EU Rebuffs Boris Johnson’s Latest Brexit Concession on Fish

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The European Union rebuffed Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s latest concessions on fishing rights, dealing a setback to efforts to secure a post-Brexit trade deal.

Johnson spoke with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen twice by phone on Monday to try and break the deadlocked negotiations. The U.K. put forward a proposal that would see value of the fish EU boats catch in British waters shrink by 30%, a substantially smaller drop than the 60% it was demanding last week.

EU Rebuffs Boris Johnson’s Latest Brexit Concession on Fish

The bloc, however, refused to accept a reduction of more than 25%, saying even that was hard for countries like France and Denmark to accept, according to officials with knowledge of the discussions.

With only nine days left before the U.K. leaves the single market and customs union -- with or without an agreement -- there are few signs a deal is within reach. Without an agreement on how much fish EU boats will be allowed to catch in British waters, the wider accord risks collapse.

But it’s not as simple as just the raw numbers, which is why, as the two sides continue to talks, a compromise still isn’t out of the question.

Alongside the percentage value of catch, the two sides are haggling over how long a period of time fishermen will be given to adjust to the rules. The U.K. has demanded the EU accept a five-year transition period after previously suggesting three years. The bloc had initially called for 10 years, and has now offered seven.

Cross-Retaliation

The EU wants to be able to impose tariffs on the U.K. if, in future, the government restricts access to its waters. In its latest compromise offer, the U.K. said it would accept tariffs on fisheries but not in other areas, such as on energy, as demanded by the bloc.

The European Commission is consulting member states on the British offer, and it’s possible a compromise can still be reached, officials added.

Michel Barnier, the bloc’s chief negotiator, said the negotiators were at a “crucial moment” and that they were giving the deal “a final push” as he arrived to update ambassadors from the EU’s 27 member states on the talks at a meeting in Brussels.

Speaking before the briefing, an EU diplomat with knowledge of the talks said there had been no breakthrough on Tuesday afternoon, and both sides were still at loggerheads over fishing. Another said that there were also unresolved disagreements around the level competitive playing field for business.

While fishing is financially insignificant in the context of the wider trade deal -- the two sides are haggling over the equivalent of roughly 33 million euros ($40 million) annually -- the British see control of their fishing waters, previously under the jurisdiction of the EU, as a key element of the sovereignty that it is regaining with Brexit. For its part, the EU doesn’t want to give access to its single market without maintaining fishing rights in return.

Speaking at a press conference in London on Monday, Johnson said he spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron, but discussed the coronavirus crisis rather than Brexit.

“It’s vital that everybody understands that the U.K. has got to be able to control its own laws completely and we’ve also got to be able to control our own fisheries,” Johnson said. He reiterated that even if the U.K. failed to get a deal, trading with the EU on terms set by the World Trade Organization would be “more than satisfactory.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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