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Talks on 'almost impossible' trade deal spill into weekend as focus shifts to fisheries

Although the focus has mostly been on State aid and the level-playing field, that is shifting to fisheries in the past few weeks.

British boats during sunrise at Shoreham Docks. October 2020.
British boats during sunrise at Shoreham Docks. October 2020.
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

BREXIT TALKS ARE to continue over the weekend after an offer was made by the EU in an attempt to resolve one of the three main obstacles remaining to an EU-UK trade deal.

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier will return to London to pursue face-to-face trade talks, in what he described as a ‘last chance’ for a deal.

UK negotiator David Frost said that talks were continuing because they still want a deal, but added that “for a deal to be possible it must fully respect UK sovereignty”.

“That is not just a word – it has practical consequences. That includes: controlling our borders; deciding ourselves on a robust and principled subsidy control system; and controlling our fishing waters.” 

This afternoon, RTÉ News reported that Barnier offered the value of between 15-18% of the fish quota caught in UK waters by EU boats to the UK under a trade deal.

This would mean that EU fishers would retain 80% of the current catch in UK waters.

This offer was reported by the UK Sun tabloid on Sunday, where it reported that the fisheries arrangement would be reviewed in several years’ time as part of the offer – but that the UK would reject the offer. 

Talks this weekend

The UK leaves Europe’s trade and customs area in just five weeks on 31 December.

Although over 90% of matters have been agreed and drafted into a legal text, but trade talks are still stalled over fishing rights and fair trade rules (aka, the level-playing field).

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been resisting signing up to the EU’s vision of a level playing field, which would have trade penalties if either side diverges from the agreed standards.

He has also balked at giving EU fishing boats access to British waters.

Michel Barnier was expected to brief fishing ministers from the countries most affected by the issue, before heading to the British capital.

In a tweet, Barnier warned that the “same significant divergences persist” before he briefed a meeting of EU envoys carrying the same downbeat message.

“We are not far from the take it or leave it moment,” Barnier told ambassadors from member states, a European source familiar with the closed-door meeting told AFP.

Without a change of heart from London, “reaching a deal will be all but impossible,” another diplomat reported Barnier as saying.

Sources said EU ambassadors urged Barnier to update the EU’s “no-deal” contingency measures, with scenes of backed up lorries at the UK border points widely expected if talks fail.

In London, Johnson said it was up to the Europeans to make the move and claimed that Britain was quite ready if talks collapsed.

The “likelihood of a deal is very much determined by our friends and partners in the EU,” he told reporters.

“Everybody’s working very hard, but clearly there are substantial and important differences to be bridged, but we’re getting on with it,” he said.

Time is running out

If a deal cannot be signed and ratified by 31 December, cross-Channel trade will face a tariff barrier and businesses on both sides will suffer.

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The talks have already pushed on much longer than expected and time is running out for ratification of any deal by the European Parliament by the end of the year.

Members of the European Parliament, who will also confer with Barnier on Friday, have expressed frustration with the delays and may have to ratify a deal between Christmas and the New Year.

Despite the urgency, France on Thursday warned that the EU must not be “intimidated” by Britain’s refusal to compromise or lose its resolve in the final stretch.

“The British need an agreement more than we do. Europeans must be convinced of this, and convinced of their strength in these negotiations,” France’s Europe Minister Clement Beaune said.

With reporting from AFP

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