EU and UK Brexit negotiators have tentatively agreed to a free trade deal after nine months of negotiations.
The negotiating teams were still working late on Wednesday to finalize the wording of the agreement, which will formally complete Britain’s separation from the bloc almost five years after the 2016 referendum.
The document still needs to be approved by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU governments, but officials on both sides hope to make an announcement by Thursday at the latest.
UK Brexit envoy Lord Frost is still haggling over the deal with his EU counterparts in Brussels.
The final wrangling over the post-Brexit trade and security deal is expected to go late into the night.
Prime Minister Mr Johnson and Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are now expected to unveil the pact on Christmas Eve.
The bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, told MEPs on Tuesday that Christmas Eve was the final deadline to seal the agreement and avoid a possible short-term No Deal Brexit. Ambassadors have been told to pencil in one final meeting for Thursday.
The two sides began the week with significant differences over the issues of fishing rights, fair competition rules and the question of enforcing a new deal.
The EU has also compromised on fishing: It’s gone from accepting no reduction at the start of the negotiations to 18% a few weeks ago, then to 25% in the last few days. The bloc had refused to accept a reduction of more than 25% in the value of fish caught, saying even that was hard for countries like France and Denmark to accept, according to officials with knowledge of the discussions.
Both sides have made an agreement on fishing a precondition for any wider deal over their future relationship, even if the 650 million euros ($790 million) of fish EU boats catch in U.K. waters each year is a fraction of the 512 billion euros of goods traded between Britain and the bloc each year.
It’s not as simple as just the raw numbers though. Alongside the percentage value of the catch, the two sides were haggling over how long a period of time fishermen will be given to adjust to the rules. The EU had initially called for a 10-year transition period, before reducing that to seven. The U.K. has demanded the EU accept a five-year transition period after previously suggesting three years. It seems a five-and-a-half-year transition period was the magic number.
The EU also wants to be able to impose tariffs on the U.K. if, after the transition period, the government restricts access to its waters. In its latest compromise offer, the U.K. said it would accept tariffs on fisheries but not in other areas, such as on energy, as demanded by the bloc.
The bloc has also dropped a demand for a “punishment clause” that would have allowed Brussels to slap Britain with tariffs if European boats are locked out of our waters in the future.
It is understood the UK has secured a number of other concessions across the deal, including on so-called rules of origin and batteries for electric vehicles.
Mr Barnier has told colleagues the post-Brexit deal will pave the way for a “new generation of free-trade agreement”.
Negotiations were primarily led by the EU’s Michel Barnier and Britain’s David Frost.
Both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen intervened personally in recent days, holding several phone conversations in a last-ditch bid to reach an agreement before the U.K. leaves the single market at the end of the month.
There have been reports of the ERG calling an emergency Brexit meeting in the morning, however, with Sir Keir Starmer willing to whip Labour MPs to support any Brexit deal it would appear Johnson will always get the numbers needed to get Brexit done!
The legal drafting and scrutiny of the deal by member states would also take time and this added additional pressure on the talks.
The Commission will publish the draft unofficial text and send it to member states and the European Parliament, according to a diplomat briefed on the preparations. EU government envoys in Brussels will have two days to discuss and approve the draft, according to the plan. Then a written procedure for the signing of the free trade agreement will follow, so that it can be published in the official journal of the European Union by Dec. 31.
The deal will need to be ratified by both the UK parliament and the European Parliament along with all 27 EU member states.
All hopes of ratifying the deal through the European Parliament have now been abandoned as not enough time remains, meaning that member states would have to agree to ‘provisionally’ apply the terms from January 1st to avoid having to impose tariffs on trade. The parliament could vote at the end of the month to give its stamp of approval to the deal.
Diplomats in the EU’s working group have discussed how a potential agreement could be put into effect by Jan. 1 in the absence of sufficient time for formal ratification by the EU Parliament.
That process will run well into the New Year, although the UK is understood to be preparing to recall MPs from their Christmas break to approve the trade deal.
There was no immediate comment from the UK government on the reports of an agreement.
This story is being updated…