British MPs on Wednesday voted overwhelmingly to endorse Boris Johnson’s Brexit trade deal with Brussels, reshaping an often difficult relationship with the EU within hours.
The House of Commons voted 521 to 73 to approve the post-Brexit trade and cooperation agreement, a government majority of 448, as Mr Johnson won the support of most opposition Labor MPs for his agreement.
However, a number of Labor MPs have defied the party leadership by refusing to back Mr Johnson’s deal. Scottish National Party, Liberal Democratic Party and Democratic Unionist Party MPs voted against the deal.
The British Prime Minister described the deal as “not a break but a resolution”, insisting that Britain would become a friend and reliable partner to the rest of Europe outside the EU.
Parliament has been recalled for an emergency one-day session to approve the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement, concluded by Mr Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Christmas Eve to allow her to enter service on January 1.
Ms von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel signed the treaty on Wednesday morning in a low-key ceremony marked by social distancing.
The 1,259-page deal traveled from Brussels to London on an RAF plane, accompanied by officials from both sides, and was due to be signed by Mr Johnson on Wednesday afternoon.
Mr Michel said the agreement was “a fair and balanced agreement which fully protects the fundamental interests of the European Union and creates stability and predictability for citizens and businesses”.
MPs overwhelmingly supported the new agreement, which has at its heart a “zero tariff, zero quota” trade agreement, after a debate opened by Mr Johnson and lasting only a few hours.
The House of Lords was also due to approve the deal, which includes sections on security and energy cooperation, at breakneck speed. The bill is due to reach the Queen, who is spending Christmas at Windsor Castle, for Royal Assent around midnight Wednesday.
The post-Brexit transition deal, which has maintained Britain’s membership in the single market and the EU’s customs union even after his formal departure from the bloc in January, ends at 11 p.m. British, New Years Eve. This is when the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe will fundamentally change.
Despite the trade deal, UK businesses will face around £ 7bn of new red tape and checks when the transition ends on Thursday evening. Individual workers and travelers will also face new obstacles.
Almost all Conservative MPs approved the deal after the Eurosceptic European research group gave its support to the treaty on Tuesday; former cabinet ministers John Redwood and Owen Paterson abstained.
Labor leader Keir Starmer has called on his MPs to back the treaty on the grounds that any trade deal is better than no trade deal, despite the ‘thin’ nature of a deal, which focuses primarily on exports of goods and not on services.
A total of 37 Labor MPs did not vote for the deal – 36 of them abstained – many of them from the left of the party. However, a total of 162 Labor MPs rallied across divisive lobbies with Conservative MPs to support him.
Sir Keir said the deal, for all its shortcomings, represented a basis on which the UK would rebuild relations with the EU, but said Mr Johnson had mis-sold the treaty to the British public.
Mr Johnson had previously claimed the treaty would remove “non-tariff barriers” to trade, but Sir Keir said there would be “an avalanche of checks and red tape for businesses” from January 1.
The Labor leader also rejected Mr Johnson’s claim that the deal brought ‘certainty’ to Britain’s service sector. He said there was a “gaping hole” in the treaty when it came to services, especially financial services.
But Sir Keir, in a post that partially addressed his own party’s divisions over Brexit, said the time had come to move on. “The divisions are over,” he said. “Now we have the opportunity to forge a new future.”
Former Prime Minister Theresa May noted that Sir Keir and the Labor Party could have secured better trade relations with the EU if last year had backed his own draft trade deal, which would have kept Britain more closely linked to Brussels.
Opposition from the SNP and Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland was a sign that Brexit has exacerbated tensions in all four regions of the UK.
Ian Blackford, House leader of the SNP, said Brexit had confronted Scots with the question: ‘Which union?’ He said many Scots would rather live in the EU than in a ‘Brexit-shattered Britain’.
With the Scottish parliamentary elections looming in May 2021, Mr Blackford said Brexit was ‘an act of economic vandalism, outright’, which would bind companies in a ‘red, white and blue’ ribbon.
Mr Johnson took a conciliation note, telling MPs: ‘What we were looking for was not a rupture but a resolution, a resolution of the old and thorny issue of Britain’s political relations with Europe, that troubled our post-war history.
“Now, with this bill, we will be a friendly neighbor – the best friend and ally the EU could have.” He said Britain would assert itself on the world stage in 2021 as “a liberal and outward looking force for good”.