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George Eustice warns ‘time is running out’ to strike EU trade deal

George Eustice today warned ‘we really are now running out of time’ to strike a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU as the two sides remain deadlocked on fishing rights.   

The Environment Secretary said formal discussions between Britain and Brussels are entering a ‘crucial week’ and that ‘we need to get a breakthrough’. 

It is thought that if an accord is possible it will have come into view by Friday this week.

But Mr Eustice said there could be scope to extend negotiations beyond that point if the two sides are ‘nearly there’.

However, he said eventually there will ‘come a point’ where it will be ‘too late’ for an agreement because the EU and the UK will need time to ratify and roll out any deal before the end of the ‘standstill’ transition period next month. 

His comments came after Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said yesterday that ‘there is a deal to be done’ but fishing rights is still the ‘one outstanding major bone of contention’.     

Michel Barnier, pictured leaving the BEIS conference centre in central London last night, will continue negotiating with UK counterpart Lord Frost this week

Michel Barnier, pictured leaving the BEIS conference centre in central London last night, will continue negotiating with UK counterpart Lord Frost this week 

Face-to-face talks between Michel Barnier, Brussels’ chief negotiator, and Lord Frost, his UK counterpart, resumed at the weekend in London after discussions were suspended after an EU official tested positive for coronavirus.  

Negotiations lasted long into the night on Saturday and Sunday with the two teams due to continue to meet this week. 

The negotiations remain stalled on three issues: post-Brexit fishing rights, the so-called ‘level-playing’ on rules and on the future governance of the deal. 

The transition period is due to end on December 31 with the two sides now facing a race against time to get a deal in place to avoid a chaotic split in the New Year. 

Mr Eustice told Sky News this morning: ‘Well, we really are now running out of time and we have been saying that for some weeks. 

‘This is the crucial week, we need to get a breakthrough. I really do think we are now into the sort of final week or 10 days. 

‘Of course if great progress were made this week and you were nearly there it is always possible to extend those negotiations. 

‘David Frost has made clear that we are continuing the negotiations because we still think there is a prospect that we can get an agreement and while there is we should persevere with those. 

‘But there does come a point where for both sides the ability to ratify an agreement and get things sorted becomes quite difficult if you leave it too late and of course businesses do need to know where they stand on January 1.’

Mr Raab said yesterday he believed the talks were in a ‘reasonable position’ as he raised hopes of an agreement being struck by Friday. 

He said: ‘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 as he said of the fishing rights issue: ‘There is one outstanding major bone of contention as well as the level playing field.’

With time now running out, there are fears the UK and the EU could accidentally end up without a trade accord due to a miscalculation or a misplaced belief that the other side will compromise at the last minute. 

A failure to strike a post-Brexit trade agreement will see Britain and Brussels forced to trade on basic World Trade Organisation terms from January 1 and that will mean tariffs being imposed on goods.      

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