Friday 18 December 2020 8:51 am

Michel Barnier: 'Just a few hours left' to seal Brexit deal

Michel Barnier has said there are “just a few hours” left to seal a deal with the UK, as he issued a stark warning to the European Parliament about Brexit talks.

The EU’s chief negotiator said the possibility of a deal “is here”, but the path to secure it “is very narrow”.

“It’s the moment of truth, we have very little time remaining just a few hours,” he added.

Barnier reiterated that talks remain stalled over fisheries, with the EU adamant that it will not sign a trade deal unless it maintains substantial access to British fishing waters.

However, in the latest sign that Brexit talks could extend beyond the 31 December deadline, Barnier suggested that negotiations could continue after transition the period.

 “If it is not today, it will have to be later,” he said. The UK and EU have “strong links” and “I expect an ambitious level in that relationship,” Barnier added. 

Sole rights

It comes after Michael Gove yesterday said the UK is not prepared to sign a trade deal with the EU unless British fishermen have “sole rights” to fishing waters around the isle.

Speaking at a meeting on the future relationship with the EU, Gove said it is the UK’s “intention” that British fishermen will have exclusive access to fish in waters located six to 12 nautical miles from Britain’s coastline post-Brexit.

“I would hope that what we would see is a move and an adjustment that reflects the UK’s position as an independent coastal state [and that] gives our fishermen more access to our own fish,” the Cabinet Office minister said.

“But also in an ideal world we want to have tariff-free access to the EU market. That’s our aim — and vice versa,” Gove added.

Ministers are understood to be playing hardball in demands for sovereignty over British fishing waters as Brexit talks reach boiling point.

With just 13 days until Britain formally leaves the bloc, talks between the UK and EU remain stalled over the same stumbling blocks that have choked negotiations for the past few months, including fisheries, so-called level playing field arrangements and state aid.

British envoy David Frost insisted that the onus was on the EU to compromise on fishing demands, after the UK previously moved on the issue of future standards.

Last-ditch demands from French President Emmanuel Macron are understood to be the major hurdle in reaching a compromise. 

Macron has remained unwavering in his demand that France preserves a substantial portion of existing fishing rights in British waters once the UK leaves the bloc. He has vowed to protect French fishermen, who are expected to lose a significant part of their quota from 1 January as part of any Brexit trade deal.

However, an announcement from the Elysee palace yesterday that the French President has tested positive for coronavirus has thrown doubt over his future bargaining power, as talks enter the eleventh hour. 

Macron will now self-isolate for seven days, though he will continue to carry out his duties remotely. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez will also self-isolate until 24 December, after meeting with Macron on Monday.