Michel Barnier says Brexit talks will not go beyond Wednesday

source https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/dec/07/michel-barnier-says-brexit-talks-will-not-go-beyond-wednesday

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has set a new deadline for the Brexit negotiations, warning that the talks will not go beyond Wednesday.

During briefings to MEPs and EU ambassadors in Brussels, Barnier said the negotiation was “not far from the very endgame”, and talks are expected to continue into midweek but no further.

Both sides will need time to ratify any agreement, and Downing Street has said it would hold a vote on new legislation overriding the withdrawal agreement on Wednesday, a move that would be seen in Brussels as the end point.

A senior EU diplomat said: “The outcome is still uncertain, it can still go both ways. The EU is ready to go the extra mile to agree on a fair, sustainable and balanced deal for citizens in the EU and UK. It is for the UK to choose between such a positive outcome or a no-deal outcome.”

The focus of the negotiation remains on maintaining fair competition over time, EU access to British fishing waters, and a system of dispute resolution if the terms of the treaty are breached.

EU leaders will meet on Thursday, when they could sign off on an agreement or trigger their preparations for a no-deal outcome, including temporary legislation to keep planes in the air.

Senior diplomats in Brussels were predicting a difficult phone call between Boris Johnson and the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, on Monday evening, the second such call in a matter of days.

Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said: “Having heard from Michel Barnier this morning, really the news is very downbeat. I would say he is very gloomy, and obviously very cautious about the ability to make progress today.”

Johnson’s official spokesman said: “We are clearly in the final stages now. But we will continue to negotiate.

“We’ve been clear … our negotiating team are over there with the aim of reaching an agreement. And that’s what we’ll continue to work on.

“Our team is in Brussels now, continuing to negotiate. Our aim is to reach an FTA and that’s what we’re working towards,” he said.

He reiterated Johnson’s declaration the country would “continue to prosper” and thrive in the event of no deal.

Progress on the issues of EU fleets access to British fishing waters, as reported by the Guardian, was upended late on Sunday night when David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, tabled new demands about the ownership of vessels in British seas.

Under the proposals, any vessels majority-owned or staffed by EU nationals would not be allowed to sail under the UK flag, sources in Brussels said.

Vessels currently need only an “economic link” to the UK, such as landing more than half their catch at British ports or having majority British crews. Companies based in Iceland, Spain and the Netherlands fished 55% of the UK’s fishing quota in 2019, according to research published this year.

EU sources had said the two sides were close to a deal earlier in the day, but Barnier quelled any optimism, telling ambassadors on Monday morning the negotiation was “difficult” as he explained the new British demand.

One senior EU diplomat said: “This has really caused a lot of problems. A paper was handed over late on Sunday night. This is serious.”

Barnier said there also remained differences over quota numbers and the UK’s intention to block access to the six- to 12-mile zone, seas in which French and Belgian fleets in particular have fished for centuries. “That is worrying at this stage in the negotiation,” he said.

Barnier said the issue of “non-regression” from current standards had progressed well but common ground had still not been found on the EU’s demand for a mechanism to ensure a baseline of minimum environmental, social and labour standards raises on both sides over time. The issue was fast becoming the biggest obstacle to a deal, EU diplomats said.

Barnier told ambassadors that he was “optimistic” that an agreement would fall into place on dispute resolution. Downing Street was yet to agree to provisions that would allow for one side to suspend parts of the deal, known as a “cross suspension clause”, Barnier said. He added that he believed there was a way forward.

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