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Economy

No Time to Rest: EU Nations Assess Brexit Trade Deal with UK

December 25, 2020

BRUSSELS — Ambassadors from the European Union's 27 nations convened on Christmas Day to start assessing the free trade deal the bloc has struck with former member Britain, a historic accord that takes effect in just a week.

At Friday's exceptional meeting, the EU delegations asked for more time to study the texts before sending them to lawmakers at the European Parliament, according to an EU diplomat. The ambassadors are expected to meet again on Monday. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed Thursday's agreement as a "new beginning" for the U.K. in its relationship with its European neighbors. 

In a Christmas message, Johnson sought to sell the deal to a weary public after years of Brexit-related wrangling since the U.K. voted narrowly to leave the EU in 2016. Although the U.K. formally left the bloc on Jan. 31, it remains in a transition period tied to EU rules until the end of this year. 

Without a trade deal to set out the terms of their new relationship, tariffs and other impediments would have been imposed on trade between the two sides starting Jan. 1. Both sides would have suffered economically from a failure to secure a trade deal, with the British economy taking a bigger hit at least in the near-term, as it is more reliant on trade with the EU than vice versa.

"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," Johnson said in his video message, brandishing a sheaf of papers. 

"A deal to give certainty to business, travelers and all investors in our country from Jan. 1. A deal with our friends and partners in the EU," he said. 

Both sides claim the 2,000-page agreement protects their cherished goals. Britain said it gives the U.K. control over its money, borders, laws and fishing grounds. The EU says it protects the EU's single market and contains safeguards to ensure that Britain does not unfairly undercut the bloc's standards.

Under the deal, there will be no tariffs or quotas on trade between the two sides, though there will be more red tape for businesses because the U.K. is leaving the EU's frictionless single market and customs union. Firms will have to file forms and customs declarations for the first time in years. There will also be different rules on product labeling as well as checks on agricultural products.

"The principle is not business as usual. There will be a lot of changes starting next week," Barnier said on France-2 television Thursday night.

EU leaders voiced their sadness at the rupture with Britain but were relieved that the tortuous aftermath of the Brexit vote had come to a conclusion. They are unanimously expected to back the agreement as are lawmakers from the European Parliament who can only give their consent next month retrospectively as they have already broken up for Christmas.

Yet some British fishermen were disappointed.

"In the end, it was clear that Boris Johnson wanted an overall trade deal and was willing to sacrifice fishing," said Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organizations.

Under the terms of the deal, the EU will give up a quarter of the quota it catches in U.K. waters, far less than the 80% Britain initially demanded. The system will be phased in over 5 1/2 years, after which the quotas will be reassessed.

The French government, which had fought hard for fishing access, announced aid for its fishing industry to help deal with the smaller quota, but insisted that the deal protects French interests.

The president of the French ports of Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, said no matter what is in the Brexit trade deal, life for his port will become more difficult because "there will no longer be free movement of merchandise."

Some 10,000 jobs in the Boulogne area are tied to fishing and its seafood-processing industry, he said, and about 70% of the seafood they use comes from British waters. 

"Without fish, there is no business," he told The Associated Press.

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