U.K., EU Near Brexit Trade Deal, Officials Say

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BRUSSELS—The U.K. and European Union are on the brink of reaching a post-Brexit trade accord, EU officials said, a deal that would end four years of uncertainty about the two sides’ future relations.

People familiar with the negotiations said an agreement could be announced later Wednesday and that negotiators are now just going through the fine print of the accord.

At stake are the terms for around $900 billion in trade between Britain and the EU and the depth of their cooperation on law enforcement and counterterrorism, among other issues.

“We are in the end phase now,” said an EU official. Another diplomat said an agreement was very close.

Britain formally left the EU on Jan. 31 but will remain in the bloc’s single market and customs union until year’s end. Failure to reach a deal would mean that from Jan. 1, tariffs would be applied for the first time in almost a half-century on some trade between the U.K. and the EU. The U.K. sends 43% of its exports to the bloc.

Any deal will need signoff from EU capitals, as well as the U.K. and European parliaments. EU diplomats have said the bloc’s leaders will want enough time to scour through the text over the next few days before signing off.

The U.K. Parliament could meet at the end of the month, but the European Parliament has said it can no longer meet this year to vote on any accord. That means an agreement may have to be adopted provisionally until EU lawmakers can vote on it in the new year.

The rights of EU fishing boats to access U.K. waters from 2021 have dominated the latest phase of talks. While fishing has minor economic significance—affecting overall some €600 million, equivalent to $730 million, annually of fish caught by EU boats in British waters—it is politically sensitive in the U.K. and EU coastal states including France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

Over the past week, both sides have suggested and rejected compromises, with U.K. Prime Minister

Boris Johnson

having spoken with European Commission President

Ursula von der Leyen

several times over recent days to try to craft a deal.

The differences have narrowed to a fraction of the total catch. The EU has proposed guaranteeing U.K. fishing boats a higher share of fish caught in British waters in future with a six-year transition to the new rules, diplomats say. It also wants the power to impose tariffs on U.K. fish exports if Britain decides in future to lock its fishing boats out of U.K. waters.

Footage shows long lines of trucks waiting to cross the English Channel ahead of the U.K.’s scheduled departure from the EU single market on Jan. 1. Some businesses have been stockpiling goods as new trade rules are still in limbo. Photo: Andy Rain/Shutterstock (Originally Published December 15, 2020)

The U.K. said that wasn’t enough and wanted to lock in a bigger increase, with a three-year transition.

The British pound rallied, gaining 1.1% against the dollar and 0.8% against the euro. Investors have expected that an agreement would remove some uncertainties surrounding trade after the new year.

“We’ve got that relief rally off the fact there is a deal and the downside risk is removed,” said

Simon Harvey,

currency analyst at broker Monex Europe.

People close to the talks say most of the text of the accord, which including annexes runs well over a thousand pages, has been agreed on. The deal is structured around an agreement to maintain zero-tariff, zero-quota trade but covers everything from the EU law-enforcement databases that the U.K. will continue to access to the rights of airlines to serve EU markets.

The toughest issue during the eight-month negotiations—the EU demand that the U.K. ensures fair competition in future by not slashing its state-aid, labor or environmental rules—has largely been resolved, although there has been continued discussion over how the rules will apply in some sectors.

If there is no agreement in the next 24 hours, talks are likely to resume after Christmas.

With negotiators having kept the detailed text largely to themselves, EU member states say they need enough time to scrutinize any deal, prompting a warning from chief negotiator

Michel Barnier,

diplomats say, that an agreement may not be sealed by Jan. 1.

“EU negotiators are in a last push now to make progress and to clinch a deal acceptable for both sides,” said an EU diplomat after Mr. Barnier briefed senior officials from the member states on Tuesday. “The EU will not close its door to the U.K. and remains ready to negotiate even beyond Jan. 1.”

Write to Laurence Norman at [email protected]

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