Brexit: EU plays down Michel Barnier talks with blocs fishing ministers

Brexit: EU plays down Michel Barnier talks with blocs fishing ministers

The EU has played down the importance of a meeting between EU fishing ministers and the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on Friday.

It comes amid uncertainty over whether trade talks between the EU and the UK will be held in person this week.

Fishing has been a key sticking point in negotiations to reach a post-Brexit trade deal.

Mr Barnier had reportedly been due to come to London to resume face-to-face trade talks on Friday.

But, asked if they were expecting him, a Downing Street spokesperson said “that’s a matter for the EU and a decision for them”.

Both sides are hoping to reach a trade deal before the 31 December deadline.

If nothing is agreed by then, trading between the two will default to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules meaning tariffs will be introduced, and costs on products could rise.

So far, the major areas of disagreement have been competition rules – where governments give state aid support to businesses – and fishing rights.

Analysis by Nick Beake, BBC Brussels Correspondent

“The clock is ticking” quickly became one of the EU’s most popular maxims in its Brexit phrasebook.

It was first directed at Theresa May’s government in an attempt to spur them into action.

But now, with less than six weeks left for a trade deal to be agreed and ratified, the EU seems rather more sanguine about the passing of time.

It is determined not to be seen as rushing back to the negotiating table in London, once its negotiators emerge from their pre-cautionary self-isolation.

In fact, it was reported this week (and not denied) that Mr Barnier had told his opposite number that if the British weren’t prepared to budge, there was no point in him getting back on the Eurostar.

Few here in Brussels believe the EU would actually walk away at this stage, though. So for now, both sides try to keep their poker face as the deadline for a deal gets perilously near.

Mr Barnier is due to hold a video call with EU fishing ministers on Friday – but EU sources denied a suggestion the meeting was “urgent”.

They claimed it was the latest, regular update to ministers from the member states who are responsible for fishing.

Face-to-face talks between Mr Barnier and the UK’s negotiator Lord Frost were paused last week when a member of the EU’s team tested positive for coronavirus.

The negotiations had reportedly been due to resume on Friday but this has not been confirmed by either side.

No 10’s spokesperson said: “Negotiations will continue virtually – it’s a matter for them when and if they choose to travel.

“The PM believes that the UK will thrive with or without a deal with the EU, but it remains our ambition to reach a free trade agreement which is why we continue to negotiate.”

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