Boris Johnson caved in on fish to avert a no-deal Brexit, securing a last-minute trade and security deal with the EU which left business just seven days to prepare for seismic changes to the way they operate.
Industry leaders breathed a sigh of relief after the Christmas Eve announcement of a zero-tariff zero-quota free trade agreement on imports and exports totalling around £668bn a year.
But fishermen voiced “frustration and anger” as the prime minister settled for a cut of just 25 per cent in the EU’s share of the catch in UK waters, phased in over five and a half years – compared to the 80 per cent over three years initially demanded by the UK – and failed to secure an immediate 12-mile exclusion zone to protect inshore waters.
Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, said: “In the end it was clear that Boris Johnson wanted an overall trade deal and was willing to sacrifice fishing. I think the industry will be extremely disappointed.”
Mr Johnson accepted that the UK had given ground on access to fishing waters, but insisted that the compromise outcome represented “a reasonable transition period”.
“I can assure great fish fanatics in this country that we will as a result of this deal be able to catch and eat quite prodigious quantities of extra fish,” he said.
The prime minister said that the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement had allowed Britain to “win freedom”, hailing the removal of any role for the European Court of Justice in overseeing future relations.
“We have taken back control of our laws and our destiny. We have taken back control of every jot and tittle of our regulation in a way which is complete and unfettered,” he said.
“We have today resolved the question that has bedevilled our 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."
He said that the UK would be in a “giant free trade zone” with the EU but would not have to obey Brussels rules and would be able to strike further deals with other countries around the world.
But he wrongly suggested that the deal removed all non-tariff barriers to trade, when in fact the government admits that more than 200 million additional customs declaration forms annually will just part of the extra friction faced by UK business.
Downing Street pointed to what it claimed as a series of negotiation wins, including the defeat of an EU proposal for a “ratchet” allowing Brussels to penalise the UK automatically for diverging from its standards and regulations. Instead, either side will be able to take action only on changes which have a clear impact on trade and a panel of experts will arbitrate on disputes.
The prime minister took an emollient tone in his remarks following the conclusion of negotiations, declaring that the UK would remain “culturally, emotionally, historically, strategically and geologically attached to Europe” and suggesting that the EU will benefit from having “a prosperous and dynamic and contented UK on your doorstep”.
But European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen was regretful about the result of the Brexit vote of 2016, quoting the Beatles, TS Eliot and Shakespeare as she sent a message to Britain: “Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
She said the outcome of discussions stretching back to Britain’s formal departure from the EU on 31 January was “fair and balanced”.
But she echoed the feelings of many in the EU who are tired of battles with Britain when she said: “To all Europeans, I say, it is time to leave Brexit behind. Our future is made in Europe.”
And she pointedly contrasted Brexiteers’ isolationist concept of sovereignty with the strength gained by EU states by banding together.
“We should cut through the soundbites and ask ourselves what sovereignty actually means in the 21st century,” she said.
“It is about pooling our strength and speaking together in a world full of great powers. In a time of crisis, it is about pulling each other up instead of trying to get back to your feet alone.”
French president Emmanuel Macron, widely seen as the main obstacle to a deal, congratulated chief negotiator Michel Barnier for his “tenacity and commitment”, declaring: “European solidarity has shown its strength”. His comments removed any lingering doubt that the agreement will be approved by the 27 EU member states when their diplomats meet on Christmas Day.
And Sir Keir Starmer assured the deal of a safe passage through the House of Commons by announcing that Labour will vote for it when parliament is recalled on 30 December.
The Labour leader denounced Mr Johnson’s deal as “thin” but said his MPs had no other option than to back it to avoid the “devastating” consequences of no deal.
He warned the prime minister: “Up against no deal, we accept this deal, but the consequences of it are yours and yours alone. We will hold you to account for it every second you are in power … No longer can you blame somebody else. Responsibility for this deal lies squarely at the door of No 10.”
Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon said that the agreement was a reminder that Brexit was “happening against Scotland’s will”.
But in Northern Ireland – which stands to benefit economically by remaining a part of the UK inside the EU customs territory – first minister Arlene Foster welcomed “a new era” in relations between the EU and UK and said she wanted to “maximise the opportunities the new arrangements provide for our local economy”.
The director general of the Confederation of British Industry, Tony Danker, said the that the deal would come as “a huge relief” to British business, allowing companies to “begin our new chapter on firmer ground”.
And Helen Dickinson of the British Retail Consortium said: “Given that four-fifths of UK food imports come from the EU, today’s announcement should afford households around the UK a collective sigh of relief.”
Marley Morris, of the IPPR think tank, described the deal as a “remarkably weak” framework for future relations with the UK’s closest neighbour and biggest trading partner.
“In many respects this agreement isn’t far off a no deal,” he said. “Crucially, this deal will not prevent the introduction of major trade barriers between the UK and the EU in one week’s time.”
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