Dominic Raab today raised hopes of the UK and the EU striking a post-Brexit trade accord as he said ‘there is a deal to be done’ but warned fishing rights remains the ‘one outstanding major bone of contention’.
The Foreign Secretary said he believed talks between Britain and the bloc are now entering their final week amid hopes of a breakthrough by Friday.
However, he risked souring discussions during the final push as he accused Brussels of ‘shifting the goal posts’ on negotiating deadlines.
His intervention came as it was claimed that Ursula von der Leyen has started to ‘lean on’ Michel Barnier to agree a deal with the UK.
Mr Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, is currently locked in talks with UK counterpart Lord Frost, but formal discussions remain deadlocked on a number of crunch issues.
Ms von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, is said to be putting the pressure on Mr Barnier to find a way through the stalemate.
UK sources said Ms von der Leyen is now being ‘quite helpful’ and is ‘keen to unblock things’.
However, despite more activity on the EU side and Mr Raab’s optimism, Number 10 has cautioned that the chances of the two sides splitting without an agreement next month may be ‘underpriced’.
Dominic Raab today raised hopes of the UK and the EU being able to strike a post-Brexit trade deal
Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, has started to ‘lean on’ Michel Barnier to make more progress in negotiations
Mr Barnier arrived in London on Friday to resume face-to-face talks with UK counterpart Lord Frost
The post-Brexit ‘standstill’ transition period is due to end in December but the path to a trade deal remains blocked by three key issues: Fishing rights, the so-called ‘level-playing field’ on rules, and the future governance of the accord.
Face-to-face talks between Mr Barnier and Lord Frost resumed yesterday after they had to be suspended after a member of the EU team tested positive for coronavirus.
The latest round of talks has been billed as potentially the final set of discussions as the clock ticks down to the end of the transition period.
Mr Raab today raised hopes of the talks succeeding, telling Sophy Ridge on Sky News: ‘I do think we are in a reasonable position. There is a deal to be done. If you look really at what the outstanding issues are, of course level-playing field, but it feels like there is progress towards greater respect for what the UK position was.
‘On fisheries there is a point of principle. As we leave the transition we are an independent coastal state, we have got to be able to control our borders.
‘We can talk about transitions and things like that and we recognise the impact it has on other countries round Europe.
‘But that principle comes with sovereignty, comes with leaving not just the EU but the transition period and I think the answer is can the EU accept that point of principle which comes with us leaving the political club.’
Reports last week suggested that Mr Barnier recently said the EU could accept a 15-18 per cent cut in its share of fishing rights in UK waters, but British officials immediately rejected the offer.
Government sources said the figures put forward by Mr Barnier were ‘risible and the EU side know full well that we would never accept this’.
Mr Raab echoed a similar sentiment this morning as he said of the fishing rights issue: ‘There is one outstanding major bone of contention as well as the level playing field.’
He continued: ‘I think it is a significant difference. Does that sound right? 18 per cent control of fish in our own waters? That can’t be right.’
Asked when he believes the final deadline is for a deal to be agreed, Mr Raab would not be drawn as he said: ‘I am reticent to give an ultimate backstop because the goal posts sometimes shift on the EU side.
‘But I think we are into the last week or so of substantive negotiations.’
He added: ‘To be honest with you the EU do shift the goal posts.’
It came as the Sunday Times reported that Ms von der Leyen has started to ‘lean on’ Mr Barnier to make progress and get a deal done.
Mr Barnier’s negotiating mandate is set by EU leaders and one senior British official told the newspaper: ‘Von der Leyen has been quite helpful.
‘She is keen to unblock things. Her team has been more involved of late which is helpful.
‘On the level playing field and state aid we aren’t there yet but we can see how we get there. The problem is fish.’
In a sign of the European Commission’s growing involvement in the talks, Ms von der Leyen has sent Stephanie Riso, one of her most senior officials, to help Mr Barnier.
Ms Riso was involved in the original Brexit divorce negotiations and is viewed as someone who could help break the deadlock.
It is thought Boris Johnson could speak to Ms von der Leyen in the next 48 hours to try to hammer out a way forward on fishing rights.
He may also speak to French President Emmanuel Macron who is adamant the EU should stick to its tough stance on the issue.
Boris Johnson is expected to speak to Ms von der Leyen in the next 48 hours as the two sides try to facilitate a breakthrough
Both sides now believe that if a deal is possible it will have come into view by the end of this week.
But Number 10 has warned that there is still a ‘significant gap’ on fisheries and ‘no deal is arguably underpriced’.
The Government has repeatedly said it is prepared to leave the transition period without a deal if the EU fails to move.
A UK source close to the negotiations said: ‘Over the coming days we will continue to negotiate with creativity and intensity.
‘We hope that the EU will come with some fresh thinking because what we’ve seen so far doesn’t cut it. They must understand that we are not going to sell out our sovereignty.’