BRUSSELS – In the results published on Wednesday morning, the European Parliament voted by a large margin for the European Union to finally approve a Brexit agreement, which is already fraught with difficulties, complaints and judicial contestation.
The vote was 660 votes in favor, five against and 32 abstentions.
While the outcome was never really in doubt, Parliament raised serious concerns about the trustworthiness of the current UK government in carrying out in good faith the two key Brexit documents: the withdrawal agreement and the trade and cooperation agreement that has just been approved.
The latter agreement, which regulates trade and customs issues and does not provide for tariffs or quotas, has been applied since the beginning of the year under certain conditions. It was completed on December 24th and ratified by the UK Parliament on December 30th. However, a negative vote by the European Parliament would have killed it and produced the “no-deal Brexit”, which neither side supported.
The deal ignores important issues such as financial services and foreign and security policy. Debate and consultation on how best to translate the texts into real life seem to go on indefinitely.
The vote marks the end of a long, winding, and often bitter road that many have compared to a furious divorce after nearly 45 years of marriage. The British voted to leave the European Union after a campaign that was fraught with exaggeration on both sides almost five years ago in June 2016.
Britain has been its third prime minister since then. The battle over the definition of Brexit and the UK’s future relationship with the European Union wrecked the Prime Ministers of David Cameron, who was sure the British would stay, and his successor Theresa May, who did not sell Brexit, which had Britain closer to Brussels .
Boris Johnson wanted a clearer break to allow Britain to set its own rules and standards, which resulted in the country being pulled out of the European single market. However, this raised the thorny issue of the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of Great Britain, and the Republic of Ireland, which is a member of the European Union.
Everyone agreed that there could be no restoration of a land border in order to restore peace to the island of Ireland. To solve the problem, Mr Johnson proposed a border in the Irish Sea, which came into effect with the readmission agreement. It has since become a source of significant problems and tightenings in new tariffs and health controls, and Brussels is accusing Mr Johnson of making plans to remove them.
The European Parliament had postponed its vote to protest the UK’s dealings with Northern Ireland and the protocol. The UK’s actions are the source of a legal complaint filed by the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, after the UK unilaterally extended the grace period for failing to inspect goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
This distrust ran through the debate on the trade and cooperation agreement. Christophe Hansen, a key Brexit legislator from Luxembourg, said a positive vote “should not be seen as a blank check to the UK government or a blind vote of confidence that it will implement the agreements between us in good faith, but it is over from our point of view more of an insurance policy. “
The agreement, said Hansen, “will help us remind the UK of the commitments it has signed.”
Manfred Weber, a German who heads the largest party group, the center-right European People’s Party, has published it bluntly on Twitter. “We will vote for the TCA after Brexit,” he wrote, referring to the trade deal. “But we’re concerned about implementation because we don’t trust Boris Johnson’s administration.”
Numerous concerns have also been raised that the UK is abusing or undermining the complex rules governing fishing rights.
David McAllister, a German lawmaker who is half Scottish, dismissed some of the problems as teething troubles. However, he said some are derived from “the type of Brexit Britain has chosen for itself,” which will mean an increasing divergence from the European Union’s internal market. This alone requires continuous discussion and the processing of areas that are excluded from the Brexit agreement, including financial services and foreign and security policy.
Brussels is determined to work on practical solutions between Northern Ireland, mainland Britain and Ireland. “But the protocol isn’t the problem, it’s the solution. The problem is called Brexit. “
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on Parliament to ratify the agreement, promising that Brussels would use the deal’s dispute and enforcement mechanisms to ensure UK compliance. If not, she said, she would not hesitate to impose punitive tariffs.
“The deal has real teeth – with a binding dispute settlement mechanism and the possibility of unilateral corrective action if necessary,” she said. “We don’t want to have to use these tools. But we won’t hesitate to use them if necessary. “
Dissatisfied with Great Britain, Parliament had postponed ratification twice. However, conditional transposition would have expired at the end of April and Parliament eventually cast its vote.
After nearly five hours of debate on Tuesday, lawmakers, many of whom were in virtual attendance, voted remotely, with final totals being released on Wednesday morning.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator with Great Britain, thanked the legislators for their diligence. He praised the deal but warned: “Everyone must take responsibility and respect what they have signed.”
He summed up the sentiments of many when he said: “This is a divorce, a warning and a failure, a failure of the European Union and we must learn from it.”
Mr Johnson replied to the vote in a statement: “This week is the last step on a long road to stabilize our new relationship with the EU as important trading partners, close allies and equal states.”
Ratification would mark a new chapter in relations with Britain, good or bad, said Ms. von der Leyen. She hoped that this would constitute “the basis of a strong and close partnership based on our common interests and values”.
The UK voted to leave the European Union in a referendum in June 2016 almost five years ago. The complications of Brexit and the ongoing struggles over its implementation have not least contributed to the discussion in the rest of the European Union about a similar outcome.
Monika Pronczuk contributed to the reporting.