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Macron lays ground for netting Brexit compromise on fisheries

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France is preparing its fishing industry for a smaller catch after Brexit, industry members said, in a sign that President Emmanuel Macron is laying the ground for a delicate compromise to help the European Union strike a trade deal with Britain, write and

The EU and Britain are trying to hammer out an agreement over the next three weeks to avoid damaging $900 billion in annual trade when Britain leaves the bloc’s single market on 1 January 2021. Fisheries is among the biggest obstacles.

Macron has publicly taken a hard line on fisheries, saying France would not accept any Brexit pact that “sacrifices our fishermen”. He rejected London’s demand for annual negotiations on fish quotas in British waters, saying it damages EU industry.

In a first sign of a tentative softening of Paris’ stance, however, Macron said after last week’s summit of EU national leaders dedicated to Brexit that the French industry will no longer be in the same situation as today after year-end.

Privately, his government has gone further, bluntly telling France’s politically influential fishing industry to brace for impact, sources told Reuters, in comments that instantly pushed sterling and British bond yields higher.

France has a total of 20,000 fishermen, on top of 10,000 fish processing jobs. On average in 2011-2015, some 98,000 tonnes of fish were caught in British waters, representing €171 million in turnover and 2,566 direct jobs.

A fourth of France’s catch in the northeastern Atlantic was in British waters, according to a French parliamentary report.

As the EU summit was convening in Brussels last week, Macron’s Europe minister posted pictures from a visit to the French coastal town of Port-en-Bessin.

“One single objective: to defend and protect the interests of fishermen,” Clement Beaune said on Twitter. “We’re fighting...for French fishing.”

But - in previously unreported exchanges - Jerome Vicquelin, a member of local fishing lobby groups who attended the meeting, said the minister’s message was starker when asked off-camera if France would yield.

“I was rather blunt and said: ‘It’s all well and good you came, but I’m worried because... just a 10-15% cut in turnover... would be a disaster over the long term,” Vicquelin said he told the Paris envoys in the wheelhouse of fishing boat aptly called L’Europe.

“They were blunt too. They said it won’t be the same as before. For me it’s clear, they just want to try to limit damages as much as possible,” Vicquelin told Reuters.

Asked to comment on Vicquelin’s account of the meeting, Beaune told Reuters he had told the industry representatives to no longer expect to maintain “the status quo”.

The exchange illustrates France’s twin strategy in the Brexit negotiation - talking tough in public while quietly preparing to fish less in British waters from 2021.

In another example of Paris eyeing a possible compromise, a fisheries source told Reuters separately the French government has already asked the industry what concessions would be acceptable to them.

“They asked us if potentially, really potentially we were ready to make concessions,” said the source, who declined to be named. “They asked us to think about it.”

Many French and other EU vessels now fish in the rich British waters that would be beyond reach if there is no deal. Any agreement would need to fix catch quotas for over a 100 species.

In an early indication of movement on fisheries from London, Britain last month offered a transition period from 2021 to increase its catch gradually rather than overnight.

But the sides remain seas apart on what exactly Britain’s share would be in the end.

Britain says it would become an “independent coastal state” controlling its waters and who fishes there once its transition out of the EU is complete.

EU fishing states including Germany and Ireland support France. But it is Macron, facing presidential elections in 2022, who leads the hardline rhetoric and will be instrumental in striking a fisheries pact.

He has to weigh up the risk of angering a small but thriving and vocal industry, with that of blocking the new Brexit pact, which would lead to tariffs and quotas damaging bilateral trade.

“Macron holds the key,” said an EU diplomat following Brexit. “If France climbs down, we can get a deal.”

Bidding for continued access to the UK fishing waters, the EU is also at odds with London over conditions to keep the bloc’s common market of 450 million consumers open to British companies. The two can only be solved together, if at all.

Another diplomat said EU Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, this week “wasn’t worried about anything else but fish”.

“He said Macron has to put on the political show as 20% of their fishermen or vessels are ‘jobless’ if they don’t get their quotas,” the person said of a closed-door meeting with Barnier.

“Macron has to fight not to have the fishermen on the streets. That’s why the French are publicly still in full throttle.”

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Irish PM hopeful of Brexit trade deal outline by end of week

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Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said on Monday (23 November) that he hoped that the outline of a Brexit free trade deal will have emerged by the end of the week and urged unprepared smaller Irish exporters to get ready for change, whether there is a deal or no deal. The European Union’s Brexit negotiator said on Monday that big differences persisted but that both sides were pushing hard for a deal, as talks resumed, writes Padraic Halpin.

Moves will have to be made on some of the key issues such as fisheries and the so-called “level playing field”, Martin said. But he added that he had got a sense of progress from both negotiating teams, and that a presentation last week from EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was probably one of the more hopeful to date.

“I would be hopeful that, by the end of this week, that we could see the outlines of a deal, but that remains to be seen. It is down to political will, both in the United Kingdom and I’m clear the political will is there from the European Union,” Martin told reporters.

On a visit to Dublin port, Ireland’s largest freight and passenger port, Martin said that, while 94% of Irish importers from the UK and 97% of exporters had completed the necessary customs paperwork to continue trading with Britain, he was worried by the take-up among some small and medium-sized firms.

“The one concern I’d have is maybe there is a complacency among some SMEs out there that everything will be OK and ‘Sure if they get a deal, won’t it be OK?’. It will be different, and you have to get that into your heads,” Martin said. “The world will change and it will not be as seamless as it once was. The bottom line is you need to get ready. It is not too late, people just need to knuckle down now.”

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Johnson and EU's von der Leyen may speak this week, Times Radio reports

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the European Commission’s Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) are likely to speak later in the week as the Brexit talks get to a crunch point, the chief political commentator of Britain’s Times Radio said, writes Kate Holton.

Tom Newton Dunn said officials on both sides were setting up a phone call, or possibly even a face-to-face meeting, in what could be a pivotal moment for the free trade talks.

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EU's Barnier says 'fundamental divergences' persist in UK trade talks

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The European Union’s Brexit negotiator said on Monday that big differences persisted in trade talks with Britain but that both sides were pushing hard for a deal, writes Gabriela Baczynska.

“Time is short. Fundamental divergences still remain, but we are continuing to work hard for a deal,” said the EU negotiator, Michel Barnier (pictured). Trade negotiators resumed talks on the shape of the new EU-UK relationship after a post-Brexit standstill agreement expires on Dec. 31. As in the last few weeks, the focus was still squarely on dividing up fishing quotas and ensuring fair competition for companies, including on regulating state aid.

Face-to-face talks, suspended last week after a member of the EU delegation tested positive for the new coronavirus, will resume in London “when it is safe to do so”, said a source who follows Brexit, speaking on condition of anonymity. Another source, an EU official, added: “The differences on the level playing field and fisheries remain major.” The British The Sun newspaper reported at the weekend that the negotiators were looking at a clause that would allow a renegotiation of any new fishing arrangement in several years’ time.

An EU diplomat, a third source who spoke under condition of anonymity, confirmed that such an idea was under discussion, but added that the bloc insisted on linking it to the overall trade agreement, meaning that fishing rights could only be renegotiated together with the rest of trade rules. “We need to uphold the link between fishing and trade rules, this comes in a package,” the source said. The EU official said annual renegotiation of fishing quotas was a ‘no-go’ for the 27-nation bloc. Fisheries are a particularly sensitive issue for France.

Thierry Breton, the French representative on the European Commission, the EU executive, said last week: “We shouldn’t have in the Brexit deal revision clauses in one or two years, when everything would change again. We won’t let that happen. We need to give our entrepreneurs predictability.”

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