Post-Brexit trade talks are in “a very difficult position” but the UK is ready to keep negotiating “until there is no point doing so any further”, Environment Secretary George Eustice has told Sky News.
Speaking to Sophy Ridge On Sunday, the cabinet minister said progress was being made but the EU had then “added a whole load of additional demands” which created problems and was a “setback”.
As negotiators return to the table in a “final throw of the dice” to strike a deal, Mr Eustice said the UK is prepared to make some agreements on the so-called level playing field, but argued the EU must treat the UK as a sovereign power.
On fishing, a key sticking point, Mr Eustice accused the EU of making “ludicrous” demands over future fishing rights.
While the UK was prepared to offer a multi-annual deal of up to three years, the EU was insisting on access to British waters “in perpetuity”.
He said: “The EU have suggested a very modest increase that they would tolerate the UK having of the fish in its own waters, but given that we only have half of the fish in our own waters now that simply wouldn’t be possible.
“There is also the more important principle that you would not be able to give any guarantees for the long-term, otherwise you are effectively guaranteed access in perpetuity to our waters which is just not right under international law.
“We would be the only country in the entire world that could agree that, so such a suggestion really is quite ludicrous and not consistent with international law.”
Pressed over whether the talks have in fact been a “charade”, he said “we will find out in the next day or two whether it is an exercise the EU’s engaged in” and “whether this is a choreographed thing on their part”.
He said: “It is in a very difficult position – there is no point denying that.
“There was some hope early last week, some progress was being made, and at one point it looked like there might be a breakthrough but then the European Union added a whole load of additional demands after that which caused some problems.
With time running out before the Brexit transition period ends at the end of the month, Britain’s chief negotiator Lord Frost is reconvening talks with his EU counterpart Michel Barnier in Brussels to try to resolve “significant differences”.
It follows an hour-long call on Saturday between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in which they agreed on a final push to get an agreement.
Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the UK “absolutely” needs a deal with the EU, although he refused to be drawn on how Labour would vote on any agreement and refused to rule out the opposition abstaining.
He told Ridge: “Clearly we need to see what has been agreed. I think that’s a sensible, responsible position to take.
“But let’s very much hope there is a deal because there seems to be two paths before us at the moment – a path of leaving the transition period without a deal and leaving with a deal, and we do know how catastrophic the no-deal outcome would be.”
Labour former prime minister Gordon Brown warned of “huge international implications” of failing to reach an agreement with the EU.
He told Sky News: “We would be in an economic war with Europe that would cost us very dearly. Food, drugs and everything else we’d find it difficult to get it into the country without tariffs and holdups.
“But we would also be in an economic war with America, because there would be no chance of trade treaty with America.
“Boris Johnson is going to end up as the most isolated prime minister in peacetime history with no friends around the world, because he has simply chosen a path of confrontation when everybody knows it is Britain’s economic interest – maybe not in the Brexiteers’ ideological interest – to get a deal and get a deal now.”