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The European Parliament has voted overwhelmingly to ratify the European Union’s post-Brexit trade deal with the United Kingdom, a decision welcomed by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who called it “the final step in a long journey”.
In the final tally, 660 MEPs (Members of European Parliament) voted in favour of the trade deal, five against, with 32 abstentions, results showed on Wednesday.
“Today the European Parliament voted on the most far-reaching agreement the EU has ever reached with a third country,” the president of the assembly, David Sassoli, said.
“This can form the foundation on which we build a new forward-looking EU-UK relationship,” he said, warning that MEPs would monitor the implementation of the deal and “not accept any backsliding from the UK government”.
The vote ratifies the bare-bones trade deal that was sealed on Christmas Eve after nine months of bad-tempered negotiations and has been in force provisionally since January 1.
The deal provides the framework for Britain’s new relationship with the 27-member union, five years after British voters shocked the world by voting to end its 47-year membership of the bloc.
The EU’s member states are expected to rubber-stamp the accord following the European Parliament’s ratification.
The bloc will then inform the UK, and the trade agreement will be formally concluded.
The UK’s Johnson said the ratification would provide “stability” in the UK-EU relations, while his chief negotiator in the talks, David Frost, said it brought “certainty and allows us to focus on the future”.
European Council President Charles Michel also welcomed the vote saying “it marks a major step forward in EU-UK relations and opens a new era”.
“The EU will continue to work constructively with the UK as an important friend and partner,” he tweeted.
In a final debate in parliament, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen assured MEPs that the agreement had “real teeth” and that any deviation by London from the pact would have consequences.
“And let me be very clear: we do not want to have to use these tools, but we will not hesitate to use them if necessary.”
Had the EU and the UK not agreed upon a trade deal, economic ties between the pair would have fallen back to basic World Trade Organization terms, with quotas and tariffs applied.
But even with an accord settled on, trade across the English Channel has declined at the beginning of this year. Exports fell by 47 percent in January-February and imports by 20 percent, far more than the declines for any other EU trading partner.
The deal has also caused notable disruption in Northern Ireland, which remains a de facto part of the EU’s single market under the agreement’s so-called Northern Ireland Protocol.
Top EU officials and their UK counterparts have so far failed to find common ground on implementing the protocol, which was designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland and to guarantee the integrity of the single market.
In March, the UK government unilaterally extended until October a grace period for not conducting checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. That decision led the EU to start legal action against the UK.
The move to initiate legal proceedings marked the latest flashpoint in a series of disagreements between London and Brussels since the Brexit transition period ended on January 1.
The two sides have argued so far this year over issues ranging from COVID-19 vaccine supplies to the full diplomatic recognition of the EU in the UK.