A trade deal between Britain and the EU ‘is in sight’ and could be agreed as early as tomorrow evening, a senior EU diplomat has claimed.
The news comes amid reports that the final hurdle is fish worth the equivalent of a good Premier League footballer’s transfer fee.
With some hopes a deal could be done as soon as today, Brexit negotiators are making a ‘final push’ for a deal today as they close in on a compromise over the sensitive issue of fishing in UK waters, with reports suggesting that they could be down to catches worth £60million.
To put that figure into context, it is considerably less than the £89million that took midfielder Paul Pogba from Juventus to Manchester United in 2016, which remains the record transfer for a player moving to the top flight in England.
With little more than a week to go until the end of the transition period, Cabinet minister Robert Jenrick said he is ‘reasonably optimistic’ that a late deal will be agreed.
Government sources confirmed last night that Boris Johnson has established a ‘hotline’ to European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen as the two sides try to thrash out a deal before Christmas.
The pair are understood to have held regular secret phone calls in the last 48 hours.
Mrs von der Leyen is also said to have established back channels to German Chancellor Angela Merkel – the EU’s powerbroker – and French President Emmanuel Macron, who is seen in Downing Street as the main obstacle to a deal.
Diplomatic sources said the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier had not even been aware of the content of secret talks between the Prime Minister and Mrs von der Leyen on Monday night – suggesting he is becoming increasingly sidelined in the final days of negotiations.
In a sign that fractures are emerging in Brussels, one senior aide to a national leader suggested that fishing should not be allowed to derail a deal, telling the Times: ‘My prime minister told (Ms Von der Leyen) that it was not worth losing a deal worth almost €400 billion for fish worth a tiny percentage of trade.’
Government sources confirmed that Boris Johnson has established a ‘hotline’ to European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen as the two sides try to thrash out a deal before Christmas
Brexit negotiators are making a ‘final push’ for a deal today as they close in on a compromise over the sensitive issue of fishing in UK waters, with reports suggesting that they could be down to catches worth £60million. To put that figure into context, it is considerably less than the £89million that took midfielder Paul Pogba from Juventus to Manchester United in 2016, which remains the record transfer for a player moving to the top flight in England
Mrs von der Leyen is also said to have established back channels to German Chancellor Angela Merkel – the EU’s powerbroker – and French President Emmanuel Macron, who is seen in Downing Street as the main obstacle to a deal
London wants to reduce EU fishing fleets’ share of the estimated 650-million-euro annual haul by more than a third, with changes phased in over three years.
The EU, in particular countries with northern fishing fleets like France, Denmark and the Netherlands – are insisting on 25 percent over at least six years.
In a bid to break the deadlock, the Prime Minister’s chief negotiator David Frost has tabled a new offer on fishing that would allow EU trawlers to keep more of the fish they currently catch in UK waters.
Despite his upbeat assessment, Mr Jenrick told Sky News ‘serious areas of disagreement’ remain on fishing and the ‘level playing field’ measures aimed at preventing unfair competition on standards and state subsidies.
‘We are working through those issues, our negotiators will keep going – the Prime Minister has been very clear that he is going to negotiate until the very end, which is December 31, because that is the right thing, it is what the British public would expect.
‘But at the moment there isn’t sufficient progress, it isn’t a deal that the Prime Minister feels he can sign us up to because it doesn’t yet respect us, in full, as a sovereign, independent nation.’
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 be 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.’
Mr Barnier yesterday told EU ambassadors that the offer was ‘unacceptable’. But Mrs von der Leyen is said to be leaning on Mr Macron and the leaders of other coastal states to accept the deal.
Arriving for the meeting with EU ambassadors yesterday, Mr Barnier told reporters: ‘We are really in a crucial moment and we are giving it a final push. In ten days, the UK will leave the single market.’
According to a diplomatic note seen by the Mail, Mr Barnier later told MEPs that a compromise on fishing would have to be decided by political leaders.
‘We haven’t reached an agreement on fisheries, despite the talks,’ he said. ‘There are subjects that I can’t resolve – only a few which are very political and very sensitive matters – but I can’t resolve them at my level.
‘It is normal at this stage that there are subjects that need to be dealt with by President von der Leyen at her level with Boris Johnson.’
The Prime Minister has told allies that he has made significant compromises in recent days, including on fishing. But he has warned that he will not go further without movement from the EU. ‘If Macron digs his heels in then there will be no deal,’ said one source.
Differences are also said to remain on the issue of state subsidies, where the EU is still pushing demands which British negotiators describe as ‘unbalanced’. Brussels wants the right to penalise the UK if it uses subsidies to enable British firms to undercut EU rivals. But it is so far refusing to accept the same arrangements for unfair EU subsidies.
Reports claimed that the latest British offer on fishing would involve the EU sacrificing around 35 per cent of its share of quota in UK waters over a five-year period.
Human rights meddlers back off
Human rights judges in Strasbourg radically reduced the number of rulings against Britain following the Brexit referendum, figures show.
The European Court of Human Rights declared the UK broke its rules in just two cases in 2018 and five last year.
It contrasted strongly with the years before 2016 which saw repeated interventions into British law in areas including the treatment of terrorists.
Dr David Green, a former Home Office adviser who heads the Civitas think tank, said: ‘Public opinion turned against outside institutions in the Brexit referendum. I would guess Strasbourg judges took account of that. They’ve backed off.’
The figures were given by the Ministry of Justice to the Joint Committee on Human Rights.
They show that in 2010 judges found Britain broke rules on 21 occasions. In 2012 that rose to 24. In 2016, the referendum year, there were 14.
Major clashes between Strasbourg and Westminster happened in 2005 when judges ordered Britain to give the vote to convicted criminals.
The Strasbourg court is separate from the EU but EU member countries are required to join.
It is a big compromise on Lord Frost’s original demand that the EU hand back 60 per cent over three years. But it is much more than Mr Barnier’s offer to hand back just 15 per cent over ten years.
Downing Street disputed the precise details of the reported offer yesterday, but acknowledged there was ‘a lot of back and forth’ on fishing. At one point, officials believed there was a chance of a major breakthrough yesterday afternoon.
But sources last night said talks looked set to continue, possibly right up to December 31, when the Brexit transition ends. One insider suggested there could even be a deal struck on Christmas Day.
Mr Barnier yesterday said talks could continue to ‘the end of the year and beyond’.
But UK sources said the PM had ruled out continuing negotiations beyond the end of this year. A British official said: ‘We’ve clearly set out the reasons that we will not extend the transition period. It would bind us into future EU legislation, without us having any say in designing it, but still having to foot the bill.
‘We need to provide certainty to our citizens and businesses as soon as possible.’ Mr Barnier confirmed to MEPs he had made a ‘final offer’ at the weekend to hand back 25 per cent of quota. He said the latest UK proposal was ‘very far from that’.
Eurosceptic Tories underlined the narrow room for compromise Mr Johnson enjoys as he tries to secure a deal that would avoid the imposition of tariffs on January 1.
Former Brexit minister David Jones last night urged the PM not to make binding concessions that would prevent the British fishing industry reclaiming its waters in future.
He said: ‘Our fisheries are a huge national resource… which has the potential to support many thousands of jobs.’
Former environment secretary Owen Paterson said ‘taking back full control of our waters’ was a symbol of whether ‘we run our own country or not’.