EU will not fall into Brexit ‘negotiating trap’, UK told
Senior Irish and French and ministers have warned that the EU is not going to fall into a Brexit “negotiating trap” being laid by the UK as both sides entered into what the British foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has described as “the last week or so” of substantive talks.
Simon Coveney, who has had a leading role in the first phase of negotiations over the Irish border, said at the same time both sides must avoid engaging in a blame game as the “truth of Brexit” and its subsequent challenges become clear.
He added that there was a big incentive to get a deal done but two big issues remained unresolved.
“The truth of Brexit is now being exposed in terms of the challenges of it,” Coveney told Radio Ulster. “This is something that the UK and the EU have to find a way forward on as opposed to focus on a blame game as regards who is at fault.”
France’s European affairs minister, Clément Beaune, said Downing Street was misguided if it believed that running down the clock would work to No 10’s advantage, citing the experience of the last four years of Brexit talks. “We have a bit of time left but still a long way to go and if the UK believes that [the limited] time left works in its favour as it has in the past few years, that is not the case,” Beaune said.
On the issue of access to UK waters, Beaune said Downing Street would not be allowed to “lay down the law” in the negotiation. “We are still very far from an agreement,” he said. “There can be no agreement unless there is one that gives sustainable and wide-ranging access to British waters … Our terms are known, they are not new.”
Speaking at an event for parliamentarians from across Europe, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, conceded that there was some anxiety about the prolonged negotiations, with the Netherlands, Belgium and France all asking the European commission to trigger no-deal preparations in recent weeks.
She said: “We hope that these talks will come to a happy ending. We don’t need an agreement at any price. We want one but otherwise we’ll take measures that are necessary. In any case a deal is in the interest of all.
“Some member states are now becoming unsettled. There’s not much time left.”
Merkel hinted at the trade-off being offered in the negotiations between access to the EU’s single market in electricity and EU rights to catches in UK fishing waters. She said: “Perhaps for some the most tangible are concrete questions, from the British point of view access to energy markets, from our view access to British fishing grounds.”
The EU had always maintained there could be no trade deal unless the contentious issue of fishing was first agreed.
Although the sector contributes just 0.2% of the UK economy, it is a huge political issue for struggling coastal communities who rely on fishing and voted for Brexit.
Coveney suggested the UK was using it as leverage in other parts of the trade talks and was alive to the potential for Britain to agree compromises in other areas including state aid and governance and then use that to squeeze a last-minute compromise on fishing out of the EU.
“What we are not going to do is to get an agreement in all of these other areas and then allow a situation where the UK side say: ‘Look, we’re not going to allow this whole thing to collapse over fish,’ and for us to essentially give Britain what they want over fish,” he said.
Coveney said this would be a “British negotiating trap”, adding: “We’re not playing that game. If there isn’t an agreement on this the whole thing could fall on the back of it.”
It is thought the remaining dispute over fishing lies in both the length of a potential deal and the access of EU boats and fishing stocks in British coastal waters.
According to reports, the EU’s offer on fishing – to return between 15-18% of fish stocks ccaught by EU fleets in British waters – was dismissed as “derisory” by British negotiators.
However, sources say the negotiations are focused on the quotas of each of the 140 species of fish. “It’s percentages of different types of fish – rights to cod in the English Channel is more important to Britain than, say, rights to mackerel in the North Sea,” said a source.
Downing Street said the negotiating teams led by Michel Barnier and David Frost worked until “late last night” in London but warned there would no compromise in the UK’s position on winning back control of fishing waters.
“We want to try and reach a free trade agreement as soon as possible. But we have been clear that we won’t change our negotiating position and we have been clear what that position is,” said Boris Johnson’s spokesman.