Two European Union diplomats and an official with the bloc said on Thursday they did not expect a new trade deal with Britain to come together by Friday, saying negotiators were still apart on the sensitive issue of fisheries.
A source with the European Parliament told Reuters separately that the bloc’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, told lawmakers earlier on Thursday that a deal “in the coming days is possible but difficult especially on fisheries.”
The two sides are trying to reach a deal that would govern trade relations between the two sides once Britain – which left the bloc on Jan. 31 but has remained in a status quo transition period – finally exits the EU’s orbit on Dec. 31.
AFP reported Barnier as saying a deal was possible by Friday.
But EU diplomats, who spoke under condition of anonymity, said Barnier and his British counterpart, David Frost were homing in on fisheries in the most secretive, so-called tunnel talks. Bridging gaps in that field is the last major obstacle to an overall agreement.
The EU sources said that any agreement that could emerge would produce a “differentiated” system on fishing quotas, but did not expect that to happen by Friday.
That means different rules would apply for various types of fish – pelagic ones like the mackerel that live in open waters and demersal ones like the sole that live close to the bottom or the shore.
Britain says it will become an independent coastal state from Jan. 1 and wants to have control of its fishing waters.
The EU, on the other hand, demands a longer-term guarantees that its fishermen – including a small but politically influential group in France – would be able to go on fishing in U.K. waters as now.
The bloc has so far rejected London’s offer for a three-year phased access. But an EU diplomat also said that could become part of a deal if the sides also agreed on fishing rights beyond that period.
“[British Prime Minister Boris] Johnson needs to be able to say before the next U.K. election that he has wrestled back control of U.K. waters,” the diplomat said. The next general election in Britain is due in 2024.
“This is the first three-year period. Our horizon is longer. The solution is to add another system after these first three years. This has to link to quotas and how often we renegotiate,” said the person, who spoke under condition of anonymity.
The EU sources said they thought an overall agreement could come this weekend at the earliest.
The European Parliament source said following a meeting with Barnier on Thursday, referring to whether a deal could come as early as Friday: “I don’t think tomorrow, there are too many open issues … this weekend or beyond.”