Brexit deal on the line over French fishing as talks head for weekend showdown




  • In World
  • 2020-12-03 18:31:44Z
  • By The Telegraph
 

Brexit talks are heading for a showdown between Boris Johnson and Emmanuel Macron this weekend with the prospect of an EU deal now dependent on French access to fish in British waters.

The two leaders are at odds over the right to fish in British waters with senior Downing Street sources unsure as to whether the French president might "torpedo" the proposed Brexit deal at the last possible moment.

They fear he may be tempted to scupper a compromise fishing deal ahead of the French presidential election in 2022.

There had been growing hopes that a deal was about to be agreed but the British delegation was taken aback after the EU made a series of "destabilising" last-minute new demands on fishing and other issues.

"Our hopes of any movement on Friday are pretty much gone now," said one UK source, with Monday now set as the unofficial deadline for a deal by Downing Street.

Sources on the UK side branded the intervention "unacceptable". They said Mr Macron's officials had been "lobbying hard" among member state capitals to agree to fresh demands on fishing, state subsidies and non-regression clauses.

Mr Macron has vowed to protect French fishermen, who are heavily dependent on access to UK waters but are expected to lose a significant part of their quota from January 1 if the EU-UK deal is done.

However, under British plans designed to placate the French, Mr Johnson has agreed to defer repatriating up to half of the fishing quotas for several years.

Jean Castex, the French prime minister, promised a post-Brexit support plan for French fishermen on a visit to Boulogne-sur-Mer on Thursday, where he boarded the Klondyke, a trawler that operates off the north coast of Scotland.

He said French fishermen must not be "the variable" in a trade deal and could not be "sacrificed" as the price of a deal.

Meanwhile Ireland's foreign minister Simon Coveney travelled to Paris where, in a rare sign of EU disunity, he urged Mr Macron to drop his veto threat and trust Michel Barnier, the chief EU negotiator.

He said negotiations were at "the very end" and a deal was there to be done, adding that no deal would mean "significant disruption, costs, stress and blame games between Brussels and London. From an Irish perspective we get caught in the cross-fires there".

Mr Barnier could on Friday return to Brussels from London to brief EU ambassadors with the hopes of a deal now regarded as relying on the French - with a call between Mr Johnson and Mr Macron expected to resolve the last outstanding issues.

Mr Johnson is also expected to call the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, which Downing Street sources said would be "the key call" before a deal could be agreed.

A senior UK Government source said: "We thought we were in a pretty good place on Wednesday, but today hasn't gone as we had hoped.

"Everyone working on the deal is completely invested in making it succeed, but the French have made this 11th-hour intervention and it is destabilising for the talks. It's a big step backwards."

Sources said negotiators had effectively lost 24 hours because things which had been agreed were now having to be renegotiated.

The two sides were still talking on Thursday night, but one insider said they were "trying to get back to where we were yesterday" rather than making further progress on the main sticking points.

On Wednesday, France threatened to block the deal at next Thursday's crucial EU summit if necessary. 

The EU's fresh demands, which sources in Brussels said were not new, came after member states got "jittery" that Mr Barnier was preparing to give up too much to Britain.

Mr Macron is understood to be deeply concerned about Britain undercutting the EU when the transition period ends, which he views as unfair competition for French businesses.

Alarm bells will have sounded in Brussels after Mr Johnson told a "People's Prime Minister's Questions" session on Facebook that Britain would look at the "tax and regulatory environment" to help businesses rebuild after the coronavirus pandemic and also discussed post-Brexit tax breaks through free ports and enterprise zones.

There is also understood to be major disagreement over how so-called level playing field rules - designed to ensure Britain does not give advantages to its business which undermine the EU - would be policed in future.  

The Prime Minister is keenly aware that the mercurial Mr Macron must support the agreement if it is to be ratified by the no deal deadline at the end of the year.

Sources said he would call the French President soon after any agreement is struck, in order to press him to accept it.

A senior government source said earlier in the day that a deal was "close" but warned that Mr Macron, a passionate pro-European and the most hardline EU leader on Brexit, could still "torpedo the whole thing".

Government sources said they "genuinely did not know" if Mr Macron was serious or simply grandstanding to get the best possible deal for France in the Brexit endgame.

Mr Barnier was "millimetres away" from the EU's red lines on fishing and the level playing field commitments, a senior EU diplomat said.

"Leaders always have the possibility to reject the outcome," the diplomat said, "that certainly is an option."

British sources said that if the deal was not done by Monday, they expected Britain to leave on World Trade Organisation terms at the end of the transition period this month, though Downing St refused to be drawn into naming a specific deadline.

Meanwhile Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the Commons, confirmed on Thursday MPs would be asked to vote again on the UK Internal Market Bill on Monday.

The Bill has no deal clauses relating to Northern Ireland, which override the Withdrawal Agreement and break international law, which would become unnecessary if an agreement with Brussels is found.

Mr Barnier told EU ambassadors and MEPs on Wednesday if the Government restored the offending clauses, the negotiations would be plunged into "crisis".

Both sides believe that a deal will not happen without a meeting between Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen first.

If that is successful, Mr Johnson will move to secure Mr Macron's support ahead of Thursday's summit. If EU leaders give their blessing to the deal, it will pave the way for MEPs to ratify it before the end of the transition period.

Britain has lowered its original demand for a return of 80 per cent of the EU's fishing quotas in its waters to 60 per cent. The EU initially offered to repatriate 18 per cent.

It is thought the two sides will settle on about 50 per cent, with a transition period of several years likely before new arrangements come into force.

That will give the UK time to build up its fishing fleet and EU fishermen time to adapt.

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