EU ambassadors in Brussels on Monday gave the green light for the trade deal with the UK to come into provisional force from January 1, in a move designed to prevent border disruption as the Brexit transition period ends.
The agreement is due to be voted on and ratified in full by the European Parliament in early 2021 and is expected to be approved in Britain’s House of Commons on Wednesday.
But the deal has been slammed by the British fishing industry as UK ministers warned businesses to prepare for new red tape ahead of January 1.
Barrie Deas, chief executive of the National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations, which represents Britain’s fishing industry, criticised the “paltry” increase in fishing rights under the deal. For example, the UK’s share of cod caught in the English Channel would increase from just 9.3 per cent to 10.2 per cent, the body said.
Cabinet Office secretary Michael Gove on Monday praised the “fantastic free trade agreement” struck last week with the EU. But he added that “with big change comes challenge and opportunity”, and urged businesses to prepare for upheaval when new regulations come into effect at New Year.
Mr Gove told companies to make sure they understand the new rules on importing and exporting goods — including separate guidelines for Northern Ireland.
Under the terms of the deal, businesses will have to make customs declarations if they trade with the EU, while hauliers will need access permits. People wanting to visit the continent will have to check for phone roaming charges, make sure they have obtained comprehensive travel insurance and have at least six months remaining on their passports.
Business groups have been pressing ministers to provide further financial help — perhaps through a new voucher scheme — to help them prepare for exporting under the new, more onerous regime. However, the government has pointed out that HM Revenue & Customs is already providing “customs support funding”.
“I think business is broadly in a good place but inevitably with any change, with any transition, there are occasional bumpy moments,” Mr Gove said on Monday.
The European Research Group of Tory Brexiters is expected to back the agreement, but some senior Eurosceptics are calling for more time for scrutiny of the legislation next month.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said last week that his party would back the “tough but necessary decision” between a flawed deal and no deal. But he is now facing a mounting rebellion from Europhile Labour MPs, particularly those in seats with a strong Liberal Democrat presence.
The NFFO said the fishing industry would see the agreement as “a defeat” despite what it described as a public relations exercise to portray it as a “fabulous victory”.
Although fishing is only a minuscule share of British GDP the industry has had totemic significance in the Brexit debate. Prime minister Boris Johnson said last week that the deal with Brussels would enable Britons to “catch and eat quite prodigious quantities of extra fish”.
However, under the terms of the agreement, EU fishing fleets will have a five and a half-year transition period with guaranteed access to UK waters — after which access will depend on annual negotiations.
During the transition, EU fishing rights in UK waters — currently worth about €650m per year — will be reduced by one quarter, with British quotas increasing by a corresponding amount.
Mr Deas said there had been a “UK surrender” after fishing was “sacrificed for other national objectives”.
“In the endgame, the prime minister made the call and caved in on fish, despite the rhetoric and assurances that he would not do what [then prime minister] Ted Heath did in 1973,” he said.