EU ambassadors have unanimously approved the provisional application of the post-Brexit trade deal agreed with the UK.
The move, announced by a spokesman for the German EU Council presidency, represents a significant step forward as Britain and Brussels prepare for an orderly divorce on December 31.
The ambassadors have given the deal, which covers £660billion of trade, provisional backing so that it can be rolled out in time for January 1 with a more formal but retrospective ratification process taking place in the New Year.
MPs are preparing to vote on the accord, formally known as the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
JUST IN: European Union nations have unanimously approve the post-Brexit trade deal with the United Kingdom, a prerequisite for the agreement to come into operation on New Year’s Day. https://t.co/gHQr2XZDU0 pic.twitter.com/XR7jeByvR0— ABC News (@ABC) December 28, 2020
The deal will be crashed through Parliament in just one day and it is expected to sail through the Commons, with the overwhelming majority of Tories due to back it while Sir Keir Starmer has told Labour MPs they have to support it.
However, the Labour leader is facing a rebellion over the instruction with a handful of shadow ministers reportedly considering quitting.
The Brexit progress came amid a furious row over fishing, as Michael Gove insisted the deal puts British fishermen in a 'stronger position' but industry chiefs blasted they believe they will be 'absolutely worse off'.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office defended the terms of Boris Johnson's trade accord as he said fishermen will see a 'significant uptick' in what they are allowed to catch in the coming years.
But the chairman of the National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations, Andrew Locker, said the industry had been 'betrayed' by Mr Johnson.
Mr Locker said the Prime Minister had 'promised us the rights to all the fish that swim in our exclusive economic zone and we have got a fraction of that'.
EU ambassadors met in Brussels this morning to give their provisional approval to the trade deal.
A spokesman for the German EU presidency said the ambassadors had unanimously agreed to give the 'green light' to the settlement which was finally hammered out on Christmas Eve.
The move paves the way for the agreement which allows for continued tariff-free trade with the EU single market to take effect when the current Brexit transition period expires on Thursday night.
'EU ambassadors have unanimously approved the provisional application of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement as of January 1, 2021,' the spokesman for the German presidency said.
The European Parliament must also formally ratify the deal in the New Year – although this will now apply retrospectively.
It came as Mr Gove defended the accord after furious criticism from the UK fishing industry.
The trade deal will see UK fishermen given the right to catch more of the fish in British waters, with European trawlers gradually handing back some of their quota.
But the exact terms of the agreement have sparked anger because critics believe the UK has given up too much on fishing in order to gain concessions in other areas.
Mr Gove told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'If we take a couple of steps back, I think it is fair to say we are in a stronger position than we were in the EU and in the Common Fisheries Policy.
'In the CFP we were only able to access about 50 per cent of the fish in our waters.
'It is the case that we are now getting a significant uptick in that number so that we will have by 2026 two thirds of the fish in our waters.
'There is no country, or very few, which actually fish all of the fish in their waters… and of course this staged process gives us the chance to increase the size of the fleet, to invest in our coastal communities and of course in due course we will have that opportunity to increase the quota even further.'
Mr Gove announced overnight that the Government will set out a major funding package for the fishing sector in the 'near future' to help it to take full advantage of Brexit.
But Mr Locker said the British fishing industry had been 'betrayed' by the Government.
He told the BBC: 'I am angry, disappointed and betrayed. Boris Johnson promised us the rights to all the fish that swim in our exclusive economic zone and we have got a fraction of that.
'We are absolutely worse off. When we were within the EU we used to trade fish with the EU. We used to swap things we didn't use with fish that they didn't use and that enabled us to put together an annual fishing plan.
'What we have got now is a fraction of what we were promised through Brexit. We are going to really, really struggle this year.
'When Boris Johnson and his Government promised Brexit to the fishermen he promised none of us would be worse off. There is a considerable amount of fishermen – small families, small communities – absolutely worse off by this deal.'
Mr Gove also defended the deal over accusations it could prompt a wave of deregulation once the transition period ends on December 31.
He dismissed those concerns, telling the BBC: 'No, I think it means smarter and better regulation so if we look at the way in which the EU has regulated in the past when it has come to financial services it hasn't always regulated in a way which works to the advantage of the UK.
'London is the biggest financial centre in Europe. One of the two greatest financial centres in the world and EU regulation hasn't always been as enlightened as it might have been in making sure that we can regulate smartly and effectively.'
The Government has also faced criticism over its decision to withdraw from the Erasmus education scheme.
Ministers will replace it with a so-called Turing scheme which will see more than £100million spent on sending 35,000 students on international university placements.
Mr Gove said the Government had wanted to stay in the Erasmus scheme but 'only on terms that were fair to the UK taxpayer'.
He said the cost of staying in the scheme would have been 'too great' under the terms set out by the EU.
Meanwhile, International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said she expects to sign a continuity trade agreement with Turkey this week, a move that was not possible until the deal with the EU was struck because Ankara is in a customs union with the bloc.
But Sir Keir is facing a revolt over his decision to impose a three-line-whip on his MPs to support the accord.
Labour whips are in the process of calling MPs to urge them to vote for the Future Relationship Bill amid fears dozens in Remain-backing seats could rebel.
No shadow cabinet resignations are expected but sources told The Times that half a dozen frontbenchers in junior roles could quit.
Wednesday's debate and vote will see hundreds of MPs take part and vote virtually after Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle encouraged them to stay away because of coronavirus concerns.
But Tory Brexiteers are demanding the chance to take part in person, arguing that such an 'historic occasion' should not be conducted from offices and living rooms.
Coronavirus rules mean that only a maximum of 50 people are allowed in the Commons chamber at any one time.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.