French President Emmanuel Macron has stated that he is ready to accept a no-deal outcome for the Brexit talks if the UK does not change its position. Negotiations on fishing rights in UK waters are still deadlocked.
At an EU summit in Brussels, the French head of state said that an agreement "will not come about at any cost" and that his country is completing preparations for a tough British exit from the EU internal market and the customs union at the end of this year.
The comments underscore his determination to underpin the EU's negotiating position ahead of the final stages of negotiations on future relations, where both sides are far apart on fishing rights and struggle to level the playing field between businesses.
"If the conditions are not met, it is possible that we will not reach an agreement," said Macron. "Under no circumstances will our fishermen be the ones who were sacrificed for this Brexit," Macron said. "We didn't opt for Brexit, but for the British people."
The EU heads of state and government will meet in Brussels on Thursday for their first in-depth discussion on Brexit this year, although the fate of the negotiations is still uncertain. Boris Johnson will set out his position on Friday once the summit talks – which the UK is not present – are over.
While officials have reported no breakthroughs following talks over the past few days, there have been signs of movement on the UK side in the area of government subsidy policies. However, one of the big sticking points is level-playing field discussions.
European heads of state and government will meet in Brussels on Thursday to discuss Brexit. © Kenzo Tribouillard / POOL / AFP / Getty
Fisheries rights are the most difficult obstacle to an agreement as both sides override the new regime. The EU entered negotiations on future relations to maintain access to UK waters and existing fishing rights for more than 70 species of fish that swim across the EU-UK maritime border.
The UK, on the other hand, wants to make the old model for dividing quotas and access to its waters conditional on successful annual negotiations, which Brussels strongly opposes.
The EU fisheries sector employs less than 180,000 people and accounts for less than 1 percent of the bloc's economic output. However, this underestimates its political power in France and seven other EU coastal states.
As a sign of the severity of the problem, French European Minister Clement Beaune visited the fishing communities in Normandy on the morning of the summit and said on Twitter that he had a single goal: "Defending and protecting the interests of fishermen".
Nevertheless, Mr. Macron showed at least some willingness to negotiate and said he was looking for a "good compromise" on this issue.
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, said every deal must be fair, but stressed that the current effort is "worth it".
Mr Johnson will officially respond to the European Council conclusions on Friday and expects him to issue a strong warning of the need for rapid progress and new concessions from Brussels.
There was speculation that Mr Johnson might try to create a crisis in the talks, but British officials downplayed proposals the Prime Minister would exclude from the negotiations.
Downing Street said Mr Johnson had been kept informed of the state of play by UK negotiator David Frost and would reflect on the outcome of the EU leaders' meeting before commenting.
British officials said Mr Johnson would reflect on the "atmosphere" of the discussions in Brussels and whether the EU had made a "strong credible statement" that it would bring the talks to a successful conclusion. "Let's see what they say," said one.
Downing Street said: "We want to keep reaching a free trade agreement, that is our aim. We will set out our next steps in the light of the Council meeting."
Pro-Brexit Conservative MPs believe a deal is tight despite the differences, especially when it comes to fisheries.
Mr Macron added that the summit would reaffirm the mandate of EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
"If good terms are not found at the end of the discussions, we are prepared for a no-deal for the future relationship," he said.
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin and Mehreen Khan in Brussels