France’s last-minute fisheries demands bring No Deal in sight

EU trade talks are on a knife-edge after France heaped extra demands to retain access to UK waters for its fishing fleet.

Both the timing and nerve of such an outrageous demand left British negotiators in disbelief.

“Their new offer was frankly laughable. They know we can’t possibly accept it. It’s ridiculous,” a Government source told the Telegraph. “If they think we will just cave in, they have made a massive miscalculation.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called a 24-hour halt to talks for a “stock take”. He is expected to speak with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen today to see if a deal is at all possible.

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron is widely believed to be responsible for the fresh demands. Salvaging a victory from these trade talks for France’s sizeable fishing industry, which is utterly dependent on access to UK water, is critical. In recent weeks Macron has made a noticeable pivot to Right.

Meanwhile, British sources have said EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier needs to get a new and realistic mandate from the 27 member states.

“We will not be able to agree a deal that doesn’t respect our fundamental principles on sovereignty, fishing and control,” said a Downing Street official.

In addition to fisheries, the EU has doubled down on calls for a level regulatory playing field. According to the Guardian, Brussels is planning on going even further than that, tilting the field in its favour by exempting EU member states from strict state-aid rules. As British negotiators understand it, the UK would shockingly remain tied to these restrictions under Brussels’ plans.

It would seem the EU is finally realising how lethal its regulations – most of which are restrictions or straitjackets of some kind – are to the continent’s prosperity, but is willing to believe crucial trade partners like the UK will accept them.

After so many false alarms of a breakthrough in talks this week was supposed to be the one when both sides finally came to an agreement. On Monday, the Internal Market Bill will return to the House of Commons. It has been widely reported that Downing Street wanted a deal wrapped up before then as the bill’s re-appearance is expected to ramp up tensions with Brussels.

And while it may seem absurd for the EU’s famously hard-edged trade negotiators to become sensitive about the bill, as many commentators on both sides of the Channel have claimed, there’s still the matter of time, which is fast running out.

Both sides are aiming to land a deal before the last European Council summit of EU leaders at the end of next week. Any later than that and final approval won’t lead to guaranteed ratification. If talks get any nearer to Christmas, the likelihood of a deal drops significantly.

Interestingly, it is widely believed that France is all-out pushing for No Deal in full confidence that the UK won’t be able to stomach the wilderness of trade independence. Britain’s hand will therefore be weaker when talks resume in 2021.

Be careful what you wish for.