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European affairs minister Clement Beaune insisted securing access to the UK’s coastal waters remains a “big priority” for Paris as wrangling over a free-trade agreement is intensified. His intervention comes amid efforts by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to water down the bloc’s hardline demands to maintain the status quo for fisheries after the end of the transition period in December. Speaking after an event at the French economy ministry, Mr Beaune said: “Our priorities are extremely transparent, fisheries is certainly one of them.
“It’s a big priority we are defending at the moment. It’s important for the UK, so we should respect and understand that, but it is crucial for France, for all of the EU, that we will defend our interests in this negotiation.”
“We will have no weaknesses on this issue of fisheries, that is clear.”
France is set to be hit by a devastating cut to fishing quotas in British waters after Brexit.
President Emmanuel Macron is said to be isolated in demanding the bloc refuses a trade deal with Britain unless his hardline access demands are met.
And Mr Beaune insisted France will ensure Mr Barnier sticks to the tough guidelines handed to him by EU leaders over the coming weeks.
He added: “The position of the government has been the same from the start. We want and hope to reach an agreement and this agreement must include fishing. It cannot be isolated or treated in a secondary way.
“We have said that fishing is a priority. We have a few other key priorities. They are transparent. They have been known for months. In particular, a level playing field in access to our market and therefore that is what must be respected.
“We prefer to reach an agreement, but we will not accept any deal. We can understand the position and the priorities of the UK, but we must also respect the position of the EU, which is not new, and which is that of France and 26 other countries.
“I will repeat this. There is a very strong priority in the fishing sector, which must not be isolated or mistreated in these negotiations because it is important for the British, but it is also very important for France and many other countries of the EU.”
Mr Barnier is understood to be prepared to water down the bloc’s controversial fishing demands in order to broker a Brexit trade deal with Britain.
Meanwhile two politicians from Mr Macron’s En Marche party are lobbying MEPs to support France’s position on post-Brexit fishing opportunities.
French MEPs Nathalie Loiseau and Pierre Karleskind are pleading with European Parliament colleagues to vote down any trade deal unless EU fishermen are guaranteed “continuous access to British waters and fish”.
In a leaked memo, seen by Express.co.uk, the French politicians set out plans to issue a public threat to Boris Johnson as crunch negotiations get underway in Brussels.
They wrote: “As the Brexit negotiations are coming to an end, there is a special need for signals of unity coming from all EU institutions, in order to strengthen the hand of our negotiator Michel Barnier and to ensure that a partnership agreement, if reachable, does protect the interests of our fellow citizens.”
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Ms Loiseau is a former French Europe minister and a close confidant of President Macron and Mr Karleskind is chairman of the European Parliament’s fisheries committee.
The pair plan to publish an open letter, warning British negotiators must compromise in the bitter row over access to the country’s fishing grounds or face a no-deal Brexit.
“These negotiations are coming to an end; the UK and EU realise that there is very little time left to find an agreement. We, as representatives of our fellow citizens, must protect their interest and this will be our sole guideline when we vote on the outcome of the negotiations,” the leaked note says.
“We have been crystal clear so far and will continue to be: there won’t be a free trade agreement without a balanced, sustainable and long-term agreement on fisheries. There is nothing that would change our minds, let’s not reverse the logic of our negotiations.”
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It adds: “A future partnership agreement makes sense only if it protects the interests of the signatories, there is no doubt that the UK will be losing some benefits by leaving the single market, but this was the choice it made. Threatening the European fisheries sector won’t make the doors of the single market open wider. Why should European fishermen suffer the consequences of a decision, Brexit, they were not part of?
“The EU negotiating stance is simple and transparent: to protect the interests of EU citizens and businesses, by no means to undermine them. The fisheries sector is no exception.”
Boris Johnson has been adamant that Britain must become a sovereign coastal state after Brexit where the Government has full control over its waters.
Talks continue in Brussels this week between Michel Barnier and Lord Frost ahead of a crunch summit of European leaders on Thursday.
A UK official said: “There is still a significant gap on fish. The EU need to show more realism if there is going to be a deal.”
And the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: “We will work as hard as we can to see if we can get an agreement by October 15.
“The EU themselves indicated to the UK negotiating team in July that mid-October was the last possible moment for a deal.”
Additional reporting by Maria Ortega
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