Brexit negotiations took a sudden step backwards on Thursday afternoon, Downing Street said, after furious French lobbying pushed the EU to make late demands.
The apparent eleventh hour hardening of the EU position was said to have destabilised the protracted talks, peeling back progress made over the previous 24 hours.
UK sources said the EU had started pushing for further and harder assurances over the role of a domestic regulator of subsidies after the transition period, a claim dismissed outright by Brussels.
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.”
EU sources said the bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, could return to Brussels on Friday to brief officials and diplomats on the latest development, while it is widely believed that the tortuous negotiations could reach a climax at the weekend.
On Wednesday, France’s ambassador in Brussels had been among 11 representatives of EU member states saying that Barnier had to hold firm in the talks.
Senior EU diplomats said on Thursday that the consensus was that Barnier was currently treading on some of the “red lines” set out for him in the negotiation, although they expected him not to go further.
The wobble in the talks could tee-up a long expected arbitration meeting between Boris Johnson and the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.
It has long been thought that the choreography of a deal would require a stormy moment before agreement was finally signed at a political level.
The development came as France’s prime minister, Jean Castex, visited his country’s biggest fishing port to warn that his government had to compromise and to say that coastal communities should prepare for a “new era” as the Brexit talks entered decisive days.
With negotiators working through the day and night in London, Castex travelled to Boulogne-sur-Mer, in Pas-de-Calais, to advise representatives of the fishing industry that they should ready themselves for change.
He promised “national solidarity” to “the territories concerned” and repeated the familiar mantra that France would not accept a trade and security deal with the UK at any price. Castex said Europe’s coastal communities would not be treated as a pawn in the wider trade and security talks.
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.”
During a briefing on Wednesday, the French ambassador in Brussels had told Barnier that Paris would prefer to restart talks with the UK in 2021 rather than rush into a deal damaging to European interests.
France was far from isolated among the 27 member states’ representatives in advising Barnier that in several key areas he was close to over-stepping his negotiating mandate, with one diplomat on Thursday suggesting the EU negotiator was treading “on the red line” in the most contentious areas.
But on Thursday the Irish taoiseach, Micheál Martin, said the EU should trust in Barnier to deliver. “We are now at a very critical and sensitive point of the negotiations,” he said. “I want to see a deal done and I believe a deal is possible. It’s clear to me that the landing zone is there for an agreement. We can’t all be negotiators at the table, we’ve got to have faith and trust in the negotiating team to get a balanced deal over the line.”
Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, went further prior to a meeting with France’s European affairs minister, Clément Beaune, in Paris.
Coveney argued that it would be “a very dangerous assumption” that new talks could easily resume after a no-deal outcome, citing the “political tension that would follow” and “significant disruption, costs, stress, and blame games between Brussels and London”.
“There’s a good chance we can get a deal across the line in the next few days,” he told Ireland’s Newstalk radio. “We are in the space of days not weeks. Closing out a negotiation as complex as this one is never going to be easy. It’s going to be full of tension and standoffs, as both sides try to close out a deal that is acceptable.”
EU sources said there were just days left for a deal with Monday pencilled in as a cut-off date because of Downing Street’s intention to reinsert Brexit clauses allowing it to disapply parts of the withdrawal agreement into the internal market bill, which returns to the Commons on Monday.
On Wednesday, Johnson’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, said the prime minister was hopeful of a deal, but equally confident if talks failed. “He is optimistic but he’s also always said that he is confident and comfortable that we would be OK without a deal.”
While the fishing industry accounts for less than 0.1% of the British economy, the sector is emblematic of Brexit, with Johnson frequently declaring the importance of establishing sovereignty and control over who has access to British waters, including the narrow strait at the Channel, where the French land 80% of the cod catch.
The Guardian revealed on Tuesday that Johnson had lowered his Brexit demands by asking EU fishing fleets to hand over up to 60% of the value of stocks it takes from British waters, down from 80%, but this has been rejected by the EU.
At an event organised by the European Policy Centre thinktank, Stefaan De Rynck, a senior member of Barnier’s team, said “significant divergences” remained and that the outcome of talks was uncertain. But he said both sides were committed to securing a deal.