BRUSSELS – Germany and France on Tuesday pressured the United Kingdom to make concessions in three key areas of Brexit trade negotiations — fishing rights, corporate governance and fair competition — or face a Jan. 1 no-deal rupture that would further harm a U.K. economy already battered by the coronavirus pandemic.
German Europe Minister Michael Roth warned that “no one should play down the risks of a no-deal. This would be very bad news for everyone, for the EU and even more so for the United Kingdom."
Speaking after a meeting of EU ministers that he chaired, Roth added that “it's now up to the U.K. to make the decisive steps."
Ireland, which is at the heart of the negotiations because it has the EU's only land border with the U.K. and is very trade-dependent on its neighbor, predicted that Britain would let its Thursday deadline for a deal slip and would go on talking for at least two more weeks.
“Certainly, I don’t see that there will be any major breakthrough this week," Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said in Luxembourg, where EU negotiator Michel Barnier was debriefing Europe ministers — part of efforts to ensure the 27 EU member nations keep a united front, something they have done ever since the U.K. voted four years ago to leave the EU.
Roth indicated more time would be needed since “in terms of substance, we haven't really made progress."
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has long billed the two-day EU summit that starts Thursday as the deadline for a deal, but he has been prone to let target dates slip during the tortuous Brexit negotiations. The bloc has always insisted that it’s willing to negotiate until early November to craft a deal.
Johnson's spokesman, James Slack, insisted Tuesday that this week's summit is still the make-or-break moment. He said U.K. negotiator David Frost would brief the prime minister before EU leaders meet about whether recent intensive talks have made a deal possible.
Johnson, who has spoken to French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other EU leaders in recent weeks in an effort to unblock the talks, is due to hold a call with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday, Downing St. said.
Johnson says the EU must shift its position if it wants a deal, and insists the U.K. is quite prepared to walk away without one.
Slack said Johnson told his Cabinet on Tuesday that "while we want a deal on the right terms, if we can’t get there we are ready and willing to move forward with an Australian-style outcome, which holds no fear.” Australia has no comprehensive trade deal with the EU.
France warned, that could cost the U.K. the unfettered access it wants to the huge and wealthy continental market. Its Europe Minister, Clement Beaune, said that particularly on access of U.K. companies to the EU market, the bloc has to be very strict in making sure British firms will not be able to undercut their continental rivals because of minimal regulation and excessive state subsidies.
“Otherwise we would have unfair competition, which is not backed by our citizens, companies and workers,” Beaune said.
France is viewed, especially by Britain, as one of the nations most unwilling to compromise, especially on the issue of French boats’ access to British fishing waters.
A senior French official, speaking anonymously in accordance with the French presidency’s customary practices, said that “in the closing stretch of negotiations, there’s always a mounting stress.” He warned against the “risk that this stress leads (the EU) to make decisions that would take us away from our initial and common goals.”
Since last month, the member states have also become ardent in demanding legal guarantees on governance of any deal since Johnson in September introduced legislation that breaches the Brexit withdrawal agreement he himself signed with the EU only last year.
Coveney said that if any deal was to be approved, Johnson would need to get rid of any national legislation that contravenes the withdrawal agreement.
“That legislation will need to be removed in order for any final deal to be ratified," he said.
The EU has said that any agreement will take about two months for legal ratification, translation into the many European languages and for approval from the European Parliament, making for an effective cutoff date of around Nov. 1.
Lawless reported from London. Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed to this story.
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