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Taking questions from the Lords EU Environment Sub-Committee on Wednesday, Mr Eustice claimed the gap between the EU negotiator Michel Barnier’s position and the UK’s stance on fisheries is still “very wide”. The Environment Secretary claimed it would not be unusual if an agreement on access to UK waters in post-Brexit 2021 could be reached as late as December 2020.
He said: “The original withdrawal agreement envisaged that we would have a fishing partnership agreement in July.
“I think the genesis of that was largely aligned with the opportunity to extend the transition period.
“That was the thinking from the EU side to include that particular date in. So it has less relevance now than it once did because we were always clear that we wouldn’t extend the transition period.
“So I think it doesn’t matter if we can put together a partnership agreement even if it’s a little bit later this year. That would be fine.
“Annual negotiations occur every year during the months of November and, in the case of the EU December Council, right up to the middle of December.
“So we could be left as late as December in order to get a final agreement on tax and quota shares and access for 2021.
“And that’s not at all unusual in fisheries negotiations.”
It comes as Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost had a private dinner in Downing Street on Tuesday evening.
Major stumbling blocks on the road to a deal include the “level playing field” – conditions Brussels demands to ensure fair competition by keeping the UK closely tied to EU standards on workers’ rights, the environment and state subsidies – and fishing rights.
Mr Barnier said the EU is “doing everything to succeed” in reaching an agreement “but not at any price”.
Ahead of his dinner, he posted a message on Twitter showing himself and aides wearing face masks on the train to London.
“We are engaging constructively and I look forward to equivalent engagement from the UK this week,” he said.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said that while the talks were “informal”, discussions were likely to “cover everything from what the EU calls the level playing field through to governance structures”.
No ministers were present at the dinner but “one or two” officials from each side may have attended.
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The two negotiators will be joined by their teams for further talks on Wednesday.
Meanwhile on Tuesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to German chancellor Angela Merkel and told her that the UK “would be ready” to leave the transition period at the end of the year without a trade deal with the EU if one cannot be brokered, according to Downing Street.
Last week, discussions between the two sides on a post-Brexit trade deal broke up early with “significant differences” remaining.
It had been hoped that the face-to-face meetings – agreed following a high-level conference call last month between Boris Johnson and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen – would inject new momentum into the process.
The Prime Minister has been adamant that he will not allow the discussions to drag on into the autumn, arguing that British businesses and citizens need certainty on the way forward before then.
If the two sides are unable to reach a deal by the end of the current Brexit transition period at the end of the year, it will mean Britain leaving the single market and the customs union without any agreement on future access.
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