Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told British leaders that talks on a post-Brexit trade deal were not in a good place as fears mount that a deal cannot be done in the handful of days left to seal agreement.
In particular, Mr Coveney, who said "fish don't have passports", pointed on Monday to the outsize importance of a fisheries compromise in the quest for a breakthrough.
“It’s a lot more emotive, and a lot more political, quite frankly,” he said. “What the British government has promised to their fishing industry, versus Michel Barnier’s negotiating mandate from the EU is a very, very wide gap.
"The negotiations are not in a good place when it comes to fishing."
The UK’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost also said the talks may not succeed, raising concerns about the likelihood of a no-deal impasse.
Mr Frost was commenting as he arrived in Brussels ahead of a crucial week for UK-EU talks. The timetable for both sides to reach a deal is getting tight, with the EU withdrawal transition period ending on December 31, but a ratification process must also be taken into account.
The British negotiator said his team was working to get a deal, but only “one that is compatible with our sovereignty” and “takes back control of our laws, our trade, and our waters".
Any suggestion of a softer attitude towards Brexit after the departure of Boris Johnson’s chief adviser and architect of Brexit, Dominic Cummings, was scotched by the British side.
Senior British backbenchers, who support Brexit, told The National on Monday that they have complete confidence the UK will not give way on questions affecting Britain's sovereignty – be that fishing or the courts of justice – before going on to say that if the EU is unable to accept that there will be no agreement.
Mr Coveney also said there would be no deal if Mr Johnson pushed ahead with his controversial Internal Market Bill, which would give ministers the power to break international law by “dis-applying” agreed rules set out in the Withdrawal Agreement in relation to trade between Northern Ireland and Britain.
“There is no way the EU will agree to ratify a new agreement if the British government is breaking the existing agreement that is not even 12 months old, and breaking international law by doing that,” Mr Coveney said.
Even with a deal there will be a substantial increase in the burdens of doing business with Europe even if that pales in significance to the fallout from a collapse in the talks.
"No-deal would be more disruptive for agriculture or the automotive industry – but the key point is people need to prepare for life in the UK to change from January 1, 2021," Jill Rutter, senior research fellow at UK in a Changing Europe, told The National.
“The deal Boris John seems to want is still incredibly disruptive. There will be more paperwork for everyone, not just businesses. Travel will be disrupted, EU roaming charges will be back, a lot of the things we have taken for granted over the years will be gone. We can talk about ‘level playing fields’ but these are the things people will actually see change almost immediately,” she said.
The talks are stalled on a number of sticking points, mainly fishing rights in British waters and the "level playing field" conditions for businesses. Compromise will be the word floating around Brussels this week but both sides appear to be digging in and time is not on their side.