Theresa May hits back at French threats over fisheries amid warnings of ‘intolerable pressure’ in trade talks

© PAPrime Minister Theresa May
Prime Minister Theresa May

An embattled Theresa May last night hit back at French threats to delay a future trade deal over access to UK fisheries – but was warned there will be “intolerable pressure to agree almost anything”.

In a riposte to French President Emmanuel Macron’s remarks over the weekend, the prime minister said EU leaders should be “getting used to the answer by now”.

She also suggested the UK could revert to arbitration if the negotiations on a new economic relationship are not conducted “in good faith”.

But the Tory leader, who was updating MPs in the Commons following Sunday’s European Council summit, faced fierce criticism from all sides.

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford declared that Scotland’s fishing communities had been “duped once again by the Conservatives”.

And Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn insisted the UK would have to agree to any demands on access to waters and quota shares “if we want to finalise a future trade deal or extend the transition”.

Tory Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith warned there would be “intolerable pressure to agree almost anything”.

While Mrs May’s Brexit divorce deal and the political declaration on future ties were rubber-stamped at the summit, the EU 27 leaders also published a separate statement vowing to protect their own interests related to fishing, among other matters.

It described a fisheries agreement building on “existing reciprocal access and quota shares” as a priority and emerged as Mr Macron threatened to activate the temporary customs backstop arrangement if the UK does not quickly agree to allow EU boats to fish in British waters.

Speaking from the Despatch Box, the prime minister repeated her assertion that the UK will “take back full sovereign control of our waters” as an independent coastal state.

She added: “The EU have maintained throughout this process that they wanted to link overall access to markets to access to fisheries.

“They failed in the withdrawal agreement and they failed again in the political declaration.

“It is no surprise some are already trying to lay down markers again for the future relationship. But they should be getting used to the answer by now – it is not going to happen.”

She also referred to the “unilateral right” to trigger a review through the joint committee, stressing that the UK can seek arbitration if the EU does not “use good faith”.

Earlier, her spokesman said: “If the EU were not willing to engage in genuine negotiation to replace the backstop with the future relationship or alternative arrangements, for example if it had closed its mind from the outset to the UK position on fisheries, that would put it in breach of its duty of good faith under the agreement and we could refer this to independent arbitration.”

Mr Corbyn, however, said: “Isn’t it the case that under the prime minister’s botched deal we will have to agree to those demands on access to waters and quota shares if we want to finalise a future trade deal or extend the transition, breaking every promise the prime minister, the environment secretary and the Scotland secretary have made to our fishing industry and coastal communities?”

Meanwhile, Mr Blackford branded the deal “another sell-out of the Scottish fishing industry by a Tory government”.

The Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP said fishing boats registered in Northern Ireland would have zero-tariff access to the EU and UK markets but those registered in Scotland and other parts of the UK would not.

He also said it was now clear the EU would start negotiations on fisheries “based on existing quota shares”, adding: “That’s not taking back control of our waters. It’s the EU exercising an effective veto.

“Scotland’s fishing communities have been duped once again by the Conservatives.”

Mrs May said she recognised the depth of concern, but told MPs: “It’s important to recall that if we are in the backstop, we would be outside CFP and we would be deciding who has access to fish in our waters.”

And she insisted the “real sell-out of Scotland’s fishermen” would be the “SNP’s policy to stay in the CFP”.

Speaking after the statement, Tory Banff and Buchan MP David Duguid insisted the UK would not be “bullied” by “outrageous threats” by the French.

But Liberal Democrat former Scottish secretary Alistair Carmichael said the 27 EU member states would be “coming for concessions at the expense of our fishing industry”.