BRUSSELS: Weary EU officials prepared for another round of urgent Brexit negotiations on Tuesday, with time running out and some European capitals beginning to doubt that London even wants a trade deal.
"But please, dear friends in London: Stop the games. Time is running out," Germany's European affairs minister Michael Roth warned as he met colleagues in Brussels ahead of a summit of EU leaders on Thursday.
Brussels' chief negotiator Michel Barnier will be in London on Wednesday for informal talks with his UK opposite number David Frost on slow-moving efforts to agree a trade deal – full negotiations resume next week.
EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic will meet his British counterpart Michel Gove in Brussels on Monday, just ahead of Brussels' end-of-the-month deadline for London to drop a bill designed to rewrite the deal.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that he is ready to walk away from the trade talks if there's no progress by mid-October, and Brussels argues a deal must be done by then if it is to be implemented this year.
But – after Johnson launched British legislation to overwrite parts of the withdrawal treaty in open defiance of international law – some EU capitals think he is trying to sabotage the talks.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, whose country has more to lose than most if talks break down, said the mood at the foreign ministers' meeting was pessimistic.
"What has been concerning over the last couple of days for me," he said, "from speaking to other EU foreign ministers, is that there's a growing sense that perhaps the UK doesn't want to deal. And that this is more about managing the blame game as the negotiations fail.
"And I have reassured them very clearly that, in my view, that is not the case."
Britain left the European Union on Jan 31, and will leave the bloc's single market and customs union at the end of the year. Experts fear economic chaos if no new trade deal can be agreed by then.
But Johnson's decision to push an Internal Markets Bill in his own parliament that his own government admits would break international law by overwriting the withdrawal treaty has infuriated EU capitals.
Brussels intends to launch legal action against the measure, but will continue to negotiate a possible trade treaty in parallel to this in the weeks to come as the bill passes through the Commons and House of Lords.
"The so-called Internal Market Bill worries us extremely, because it violates the guiding principles of the withdrawal agreement, and this is totally unacceptable for us," Roth said.
Sefcovic said he would meet Gove as joint chair of the EU-UK Joint Coordination Committee overseeing the divorce agreement, which Johnson signed last year and hailed as an "oven-ready" deal to get Britain out of Europe.
However, he warned, "we will not be renegotiating, but we are dedicated to its full and timely implementation – nothing more and nothing less."
France's minister for European Affairs, Clement Beaune, said Paris still hopes there will be a trade deal to head off the danger of a breakdown in trade ties on Jan 1, but that Europe would not compromise on the treaty.
"We are not going to ratify an agreement on the future relationship if there are knife wounds all over the previous chapter," he said, referring to a withdrawal deal that Brussels and Dublin see as vital to maintaining an open border in Ireland.
Johnson has argued that his bill will instead provide a "safety net" against what he has claimed are EU threats to impose tariffs on UK internal trade and even stop food going from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland.
The EU leaders will receive a "point of information" on progress in the trade talks at their summit on Thursday, but for the moment have left the protracted wranglings in the hands of their negotiator, Barnier.
The two sides are still divided on rules for a "level-playing field" of fair competition between companies, on state aid or subsidies for EU and UK firms and on access for EU boats to British fishing waters. – AFP