BRUSSELS: Post-Brexit trade pact talks were teetering on the verge of collapse on Sunday, overwhelmed by the coronavirus outbreak and stuck over the question of fishing rights.
As Belgium and some of its neighbours closed rail and air connections to Britain, warning that a new form of the virus had been identified, talks continued in Brussels.
With Britain exiting the EU Single Market in 11 days, time is running out, but both sides of the tough discussions in Brussels now expect the talks to continue until Christmas.
Without an arrangement, Britain’s involvement in the European project ends with a new tariff barrier at midnight on December 31 (11 pm UK time) to sharpen the shock of unravelling a half-century of cooperation.
“Unfortunately, some unreasonable demands have been made by the EU,” British Health Minister Matt Hancock told Sky News.
But a European diplomat said that Brussels had made the best bid and it was up to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to determine if he needed a contract, overwhelmed by the deteriorating coronavirus situation at home. I’m confident a deal can be negotiated, but clearly it needs action on the EU side.
The diplomat said the talks “could continue well over Christmas, now that the UK is still making up its mind whether it is prepared to pay the price for unprecedented access to the internal market.”
This weekend, the EU was adamant that it was able to negotiate on trout. But it would be baulked by putting EU fishermen out of service structurally,’ he added. “Now the narrow path to a deal has become a single goat track, about to peter out.” Before December 31, the rough talk came when the delegates were struggling to secure a pact.
Failure to find a deal will intensify the growing turmoil on the EU and UK borders, where long tailbacks have already been triggered by a pre-deadline rush of freight trucks.
And on Sunday, after Johnson said a quickly spreading new version of the disease had reached southeast England, EU countries started suspending transportation connections to Britain over the Covid crisis.
On 1 January, Britain plans to take sovereignty of its oceans, but is willing to enable continued entry to EU fishing fleets under new terms for a transitional duration.
UK negotiator David Frost wants Britain to take up, under a three-year deal, more than half of the fish now allocated to the EU quota scheme.
The European side maintains that the United Kingdom cannot have tariff-free access to the EU single market as a whole until it accepts just a quarter of the fish quota to be restored and that the six-year interim period can last.
Both for Britain and for EU members of northern fishing fleets, such as France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark, the problem is strongly charged. EU fishermen fear that their livelihoods will be endangered by the lack of any access to the rich UK fishing waters.
Last week, the European Parliament emphasised Sunday’s midnight deadline to receive an agreement for review if it is to be adopted by MEPs before the end of the year.
Their UK parliamentary colleagues are in recess, but may be called back to do the same within 48 hours.
Yet no date has been accepted by EU capitals, and officials say they should provisionally ratify the arrangement in order to escape the economic shock of a no-deal split. As British firms desperately stockpile, the importance of reaching an agreement is reflected in long queues of trucks at the freight rail connection via the Channel tunnel.
On Saturday, a group of UK MPs cautioned that Britain has not developed the complex IT structures and port facilities needed to ensure the smooth operation of trade with the EU.