Path to post-Brexit deal blocked by fish dispute

Path to post-Brexit deal blocked by fish dispute

The European Union has been linking the fishing rights issue to the overall trade deal right from the start of talks

Representative image. Credit: AFP Photo

Intense haggling Saturday over EU fishing rights in UK waters threatened to sink negotiations on a post-Brexit deal and plunge cross-Channel trade into chaos.

Fishing is now the main obstacle to securing a pact by January 1, when Britain leaves the EU single market, after progress on the other main issue of guaranteeing fair competition.

"It remains very blocked," one EU diplomat told AFP.

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 warned, adding that London has until the end of the year to decide.

The EU's pointman in the negotiations, Michel Barnier, has proposed EU fishermen giving up nearly 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 last for three years before it is renegotiated, whereas Europe is holding out for double that. "It's all down to numbers now," the second European diplomat said.

EU fishermen expressed alarm that "we are in the throes of being sold down the river," in a statement from the European Fisheries Alliance.

It urged Barnier to stick to protecting them, saying: "The shape of a deal, as currently stands would give a huge blow to the European seafood sector which is made up of more than 18,000 fishermen and 3,500 vessels with an annual turnover of 20.7 billion euros."

Time, though, is short to reach an accord.

The European Parliament has highlighted a deadline of midnight (2300 GMT) on Sunday to receive a deal for review if MEPs 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.

But EU capitals are not binding themselves to the European Parliament's deadline.

France's European affairs minister, Clement Beaune, warned that only "a matter of hours" was left, echoing words used by Barnier a day earlier.

But, he told French radio talks will not be called to a halt even if they go past Sunday.

"We won't do that because what is at risk is whole sectors like fishing, like sustainable competition conditions for our businesses," he said.

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, deal or no deal.

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 avoid tariffs but there would still be traffic snarls as checks on truck loads and drivers' papers are carried out.

Even truck drivers' lunches will come under border scrutiny: the British government warned packed ham and cheese sandwiches are banned from entry into Europe under meat and dairy restrictions that apply to non-EU arrivals.

It is an economically tiny activity for both sides, but politically potent with voters.

Initially strident positions on the issue have shrunk, with Britain now accepting some EU boats will continue to ply its waters and EU countries recognising catches will be cut.

The haggling is over how much, for what species, in what waters exactly, and for how long a fishing agreement should last before it is put up for review.

Regardless of any trade deal, both sides are bound by the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to jointly manage those stocks to prevent overfishing them to extinction.