Sacrifices were made, but this Brexit deal is closer to what the UK wanted than the Europeans

The European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and British negotiator David Frost at the start of post -Brexit trade deal talks - Oliver Hoslet/Pool via REUTERS
The European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and British negotiator David Frost at the start of post -Brexit trade deal talks - Oliver Hoslet/Pool via REUTERS

Britain was forced to make concessions, but the final Brexit trade deal is far closer to the UK's demand for a Canada-style agreement than the trading partnership the EU wanted.

Sovereignty was baked into the British negotiating strategy for the trade deal from the moment Lord David Frost was appointed chief negotiator.

Britain could no longer be subject to any foreign power and must have the ability to autonomously set its own rules, independent of Brussels. Fail in this goal, Lord Frost made clear to his team, and the very point of Brexit would be lost.

That decision has consequences for the future trading relationship with the EU. It will never be as easy or frictionless as it was when the UK was a member. It also meant foregoing the temptation of becoming a rule-taker, with no say in the forming of EU rules and regulations, in return for easier trade and more money.

The dust around the negotiations is still settling, but several of Lord Frost's wins are already clear.

The European Court of Justice will have no role in the trade agreement or direct impact on British courts.

Future British governments will be free to diverge from EU standards, provided they accept that the EU can take remedial measures, such as tariffs, to preserve the level playing field of fair competition.

The UK has taken back control of access to its waters, at the cost of agreeing a transition period of five and a half years for EU fishermen to adapt. After that, its goal of annual negotiations of fishing opportunities in its seas will be achieved. Arguments will rage long and hard over the amount of quota guaranteed to EU fishermen, but it is undeniable that the British fishing industry will be given a shot in the arm.

Britain will, as promised, leave the Single Market and Customs Union, which means it can strike its own trade deals and end free movement.

The EU had reason to be confident after trouncing Theresa May's officials in the negotiations over the divorce treaty. Michel Barnier saw off no fewer than three Brexit Secretaries and one Prime Minister before the Withdrawal Agreement was finally ratified.

Mr Barnier's mandate, and his opening negotiating positions, were correspondingly strong. The EU called for the European Court of Justice to oversee the continuation of EU subsidy law in Britain. It demanded dynamic alignment on state aid, which would mean Britain accepting EU law wholesale, and evolution clauses on environment, tax and labour rights. These would see the UK update its laws to match Brussels over time.

These "level playing field" demands were seen as crucial to the EU member states. They were were wary that the UK would use Brexit to slash and burn EU regulation and undercut Brussels standards for an unfair competitive advantage.

Most egregiously, the EU member states insisted that their fishing boats should have continued access to UK waters, under exactly the same conditions as the Commons Fisheries Policy, as if Brexit had never happened. Even Mr Barnier found that position difficult to defend at times, describing it as "maximalist".

Lord Frost, no fan of the Withdrawal Agreement, was determined to shift the European Commission from its complacent view of the UK as a departing member state. He would not make the same mistake as his predecessors by allowing the EU to set the sequencing of the talks, which was the foundation of the commission's triumph in negotiations over the Withdrawal Agreement.

From now on, he decided, the EU had to see the UK as a sovereign equal, regardless of the asymmetry in the tussle with the much larger bloc and the 460 million-strong Single Market behind it at the negotiating table.

The principle informed every decision made by the UK in the months of torturous trade talks and set the narrative for the negotiations. At times, it knocked a Brussels still fresh from its victory in the negotiations over the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement off its stride.

Brussels wanted the big three issues of fishing, "level playing field" guarantees and the deal's enforcement to be settled first. Britain argued that the big stuff was always left till last in trade talks. After an almighty tussle with Brussels, Lord Frost got his way in the end.

So successful was the messaging on sovereignty that it was co-opted by Michel Barnier. He argued that the EU had to have the sovereign right to govern access to its market.

This ultimately unlocked the deal. The UK would be able to diverge and would have control of its waters.

In return, the EU would have the power to hit back with trade measures, shutting off access to the Single Market, if it felt it was being undercut or frozen out of UK waters.

These actions will be governed through arbitration in independent committees, rather than unilateral decisions by the European Commission and rather than by decisions based on EU law. Both sides' sovereignty would be respected. It is a sign of how successfully Lord Frost set the narrative and shaped the second phase of the Brexit negotiations.

Brussels wanted a comprehensive and close trading relationship, covered by an overarching treaty, which would have preserved the supremacy of its regulatory tractor beam.

The final deal does not preserve the lingering legal ties binding the UK and EU over 47 years of membership.

Sacrifices were made. Britain would have preferred better access to criminal databases, the continued recognition of UK labs as hubs for testing for EU standards and rules that would have allowed products assembled with imported products to be counted as British.

Critics will always compare the new deal to EU membership, but that ship sailed at 11pm on January 31.

Crucially, the new relationship prevents the economic damage of no deal WTO terms, the "ground zero" alternative after the UK left the EU on January 31.

It replaces it with a new relationship, which risks in the short-term making Britain poorer and presents the EU with a new economic and regulatory competitor on its doorstep.

Sovereignty has been regained. It is now up to British governments beyond Brexit to prove the price paid for it was worth it.