Emmanuel Macron has warned Boris Johnson he will not allow French fishermen to be “sacrificed” for the sake of a post-Brexit trade deal between Britain and the EU.
Arriving for an EU summit in Brussels, the French president warned he was prepared to see talks with the UK collapse if the “right terms” cannot be agreed.
Mr Johnson had previously said he would walk away from the negotiating table if there was no agreement on a trade deal by the start of the two-day gathering in Brussels.
However, in a call on Wednesday evening with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel, he said he would “reflect” on the outcome of the summit before deciding on his “next steps”.
Following a briefing from the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, the EU leaders expressed “concern” that there had been insufficient progress for a deal to be agreed.
In a text adopted by the summit, they “invited” Mr Barnier to continue his negotiations while urging member states to step up “preparedness and readiness” for all outcomes “including that of no agreement”.
All sides have acknowledged that the question of future fishing rights once the current Brexit transition period ends at the end of the year remains among the most difficult issues to be resolved.
Mr Macron, who is under pressure from French fishermen who fear losing access to British waters, indicated that he was prepared to take a hard line.
“Under any circumstance, our fishermen should not be sacrificed for Brexit,” he said.
“If these conditions are not met, it’s possible we won’t have a deal. If the right terms can’t be found at the end of these discussions, we’re ready for a no-deal for our future relations.”
Irish premier Micheal Martin also emphasised the importance of securing a satisfactory agreement on fishing if there was to be an overall trade deal.
“It is very important to us in Ireland that our coastal communities are protected in an overall deal on Brexit through a sensible and fair fisheries deal,” he said.
Meanwhile, Downing Street has confirmed that the UK’s chief negotiator Lord Frost has returned to London and briefed Mr Johnson on the latest talks which took place this week in Brussels.
“Lord Frost has updated the Prime Minister on the latest state of play in the negotiations,” a No 10 spokesman said.
“Some progress has been made this week, primarily in the technical areas of negotiations. But we have been clear that there are still differences with fisheries being the starkest.
“Not having a common text to work from has made progress doubly difficult but we continue to want to reach an agreement.”
In his call with Mrs von der Leyen and Mr Michel, Mr Johnson expressed “disappointment” that the talks had not made more progress.
However, there is scepticism in Brussels that he would be prepared to pull the plug on the negotiations.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said: “Britain has already imposed so many deadlines that came and went.”
Meanwhile, Mrs von der Leyen has announced that she is pulling out of the summit to self-isolate after a member of her staff tested positive for coronavirus, even though she has tested negative.
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