The UK has dismissed an EU offer on rights to Britain’s fishing waters as “derisory”, dealing a blow to hopes that the two sides can secure a post-Brexit trade deal in coming days.
With only five weeks to go before the end of the transition period, talks on the UK’s future relationship with the EU boiled over when Britain lashed out at an indication from Michel Barnier about how far the bloc was prepared to move on the vexed issue of EU access to UK waters.
At a closed-door meeting with EU ambassadors, Mr Barnier, the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator, said he had told Britain the EU could accept a 15 to 18 per cent cut in its share of rights in UK waters. British and EU officials said the offer was made some weeks ago.
Brussels estimates that the EU fleet’s catch in UK waters is worth about €650m a year. The offer would mean that Brussels would sacrifice fishing rights equivalent to up to 18 per cent of that revenue — about €120m.
British officials immediately rejected the offer, first reported by the Irish broadcaster RTE, as “derisory”. “It’s completely unacceptable and unhelpful,” said one.
However, Mr Barnier’s stance represented a step back from his original negotiating mandate in which he was instructed to “uphold” the existing rights of EU fishermen. Further EU moves are likely to be needed if a deal is to be reached.
David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, has been pushing for Britain to seize 80 per cent of the €650m-worth of fishing rights, according to one person briefed on the UK position. “You can see how far we are apart,” the official said.
British officials said they were surprised that Mr Barnier was still proposing the 15 to 18 per cent share at the eleventh hour of trade talks.
According to participants at Friday’s meeting, Mr Barnier told ambassadors that the offer was the limit of how far the EU was prepared to compromise — a message he reiterated to members of the European Parliament at a separate meeting later on Friday.
EU officials pointed out that the true ramifications of Mr Barnier’s offer were difficult to see because they would depend on exactly what fishing rights for particular species were transferred to the UK.
The stand-off over fish took place before Brexit talks resume in London on Saturday — made possible after Mr Barnier and his team completed quarantine after a Covid-19 case ended face-to-face talks last week.
With little time left to ratify any agreement so that it is in place for January 1, the two sides remain divided.
Along with fishing rights, the talks are bogged down over “level playing field” guarantees for business and the question of how to enforce any deal.
Mr Barnier said on Twitter on Friday that the “same significant divergences persist” between the two sides.
Briefing EU ambassadors on Friday, he said that virtual talks this week had been largely fruitless, with the two sides mired in disagreements over sticking points that have dogged the negotiations for months.
“The conditions for an agreement are not there,” Mr Barnier told MEPs, according to one participant at the meeting, who said the EU chief negotiator also warned that only “several days” were left to find a deal.
Lord Frost said on Twitter on Friday that “a deal is still possible, and I will continue to talk until it’s clear that it isn’t”.
Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, is ready to speak with Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, to try to find a breakthrough in the negotiations. But one British government insider said that no contact between Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen was expected over the weekend.
National ambassadors at Friday’s meeting with Mr Barnier urged the commission to come forward with no-deal contingency measures to protect sensitive sectors such as air transport and road haulage from disruption in the event that talks fail.
Additional reporting by Peter Foster in London and Sam Fleming in Brussels