The Prime Minister should use the threat of no deal as leverage to force Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to backdown in the row over fisheries, a leading think-tank has suggested. Brexit Watch claimed the Brussels bureaucrat had only strengthened Britain’s negotiating hand by insisting on future access to the country’s waters as the price for a trade deal. The group’s chairman Ben Habib, a former Brexit Party MEP, said: “I am delighted that fishing is first up because, even though it’s a small part of our GDP, it’s of totemic importance to our coastal communities.
“And it’s terrific that the EU has insisted that it wants to bring it right upfront before they’ve conceded anything to us on the trade deal because now Britain will be able to see how unreasonable the EU is.
“We’ll also be able to judge how effective our negotiators are because they need to chuck this right out of the court.”
Mr Habib said the EU’s negotiating stance should have come as no surprise to Mr Johnson’s negotiator, David Frost.
During the withdrawal talks, Brussels insisted on “cherry-picking” areas of negotiation that would go onto benefit the bloc.
Mr Barnier prevented the negotiations from progressing until Britain had agreed to his Brexit divorce bill, Irish border and citizens’ rights demands.
Mr Frost’s negotiating team must learn from the mistakes of their predecessors, managed by Olly Robbins, who handed Brussels too much power in the divorce talks, Mr Habib said.
“They kept cherry-picking all the way through, so the cherry-picking on fishing is just another step in a long line of cherry-picking,” he added.
“If fishing proves to be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, our trade agreement with them, then so be it. Let’s go WTO.”
The warning comes after Michael Gove accused the EU of failing to understand the UK’s fisheries position.
The Cabinet Office minister told MPs: “The EU quite rightly say you can’t have the same rights if you do not have the same obligations outside as inside and we accept that.
“But the EU don’t appear to accept their own logic when it comes to fisheries. They want to continue to have more or less the same access.”
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He insisted Brussels would have to instead “reflect and rethink” its position on fisheries if there is to be a deal.
Mr Gove said senior EU politicians had told him the bloc wants to focus on its recovery from the coronavirus crisis.
This means there is a “strong incentive to make sure our negotiations don’t run into next year and beyond and occupy bandwidth and political space”.
Pressed by MPs on why Downing Street refuses to extend the transition, he insisted that delaying the deadline would only lead to a loss of focus on both sides.