Boris Johnson has lowered his Brexit demands by asking EU fishing fleets to hand over up to 60% of the value of stocks it takes from British waters, but the gap with Brussels remains wide, Michel Barnier has said ahead of what he described as a crucial 36 hours.
In briefings to EU ambassadors and MEPs in Brussels, the bloc’s chief negotiator said Downing Street had revised its demand down from 80%, but that it was unclear whether the divide could be bridged in the time remaining, prompting member states to caution against rushing into a deal.
The EU has so far offered the repatriation of 15%-18% of the value of stocks caught in the Channel, Irish Sea and north-east Atlantic, a proposal dismissed as “derisory” by Downing Street.
On the “level playing field” provisions, Barnier said common ground was slowly being found, with the UK offering greater flexibility in recent days over a mechanism to ensure that neither side can gain a competitive advantage by deregulating over time.
Speaking in front of EU representatives via videoconference from London, Barnier said some progress was also being made in giving Brussels assurances that future domestic subsidies by the UK government, known as state aid, would not distort trade once the transition period ends on 31 December
But there remain issues over whether a domestic regulator will give prior approval for subsidies and what unilateral remedies will be available in the event of a dispute.
“Barnier said the coming hours were going to be decisive to which the response was, ‘What’s the rush?’” said one senior EU diplomat. “Ambassadors for every country bordering the UK – 11 all in all – raised concerns on the level playing field and suggested that he was at the edge of his negotiating mandate.”
The EU ambassadors also urged Barnier not to allow fishing to become the last issue on the table for fear of pressure at the last moment, enabling the UK to run away with a deal damaging to the European fishing industry.
Barnier said the UK demand for annual negotiations on catches could be conceded, but that there would have to be a means to put tariffs on certain stocks if access was denied to EU boats.
Negotiators were also looking at including a review clause for the whole deal so that terms could be renegotiated in time, but a number of ambassadors spoke out against the proposal. “The EU wants a stable deal, not something that is going to be rewritten in a few years,” a source said.
Barnier told the ambassadors he would return to brief them on Friday, and emphasised the importance of progress during the talks in London in the next two days.
An EU diplomat said: “We are quickly approaching a make-or-break moment in the Brexit talks. Intensive negotiations are continuing in in London. As of this morning it is still unclear whether negotiators can bridge the gaps on issues like level playing, governance and fisheries.
“As we are entering the endgame of the Brexit negotiations, some member states are becoming a bit jittery. So this was mostly an exercise to calm nerves in Paris and elsewhere, and to reassure member states that team Barnier will continue to defend core EU interests, including on fisheries.”
A number of member states, including France, whose president, Emmanuel Macron, has repeatedly stressed the importance of protecting Europe’s coastal communities, told Barnier they would prefer to restart the negotiations in 2021 than rush into a suboptimal agreement.
A source said: “Fish is getting down to nitty-gritty of species-by-species discussions. Barnier defended questions of whether the UK had moved enough on this issue, but they need to find a compromise Macron can back to find a deal.”
David McAllister, the German MEP who leads the European parliament’s Brexit steering committee, said a deal needed to be agreed urgently for the European parliament to give its consent by the end of the year.
He tweeted: “We are very much aware that the work on level playing field and state aid has entered the final phase. This is the critical moment where principles need to be translated into rules and, more importantly, rules need to be guaranteed by a robust enforcement framework.
“Swift progress is of the essence. An agreement needs to be reached within very few days if council and parliament are to complete their respective procedures before the end of the transition period. Democratic scrutiny is not negotiable.”
EU leaders are meeting next Thursday, but Brexit is yet to be put on the agenda, with sources suggesting that a deal or no-deal outcome is likely to be evident ahead of the summit.