Following the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union on 1 February 2020, the transition period agreed upon in the Withdrawal Agreement will end on 31 December 2020. The UK will thus leave the single market and the customs union and EU rules will no longer apply to it.
With the agreement of 24 December 2020, the European Union and the UK have opened a new chapter in their relations. During the intensive negotiations, which lasted less than a year, the future relationship between the EU and the UK has been successfully reshaped. In its role as holder of the Presidency of the Council of the EU, Germany will now do all it can to ensure that the Agreement on the New Partnership can provisionally take effect on 1 January 2021. It will place the relationship between the EU and the United Kingdom on a new footing. This is a great success. Never before has such a comprehensive agreement been concluded between the EU and a third country, and it has been achieved in record time.
Both sides, the EU and the UK, will benefit from the agreement reached. It has come just in time to enable a smooth passage to a new and comprehensive legal framework after the transition period ends on 31 December 2020. It must now be approved by all 27 member states. It would then come into force on 1 January 2021, on a provisional basis. This will give the European Parliament sufficient time to approve it in the new year. The EU and the UK will remain close partners and friends. This new agreement on the future partnership forms an excellent basis for this.
What arrangements have now been agreed?
Among other things, the agreement on future relations with the UK creates a broad economic partnership. In essence, this is based on a free trade agreement which contains neither tariffs nor quotas and thus averts any major trade barriers. However, such a partnership also needs fair parameters. For that reason, the two sides have agreed on far-reaching provisions in order to guarantee fair competition. This concerns the sphere of state aid and standards of protection for consumers, labour, the environment and the climate. You can find the precise provisions, which will now apply as of 1 January 2021 – initially on a provisional basis, – on the websites of the relevant federal ministries as well as the European Commission. A brief overview can be found here, in the form of a table.
However, there could not be a genuine economic partnership if the future relationship did not go beyond trade issues. The European Union and the United Kingdom have therefore also agreed on the framework for future cooperation in many other spheres: services, professional qualifications, public procurement, environmental and energy issues, air, sea and rail freight transport, as well as regulations on social security and research and development. In these areas, the UK will continue to participate in a whole series of EU programmes.
In light of the close links between the European Union and the United Kingdom and their geographical proximity, the agreement also establishes a close security partnership. This will facilitate future cooperation on justice and home affairs issues. In concrete terms, this means that both sides will continue, for instance within the context of Europol, to work together closely on fighting crime and will cooperate on combatting money laundering, transnational crime and terrorism. In addition, the agreement regulates the mutual exchange of data, for example airline passenger data or criminal records. All of this will be done in compliance with the provisions of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the European Convention on Human Rights.
Although the European Union would have wished it, unfortunately the agreement does not contain any provisions on cooperation in the sphere of foreign and security policy. However, the EU and the UK will remain key partners in NATO, the OSCE and the UN.
On what basis did the European Commission negotiate all of this?
With the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union as of 1 February 2020, the Withdrawal Agreement previously negotiated between the EU and the UK entered into force. The Withdrawal Agreement regulates key issues such as citizens’ rights. This agreement is accompanied by a Political Declaration, in which an agreed framework for negotiating the future relationship was outlined. In line with the Political Declaration, the 27 EU member states agreed on 25 February 2020 to the negotiating mandate for the European Commission, which conducted the negotiations on the future relationship with the UK on behalf of the member states. Starting in March, the EU and the UK conducted ongoing negotiations notwithstanding the difficulties caused by the COVID‑19 pandemic. The European Commission closely consulted with the 27 member states, as well as with the European Parliament, on a regular basis. In recent weeks, the two sides intensified the negotiations even further and an agreement was reached on 24 December 2020.
What happens at the end of the transition period? Which preparations are necessary?
The transition period stipulated in the Withdrawal Agreement ends on 31 December 2020. After that, the UK will thus no longer be part of the EU single market or the EU customs union. The EU’s relationship with the UK will therefore fundamentally change at the end of the year. With the conclusion of the agreement on the future relationship, comprehensive new provisions will enter into force for which administrators, companies and citizens in Germany and the entire EU will have to prepare at the end of the transition phase.
The German Government has made comprehensive preparations for the changes which are already foreseeable before the end of the transition phase and will happen regardless of the outcome of the negotiations on the future relationship. Within the EU, the German Government has been in close contact with the European Commission and the other member states, and at national level with all stakeholders (the business community, associations, citizens) and will remain so.
On 9 July 2020, the European Commission published a readiness communication outlining the changes that will take place – regardless of the outcome of the negotiations. Detailed information on the individual changes (for example, travel, customs duties, data protection law, industrial products, chemicals, etc.) can be found in the almost 100 sector-specific stakeholder readiness notices. These are intended to help public administrations, companies and citizens to prepare.
You can find an overview of the information available to citizens and companies here.
What role does the Withdrawal Agreement play?
Thanks to the Withdrawal Agreement, the EU’s freedom of movement, i.e. the right to live, work, study or have social security coverage anywhere in the EU and in the UK will continue to apply until the end of the transition period. Furthermore, EU citizens currently residing in the UK and UK citizens already residing in the EU will enjoy lifelong comprehensive protection of their rights; they can continue to live, work, study and enjoy social security in the UK and the EU respectively.
These rights are contained in the Withdrawal Agreement; the resulting obligation to safeguard these rights will be implemented through national legislation and measures. In Germany, the Act on the Current Amendment of the Freedom of Movement Act/EU and of Other Legislation in Line with Union Law entered into force on 24 November 2020. This act secures the status rights of UK nationals and their family members entitled to freedom of movement in line with the Withdrawal Agreement. Further information is available on the website of the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community.
Since its withdrawal on 1 February 2020, the UK has had no say in the EU institutions. UK citizens have also been excluded since then from participating in European citizens’ initiatives and have no right to vote in local elections in other EU countries or in European Parliament elections, nor to stand as candidates in such elections.
The special Protocol for Northern Ireland, attached to the Withdrawal Agreement, guarantees the integrity of the EU single market; at the same time, it ensures that there will be no controls at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland and that the Good Friday Agreement remains fully in force. The Protocol provides that Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK’s customs territory but that all relevant rules of the EU single market will apply in Northern Ireland as will the Union Customs Code. The checks and collection of customs duties that this will entail will take place at the entry points to the island of Ireland in Northern Ireland.
What is more, the UK’s financial obligations towards the EU are one of the points laid down in the Withdrawal Agreement.
The Withdrawal Agreement establishes a Joint Committee in which the EU and the UK regularly discuss the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement. On 8 December, the co-chairs of the Joint Committee, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, were able to reach a broad agreement on outstanding issues. Formal adoption by the Joint Committee followed on 17 December so that the Withdrawal Agreement and the attached Protocols can be implemented in full as of 1 January 2021.
[The European Commission answers more questions on the Withdrawal Agreement on its website].