Boris Johnson has urged MPs to “open a new chapter in our national story” by backing his post-Brexit trade deal with the EU in a Commons vote later.
Parliament has been recalled to put the deal into law, a day before the UK severs ties with the European Union.
In a speech to MPs, the prime minister said the deal – agreed on Christmas Eve – allowed the UK to take “control of our laws and our national destiny”.
But he also stressed the UK intended to be the EU’s “best friend and ally”.
The deal hammered out with Brussels over nine tortuous months sets out a new business and security relationship between the UK and its biggest trading partner.
The EU (future relationship) Bill – which puts it into UK law – is expected to receive the backing of Parliament, thanks to Mr Johnson’s large Commons majority and the support of the Labour Party.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer – who campaigned against Brexit – has said the “thin” agreement does not do enough to protect jobs, the environment and workers’ rights.
But – despite objections from leading members of his own party – has ordered his MPs to vote for it, as the only alternative at this stage would be a no-deal exit, which he argues would be even more damaging to the UK economy.
All other opposition parties, including the SNP, the Lib Dems, Plaid Cymru and all Northern Ireland parties that take seats at Westminster, have indicated they will be voting against the deal.
But the prime minister received a boost from a powerful group of backbench Tory Brexiteers and serial rebels, who have indicated they will back the deal.
The European Research Group (ERG) said it had examined the text in detail and concluded that it “preserves the UK’s sovereignty as a matter of law”.
- A Brexit deal has been agreed, days before a deadline. It means that the UK and the EU can continue to trade without extra taxes being put on goods.
- What took so long? The UK voted to leave the EU in 2016 and actually left on 31 January 2020, but leaders had until the end of 2020 to work out a trade deal.
- There are big changes ahead. Although it’s a trade deal that has been agreed, there will also be changes to how people travel between the EU and UK, and to the way they live and work.
In a speech opening five hours of Commons debate, Mr Johnson said the “central purpose of this bill is to accomplish something which the British people always knew in their hearts could be done”.
This, he added, was that the country could “trade and cooperate with our European neighbours on the closest terms of friendship and goodwill, whilst retaining sovereign control of our laws and our national destiny”.
Mr Johnson added that there was a “unifying thread” in the bill of wanting a “new relationship between Britain and the EU as sovereign equals, joined by friendship, commerce, history, interests and values, while respecting one another’s freedom of action and recognising that we have nothing to fear if we sometimes choose to do things differently”.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel are due to sign the international treaty ratifying the deal on Wednesday morning in Brussels.
The document will then be flown across the Channel in an RAF plane for Mr Johnson to sign it in Downing Street, a No 10 spokesman said.
The European Parliament has begun its scrutiny of the agreement but will not get a chance to ratify it before the UK leaves the EU single market and customs union at midnight on Thursday.
The deal has, however, been given the unanimous backing of ambassadors from the 27 nations and the member states gave their written approval on Tuesday.
After the Commons vote, the bill will move on to the Lords, which is also expected to back it, before receiving Royal Assent.
Labour has called on the government to provide help to British businesses facing upheaval in the new year, including “clear communications”, an acceleration in the recruitment of customs officials, forbearance for firms coming to terms with new rules, commitment to British supply chains and financial support for affected firms.
The deal comes as the UK government announced a deal that will allow British businesses to continue trading with Turkey on the same terms after Brexit.
The tariff-free arrangements underpin a trading relationship which the UK government said was worth £18.6bn last year.
The UK has rolled over dozens of trade deals with countries around the world since deciding to leave the EU’s trading arrangements.
The vast majority of the 63 trade deals the UK has signed over the past two years have retained the same terms as before Brexit.