Paris and other European capitals heaped pressure on EU negotiator Michel Barnier to wrench concessions from Britain on a trade deal, as the outlines of an agreement take shape.
Mr Barnier on Wednesday was warned by nations including France, the Netherlands and Denmark that too much ground was being ceded to the UK, and they insisted it would be better to allow negotiations to drag on longer than to give in to the temptation of a quick deal this week.
“Substance beats timetable,” said one EU diplomat. “There is no need to conclude with bad terms.”
The warning came at a closed-door meeting of EU ambassadors that highlighted the internal tensions on the European side as negotiators strive to resolve the outstanding issues on a trade deal.
With less than a month remaining until the end of Britain’s transition period, talks are focused on the sticking points of EU fishing rights in British waters, a “level playing field” for fair competition between companies and enforcement of any trade deal.
Although a deal is not done, there is a view in British circles that the outlines of an agreement that Boris Johnson could sell to his Conservative party and the country are taking shape.
The UK prime minister’s press secretary on Wednesday said Mr Johnson was “feeling optimistic” but he was also “confident and comfortable without a deal”.
The fate of the negotiations was “coming down to the French”, said one Conservative MP close to Downing Street. “It's a question of whether the Europeans can accept it.”
Tensions are also rising on the UK side. After weeks of relative silence, Eurosceptic Conservative MPs have started to warn Mr Johnson not to “betray” them by making last-ditch concessions that surrender British sovereignty.
One former minister said if Mr Johnson “leaves us a satellite of the EU, after all that we’ve been through, things will go south for him very quickly indeed”.
British officials said both negotiating teams were “exhausted” after working 16 hour days in an underground conference centre at the business department in London known as “the cave”.
Mr Johnson’s allies expect the prime minister will have to become personally involved to get any deal finalised, including by talking to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen.
“I think it will be done over the weekend, possibly on Sunday,” said one official briefed by the team of UK negotiator David Frost.
According to participants at the Wednesday meetings, Mr Barnier emphasised that there was still significant work to do both on fishing and the level playing field.
Mr Barnier confirmed the EU and UK were discussing a transitional period for fishing rights and a broader review clause for the trade deal, sparking warnings from some of the bloc’s member states that they did not want to be stuck in a continual renegotiation with Britain.
Mr Barnier also suggested there had been a modest but insufficient London climbdown from the UK’s previous position that the country should seize 80 per cent of current EU fishing rights in British waters.
However, EU member states with fishing interests were sceptical, insisting that the bloc must continue to resist London’s attempts to make access to British waters dependent on annual negotiations, even if the system contains safeguards including an arbitration process.
“In reality, this could mean that the UK could kick us out whenever they feel like it”, with little or no consequences for Britain, said one EU diplomat.
On the level playing field, EU diplomats said Mr Barnier confirmed there was still disagreement over whether the UK would have a domestic subsidies regulator with “ex ante” powers to pass judgment on any state aid before it was given out.
The UK government’s resistance to such a regulator has been a sticking point in the talks.
Two EU diplomats briefed on the talks said if Mr Barnier cut a deal without this, then there would need to be sufficiently robust compensatory mechanisms to enable the bloc to strike back at the UK in other areas.
“Without a profound change in the British position, I would say a deal by the weekend is impossible,” said one EU diplomat.
Mr Barnier told MEPs that “disagreement persisted” on what unilateral remedies each side could take in the event of a dispute over state aid, and on the baseline for maintaining social, environmental and other standards in individual sectors.
The end game of the talks also risks being disrupted by Mr Johnson’s planned finance bill, which would violate parts of last year’s withdrawal agreement with the EU in relation to Northern Ireland.
Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney warned that the step, following a similar spat in September over Mr Johnson’s internal market bill, would damage trust. The move “will be taken as a signal that UK doesn’t want a deal”, he said.
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