The deadlocked negotiations for a post-Brexit trade deal were on the brink of failure Sunday (20 December), as both sides dug in their heels over access to the UK’s rich fishing waters.
Last week, the European Parliament had fixed Sunday as the last moment it could accept a text of any accord if MEPs are to ratify it before Britain leaves the EU single market.
But both sides of the intense negotiations in Brussels now expect the talks to run until Christmas, after what was only the latest in a series of missed deadlines, and both insist that the other must back down over fish.
Without a deal, Britain’s participation in the European project will end at midnight on 31 December with a new cross-Channel tariff barrier to sharpen the shock of unravelling a half-century of deepening political and economic partnership.
“Unfortunately the EU has put in some unreasonable demands,” British health minister Matt Hancock told Sky News. “I’m sure that a deal can be done, but obviously it needs movement on the EU side.”
But a European diplomat told AFP that Brussels had made its best offer and it was down to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson — now distracted by a worsening coronavirus crisis at home — to decide whether he wants a deal.
“It could well continue over Christmas, now the UK is still making up its mind whether it is willing to pay the price for unprecedented access to the internal market,” he said
Sticking point over fish
“The EU has been clear this weekend that it is willing to compromise on fish. But it will bail at putting EU fishermen structurally out of business,” he told AFP.
“The narrow path to a deal has now become a single goat track, about to peter out.”
In an interview with newspaper La Montagne, France’s minister for Europe, Clement Beaune, warned that the economic impact of a “no deal” would be worse for Britain than for Europe and that the negotiation would end “in the next few days”.
The tough talk came as the negotiators scramble to secure a pact before 31 December. No deal would risk chaos at EU and UK borders, where a pre-deadline rush of freight trucks has already caused long tailbacks.
Britain intends to assume control over its waters on 1 January, but is ready to allow continued access to EU fishing fleets for a transitional period under new terms.
UK negotiator David Frost wants Britain to take back more than half the fish currently assigned under the EU quota system, under a three-year agreement.
The European side insists the UK can not have tariff-free access to the EU single market as a whole unless it agrees to take back only a quarter of the fish quota — and that the transitional period would last seven years.
– Fishermen ‘sold down the river’ –
The issue is highly charged for both Britain and EU members with northern fishing fleets like France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark
EU fishermen fear losing any access to the rich UK fishing waters will threaten their livelihoods.
“We are in the throes of being sold down the river,” the European Fisheries Alliance said in a statement, urging EU negotiator Michel Barnier to stick by them.
The European Parliament had highlighted a deadline of midnight (2300 GMT) on Sunday to receive a deal for review if MEPs are to ratify it before the end of the year.
Their UK parliamentary counterparts are in recess, but can be recalled within 48 hours to do likewise.
But EU capitals have not acknowledged any deadline — and officials say they could provisionally ratify the agreement to avoid the economic shock of a no-deal divorce.
The urgency of reaching a deal is seen in long lines of trucks at the freight rail link through the Channel tunnel as British companies frantically stockpile.
A group of UK MPs warned on Saturday that Britain has not installed the complex IT systems and port infrastructure needed to ensure trade with the EU runs smoothly.
The coronavirus epidemic has added another level of crisis. Southeast England, which includes the Channel tunnel and ferry ports was ordered back into lockdown this weekend after a new fast-spreading strain of the virus was detected.