Barnier: fishing row is main obstacle in 'final hours' of Brexit talks
Michel Barnier has said the main obstacle to a deal in the final “few hours” of the post-Brexit trade negotiation is whether Brussels will be able to hit British goods with tariffs if the government closes its fishing waters to EU fishing fleets in the future.
With the European parliament having said it needs agreement by midnight on Sunday for it to be able to give its consent in a vote this year, the EU’s chief negotiator said the nine months of talks had hit the “moment of truth”.
The two sides are at loggerheads over whether the EU will be able to hit back should the UK close its seas to European vessels after a transition period of unspecified length.
Barnier said it would only be fair for Brussels to be able to put tariffs on UK goods, and fisheries products in particular, should European fishing fleet lose their access to British waters.
In a speech to the European parliament, Barnier told MEPs: “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.
“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.”
Barnier warned Downing Street that the time had come “when decisions need to be taken”.
“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,” he said.
“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.”
Barnier, a former French fisheries minister, said there was a fundamental issue of fairness that the EU would not back down on.
He said: “On a personal note, I don’t think it would be fair, not acceptable, if European fishermen were not allowed, following transitional rights, to have access to those waters when the rest of the agreement, especially applying to companies from the UK, would remain stable in their rights, so that wouldn’t be fair, that wouldn’t be honest.”
Barnier left the parliament early to continue negotiations with David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator. Following a telephone call between Boris Johnson and the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, on Thursday night, Downing Street said the negotiations were in a “very serious” state, and that a no-deal outcome remained “very likely”.
The government has said that after a transitional period it wants exclusive access to the zone six to 12 nautical miles from the British coastline and the repatriation of 60% of the EU’s current catch by value in UK seas. French and Belgian fleets have fished off the UK coast for centuries, while Barnier has said he cannot satisfy the British demands on quotas.