U.K. and European Union officials are zeroing in on a solution to break the eight-month deadlock over one of the biggest obstacles to their planned trade deal.
In a sign that an agreement could be struck by the mid-November deadline set by both sides, a compromise is emerging on the issue of what access EU boats will have to U.K. fishing waters, according to two people with knowledge of the EU side of the discussions.
The potential solution would allow Britain to claim it has won back control of its seas — a key government demand — and pave the way for the country’s fishing industry to catch more than it does currently.
But, significantly, it could defer crucial decisions over the exact quotas EU boats are allocated until a later date — meaning EU boats wouldn’t lose out immediately, and any disagreements over how the catch is divided up in the future wouldn’t necessarily torpedo the wider deal.
The pound trimmed its opening decline in early Asian trading, and was down 0.2% to $1.2925.
While fishing makes up only a tiny part of their economies, it is of totemic political importance to the U.K. and France, whose industry has relied on the ability to catch in seas around Britain for decades. The EU has made any wider deal on its future relationship with Britain conditional on reaching an accord on fish — and the issue had become one of the biggest roadblocks to a deal.
Fisheries is “equally important for both of us, France and the U.K., the EU and the U.K,” France’s Europe Minister, Clement Beaune, told the BBC on Sunday. “Let’s try to find a solution which respects both interests. I think it’s possible.”
Beaune said he was “cautiously optimistic” of reaching a wider accord “in the coming days — or two weeks let’s say” that would balance the priorities of both sides.
A U.K. government official declined to comment on the state of the negotiations with the EU, but added: “They need to reckon with the fact we will be an independent coastal state with control of our waters by the year’s end.”
The potential solution shouldn’t be described as a complete breakthrough just yet, the people said — but it represents a significant step forward on an issue where the two sides have been diametrically opposed. The EU is pushing for a more advantageous deal on fisheries in return for granting the U.K. access to the bloc’s energy market.
The people with knowledge of the matter, who spoke on condition on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations, also cautioned that important disagreements between the two sides remain on other issues, notably on the level competitive playing field for business.
Negotiators worked around the clock in Brussels over the weekend, and plan to continue on Monday. They may pause later in the week so that the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier can update the bloc’s 27 governments, or to ask Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to intervene and resolve any outstanding disagreements.
Internal Market Bill
In a further boost to chances of a deal, officials on both sides are playing down the significance of the passing, on Oct. 31, of the deadline for the U.K. to respond to the EU’s decision to start legal action for breaching the terms of the country’s Brexit divorce deal.
The British government, which has conceded that the plan it announced in September to rewrite parts of the agreement relating to Northern Ireland would break international law, didn’t respond by the deadline.
At one point the furor over the Internal Market Bill looked set to derail the negotiations on the future U.K-EU relationship, but one EU official said that while legal proceedings would continue, the bloc still hopes the matter could be settled amicably.