It is “possible but far from certain” that a post-Brexit trade deal could be agreed with Brussels on Wednesday, a Downing Street source has said.
A cabinet minister has also indicated that hopes are rising for securing an agreement although major differences still remain between the UK and the EU.
This comes as the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg confirmed that if a deal occurs, it could all happen “very, very fast”.
Kuenssberg tweeted: “Cabinet ministers on Cobra call at the moment talking about situation in Kent it seems – nothing confirmed to them yet either about being consulted on a Brexit deal tonight – but as ever, IF it happens it could all happen very very fast.”
Cabinet ministers on Cobra call at the moment talking about situation in Kent it seems – nothing confirmed to them yet either about being consulted on a Brexit deal tonight – but as ever, IF it happens it could all happen very very fast
— Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak) December 23, 2020
Negotiators are continuing to talk in Brussels while prime minister Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen are in close contact to try to resolve remaining difficulties.
Both sides are trying to secure a deal before the current EU withdrawal transition period ends on December 31.
Earlier on Wednesday, cabinet minister Robert Jenrick said he is “reasonably optimistic” that a late deal will be agreed before the current trading arrangements expire at the end of the month.
Johnson has previously said that the most likely outcome is failure to reach a deal, with the UK then relying on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms – meaning tariffs and quotas on trade with the EU.
Despite his upbeat assessment, Jenrick told Sky News that “serious areas of disagreement” remain on fishing and the “level playing field” measures aimed at preventing unfair competition on standards and state subsidies.
“We are working through those issues, our negotiators will keep going – the Prime Minister has been very clear that he is going to negotiate until the very end, which is December 31, because that is the right thing, it is what the British public would expect.
“But at the moment there isn’t sufficient progress, it isn’t a deal that the Prime Minister feels he can sign us up to because it doesn’t yet respect us, in full, as a sovereign, independent nation.”
France warned that the EU would not be pressed into agreeing a deal just because of the looming deadline.
French Europe minister Clement Beaune said a no-deal situation would be “catastrophic” for the UK and suggested the EU should hold out.
“We should not put ourselves, Europeans, under time pressure to finish by this hour or that day. Otherwise we would put ourselves in a situation to make bad concessions.”
Ireland’s premier Micheal Martin raised the prospect of officials working on the text of a Brexit deal on Christmas Day if a breakthrough comes before then.
The Taoiseach said he and other EU leaders were on stand-by to endorse any agreement that might emerge from negotiations between Brussels and the UK government.
“On balance, I think, given the progress that has been made, that there should be a deal,” he told RTE Radio One.
“And I think that a no deal would be an appalling shock to the economic system on top of Covid-19, which has really hit the respective of economies of the UK, Ireland and the EU member states.
“In particular, our domestic economy has taken a very big hit. And so we do need a deal.
“It’s all down to fish, it would appear right now.”