By Francesco Guarascio and Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier expressed confidence at a meeting with Member States' envoys to the bloc last Friday that diplomatic sources told Reuters.
His comments after the last round of EU-UK negotiations contradict his optimistic public view that London's rigid positions on fishing and guarantees of a level playing field for fair competition were initially unlikely.
More than four years after the British voted to leave the EU in a referendum and after tortuous divorce talks, both sides will be negotiating all aspects of their relationships, from trade to security, by 2021.
The two main stumbling blocks are access to British fish waters and the EU's call for Britain to closely follow the bloc's state aid, labor and environmental standards to ensure that the EU internal market does not contain poor quality goods is undercut.
The EU says an agreement must be reached by October so that there is time for ratification by the end of the year. Both sides have said that talks may stall.
"I remain confident that a balanced and sustainable business will remain possible, even if it is less ambitious," Barnier said, according to sources at the meeting, adding that London appeared to be more interested in doing business with "less." Quality and low profile ".
He said his recent meeting with Boris Johnson left him feeling that the British prime minister wanted a deal, despite insisting that London be prepared for the prospect that no agreement could be reached.
Barnier's comments have been confirmed, according to sources from Ireland and the Netherlands.
Envoys for the two countries, which are likely to have the greatest impact on a change in trading rules after December 31, said they were still confident that a deal would come about.
"SWIMMING ON THE CANAL"
The Dutch envoy quipped that, according to the sources, a deal would eventually “float across the (English) channel”.
All envoys called for calm and unity, saying that this strategy had already helped fill the gaps in settling future disputes, an element that has been regularly mentioned as a stumbling block in the past.
Barnier called the "level playing field" the biggest remaining problem, but also listed energy and transport cooperation, as well as rules for labeling the origin of products.
"The same competitive conditions are not for sale," sources Barnier said.
They also said that Lithuania and Hungary have expressed concerns that overly strict fisheries policies may reduce the chance of an overall agreement.
France, whose fishing industry is economically and politically sensitive, described the comments as "unacceptable".
The French mission in Brussels said the French envoy urged solidarity in all areas of the talks.
The EU executive, the European Commission, said it had nothing to add to Barnier's public comments.
EU missions to Lithuania, Ireland and the Netherlands said they would not comment on confidential talks. The Hungarian EU office did not respond to a request for comment.
(Letter from Gabriela Baczynska; editor of Kevin Liffey)