Brexit: Johnson announces UK has completed trade deal with EU
A triumphant Boris Johnson was snapped celebrating emphatically in No10 after one final phone call with Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen just before 2pm on Christmas Eve. But it was the PM’s team of officials, led by Lord Frost, who had worked tirelessly, fuelled by takeaway pizzas, sandwiches and mince pies, for over two weeks in Brussels. The final stretch of the negotiations, which began in March as the Covid pandemic ripped across the Continent, saw both sides hammering out a final compromise over the future fishing rights.
Having entered their “end phase” shortly after 2pm on December 23, the wrangling was held up by a gaffe on the EU side.
Eurocrats had used the wrong figures to calculate what fish EU boats would be able to land from British waters after the bloc handed back 25 percent of its catch.
The entire future relationship pact worth some £660 billion hinged on a fraction of that in the value of fish.
“I will never eat fish again,” one frustrated official groaned as it dawned the wrangling could even see the talks not brought to a close before Christmas Day.
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Boris Johnson at his victory speech this afternoon
But even before the last-minute crisis talks as officials attempted to translate Mr Johnson and Mrs von der Leyen’s political compromise into reality, the process had never quite looked like it was ready to produce a deal.
Just 20 days earlier, Lord Frost and EU counterpart Michel Barnier had pressed pause on the talks to admit they needed a political shove if they were ever to succeed.
The pair couldn’t quite see a way forward on the so-called “level-playing field” that will ensure fair competition between the EU and UK as part of the tariff and quota free trade agreement.
Hardline EU states, such as France, were pushing for the mechanism to develop over time, locking Britain to future evolutionary changes in Brussels regulations.
For Britain, this simply wasn’t acceptable given the Prime Minister’s pledge to reclaim control of Britain’s laws, borders and coastal waters.
Rows over fisheries agreements compiled further misery on negotiators as they attempted to work through the deadlock.
Last week, Mr Barnier tabled a “final offer” to Lord Frost – handing back 25 percent by value of the EU’s catch in UK waters, phased in over seven years.
Britain’s counter offer was deemed “totally unacceptable” to Brussels’ chief haggler with the bloc asked to give back 35 percent with a three-year transition period.
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As an agreement emerged on the level-playing field, the EU and UK teams quickly switched their focus to the battle over access to Britain’s coastal waters.
Britain would be free to diverge from the bloc’s rulebook and out of the clutches of the European Court of Justice – a key redline for No10.
Mr Johnson exchanged more than four phone calls with the Commission President in a bid to not let the £590 million-a-year issue wreck the trade agreement.
Mrs von der Leyen drafted in one of her top officials, Stephanie Riso, a veteran of the divorce negotiations, to oversee the final compromise.
The French aide added real dynamism to the talks, with British officials crediting her for finally engaging in a serious deal-doing discussion.
Mr Barnier had effectively been sidelined. The man at the heart of the EU’s Brexit efforts for four-and-a-half years was no longer in charge of the ship.
The agreement began to take shape, the EU suddenly dropped its demand to have the ability to punish Britain for closing access to our fishing waters in the future.
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And, in turn, the Prime Minister agreed to move closer to the bloc’s position on quotas and the transition period.
The move was enough to unlock the talks and allowed negotiators to begin on their final job, recalibrating quota-shares.
During the tense overnight effort, both sides repeatedly blamed the other for constant delays and road bumps.
Britain was said to have tabled new eleventh hour proposals while Brussels had made a series of potentially devastating miscalculations.
Eventually after over 24 hours of intense talks, white smoke emerged from the EU Commission’s Berlaymont HQ.
One senior EU official signalled success simply with a “thumbs-up emoji”.
But then the news the nation had been waiting for was announced by Mr Johnson.
Alongside his celebratory snap, the Prime Minister tweeted: “The deal is done.”