European doubts over a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain boiled over on Friday with France threatening a veto as tricky negotiations entered what could be their final hours.
EU and UK negotiators Michel Barnier and David Frost were locked in last-minute debates over fishing rights, fair trade rules and an enforcement mechanism to govern any deal.
But, with time running out for the accord to be ratified before the end of the year and ahead of Britain’s departure from the EU single market, EU capitals are getting cold feet.
“If there’s a deal that isn’t a good one, we’d oppose it,” France’s minister for European affairs Clement Beaune told Europe 1 radio, adding that “every country has the right to veto”.
A European diplomat told AFP that Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain and Denmark share France’s concerns that in the rush to conclude a deal, Barnier will give too much ground on rules to maintain fair competition.
Britain’s nearest neighbours suspect Germany and the European Commission are too keen to agree a deal to avoid the damaging economic fallout.
“We don’t want to lock in an unbalanced relationship for decades to come,” the diplomat said.
“We are not going to want to explain to our companies why they are being undercut in their market by enterprising British corporates in a less regulated environment.”
Germany currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency and is also the bloc’s biggest economy and most influential country.
Asked about the state of the talks, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman said Europe “is ready to reach an agreement with Great Britain, but not at any price”.
“It’s clear that there are red lines, yet there is always room for compromise,” Steffen Seibert told reporters.
Thus far, the capitals have remained united behind Barnier, who has been battling Frost long into the night as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces his own choice about whether to compromise.
“Time is in very short supply. We are at a difficult point in the talks,” Johnson’s official spokesman told reporters.
“What is certain is that we will not be able to agree a deal that does not respect our fundamental principles on sovereignty and taking back control.”
A European source with knowledge of the talks said reports of an imminent conclusion to the eight months of wrangling were “premature”, suggesting big differences remained.
British officials have complained that the EU has made new demands late in the process that London sets up an independent body to regulate state subsidies.
Downing Street insisted anew that its red lines will apply once Britain leaves a post-Brexit transition period on December 31: controlling UK borders, regulating its own state subsidies and managing its fishing waters.
The European Parliament has warned that it will need to see the text within days if it is to properly examine it in time to enact it by the end of the year.
And European leaders will now want to see what Barnier is planning at their summit on December 10.
Some diplomats suggest that EU capitals could allow Britain to crash out of the single market without a deal in January and then return to new trade talks later in 2021.
A European envoy told reporters on Thursday that Barnier “was millimetres away from the red lines” he had been given to protect European access to British waters and ensure a level-playing field for trade.
But the host of next week’s summit, European Council president Charles Michel, hailed Barnier’s work and urged unity “until the last minute, the last second of the procedure”.