A top EU diplomat warned Monday it was getting dangerously late to secure a post-Brexit trade deal as a week of crucial talks began in Brussels.
The clock is ticking down to December 31 when a post-Brexit transition phase ends and the UK and Europe will need a trade deal to govern ties -- or face economic chaos.
The EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his UK counterpart David Frost met again in Brussels in hopes of reaching an agreement after eight months of mostly fruitless talks.
"Let's see if there will be an agreement. We can't tell at this stage whether this will be by the end of this week, or whenever -- or at all," the senior diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"This is already getting extremely late," he told reporters. In London, a Downing Street spokesman agreed: "There is much work to be done and time is very short."
With a late October deadline already blown, a deal is needed to allow time for legal vetting and translation and then ratification by the European Parliament, whose last scheduled meeting of the year is on December 16.
The diplomat warned that "creative solutions" would be needed if a deal was delivered too late. Any accord would require two to three weeks of legal work before a vote by MEPs.
"We work very hard to get a deal, but there is still quite a lot to do," said Frost as he arrived for a session of talks with Barnier.
- 'Strict on conditions' -
Officials on both sides of the talks say negotiators are waiting for the opposite side to make a big move on the toughest issues that remain.
For the UK, the EU must discount its hopes of keeping permanent wide access to British waters for European fishermen.
The EU meanwhile is waiting for London to lay down guarantees for fair competition on matters such as the environment, health and state aid.
"We are very strict on our conditions (and) they are acceptable," said Thierry Breton, France's representative to the European Commission that is spearheading the talks for the EU.
If Prime Minister Boris Johnson "respects them, there will be a deal. If he does not respect them, there will be no deal," Breton told French broadcaster LCI.
The talks entered this crucial phase as a staffing shake-up embroiled Johnson's government, which is also fighting a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.
A spokesman for Johnson downplayed the brouhaha over senior adviser Dominic Cummings' departure and warned against reading too much into it.
"There will be no change in our approach, as David Frost set out over the weekend," he said, stressing a deal must respect "our laws and our waters".
"We need to see more realism from the EU on what it means for the UK to be an independent state."
Hopes were that a breakthrough would come in time for an EU leaders' video call on Thursday to discuss the pandemic, though the likelihood of that was dimming.
"Although many officials believe this week is critical, we aren't expecting a breakthrough," said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for the Eurasia Group risk consultancy.
"It's more likely they will run until the end of the month," he added.