Boris Johnson was on Wednesday poised to announce a Brexit trade deal after a day of diplomatic drama in Brussels left both sides confident that an agreement was imminent.
British officials said a deal as early as Wednesday evening was “possible”, with allies of prime minister Boris Johnson saying it could be “wrapped up within hours”. An EU official said: “We are in the end phase now.”
A rare mood of optimism emerged from the talks, as exhausted negotiators sought to offer the public some rare good news before Christmas after a gruelling 2020. “We’re hopeful,” said one ally of Mr Johnson.
If a deal is reached, Mr Johnson would be expected to announce the breakthrough to the nation at a press conference, in which he would sell a deal to the public and Tory Eurosceptics that has been nine months in the making.
Allies of the prime minister said preparations for a press conference were being made, although the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost was understood to be still poring over final legal texts.
Mr Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have taken personal control of the negotiations, which began in March. Senior negotiators from both sides were at work on Wednesday in the EU commission’s headquarters in Brussels and Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen were in “constant” contact, according to one person briefed on the talks.
Officials close to the negotiations said big strides had been made towards settling the outstanding issue of fisheries, with the two sides believed to have made progress on the issue of how future negotiations on fishing rights will be linked to market access for goods — a crucial issue for unlocking a deal.
European diplomats agreed that a deal could be struck on Wednesday, with talks advancing rapidly towards the finishing line. “Fingers crossed,” said one.
One person briefed on the talks said the deal was essentially done “but not 100 per cent confirmed yet”, adding that “it ain’t done until all done”.
Although the fishing issue is totemic in Britain and other coastal states including France, the haggling in the final stages of the talks relates to catches worth only tens of millions of euros, a tiny fraction of the value of any trade deal.
Sterling jumped against the dollar and the euro as traders placed bets on the UK striking a deal with the EU before the holiday. The currency, which had hit a two-year high above $1.36 last week, advanced 1.2 per cent on Wednesday to $1.3515 against the dollar and 0.8 per cent against the euro to €1.107.
Derek Halpenny, currencies strategist at MUFG in London, said: “Hopes have been raised once again that progress has been made and that an announcement could come as soon as tonight.”
An 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 would conclude 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.
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, Sam Fleming in Brussels, Victor Mallet in Paris and Arthur Beesley in Dublin