Parliament on Wednesday voted resoundingly to approve a trade deal with the EU, paving the way for an orderly break that will finally complete the UK’s long and divisive Brexit journey.
With just a day to spare, the House of Commons voted 521-73 in favour of the agreement sealed between the UK government and the EU last week.
Brexit enthusiasts in Parliament praised it as a reclamation of independence from the bloc.
Pro-Europeans lamented its failure to preserve seamless trade with Britain’s biggest economic partner.
But the vast majority in the divided Commons agreed that it was better than the alternative of no deal with the EU.
Late on Wednesday evening, Parliament’s upper chamber, the unelected House of Lords, also backed the deal.
It is now officially UK legislation, with Queen Elizabeth II formally giving it royal assent in the early hours of Thursday morning.
The UK left the EU almost a year ago but remained within the bloc’s economic embrace during a transition period that ends at midnight Brussels time, 11pm in London, on Thursday.
The day before departure, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel signed the hard-won agreement at a brief ceremony in Brussels.
“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,” Mr 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 documents were then flown by Royal Air Force plane to London, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson added his signature in a photo opportunity in front of a row of Union Jack flags.
The European Parliament also must sign the agreement, but is not expected to get to it for several weeks.
Mr Johnson told legislators that the deal heralded “a new relationship between Britain and the EU as sovereign equals".
It has been three and a half years since Britain voted 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the bloc it had joined in 1973.
Brexit started on January 31 this year, but the real repercussions have yet to be felt because the UK’s economic relationship with the EU remained unchanged during the 11-month transition that ends on December 31.
Big changes are coming on New Year’s Day.
The agreement, negotiated during nine tense months and sealed on Christmas Eve, will ensure Britain and the 27-nation EU can continue to trade in goods without tariffs or quotas.
That should help to protect the £660 billion ($894bn) in annual trade between the two sides, and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that rely on it.
But the end to Britain’s membership in the EU’s vast single market and Customs union will still bring inconvenience and new expense for people and businesses — from tourists' travel insurance to millions of new Customs declarations for companies.
Brexit supporters, including Mr Johnson, say any short-term pain will be worth it.
He said the Brexit deal would turn Britain from “a half-hearted, sometimes obstructive member of the EU” into “a friendly neighbour; the best friend and ally the EU could have".
Mr Johnson said Britain would now “trade and co-operate with our European neighbours on the closest terms of friendship and good-will, while retaining sovereign control of our laws and our national destiny".
Some politicians were unhappy to be given only five hours in Parliament to scrutinise a 1,200-page deal that will mean profound changes for Britain’s economy and society.
But support among legislators, most of whom debated and voted from home because of coronavirus restrictions, was overwhelming, if not always enthusiastic.
The powerful eurosceptic wing of Mr Johnson’s Conservative Party, which fought for years for the seemingly long-shot goal of taking Britain out of the EU, gave its backing to the deal.
The strongly pro-EU Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party voted against.
But the main opposition Labour Party, which sought a closer relationship with the bloc, said it would vote for the agreement because even a thin deal was better than no deal.
“We have only one day before the end of the transition period and it’s the only deal that we have,” said Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer. “It’s a basis to build on in the years to come.”
Former Conservative prime minister Theresa May, who resigned in 2019 after three years of Brexit acrimony in Parliament, said she would vote for Mr Johnson’s agreement.
But Mrs May said it was worse than the one she had negotiated with the bloc, which MPs repeatedly rejected.
She said the deal protected trade in goods but did not cover services, which account for 80 per cent of Britain’s economy.
“We have a deal in trade, which benefits the EU, but not a deal in services, which would have benefitted the UK,” Mrs May said.