So, here we are, poised to begin round six of Brexit talks, and it might move you to raise an eyebrow or two to hear that the two sides can’t even agree what to call these meetings now: negotiating rounds, stock-taking exercises or an information exchange.
These days I’d call them a dance around a standstill.
UK negotiators have long been frustrated with the format of the (so far) monthly rounds of talks.
They feel that sitting in Brussels for days at a stretch doesn’t allow them the opportunity to consult London when an impasse is reached in order to – maybe – come up with a plan B and – hopefully – move forward.
But EU negotiators ruled out a more flexible style of talks because, instead of consulting with one capital city, they’ve got 27 of them that would want to chip in, plus the European Parliament.
Simply not practicable, they say.
Perhaps then you won’t fall off your chair in shock when I tell you expectations of round six of – whatever these talks should be labelled as – are low on the Brussels side of the Channel.
Main divorce issues
Yet that’s not met here with a sea of EU shoulder shrugs. Quite the opposite. People I speak to are agitated.
EU sources close to the negotiations have told me they believe the UK has only two weeks left to make progress on the Brexit divorce issues.
Otherwise, I’ve been told, EU leaders are extremely unlikely to vote at their December summit to widen talks to include trade and transition deals – as the UK so dearly wants.
Now there are three main divorce issues on the table:
* The rights of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa
* Irish borders
* Money the EU says the UK owes because of long and short-term financial commitments made while an EU member
While the UK’s chief negotiator David Davis insists a lot of progress has been made, his EU counterparts are less effusive.
Imagine the three issues were traffic lights, citizens’ rights would be green (although there are key issues still to be ironed out), Ireland would be amber and money would be a screaming, honking red.
And frankly, money is what it boils down to.
Some EU countries, such as Poland and Sweden, are keen to move on to talks of a future relationship with the UK – while others, like Germany and France, are more cautious.
But there is unanimity amongst all 27 that the UK must pay.
Brussels insists it doesn’t need a precise figure right now.
It does, however, want far more detail than what is perceived here as the vague promise Theresa May made in late September in her Florence speech that the UK is a country which honours its commitments.
‘We want to leave and it’s time to pay’
And why are there only two weeks left for the UK to move on the money, according to the EU?
Because that is when the 27 EU capitals start discussing the draft conclusions to the leaders’ summit which takes place mid-December. They need those two weeks to more or less agree a position.
“And there’s no way they’ll agree to talk trade or transition with the UK in December, if the money issue hasn’t been put to bed beforehand. Forget it,” a high-level contact told me.
“Then the Brexit situation becomes dramatic.”
Because if the December summit comes and goes, the earliest talks of a future EU-UK relationship could start would be at the next EU leaders summit in March 2018.
Far too late for businesses on both sides of the Channel which are desperate for some clarity.
March 2018 would also be one year after the UK triggered Article 50 – the formal process to leave the EU.
And it’s six months from the time the EU wants to formally close Brexit negotiations in order to be able to vote on any agreement reached.
“All I know,” a source close to the negotiations told me, “is that I don’t know the UK as I thought I did.”
“Are they so clouded by sex scandals and losing ministers in Westminster that they don’t see: Brexit time is running out?
“They want a deal. Fine. Then now’s the time to rip off the Band Aid. To admit to the UK public and the Conservative Party: ‘We want to leave and it’s time to pay’.”
The EU wants a deal, too. Very much so. But the mantra “No deal is better than a bad deal” also rings true this side of the Channel.