Emmanuel Macron holds the key to the U.K. getting a trade deal with the European Union. So far he’s keeping it in his pocket.
The French president is standing firm on his demand to keep the same access to British waters his country’s fishing industry enjoys today, according to officials familiar with the talks. That’s angering the British and creating tensions even among his allies within the EU.
As the Brexit talks enter their final critical few weeks, officials on both sides are voicing doubts over whether they can get a deal over the line. EU negotiators say that while they wait for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to offer concessions on state aid — the other major obstacle to an accord — Paris’s stance on fish is becoming a second major focus of concern.
Johnson and Macron have good personal chemistry according to people who have seen them work together, but that may not be enough to convince the Frenchman to risk alienating the voters by handing concessions to his country’s ancient rival. EU ambassadors will discuss the state of play in Brussels on Wednesday.
The issue they’re wrangling over is one of tiny economic significance but has huge political ramifications. Macron designed the EU’s hard-line opening position — that Britain should be forced to hand over just as much fish as it did when an EU member — and so far hasn’t budged.
The entire U.K.-EU trade deal could fail over this one issue.
Johnson has said he wants to know that there will be a deal by Oct. 15 or he will walk away from the negotiations. His spokesman, James Slack, said on Tuesday that the U.K. is “committed” to working toward an accord.
“There does remain a significant amount of work to do and time is short,” he told reporters.
Patience is running thin in many parts of Europe, especially since the U.K. Parliament is still considering the prime minister’s Internal Market Bill, legislation that rips up elements of its Brexit divorce deal and breaks international law. Johnson’s government says the bill is an essential insurance policy to keep the U.K.’s own internal market functioning.
But Norbert Roettgen, head of the German Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, said Tuesday that Johnson can’t be trusted unless he withdraws the controversial bill.
“I tend to see this as a tactical move,” he said in a Bloomberg Television interview. “The tactics will not work.”
The EU is ready to call Johnson’s bluff as regards the deadline and is prepared for several more weeks of talks, according to officials.
With the U.K. indicating fisheries are a priority and EU negotiators more focused on extracting concessions on state aid, officials can see the outline of a potential way forward — but that would require Johnson to make a move, and Macron isn’t ready to give up on fish either.
Publicly, other European governments are standing by Macron. And other fishing nations, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, hold similar views. The EU also believes it can extract the most concessions from the U.K. by presenting a united front and that drawing attention to Macron’s entrenched position will only make it more difficult for him to back down.
But behind the scenes, senior diplomats said there is tension between Paris, Berlin and Brussels as they prepare for the endgame in the negotiations. While they think some of Macron’s stance is a negotiating tactic, trust in the French president has all but evaporated, they said. They are convinced that Macron’s stubbornness could lead to a no-deal outcome.
The issue could come to a head when leaders discuss Brexit at their summit in Brussels on Oct. 15 to 16. But it’s more likely that they will avoid arguing about their own position and keep pressing the U.K. to make concessions, officials said. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, is scheduled to discuss the issue with French members of parliament on Thursday.
“Fishing shouldn’t be sacrificed or used for bartering,” said Jean-Pierre Pont, a lawmaker representing Boulogne, a major French fishing port, and a member of Macron’s party, La Republique En Marche. “Every time Barnier speaks he tells us there will be no agreement if there’s no agreement on fishing. For now this position is defended by the whole EU. A no-deal would be a disaster — but also for the U.K.”