France’s minister for European affairs has warned that the country may decide to use its veto to cancel the Brexit deal negotiated between EU officials and London. The UK government has claimed that Brexit negotiations have taken a last-minute step backwards after the EU were forced into making new demands by intense French lobbying.
Reports have surfaced that with the final deadline looming, talks between Brussels and London have stalled, once again signalling that the prospect of a No Deal Brexit is a very real one.
Clement Beaune, a close ally of the French president Emmanuel Macron, responded to such reports by suggesting France would be quick to act unilaterally if the terms were not favourable.
Beaune said his government was closely monitoring developments in London, where negotiators have been working night and day to find common ground and would scrutinise any agreement.
He said: “This [no deal] risk exists. We mustn’t hide it because there are businesses, our fishermen, citizens who need to know and so we must prepare for a risk of no deal. That’s to say on 31 December there will be no more free circulation, and free access to the UK market and vice versa.
“But it’s not what we want and the negotiations are still going on with Michel Barnier, who is in London at the moment. I still hope we can have a deal but I also say to our fishermen, to our producers, to our citizens, that we won’t accept a bad deal.”
He added: “I think it’s also the case for our partners that if there were a deal that isn’t good, which in our evaluation doesn’t correspond to those interests, we will oppose it.
“Yes, each country has a veto, so it’s possible. France like all its partners, has the means of a veto. We must make our own evaluation of course of this deal, that’s normal. We owe that to the French people, we owe it to our fishermen, and to other economic sectors.
“I want to believe we will have a good deal, but to get a good deal you know it’s better to be frank, and to say our interests. We have been very clear, sometimes the Brits a little less so, about our interests.”
Talks between the UK and EU remain primarily focused on the level of access that will be afforded to European fishing fleets to British waters at the end of the current year, as well as the so-called playing field provisions.
The EU is also asking for assurances in the deal that the UK will not be able to manipulate trade through subsidies or by undercutting the bloc using environmental, labor and social standards.
UK officials responded by claiming the EU had just recently started lobbying strongly for further and harder assurances over the role of a domestic regulator of subsidies, or state aid, after the conclusion of the transition period, a claim which is outright dismissed by those in Brussels.
“We don’t see any breakdown or real trouble beyond the already slow grind of this negotiation,” one EU source said on Friday. “It centres on domestic enforcement of state aid regulations be they ex ante [prior] or ex post [after] a subsidy is granted.”
A UK government source said: “At the eleventh hour the EU is bringing new elements into the negotiation. A breakthrough is still possible in the next few days but that prospect is receding.”
Last week, France’s Brussels ambassador was amongst representatives from 11 EU member states putting pressure on the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, to hold firm in the talks with the UK. Senior EU diplomats claimed that the consensus was that Barnier was currently ‘treading’ on some of the red lines set out for him in the negotiation and they expect him not to go any further in regard to this issue.
The late hiccup in talks between the two sides means that an arbitration meeting between Boris Johnson and European commission president Ursula von der Leyen could finally be forthcoming.
The French prime minister, Jean Castex, recently visited his country’s largest fishing port, Marseille Fos Port, to warn workers and business owners that his government had to compromise and to tell them that coastal communities across the country needed to prepare for a ‘new era’ as Brexit negotiations reach their culmination.
But in response to calls from Olivier Leprêtre, the president of the Hauts-de-France regional committee for maritime fisheries, for maintaining current access to UK waters, the prime minister counselled that France had to accept a new reality.
“It is a negotiation and a negotiation must lead to compromises,” Castex said. “And we must be with you in these compromises. A new era is about to begin. I would like there to be a specific support plan … the state will take its responsibilities.”