French president Emmanuel Macron has said that he is ready to accept a no-deal outcome to Brexit talks if the UK does not shift position, with negotiations still deadlocked over fishing rights in British waters.
Arriving at an EU summit in Brussels, France’s leader said that a deal “will not be done at any price”, and that his country was finalising preparations for a hard British exit from the EU’s single market and customs union at the end of this year.
The comments underline his determination to buttress the EU negotiating position ahead of the final stages of future-relationship negotiations, with the two sides far apart on fishing rights and struggling to settle level playing conditions for business.
“If the conditions are not fulfilled, it is possible that we will not have an agreement,” Mr Macron said. “Under no circumstance will our fishermen be the ones sacrificed for this Brexit,” said Mr Macron. “We did not choose Brexit, it’s the choice of the British people.”
EU leaders are meeting in Brussels on Thursday for their first in-depth discussion on Brexit this year, with the fate of the negotiations still uncertain. Boris Johnson will set out his position on Friday, once the summit talks — at which the UK is not present — have concluded.
While officials have not reported any breakthroughs following talks in recent days, there have been signs of movement on the UK side in the area of state subsidy policies. However, one of the big sticking points is talks on level playing field conditions.
Fishing rights stand as the most difficult obstacle to a deal, as the two sides dig in their heels over the new regime. The EU entered the future-relationship negotiations seeking to “uphold” access to British waters as well as existing catching rights for more than 70 types of fish that swim over the EU-UK maritime border.
The UK, on the other hand, wants to jettison the old model for dividing up quotas and make access to its waters conditional on successful annual negotiations, a requirement that is fiercely rejected by Brussels.
The EU fishing sector employs fewer than 180,000 people and accounts for less than 1 per cent of the bloc’s economic output, but this understates its political power in France and seven other EU coastal states.
In a sign of the potency of the issue, Clement Beaune, France’s Europe minister, visited fishing communities in Normandy on the morning of the summit, declaring on Twitter that he had a single objective to “defend and protect the interests of fishermen”.
Still, Mr Macron at least indicated some willingness to negotiate saying that he was looking for “a good compromise” on the issue.
Angela Merkel, the German chancellor said any deal must be a fair one, but she stressed that the current effort “is worth it”.
Mr Johnson will formally respond to the European Council’s conclusions on Friday, amid expectations he will deliver a robust warning on the need for rapid progress and new concessions from Brussels.
There has been speculation that Mr Johnson might try to engineer a crisis in the talks, but British officials downplayed suggestions the prime minister would walk out of negotiations.
Downing Street said Mr Johnson had been updated on the state of talks by David Frost, chief UK negotiator, and that he would reflect on the outcome of the EU leaders’ meeting before commenting.
British officials said Mr Johnson would reflect on the “atmospherics” of the discussions in Brussels and whether the EU had issued a “strong credible statement” that it wanted to bring the talks to a successful conclusion. “Let’s see what they say,” said one.
Downing Street said: “We continue to want to reach a deal on a free trade agreement, that’s our aim. We will set out our next steps in the light of the council meeting.”
Pro-Brexit Conservative MPs believe a deal is close, in spite of differences, particularly over fisheries.
Mr Macron added that the summit would reconfirm the mandate of EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
“If good terms are not found at the end of the discussions we are prepared for a no-deal for the future relationship,” he said.
Additional reporting from Guy Chazan in Berlin and Mehreen Khan in Brussels