BRUSSELS: British and EU leaders signed a post-Brexit trade agreement on Wednesday to govern equal competition, but remain strongly divided over fishing.
As vigorous negotiations continued in Brussels, President Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission said, “The next few days will be decisive.”
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said separately: “There’s every opportunity, every hope, that I have that our friends and partners across the Channel will see sense and do a deal.” Several supposed deadlines have already been missed, as the EU leader acknowledged. But time is finally running out just two weeks before Britain exits the EU Single Market.
In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government occupies the revolving EU presidency, said she had reports “but no breakthrough yet of success in the negotiations.
Merkel said talks will proceed “until the end of this week to see if it is still possible to find a solution.”
The UK and EU parliaments would have to support any trade arrangement negotiated between EU negotiator Michel Barnier and UK counterparty David Frost. During Christmas and the New Year, special sessions will need to be held.
On January 31, Britain entered the European Union and if no trade agreement is agreed by the end of the year, EU-UK trade will return to the bare-bones laws of the World Trade Organisation.
This would suggest, in effect, a return to tariffs and quotas that will threaten markets and supply chains and push rates up, a fate that both sides claim they hope to escape.
However, trade negotiations have stumbled over how to guarantee equal competition between EU and UK firms until London is free to diverge from the regulations of Brussels over time.
And there is a bitter disagreement over fishing, which for many Member States is a minor part of the economy but a totemic problem and which the EU has connected to a wider trade arrangement.
Johnson maintains that it will resume absolute power of access to its waters after Britain exits the EU Single Market at the end of the year.
He told parliament that the EU must “understand that, like every other country, the UK has a natural right to want to be able to control its own legislation and its own fishing grounds.”
Some EU member states, headed by France and the Netherlands, are calling for the retention of their crew quotas in UK waters and a long-term peace agreement.
“Von der Leyen, addressing the European Parliament, said The positive news is that on certain topics we have found a way forward.” She added that she and Barnier can now see a “narrow road to a compromise.
But this is now a case of us being so close, and yet so far from each other because, you see, two problems are still outstanding: a fair playing field and fisheries,” said von der Leyen.”
A UK official close to the talks reported that we have made some advances, but in key areas we are still very far apart.”
A contingency measure to keep road and air traffic flowing between Britain and the continent in the event of a no deal’ was accepted separately by ambassadors from EU member states.
This will allow trucks and aircraft to work after January 1 for an additional six months, but only if Britain agrees to reciprocal terms.
They have also approved a proposal to allow fishing to continue until the end of 2021, again on a reciprocal basis, but London has already said it will claim full control over its waters on January 1. The approval of these proposals by the European Parliament is expected on Friday.
Von der Leyen said that Barnier and Frost had made strides in the settlement of state assistance laws for companies and that concerns “are largely being resolved” on how the agreement will be regulated.