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The European Union’s chief negotiator last week rejected a British offer to begin work on a draft free-trade agreement because of a lack of progress on the so-called level-playing field and future access to the country’s fishing grounds. He has insisted both sides must first move forward on the most controversial issues before drawing up plans in the areas where there is more convergence between them. But British officials are concerned this tactic is increasing the chances of no deal at the end of the post-Brexit transition period on December 31.
“There is a sense from the EU side they would like to start discussing some substance on governance, an area they are interested in, but they’re caught by the rules on parallelism,” one source said.
During a previous round of talks, David Frost, the Prime Minister’s chief negotiator with Europe, agreed to shelve plans for a series of separate agreements to govern the future UK-EU relationship.
Instead he agreed to work on the basis the pact would be contained within one overarching structure, a key demand from Brussels.
Both sides failed to end the impasse last week in Brussels with the talks eventually breaking up without any significant progress to be announced.
Mr Barnier complained the wrangling over a post-Brexit pact had gone backwards with hopes of a deal fading.
On Saturday, Clement Beaune, the French Europe minister, said: “The lack of progress in the Brexit negotiations is very worrying.”
Mr Frost blamed Brussels’ tactics for the stalemate, insisting the bloc’s refusal to negotiate over wider elements of the trade deal had stalled progress.
“The EU is still insisting not only that we must accept continuity with EU state-aid and fisheries policy, but also that this must be agreed before any further substantive work can be done in any other area of the negotiation, including on legal texts,” he said.
“This makes it unnecessarily difficult to make progress. There are other significant areas which remain to be resolved and, even where there is a broad understanding between negotiators, there is a lot of detail to work through. Time is short for both sides.”
UK officials have argued the EU’s refusal to budget is not compatible with the UK’s new states as a sovereign state since leaving the bloc in January.
Boris Johnson’s Brexit envoy believes a deal is possible but has claimed it will “not be easy”.
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Britain has set a deadline of October for the trade deal to be signed off.
Further talks between Mr Frost and Mr Barnier are scheduled to take place in London this week, and in Brussels the next.
Meanwhile Michael Gove is said to be intensifying Whitehall preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
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Government insiders say the Cabinet Office minister is “working around the clock” to ensure the necessary legislation and border infrastructure is in place should the trade talks collapse.
A Whitehall source said Mr Gove was spending nearly all of his time on the preparations.
The insider said: “Lots of the changes to get ready for the transition are happening regardless of whether we get a trade deal, so the Cabinet Office is ramping up preparations.”
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