BRUSSELS: European Union diplomats said on Thursday they hoped a Brexit trade deal with Britain could be agreed by Friday or at the weekend, and EU officials said negotiators were likely to review progress in the next two days.
A British minister said he believed “good progress" was being made at talks but cautioned that London would not sign up to a deal that was not in its interest.
Britain leaves the EU’s orbit on Dec. 31, when a transition period of informal membership ends following its official departure last January, and the sides are trying to secure a deal to govern nearly $1 trillion in annual trade.
The suggestion by several officials in the EU that the negotiators will soon review overall progress is widely seen as a positive sign after weeks of impasse over three main issues — fisheries, economic fair play and settling disputes.
Three EU diplomats said they hoped the negotiators - the EU’s Michel Barnier and Britain’s David Frost - could seal a deal as soon as on Friday or at the weekend, signalling the next 24-48 hours will be crucial.
The negotiators are seeking a deal to uphold free trade between Britain and the 27-nation EU from the start of 2021, but there have been several false dawns in recent months when talk of progress failed to lead to a deal.
Failure to secure a deal would clog borders, worry financial markets and disrupt supply chains as the world tries to cope with the vast economic cost of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s the time to hold our nerve and trust (Barnier). And I believe if we do that, there’s a good chance that we can get a deal across the line in the next few days," Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told Ireland’s Newstalk Radio.
“There will be no further extensions. There will be no extra time."
British Education Secretary Gavin Williamson mixed optimism and caution in comments to Sky.
“I’m confident from what I hear that progress, good progress is being made but we’re going to do a deal that is right for Britain, if such a deal is available," he said. “If such a deal isn’t available then we’re not going to sign up to something that is to our detriment."
Each side blames the other for the failure to secure a deal yet after months of talks.
Coveney said he believed Britain wanted a deal but said Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government did not always act as if it did, citing planned finance legislation that would allow Britain to undercut parts of the 2020 Brexit divorce treaty.
“That’s hardly consistent with a government that’s looking to build a positive partnership and a future relationship with its close neighbour in the EU," Coveney said.
An agreement means “finding a way to get a fair deal for both sides on fisheries, which has proven really, really difficult," he said.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Michael Holden and Timothy Heritage)
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