Thursday 17 December 2020 3:04 pm

Sole rights: Michael Gove pushes for UK sovereignty over fishing waters in Brexit talks

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, Michael Gove has confirmed.

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 14 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.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier this morning told MEPs that fisheries was now the most difficult issue in trade talks. 

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 this morning 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.

It comes after European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen yesterday stoked fears that failure to reach a unilateral compromise on fisheries may scupper hopes of a trade deal before the Brexit transition period deadline on 31 December.

“We do not question the UK sovereignty on its own waters, but we ask for predictability and stability for our fishermen and our fisherwomen,” she told a press conference yesterday.

However, Von der Leyen added that there was a “narrow path to an agreement”, with the two sides agreeing to “go the extra mile” to secure a trade deal.

Barnier has told MEPs that striking a post-Brexit trade and security deal by Friday is “difficult but possible”, after the European parliament stated that it needs an agreement by midnight on Sunday to hold a consent vote this year.