Richard North, 24/12/2020  

I remember being stuck in Brussels once, waiting for a flight home which was hours late, with no indication of when it would arrived. Bitching to one of my fellow sufferers, as one does, he said: "Watch me! I'll get it here".

Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a cigarette (those were the days) and proceeded to light it. No sooner had be done so when the Tannoy burst into life telling us that our flight was about to board. "Works every time", he said, stubbing out his unsmoked cigarette.

In like manner, heading yesterday's piece "No deal today" seemed almost fated to ensure that we got an announcement to the contrary, if only to prove me wrong. We got some intimation at 7:51 am, when Reuters reported: "Brexit deal marathon heads to the finish line", with the Daily Mail seemingly the first to have claimed that there could be a deal "within hours".

There are 8,760 hours in a year so, technically a deal could still be a year away and the Mail would not be wrong. But, from the way they were framing their story, one got the general impression that they were thinking in terms of "imminent", although they might have thought that their readers wouldn't understand that word.

The story was first posted about midday, and since then there have been many copycats, plus others who have sought confirmation. Just after three in the afternoon, the RTE fella was talking about a deal "in the next 24 hours", quoting an anonymous "EU diplomat" who had told him, "There is an air of optimism".

Final touches, however, had to be agreed between von der Leyen and Johnson, who were in constant contact. So we waited until exactly 5 pm when The Times posted: "Brexit deal in ‘final phase’ and could happen within hours". However, the negotiators were continuing to hammer out the final details of fishing quotas.

Nevertheless, sources on both sides said that talks on a trade, security and fishing treaty were in the "final phase" and "not far off". With one source close to the talks saying: "Strap yourself in".

EU ambassadors were "on standby" for a fast-tracked ratification process "tonight or tomorrow morning", while officials had already begun to scrutinise elements of the deal that had been agreed already, "in a 2,000-page text including annexes". By "ratification" was mean a decision on provisional application.

In the final hours, the dispute had been about a quantity of fish worth less than £60 million, less than the transfer fee of a mid-ranking football player.

About an hour later, the paper's partner in crime, The Sun, announced "Merry Brexmas", with an updated story bearing the headline: "Brexit deal could be sealed on Christmas DAY if there’s breakthrough, Irish PM says".

But, at 8:32 pm, ITV News had downgraded its headline to: "'Possible' UK-EU trade deal is agreed today, says Downing St source". By about nine in the evening, pizzas were being delivered to the Berlaymont and hopes were fading of a same-day deal. Peston, however, was convinced a deal had been done, having tweeted to that effect late the previous evening.

Not long afterwards, we saw reports saying that an announcement was expected "either later this evening or tomorrow" – tomorrow now being today – although the Guardian was still posting: "Trade deal expected within hours".

In an unfortunate turn of phrase, it told us that the two sides were "within touching distance", not exactly where you want to be when not one but two "new variant" strains of coronavirus have been discovered in the UK, daily cases of Covid 19 are at a record level and the daily death rate, at 744, is the highest since April.

Then Sky News took a turn, with the headline: "Talks in 'end phase' as hopes of UK-EU trade deal rise", offering the sub-heading, "With both sides trying to reach an agreement before 31 December, sources in London and Brussels say a deal could be close".

In a downbeat report, it told us that Barnier and Frost were locked in a room in Brussels and it seemed "like they have come to a political agreement about how they want to manage key Brexit issues, but it's being turned into legal text".

"That", the report went, "is an optimistic sign, it does suggest that the end process of this is near". But, it added, "it does not mean that it is a done deal by any stretch of the imagination. Number 10 are stressing that negotiations completely can collapse".

Unable to avoid the statutory statement of the bleedin' obvious, we were then told that there had been "suggestions that an announcement could be made as early as this evening", with the penetrating observation that the "deadline appears to be slipping".

Minutes before 10 pm, the Mirror was trying to keep the home fires burning, with the headline: "Brexit deal for Christmas with Boris Johnson on verge of compromise with EU".

This did not quite mesh with the text, which told us that the UK negotiating team had spent the evening poring over the draft legal text with their Brussels counterparts "before signing off the agreement". Government sources said that - barring any last-minute hiccups - the deal was done and "highly unlikely" to fall apart.

With only 20 minutes to go before 11 pm, The Mail revised its story, this time asking: "Can they deliver a Brexit deal?". Pizzas had arrived the paper said, "as EU and UK teams pore over trade terms amid hopes agreement will be announced within HOURS after last-minute haggling over fishing rights".

Frost and Barnier, together with "a team of lawyers and experts" were poring over the details line-by-line to ensure there were no loopholes or errors – "with speculation that Boris Johnson will announce the news in a statement from No10 within hours if it is ready". The Cabinet had been put on standby for a call to notify them of the breakthrough.

A sort of explanation then came from the Guardian, in a last-minute revised story, telling us that the prime minister had been expected to seal the deal following a final call with von der Leyen – but the two sides were battling deep into the night to gain a last-minute advantage.

Von der Leyen and Johnson had been poised to hold a press conference early on Wednesday night to announce the deal, but the two sides could not sign off on the 2,000 pages of legal text and decided to take extra time.

Therefore, with no more developments to report as the witching hour descends, other than that Johnson is poised to make an announcement, it is safe to say that there will be no deal yesterday. Today is another matter. Although, as a last word, ITV News is quoting Downing Street saying that it is "possible but far from certain" that a post-Brexit trade could be agreed with Brussels shortly.

If the deal is agreed and it does run to 2,000 pages, though, it is pretty certain that it is going to be a mixed treaty which will require Member State ratification. That, perforce, allows each Member State an effective veto which means that, whatever happens today, it ain't over until it's properly ratified.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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