Britain and the EU can see the “landing zones” for a free trade agreement according to Ireland’s prime minister, as both sides softened their stance on fisheries and hopes grew that a deal could be reached early next week.
Micheál Martin’s comments reflect an expectation among ministers in London that a deal could take shape over the weekend, although Downing Street insisted it could fall apart at the last minute.
In Brussels there were claims Britain was edging towards a compromise on access to its fishing grounds — probably the biggest outstanding obstacle to a deal. Officials said the EU was also moderating its demands.
British ministers confirmed a deal could take shape that allowed EU boats to continue to have “generous” access to UK waters for a transition period, reflecting the relatively small size of the British fleet.
“We haven’t got enough boats to catch all the fish,” said one minister, adding that a deal must recognise British sovereignty, but could allow “generous” rights for EU boats while the UK fleet was built up.
British officials talked of a “transition period, not the status quo”, but that is not enough for the EU side which does not agree that access to UK waters should be conditional on the outcome of annual fishing negotiations.
The EU is seeking to preserve as much of its existing quota share of fish stocks. It also wants guarantees of continued access to UK waters, something London regards an affront to its sovereignty.
Mr Martin told the Bloomberg New Economy Forum that both sides could see “the landing zones” around the deal.
“Will the decision be made in London to go for it and say let’s get a deal done? Some of us think that’s an issue that has yet to be determined,” he said before warning no deal would be “politically damaging” for Britain.
Michel Barnier, chief EU negotiator, is preparing to brief EU ambassadors on progress on Friday, although that timing could shift in the light of developments in the talks.
Both sides see next week as the moment when a deal — if there is one — will materialise.
Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, has already opted for a “hard Brexit” with Britain pulling out of the EU single market and customs union; businesses and individuals will face extra red tape whether a trade deal is concluded or not.
However, a free trade agreement would remove tariffs and quotas and create a platform of goodwill upon which other agreements could be struck to liberalise trade between the two sides in the future.
Mr Johnson’s cabinet discussed the prospects for a deal on Tuesday. A spokesman for Number 10 said the prime minister would not accept an agreement “at the cost of our core principles around sovereignty over laws, borders, money and fish”.
The spokesman added: “It is far from certain that an agreement is going to prove possible. Time is very short.
“As the PM has said, if we can’t find a suitable compromise with our European friends which fully respects UK sovereignty we leave the transition period on Australian terms and he is absolutely confident that we will thrive with or without an FTA.”
In anticipation of a possible deal, Mr Johnson’s parliamentary business managers are drawing up plans for legislation needed to put any trade agreement on to the statute book before January 1.