LONDON / BRUSSELS – The United Kingdom and the European Union still have not signed a Brexit trade deal to avoid a turbulent split in just eight days over serious disagreements over competition and fisheries, a British minister said Wednesday.
The United Kingdom plunges into the unknown on December 31 after a stormy 48-year partnership with the France-led project to unite the devastated nations of post-World War II Europe into a world power.
Since the UK formally left the EU on January 31, it has been negotiating a free trade agreement with the bloc in an effort to ease its exit from the internal market and customs union by the end of this year.
So far no deal has been struck and both sides have issued an exhaustive series of conflicting signals indicating in various ways that a deal is imminent, that there is still much to be negotiated and that a disorderly exit from the deal is could be on the map. .
"I'm still fairly optimistic, but there's no news to report to you this morning," UK Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick told Sky News amid speculation in London that a deal could be announced Wednesday.
“There are still the same serious disagreements, whether that be fishing or the level playing field,” he said. "But at the moment there is not enough progress. It is not a deal that the Prime Minister thinks he can sign us."
Ultimately, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, grappling with a deepening COVID-19 outbreak and a border crisis in Europe's busiest truck port, will have to decide whether the limited supply is worth joining.
Running away could provoke applause from many Brexit supporters at home, but would lead to serious trade disruption and end the EU divorce in bitterness.
An agreement would ensure that goods trade, which makes up half of the annual trade between the EU and the UK, is worth nearly a trillion dollars in total, remains free of tariffs and quotas.
The EU is making a "final push" to negotiate a trade deal with Britain, although there are still deep gaps over fishing rights, chief negotiator Michel Barnier said Tuesday before meeting EU ambassadors in Brussels.
Barnier told the closed-door meeting that the UK's latest offer to divide catches from UK waters from 2021 was "completely unacceptable" was, said EU diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The sources said Britain has offered a 35% discount on the block's catch value for demersal fish, such as sole, in three years' time, that live close to the sea bed or shore.
But that does not apply to pelagic fish such as mackerel, which live in open waters, where catch is negotiated annually.
EU sources also said there was no clarity about the crucial zone stretching six to 12 nautical miles off the British coasts, where many smaller French or Belgian vessels fish. The loss of such access could not be made up for in the open sea.
The European Union will need at least four days to complete procedures to ensure that every agreement is enforced from January 1, EU diplomatic sources said, meaning a deal will be needed early next week to avoid trade breaches.
"I can't imagine we won't find a deal," Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg told the country's APA news agency on Tuesday in an interview.
"I would think it absurd if, after years of divorce negotiations, the UK finally jumped on the ship without a parachute and we suddenly had no contractual relationships at all," added Schallenberg.
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge, Kate Holton, Gabriela Baczynska, Michael Shields; Edited by James Davey, Michael Holden, Kirsten Donovan)
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