Fishing rights threaten to stall Brexit talks

Britain is holding out on submitting detailed proposals on fishing rights to Brussels, increasing tensions with the EU just as the two sides seek to restart talks about the future relationship.

EU and UK officials said that fish — an issue that some in Brussels fear could derail trade negotiations — was not included in the latest batch of texts that London sent to the European Commission.

The omission leaves discussions about continued access for EU boats to UK waters one of the few areas where London has yet to make detailed proposals despite the two sides having agreed to strike a deal by July. 

EU diplomats see the move as Britain seeking to maximise one of its best areas of leverage in the talks, as securing continued access to the rich UK fishing grounds is one of the EU’s top priorities.

But the lack of progress on such a key issue is also fuelling speculation in EU capitals that the UK will need to seek an extension to its post-Brexit transition period to avoid a no-deal scenario at the end of the year. 

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost will speak on Wednesday in a bid to get negotiations back on track following weeks of disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The outbreak has so far forced the cancellation of two planned negotiating rounds. The hope on both sides is that the talks could restart next week through videoconferencing. 

A political declaration on future relations, agreed by UK prime minister Boris Johnson and EU leaders last year, set a July deadline to negotiate and ratify an agreement on future fishing rights.

French president Emmanuel Macron and other senior EU figures have warned that the issue is politically linked to other aspects of the negotiations, while Britain maintains that access to its waters should not be connected to talks on trade.

“If there is no progress on this, then there will be no progress in other areas,” one EU official told the FT on Tuesday. 

EU diplomats said contacts with the UK on fish during the hiatus had only served to underline how far apart the sides are on the issue.

The EU wants to preserve as many of its existing rights as possible for more than 70 types of fish that straddle EU-UK waters. But Britain wants to scrap the existing model for dividing up quotas, and leave many issues open for annual negotiation. 

“The more certainty we can have about our future relationship the better, in particular in today’s world,” Virginijus Sinkevičius, the EU’s fisheries commissioner, told the FT. 

“Stable and predictable quota shares are essential in order to give fishermen the certainty and stability they need, while at the same time ensuring sustainable fishing,” he said. “A balanced agreement on fisheries must be part of our future economic partnership with the UK.”

A UK official said an agreement on access to British waters was a separate issue to the trade talks. “We’ve always said we will seek to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, and a fisheries agreement will be worked on separately.”

While the commission has published a comprehensive legal text setting out its vision of the future EU-UK relationship, the UK has taken a more piecemeal approach. It has submitted a total of six separate texts covering energy policy, criminal justice, trade, air transport, air safety and civil nuclear safety. The most recent were sent on Friday. 

The UK proposals are understood to include a protocol requesting the EU provide mutual recognition of British manufacturing practices for medicines — something that the commission has advised member states not to accept.

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