Rifts Over Fishing Narrow But EU-U.K. Trade Deal Still Uncertain

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -
A flag with a slogan supporting the U.K. fishing industry is seen on the beach in Hastings, Britain, Sunday. (REUTERS/Peter Nicholls)

Britain and the European Union narrowed the gap on access to fish stocks from 2021 but the politically sensitive matter was still in the way of a new trade pact, Brussels sources said on Tuesday ahead of a Brexit update by their chief negotiator.

As Brexit completes on Dec. 31, Britain will leave the EU’s single market and customs union, meaning its current free trade arrangements expire.

The two sides have for months been struggling to seal a new agreement on everything from trade to transport to energy, with the final stages of the talks coming as EU and other countries have also suspended most travel to and from Britain to try to curb a new strain of the coronavirus.

The EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, was due to update the bloc’s 27 national envoys on Brexit on Tuesday afternoon, and then speak to the European Parliament.

“It seems we are crossing the line,” an EU diplomat said, adding that an agreement was getting closer.

While EU officials and diplomats said cutting the value of the bloc’s catch in British waters by around 30% from 2021 would be too high, the EU was willing to go as far as 25%.

The sources said the number was just one piece of the puzzle, with the length of the transition period beyond Dec. 31, as well as how the EU could retaliate if Britain cut its vessels out of British waters, equally important.

The sources said a deal could come together this week, next week, or not at all.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke on Brexit, as well as the coronavirus, in a call on Monday, according to EU sources. More calls would come as needed, the sources said.

Britain, the world’s sixth-biggest economy, left the EU, a trading bloc of 450 million consumers, last January. An estimated trillion dollars worth of annual trade is at stake if they fail to put in place a new accord by the end of the year.

A senior British minister on Tuesday ruled out prolonging Britain’s transition out of the EU beyond Dec. 31.