Britain stood firm on Tuesday in rebutting a European Union offer to discuss draft legal texts of a potential post-Brexit trade deal unless there were fundamental changes as their high-stakes diplomatic poker game risked a chaotic finale.
Failure by the world's largest trading bloc and sixth richest economy to reach a deal by the end of the year to govern $900 billion in annual trade would send shockwaves round Europe, just as the coronavirus also pummels jobs and businesses.
Angry at an EU demand for concessions, prime minister Boris Johnson broke off talks and said it was time to prepare for a no-deal Brexit: the nightmare scenario for business.
Trying to get discussions back on track, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier offered on Monday to intensify talks and open discussions on legal texts of a draft deal.
But that met with short shrift.
"Until you make it very clear that you are willing to negotiate with us as an equal, as a sovereign, then there's no point simply just paying lip service, saying you know 'we'll intensify negotiations'," junior British business minister Nadhim Zahawi told Sky News.
EU diplomats cast Britain's moves as bluster and a frantic bid to secure concessions before a last-minute deal.
"They got what they wanted – intensified talks, on legal texts, on multiple areas ... Now, they are just faffing around," said one EU diplomat.
"All this posturing is only aimed at strengthening Johnson’s hand. If they don't want to talk, that's their choice. There is no point at this stage to give them anything more."
There is concern in some European capitals that Johnson may judge that the domestic political benefits and potentially the long-term economic freedom of a noisy no-deal exit outweigh the benefits of a shallow trade deal.
Britain formally left the EU at the end of January, but the two sides have been haggling over a deal that would govern trade in everything from car parts to medicines when informal membership known as the transition period ends on 31 December.
'Fundamental Change In Approach'
"The EU still needs to make a fundamental change in approach to the talks and make clear it has done so," Britain's chief negotiator David Frost said on Monday.
Johnson and his Brexit supremo Michael Gove will tell businesses on Tuesday to step up preparations for the end of the transition period.
Some analysts still say a deal is the most likely ultimate outcome, though the consensus was wrong on the 2016 Brexit referendum when Britons voted by 52-48% to leave, shocking markets and European leaders.