Britain and the EU are ‘giving it a final push’ to strike a post-Brexit trade deal, Michel Barnier said this afternoon, amid mounting speculation an accord is now close.
The EU’s chief negotiator said the talks between the two sides are now in a ‘crucial moment’ with the end of the ‘standstill’ transition period on December 31 now just 10 days away.
His comments came after it emerged that Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen held a secret phone call yesterday to discuss the state of the talks and as negotiators appeared to be inching towards a breakthrough on fishing rights.
Citing EU sources, the AFP news agency reported the Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission spoke on the phone last night.
Number 10 did not deny the undisclosed call took place, with the two leaders having previously committed to ‘remain in close contact’ as the clock ticks down to the end of the ‘standstill’ transition period.
Sources said the pair were speaking ‘from time to time given there isn’t long left’ until December 31.
The two leaders have stepped up their contact in recent weeks, with phone calls on December 17 and December 13, as well as a face-to-face dinner in Brussels on December 9.
There is now rising optimism that Britain and the bloc could strike a trade accord in the coming days after signs of movement on fishing which is now viewed as the main stumbling block to a deal being done.
Mr Barnier’s comments came after it emerged that Boris Johnson and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen held a secret Brexit phone call last night
Sources said Mr Johnson and the Ms von der Leyen were speaking ‘from time to time given there isn’t long left’ until December 31
Speaking before he was due to give a briefing on the talks to EU ambassadors, Mr Barnier said: ‘We are really in a crucial moment and we are giving it a final push.
‘In 10 days, the UK will leave the single market and I will continue to work in transparency with the member states, right now, and with the (European) Parliament.’
The UK is said to have tabled a last-minute compromise which would see the EU cut its fishing catch in British waters by approximately one third over a transition period of five years.
That would be considerably more generous than the UK’s original offer of a 60 per cent reduction over three years.
However, the EU is reportedly still holding out for a reduction of no more than 25 per cent which it wants to be spread out over a seven year period having started negotiations by offering just an 18 per cent reduction over a decade.
An EU official told The Telegraph ‘it’s still a no from us’ while a UK government source disputed the suggestion, first reported by Bloomberg, that it is willing to accept a one third reduction, insisting ‘it’s not the offer and the EU are still miles off what we need’.
Despite the two sides still being apart on the issue, the fact that there now appears to be some movement is likely to reignite hopes of a deal being agreed and ratified by December 31.
Mr Barnier continues to negotiate with UK counterpart Lord Frost, with fishing and the so-called ‘level playing field’ on rules the remaining bones of contention.
Any deal would have to be voted on by both the European and UK parliaments before it can come into force.
The UK Parliament is now on its Christmas break but ministers have put MPs on notice that if there is a deal they will be called back to vote on it.
Ministers are said to be drawing up a plan which would see the deal crashed through the House of Commons and the Lords in a single day, likely on December 30.
That would then give the UK December 31 to pass any secondary legislation to tie up any loose ends.
European Parliament chiefs had set a deadline of last Sunday for a deal to be agreed as MEPs warned beyond that point they would not have enough time to scrutinise and vote on an accord.
The UK is said to have offered a last minute compromise on fishing rights in a bid to break the negotiating deadlock
MEPs have now asked for contingency plans to be prepared by Thursday for what the European Parliament will do in the event negotiations drag on to the end of the transition period.
Should the two sides fail to strike a trade accord they will trade on basic World Trade Organisation terms from January 1 which will mean tariffs being imposed on goods.
Downing Street yesterday rejected calls to seek an extension to the transition period amid growing calls to push back the talks deadline because of the border chaos caused by a new mutant strain of the coronavirus.
Mr Johnson has repeatedly said he is willing to split from the bloc without a trade accord in place.
He told a Downing Street press conference last night: ‘It remains the case that WTO terms would be more than satisfactory for the UK and we can certainly cope with any difficulties that are thrown in our way.
‘Not that we don’t want a deal, but WTO terms would be entirely satisfactory. Prosper mightily remains an extremely good description of life after January 1 either way.’