THE prospect of the UK signing a free trade agreement with the European Union has moved closer.

In Brussels, Ilze Juhansone, the European Commission’s most senior official, told EU ambassadors that most of the 11 key negotiation issues now had “joint legal texts with fewer and fewer outstanding points”.

And Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission President, boosted the growing optimism of a breakthrough, when she said: “After difficult weeks with very, very slow progress, now we have seen in the last days better progress, more movement on important files.”

She went on: “Within the frame of the level-playing field, progress, for example, has been made on the question of state aid but there are still quite some metres to the finish line, so there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Ms von der Leyen added: “Where the timelines are concerned, time pressure is high without any question…There’s a lot to work on because there is now substance where you can go through line by line, word for word.”

The positive noises chime with remarks attributed to David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, earlier this week, who told Boris Johnson that a “possible landing zone” for a Brexit deal had emerged and that the Prime Minister could expect the terms of a deal “early next week”.

However, sources insisted there still remained gaps on the two key areas of contention, fishing rights and the so-called “level-playing field,” and these were only “slowly shrinking”.

One EU diplomat while making clear there had been “tangible progress on a number of areas in the negotiations,” also expressed concern about time running out for formal ratification of any deal; this will take longer in Brussels because texts have to be translated across the 27 member states.

He said there was “growing concern that the negotiation process does not proceed quickly enough to ensure the ratification of a possible agreement until the end-of-the-year deadline,[while the] hope is nevertheless that negotiations can be finalised quickly if and once the necessary political decisions are taken in London”.

There has, however, even been talk that the EU leaders could agree a deal in principle and have the Brussels Parliament endorse it in the New Year.

Due to Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, being in self-isolation due to a colleague testing positive for the coronavirus, talks with London will continue remotely although there is a hope that physical negotiations might be able to resume towards the end of next week.

The PM’s spokesman, asked if Mr Johnson shared the apparent optimism across the Channel that a deal was almost there, replied: “We’re not going to give a commentary on the negotiations. The teams remain in those negotiations today and that will continue next week.”