It is 31 days until Brexit gets real - so are the UK and EU close to reaching a deal?

David Frost and Michel Barnier Credit: PA

Way back when the Brexit negotiations started in 2016 - it seems like a lifetime ago - some months after the referendum, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier warned his British interlocutors that “the clock is ticking”. 

It has ticked remorselessly since that moment towards a deadline that is now just 31 days away.At 11pm on 31 December (midnight on the continent), the ‘transition period’ will end.

At that moment all the consequences of Brexit, good or bad, will be upon us. The UK's relations with its giant neighbour and principal trading partner will, at a stroke, be on a completely different legal level. 

Some of the changes may be mitigated by a Free Trade Agreement. Or possibly not.The endless wait for white smoke to appear from the trade talks, still going on alternately in Brussels or London, continues on Tuesday night. How many times have we been told that the deadline for a deal is such and such a date?

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his team in Westminster Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

How many times has that deadline been missed, and people hastily recalculated what is really the last, final, immovable deadline? Well now time really is about to be up.  Time and tide wait for no man, they say, and that applies to Michel Barnier and David Frost as much as the rest of us. If there’s no deal in the next few days, there is no way that the European Parliament will get it ratified. We will start the New Year trading with the EU on WTO terms, and that is going to be a really uncomfortable adjustment.As ever the sticking point seems to be fish, a tiny part of the UK economy that has been elevated by the Government into a totemic symbol of new found independence. 

Michael Gove said just this morning: “We’re an independent country now.  The whole point about this deal is that we recognise that we’re equals, and we’re going to do things differently because that’s what independent countries do.”The other thing independent countries do is to make sure that they have a market for their products, and this is the problem with demanding “British fish for British fishermen”.  Around 80% of what is caught in UK waters is sold on the continent, and without a deal tariffs of up to 20% on exports will kill that market stone dead. Are British consumers going to take up the slack and eat these unsold fish?  Don’t bet on it.But when the issue is framed as one of principle rather than of practical politics, it is hard to see where a compromise is going to come from. The EU would like to see their share of the catch in UK waters reduced by 15-18% post Brexit. Britain’s proposal is more like 80%.  No wonder there been so little movement in talks in recent weeks.Whether the country is remotely ready for what is going to change on 1 January, we shall probably have to wait until then to find out. 

Britain's fishing industry is worth 3.5% of GDP. Credit: PA

To say some businesses are concerned may be to understate it. Even the future status of second home owners in 2021 seems, suddenly, to have caught ex-pats and newspapers by surprised, despite these rules being clear and unchanged in decades. 

None of which augurs particularly well for the extent that the UK is ready for what is coming down the road.Will they do a deal in the next few days?  It’s possible, but even the optimists are struggling to point to straws in the wind that suggest something is changing in the negotiating chamber. Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister Leo Varadkar suggested on Tuesday that he was hopeful of a deal “in the next couple of weeks”. 

That would require considerable flexibility on both sides to ensure minimum disruption before ratification could take place sometime in the New Year. But that may be where we are at now.It’s been three and a half years since the UK took arguably the biggest decision in its post-war history. There are now just 31 days until Brexit gets real. The clock is still ticking and it’s getting a lot louder.