LONDON - Talks between Britain and the European Union over a trade deal are going down to the wire, as the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31 draws near.
EU leaders are due to meet in Brussels and by video link Thursday, and there are concerns in London that the trade talks could be sidelined as the bloc deals with internal disputes over its annual budget and COVID-19 relief fund.
Negotiators say the UK-EU trade talks have stalled on three key areas: fishing rights, the level of state aid that the British government should be allowed to give its companies, and the governance and arbitration mechanism that will oversee any agreement.
Two-way trade between Britain and the EU is worth $885 billion a year. Fish make up less than half of 1% of that trade, but disagreements over fishing rights could yet torpedo any trade deal. Britain says it wants to take back control of its waters and restrict access to foreign boats. The EU says that could devastate European fishing fleets.
Belgian fisherman Robert Campbell operates a vessel from the port of Ostend. “If we can't fish in the English waters, there is no Belgian fishing anymore because 80% of the time, sometimes 90% of the time, we fish in English waters, all the Belgian ships,” Campbell told the Associated Press.
It may appear Britain has the upper hand - but there’s a big catch. Most British-caught fish are exported to Europe and the EU could put tariffs on those imports, hitting British fishermen hard.
With the end of the transition period just six weeks away, time is running out fast, says Jill Rutter of the UK in a Changing Europe Program at Kings College London.
“Although the deadline is the end of the year, the 31st December, when the transition period ends, you need a bit of time for ratification of any agreement.,” Rutter told VOA. “In the UK, we need to put that into law. Things can go quite quickly we think in the UK. But the European Parliament has made clear it really wants to have a look and see what has been agreed before it will agree to ratify it.”
Both sides say a breakthrough is needed in the coming days. Even if a deal is struck, Britain will still leave the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union. Political ownership of the outcome will be important, noted Rutter.
“There’s a lot of change on the 1 January, deal or no deal. The danger for the (British) government is if the prime minister brings home a deal, and says this is a great deal, then he owns any disruption,” she said.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been hit by domestic political turmoil as two political aides, Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, have departed in recent days. Both men played key roles in the “Vote Leave” campaign during the 2016 referendum on EU membership.
Johnson is also having to self-isolate until next month after meeting with an MP who later tested positive for the coronavirus.
The EU meanwhile is also disrupted by its own domestic agenda. Hungary and Poland this week vetoed an agreement on the bloc’s annual budget and an $888 billion COVID-19 recovery fund.
The two countries objected to clauses in the budget which tied funding to rule-of-law commitments. Brussels has voiced growing concerns in recent years over perceived backsliding on democratic principles such as the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press in Hungary and Poland.
Analysts say there’s a danger the Brexit deal could be sidelined at Thursday’s summit as the EU focuses on more pressing concerns.