Matt Hancock today blasted the European Union for making ‘unreasonable demands’ during post-Brexit trade talks with the UK as he said the bloc must ‘make the move’ if an accord is to be agreed.
The Health Secretary claimed Brussels’ proposals on the remaining crunch issues of the ‘level playing field’ and fishing ‘do not respect the result of the referendum’ in 2016 and must be withdrawn.
However, he insisted he is ‘sure that a deal can be done’ despite time running out before the end of the ‘standstill’ transition period on December 31.
His comments came after Emmanuel Macron was warned Britain will not cave in over fishing as rising optimism of a deal being in sight began to wane.
Mr Macron has dug in over his demands relating to future access to UK waters for French fishermen amid suggestions he believes Britain will come crawling back to the negotiating table in the New Year after the chaos of a no deal split.
But the UK has warned the French President that he will be ‘making a miscalculation of historic proportions’ if he believes Britain will back down.
Emmanuel Macron has been warned the UK will not cave into his demands on post-Brexit fishing rights
Boris Johnson has repeatedly said the UK will split from the EU without a deal on December 31 if the two sides cannot agree a trade deal
There is now less than two weeks before the end of the transition period and a failure to strike and ratify a deal in the coming days will see the two sides forced to trade on basic World Trade Organisation terms from January 1, with tariffs imposed on goods.
European Parliament chiefs had set a deadline of today for an accord to be in place, having warned that if it comes later than that they will not have enough time to properly scrutinise it.
But there remains little sign of a breakthrough being imminent, with Britain and the bloc still unable to agree on the so-called ‘level playing field’ on rules and on fishing rights, with the latter viewed as the biggest stumbling block.
Mr Hancock told Sky News that the EU will have to rethink its negotiating position if there is to be a deal.
He said: ‘The talks are continuing. I understand that the EU have put in a deadline of having them concluded by Christmas.
‘We want these talks to reach a positive conclusion. Of course I want a deal, I think everybody wants a deal. Unfortunately the EU have put in some unreasonable demands.
‘Obviously I have been mostly concentrating on the pandemic but I have been looking at the detail of some of the requests from the EU. They are unreasonable, they do no respect the result of the referendum.’
Asked specifically which demands the UK considers to be ‘unreasonable’, the Health Secretary said: ‘Well, over the sovereignty of our rules around the so-called level playing field, actually this is rules around how government introduces subsidies, and then over fishing.
‘I am sure that a deal can be done but obviously it needs movement on the EU side. I am an incredibly pragmatic politician and I want to see a deal.
‘But I also think that the EU demands are unreasonable and they are not demands that can be accepted so we do need to see that movement from the EU side and I very much hope that they make the steps that are necessary so we can conclude a deal and then we can all look forward and we have got a huge amount to get through as a continent because there are very significant problems with this virus on the continent as well.’
He added: ‘They need to make the move, they need to remove some of the unreasonable requests, then we can all move forward and concentrate on dealing with the things that are right in front of us and need urgent action.’
Mr Hancock said he believed the two sides should ‘keep talking’ but insisted the UK is ‘ready’ for a no deal split on December 31.
There is growing anger at the position taken by Mr Macron who is adamant European trawlers must retain a high level of access to British waters while the UK insists its own boats must have priority.
The French President is said to be willing to accept a no deal Brexit in the short term rather than back down on the issue because he believes the UK will come back to the negotiating table in the Spring.
But a UK source told the Sunday Times: ‘If he, Macron, thinks that, he’s making a miscalculation of historic proportions.
‘We cannot accept a deal that doesn’t leave us in charge of our own waters.’
A Cabinet minister told the same newspaper: ‘There’s no white smoke. I think we’ll still be talking about this on December 31.’
However, in a sign that a deal could still be done in the coming days another source told the Sunday Telegraph that almost all of the deal was now done and ‘it feels like we are less than two turbots apart’.
MEPs said they needed to see the terms of any agreement by this evening if they are going to be able to ratify it before the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.
But France’s European affairs minister, Clement Beaune, suggested on Saturday that Sunday was unlikely to prove to be a hard deadline.
‘It would be normal not to say “Well it’s Sunday evening so let’s wrap it and sacrifice everything”,’ he was quoted as saying by the Guardian website.
‘It may be hard and sometimes tough to understand, but it’s necessary to take the time and, at any rate, not to sacrifice our interests under the pressure of a calendar.’
Meanwhile in the UK, MPs are on standby to return to Westminster from their Christmas break if an agreement can be struck in the final days of the year.
Both sides have acknowledged that significant differences still have to be overcome if there is to be a breakthrough.
While the fishing industry accounts for only a tiny proportion of the EU and UK economies it carries huge political resonance on both sides of the Channel.
While the UK says that it is entitled as an independent sovereign nation to take control of its waters, countries like France are determined to defend their fishermen who would lose their livelihoods if they could no longer fish in British waters.