LONDON (AFP) - The European Union's chief Brexit negotiator told Britain on Sunday (May 31) that the economic damage wrought by the coronavirus crisis made it especially important the sides reach a new trade deal.
EU and UK negotiators will enter a fourth and last scheduled round of talks this week that could determine if a comprehensive new agreement is struck by the year-end deadline.
Britain formally left the other 27 EU nations in January but still largely operates as if it were a member of the bloc under a year-long transition for both sides to adjust to the new realities.
Brexit supporters are also upset that London will continue making contributions to the EU budget during the transition under a deal reached last year.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed not to extend the talks past the current deadline - something he must do by the end of June - and the prospects of a broad new deal look bleak.
Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier told The Sunday Times that London and Brussels could not afford to make the economic situation even worse by breaking off their nearly 50-year partnership without arrangements for what comes next.
"If we don't get an agreement then that will have even more consequences. And then of course those will be added to the already very serious consequences of the coronavirus crisis," Mr Barnier said.
"So I think that we have a joint responsibility in this very serious crisis, which affects so many families... with so many deaths, so many people sick, so many people unemployed... to do everything we can to reach an agreement and I very much hope that we will do so."
The previous round of talks ended in acrimony in May.
'THREE STEPS BACK'
Mr Johnson is expected to work out the best way forward with EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel at a summit held shortly before the June deadline to extend the talks by up to two years.
The European Union is willing to offer Britain preferential trade terms if Mr Johnson signs up to the major standards and regulations followed by the remaining members of the bloc.
Mr Johnson's team argues that the whole point of Brexit was to give Britain the right to set its own rules.
Britain's top negotiator David Frost reaffirmed on Wednesday that London "will always put a lot of emphasis on economic and political freedom at the end of this year and thus avoiding ongoing significant payments into the EU budget".
Mr Barnier accused UK negotiators of reneging on the commitments Mr Johnson signed up to in a non-binding political declaration that accompanied the sides' formal divorce deal.
"The UK has been taking a step back - two steps back, three steps back - from the original commitments," Mr Barnier told The Sunday Times.
A British government source shot back that Brussels "needs to inject some political reality in into its approach".
"'What is clear is that the conventional approach will not get us much further," the British government source told the Mail on Sunday.
Mr Johnson reportedly believes that the political benefits of meeting his pledge not to extend the talks past this year outweigh the cost of a no-deal divorce in a world suffering through a historic economic collapse.