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BREAKTHROUGH: UK and EU reach post-Brexit trade agreement

BRUSSELS (AP) — Britain and the European Union have struck a provisional free-trade agreement that should avert New Year’s chaos for cross-border commerce and bring a measure of certainty to businesses after years of Brexit turmoil. 

The breakthrough came Thursday with just over a week to go until the U.K.’s split is completed. 

Now comes the race to approve and ratify the deal before the U.K. leaves the EU’s economic structures at the end of the year. The British and European parliaments both must hold votes on the agreement.

Months of tense and often testy negotiations gradually whittled differences between the two sides down to three key issues: fair-competition rules, mechanisms for resolving future disputes and fishing rights. The rights of EU boats to trawl in British waters remained the last obstacle before it was resolved. 

However, key aspects of the future relationship between the 27-nation bloc and its former member remain unresolved.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had insisted the U.K. would “prosper mightily” even if no deal were reached and the U.K. had to trade with the EU on World Trade Organization terms. But his government has acknowledged that a chaotic exit was likely to bring gridlock at Britain’s ports, temporary shortages of some goods and price increases for staple foods.

Britain withdrew from the EU’s political institutions on Jan. 31, and an economic transition period expires on Dec. 31.

Here is the full statement from No 10.

Dead is done. Everything that the British public was promised during the 2016 referendum and in the general election last year is delivered by this deal.

  • 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
  • The deal also guarantees that we are no longer in the lunar pull of the EU, we are not bound by EU rules, there is no role for the European Court of Justice and all of our key red lines about returning sovereignty have been achieved. It means that we will have full political and economic independence on 1st January 2021
  • A points-based immigration system will put us in full control of who enters the UK and free movement will end
  • We have delivered this great deal for the entire United Kingdom in record time, and under extremely challenging conditions, which protects the integrity of our internal market and Northern Ireland’s place within it
  • We have got Brexit done and we can now take full advantage of the fantastic opportunities available to us as an independent trading nation, striking trade deals with other partners around the world

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. An earlier story follows below.

Nothing has come easy in the 4 1/2-year divorce proceedings between Britain and the European Union.

So it was no surprise that negotiators were struggling Thursday to put the finishing touches on a trade deal whose completion had been declared imminent 24 hours earlier. The rights of EU fishing boats to fish in British waters proved the most intractable and divisive issue, with negotiators haggling over quotas for some individual species.

After resolving nearly all of the remaining sticking points, negotiators combed through hundreds of pages of legal text well into Christmas Eve, bickering over tiny details that, if not dealt with, could force a chaotic economic break between the two sides on New Year’s Day. 

“There is no sign of an imminent decision,” said an official close to the negotiations, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were still ongoing. 

Trade will change regardless come Jan. 1, when the U.K. leaves the bloc’s single market and customs union. But both sides have been working furiously to avoid a nightmare scenario, in which the imposition of tariffs and duties would cost billions in trade, risk hundreds of thousands of jobs and potentially so snarl ports that many goods would struggle to get through. 

That possibility was starkly illustrated this week when a brief French blockade of British trucks over coronavirus concerns created chaos at ports that continued Thursday and will take days to ease. Thousands of truckers stuck at the English port of Dover may be spending Christmas in line.

Once the last details of the Brexit deal are settled, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will confirm the deal in statements. 

Sources on both sides said the long, difficult negotiations were on the cusp of being wrapped up by the two negotiating teams, holed up at EU headquarters in Brussels and fueled by deliveries of pizza and sandwiches.

Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said there appeared to be “some sort of last-minute hitch” over fish, but that it was not surprising. He said he expected announcements of a deal from London and Brussels “later on today.”

Any agreement needs the approval of all 27 EU nations, and of the European and British parliaments, which it is expected to receive. Britain’s Parliament could be recalled from a Christmas break next week to vote. The European Parliament has warned it’s now too late for it to approve the deal before Jan. 1, but an agreement could provisionally be put in place and approved by EU legislators in January.

Britain’s currency, the pound, rose Thursday on expectations of a deal, up 0.5% against the dollar to just under $1.36.

In June 2016, Britons voted 52%-48% to leave the EU in order to — in the words of the Brexiteers’ campaign slogan — “take back control” of the U.K.’s borders and laws.

It took more than three years of wrangling before Britain left the bloc’s political structures on Jan. 31. Negotiating how to disentangle economies that were closely entwined as part of the EU’s single market for goods and services took months more.

Even with a deal, trade between Britain and the EU will face customs checks and other barriers on Jan. 1. But an agreement would avert the more disastrous effects of tariffs and duties., and leaves the mutually dependent, often fractious U.K.-EU relationship — and its 675 billion pounds ($918 billion) in annual trade — on a much more solid footing than a disruptive no-deal split.

Johnson has always insisted the U.K. will “prosper mightily” even if no deal is reached and the U.K. has to trade with the EU on World Trade Organization terms from Jan. 1.

But his government has acknowledged that a chaotic exit is likely to bring gridlock at Britain’s ports, temporary shortages of some goods and price increases for staple foods. Tariffs will be applied to many U.K. exports, including 10% on cars and more than 40% on lamb, battering the U.K. economy as it struggles to rebound from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the past few days, Johnson and von der Leyen have been drawn more and more into the talks, speaking by phone in a bid to unblock negotiations that have dragged on for months, hampered by the pandemic and by the two sides’ opposing views of what Brexit entails.

The EU has long feared that Britain would undercut the bloc’s social, environmental and state aid rules to be able to gain an unfair edge with its exports to the EU. Britain has said that having to meet EU rules would undercut its sovereignty. 

Compromise was finally reached on those “level playing field” issues, leaving the economically minor but hugely symbolic issue of fish to be the final sticking point. Maritime EU nations are seeking to retain access to U.K. waters where they have long fished, but Britain has been insisting it must exercise control as an “independent coastal state.”

Businesses on both sides are clamoring for a deal that would save tens of billions in costs.

While both sides would suffer economically from a failure to secure a trade deal, most economists think Britain would take a greater hit, because it is smaller and more reliant on trade with the EU than the other way around.

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