They’re all at it now. Following yesterday’s report that the working assumption among Ministers is that there will be no Brexit deal, Michel Barnier announced at his press conference to mark the end of the latest round of talks that a trade deal is now ‘unlikely’.
There are of course real obstacles in the way of a successful outcome including the infamous ‘level playing field,’ and of course, fish.
Negotiations to date do not seem to have revealed much in the way of a desire to compromise on the part of either side.
Nonetheless, there are reasons to take the negative remarks from the two sides with a pinch of salt.
The EU is keen that negotiations succeed – if only because they are anxious to minimise the economic consequences of Britain leaving.
On the British side, the incentive to come to some kind of agreement is, if anything, even greater.
Politically, the Prime Minister has more to gain from signing a deal than from not signing one. If you think back to last autumn, he was hailed as some sort of latter day Messiah for agreeing to essentially the same deal with the EU that Mrs. May had rejected out of hand.
Yes, the deal on Northern Ireland included the ‘consent mechanism,’ but it also implies checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
And because this replaced the all-UK backstop, which some member states saw as a concession too far because of the access it gave the whole UK to the EU market, it is much preferred to Mrs. May’s deal in Brussels.
Signing any kind of agreement now would all but guarantee the Prime Minister the same kind of hero’s welcome.
He will be the man who achieved the seemingly impossible not once, but twice, and in so doing will spare businesses already dreading the impact of Brexit the added problems implied by tariffs and quotas.
And of course both sides are consequent of the broader political implications. In the event of no deal, it is all too easy to imagine relations between the UK and the 27 descending into a cycle of recrimination and counter-recrimination as each side blamed the other for failure.
Under such circumstances, even limited cooperation with European states on matters ranging from China to Iran would become far more difficult. At a time of growing international tensions, not least with China, this is hardly a preferred outcome anywhere.
And with a bit of political will, a deal is clearly possible. There are ways round the level playing field that would allow the EU to retaliate in response to any drop in British standards, short of allowing the European Court of Justice to make that call. And access with a smaller quota is an obvious way to address those damned fish.
None of which, of course, guarantees a deal will be agreed in time. The pandemic has meant that very little political attention is being paid to Brexit.
And a second wave in the autumn would mean that this is the case at the very moment when such attention will be necessary to make the compromises necessary to unlock the talks. Things, in other words, could still easily go wrong.
So yes, the Government might be warning us to get ready for the worst. This might, prove an effective way of making us get ready for the best (which is not all that much better).
But let’s not kid ourselves. There is time left for a deal to be done, and both sides will strive their utmost to make sure they do it.