LONDON – The UK and the European Union were on the verge of a landmark post-Brexit trade deal on Wednesday that saw negotiators in Brussels almost resolved the final issues, said a person briefed on the talks.
An announcement seemed imminent, likely on Christmas Eve, exactly a week before December 31st, when the UK and the European Union were due to negotiate long-term trade deals.
A European Commission spokesman, Eric Mamer, posted on Twitter after midnight that work on the agreement “will continue all night” adding that “hopefully” would be an “early start tomorrow morning”.
Some of the negotiators are trying to end their talks before Christmas in order to avoid the risk of the agreement not being adopted in time for January 1st. Without an agreement, Britain and the European Union would, by default, act according to World Trade Organization rules. Levying duties on each other’s goods.
This could lead to serious trade disruption across the English Channel, at a time when trade and travel between the UK and the continent have already been disrupted by fears of a rapidly spreading variant of the coronavirus that was emerging in the UK and causing European countries to impose Travel bans against the UK.
Rumors of an agreement were circulating in London and Brussels on Wednesday afternoon, but neither the European Commission nor 10 Downing Street confirmed it or issued any updates on the negotiations.
How the deal is rolled out is sensitive for both sides due to the extraordinary stakes. Prime Minister Boris Johnson will seek to present the deal in fulfillment of his promise to enforce Britain’s sovereignty. The European Union will be happy to show that it has defended the integrity of the internal market.
Much of the talks over the past few days have centered on securing the European Union’s access to British fishing grounds.
During the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, Mr Johnson promised fishermen that if Britain left the bloc it would regain control of its national waters, which it has shared with French and other European fishing teams for decades, or in some cases centuries.
But fisheries are also of great importance in France, not least for President Emmanuel Macron, who is facing an election in 2022. French fleets rely on fish caught in British waters. For example, under current quotas, 84 percent of cod caught in a zone off the English coast is allocated to France, while only 9 percent goes to the UK.
European negotiators urged the UK to continue giving their fishing teams wide access to its waters. The negotiations were about setting a transition period for this access and agreeing to UK demands that UK fishing crews keep a higher percentage of the value of the total catch.
The two sides are also working on a complex agreement on so-called principles of a level playing field, which should prevent British companies from gaining an unfair advantage over their European competitors through state aid or less stringent environmental or labor laws.
The negotiations, which began after the UK formally left the European Union in January, have been fairly short-term until the last few weeks, partly because they were dwarfed by the pandemic. In June, Mr Johnson missed the opportunity to extend talks until 2021 and insisted he was ready to risk a no-deal Brexit.
Mr Johnson reiterated that message over the past few days, saying that Britain would “thrive” without a deal. But as the deadline approached, he took part in the talks and two weeks ago flew to Brussels for dinner with the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.
Mr Johnson said he was keen to get in direct contact with Mr Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, but the European Commission has kept control of the talks being conducted by Michel Barnier.
For Mr. Johnson, a deal would enable a deal to fulfill his promise to get Brexit done. The nature of the deal, however, will be important to the pro-Brexit lawmakers in its Conservative Party, who will scrutinize the details for evidence that Britain has ceded its sovereignty to European negotiators.
However, such a late deal means that the UK Parliament has very little time to consider before voting on it. The timing is set so that the European Parliament will likely be asked to allow the provisional entry into force on January 1st before it can consider the agreement later in the month.
The French government’s decision to suspend freight traffic over the canal for two days over fears of a new virus strain gave an insight into what a deal-free Brexit could look like. It also created tension with France, with the British tabloids targeting a well-known target.
“Kick in the Baubles,” said a headline in the sun, suggesting that France had conspired to ruin the Christmas holidays for the people of Britain. “Monsieur Roadblock Gives Way,” read a headline in the Daily Mail after Mr Macron agreed to lift the ban, subject to a virus-testing program for truck drivers.