The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator is set to hold bilateral talks with ministers from the bloc’s key fishing states to identify ways to break the deadlock with the UK over the sector and accelerate efforts towards a trade deal with London.
Michel Barnier’s calls in the coming days, which will aim to find room for manoeuvre in one of the most vexed unresolved areas, follow European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and UK prime minister Boris Johnson’s decision on Saturday to intensify broader negotiations.
The positive tone from the two leaders sparked hopes on both sides that an accord would be possible, despite the damage to trust triggered by the UK’s decision to introduce legislation overriding parts of last year’s withdrawal agreement.
Mr Barnier and his UK counterpart, David Frost, are expected to resume talks on Wednesday in London, Ms von der Leyen and Mr Johnson will hold more frequent direct calls, and the commission president’s own cabinet will be in regular contact with Number 10 counterparts.
On Sunday, Mr Johnson said he did not want a no-deal Brexit but “we can more than live with it”. “All we’re asking our friends and partners to offer is terms that they’ve already offered to Canada, which is you know a long way away from here,” he told the BBC.
“We’re very close to our European friends and partners, we’ve been members of the EU for 45 years, I see no reason why we shouldn’t get those sorts of terms.”
The EU’s trade agreement with Canada, which came into force in 2017, eliminates most tariffs on Canadian imports and increases quotas. But it is not a zero-tariff, zero-quota deal and it still requires border checks on goods to ensure they meet regulatory requirements.
Fisheries is one of the main roadblocks to a deal between the EU and the UK, and Mr Johnson emphasised its importance in his call with Ms von der Leyen. Britain sees its waters as its key asset in the trade talks because without a deal in the area the European fleet will be largely locked out of the UK’s exclusive economic zone, which stretches as far as 200 nautical miles from the coast of Britain.
Three key issues remain unresolved: how shared stocks will be divided; EU access rights to British waters; and how frequently the two sides’ respective allocations of the shared stocks are recalculated.
Lord Frost on Friday warned that the gap between the two sides in the area was “unfortunately very large” as he called on the EU to shift its position.
The EU wants to see a stable allocation between the two sides of stocks that straddle the maritime border, and guarantees of access to British waters. The UK has instead proposed a three-year phase-in period before new arrangements, leaving key issues up to annual negotiations.
EU countries, including France, are highly exercised by the prospect of a heavily diminished and unstable allocation given the political power of their fishing sectors and economic vulnerability of coastal communities.
While Mr Johnson emphasised the UK’s demands on fish, Ms von der Leyen used the call to hammer home Brussels’ insistence on a robust “level-playing field” for business, in particular in the handling of state subsidies.
The two sides made only limited advances on state aid and the broader level-playing field in the most recent round, prompting Mr Barnier to note in his statement on Friday that there remained “persistent, serious divergences” on matters of key importance for the EU.
British officials remain upbeat about the prospect of breaching those divides. One government official said: “It’s looking better than it has for a good while but we’re not there yet.”
Brussels has shifted a long way from its opening position on state aid earlier this year, but it remains anxious to see London enforce similar restrictions on subsidies to those in the EU. The EU is also pushing to insert “ratchet clauses” into the agreement to prevent a future unwinding of environmental regulations and labour standards in the UK.
In the call with Mr Johnson, the commission president also emphasised Brussels’ determination to see a robust dispute resolution mechanism for dealing with Britain if it breaks its commitments under the trade deal.
The EU wants to be able to retaliate quickly if there is a violation by the other side, and with measures targeted at other areas of the trading relationship if necessary. The EU said the issue had assumed new urgency since Mr Johnson introduced the internal market bill, which breaks the UK’s withdrawal treaty with the EU.
Extensive progress has been made on the vast majority of the prospective trade agreement: provisional understandings have been reached on rules for trade in goods and services, on transport, energy, social security and other issues.