After half a century of European integration and four and a half years of a Brexit saga full of twists and turns, the British are preparing to cast off definitively the moorings of the European Union (EU), Thursday, December 31, to open a new page in their history in a context of deep crisis.
Big Ben’s gongs will sound at 11 p.m. in London, midnight in Paris. Brexit will then become a reality for the United Kingdom, which officially left the EU on January 31 but benefited from a transitional period to cushion the shock.
“The destiny of this great country now lies firmly in our hands”, welcomed the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, great architect of this exit, after the express ratification Wednesday by the British Parliament of the free trade agreement signed the same day with the EU.
End of free movement
In Dover (south-east), whose port is at the forefront of trade with the EU, residents are divided between hope for a new era of prosperity and fear of disturbances, such as the recent monster lines of trucks in the zoned.
The trade deal reached in extremis avoids too abrupt a break and its potentially devastating consequences for the economy, but the free movement of goods and people to cross the border unimpeded will end – except for people moving between Spain and the British enclave of Gibraltar, under an agreement reached on Thursday.
Exporters and importers will face new formalities and goods may be slowed down at borders by controls. Financial companies, a major sector in London, will lose their automatic right to offer their services in the EU. And UK universities will no longer be eligible for the Erasmus exchange program.
Since the referendum of 23 June 2016, won at 51.9% by the “leave”, it will have taken three prime ministers, hours of heated nightly parliamentary debates in Westminster and three postponements for the United Kingdom to really cut ties.
Like this painful process, it wasn’t until Christmas Eve that the laborious negotiations finally resulted in a 1,246-page trade agreement, leaving only a few days to implement.
If it was adopted by the British Parliament on Wednesday, MEPs will only vote in the first quarter of 2021, and the text will only apply provisionally by then.
“A country leaves the EU for the first time after more than 45 years of living together (…), but we have to move towards the future ”, despite this day ” sad “, commented on the LCI channel the French Secretary of State for European Affairs, Clément Beaune.
Much to the relief of entire swathes of highly connected economies, the EU is giving the UK duty-free and quota-free access to its market of 450 million consumers. But it provides, to avoid any unfair competition, sanctions and compensatory measures in the event of non-compliance with its rules on state aid, the environment, labor law and taxation.
Regarding fishing, a difficult subject until the last hours, the agreement provides for a transition period until June 2026, at the end of which European fishermen will gradually give up 25% of their catches. A result that deeply disappointed British fishermen, spearheads of Brexit, who hoped more from the promises of regained sovereignty hammered by Mr Johnson.
Gather a torn country
Despite his criticism of a trade deal that he considers insufficient, Keir Starmer, the Labor opposition leader, was optimistic: “Our best years are yet to come. “
It is therefore a victory for Mr Johnson, triumphing at the polls on the promise to make Brexit effective but since then put in difficulty by the Covid-19 pandemic, with hospitals on the verge of rupture, an outbreak of contaminations and a large part of the population reconfined, plunging the country into its worst crisis in three hundred years.
Beyond the pandemic, the challenges are considerable for Mr Johnson’s government, which has pledged to give the UK a new place in the world, summed up by the slogan “Global Britain”. However, he is preparing to lose a weighty ally with the departure of Donald Trump, a fervent supporter of Brexit, replaced in the White House by Democrat Joe Biden, more Europhile.
Inside, he must bring together Britons who have torn apart over Brexit, to the point of seeing the country’s unity crack, with Northern Ireland and Scotland having voted in majority against leaving the EU .