By Stefan J. Bos
Negotiators desperately tried Sunday to prevent the five-year Brexit divorce from ending up messily.
The urgent talks came as Britain and the European Union face the economic costs of the COVID-19 pandemic. That worries the British government and the European Commission, the EU's executive.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen instructed their negotiators to secure their annual $1 trillion in trade.
But that won't be easy. One of the disagreements is over access to British waters by the EU's fishing fleets. France is among member states demanding such fishing rights.
The issue over fishing rights erupted last week, with Britain accusing the EU of making extra "last-minute" demands. Another problem is what measures there should be to ensure fair cross border trade on both sides.
British Environment Secretary George Eustice confirmed expressed concern about the ongoing dispute about fishing and business rules. "There is still a deal to be done. But there is no denying that the end of last week was quite a setback. The European Union came forward with a lot of new additional requests again. So we started last week, hopeful that there might be a breakthrough [but] things have gone backward later last week," he complained.
"The sticking points remain quite fundamental ones. We have been clear all along that we can only do an agreement if it respects our sovereignty. That we want to be doing a free trade agreement as a sovereign equal with the European Union," Eustice said in an interview.
"Anything that undermines our ability to control our own waters, for instance, or undermines our ability to make our own laws, isn't something we can accept, " he added.
But as he boarded the train back to Brussels, the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier sounded noncommittal ahead of Sunday's talks. "We keep calm as always. And if there is still a way, we will see, huh."
However, time is running out. With less than four weeks to go before Britain completes its journey out of the bloc, both sides must also get agreement on any deal from their parliaments. And the EU's executive needs to get approval from all its 27 member states.
Without a deal, border checks and taxes will be introduced for goods traveling between Britain and the EU at the end of this already turbulent year.