By Gabriela Baczynska and Elizabeth Piper
BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) - Stumbling through video calls, the long-troubled Brexit talks are heading for a new crisis as coronavirus health restrictions bar the intense face-to-face meetings that have proven crucial in pulling the negotiations back from the brink.
With increasingly frustrated British and EU negotiators trading barbs over each other's "ideological approach" and "lack of understanding" of the consequences of Britain's departure from the bloc, talks on a new trade pact between the estranged allies have made virtually no progress in recent months.
Officials and diplomats on both sides forecast tensions will rise before a June 30 deadline, raising questions for companies over future trade between the world's fifth-biggest economy and its biggest trading bloc which accounted for about 650 billion pounds a year before the coronavirus crisis.
"It's difficult to make it as...we would like over video conference," said a senior British official involved in the negotiations with the EU.
"If we can meet face-to-face at some point in the future, that will help, there is no doubt, it's easier to establish understandings that way. No matter how well we know each other, it helps a lot."
Such off-the-record, personal meetings have yielded breakthroughs in the stalled talks before, most notably when British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, met for a countryside stroll last October.
Walking side-by-side down grassy paths in a rustic Elizabethan manor house near Liverpool, the two honed in private exchanges the makings of Britain's divorce deal, which had been unattainable for their negotiators until that point.
On that basis, Britain left the EU the following January and the two sides now run the tightest of schedules to seal a new trade deal from 2021.
While face-to-face talks have proved crucial to finding breakthroughs in previous rounds, it is not clear whether having to rely on video conferences that bar the more personal contact will ultimately prove fatal to the process. Meetings in person have often been fraught and unproductive too.
The UK official joked that the lead negotiators could have a virtual drink together to help the talks along.
London says it wants a simple free trade agreement such as the EU has with Canada or Japan, which would mean significantly more trade frictions, while Brussels is arguing for a wider deal to take into account Britain's proximity to the bloc.
"We are in this glass bubble of Webex calls and there is only so much you can do there," said an EU diplomat following Brexit talks from the EU's hub Brussels.
THE ART OF HORSE-TRADING
Coronavirus has knocked the already tortuous Brexit talks off their course, sapping resources and attention.
EU lead negotiator Michel Barnier went through a severe bout of the COVID-19 respiratory disease triggered by the novel coronavirus and his British counterpart, David Frost, self-isolated with symptoms in March.
Hundreds of EU and British officials negotiating in dozens of parallel video calls have since all but failed to narrow differences on the thorniest issues from the level playing field guarantees of fair competition to fisheries to security ties.
"Without that sort of top-level physical meeting that would unlock a political breakthrough, we will struggle," said another EU diplomat. "There will be more tensions in the coming weeks. Things will inevitably go into a proper crisis mode."
Any failure of these negotiations would rattle markets and unleash the most severe Brexit damages with Britain crashing out from the EU's orbit from 2021 without any agreements in place to cushion the shock for businesses, traders and citizens.
The sides have given themselves until the end of June to assess progress and decide on any extension of negotiations beyond the end of the year.
Johnson has repeatedly refused to do that, promising to end Britain's current status-quo transition period after Brexit and take the country out of the EU's orbit.
The stakes are rising as running the arcane talks on video calls has prevented the informal coffee breaks and small huddles away from the main negotiating tables where officials, based on their personal rapport, test sensitive ideas to break deadlocks.
"The downside obviously is you can't take people off for a coffee and talk stuff through," the UK official said earlier on in the negotiations. "It is possible to have the conversations, what is more difficult is to replicate the atmospherics."
(Additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by Angus MacSwan)