London: Nine months of talks between the U.K. and European Union over a post-Brexit trade accord are hanging in the balance, with officials trying to bring them to a conclusion as soon as Wednesday.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen intervened personally Monday and Tuesday, holding several phone conversations in a last-ditch bid to reach an agreement before the U.K. leaves the single market at the end of the month.
Negotiators were still locked in talks in Brussels late Tuesday as Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said both sides were ready to make “a final push.”
The discussions are focused on two key disagreements over fish: what access EU boats will have British waters, and what rights the EU will have to impose retaliatory tariffs should the U.K. limit that access in the future.
Both sides have made an agreement on fishing a precondition for any wider agreement over their future relationship, even if the 650 million euros ($790 million) of fish EU boats catch in U.K. waters each year is a fraction of value of goods traded between Britain and the bloc each year.
Barnier told a meeting of ambassadors from the bloc’s 27 member states Tuesday that there has been progress in the talks, and a deal could be signed before Christmas — if the British are prepared to compromise further on fishing, according to diplomats briefed on the discussions.
Officials said the talks could still continue beyond Christmas, or fail completely. Senior EU officials said the decision lies with Johnson, while people familiar with the British side said the onus was on the bloc to move.
Barnier said his team is prepared to keep negotiating after the U.K.’s post-Brexit transition period expires Dec. 31 if that is what is required to close a deal.
Earlier in the week, the U.K. put forward a proposal that would see the value of the fish that EU boats catch in British waters shrink by 30%, a substantially smaller drop than the 60% it was demanding last week. The EU has also compromised: It’s gone from accepting no reduction at the start of the negotiations to 18% a few weeks ago, then to 25% in the last few days.
The bloc refuses to accept a reduction of more than 25% in the value of fish caught, saying even that was hard for countries like France and Denmark to accept, according to officials with knowledge of the discussions.
It’s not as simple as just the raw numbers though, which is why, as the two sides continue to talk, a compromise isn’t out of the question.
Alongside the percentage value of the catch, the two sides are haggling over how long a period of time fishermen will be given to adjust to the rules. The U.K. has demanded the EU accept a five-year transition period after previously suggesting three years. The bloc had initially called for 10 years, and has now offered seven.
The EU wants to be able to impose tariffs on the U.K. if, after the transition period, the government restricts access to its waters. In its latest compromise offer, the U.K. said it would accept tariffs on fisheries but not in other areas, such as on energy, as demanded by the bloc.-Bloomberg
Also read: Boris Johnson makes last-ditch push for Brexit deal with proposal on fishing rights