As I write this on Thursday October 15th, I am alerted by media reports on the significance of the date. I am talking not of the ‘C’ word, of which we’ve all had the proverbial bellyful over the past 6 months but of the almost-forgotten ‘B’ word, if you are British. Yes, back to Brexit which, though partially side-lined owing to the more pressing matter COVID, has been simmering on the back burner. Of course, meetings have been taking place, Corona restrictions notwithstanding, but not only has no final agreement been so far reached, the two sides have come to a complete impasse, roadblock, stumbling block – take your pick. Whichever metaphor you choose, it was a case of thus far and no further, all because of a bill passed by the British Parliament earlier this month, basically re-opening the signed and sealed treaty signed between the UK and the EU agreeing all terms and conditions of the split. The bill authorised the government to regulate the UK's internal market from January 1 2021, when Britain will complete its post-Brexit transition period and leave the EU single market and customs union. This directly contradicts several clauses in the treaty which allowed for close alignment between the 2 bodies in many areas of trade and legislation, most importantly for the UK, control over fishing rights in what the British refer to as the English Channel and France simply calls La Manche, or The Sleeve, owing to its shape. The EU was incensed by this breaking of the covenant. After a few days of discussions behind closed doors, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen declared that Brussels had begun legal action over the British government's attempt to overturn parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
"This morning, the Commission has decided to send a letter of formal notice to the UK Government. This is the first step in an infringement procedure," she declared.
London now has one month to reply to the letter of complaint, which could lead to a lawsuit at the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice and hefty fines for the UK. The legal action underscores the worsening relations between the EU and its former member at a time when both sides are trying to forge a rudimentary free trade agreement before the end of the year.
In days of yore the British response might have been to dispatch a gunboat across the Channel in protest at such impertinence, but matters are supposed to be conducted more civilly these days. Nevertheless, an impasse is an impasse and thus far but no further can either side go. Talks have stalled and here it is, deadline day, with neither side backing away. Should no clear consensus be reached by midnight today, the UK’s future trading position will automatically revert to that of World Trade organisation rules.
Boris Johnson told EU leaders he was 'disappointed' their Brexit talks had stalled and was mulling his 'next steps' as his self-imposed no deal deadline looms. The Prime Minister was told via conference call by Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and Council president Charles Michel that there could be no agreement struck if the UK didn't change its stance on fisheries
Mr Johnson has previously suggested he would walk away from the negotiating table if there was no agreement on a trade deal by the time of the two-day summit meeting in Brussels starting on Thursday.
Following the call, a No 10 spokesman said: 'The Prime Minister noted the desirability of a deal but expressed his disappointment that more progress had not been made over the past two weeks.
Meanwhile in the Channel, the longstanding fish wars have broken out again as French trawlers confronted their British counterparts - firing flares and throwing frying pans. Two British boats fishing for scallops were involved in the skirmish. The vessels were surrounded by around 20 French boats and were pelted with objects including frying pans and rocks. The French crews even threw oil at one boat before firing a flare at it, with the violence sparking fears that there could be a death as hostilities worsen.
Fishing remains one of the key sticking points to a Brexit deal, with Boris Johnson unwilling to allow EU trawlers to continue their existing access to UK waters forever. Tensions have been growing each year due to a difference in fishing restrictions between the UK and France.
A Defra (Department of Fisheries & Agriculture) spokesperson said: 'We are very disappointed by this reported incident in the Bay of Seine. The British vessels were fishing legally and have every right to do so in safety. 'We support UK vessels fishing where they have a legal right to do so and have been in contact with the French Government to ensure those rights are protected and safety at sea is assured.'
British scallopers are allowed to fish year round, but the French are not permitted to fish between May 15 and October 1 and Gallic pride and patriotism views this as an insult and a slap in the face, presumably with a wet fish and harks back directly to the difference in nomenclature of that body of water on its two sides!
But whilst throwing frying pans at fishermen sounds like pure farce, at its core is a much bigger issue. Should Britain refuse to back down – and it almost certainly will – the entire Brexit treaty falls away WTO rules come in and every single business in Britain which trades with the EU, as well as every single business across Europe which trades with Britain, will be scrambling to make a plan and they have just over 2 months to conclude those plans - precisely what they undoubtedly didn’t need on top of COVID cutbacks and chaos.
It has boiled down to what players in the children’s card game used to say to their unlucky opponents, ‘Go fish’!