The struggling Brexit talks are entering their final week in London today, UK foreign minister Dominic Raab has said.
Mr Raab said there is only about a week left for the United Kingdom and the European Union to strike a free trade deal for the post-Brexit trade era. Both sides said the row about fishing rights for EU boats – including Irish vessels – after Brexit happens on January 1 remains a major obstacle to any agreement.
Face-to-face talks continued over the weekend after resuming on Friday following an eight-day layoff due to Covid 19 precautions. But Mr Raab sounded a belligerent note on the fishery access issue.
“There is a point of principle. As we leave the transition, we are an independent coastal state and we’ve got to be able to control our waters,” the foreign minister told Sky news.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier met through the weekend with his UK counterpart David Frost. He said there were still “significant divergences”.
If there is no deal, January will bring huge disruption, with the overnight imposition of tariffs and other barriers to UK-EU trade, bringing considerable economic hardship to Ireland. That outcome would also hurt other EU states, but Brussels officials argue that the burden will fall most heavily on the UK, which does huge volumes of trade with its nearest neighbours.
As talks continued between the two sides in London, Mr Raab said he believed this week must be decisive.
“I think we are into the last week or so of substantive negotiations,” he said.
The UK left EU political structures on January 31 last. But it has remained part of the 27-nation bloc for trade until 11pm, or midnight Brussels time, on December 31 next.
During the 11-month transition period, the two sides tried to negotiate a new free-trade deal to take effect on January 1. But these talks have already slipped past the mid-November date long ago set as the outer deadline for agreement to be reached if it is to be approved by the EU and the UK before year’s end.
Despite the reverses and lack of progress, Mr Raab still held out the hope of a good outcome. “There’s a deal to be done,” he told Sky news.
He said the two sides had made progress on “level playing field” issues – the standards on environment, labour and state aid which the UK must adhere to to be allowed export into the EU.
The biggest hurdle appears to be fish, which is 0.5pc of the UK economy, with some 12,000 jobs. But it has an outsized symbolic and political importance for the UK and eight maritime nations, including Ireland, which are directly concerned.
EU countries want their boats to be able to keep fishing in British waters, while the UK insists it must control access and quotas. The row has become bound up with all the other issues.
Fine Gael MEP Maria Walsh, who is a member of the European Parliament fisheries committee, yesterday said she was very concerned for the 14,000 jobs linked to the Irish fishing sector. One third of the value of the Irish catch is caught in what will be designated as UK waters after Brexit,” she said.
“We hear a lot of noise about what the UK want. On our side, we have 14,000 jobs linked to the fishing sector that is desperate for some sort of acknowledgement and deal.
“We have citizens, and not just on the island of Ireland but across the EU, and come January 1 we need to make sure their livelihoods are protected. In the fisheries committee, we have to make sure nothing is gifted or given away for the countries we represent,” Ms Walsh said.
The Taoiseach has said the issue is vital to Irish coastal communities.