MEPs, by law, have the right to sign off the deal and, on Tuesday night, Parliament finally got a chance to vote on the agreement thrashed out after protracted EU-UK trade talks that followed the 2016 Referendum.
The results, announced on Wednesday morning, showed that an overwhelming majority, 660, of MEPs voted in favour of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), with just five deputies voting against. There were 32 abstentions.
Parliament trade and foreign affairs committees had already overwhelmingly backed the TCA but a resolution drafted by MEPs declared the UK's departure an “historic mistake.”
On Tuesday, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, told a plenary debate on Brexit that the UK exit was “a failure of the European Union and we have to learn lessons from it.”
Also speaking in the debate, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the TCA “comes with real teeth, with a binding dispute settlement mechanism.” She warned that the EU would use those teeth if necessary.
Despite backing the deal, many MEPs have united in calling for “vigilance” to ensure the agreement is implemented so the damage of Brexit is “limited as much as possible.”
The assembly’s President David Sassoli called the deal “the most far-reaching agreement the EU has ever reached with a third country”, adding that its red lines had been respected including “strong protections for the EU’s high social and environmental standards, and tariff and quota-free access for EU companies.”
“The agreement has allowed us to avoid a chaotic Brexit that would have disrupted the economy, aggravated the effects of the pandemic and sown the future with uncertainty” Iratxe García Pérez, S&D Group leader
But the Italian deputy warned, “We will closely monitor the implementation of both this new treaty and the Withdrawal Agreement. We will not accept any backsliding from the UK government on the commitments it has made.”
Speaking to this website, senior German MEP David McAllister, foreign affairs committee chair, said the plenary had “voted on the consent for the most unusual Free Trade Agreement the European Union has ever concluded.”
The EPP member said, “The UK government has decided to leave the EU in a context of regulatory divergence. This arises from the type of Brexit which cannot prevent a completely frictionless trade. From the beginning, the main objective was about limiting negative consequences on both sides to the best degree possible.”
He said, “The European Parliament will play a constructive role in supervising the implementation of the new agreement, also beyond the ratification. Parliament will remain critical when it comes to the interests of the EU.”
“The political implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement is an indicator whether our partnership will work in practice.”
EPP leader Manfred Weber reacted by saying, “Almost five years ago, the UK voted to leave the EU. As we finally finalise the divorce saga, our message to Boris Johnson is: the challenges you face are immense and you have a responsibility to respect your commitments to the WA, in particular on the implementation of the Irish/Northern Irish Protocol.”
He added, “Protecting peace and stability on the island of Ireland will always be the EU’s priority.”
“The European Parliament will play a constructive role in supervising the implementation of the new agreement, also beyond the ratification. Parliament will remain critical when it comes to the interests of the EU”
David McAllister, Foreign Affairs Committee chair
The vote was accompanied by a resolution, also backed by the plenary, drafted by the UK Coordination Group (UKCG) and political groups, in which MEPs outline their priorities.
On this, Weber, a German member, said, “We expect the European Commission to mobilise all legal instruments of the agreement to ensure its full implementation, including the Northern Ireland Protocol - and we will follow each step taken in this regard closely.”
Luxembourg member Christophe Hansen, EPP spokesman on international trade and negotiator on EU-UK relations, promised that Parliament will “keep a close eye” on how the UK government implements what was jointly agreed.
He said the EU had opened “a new chapter in our relationship with the UK,” adding, “Friends never say goodbye and we will obviously continue to work together closely.”
S&D, Parliament’s second biggest group, said its aim in backing the deal was to limit the “negative consequences” of Brexit, protecting workers, consumers, the environment and businesses.
S&D leader Iratxe García Pérez noted, “The agreement has allowed us to avoid a chaotic Brexit that would have disrupted the economy, aggravated the effects of the pandemic and sown the future with uncertainty.”
“While the loss of a significant partner is no cause for celebration, we have guaranteed our objective to maintain a free trade area for goods based on zero tariffs, zero quotas and zero unfair competition. However, Brexit represents the great lie of the British right,” said the Spanish member.
“We will closely monitor the implementation of both this new treaty and the Withdrawal Agreement. We will not accept any backsliding from the UK government on the commitments it has made” David Sassoli, European Parliament President
Her colleague, Austrian member Andreas Schieder, co-rapporteur on the EU-UK Agreement, said, “This vote is not the end, but instead signals the beginning of the next chapter of our relations with the UK.”
“Despite the lack of political will from Boris Johnson’s government to cooperate on key areas like foreign policy and defence, or to participate in mutually beneficial programmes like Erasmus+, we believe the current framework provides sound foundations to build on.”
Greens/EFA co-leader Philippe Lamberts, another member of the UKCG, said, “No agreement of this sort is a preferable substitute to EU membership, but given the circumstances we face, this agreement holds together the integrity of the single market. This agreement should be a good one for the UK and the EU, if the UK government can respect its own signature.”
His colleague, German member Ska Keller noted, “Brexit was never our choice, but throughout this process we have always argued for the closest possible relationship. Given the far-reaching powers of this of this agreement, it is essential that Parliament is heavily involved in scrutinising its implementation.”
“We have never had a Member State leave the EU before which is why need proper and thorough scrutiny to ensure that this process goes smoothly. The Brexit process has been an exercise in understanding the limits of trust with our UK partners, we must use the vote on this agreement as a basis to build trust in the future.”
Renew Europe MEP Malik Azmani, a Dutch member, commented, “Leaving the EU was not as easy as the Brexiteers promised; instead it has led to serious collateral damage. Renew Europe is not yet convinced about the willingness of the British government to respect its commitments. This agreement is no blank cheque; trust needs to be rebuilt.”
French MEP and UKCG member Nathalie Loiseau added, “Our responsibility as MEPs is to limit the damage of Brexit as much as possible. The agreement allows us to continue privileged relations with our British partners while protecting the interests of Europeans.”
She warned, “The British authorities are increasing their red tape towards European fishermen. Here again, the Commission must calmly but firmly demand that the agreement be respected and protect our fishermen.”
“What we have defended throughout the negotiations, we will ensure is respected in the years to come. In all respects and in this Parliament too, the time for naivety is over.”
ECR’s UKCG member Geert Bourgeois said Tuesday’s vote was “a crucial step to avoid a no-deal scenario.”
“The TCA is also a good starting point to look to the future together and start a new chapter. For us, the departure of the British is not just an economic loss. We have the saying: A good neighbour is worth more than a distant friend. It is in both our interests to continue and even strengthen our cooperation.”
Aside from MEPs, BusinessEurope president Pierre Gattaz said, “European business welcomes the ratification of the EU-UK TCA. The UK is the third biggest trading partner of the EU, which makes this deal one of the most important trade agreements the EU has ever finalised.”
“The positive vote of the European Parliament removes a major element of uncertainty, while companies on both sides are still adjusting to the new reality of trading while struggling with the COVID-19 challenges.”
He added, “The agreement covers many areas that will have a strong impact on the competitive environment for EU and UK companies, ranging from climate change mitigation to digital transformation, competition, or standards.”
“It is now urgent that both sides put in place the governing and implementing bodies under the agreement opening the path for smooth implementation and structured cooperation. The business community stands ready to engage and contribute actively to this process.”