EU chief says ‘next days decisive’ in Brexit talks

Thursday, December 17th, 2020 00:33 | By
Anti-Brexit demonstrators take part in a protest march from Britain’s House of Parliament to Downing Street in London. Photo/PD/AFP

British and European negotiators have made progress towards agreeing fair trade rules but are still far apart on access to fishing, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said yesterday.

“The next days are going to be decisive,” the president of the European Commission told the European Parliament, as intense talks on a post-Brexit trade deal continued nearby in Brussels.

“The good news is that we have found a way forward on most issues,” she said, adding that she and EU negotiator Michel Barnier can now see a “narrow path to an agreement”.

 “But this is now a case of us being so close, and yet being so far away from each other, because two issues still remain outstanding, you know them: a level playing field and the fisheries.”

Resolving rules

Von der Leyen said that Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost had made progress towards resolving rules for state aid to businesses and that the ways the deal will be governed “by now are largely being resolved.”

But she was pessimistic on fish. Britain is insisting that when it leaves the EU single market at the end of the year it will resume full control over access to its waters.

EU member states are holding out to preserve quotas for their crews fishing in UK waters and they want a long-term arrangement to provide stability.

Britain has so far only offered reduced access and annual quota renegotiations.

“On fisheries, the discussion is still very difficult,” von der Leyen said. “We do not question the UK sovereignty on its own waters, but we asked for predictability and stability for our fishermen and our fisherwomen,” she said.

“And in all honesty, I sometimes feel that we will not be able to resolve this question.”

The teams negotiating a deal on trade and other issues between the UK and the EU have been given more time to reach an agreement.

After a phone call between Boris Johnson and the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a joint statement said “despite the exhaustion after almost a year of negotiations, despite the fact that deadlines have been missed over and over, we think it is responsible at this point to go the extra mile”.

They are leaving it very late though - the UK/EU transition period (during which rules and trade have stayed the same) ends on December 31.

Although there is only a “narrow” gap between Britain and the EU on a Brexit trade deal fishing remains the biggest obstacle.

Even though fishing makes up only a tiny part of the economy on both sides, it was central to the Leave campaign that won the Brexit referendum in the UK in 2016.

Maximum access

It’s also an important issue in several EU countries - such as France.The EU is pushing for maximum access for its boats to continue operating in UK waters, where they currently catch about £600 million (Sh90.57 billion) worth of fish every year.

The UK wants most of that business back, and says it will prioritise its own boats after 1 January when it will become an independent coastal state, outside the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).

So, the dispute is not just about access, but also about a bigger share of the fishing quota for the UK fleet - not just where you can fish, but what you can catch.

There’s also been disagreement about the length of a potential status quo period before new measures come into full force.

The EU wants it to last for up to 10 years, the UK says it should be considerably shorter.

But if there is no agreement on access to fishing waters, the UK won’t get full access to the EU market, without tariffs or taxes, to sell its fish there.

Last year, around three quarters of UK fish exports went to the EU.  – Agencies

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