Michel Barnier has said that the main obstacle to a deal in the last “few hours” of the post-Brexit trade negotiation is whether Brussels will be able to impose tariffs on British products if the government closes its fishing waters to EU fishing fleets. in the future. .
With the European Parliament saying it needs an agreement before midnight on Sunday in order to consent to a vote this year, the EU chief negotiator said the nine months of talks had reached the “moment of truth”.
The two sides disagree on whether the EU will be able to respond if the UK closes its seas to European vessels after a transition period of unspecified length.
Barnier said it would be fair if Brussels could impose tariffs on UK products, and fishery products in particular, if the European fishing fleet loses its access to British waters.
In a speech to the European Parliament, Barnier told MEPs: “It is a question of whether the UK will leave in a few days, 10 days or so, if they are going to leave the single market and the customs union with an agreement. or without an agreement. It is the moment of truth.
“We have very little time left, just a few hours to work on these negotiations in a useful way if you want this agreement to go into effect on January 1.”
Barnier warned Downing Street that the time had come to “make decisions.”
“When it comes to market access without tariffs or quotas and the UK would like to regain its sovereignty over fisheries, to be able to control access to its waters and, as I have said many times, I will reiterate it here. We can accept that and we respect it, ”he said.
“But if after a critical period of adjustment that is deemed necessary, if the UK then wants to cut off access to these waters for European fishermen, at any time, the European Union must also maintain its sovereign right to react or compensate by adjusting the conditions of products, and especially fishery products, to the single market.
“And that is where we find one of the main obstacles in the negotiations at the moment, fishing is an integral part of the economic partnership.”
Barnier, a former French fisheries minister, said there was a fundamental fairness issue on which the EU would not back down.
He said: “On a personal note, I don’t think it would be fair, unacceptable, for European fishermen not to have access, following transitional rights, to those waters when the rest of the agreement, especially applying to UK companies, would remain stable in their rights, so that wouldn’t be fair, that wouldn’t be honest. “
Barnier left Parliament early to continue negotiations with David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator. Following a phone call between Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday night, Downing Street said the negotiations were in a “very serious” state and that an outcome remained “very likely”. whitout deal.
The government has said that after a transitional period it wants exclusive access to the area 6 to 12 nautical miles from the British coast and the repatriation of 60% of the current EU catch worth in UK seas. The French and Belgian fleets have fished off the UK coast for centuries, while Barnier has said he cannot meet British demands on quotas.
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