LONDON: Britain and Brussels embark on a third round of trade talks Monday with little hope for a breakthrough, amid the far more urgent challenge of dealing with the coronavirus crisis.
The new negotiations will begin with a virtual head-to-head between Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, and his UK counterpart, David Frost -- both of whom have recovered from a bout with the virus.
That will be followed by videoconferences involving hundreds of officials throughout the week.
The UK left the European Union on January 31 and both sides have until the end of the year to forge a new basis for relations, barring an extension that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson refuses to consider.
The previous round of virtual UK-EU talks broke up on April 24 with little or no progress. This followed a first session -- and so far the only in-person talks -- in Brussels in March.
The EU side accuse Britain of focusing only on issues dear to them and ignoring those essential for EU members, such as fishing, or on agreeing on minimum standards for health and the environment --- known as a "level playing field".
The EU's trade commissioner Phil Hogan complained that he saw "no real sign that our British friends are approaching the negotiations with a plan to succeed".
Britain says it is fully committed to the talks.
"We do not recognise the suggestion that we have not engaged with the EU in any area," said a UK spokesperson.
"We will continue to negotiate constructively to find a balanced solution which reflects the political realities on both sides."
Shift of red lines?
Another accusation is that Britain is dragging its feet on implementing the most sensitive stipulations of its divorce deal.
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This concerns setting up the customs barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of mainland UK -- a border, in effect, in the Irish Sea that Britain only accepted at the end of divorce talks.
Britain has yet to detail how it will go about the checks and said it would only do so in the coming weeks.
Given the lockdowns and other consequences of coronavirus, predictions in Brussels are that progress will only emerge closer to the deadline, when London will use the crisis fallout to justify a sudden shift of red lines.
If no deal is reached by December 31, then WTO trade rules come into force, with high tariffs and customs barriers between the UK and EU.
That prospect is especially alarming given the deepest recession in history already crushing the continent that chaotic post-Brexit ties would only make worse.