Brexit Deal Will Protect EU’s Single Market, Von Der Leyen Says

The European Union’s post-Brexit trade accord will be instrumental in bolstering the bloc’s single market and avoiding a chaotic rupture, Ursula von der Leyen said as lawmakers in Brussels prepared to give the deal their formal approval.

“This agreement protects European citizens and their rights -- it helps to avoid significant disruptions for workers and travelers, from the fishing community to the business community,” the European Commission president said on Tuesday. “It protects European interests and preserves the integrity of our single market.”

The EU legislature’s approval, the last stage in the ratification process, is set to draw a line under almost five years of uncertainty since the U.K. voted to leave the bloc.

With the threat of walking away from the whole deal finally removed, both sides will have to work within a formal framework -- with a range of more limited mechanisms -- to manage any disagreements in future.

Two key flash points remain. London and Brussels are still at loggerheads over how the deal will work in Northern Ireland -- with the EU threatening the U.K. government with a lawsuit for not implementing the customs checks it signed up to.

Meanwhile, the bloc’s brief and hastily withdrawn threat to jeopardize supplies of coronavirus vaccines to Britain soured post-Brexit relations in their crucial early stage. The slowness of the EU’s vaccine program, and the perception among many Brussels officials that AstraZeneca Plc has been prioritizing supplies to Britain, has only inflamed those tensions.

In a key concession made by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the deal keeps Northern Ireland aligned with the rules of the EU’s single market to avoid customs checks on the island of Ireland. That has created a border between the province and the rest of the U.K. -- an obstacle for business moving goods, and a focus of discontent among unionists opposed to any degree of separation from London.

Anger at that concession helped fuel violence in Northern Ireland earlier this month, with cars and buses set on fire and police officers injured. The EU is holding off taking the next step in its legal action as it works on a joint plan with the U.K. to defuse the situation.

“We know it will not always be easy and there is a lot of vigilance, diligence and hard work ahead,” von der Leyen said.

Business, meanwhile, are still grappling with the way the deal radically upends the terms of trade. While the accord has allowed for tariff and quota-free trade in goods since Britain left the single market and customs union on Dec. 31, firms have had to wrestle with the additional paperwork required to ship goods across the Channel.

The deal excludes services -- which account about 80% of the U.K. economy -- as well as the country’s financial industry. Last week, a top EU official warned City of London firms they shouldn’t expect quick access to the single market.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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