European doubts over a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain boiled over on Friday, with France threatening a veto even as intense negotiations entered what could be their final hours.
EU and UK negotiators Michel Barnier and David Frost were locked in last-minute debates over fishing rights, fair trade rules, and an enforcement mechanism to govern any deal.
But with time running out if the eventual accord is to be ratified before the end of the year and Britain’s departure from the EU single market, EU capitals are getting cold feet.
“If there’s a deal that isn’t a good one, we’d oppose it,” France’s minister for European affairs Clement Beaune told Europe 1 radio, adding that “every country has the right to veto”.
A European diplomat told AFP that Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Denmark share France’s concerns that in the rush to conclude a deal, Barnier will give too much ground to London on rules to maintain fair competition.
“We don’t want to lock in an unbalanced relationship for decades to come,” he said.
“We are not going to want to have explained to our companies why they are being undercut in their market by enterprising British corporates in a lesser regulated environment.”
Thus far, the capitals have remained united behind their champion Barnier, who has been battling Frost long into the night as UK premier Boris Johnson faces his own choice about whether to compromise.
“We are committed to reaching an agreement with the EU,” UK Business Secretary Alok Sharma told the BBC.
“But, of course, time is short and we are in a difficult phase. There’s no denying that.”
“We want the EU to recognise that the UK is a sovereign and independent nation. It is on the basis of that that a deal will be done.”
– Red lines –
British officials have complained that, with the negotiations coming to a conclusion, the EU has made new demands that London agrees to set up an independent body to regulate state subsidies.
In Brussels, diplomatic sources told AFP that some capitals are concerned that Germany and the European Commission are too keen to agree on a deal quickly.
The European Parliament has warned that it will need to see the text within days if it is to properly examine it in time to enact it by the end of the year.
And European leaders will now want to see what Barnier is planning at their summit on December 10 next week.
Some diplomats suggest that rather than bend to the pressure of time, EU capitals could allow Britain to crash out of the single market without a deal in January and then return to new trade talks later in 2021.
A European envoy told reporters on Thursday that Barnier “was millimetres away from the red lines” he had been given to protect European access to British waters and ensure a level-playing field for trade.
But the host of next week’s summit, European Council president Charles Michel, hailed Barnier’s work and urged the member states to remain united “until the last minute, the last second of the procedure”.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, whose country is keen for a deal to simplify relations with its neighbour, visited Paris on Thursday and urged European nations to “hold our nerve”.