Brussels: The European Parliament votes Tuesday to ratify the EU’s post-Brexit trade deal with Britain, but not without issuing bitter final warnings that trouble lies ahead in cross-Channel ties.
The 705-member chamber is expected to overwhelmingly back the bare bones trade deal that was sealed on Christmas Eve after nine months of bad-tempered negotiation.
This will officially seal Britain’s new relationship with the 27-member union five years after British voters shocked the world by voting to end its 47-year membership.
But the vote comes amid multiple feuds over the UK’s implementation of Brexit agreements and angry finger-pointing about the supply of the Covid-19 vaccine from AstraZeneca.
“We know it will not always be easy and there is a lot of vigilance, diligence and hard work ahead of us,” EU chief Ursula von der Leyen told a session of parliament ahead of the vote.
“But while today’s vote is obviously an end, it is also the beginning of a new chapter,” she said.
Britain left the EU on January 30 2020, but its new life with Europe only really began after a transition period ended on December 31, when London was no longer bound by the bloc’s laws and rules.
Officially called a trade and cooperation agreement (TCA), the deal creates a new relationship that provides for zero tariffs and zero quotas on goods traded between the EU and UK.
But it is less ambitious than many Europeans had hoped for, with nothing on foreign policy and defence nor any commitment to close alignment on environment, health and other regulations.
More harmonised rules would have removed the requirement for some customs checks and paperwork on goods moving between the EU and UK, which has made business more burdensome and stirred unrest in Northern Ireland.
Cross-Channel trade volumes have plummeted, with EU imports from the UK down by nearly 50 per cent and exports into Britain down 20 per cent in the first two months of the deal’s application.
The deal also makes no provision for financial services, threatening the City of London’s preeminence as the European hub for capital markets, banking and investment.
“Brexit is a historic mistake. It was pushed through by irresponsible nationalism, based on false promises and shortsightedness,” declared Austrian MEP Andreas Schieder who helped prepare the vote.
“Brexit is bad for Britain and Brexit is bad for Europe,” he said.
MEPs had demanded extra time to vet the pact, which also includes a painfully won deal on fishing that saw EU boat crews lose much of their access to bountiful UK waters.
The European Parliament further delayed its vote in part to protest unilateral delays by London in implementing customs checks in Northern Ireland, one of the most contentious issues in the divorce.
Brussels has launched legal action against London over the Irish problem, while a row over the supply of UK-based AstraZeneca’s coronavirus jab has also embittered cross-Channel relations.
But, despite the acrimony, the European Commission, which handles ties with the UK for the Europeans, urged MEPs to approve the pact, arguing that it will better help keep Britain in line.
The UK, meanwhile, had made it clear that it would not approve any further delays, despite the risk of the whole deal being annulled if the MEPs did not vote by April 30.
“The UK government should not mistakenly take this for a blank cheque, or a vote of blind confidence in its intention to implement the agreements between us in good faith,” warned Luxembourg MEP Christian Hansen.
The deal, he insisted, was “an insurance policy against further unilateral deviations from what was jointly agreed.”
‘More in common’
The vote will take place on Tuesday evening in Brussels after several hours of plenary debate. The result, which is not in doubt, will be announced on Wednesday morning.
“We have more in common than what divides us,” said Michel Barnier, who was speaking for the last time in his capacity as the EU’s former chief negotiator on Brexit.
The phrase was borrowed from the pro-European British MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a far-right extremist during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign.