UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Thursday morning celebrated the passage of the Brexit trade deal bill through parliament, claiming: “The destiny of this great country now lies firmly in our hands.”
Britain’s legal ties with the EU will be broken at 11pm UK time on New Year’s Eve when the country leaves the single market and customs union, throwing up formidable new obstacles to trade.
The Queen gave her royal assent to the bill late on Wednesday night after MPs and peers voted to endorse Mr Johnson’s trade deal with the EU, which ensures tariff-free and quota-free trade for most goods.
But the free trade agreement does not remove the need for an array of new bureaucracy and checks at the border when the post-Brexit transition period ends.
Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister charged with overseeing new border arrangements, admitted earlier this month there would be “bumpy moments” as traders adjusted to the new “non tariff barriers”.
“The nature of our new relationship with the EU — outside the single market and customs union — means that there are practical and procedural changes that businesses and citizens need to get ready for,” Mr Gove said.
HM Revenue & Customs has estimated the extra form-filling and customs declarations required from Thursday night would cost British business £7bn; new border checks and incorrectly completed forms could cause delays.
Ministers have not denied industry estimates that 50,000 private sector customs agents need to be hired to help companies cope with the new bureaucracy. Only a fraction of those agents are thought to have been hired so far.
Although the UK-EU trade deal has generated goodwill which could help to smooth the introduction of the new trade border, ministers are nonetheless holding their breath as the new year approaches.
The light flow of trade, particularly on the Dover-Calais route, over the new year period — coupled with some Brexit-related stockpiling — should reduce the risk of immediate disruption at the border.
Mr Johnson was on Wednesday repeatedly challenged by Keir Starmer, Labour leader, over the prime minister’s claim that his trade deal would remove “non tariff barriers” at the border. “It’s wrong,” Sir Keir said. Ian Blackford, leader of the Scottish National party at Westminster, said it was “red, white and blue” tape.
Mr Johnson has instead claimed that new form-filling for EU trade will encourage British companies to export to the rest of the world: “They will now have the advantage that they will only have one set of forms they have to fill out for export around the whole world,” he told the BBC.
The prime minister issued a statement celebrating the passage through parliament in a single day of his Brexit trade deal legislation, saying it marked “a new beginning in our country’s history and a new relationship with the EU as their biggest ally”.
He added: “This moment is finally upon us and now is the time to seize it.” Downing Street said the prime minister would be in Number 10 with his family at 11pm when the Brexit transition period ends.