Von der Leyen takes control of Brexit talks in attempt to strike deal

European commission president said to be in constant contact with Boris Johnson as fishing remains key issue

Ursula von der Leyen took personal control of Brexit negotiations in an attempt to strike a deal before Christmas as talks went to the wire over tens of millions of pounds worth of fish.

The European commission president is understood to be in constant contact through a series of unscheduled phone calls with Boris Johnson and the EU capitals as she battles to find a compromise.

Speaking to EU ambassadors on Tuesday afternoon, the bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said there was progress but that he had rejected the latest offer from the prime minister’s chief negotiator, David Frost.

The EU has said it is willing to lose 25% by value of the fish its fleets catch in UK waters. The UK has proposed the repatriation of 35% – a potential difference of €63.8m (£58.1m).

However, Barnier said the British offer did not include pelagic fish such as anchovies, tuna and mackerel, meaning the loss of annual income would be closer to €230m a year.

The UK’s Office for Budget Responsibility warned last month that failing to secure a trade and security deal after nine months of talks would cost 300,000 jobs next year and cut 2% off GDP, equivalent to £40bn a year.

Barnier said there was “political willing on both sides to get this over the line”, adding that “some things now have to go higher up”, according to one source in the room.

Von der Leyen has encouraged the big fishing nations to move closer to the British offer. France and Denmark are understood to be the most cautious about making a counter-proposal.

The Danish ambassador told Barnier that the EU should stick with its final offer. The EU negotiator did not respond. France’s representative highlighted the political sensitivity of the issue for its coastal communities.

Von der Leyen spoke by telephone to Johnson on Monday night to discuss a way forward and further calls are expected in the next 24 hours, but the commission refused to offer details.

Barnier said as he went into a meeting with EU ambassadors: “We are really in the crucial moment. We are giving it the final push. In 10 days the UK will leave the single market and we continue to work in total transparency with the member states right now and with the parliament.”

A senior EU diplomat said a deal was within reach. “Progress has been made,” they said. “Most issues are preliminarily closed or close to being agreed. However, differences on fisheries remain difficult to bridge. Unfortunately the UK is not moving enough yet to clinch a fair deal on fisheries.

“EU negotiators are in a last push now to make progress and to clinch a deal acceptable for both sides. The EU will not close its door to the UK and remains ready to negotiate even beyond 1 January.”

(January 31, 1961)  Brefusal

The French president, Charles de Gaulle, vetoes Britain’s entry to EEC, accusing the UK of a “deep-seated hostility” towards the European project.

(January 31, 1973)  Brentry

With Sir Edward Heath having signed the accession treaty the previous year, the UK enters the EEC in an official ceremony complete with a torch-lit rally, dickie-bowed officials and a procession of political leaders, including former prime ministers Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home.

(January 31, 1975)  Referendum

The UK decides to stay in the common market after 67% voted "yes". Margaret Thatcher, later to be leader of the Conservative party, campaigned to remain.

(January 31, 1984)  'Give us our money back'

Margaret Thatcher negotiated what became known as the UK rebate with other EU members after the "iron lady" marched into the former French royal palace at Fontainebleau to demand “our own money back” claiming for every £2 contributed we get only £1 back” despite being one of the “three poorer” members of the community.

It was a move that sowed the seeds of Tory Euroscepticism that was to later cause the Brexit schism in the party. 

(January 31, 1988)  The Bruges speech

Thatcher served notice on the EU community in a defining moment in EU politics in which she questioned the expansionist plans of Jacques Delors, who had remarked that 80% of all decisions on economic and social policy would be made by the European Community within 10 years with a European government in “embryo”. That was a bridge too far for Thatcher.

(January 31, 1989)  The cold war ends

Collapse of Berlin wall and fall of communism in eastern Europe, which would later lead to expansion of EU.

(January 31, 1990) 'No, no, no'

Divisions between the UK and the EU deepened with Thatcher telling the Commons in an infamous speech it was ‘no, no, no’ to what she saw as Delors’ continued power grab. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper ratchets up its opposition to Europe with a two-fingered “Up yours Delors” front page.

(January 31, 1992)  Black Wednesday

A collapse in the pound forced prime minister John Major and the then chancellor Norman Lamont to pull the UK out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

(January 31, 1993)  The single market

On 1 January, customs checks and duties were removed across the bloc. Thatcher hailed the vision of “a single market without barriers – visible or invisible – giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people".

(January 31, 1993) Maastricht treaty

Tory rebels vote against the treaty that paved the way for the creation of the European Union. John Major won the vote the following day in a pyrrhic victory. 

(January 31, 1997)  Repairing the relationship

Tony Blair patches up the relationship. Signs up to social charter and workers' rights.

(January 31, 1999)  Ukip

Nigel Farage elected an MEP and immediately goes on the offensive in Brussels. “Our interests are best served by not being a member of this club,” he said in his maiden speech. “The level playing field is about as level as the decks of the Titanic after it hit an iceberg.”

(January 31, 2003) The euro

Chancellor Gordon Brown decides the UK will not join the euro.

(January 31, 2004) 

EU enlarges to to include eight countries of the former eastern bloc including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

(January 31, 2007) 

EU expands again, allowing Romania and Bulgaria into the club.

(January 31, 2015) Migrant crisis

Anti-immigration hysteria seems to take hold with references to “cockroches” by Katie Hopkins in the Sun and tabloid headlines such as “How many more can we take?” and “Calais crisis: send in the dogs”.

(February 1, 2016) 

David Cameron returns from Brussels with an EU reform package - but it isn't enough to appease the Eurosceptic wing of his own party

(June 23, 2016)  Brexit referendum

The UK votes to leave the European Union, triggering David Cameron's resignation and paving the way for Theresa May to become prime minister

(January 31, 2020)  Britain leaves the EU

After years of parliamentary impasse during Theresa May's attempt to get a deal agreed, the UK leaves the EU.

Johnson has suggested a five-year phase-in period for the new arrangements – up from his initial offer of three years – with a compromise also likely on the application of tariffs or export bans on goods where fishing access changes after the phase-in period. The EU wants at least six years of transition.

Under the UK proposals, where the quota share is reduced in the future, an independent arbitration panel will deduce the cost and allow either side to levy tariffs on goods or seek compensation.

According to sources briefed on the terms, there will also be a termination clause should the reduction in access be judged to be egregious, opening up a fresh negotiation on all aspects of the trade deal. UK sources declined to comment.

The former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said Brexiters were comfortable with a lengthy transition period to allow the UK fishing industry to build up capacity. But he said there should be no right for the EU to apply tariffs if the UK cut access to the European fleet in future.

He said: “The crucial issue is that the UK takes back control fully. After a transition the UK needs to be an independent coastal state in control of 100% of its fishing waters.

“Any idea that there would be a post-transition review would be utterly unacceptable. That would make a mockery of the slogan ‘take back control’. It would be instead another renegotiation.”

With the European parliament saying it is now too late for it to hold a vote of consent on any deal, the EU member states would probably seek to “provisionally apply” the deal on 1 January, with MEPs voting later in the month.

But this process also takes a number of days given the need for legal scrubbing, translation and scrutiny by the governments.

Should the talks go beyond 23 December, there may be an unavoidable period after 1 January where there is a no-deal outcome. Contingency measures could be negotiated to avoid the worst impacts but it would leave exporting businesses, ports and security services in a legal limbo.


Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Andrew Sparrow

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Bust-ups and brinkmanship: inside story of how the Brexit deal was done
After all the delays, doubts and deadlocks, months of tortuous negotiations have reached a conclusion

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

24, Dec, 2020 @4:20 PM

Article image
EU will protect fishing communities in post-Brexit talks
UK also must maintain higher labour and environmental standards, EU tells diplomats

Daniel Boffey in Brussels

14, Jan, 2020 @7:41 PM

Article image
Brexit: Boris Johnson has undermined trust in UK government, says EU
Ursula von der Leyen hits out at Britain over plans to breach agreement on Northern Ireland

Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Lisa O'Carroll in London

09, Sep, 2020 @1:37 PM

Article image
UK and EU agree Brexit trade deal
No 10 says ‘we have taken back control’, after years of talks end in settlement allowing tariff-free trade in goods

Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Lisa O'Carroll in London

24, Dec, 2020 @4:03 PM

Article image
Michel Barnier seeks to end Brexit deadlock with fresh fishing proposal
EU chief responds to Boris Johnson’s request for Brussels to seal deal in final hours

Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Heather Stewart in London

18, Dec, 2020 @6:05 PM

Article image
Even dedicated Brexit-watchers reluctant to call deal or no deal
Analysis: Question may come down to whether details can be squared with PM’s conception of sovereignty

Heather Stewart

06, Dec, 2020 @5:24 PM

Article image
Brexit: what are the key flashpoints as EU-UK trade talks begin?
Time is tight to iron out future relationship before transition period ends on 31 December

Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

01, Mar, 2020 @2:12 PM

Article image
Brexit: Brussels rebuffs new UK proposals on state subsidies
Paper on guarantees for struggling companies still leaves major gap with EU position

Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

29, Sep, 2020 @5:19 PM

Article image
Von der Leyen warns UK against breaking international law over Brexit deal
European commission chief responds to claims that No 10 plans to renege on withdrawal agreement

Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels

07, Sep, 2020 @9:13 AM

Article image
Gove says UK has '66% chance' of Brexit deal amid breakthrough
Minister’s comments come as there’s fresh optimism of an agreement on state aid

Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent

07, Oct, 2020 @2:55 PM