Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator said it was unlikely that Britain and the EU would finalise a fisheries agreement by a July deadline on Wednesday, as Michel Barnier offered UK opposition parties an extension of up to two years on the transition period.
“I am beginning to think we might not make it by the 30th of June,” David Frost told MPs on parliament’s Brexit scrutiny committee the week before the next round of negotiations with the EU.
“We don’t regard fisheries as something that can be traded for any other bits of the negotiation. There is something very important happening at the end of the year which is that we get back control of our own waters,” he said
“Any agreements have simply got to accommodate that reality,” Boris Johnson’s top Brexit official said, as he described the divisions over the issue between the two sides.
“The EU is still coming to terms with the fact that there is a large country in Europe that doesn't want to be part of the EU's structure,” he added.
The joint Political Declaration, which sets out the aspiration for the negotiations over a zero tariff zero quota trade deal, was finalised at the same time as the Withdrawal Agreement. It calls for a fisheries agreement to be struck by July 1.
Mr Frost said the deadline was just an aspiration and not “an absolute requirement”. However, failure to reach a deal could harden EU attitudes at a time when the bloc’s leaders are consumed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The UK wants a Norway-style fishing arrangement with annual negotiations over access and catch shares for EU boats. It also wants the shares to be judged on the basis of zonal attachment, which the UK says more closely represents the numbers of fish in UK waters than the system of historic catch patterns that are the foundation of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy.
The EU wants reciprocal access to UK waters “under existing conditions” and for the fisheries agreement to be part of the free trade agreement and rules out yearly negotiations.
The next round of Brexit negotiations will be held next week on video conference because of the coronavirus pandemic. The previous round ended in mutual recrimination.
Mr Frost and Mr Barnier exchanged bad-tempered public letters as talks appeared on the point of collapse.
The pressure is on both sides to deliver a breakthrough after repeated rounds ending in bad-tempered stalemate because next week is the final set of talks before a planned June summit to evaluate progress.
Boris Johnson was expected to attend that “high-level meeting” Mr Frost told MPs. The meeting is the last chance for the UK to request an extension of up to two years to the Brexit transition period, which finishes at the end of this year.
If the UK and EU fail to finalise the free trade deal by that deadline, and no extension is requested, both sides will be forced to trade on less lucrative WTO terms from January 1.
Downing Street has repeatedly ruled out any extension to the transition period. Despite that, Michel Barnier wrote to Remain-supporting opposition MPs, telling them the EU was still ready to negotiate a delay.
“I take note of your views on a possible extension of the transition period,” he said, “Such an extension of up to one or two years can be agreed.”
Any extension would involve Britain paying the EU to remain part of the Single Market and Customs Union.
Mr Frost told MPs he did not take orders from Boris Johnson's under fire adviser Dominic Cummings but admitted he spoke to Mr Cummings "frequently" and the prime minister only once a fortnight.
He said he was confident that the Government's Brexit negotiating strategy would survive even if Mr Cummings was sacked.