EU lawmakers hold final Brexit debate before decisive vote

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EU lawmakers kicked off a last debate on Tuesday on the post-Brexit trade agreement between the European Union and Britain, ahead of a vote that is expected to give the accord overwhelming approval.

That vote will be the final step towards ratification of the EU-UK trade and cooperation agreement, struck in December after more than four years of acrimonious negotiations and lingering mistrust as Britain ended 47 years of EU membership.

“This is a divorce. It is a warning, Brexit. It’s a failure of the European Union and we have to learn lessons from it... Why did 52 percent of the British vote against Europe?... Our duty is to listen and understand the feelings of the people,” the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told lawmakers, who gave him a standing ovation for his work.

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The accord crafted in the last days of 2020 only entered force on a provisional basis until the end of April, pending approval from the European Parliament. Lawmakers will vote late on Tuesday, with the outcome made public on Wednesday morning.

There is no doubt that they will back the deal, after assembly committees earlier cleared it by 108 votes to 1. If they did not, EU-UK ties would fall back to basic World Trade Organization terms, with quotas and tariffs.

However, there had been some doubt the vote would go ahead as parliament protested against British changes to trading arrangements in Northern Ireland, a unilateral move that prompted Brussels to launch legal action.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the trade agreement gave each side tools - dispute settlement and the potential imposition of tariffs - to ensure compliance with the accord and the Brexit divorce deal.

“Let me be clear: we do not want to have to use these tools. But we will not hesitate to use them if necessary,” she said at the start of the debate.

Once parliament has given its consent, the 27 EU countries are expected to rubber-stamp the deal. The bloc will then inform Britain and the trade agreement will formally be concluded.

The lawmakers are also voting on a 17-page accompanying resolution, calling Brexit a “historic mistake” and urging the Commission to continue its legal action against London.

The text says parliament also regrets the limited scope of the deal, without cooperation on foreign policy or student exchanges, and noting that opportunities for Britain’s largely service-based economy are “vastly reduced.”

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