Negotiators on both sides say they have reached an impasse, with neither camp prepared to back down from their opening demands as the end-of-year deadline looms ever larger on the horizon.
However, officials and diplomats hope a high-profile rupture could in fact focus minds in London and European capitals and provide the political impetus for a breakthrough in October.
The latest round of talks ended in deadlock last week with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier warning that “at this stage, an agreement seems unlikely,” and talks are even “going backwards” as valuable time is wasted.
His British counterpart David Frost was also downbeat, warning that a deal won’t be “easy to achieve” and accusing Brussels of making it “unnecessarily difficult to make progress.”
During a briefing to European capitals, officials on Barnier’s team said Britain, which has publicly pushed for fast progress, now appears to have switched tactics and is stringing out the talks to build “time pressure.”
They believe Frost will try at the last minute to “trade off” access to the UK’s lucrative fishing waters, on which many coastal communities in Northern Europe depend, for complete freedom from EU laws after Brexit.
“The talks look likely to collapse, because that’s how the British side wants to choreograph things. They’re preparing the ground for it,” said one European diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“In truth, a row is needed. It’s only if there’s a total breakdown that London can move the debate domestically beyond the hard Brexiteers, and equally that EU leaders can show some leg as well.”
The diplomat said the trade-offs the two sides need to make are “glaringly obvious,” and if they agree how to prevent unfair competition, a deal “will fall into place” quickly.
However, the source cautioned against the British side relying heavily on fisheries access as a bargaining chip, insisting that noncoastal states won’t allow Barnier to give away too much in return.
An EU official warned that if the UK leaves it too late to compromise, there may not be enough time for Brussels to complete its internal processes for ratifying the deal before the end of the year.
“As we see it, the British are now preparing the ground for things taking a nasty turn in September. The general feeling is things are getting worse rather than staying static as expected,” said the official, who also wished to remain anonymous.
“Outsiders don’t realize how pessimistic we’ve become. We expect the mood to start switching quite rapidly to contingency planning, in full expectation the UK will throw itself into the blame game rather than the end game.”
David McAllister, the European Parliament’s point man on Brexit, said the “solid deadline” for an agreement has to be the end of October if lawmakers are to have enough time to scrutinize it and vote on it.
“Losing precious time now in the hope of getting a better deal in a last-minute poker game is not helpful, and potentially very detrimental for both sides,” he said in a statement.
However, UK officials said it’s “a truism” that the most difficult aspects of any negotiation are settled at the end, when both sides have generated enough momentum and “good feeling” to crack them.
Negotiators are expected to speak on the phone this week, with the next round of talks scheduled to take place in London starting on Sept. 7.
“The EU is engaging constructively and in good faith,” said a European Commission spokesman. “We are working hard with the UK to overcome the significant divergences that remain between us.”