Britain and the European Union were last night on the verge of signing a Brexit deal that will define their relationship for decades.
They are understood to have reached political agreement on the remaining sticking points and the shape of the overall deal has been signed off by Boris Johnson and member states.
However, despite hope that the agreement would be announced yesterday evening it was delayed as lawyers and negotiators attempted to translate the final compromises, particularly on fishing, into binding legal text.
Downing Street sources said the deal would give British companies “zero-tariff, zero-quota” access to EU markets with no role for the European Court of Justice in policing the agreement. It would be the biggest trade deal signed by either side, worth £668 billion.
Parliament is expected to be recalled after Christmas to ratify the agreement before December 31.
Last night Tory Brexiteers said they were preparing to convene a “star chamber” of legal experts to analyse the details before deciding which way to vote. However, with a Tory majority of 80 and Labour expected to abstain or back the deal, it is likely to pass easily.
The last-minute nature of the negotiations means that the European parliament will not vote on the deal before December 31. It will have to be provisionally ratified by member states.
Sterling rose sharply to £1.35 against the dollar on rumours of a deal.
The draft agreement is understood to run to more than 1,000 pages and covers arrangements for trade, security and fishing as well as scientific co-operation and regulatory alignment.
A deal will also mean that British companies will continue to have tariff and quota-free access to European markets beyond the end of the year. Ministers are still warning of additional delays at cross-Channel ports as a result of new customs procedures on top of the pandemic disruption.
Fishing was the last element to be agreed after a fresh offer on Tuesday night from Mr Johnson to Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president. It followed frantic diplomatic activity, including “constant” contacts between Brussels, Paris, Berlin, Dublin and other European capitals over the past 72 hours, all of whom had to give the agreement their blessing.
One EU source said both sides had been determined “to get the deal over the line before Christmas” and to avoid relatively minor differences resulting in NNO or “no negotiated deal”.
Despite reservations from France, Mrs Von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, took the reins from Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to broker a deal.
The delicately balanced compromise on fishing, non-regression from existing standards and the absence of a role for the European Court of Justice will be presented as a victory for both sides.
A French official told Reuters that Britain had made “huge” concessions on EU fishing rights in British waters, with a value of £587 million to the European fishing fleet, including a share worth £155 million to France. On fishing in particular, the official said that the final British position was “far” from the three-year transition and 80 per cent reduction in quotas demanded by London at the beginning of talks.
British sources emphasised that exports worth £294 billion a year would be safeguarded without a loss of sovereignty. They said the UK would have full control over its waters following a transition, said to be six or seven years, with all quotas then subject to annual negotiations and further reductions.
A source said that the EU had dropped its original demand for keeping fishing quotas intact in perpetuity without Britain regaining sovereignty over coastal waters, including the territorial zone of 6 to 12 nautical miles.