The clock is no longer ticking.”
These were pretty much the first words out of the mouth of the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, as he announced the just sealed EU-UK trade and security agreement on Thursday.
No more looming “no-deal” threats; no more almost painful uncertainty about future relations across the Channel. This was a historic moment.
A fair and balanced deal for both sides, said the European Commission.
But you’d have to have been half-asleep (or halfway through a bottle of eggnog, cava or pint of Glühwein) to miss the stark difference in tone between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s triumphalist announcement on Thursday afternoon and the sombre statement by the European Commission.
For Mr Johnson, 1 January heralds some kind of rebirth for the UK outside the EU.
For Brussels, this whole negotiating process has been – as summed up today by Finland’s Europe minister – a damage limitation exercise.
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The 2016 Brexit vote, leading to the loss of such a key member state, was a huge slap in the face for the EU.
Its aim since then has been to sign a deal with the UK that protects EU business and security interests – but not so advantageous as to tempt other member states to leave the bloc.
French President Emmanuel Macron commented on Thursday that the EU was right to have remained “steadfast and united” since the Brexit vote. He said they could all now proudly look to the future instead.
Anti-Brexit signs placed at the gates of Downing Street in London. Photo: 24 December 2020
image captionAnti-Brexit signs at the gates of Downing Street in London
But this is by no means the end of the EU-UK conversation.
The treaty must still be ratified. And it’s not only the UK parliament that wants a peek.
Spare a thought for the 27 ambassadors who represent EU member states in Brussels. They’re being dragged to a meeting on Christmas morning with Mr Barnier to discuss the details of the deal.
The text must be approved by EU capitals before the year’s end. Each country has a veto, though they’re not expected to use it. Mr Barnier and team kept them on board and in the loop every step of the way, throughout the negotiations.
The same goes for the European Parliament. It’s expected to ratify the deal early next year.
Until that moment, the agreement will be adopted provisionally, as allowed under EU law.
media captionPrime Minister Boris Johnson announces new deal between UK and EU
The new year is when we start to find out what Brexit really means. We don’t really know what it feels like yet, what impact it will have on all our lives.
The transition period kept EU-UK relations pretty much the same in practical terms but that all ends on 31 December.
A far cry from the “friction-free” trade deal once promised by former Prime Minister Theresa May, this is the “hardest” of Brexits – not the costly chaos of no deal at all – but nonetheless it means out of the EU’s customs union and single market. There will be considerable non-tariff barriers from 2021.
Remember, the UK is a service-based economy, yet this agreement hardly deals with services at all.
UK financial services must wait, possibly for months yet, for the EU to decide unilaterally what access they can have to the single market.
The UK also impatiently awaits a ruling from the EU on data adequacy – how free the flow of data can be between the two sides.
Despite the relief expressed by a number of EU leaders on Thursday that this trade deal was finally agreed, the bloc begins its new relationship with the UK in quite a defensive, wary frame of mind.
EU leaders have not forgotten the controversial clauses the UK government introduced into its Internal Market Bill this autumn, contravening the Brexit Divorce Deal, signed with them less than a year before.
It was because of that, the EU said it pushed so hard for tough retaliation mechanisms in this trade deal – in case the UK doesn’t keep to its part of the bargain (and vice versa, of course).
Brussels’ assumption is that the UK will be keen to diverge and yank away from the EU’s gravitational pull as soon as it sees fit.
It was quite a remarkable achievement of both negotiating teams that they managed to marry the two sides’ very different priorities. For the government: to be able to say it had protected national sovereignty after Brexit, avoiding signing up to a new Brussels rule book in exchange for a trade deal.
The EU’s main focus was protecting the single market from what they feared could be unfair competition from UK businesses, aggressively undercutting their European rivals.
Oven-ready and cooked to perfection? Rushed to completion in a record-breaking nine months, this deal clearly won’t be faultless.
All those devils in the 1,800 pages of detail, some allowing different interpretations on issues by both sides, will become apparent in the coming days and months.
But frankly, neither the UK nor the EU would have completed the agreement if they hadn’t felt they could sell it to their domestic audiences as a big win.
And that is what they are now busy doing. On both sides of the Channel.