Just Hours Left to Agree Brexit Trade Deal, EU Negotiator Says

December 18, 2020 Updated: December 18, 2020

There are just a few hours left for the UK and the European Union to reach an agreement on post-Brexit trade relations, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Friday morning.

“We are at a moment of truth. We have very little productive time left for these negotiations, a few hours, if we want the agreement to come into force on Jan. 1,” Barnier told the European Parliament.

The UK and the EU have made progress on fair competition rules, which the EU insists are indispensable to maintaining a “level playing field” between businesses of the two sides. But major differences still remain on fishing rights.

“The United Kingdom would also like to regain its sovereignty over fisheries, to be able to control access to its waters. As I have often said, and I’ll repeat it before you, we accept that and we respect it,” said Barnier.

“But if the United Kingdom wants, after a credible, sufficient period of adjustment, to be able to cut off access to its waters for European fishermen when it wants to, the European Union needs to have a sovereign right to react or to compensate that.”

“It’s clear that we want an agreement, but it is also clear that we don’t want it at any price,” he told EU lawmakers, adding that he still could not say “what will come out of this final stretch of negotiations.”

After a telephone conversation with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday evening, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the talks were in a “serious situation” and an agreement would be unlikely “unless the EU position changed substantially.”

For her part, von der Leyen said that despite progress, “big differences” remain, particularly on fisheries, and that “bridging them will be very challenging.”

Johnson said on Thursday that if no agreement could be reached, the UK and the EU would “part as friends, with the UK trading with the EU on Australian-style terms”—a euphemism the British government uses to refer to a no-deal Brexit, as Australia does not yet have a free-trade agreement with the EU and trades with the bloc under World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules.

Michael Gove, Britain’s cabinet minister, said on Thursday the probability of a deal was “less than 50 percent,” and that “the chances are more likely that we won’t secure an agreement.”

Reuters contributed to this report.