The United Kingdom and European Union have finally reached an agreement on the details of their future relationship, just a week before the end of the Brexit transition period.
Britain left the EU in January, but remained a member of the single market and customs union as negotiations continued. It was due to exit the trading bloc on December 31.
A fortnight ago, Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned there was a “strong possibility” that his country’s differences with the EU would not be resolved in time, causing it to crash out without a deal.
The economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit could have been severe.
But a flurry of negotiations in recent days ultimately resolved the key questions, such as the treatment of British fishing waters and the EU’s requirement that the UK agree to maintain a “level playing field” for economic competition.
“Everything that the British public was promised during the 2016 referendum and in the general election last year is delivered by this deal,” 10 Downing Street said in a statement announcing the deal today.
“We have taken back control of our money, borders, laws, trade and our fishing waters.
“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 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 January 1, 2021.
“We have delivered this great deal for the entire United Kingdom in record time, and under extremely challenging conditions.
“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.”
More than four years have passed since the British people voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. That period has seen three prime ministers, two general elections, two opposition leaders and seemingly insurmountable setbacks in the Brexit negotiations.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Council President Ursula von der Leyen both welcomed today’s announcement.
RELATED: What you need to know to understand Brexit
“We have finally found an agreement,” Ms von der Leyen said at a media conference.
“It was a long and winding road, but we have got a good deal to show for it. It is fair, it is a balanced deal, and it is the right and responsible thing to do for both sides.”
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, expressed relief that the clock was “no longer ticking”.
“Today is a day of relief, but tinged by some sadness as we compare what came before with what lies ahead,” he said.
At his own press conference, Mr Johnson struck a triumphant tone.
“There have been plenty of people who have told us that the challenges of the COVID pandemic have made this work impossible, and that we should extend the transition period and incur yet more delay. And I rejected that approach,” he said.
“Beating COVID is our number one national priority, and I wanted to end that uncertainty and give this country the best possible chance of bouncing back strongly.
“So I’m very pleased to tell you, this afternoon, that we have completed the biggest trade deal yet. A comprehensive, Canada-style free trade deal between the UK and the EU.
“We’ve taken back control of our laws and our destiny.
“We have also, today, resolved a question that has bedevilled British politics for decades. And it is up to us all together, as a newly and truly independent nation, to realise the immensity of this moment and to make the most of it.”
Mr Johnson’s two predecessors in Downing St also welcomed the news.
“It’s good to end a difficult year with some positive news,” said David Cameron, who resigned after his side of the Brexit debate lost the referendum.
“(The) 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.”
“Very welcome news that the UK and EU have reached agreement on the terms of a deal – one that provides confidence to business and helps keep trade flowing,” said Theresa May.
“Looking forward to seeing the detail in the coming days.”
Former UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage, who was one of Brexit’s most enthusiastic advocates, declared the “war” over Britain’s place in Europe “over”.
“Boris will be seen as the man who finished the job. Perhaps not perfectly, but yes, he’s done what he said he’d do on the big picture. I suspect on some of the detail, history may judge some of those aspects a little more harshly,” he said.
“But on the big stuff, the war is over. It has gone on for decades in this country. It’s never, ever gone away. And now we’re out – it’s not perfect, but goodness me, it’s still progress.”
Senior European leaders, such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel offered cautious optimism.
“The agreement with the UK is essential to protect our citizens, our fishermen, our producers. We will make sure this is the case,” said Mr Macron.
“Europe moves forward and can look to the future, united, sovereign and strong.”
“We will soon be in a position where we can judge whether Germany can support the result,” said Ms Merkel.
“I am optimistic that we have a good result in front of us here.”
She said the deal was “of historic significance”.
Not everyone is happy though. Scotland, which voted against leaving the EU in 2016, issued an aggressive response to the announcement.
“Before the spin starts, it’s worth remembering that Brexit is happening against Scotland’s will,” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said.
“There is no deal that will ever make up for what Brexit takes away from us. It’s time to chart our own future as an independent, European nation.”
Ms Sturgeon leads the Scottish National Party, which seeks independence from the UK.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said “any deal is better than no deal”.
“We need to see the full details, but this is not the deal we would have negotiated,” Mr Drakeford said.
Arlene Foster, First Minister of Northern Ireland, was more positive.
“We have consistently urged both sides to achieve a deal,” Ms Foster said.
“We will, of course, examine the details both of the trade deal itself, as well as other issues such as security, where agreement will be particularly important from the Northern Ireland viewpoint.”
Northern Ireland shares a border with Ireland, which remains in the EU. The treatment of that border was a recurring sticking point in negotiations.
“A sensible trade deal between the UK and the EU was always the most favourable outcome for Northern Ireland,” said Ms Foster.
Now that a deal has been struck, it needs to be considered by Britian’s parliament, along with the various EU member states.
Mr Johnson foreshadowed a parliamentary vote on December 31.