British and EU trade negotiators embarked on high-stakes talks aimed at forging a new post-Brexit relationship today, with timing tight and the sides far apart on key issues.
The EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost met in Brussels, launching several months of intense talks that will mobilise about 100 officials on each side.
The negotiations began just over a month after Britain left the EU, and are meant to wrap up by the end of this year, which is an exceedingly tight time-frame that few see as feasible for anything but a bare-bones accord.
The deadline is effectively 31 December, the end of the UK's current transition period during which it trades like an EU member with no tariffs or other barriers.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ruled out extending the transition and both sides are looking to an EU-UK summit in June to decide whether talks are worth continuing.
The negotiations have been clouded by mistrust as each side has accused the other of reneging on high-ambition goals set out in the political declaration struck last year.
Mandates published last week highlighted the EU's aim of securing a "level-playing field" to prevent Britain undercutting European standards on labour, tax, environment and state subsidies.
Meanwhile, the UK is insisting on setting its own rules in the name of "economic and political independence".
The acrimony pushed the British pound 1.3% lower against the euro today, amid fears that Britain's hard-line stance would hurt the economy.
We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences
Experts warned that the two sides are on a collision course, with a deal highly unlikely without a major concession.
Fabian Zuleeg, head of the European Policy Centre, said he was "pessimistic" about the outcome given the UK's fervent desire to break from EU rules.
"It's very difficult to see where they could meet to make this work," he said. If the British government "sticks to their line, there cannot be a deal".
Underlining tension, Mr Barnier, in an uncharacteristic display of podium-thumping, has warned Britain that any backsliding on its EU divorce terms would torpedo trade talks.
The Brexit deal notably requires checks on British goods crossing the Irish Sea into Northern Ireland that Mr Johnson now says are unnecessary.
"Clearly, at the beginning of any negotiation, there's a bit of posturing. Both sides want to state the strongest possible case," said Mr Zuleeg.
Experts see a deal limited to goods as the most likely outcome, but that would still require customs checks for products crossing the Channel and lacks the ambition called for by businesses.
But fishing, of relatively minor economic importance but of totemic significance to Britain and EU states such as Ireland, France and Spain, could be the flashpoint that scuppers a deal.
Mr Barnier has emphasised that fishing is "inextricably" linked to the whole agreement. The EU is demanding its fishing boats continue to have access to British waters in return for British fishermen being able to sell their catches to their biggest and closest market.
The outbreak of coronavirus is said to be complicating cross-Channel relations as negotiators prepare to start bartering.
The Telegraph reported that Downing Street and the Department of Health and Social Care are involved in a stand-off over whether Britain should retain membership of an EU pandemic warning system used to stem the SARS and bird flu outbreak.
It comes after a further 13 coronavirus cases were confirmed in the UK yesterday - the largest jump in a single day.
According to the newspaper, No 10 fears continued membership of the Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) could hamper trade negotiations.
As a result, Downing Street is said to have prevented Health Secretary Matt Hancock from travelling to meet counterparts to coordinate a Europe-wide response to the coronavirus outbreak.
The Liberal Democrats have called for the trade talks to be postponed and the deadline to be extended to allow ministers to focus on stopping coronavirus.
Acting leader Ed Davey said: "Then the NHS and local communities can get the funds and the focus they deserve, and the UK can talk to our European neighbours about how we can cooperate against the coronavirus which does not recognise national borders."