Last-ditch Brexit talks continue into the weekend as big gap remains on fishing

‘Moment of truth’ passes with another missed deadline

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Friday 18 December 2020 21:02
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Michel Barnier warns UK and EU have just hours to reach Brexit deal

Brexit talks will continue into the weekend after both sides failed to reach an agreement on Friday despite warnings they were facing a “moment of truth”.

Michel Barnier had told the European parliament on Friday morning that there were “just a few hours left” to agree a deal, with fishing seen as the last big stumbling block to preventing no deal.

But as night fell on Brussels, sources on both sides said there had been no breakthrough and that negotiations would pick up in the morning.

The EU side tried late in the day to break the deadlock with a new offer on fishing, the most difficult of the remaining issues to be resolved. Yet Mr Barnier’s proposal, which would involve the UK keeping more of the fish in its own waters, appeared not to impress the UK.

Boris Johnson had told broadcasters hours earlier that there was “a gap that needs to be bridged” and that he hoped the EU would “see sense” in the final days of negotiations.

Even usually optimistic Dublin  cast a doubt on whether things could be resolved, with Micheal Martin, the prime minister, stating that negotiations still faced “very significant difficulties”.

A European Commission spokesperson said there was “no official deadline for finishing” the talks. There are just 48 hours until the European parliament has promised to call time on the whole affair, by refusing to approve a Brexit deal this year, if there is no text by Sunday.

It comes as a miles-long queue of trucks formed on the M20 motorway in Kent as businesses stockpile in preparation for the expected disruption of a no-deal outcome – a glimpse of what is to come.

Two main issues still separate the two teams: the question of fishing access for EU fleets, and that of the so-called “level playing field” for regulations.

There is understood to have been some progress on the latter issue, though a number of details remain to be resolved.

But on fishing, the two sides still appear far apart, with Brussels still insisting on taking the lion’s share of fish caught in British waters, and the right to impose tariffs in response to the UK trying to claw back even more catch. Both sides said they could not say whether there would be a deal as of Friday evening.

Mr Johnson said on Friday that “no sensible government” could sign up to an agreement of the sort the EU was proposing.

“Our door is open. We’ll keep talking. But I have to say that things are looking difficult,” he said.

“And there’s a gap that needs to be bridged. We’ve done a lot to try and help, and we hope that our EU friends will see sense and come to the table with something themselves.

“If that doesn’t happen then come 1 January we will be trading on WTO terms. An event that obviously has been four and a half years in the making.

“Yes it may be difficult at first, but this country will prosper mightily, as I’ve said many, many times, on any terms and under any arrangement.”

Earlier in the European parliament, Mr Barnier had warned Mr Johnson that talks had now reached the point “when decisions need to be taken”.

“It’s a question of whether the UK will leave in a few days – 10 days or so – if they’re going to leave the single market and the customs union with an agreement or without an agreement. It’s the moment of truth,” he told MEPs.

“We have very little time remaining, just a few hours to work through these negotiations in a useful fashion if you want this agreement to enter into force on 1 January.”

He argued that the EU should be able to hit the UK with tariffs and quotas if Britain decided it wanted to exclude European fishermen from its waters, telling the parliament: “When it comes to access to markets without tariffs and quotas and the UK would like to regain its sovereignty over fisheries, to be able to control access to its waters and, as I’ve said on many occasions, I’ll reiterate that here: we can accept that and we respect that.

“But if following a critical period of adjustment that is deemed necessary, if the UK then wants to cut access to these waters for European fishermen, at any given time, then the European Union also has to maintain its sovereign right to react or to compensate by adjusting the conditions for products, and especially fisheries products to the single market.

"And that is where we come up against one of the main hurdles of the negotiations at the moment, fisheries being part and parcel of the economic partnership.”

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