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Edging into Christmas Eve, EU and UK near Brexit trade deal

ap photo A woman walks amongst Christmas decorations outside of EU headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday.

BRUSSELS — European Union and British negotiators inched their way to within touching distance of a trade deal early Thursday, raising hopes a chaotic economic break between the two sides on New Year’s Day could be averted, officials said.

After resolving a few remaining fair-competition issues, negotiators tussled over EU fishing rights in U.K. waters as they worked right into Christmas Eve to secure a provisional deal for a post-Brexit relationship after nine months of talks.

Sources on both sides said the long and difficult negotiations were in their final stretch as negotiators went into another night, living off a stack of pizzas delivered to EU headquarters while they were combing through the fine print of a draft deal that runs to some 2,000 pages.

“Work will continue throughout the night,” said EU spokesman Eric Mamer.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a Cabinet conference call to brief his senior ministers on the outlines of the deal, ahead of an announcement widely expected later Thursday.

Johnson and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are likely to bring news of an agreement before the tentative deal goes to the 27 EU capitals seeking unanimous approval and the blessing of the EU and British parliaments.

No matter what happens, trade between Britain and the EU will face customs checks and some other barriers on Jan. 1, when the U.K. leaves the bloc’s single market and customs union. A trade deal would avert the imposition of tariffs and duties that could cost both sides billions in trade and hundreds of thousands of jobs. Britain withdrew from the EU on Jan. 31, and an economic transition period expires on Dec. 31.

Johnson has always insisted the U.K. will “prosper mightily” even if no deal is reached and the U.K. has to trade with the EU on World Trade Organization terms from Jan. 1.

But his government has acknowledged that a chaotic exit is likely to bring gridlock at Britain’s ports, temporary shortages of some goods and price increases for staple foods. Tariffs will be applied to many U.K. exports, including 10% on cars and more than 40% on lamb, battering the U.K. economy as it struggles to rebound from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the past few days, Johnson and von der Leyen have been drawn more and more into the talks and have been in contact by phone seeking to unblock negotiations.

Rumors of a pre-Christmas trade deal surfaced in recent days based on progress on the main outstanding issues, other than fishing.

The EU has long feared that Britain would undercut the bloc’s social, environmental and state aid rules to be able to gain an unfair edge with its exports to the EU. Britain has said that having to meet EU rules would undercut its sovereignty. On those issues, a compromise had been reached, a diplomat from an EU country said.

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