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EU, UK fail so far to bridge gaps to secure trade deal

  • Three stubborn sticking points.
  • Fisheries presents major problems.
  • Talks often bitter as deadline nears.
03 Nov, 2020

BRUSSELS/LONDON: The European Union and Britain have so far failed to reach agreement on three of the most persistent sticking points in their talks, both sides said on Tuesday, suggesting any breakthrough in securing a trade deal is still a way off.

After nearly two weeks of intensified talks, stubborn differences over fisheries, fair competition and settling disputes have yet to be overcome, they said.

Any deal to smooth billions of pounds of trade between the two neighbours should be agreed by Nov.15 so it can be ratified by the EU before Britain's status-quo transition period expires at the end of the year.

Some businesses and politicians hope that the time pressure and a spiralling COVID-19 crisis across much of Europe can focus the negotiators' minds on clinching a deal.

But fisheries, a sector laden with symbolism for Brexit supporters in Britain, is proving an especially tricky problem, with London insisting on annual negotiations on quotas - a demand the EU is resisting.

"We have not yet found a solution on fisheries," a spokesman for the EU's executive European Commission told a regular news briefing in Brussels. "We are not there yet, a lot more work remains to be done."

A spokesman for Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "We'll only be able to make progress if the EU accepts the reality that the UK will have the right to control access to its waters at the end of this year."

"There are significant gaps that do remain between our positions in the most difficult areas, and there is much work still to be done if we are to bridge those gaps."

Since leaving the EU in January after more than 40 years of membership, the two sides have been locked in talks to build a new relationship covering everything from trade to defence to data sharing.


But the talks have often been bitter and plunged to new lows after Britain introduced legislation that it admitted broke international law by breaching its earlier Brexit divorce settlement with the bloc.

In response, the EU started legal proceedings. The Commission said on Tuesday it would escalate the dispute.

With tempers fraying, one source, an EU diplomat following Brexit, said disagreements persisted over the divvying up of fish stocks, including Britain's demand for annual negotiations.

"That's where we are stuck. They haven't moved beyond these items on fisheries," said the person, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A British source also said there had not been much movement on fisheries, while the prime minister's spokesman repeated that London wanted "a simple separate fisheries framework agreement which reflects our rights under international law".

France could lose most from Britain taking control over access to its waters, though President Emmanuel Macron is seen as laying the ground for a possible compromise.

A transition period from 2021 might help square the circle but the sides remain apart on the length of any such arrangement and what exactly would come at the end of it.

Ireland's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said some progress had been made on the so-called level playing field -- fair competition rules -- but agreement was far from concluded.

The EU's Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, was due to brief the 27 national envoys to Brussels on the latest developments in the talks at a meeting starting at 1330 GMT on Wednesday.


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