Boris Johnson plays down prospect of imminent deal despite two sides moving closer to compromise on fisheries

Britain and the EU moved closer to a compromise on fisheries on Monday night as MPs were told to prepare to vote on a potential trade deal on Wednesday next week.

The Government tabled an 11th-hour proposal that would see the bloc slash the value of its fishing catch in UK waters by roughly a third over a transition period of five years, it was claimed, down from an initial demand to cut it by 60 per cent over three years.

EU negotiators have held out for a reduction of just 25 per cent over a seven-year transition, according to reports. The bloc initially tabled a cut of 18 per cent over 10 years. 

However, an EU official speaking about the UK’s latest offer told The Telegraph: “It’s still a no from us.”

The Prime Minister confirmed that he had spoken to Emmanuel Macron, the French president, about France’s freight and flight ban on the UK causing chaos at British ports but said their “excellent conversation” did not stretch to the subject of the trade talks.

Speaking at a televised Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said: “We vowed to stick off Brexit, because that negotiation is being conducted, as you know, via the European Commission and that’s quite proper, and the position is unchanged.

“There are problems. It’s vital that everybody understands that the UK has got to be able to control its own laws completely and also that we’ve got to be able to control our own fisheries.”

He said leaving the Single Market on World Trade Organisation terms “would be more than satisfactory for the UK”.

A Government source hit back against reports, first published by Bloomberg, that the UK was prepared to accept an EU reduction in the value of the fish it catches in UK water of around 33 per cent, saying: “It’s not right, it’s not the offer and the EU are still miles off what we need.”

However, it also emerged on Monday that ministers have drawn up plans for legislation, which would make a potential Brexit trade deal law, to clear both Houses of Parliament and gain Royal Assent in a single day next week.

If an agreement is clinched in coming days, a Bill is expected to be drafted within 48 hours and would be put to the vote in the Commons and the Lords on Wednesday December 30, according to Government sources.

Any secondary legislation required in relation to the agreement could then be passed the next day. The tight timetable would ensure the legislation was passed just before the deadline for the Brexit transition period to end at 11pm on December 31.

Mr Johnson has repeatedly ruled out extending the transition period. Senior Tory Brexiteers have warned the Government that they need time to digest the legal text of a Bill.

A senior member of the European Research Group of arch-Brexiteers said on Monday: “We still do not know whether there will be any deal to scrutinise or not, but if one is agreed it is vitally important that it is published as soon as possible thereafter so that all MPs will have a chance to examine it before the House returns.

“For its part, the ERG will, in this eventuality, scrutinise the deal in detail and will aim to make its findings public before the House returns.”

A Government source said that even if a deal were agreed imminently it would not come before the Commons until December 30 as “a gesture of goodwill” to MPs who would want as much time as possible to study the text.

“Is it good form this side of Christmas, doing it so late? MPs would like to read the thing first. After Christmas would give it a bit of breathing space and give drafters a bit more time to make sure everything is watertight,” the source said.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House of Commons, announced on Monday the Government intends to allow MPs to participate in Parliamentary debates using remote video conferencing from the next sitting onwards.

Proxy voting measures will remain in place, but ministers will not permit electronic voting, which has been rolled out in the House of Lords.

Calls for Britain to extend the transition period beyond the end of this year due to the coronavirus pandemic were rejected by ministers On Monday. Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said such an act would “add fuel to the fire” by adding extra uncertainty.

Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said it would be “unconscionable” to add a no-deal exit from the EU’s trading arrangements to the current difficulties caused by the mutant coronavirus strain.

Mr Shapps’ remark also served as a riposte to MEPs who would prefer a “standstill” on current arrangements if a deal is found before December 31, which would last until their ratification process is complete. 

That could take until February. Bernd Lange, the chair of the European Parliament’s trade committee, said: “We need transitional solutions. Extension of the transitional period would be best. But it takes two to tango. The UK would also have to agree.” 

The European Parliament set another deadline, of midnight on Wednesday, for the European Council to publish its conditions for provisional applications. EU diplomats do not believe an extension would do anything other than create another cliff edge.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has been in regular contact with EU fishing nations including France during the negotiations over the quota. Those countries had made clear that giving up more than 25 per cent was “a massive issue”, an official said.  

The EU also wants to link the fishing agreement with the trade deal, which could mean it hitting the UK economy with tariffs if Britain was to cut off access to its waters in the future.

It is thought the UK could accept that if the retaliation was ring-fenced to the fishing industry, but EU sources said arbitration of such disputes remained a sticking point.

A senior government source said: “Talks are in the same position now as they were on Friday. We have made no tangible progress. It’s clear this must now continue politically.

“Whilst we do not consider this process to be closed, things are looking very tricky and there’s every chance we are not going to get there.”

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News – MPs told to be ready to vote on possible Brexit trade deal next week