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A post-Brexit trade deal looks imminent as speculation mounts about an announcement

It had been reported that the negotiating teams were pushing to get a deal over the line before Christmas.

The Christmas tree outside 10 Downing Street in London.
The Christmas tree outside 10 Downing Street in London.
Image: Kirsty Wigglesworth

Updated Dec 23rd 2020, 11:07 PM

THE UK AND Brussels appeared close to finally striking a post-Brexit trade deal tonight as speculation mounted that both sides were poised to make an announcement.

Taoisach Micheál Martin said on RTÉ’s Nine O’Clock News: “…Given the enormous time that has been put into negotiations, there does seem to be a sense today that this is nearing a conclusion.”  

“We are in the final phase,” one EU official said. Asked whether this meant a deal later today, a source close to the talks said: “Very likely, yes.”

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

It follows nine months of intense, and at times rancorous, negotiations.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a virtual meeting late on tonight with Cabinet ministers to discuss the situation.

Despite numerous reports of a breakthrough, one German reporter based in London said that a press conference had been scheduled for 8pm, but was cancelled

Bloomberg reported that the ‘outline of a deal’ had been done, and just needed the final approval of the UK Prime Minister and the 27 EU member states.

The Financial Times reported that British officials said a trade deal completed as early as this evening was “possible”, though there were issues left to resolve.

The official line from No 10 Downing Street was that a deal done today was that it was “possible but far from certain”.

Transport Minister and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan told that “hopefully we’ll see a deal agreed by the end of today if reports are accurate on timelines”.

He said that the landbridge route would continue to be used by Irish hauliers, that the customs arrangements if there is no deal is risky, and that even if there is a deal “we may still have difficulties” with transportation after the Brexit transition period. 

Taoiseach Micheal Martin said fishing was still the main obstacle in the way of a deal.

“It’s all down to fish, it would appear right now,” he said.

“There was a lot of progress made on the level playing field over the last two to three weeks and it’s very difficult for all involved but the gap is still wide on fish, and for fishing communities in Ireland it’s a time of worry.”

“It’s not just about monetary terms, I think it’s about the sustainability of the fishing industry in the respect of member states and there’s six or seven member states have particular concerns here.

“It’s about sustaining rural communities,” he said.

belgium-eu-brexit Christmas decorations outside of EU headquarters in Brussels. Source: Virginia Mayo

Earlier today, British Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick said he is “reasonably optimistic” that a late deal will be agreed before the current trading arrangements expire at the end of the month.

When asked whether there is a link between French President Emmanuel Macron’s action to shut the border with France and the Brexit negotiations, Jenrick said: “I hope not.”

How likely is a deal?

The British pound surged against the dollar on optimism that a deal could finally be reached, with sterling rising to $1.35 at around 3.51. 

Diplomats from EU member states, which would have to approve any technical agreement, were less optimistic however, warning that they still needed to see a text and that problems may remain.

But a definitive breakthrough on 10 months of tortuous negotiations seemed close.

Any agreement still faces a race to be signed off by the leaders of the EU’s 27 member states, as well as the ratification of the deal in the European Parliament and the House of Commons.

With just seven days to go until the UK leaves the Single Market and Customs Union, it has been suggested that a deal could be approved provisionally before the cut-off date, and then scrutinised by EU lawmakers in the new year to avoid a cliff-edge.

Empty nets

france-brexit Fish lie in a fish net aboard the Boulogne sur Mer based trawler 'Jeremy Florent II' in northern France. Source: Michel Spingler via PA Images

The focus has recently shifted to cross-Channel calls between EU chief Ursula von der Leyen and Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, after exhausted officials failed to close the gap on how to share access to UK fishing waters.

The remaining differences between the two camps were narrow but deep, in particular over fishing, with EU crews facing a dramatic cut in their catch from British waters.

London has pushed to reduce EU fishing fleets’ share of the estimated €650-million annual haul by 35%, with changes phased in over three years.

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The EU, in particular countries with northern fishing fleets like France, Denmark and the Netherlands – was insisting on a 25% reduction over at least six years.

Talks could continue yet

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier briefed ambassadors and then senior MEPs yesterday, and said that Brussels was ready to negotiate until the end of the year – or even “beyond” – but time was running out for any deal to be provisionally applied.

EU members agreed to keep talking, but one diplomat warned: “Barnier was unable to tell member states whether there would be a deal tomorrow, before Christmas, the New Year or summer 2021.

“Also a narrow path might in the end prove a dead end,” he said.

A colleague from another member state earlier suggested that if there was no breakthrough today, talks could resume next week.

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha and Press Association

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