Crunch Brexit talks in stalemate due to fishing rights dispute

Fishing is now the main obstacle to any pact

epa08893302 Freight trucks disembark ferries at Dover Port in Dover, Britain, 19 December 2020. Britain and the EU continue to negotiate a post-Brexit trade deal as the current Brexit transition period will end on 31 December.  EPA/ANDY RAIN

EU and UK negotiators pressed on with talks on Saturday with no sign of them breaking an impasse over post-Brexit fishing rights in time to save a trade deal.

Fishing is now the main obstacle to any pact that could be in place on January 1 to prevent an economic jolt on both sides of the Channel as Britain leaves the single market.

“It remains very blocked,” one EU diplomat said.

Another said Brussels had made Britain its last offer on fishing access and it was down now to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to decide whether he wants a deal.

“If Britain doesn’t accept the latest EU offer it will be a ‘no deal’ over fish,” he said.

The EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has proposed EU fishermen giving up about a quarter of the value of the fish they currently catch in UK waters.

Britain is understood to be holding out for getting back much more than half.

The UK has suggested this compromise should last for three years before it is renegotiated, whereas Europe is holding out for seven.

“It’s all down to numbers now,” another European diplomat said.

Mr Barnier has consulted member states that share fishing waters with Britain but has been told to stand his ground.

The European Parliament has highlighted a deadline of 11pm on Sunday to receive a deal for review if members of the European parliament are to ratify it before the end of the year.

Their UK parliamentary counterparts are in recess, but can be recalled within 48 hours to do likewise.

France’s European affairs minister, Clement Beaune, warned that time left to get a deal was “a matter of hours,” echoing words used by Mr Barnier a day earlier.

The urgency of reaching a deal is being driven home by scenes of long lines of trucks at the freight rail link through the Channel tunnel as British companies frantically stockpile.

A group of UK MPs warned on Saturday that Britain has not installed the complex IT systems and port infrastructure needed to ensure trade with the EU runs smoothly.

Some disruption is inevitable whether a deal happens or not.

Outside the single market, British and European traders will have to fill out import-export, health and tax forms to send and receive goods.

A deal would lighten that burden by removing tariffs, but there would still be traffic snarls as checks on truck loads and drivers’ papers are carried out.

On Saturday there were miles of tailbacks due to queuing lorries at British ports.