LONDON – The approval of a trade agreement between the UK and the European Union was rushed through the UK Parliament in just one day on Wednesday. This was a hasty conclusion to a Brexit saga that has divided the British and rocked their politics for more than four years.
The House of Commons approved the Brexit trade deal overwhelmingly by 521 votes to 73 and sent it to the House of Lords, the second chamber of Parliament, where ratification is also expected later in the day.
Legislators, who were called back from their vacation for the job, agreed to the deal after examining more than 1,200 pages of dense legal text that will shape the relationship between Britain and continental Europe for decades to come and the biggest change in the country’s trade relations in recent times will make history.
Despite the lack of time for scrutiny, the ease with which the agreement went through the House of Commons stood in stark contrast to many razor-sharp votes held ahead of last year’s general election when Parliament was stalled over Brexit.
The trade deal, signed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday, came about after eleven months of lengthy negotiations and provides the UK with duty-free access to European markets. It should come into force on Friday.
At that point, Britain will leave the European Union’s internal market and customs union, breaking off economic integration with the bloc forged in the last few decades as part of a huge trading zone. Britain officially stepped out of the bloc’s political structures in January but opted to remain under its economic rules until the end of the year pending a trade deal.
Conservative lawmakers, including a group of die-hard Brexit supporters, have rallied behind the deal signed by Mr Johnson, who won a landslide election victory last December after promising a relatively distant economic relationship with the bloc and prioritizing national sovereignty .
Even the opposition Labor Party ordered its lawmakers to back the deal on the grounds that it was better than nothing, despite several saying they would refuse to vote for an agreement that would create new trade barriers for European nations.
Critics note that Mr Johnson’s deal secures little for the vital UK service sector and creates additional bureaucracy for UK companies exporting to continental Europe and having to file millions of additional customs declarations.
But Mr Johnson achieved his political goal by improving the country’s ability to exercise its sovereignty and make decisions without being constrained by European Union institutions such as the Court of Justice.
“After we regained control of our money, our borders, our laws and our waters by leaving the European Union on January 31st, we are using this moment to forge a fantastic new relationship with our European neighbors based on free trade and friendly cooperation. Said Mr Johnson as he opened the debate in Parliament.
Some lawmakers are angry at the speed with which they have been asked to take a decision on Brexit – a policy designed to restore the power of the UK Parliament.
But on Wednesday Parliament was effectively given the choice of take-it-or-leave-it. Labor leader Keir Starmer described Mr Johnson’s deal as a “thin deal” with many flaws, but added that “a thin deal is better than no deal”.
A vote against it would result in a chaotic break with the bloc by the end of the week, while support for the deal would provide a foundation for building a better relationship, he added.
The agreement has been provisionally approved by the European Union and a vote in the European Parliament is expected next month. The deal was signed by Mr Johnson on Wednesday afternoon, so a move by Parliament not to approve the document would put the country in legal limbo.
If approved by the House of Lords, the process is expected to be completed around midnight.
The agreement has many critics. Representatives from trawler fleets have accused Mr Johnson of giving in to the European Union on fishing rights and business leaders are annoyed at the added cost and administrative burden of the deal and the little achieved for the service sector – about four Fifth of the UK economy.
While the European Union exports more goods to the UK than it imports, the opposite is true for services.
Among those who said they would support the deal, but with reservations, was Theresa May, the former prime minister, who lost her job after failing to convince parliament on several occasions to support her plan to get Britain out of the bloc.
Ms. May attacked the Labor Party for defying its 2019 blueprint, pointing to loopholes in Mr. Johnson’s agreement.
“We have a trade deal that benefits the EU, but not a service deal that would benefit the UK,” she said.
Ian Blackford, the chairman of the Scottish National Party’s legislature in the UK Parliament, said the deal would mean “mountains of bureaucracy” for exporters.
But Brexit supporters praised the prime minister and focused more on sovereignty than economy.
William Cash, a conservative lawmaker who has spent his career against European integration, described the deal as a “real turning point in our history” and said that Mr Johnson “saved our democracy”.