Today’s big question

Is there a Brexit deal on the hook - or will fishing finally spell no-deal?

EU sets deadline of Christmas Eve as UK negotiators hint an agreement is close

Four and a half years after David Cameron resigned on the doorstep of Downing Street, UK and EU negotiators have entered the final days of trade talks. 

Boris Johnson and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen held a series of “secret phone calls” this week, as negotiators try to thrash out a compromise on the “outstanding differences on fisheries”, Politico’s London Playbook reports.

Rumours abound about when or whether a deal will be landed. But as talks go down to the line, the question still remains as to whether the whole thing will fall apart over fishing quotas worth less than the “£89 million paid by Manchester United in the summer of 2016 for the preening French midfielder Paul Pogba”, The Times says.

Stormy waters

After a tornado of conflicting briefings yesterday, hope of a deal emerged after RTE’s Europe editor Tony Connelly tweeted that Michel Barnier had told EU ambassadors that there had been “significant progress”, leading to “cautious optimism” in Brussels.

A senior source on the UK side told The Sun that “there is a deal on the table now”, adding that “both sides want to be home for Christmas Eve”, all of which made it sound as if Barnier’s 24 December deadline was in reach.

But it’s not finalised, according to Eurasia Group analyst Mujtaba Rahman, who later tweeted that Barnier had told European ambassadors that the UK’s most recent offer on fishing rights was “totally unacceptable”.

Connelly had some of the details, saying that the remaining disagreement concerned the type of fish covered by the concession. “The UK offer of the EU handing over 35% of the value of its catches does not count pelagic species”, he tweeted, meaning fish like tuna, anchovies and mackerel which live in deeper waters.

Barnier told ambassadors that “without pelagic fish... the real offer would mean a 60% cut to the value of fish caught by European boats”, The Times reports. He added: “Britain has excluded pelagic stocks but most believe the final offer will include them.”

Downing Street officials were last night decidedly negative over the prospect of a quick deal, telling Politico’s Alex Wickham that “it is at least as likely that negotiations drag on to next week as it is that a deal is reached today”. 

And similar noises were emerging from the European side, with an MEP telling Politico that they were “very sceptical that a deal is still possible before Christmas, given the large disagreements that still persist”. Requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the talks, they added: “It looks pretty gloomy.”

ITV’s political editor Robert Peston summed up the maelstrom of conflicting briefings, tweeting late last night: “There will either be a deal tomorrow. Or the following Wednesday. Or - presumably - never.” 

Bleu in the face

Amid the ongoing wrangling over fishing rights, relations have become increasingly strained between the government and Emmanuel Macron. 

After Downing Street officials were described as “incandescent” at the French president’s move to block the border following the discovery of the new, more infectious, Covid strain, one source told The Sun’s political editor Harry Cole “there’s a real chance relations with the French sink this whole thing”.

Macron has repeatedly said that he will veto any deal that does not deliver on French interests, winning the support of EU member states such as Belgium that are particularly exposed to the fisheries dispute.

The Sun says that Johnson’ anger towards Macron has “hardened” in the last 24 hours, with the same source telling Cole that his position is shifting towards a belief that “if there was ever a time to tell them to get stuffed, this might be it”.

The dispute with Macron may boil down to a French “no-deal delusion”, writes The Spectator’s James Forsyth. Paris believes that if they do not get what they want now, they could secure further concessions by kicking talks down the road after a no-deal exit on 31 December, he says.

But “if these talks end in no deal, then Johnson could not - politically - go back and accept the same or worse terms,” Forsyth adds. “This would mean that no-deal would not be short.”

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