The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator said there was a “narrow path” to a trade deal with the UK in the coming days, while warning that success will depend on achieving breakthroughs in the UK. difficult areas, including fishing rights.
Meanwhile, Downing Street on Monday raised hopes that a deal was taking shape when he drafted his rhetoric about the risks of a no-deal outcome. “No deal is a potential outcome,” the Prime Minister’s spokesperson said.
Boris Johnson said last Friday that no deal was “a strong possibility” and added Sunday that it was “the most likely outcome”, but on Monday Downing Street refused to use the same language, claiming only that it was “possible”. Later, Downing Street insisted that no deal was “the most likely outcome”.
Michel Barnier told the closed-door meetings of national ambassadors and MEPs on Monday morning that progress had been made over the weekend on the crucial issue of fair competition rules for businesses, even though substantial gaps remained.
But he warned both sides were at an impasse over EU fishing rights in UK waters, which could be the negotiations’ most intractable problem. Mr Barnier told the ambassadors that a comprehensive deal on the future relationship was possible in the coming days if the fishing dispute could be unblocked, according to two meeting participants.
Mr Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, announced on Sunday that talks would continue after the parties spent the weekend working on “level playing field” guarantees for businesses. Negotiations resume Monday in Brussels.
“There might now be a narrow path to a visible deal – if negotiators can overcome the remaining hurdles in the coming days,” said a European diplomat after Mr Barnier’s presentation.
But both sides are against the clock with less than three weeks left until Britain leaves the EU’s single market with or without a trade deal.
Failure to negotiate would result in the expulsion of tariffs on trade in goods and the expulsion of EU vessels from their traditional fishing waters.
“It is our responsibility to give the discussions every chance of success,” Barnier wrote on Twitter after the meetings. “The next few days are important, if a [trade agreement] must be in place on 1 January 2021. ”
He said discussions over fishing rights in UK waters were stalled on several points. However, EU diplomats privately downplay the idea that the whole negotiation of future EU-UK relations would be derailed by the fisheries issue, even though it remains extremely sensitive for coastal countries such as France and Belgium.
Mr Barnier reportedly said the two sides disagreed on the length and terms of a transition period that would guarantee EU access to UK waters for a number of years after Britain had left the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy on January 1.
The talks have also become embarrassed by recent UK demands for the ability to restrict foreign ownership of UK registered boats, crews and fishing service companies.
Mr Barnier told ambassadors and MEPs that the important progress over the weekend was about the other major sticking point in the talks: the EU’s demands for a level playing field for its businesses, the officials said. participants in meetings.
He said the big development had been the UK’s acceptance to work with the EU to design a “mechanism” to preserve fair competition.
The system would allow each party to raise concerns about the disadvantage of their companies due to differences between EU and UK regulations in areas such as environmental law or labor standards . As a last resort, the disadvantaged party would have the right to impose tariffs on imports to “restore” the rules of the game.
The EU has been pushing for such a plan for weeks, but Mr Johnson argued that previous iterations amounted to attempts to pressure the UK to continue to follow EU rules.
The UK “has agreed to discuss such a mechanism,” an official said, but added the issue remained unresolved and progress was “fragile”.
Mr Barnier told the meetings that there were other specific obstacles to equal opportunities in negotiations, including sectoral rules for aviation, road transport and energy.
Officials said it was not clear at this point how long negotiations would continue in Brussels and whether they would move to London later in the week.