UK and EU have struck an historic trade deal. But what is in it?

Most goods traded between the UK and EU will not face new restrictions, but many new bureaucratic hurdles will emerge and the status of the UK’s financial services industry remains unclear.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wears a mask after giving a statement on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, in Brussels, Belgium [Francisco Seco/Pool via Reuters]

British and European Union negotiators sealed a Brexit trade deal on Thursday, just a week before the United Kingdom finally leaves the orbit of the 27-nation bloc, its biggest trading partner.

But unusually among trade deals, businesses will face more bureaucratic hurdles than they did while the UK was a member of the EU.

And many crucial issues, such as what restrictions the UK’s large financial services industry will face in selling products in Europe after the UK leaves the EU’s trading arrangements from January 1, remain unclear.

Remind me, what is Brexit?

Brexit – or “British exit” – refers to the process of the UK leaving the EU after 47 years in the economic and political alliance of European countries built from the ashes of World War II.

Following a referendum that the “vote leave” camp won by 52-48 percent in June 2016, Britain became the first country to leave the EU, a union of now nearly 450 million citizens that stretches from the Atlantic to the borders of Russia and Turkey.

Britain’s formal departure on January 31, 2020 was heralded by supporters as a recovery of political sovereignty for the country of 66 million people.

Opponents saw it as a historic setback to European integration that could cause unprecedented economic damage and risk renewed strife on the Irish border, the only land frontier between the bloc and the UK.

Since its formal departure, London has followed established rules of close-knit cooperation on everything from trade to student exchanges, but this transition phase expires at midnight on December 31.

So what does the new deal cover?

The two sides have been in complex negotiations since March to try to keep their trade in goods flowing from January 1, 2021.

The deal announced on Thursday means that this goods trade – roughly half of the $900bn of annual EU-UK commerce – will remain free of tariffs and quotas.

However, goods moving between the UK and the EU will be subject to customs and other controls and extra paperwork is expected to cause extensive disruptions.

The deal was negotiated on top of a formal Withdrawal Agreement reached last year, which ensured that extensive controls would not be put back on the sensitive border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

The third key element of the deal is dividing up fishing quotas between Britain and the EU.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president said: ‘Parting is such sweet sorrow,’ adding that ‘It is time to leave Brexit behind. Our future is made in Europe’ [Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu via Bloomberg]

Which other areas are affected?

The deal does not envisage cooperation on the same level as before Brexit in many areas.

Financial and business services, the backbone of UK exports, are only included to a small extent.

For instance, there is no decision on so-called equivalence which would allow firms to sell their services into the single market from the City of London. The agreement only features standard provisions on financial services, meaning it does not include commitments on market access.

The same is true of cooperation on foreign policy, security and defence, while provisions for transport, energy and civil nuclear cooperation will be below current levels.

London Stock Exchange - reuters
The UK’s financial and business services could face increased barriers in Europe after January 1 [File: Toby Melville/Reuters]

Which other ties will be downgraded?

Mobile roaming, mutual recognition of professional qualifications, access to legal services, digital trade and public procurement are other areas where cooperation will be downgraded.

While the EU and the UK agreed not to require visas for travel, free movement of people will end.

That means EU citizens going to the UK, and vice versa, will be subject to border screening and no longer able to use biometric passports to cross swiftly through electronic gates.

The free movement of people between the UK and EU will end after January 1 [File: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Bloomberg]

How would professional services be affected?

The deal means that there will no longer be automatic mutual recognition of professional qualifications, according to the EU’s reading of the treaty.

“Doctors, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, vets, engineers or architects must have their qualifications recognised in each member state they wish to practice in,” the EU said.

This is a loss for the UK, which had wanted “comprehensive coverage” to ensure there were no “unnecessary” barriers to regulated services. However, the deal does still provide a “framework” for the recognition of qualifications, according to the UK’s summary of the agreement.

There will no longer be automatic mutual recognition of professional qualifications between the EU and UK [File: Hannah McKay/Pool via Reuters]

The deal also includes commitments to maintaining a ‘level playing field’. What is that about?

The deal commits both sides to upholding their environmental, social, labor and tax transparency standards to make sure they do not undercut each other.

Either side will be able to impose with tariffs if they diverge too much — subject to arbitration.

European companies unhappy about any British government subsidies to rivals could ask UK courts to examine if they are unfair, EU officials said.

No set limit for how much state help is problematic – this is taken on a “case-by-case” basis.

The UK summary says both sides must be transparent about subsidies; both the EU and the UK will need an independent authority to check state subsidies.

Courts must be able to order repayment of any illegal subsidies. A rebalancing mechanism is included.

So is Brexit finally done?

Yes, because Britain is out of the EU, its customs union and the single market and no longer bound by their rules. Ties will now be based on the two sides’ 2020 divorce settlement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement sealed on Thursday.

But those hoping for an end to the often-acrimonious negotiations that followed the Brexit referendum are likely to be disappointed.

The agreement includes transition periods and review clauses, meaning that more negotiation lies ahead on fisheries, trading rules and much else besides.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies