The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned on Friday that trade talks with the UK had reached a “moment of truth”, with the hours ahead crucial to determining whether or not there is a deal.
Speaking before the European Parliament on Friday morning, Mr Barnier said he believed an agreement was possible but that difficult sticking points remained, notably on the issue of fisheries.
“Very little useful time, some hours, is left to us, if this agreement is to take effect on January 1” when Britain’s post-Brexit transition period ends, he said, adding that the two sides would make “a last attempt to find an acceptable agreement”.
Speaking later, Britain’s prime minister Boris Johnson warned that Brexit talks remained “difficult” and urged the EU to “see sense” and improve its terms for a future trade deal.
“Our door is open,” he said on a trip to Manchester. “We’ll keep talking. But I have to say that things are looking difficult and there’s a gap that needs to be to be bridged.
“We’ve done a lot, I think, to try and help and we hope that our EU friends will see sense and come to the table with something themselves.”
Mr Barnier, who immediately left the assembly to continue negotiations with his UK opposite number David Frost, hinted that ideas were being discussed which could unlock the talks.
On the sticking point of EU access to UK fishing waters, the EU’s chief negotiator said any deal on fisheries would need to include a “credible and sufficient” transition period during which EU fishing fleets could be sure of their rights in UK waters. Mr Barnier warned that, should the UK at any point after this decide to close its waters, the EU would need legal means to retaliate — including by cutting off its market to British exports of fish.
“It would be neither fair nor acceptable that European fishermen have only transitory rights which evaporate one day in British waters, while all the rest of the agreement, notably for British companies, remains stable,” Mr Barnier said.
The EU is calling for a fisheries transition period of eight years, with guaranteed access to British waters and stable fishing quota rights, while the UK has offered three years.
People close to the talks said EU negotiators had proposed a multi-stage transition, with a review after several years, as a way to try to bridge the gap.
On the other main sticking point of fair competition rules for business, Mr Barnier said Brussels accepted the principle that the UK might in future want to diverge from EU regulations, but that this would also have implications for UK access to the European single market.
“If it wants to diverge in the future, that is its right, but that can’t be without consequence when it comes to having access to our market tariff-free, quota-free,” he said.
Less than two weeks now remain before Britain is set to exit the EU’s single market and customs union, with or without a deal, and Mr Barnier noted that “critical hours” lay ahead for determining if an agreement could be reached in time.
“It is not surprising that the final hours — where we are — are concentrated on the most difficult, the hardest points,” Mr Barnier said.
Leaders of the European Parliament’s political groups told Mr Barnier on Thursday that they would still be prepared to ratify a deal this year provided it was reached by midnight on Sunday — a deadline reiterated by MEPs on Friday.
On Friday, the CBI, the UK employers group, published 48 recommendations for the UK and EU to help ease the disruption likely to be caused by the end of the Brexit transition period, regardless of whether there is a deal or not.
Among the recommendations is a call for a six-month grace period for companies to adjust to new customs arrangements after January 1.