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The entire U.K.-EU trade deal could fail over this one issue

The French president is standing firm on his demand to keep the same access to British waters his country’s fishing industry enjoys today, according to officials familiar with the talks. That’s angering the British and creating tensions even among his allies within the EU.

As the Brexit talks enter their final critical few weeks, officials on both sides are voicing doubts over whether they can get a deal over the line. EU negotiators say that while they wait for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to offer concessions on state aid — the other major obstacle to an accord — Paris’s stance on fish is becoming a second major focus of concern.

Johnson and Macron have good personal chemistry according to people who have seen them work together, but that may not be enough to convince the Frenchman to risk alienating the voters by handing concessions to his country’s ancient rival. EU ambassadors will discuss the state of play in Brussels on Wednesday.

The issue they’re wrangling over is one of tiny economic significance but has huge political ramifications. Macron designed the EU’s hard-line opening position — that Britain should be forced to hand over just as much fish as it did when an EU member — and so far hasn’t budged. The entire U.K.-EU trade deal could fail over this one issue.

Johnson has said he wants to know that there will be a deal by Oct. 15 or he will walk away from the negotiations. His spokesman, James Slack, said on Tuesday that the U.K. is “committed” to working toward an accord.

With the U.K. indicating fisheries are a priority and EU negotiators more focused on extracting concessions on state aid, officials can see the outline of a potential way forward — but that would require Johnson to make a move, and Macron isn’t ready to give up on fish either.

Publicly, other European governments are standing by Macron. And other fishing nations, such as the Netherlands and Denmark, hold similar views. The EU also believes it can extract the most concessions from the U.K. by presenting a united front and that drawing attention to Macron’s entrenched position will only make it more difficult for him to back down.

Brexit Talks Are Stuck on Fish, a Red Line for France’s Macron, Bloomberg, Oct 7

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