UK-EU fisheries dispute threatens to sink post-Brexit trade deal

Senior UK government source says talks expected to continue on Monday but ‘remain difficult and significant differences remain’.

UK's chief negotiator David Frost arrives at the UK delegation office for Brexit talks in Brussels on Saturday [Virginia Mayo/AP]

The scramble for a post-Brexit trade deal has headed into a new week after talks were overshadowed by the coronavirus crisis and ended with no breakthrough on fishing rights.

As Belgium, France and many of their European Union neighbours closed rail and air links to the United Kingdom, which had warned it has discovered a new strain of the virus, debate dragged on in Brussels on Sunday.

After EU negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost met at the EU headquarters, the former French minister tweeted: “In this crucial moment for the negotiations, we continue to work hard. The EU remains committed to a fair, reciprocal and balanced agreement. We respect the sovereignty of the UK. And we expect the same.”

Barnier stressed that, while both sides would control their own laws and waters, “we should both be able to act when our interests are at stake” – a reference to a mechanism that must be agreed to ensure future fair competition.

Meanwhile, a senior UK government source said the talks were expected to continue on Monday but “remain difficult and significant differences remain”.

“We continue to explore every route to a deal that is in line with the fundamental principles we brought into the negotiations,” he told Reuters news agency.

Time is running out for a trade deal, with the UK due to leave the EU single market in 11 days. But both sides of the intense negotiations in Brussels now expect the talks to run on for three or four days until Christmas.

Without a deal, the UK’s participation in the European project ends at midnight in Brussels on December 31 (23:00 GMT) with a new tariff barrier to sharpen the shock of unravelling a half-century of partnership.

No breakthrough on fishing rights

Both the UK and the EU are calling on the other to move to secure a deal and safeguard almost a trillion dollars worth of annual trade from tariffs and quotas.

Talks to reach a trade deal have been largely hamstrung over two issues – the bloc’s fishing rights in British waters and creating a so-called “level playing field” providing fair competition rules for both sides.

British Health Minister Matt Hancock said on Sunday the bloc should drop its “unreasonable demands”.

“We want these talks to reach a positive conclusion, of course, I want a deal, I think everybody wants a deal,” Hancock told Sky News. “Unfortunately, the EU have put in some unreasonable demands … I am sure a deal can be done but obviously it needs movement on the EU side.”

Al Jazeera’s Rory Challands reporting from London said that “both sides are deadlocked and digging their heels in”.

“The UK is saying it is prepared to leave without a deal, but over the weekend, there have been rather alarming pictures on British TV screens of lorries and trucks backed up for kilometres on the motorways leading into channel ports as companies stockpile in preparation for a possible no-deal in January,” he added.

A flag with a slogan supporting the UK fishing industry is seen on the beach in Hastings, UK, December 20, 2020 [Peter Nicholls/Reuters]

Moreover, Challands said, a failure to secure a deal while also “cancelling Christmas” as the coronavirus surges in the country all in one weekend, would be a “double whammy” for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The UK leader imposed tighter coronavirus curbs on Saturday on millions of people in England and largely reversed plans to ease restrictions around Christmas, as the country battles a new more infectious strain of the virus.

The EU wants to be able to impose trade barriers should the UK change its regulations to offer substandard goods on the bloc’s market of 450 million consumers in the future. London sees the specific proposal to that end as going too far.

On fisheries, the bloc also wants the right to retaliate by curbing UK market access should the UK squeeze EU ships out of its waters. London said it will become an independent coastal state from 2021 with full control of its waters.

PM Johnson, the face of the UK’s 2016 campaign to leave the EU, has long said he cannot accept any deal that does not respect the country’s sovereignty, a goal that was at the heart of his election last year.

But the EU is equally determined to protect its lucrative single market and wants to prevent London securing what it considers to be the best of both worlds – preferential market access with the advantage of setting its rules.

On Saturday, the European Parliament repeated its call for a deal to be reached no later than this weekend, to give it time to properly ratify the agreement.

The EU has long said it wants to safeguard the parliament’s right to exercise democratic oversight, but if an agreement arrived later than this weekend, the bloc’s 27 member states could still endorse it on their own.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies