By Luke McGee, CNN
London: The United Kingdom and the European Union are closing in on a post-Brexit trade agreement after months of fraught negotiations, sources told CNN.
A deal is expected to be announced on Christmas Eve, a UK government source and a European diplomatic source told CNN. News of a potential deal was also reported by the UK’s PA Media news agency.
The announcement would come ahead of the December 31 deal deadline.
A senior source at No. 10 Downing Street told CNN that the UK cabinet was briefed on negotiations in a late-night call Wednesday. Following that briefing, the source told CNN: “Expecting talks over the legal text to last into the early hours.”
European Commission Chief spokesman Eric Mamer then hinted at final details being ironed out. At about midnight local time he tweeted: “#brexit work will continue through the night. Grabbing some sleep is recommended to all brexit-watchers at this point. It will hopefully be an early start tomorrow morning…”
Earlier on Wednesday, a No.10 adviser told CNN that talks were “moving but not there” yet. An EU diplomat agreed, telling CNN on Wednesday a deal could come “today or tomorrow but was not there yet.”
Talks have been deadlocked for months after the two sides were unable to reach agreement in areas such as fishing quotas, how the UK would use state aid to support British businesses post-Brexit, and legal oversight of any deal struck.
Any potential deal would subsequently face a ratification process before coming into effect on January 1, 2021, when the Brexit transition period ends and the UK will no longer be subject to EU rules.
There were once concerns that the deal would not be ratified before the transition period expired; however, European institutions, including the European Parliament, have agreed to sit extra hours towards the end of the year in order to get the agreement approved in time.
Fears of any holdups in the deal’s approval in time for the end of the transition period have been mostly allayed by the fact that it’s largely possible to provisionally implement trade deals before they are ratified, meaning that in a worst-case scenario, the most serious damage could still be avoided.
News of a potential agreement comes against the backdrop of surging coronavirus cases in the UK. Meanwhile, thousands of trucks from across Europe faced a third day stuck at the English port of Dover after the now-lifted closure of the border by France over a potentially more contagious variant — a preview of the type of border chaos that could have resulted from a “no deal” Brexit.
But the breakthrough marks a major milestone in the saga that began with the UK voting to leave the EU in 2016.
BREXIT DEBATE WILL CONTINUE
In the UK itself, any agreement is unlikely to end the years of toxic political debate over the country’s relationship with Europe.
Euroskeptic lawmakers are already organizing efforts to ensure that a deal does not leave room for the UK to drift back into the EU’s orbit. Pro-Europeans, meanwhile, will be hopeful that at some point in the future, the UK, perhaps under new leadership, will be able to strengthen ties with Brussels.
Without a trade agreement, UK companies would lose tariff- and quota-free access to the EU’s market of more than 400 million consumers, who buy nearly half of the country’s exports and provide a similar share of its imports. For the EU, the UK is much less important, accounting for just 4% of the bloc’s exports in 2019 and 6% of imports.
Earlier this month, the Prime Minister insisted that regardless of what the deal looked like, the UK would go on to “prosper mightily as an independent nation.”
Even though any deal was likely to be less economically damaging than no deal at all, the UK will still be poorer in the long run than if it had remained in the EU, the independent agency that produces economic forecasts for the government said in November.
For the time being, neither side has the appetite for more negotiations after years of painful disagreement.
Top: A Brexit poster. Photo: Tim Reckmann (CC BY 2.0)
(Hanna Ziady contributed to this report.)