UK and EU on verge of post-Brexit trade deal

24 December 2020, 12:37

A Brexit deal is close to being reached, political sources have claimed, after weeks of stalling over a disagreement over fishing
A Brexit deal is close to being reached, political sources have claimed, after weeks of stalling over a disagreement over fishing. Picture: PA

By Kate Buck

A trade deal between the UK and the EU is expected to be announced today after crunch last-minute negotiations continued through the night in Brussels.

However the expected announcement early today was delayed yet again with the Irish foreign minister saying there appears to be "some sort of last-minute hitch" in the Brexit talks, understood to be more wrangling over fish.

Negotiators worked through the night in an effort to find final compromises on main sticking points including the contentious issue of fishing rights.

Britain and the EU were understood to have made progress on their differences over fishing and the "level playing field" mechanisms on competition issues as the clock ticked down to the December 31 deadline for the end of the Brexit transition period.

Negotiators from the UK and European Union have been locked in intense talks for the past nine months over the terms of agreement between the bloc and a newly independent Great Britain.

Boris Johnson had boasted of having an "oven ready" deal months ago, but a final agreement has taken a bit longer to get onto the table ahead of the transition period coming to an end on 31 December.

Read more: James O'Brien makes his final powerful Brexit prediction

Late on Wednesday night, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen's chief spokesman, Eric Mamer, said work on the deal "will continue throughout the night."

He added: "Grabbing some sleep is recommended to all Brexit-watchers at this point. It will hopefully be an early start tomorrow morning."

For weeks there have been fears that a no deal was almost in inevitability after the stall in talks, but both sides have been working to secure a deal.

Earlier in the day, Downing Street struck a more upbeat than usual stance on the talks as a senior source said the unveiling of a deal before Christmas Eve was "possible", but not certain.

Negotiators continued talks in Brussels on Wednesday while Mr Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen were in close contact to try to resolve remaining difficulties.

A gathering of EU ambassadors is expected to take place on Thursday - Christmas Eve - if a deal is agreed.

The ratification process would then begin with the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, and the remaining 27 EU member states needing to agree to the deal.

Mr Johnson has previously said that the most likely outcome is failure to reach a deal, with the UK then relying on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms - meaning tariffs and quotas on trade with the EU.

France had warned that the EU would not be pressed into agreeing a deal just because of the looming deadline.

However, in what was being seen as a warning shot to Prime Minister Boris Johnson at Westminster, the European Research Group (ERG) of hardline pro-Brexit Tory MPs said they would scrutinise any deal in great detail.

The ERG said it would reconvene its so-called "star chamber" to examine any deal.

A statement issued by the group on Wednesday said: "Assuming a deal between UK and the EU is officially confirmed tonight, the European Research Group will tomorrow reconvene the panel of legal experts, chaired by Sir William Cash MP, to examine the details of the deal and legal text.

"The team of highly-experienced lawyers, previously known as the 'star chamber', was first assembled in 2019 to examine the legal aspects of Theresa May's original Withdrawal Agreement.

"Given that the new agreement is also highly complex, the star chamber will scrutinise it in detail, to ensure that its provisions genuinely protect the sovereignty of the United Kingdom after we exit the transition period at the end of this year."

French Europe minister Clement Beaune said a no-deal situation would be "catastrophic" for the UK and suggested the EU should hold out.

"We should not put ourselves, Europeans, under time pressure to finish by this hour or that day. Otherwise we would put ourselves in a situation to make bad concessions."

Ireland's premier Micheal Martin raised the prospect of officials working on the text of a Brexit deal on Christmas Day if a breakthrough comes before then.

The Taoiseach said he and other EU leaders were on stand-by to endorse any agreement that might emerge from negotiations between Brussels and the UK Government.

"On balance, I think, given the progress that has been made, that there should be a deal," he told RTE Radio One.

"And I think that a no deal would be an appalling shock to the economic system on top of Covid-19, which has really hit the respective of economies of the UK, Ireland and the EU member states.

"In particular, our domestic economy has taken a very big hit. And so we do need a deal.

"It's all down to fish, it would appear right now."

On Tuesday, the EU's lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, said they were making a "final push" to reach a deal and it was a "crucial moment".

Earlier, the European Parliament's former Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, said the queues of lorries in Kent are a sign of things to come.

France closed its border with the UK as a result of the new strain of coronavirus that is spreading rapidly across London and the South East.

In a tweet, Mr Verhofstadt said: "We forgot what borders look like. Some thought they would remain open with or without the EU. They will now start to understand what leaving the EU really means."