second EU diplomatic source said.

British MPs are set to debate the agreement on Wednesday, but there is little doubt it will be approved after the opposition Labour party pledged its backing.

On the European side, provisional approval by national capitals must be followed by a vote in the European Parliament in early 2021.

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