Michel Barnier has hit out at Boris Johnson’s refusal to negotiate away access to Britain’s fishing waters, warning it could even scupper a trade deal with Brussels.
Speaking after a round of virtual trade talks, the European Union’s chief negotiator claimed David Frost, the Prime Minister’s top Europe adviser, had refused to engage on the areas most important to the bloc.
“The EU will not agree any future economic partnership that does not include a balanced, sustainable and long-term solution on fisheries – that is crystal clear,” Mr Barnier warned.
In a swipe at Downing Street’s refusal to extend the post-Brexit transition period, he implied British officials were deliberately running down the clock.
The Brussels bureaucrat said: “The UK cannot refuse to extend the position, and at the same time, slow down discussions on important areas.
“The UK cannot impose this short, brief timeline, and at the same time not budget to make progress on the topics that are of importance to the EU.”
Officials from both sides held over 40 separate internet video conferences as trade negotiations were resumed after previous rounds were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Barnier hinted that the Government’s Taskforce Europe had refused to engage in talks over four key demands made by Brussels.
He said Mr Frost was yet to table a detailed fisheries proposal, and the pair had only made “disappointing progress” as a result.
But Mr Barnier insisted the row should not stand in the way of a deal being struck before the end of the year and refused to speculate on whether he would walk out on talks if the dispute persists.
He said never before had the EU been faced with such time pressuring, adding: “Time is short but I think there is possibility for agreement in that time.
“With will, realism and mutual respect – including on fisheries – we can get to an agreement. We’re not there yet, we are far from it.”
Mr Barnier also claimed there are still vast differences between London and Brussels on governance and the level playing field.
And on security, the Frenchman warned the agreement would be “seriously limited” by the Government’s demands.
He said: “The UK refuses to provide firm guarantees rather than vague principles on fundamental rights and individual freedoms.”
Mr Barnier called on both sides to reach a “smart agreement to cushion the shock” of the coronavirus impact to their economies.
But he hit out at Britain’s claim that the two sides should negotiate as “sovereign equals”, insisting No10 has to accept the “reality” the EU’s market is larger.
Both sides will hold two further virtual negotiating rounds in May and June, with little hope for resuming face-to-face returning.
Mr Johnson is due to hold high-level talks with EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen to evaluate progress soon after.
Brussels officials have voiced their frustrations at their British counterparts’ willingness to move towards a deal beforehand.
One senior EU official fumed: “You can call it selective, you can call it cherry-picking but they’re only ready to make progress in the areas where they have an interest.
“We don’t need to agree everything by June but we need to make progress on all areas. For the moment, the British are only ready to discuss where they are interested and politely listen to us present our texts for other areas.”
The source hinted that Mr Frost’s team are seeking to end the negotiations without agreements in several areas.
“They don’t engage in some of the areas where they don’t have an interest to reach an agreement,” they said.