Brexit deal latest: Boris Johnson on brink of announcing UK agreement with EU after last-minute haggling

Published: 24 December 2020

Post Desk : Boris Johnson was today on the brink of announcing a Brexit trade deal with the EU – four-and-a-half years after Britain voted to quit the European bloc.

The Prime Minister is understood to have struck the outline of a deal with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen late last night after a series of phone calls to bridge gaps between the two sides including on fishing.

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney told RTE Radio this morning that there had been “some sort of last-minute hitch” over the small print of the fisheries agreement but a deal was still expected later.

Negotiators were reportedly still haggling over fine details of the deal including on catch quotas for more than 100 species of fish in UK waters.

Mr Johnson was still due to address the nation from Downing Street today and many Brexiteers will hail the new deal as a triumph to take back control of Britain’s “borders, money and laws”.

However, the vast majority of economists believe that the Canada-style free trade agreement will damage Britain economically, though it will give the UK greater control over its borders.

Ministers were expected to trumpet it as a £668 billion trade deal, giving “zero-tariff, zero-quota” access to EU markets, with no role for the European Court of Justice in policing it, with an international law system being used instead.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has noticeably not published an updated estimate of the impact of a Canada-style free trade agreement.

But a Treasury analysis in 2018 put it as a 6.7 per cent blow to GDP over 15 years, though the particular deal agreed between the EU and UK may be less harmful.

The details of the deal will be closely scrutinised to see where either side has compromised.

It was widely reported that Britain had offered a longer transition period regarding fishing rights than it previously publicly wanted, possibly between five to seven years, and would agree to the EU handing back less of its quotas than previously demanded.

French sources claimed the UK had made “huge concessions”, especially on fisheries, and that it was worth £587 million to the European fishing fleet, including a share worth £155 million to France.

British sources, though, stressed that the UK would have full control over its waters following the transition, with all quotas then up for annual negotiations and possibly further cuts.

The Commons will be recalled after Christmas to approve the deal and even though some hardliner Brexiteers may oppose it, it is expected to get through easily, with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer already signalling he will support it.

The European Research Group of hardline pro-Brexit Tory MPs said they would scrutinise any deal in great detail and would reconvene its so-called “star chamber” of legal experts to examine the text.

They are particularly likely to want to scrutinise how closely the UK remains tied to the EU under the “level playing field” arrangements.

A deal will be hugely welcome by businesses who had feared a chaotic No Deal outcome, with ministers insisting there would be no extension of the transition period which ends on December 31.

But many bosses are furious that it has taken the Government so long to reach an agreement, giving them just days to prepare for the new trading arrangements, unless there is some phasing in period.

Some say they have already lost significant business due to the uncertainty over the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

Intense negotiations in recent weeks saw key breakthroughs on issues including fishing, fair trade under a “level playing field” process, as well as governance.

However, the trade deal is being described as “thin” and is not expected to cover services, around 80 per cent of Britain’s economy, or the City of London.

It will also include more checks down the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and Britain.

Mr Johnson led a late-night call with Cabinet ministers to update them on the situation.

European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer suggested last night that an announcement could come early on Christmas Eve.

“Work will continue throughout the night,” he said shortly after midnight.

“Grabbing some sleep is recommended to all Brexit-watchers at this point. It will hopefully be an early start tomorrow morning.”

Talks over the legal text of the deal, reportedly around 2,000 pages long, is believed to have continued into the early hours.

However, unlike most trade deals, it will create more barriers than currently exist including greater paperwork and other checks which will add to the cost of doing business with the EU.

Lord Barwell, Theresa May’s former chief of staff, said “the truth is the deal means the introduction of significant barriers to free trade” through customs and regulatory checks.

But he acknowledged “it is better than no deal and we could certainly do with some good news”.

If a deal is agreed it would have to be backed by the EU’s 27 member states.

The European Parliament has said they will not have time to ratify a deal before January 1 – meaning any agreement is likely to be provisional.

The Pound rose slightly as news of a possible deal emerged.