UK prime minister Boris Johnson is expected to speak to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday in another attempt to unlock a EU-UK trade deal, as haggling over fishing rights in Britain’s waters continued.
British officials insisted the EU offer remained “unacceptable” and accused member states — an apparent reference to France — of not showing enough “flexibility” to get a deal over the line.
France, however, has insisted it will not be pressurised into agreeing a substandard deal, with French president Emmanuel Macron demanding firm guarantees of continued access to UK waters for his country’s fishing boats.
A British government official said on Saturday: “Talks are continuing overnight, but as things stand the offer on the table from the EU remains unacceptable.
“The prime minister will leave no stone unturned in this process, but he is absolutely clear: any agreement must be fair and respect the fundamental position that the UK will be a sovereign nation in three weeks’ time.”
British officials said the prime minister was expected to speak to Ms von der Leyen “as planned” on Sunday to take stock of the latest talks on fisheries and the level playing field to ensure fair competition after Brexit. EU officials said on Sunday morning that the call was not yet confirmed.
On fair competition, the outstanding issues mainly concern limits on state subsidies for companies. One person briefed on the talks said the point was “still difficult but not insurmountable”.
But the talks on fish are seen as more problematic with both sides still some distance apart on what share of UK fishing stocks EU boats can take in the future and the length of any transition period to implement the changes.
Little time is left before a midnight Sunday deadline set by the European Parliament for a future-relationship deal to be struck if it is going to be ratified this year.
Some UK officials now say they want the issue settled one way or another before Christmas.
Such a timetable would imply that MPs and MEPs would be asked to scrutinise and approve any deal in the few days between Christmas and the end of the post-Brexit transition period on December 31.
That has alarmed some Conservative Eurosceptic MPs who fear they will be bounced into approving a deal on the future UK-EU relationship with barely any opportunity for scrutiny.
“If a deal will fall apart on inspection, then don’t agree to it,” Steve Baker, former Brexit minister, said on Twitter.
“The idea MPs can be bounced into voting for a bad deal in the hope they will then have to support it afterwards is toxic: it would be despicable to do it. So I would not expect the government to try.”
Meanwhile Brussels faced accusations of accepting “vicious and unprecedented cuts” to EU fishing rights, after tabling an improved offer to the UK.
The European Fisheries Alliance, a group representing fleets from coastal nations such as Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, warned on Saturday: “The shape of a deal, as [it] currently stands would give a huge blow to the European seafood sector.”
“In spite of repeated promises made, we are in the throes of being sold down the river,” said Gerard van Balsfoort, the organisation’s chairman.
Clement Beaune, France’s European affairs minister, said on Saturday the French government would not be rushed into a deal over the next 24 hours.
He said: “There is nothing wrong in not saying: well it’s Sunday evening so let’s wrap it and sacrifice everything. It may be hard and sometimes tough to understand, but it’s necessary to take the time and, at any rate, not to sacrifice our interests under the pressure of a calendar.”
“The finishing line is visible,” said one person involved in the talks on Saturday. “But no one wants to cross it.”