Brexit deal done: EU ambassadors meet for talks

24 December 2020, 14:48 | Updated: 25 December 2020, 16:08

Boris Johnson reacts as a deal is struck between the UK and the EU
Boris Johnson reacts as a deal is struck between the UK and the EU. Picture: Downing Street

By Kate Buck

A triumphant Boris Johnson declared “we’ve taken back control of our laws and our destiny” after a Brexit deal was struck on Christmas Eve following months of intense talks.

Negotiators from the UK and European Union had been locked in discussions over the terms of agreement between the bloc and a newly independent Great Britain.

The deal brings to an end four years of bitter wrangling with Europe that saw off two Prime Ministers.

European Union ambassadors received a Christmas Day briefing on the trade agreement reached with Britain, where the bloc's chief negotiator Michel Barnier updated the diplomats on the Brexit deal.

The 27 European Union states are expected to formally back the post-Brexit trade deal within days.

Parliament will be recalled on the 30th December to vote on the deal, it has been confirmed.

On Thursday evening, the Prime Minister used a festive message to the nation to urge people to read the new Brexit trade deal after Christmas lunch on Friday.

He posted a video on Twitter in which he brandished the document, which has not been released in full yet, and at one point punched the air with enthusiasm at its contents.

Mr Johnson said: "Tonight, on Christmas Eve, I have a small present for anyone who may be looking for something to read in that sleepy post-Christmas lunch moment, and here it is, tidings, glad tidings of great joy because this is a deal.

"A deal to give certainty to business, travellers, and all investors in our country from January 1. A deal with our friends and partners in the EU.

"You remember the oven ready deal by which we came out on January 31, that oven ready deal was just the start - this is the feast, full of fish, by the way.

"And I believe it will be the basis of a happy and successful and stable partnership with our friends in the EU for years to come.

"So, that's it, that's the good news from Brussels, now for the sprouts, and a happy Christmas to you all."

Mr Johnson had hailed his "oven ready" deal months ago, but a final agreement has taken longer to get onto the table ahead of the transition period coming to an end on 31 December with 'significant gaps' on several key issues.

Speaking shortly after the news was announced, Mr Johnson said that for the first time since 1973 the UK "will be an independent coastal state with full control of our waters", with the UK's share of fish in its waters rising "substantially from roughly half today to closer to two-thirds in five-and-a-half years' time".

Mr Johnson said: "This deal above all means certainty - certainty for the aviation industry, and the hauliers, certainty for the police and border forces, security services and all those we rely on across Europe to keep us all safe."

He added: "Above all, it means certainty for business - from financial services to our world-leading manufacturers, our car industry, a certainty for all those who are working in high-skilled jobs in firms and factories across the whole country.

"There will be no palisade of tariffs on January 1, there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade.

"Instead, there will be a giant free trade zone of which we will at once be a member and at the same time be able to do our own free trade deals as one UK."

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she felt "quiet satisfaction and frankly speaking, relief", after striking a deal.

Boris Johnson speaks with Ursula Von Der Leyen after the last round of trade talks on Christmas Eve
Boris Johnson speaks with Ursula Von Der Leyen after the last round of trade talks on Christmas Eve. Picture: Downing Street

She added that this deal was "worth fighting for" and said it would be a "difficult day for some," and, quoting Shakespeare, continued: "Parting is such sweet sorrow."

But in a stark difference to Downing Street's claim of victory, Ms Von Der Leyen said a failure to agree a deal would have hit the UK harder than the EU "with all its might of 443 million citizens".

A Downing Street source insisted that "everything that the British public was promised during the 2016 referendum and in the general election last year is delivered by this deal".

They added: "We have taken back control of our money, borders, laws, trade and our fishing waters.

"The deal is fantastic news for families and businesses in every part of the UK. We have signed the first free trade agreement based on zero tariffs and zero quotas that has ever been achieved with the EU

"The deal is the biggest bilateral trade deal signed by either side, covering trade worth £668bn in 2019."

Ursula Von Der Leyen said the deal with "worth fighting for"
Ursula Von Der Leyen said the deal with "worth fighting for". Picture: PA

For weeks there have been fears that a no deal scenario may have been an inevitability after repeated stalling in talks over fishing and the 'level playing field' for business, but both sides managed to thrash out a last-minute agreement following all-night talks in Brussels fuelled by pizza.

It is reported the deal reached will allow the UK to trade freely with the EU without tariffs or quotas but French officials told Reuters last night that "the British made huge concessions" over fishing before the announcement was made.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron, who called the referendum on leaving the European Union, tweeted: "It's good to end a difficult year with some positive news.

"Trade deal is very welcome - and a vital step in building a new relationship with the EU as friends, neighbours and partners.

"Many congratulations to the UK negotiating team," he added.

Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen pictured together at their meeting in Brussels earlier this month
Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen pictured together at their meeting in Brussels earlier this month. Picture: PA

Mr Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have been in close contact to try to resolve remaining difficulties.

Last night, Ms von der Leyen's spokesman Eric Mamer tweeted: "Work will continue throughout the night. Grabbing some sleep is recommended to all brexit-watchers at this point. It will hopefully be an early start tomorrow morning..."

France had warned that the EU would not be pressed into agreeing a deal just because of the looming deadline.

The Office for Budget Responsibility had forecast that a no-deal Brexit could wipe 2% off gross domestic product - a measure of the size of the economy - in 2021, adding to the damage to jobs and livelihoods already caused by coronavirus.

The details of the deal will now be closely scrutinised to see where either side has compromised.

It was widely reported Britain offered a longer transition period regarding fishing rights than it previously wanted and would agree to the EU handing back only 25% of its quotas in British waters at the start of the process.

The deal is likely to pass through Parliament with Labour expected not to oppose it - Sir Keir Starmer has stressed that an agreement with the EU would be in the national interest.

But in a sign of the political difficulties Mr Johnson may face, the European Research Group (ERG) of hardline pro-Brexit Tory MPs said they would scrutinise any deal in great detail.

The ERG said it would reconvene its so-called "star chamber" of legal experts to examine the text.

A statement issued by the group on Wednesday said: "Given that the new agreement is also highly complex, the star chamber will scrutinise it in detail, to ensure that its provisions genuinely protect the sovereignty of the United Kingdom after we exit the transition period at the end of this year."

But it is not only hardcore Eurosceptics who could be critical of a deal.

Lord Barwell, Theresa May's former chief of staff, said "the truth is the deal means the introduction of significant barriers to free trade" through customs and regulatory checks.

But he acknowledged "it is better than no deal and we could certainly do with some good news".

The deal will now have to be backed by the EU's 27 member states.

MPs and peers will be recalled to vote on a deal next week, but the European Parliament has said they will not have time to ratify a deal before January 1 - meaning any agreement is likely to be provisional.

This story is being updated