UK-EU deadlocked in Brexit talks as clock ticks down

Talks between the European Union and the United Kingdom on their post-Brexit relationship ground to a near-standstill Friday, with each side accusing the other of blocking progress on a trade deal just weeks before a crucial summit.

The EU's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, told a news conference in Brussels that a week-long round of talks had been "disappointing, very disappointing."

Barnier said there was no progress on all the most difficult issues and insisted Britain would have to show more realism.

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The Union flag is taken down outside the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, ahead of the UK leaving the European Union at 11pm on Friday.
A member of protocol carries the folded Union flag past the EU flag after it was removed from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
A member of protocol carries the folded Union flag after it was removed from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
The Union flag is lowered and removed from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Pro-Brexit supporters gather in Parliament Square, London, as the UK prepared to leave the European Union at 11pm UK time. Picture date: Friday January 31, 2020. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/Empics
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage celebrates during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The U.K. officially departs the EU at 11 p.m. local time, midnight in Brussels (2300 GMT, 6 p.m. EST). The move comes 3½ years after the country voted by a margin of 52%-48% to walk away from the club that it had joined in 1973. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
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A member of protocol removes the Union flag from the atrium of the Europa building in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)
Großbritannien hat die EU verlassen. Während Hunderte Brexit-Anhänger in London jubelten, wurde in Schottland und Nordirland protestiert.
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A countdown to Brexit timer and the colors of the British Union flag illuminate the exterior of 10 Downing street, the residence of the British Prime Minister, in London, England, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
The Union flag is folded and removed after being lowered from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Brexit supporters trample on a European Union flag during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A projection appears on a cliff in Ramsgate, southern England, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Brexit supporters celebrate during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain leaves the European Union after 47 years, leaping into an unknown future in historic blow to the bloc. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A projection appears on a cliff in Ramsgate, southern England, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
French gendarmes walk by as British living in France attend a gathering to express their sprit of Europe despite the withdrawal Brexit agreement and the UK's departure from the EU, in a street closed to the British Embassy in Paris, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain leaves the European Union after 47 years, leaping into an unknown future in a historic blow to the bloc. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
An image of the clock face of 'Big Ben' is projected onto the exterior of 10 Downing street, the residence of the British Prime Minister, in London as Britain left the European Union, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. With little fuss and not much fanfare, Britain left the European Union on Friday after 47 years of membership, taking a leap into the unknown in a historic blow to the bloc. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
An image of the clock face of 'Big Ben' is projected onto the exterior of 10 Downing street, the residence of the British Prime Minister, in London as Britain left the European Union, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. With little fuss and not much fanfare, Britain left the European Union on Friday after 47 years of membership, taking a leap into the unknown in a historic blow to the bloc. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
A Brexit supporter celebrates during a rally in Parliament square in London, England as Britain left the European Union on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Anti-Brexit protesters gather outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
Protesters from the campaign group Border Communities Against Brexit take part in a demonstration in Carrickcarnon on the Irish border, Ireland, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Protesters from the campaign group Border Communities Against Brexit take part in a demonstration in Carrickcarnon on the Irish border, Ireland, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
Brexit supporters gather during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU at 23:00 GMT Friday, the first nation in the bloc to do so. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Britain's Union flag is lowered form its pole outside the European Parliament Friday Jan. 31, 2020, in Strasbourg, eastern France. The U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU at 23:00 GMT Friday, the first nation in the bloc to do so. (AP Photo)
Brexit supporters pose with the Union Jack at the Cenotaph, in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum.(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Rain drops are seen on the umbrella of a Brexit supporter during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Passengers arrive to embark on the last Eurostar train of the day at Gare du Nord Station in Paris to go to St Pancras International train station in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The U.K. is due to leave the EU on Friday, the first nation to leave the bloc since its inception. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
The Union flag is lowered and removed from outside of the European Parliament in Brussels, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. As the United Kingdom prepared to bring to an end its 47-year EU membership, the bloc's top officials on Friday pledged to continue playing a prominent role despite the loss of a powerful affiliate. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
Anti-Brexit protesters gather outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
The five-year old Elisa Saemann, left, and her seven-year old sister Katie hold a placard during a rally by anti-Brexit protesters outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
A Brexit supporter holds a British flag during a rally in London, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)
Anti-Brexit protesters gather outside the Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Britain officially leaves the European Union on Friday after a debilitating political period that has bitterly divided the nation since the 2016 Brexit referendum. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
A projection by the Mayor of London’s office displaying 'London - everyone welcome' is seen at Piccadilly Circus in London, Britain January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage speaks to the media through a fence as he celebrates Britain leaving the EU on Brexit day, at Parliament Square in London, Britain, January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
A person pours a beer on the European Union flag lying on the ground and covered with a mud on Brexit day in London, Britain January 31, 2020. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
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"I am not optimistic in the face of British incomprehension," he said.

The British side echoed the glum assessment, calling the mood of the talks "tetchy."

UK negotiator David Frost said the talks had "made very little progress towards agreement on the most significant outstanding issues." In a statement, Frost accused the EU of insisting on "an ideological approach which makes it more difficult to reach a mutually beneficial agreement."

The two sides remain at odds over a range of key issues including fishing and the role of high courts in settling future disputes.

EU leaders and Boris Johnson are scheduled to have a summit at the end of June, likely by video, to take stock of the talks' progress.

Britain officially left the 27-nation bloc on Jan. 31, but remains within the EU's economic and regulatory orbit until the end of the year. The two sides have until then to work out a new relationship covering trade, security and a host of other issues — or face a chaotic split that would be economically disruptive for both sides, but especially for the UK.

The UK-EU divorce agreement allows for the deadline to be extended by two years, but Johnson's government insists it won't lengthen the transition period beyond December 31st.

Most trade deals take years to negotiate, so finishing something as fundamental as this in 11 months would be a Herculean task at the best of times. Many politicians, experts and diplomats believe it is impossible during a coronavirus pandemic that has focused governments' resources on preserving public health and averting economic collapse.

Both Barnier and Frost fell sick with Covid-19, though both have recovered.

While the two men say they have a good personal relationship, the two sides accuse the other of seeking the impossible.

Britain wants a Canada-style free-trade deal that would involve the elimination of tariffs and quotas on most, if not all, goods, along with agreements on services and a range of other issues.

The EU says Britain can't have that without signing up to a swath of the bloc's regulations on environmental standards, workers' rights and state aid. Otherwise, they say, there wouldn't be a level playing field.

"We will not trade off our European values for the benefit of the British economy. Our economic and commercial fair play is not for sale," Barnier said.

But the U.K. government says that signing up to EU rules and standards amounts to an unacceptable undermining of the country's independence.

Frost said that to make progress, "we very much need a change in EU approach" for the next round of talks, due to start June 1.

If no deal on their future relationship is agreed by the end of the year, a cliff-edge economic departure would loom again for Britain, with uncertainly over customs rules, airline slots, financial regulation and other standards.

Both sides are already facing a serious recession because of the pandemic and a chaotic split on December 31st wouldn't help.

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