Eurosceptic Tory MPs in the influential European Research Group are poised to give their seal of approval to the EU-UK trade deal within hours, in a fresh boost for prime minister Boris Johnson.
EU ambassadors in Brussels on Monday gave the green light for the trade agreement to come into provisional force from January 1 in a move designed to prevent border disruption as the Brexit transition period ends.
The deal 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, although MPs will have only five hours to debate the bill.
Although some senior Eurosceptics have called for more time to scrutinise the legislation, the ERG is expected to give its formal approval on Tuesday, subject to a final meeting.
The ERG, which numbers about 80 MPs, was responsible for opposing attempts to achieve a softer Brexit by Theresa May, the former prime minister.
Mr Johnson can also rely on most Labour MPs to support the deal after Keir Starmer, the party leader, said last week that he would back the “tough but necessary decision” between a flawed deal and no deal. But Sir Keir is facing a mounting rebellion from Europhile Labour MPs, particularly those in seats with a strong Liberal Democrat presence.
However Northern Ireland’s pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist Party said its eight MPs would vote against the treaty. The party, which wants Northern Ireland to leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK, opposes the protocol to keep open the land border with the Irish Republic because it keeps the region within Europe’s customs and internal market regime, unlike the rest of Great Britain.
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 in the new year.
Mr Gove told companies to make sure they understood 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”.
The deal has been slammed by the British fishing industry. 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.
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 tiny 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”.