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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. made an offer 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.
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.
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 Michel Barnier, the bloc’s chief negotiator, is scheduled to brief their 27 ambassadors at about 4 p.m. in Brussels on Tuesday. It’s possible a compromise can still be reached, officials added.
While the issue is financially insignificant — the two sides are haggling over roughly 33 million euros ($40 million) of fish 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.”