Britain insisted on Sunday that the European Union would shift its position to pave the way for a post-Brexit trade pact, with a swift response from bloc negotiators defending the union’s right to protect its interests.
Negotiations are expected to continue on Monday, in addition to a last Sunday deadline set by the European Parliament, and an older British government source described them as “difficult” due to the “significant differences” in position.
With less than two weeks to go before Britain leaves the EU, both sides are urging each other to step in to secure an agreement and protect the annual trade in goods from tariffs and quotas, but so far neither has come far enough for a breakthrough.
Negotiations to reach an agreement have largely become rigid on two issues – the bloc’s fishing rights in British waters and the creation of so-called equal conditions that provide fair competition rules for both sides.
Both 🇪🇺 and 🇬🇧 must have the right to set their own laws and control their own waters. And we should both be able to act when our interests are at stake. (2/2)
– Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) December 20, 2020
British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Sunday morning that the bloc should drop its “unreasonable demands”.
“We want these talks to reach a positive conclusion, of course I want a deal, I think everyone wants a deal,” Hancock told Sky News. “Unfortunately, the EU has set some unreasonable demands … I’m sure an agreement can be made, but it obviously needs to be touched by the EU.”
The UK left the EU on 31 January and has since had a status quo transition period. It expires at the end of the year when the UK leaves the bloc’s customs union and internal market.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier said talks with British counterpart David Frost were at a “crucial” point on Sunday.
“The EU remains committed to a fair, reciprocal and balanced agreement. We respect Britain’s sovereignty. And we expect the same,” he said.
“Both the EU and the UK must have the right to set their own laws and control their own waters. And we should both be able to act when our interests are at stake.”
The EU wants to be able to impose trade barriers in the event that the UK changes its rules in the future and falls short of the bloc’s market by 450 million consumers.
London wants to be able to set its own rules and have the right to answer if the other side changes its rules.
Access to fishing
With regard to fisheries, the bloc also wants the right to retaliate by restricting access to the UK market if the UK were to force EU vessels out of its waters. London says it will be an independent coastal state from 2021 with full control over its waters but is open to discussions about a possible transition period for EU boats.
The British government source said that “talks remain difficult and significant differences remain. We continue to explore every path to a deal that is in line with the basic principles we included in the negotiations”.
The EU diplomat says that the EU side expects a counter-offer from the UK for fish, but “we expect that there will be a significant shortage”. Christmas is something of a geographical obstacle here. Resolution was expected this weekend – difficult for Downing Street to juggle calls plus Covid- 19 crisis.
– Naomi O’Leary (@NaomiOhReally) December 20, 2020
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the face of Britain’s 2016 campaign to leave the EU, has long said he cannot accept a deal that does not respect the country’s sovereignty, a goal that was at the heart of his election last year.
But the EU is just as determined to protect its lucrative single market and wants to prevent London from securing what it considers to be the best of both worlds – favorable market access with the benefit of setting its own rules.
There is some time left. On Saturday, the European Parliament reiterated its call for an agreement to be reached by the weekend, to give it time to properly ratify the agreement.
The EU has long said it wants to protect Parliament’s right to exercise democratic oversight, but if an agreement was reached later this weekend, the bloc’s 27 member states could still support it on their own.