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EU officials formally sign post-Brexit trade deal with UK

BRUSSELS: The European Union’s top officials on Wednesday formally signed the long fought-over post-Brexit trade deal with the United Kingdom.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel put pen to paper during a brief signature ceremony in Brussels. The documents will now be flown across the Channel to London in a RAF plane for British Prime minister Boris Johnson to sign them.

“The agreement that we signed today is the result of months of intense negotiations in which the European Union has displayed an unprecedented level of unity,” Michel said. “It is a fair and balanced agreement that fully protects the fundamental interests of the European Union and creates stability and predictability for citizens and companies”.

The U.K. Parliament will later start debating the agreement setting up new trade rules between the 27-nation bloc and former member Britain. It is set to provisionally enter into force on Jan. 1. The agreement eventually needs approval from Britain’s Parliament, and from the EU’s legislature, which is not expected to take up the deal for weeks.

The leaders of the European Parliament’s political groups said they would not seek full approval until March because of the specific and far-reaching implications of the agreement. The overwhelming expectation is that EU lawmakers will approve the deal.

The 1,240-page post-Brexit deal was sealed by the EU and the U.K. on Christmas Eve, just a week before the year-end deadline.

“On major issues, the European Union stands ready to work shoulder to shoulder with the United Kingdom,” Michel said. “This will be the case on climate change, ahead of the COP 26 in Glasgow, and on the global response to pandemics, in particular with a possible treaty on pandemics. On foreign affairs, we will seek cooperation on specific issues based on shared values and interests.”

Head of WTO says she hopes there will be no UK-EU trade war

The head of the World Trade Organization said on Saturday she hoped that post-Brexit tensions between Britain and the European Union would not escalate into a trade war.

“I would really, really hope that a UK-EU trade war will not take place,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said in response to a question when speaking to reporters covering a Group of Seven leaders’ summit in southwestern England.

“With all the opportunities there are too for dialogue, I would be a little surprised if we ended up with a UK-EU trade war,” she said. “It’s too costly for both sides. This is not what the world needs right now.”

European Union lawmakers approve post-Brexit trade treaty

European lawmakers have approved the final ratification of the post-Brexit trade deal between the European Union and the United Kingdom, nearly five years after Britain decided to leave the bloc.

The deal, which was finalized on Christmas Eve, had already been ratified by the U.K. Parliament and conditionally came into force pending the European Parliament‘s approval, which marks the final legal hurdle.

Lawmakers at the European Parliament endorsed the free trade agreement by 660 votes in favor, 5 against, and 32 abstentions. The vote took place Tuesday but results were not announced until Wednesday morning.

The U.K. had joined the the bloc in 1973.

In a debate ahead of the vote, many legislators rued Britain’s departure but insisted ratifying the text was the best option to avoid economic disruptions and ensure the EU’s single market integrity.

Amid ongoing tensions between London and Brussels over Northern Ireland trade rules, the EU Parliament also said that the agreement will provide extra legal tools to “prevent and protect against unilateral pergence from the obligations to which both parties signed up.”

Earlier this year, the European Union accused Britain of breaching international law after the U.K. government unilaterally extended until October a grace period for not conducting checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. The move led the EU to start legal action against its former member nation.

Northern Ireland is part of the U.K. but remained part of the EU’s single market for goods after Brexit to avoid customs checks at the territory’s border with EU member Ireland. An open Irish border helped underpin the peace process that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland.

But tensions and violence have escalated in recent weeks, with unionists saying the arrangement the British government and the EU worked out has amounted to the creation of a border between the territory and the rest of the U.K.

The sensitivity of Northern Ireland’s status also was seen in September when the U.K. Parliament considered legislation that would have given Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government the power to override part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement relating to Northern Ireland.

The tension increased in January when the EU threatened to ban shipments of coronavirus vaccines to Northern Ireland as part of moves to shore up the bloc’s supply. That would have drawn a hard border on the island of Ireland – exactly the scenario the Brexit deal was crafted to avoid.

Relations between the EU and the U.K. have been strained since a Brexit transition period ended on Jan. 1. The two sides have argued so far this year over issues ranging from COVID-19 vaccine supplies to the full diplomatic recognition of the EU in Britain.

British industry warns of factory closures without help on fuel costs

Britain‘s most energy intensive manufacturers, including producers of steel, glass, ceramics and paper, have warned the government that unless something is done about soaring wholesale gas prices they could be forced to shut down production.

Wholesale gas prices have increased 400% this year in Europe, partly due to low stocks and strong demand from Asia, putting particular pressure on energy intensive industries.

Industry bosses held talks on Friday with business minister Kwasi Kwarteng but said these ended with no immediate solutions.

“If the government doesn’t take any action then basically what we’ll see for the steel sector is more and more pauses of production in certain times of the day and those pauses will become longer,” Gareth Stace, director general of UK Steel told ITV News.

Similarly, Andrew Large, director general of the Confederation of

Paper Industries

, told the same broadcaster that he could not rule out factories having to suspend production due to increased energy costs.

David Dalton of the British Glass Manufacturers Association said some companies were days away from halting production.

After meeting the industry leaders on Friday, Kwarteng’s department said he was determined to secure a competitive future for Britain’s energy intensive industries.

It said he “promised to continue to work closely with companies over the coming days to further understand and help mitigate the impacts of any cost increases faced by businesses.”

However, some lawmakers within the ruling Conservative Party want more to be done for energy intensive industries.

“I would like to see more government support for these industries in the short term to ensure that we don’t lose them from the UK and we don’t deter further investment,” Andrew Bridgen told the BBC.

“I think they’d like to see a cap on the prices they’re going to pay for gas.”

Britain’s economy is already struggling with a supply chain crisis.

A post-Brexit shortage of workers, exacerbated by the global strains of the COVID-19 pandemic, has hobbled Britain’s supply chains for everything from fuel and pork to poultry and bottled water, putting any recovery from the pandemic under threat.