Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen have begun an intensified phase of “hotline” talks as the two sides strive to agree a Brexit trade deal by Wednesday night.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, told ambassadors on Tuesday evening that the latest UK offer on fishing rights — the key remaining sticking points in the talks — was unacceptable.
But he stressed that negotiations were continuing, with many other issues already solved or close to being settled, according to participants at the closed-door briefing.
Although both sides say talks could continue after Christmas, they share a desire to close a deal by Wednesday night if at all possible, as exhausted negotiators hand the baton to their political bosses.
“Nothing’s impossible,” said one British official, while stressing that significant differences remained. “Getting home for Christmas is something everyone would like.”
Ms von der Leyen and Mr Johnson have held regular calls in the last 24 hours, according to British and EU officials, taking hands-on control of negotiations in a bid to reach a compromise on EU fishing rights in UK waters.
Mr Barnier told members of the European Parliament at a separate closed-door meeting on Tuesday that the two sides were still far apart on fish and he felt the issue would have to be solved by Ms von der Leyen and Mr Johnson, according to one meeting participant.
“EU negotiators are in a last push now to make progress and to clinch a deal acceptable for both sides,” said one diplomat after Mr Barnier’s presentation.
Mr Barnier told ambassadors that the EU side was prepared to negotiate until the end of the year, when Britain’s post-Brexit transition period will end, and even beyond.
But officials on both sides said they were striving to wrap up a deal before Christmas in order to leave the time between December 25 and the new year for ratification or other processes needed to bring the deal into effect.
The European Parliament has already said that it will not hold a ratification vote before the end of the year, with the EU now exploring a stopgap approach known as “provisional application”.
The EU has offered to sacrifice 25 per cent of its existing €650m-worth of fishing rights in UK waters as part of a six-year transition period. Mr Barnier said the UK was seeking a 35 per cent cut rising to 60 per cent if a wider range of species were factored in to the calculations. The UK transition offer was also shorter — only three years, he said.
A person briefed on the British negotiating position said Mr Barnier’s account was not accurate, without offering further details.
Mr Johnson on Tuesday was warned by the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation not to “betray” the industry, whose main base is in the north-east of Scotland where the Conservatives hold three parliamentary seats.
Elspeth Macdonald, chief executive of the body, said: “Repatriating only 35 per cent of the EU’s landings to the UK phased in over a period of several years would be a terrible deal for the fishing industry.”
But European fishing groups have made similar warnings about the prospective deal, suggesting both sides may end up disappointing their fishing sectors, which make up a tiny part of the UK and EU economies.
But Mr Johnson has, so far at least, managed to keep on side Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, who have been updated on the state of talks in Brussels and have been briefed that a deal could be agreed on Wednesday evening.
The Tory European Research Group has placed its lawyers on standby to go through any deal with a fine tooth comb over Christmas, ahead of a mooted parliamentary vote on December 30.
But there have not been any cries of “betrayal” from the ERG so far, even as deals on contentious issues like the “level playing field” take shape in Brussels. Some MPs do, however, remain worried about the fishing deal.
One Tory MP said: “We have confidence in the prime minister and great confidence in David Frost [Britain’s chief negotiator].” The MP added that a deal on the level playing field and the governance of a trade treaty was “very nearly there”.