Hopes were rising on Wednesday that a Brexit trade deal could be sealed within hours as intensive talks continued between EU and UK teams to secure an agreement before Christmas.
British officials said that while the two sides were still arguing over fisheries and other issues — including competition rules for a “level playing field” — a deal as early as Wednesday evening was “possible”, with Boris Johnson in close contact with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
European diplomats agreed that a deal could be nailed down before the Christmas break, with one predicting an agreement as soon as Wednesday night.
Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen have taken personal control of the negotiations, which began in March with discussions focusing on the distribution of fishing quotas in UK waters after Brexit. Senior negotiators from both sides were at work on Wednesday morning in the EU commission’s headquarters in Brussels.
Although the fishing issue is totemic in Britain and other coastal states including France, the haggling relates to catches worth only tens of millions of euros, a tiny fraction of the value of any trade deal.
France has said it is opposed to extending talks on a post-Brexit trade accord between the UK and the EU beyond the December 31 deadline, when Britain’s Brexit transition period ends.
“I don’t want to go beyond the end of the year,” Clément Beaune, France’s Europe minister and a confidant of President Emmanuel Macron, told BFM Business television. “We must be able to finish in the coming days — these negotiations were supposed to finish at the start of November.”
Mr Beaune also said it would be better to have no deal than a bad deal, even though no deal was not a good outcome. “We must give some visibility to our businesses, our investors and our fishermen,” he said.
But a rare mood of optimism was seeping out of the talks on Wednesday, as exhausted negotiators sought to offer the public some rare good news before Christmas after a gruelling 2020.
One person briefed on the talks said the two sides had made progress on setting arrangements for how future negotiations on fishing rights will be linked to market access for goods — a crucial issue for unlocking a deal.
Sterling climbed higher against the dollar on Wednesday as traders placed bets on the UK reaching a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU while also reacting to France’s reopening of its border with Britain.
Micheál Martin, Ireland’s prime minister, told reporters on Tuesday night: “The sense I would have is that given the progress that has been made, that I think a deal is more likely than less likely.
“I would like to see it happening before Christmas. It could go beyond Christmas Day. There are political factors at play here that will govern the timeline, the timetable.”
A EU-UK future-relationship deal would guarantee tariff-free and quota-free trade in goods and create the framework for a partnership in security and other areas.
It would also mean that both sides concluded the Brexit divorce on reasonably amicable terms, offering the prospect of them working together to manage trade frictions at the end of the transition.
Britain will leave the customs union and single market in any event on January 1, creating paperwork and a multitude of checks, with many anticipating chaos at the border.
Mr Beaune criticised a lack of readiness on the UK side for January 1. “We have concerns about the preparations on the British side,” he said. “When you see what’s going on, the state of preparedness is not necessarily great.”
Robert Jenrick, UK communities secretary, insisted on Wednesday that Britain’s contingency plans for Brexit turmoil at Dover and Folkestone had withstood an early test, following Mr Macron’s closure of the French border on Sunday amid fears over a new Covid-19 strain.
Additional reporting by Peter Foster in Brighton