During a European commission briefing on Thursday, envoys for the EU capitals were told that holding negotiations via video-conferencing had so far proved impossible.
The two sides are trying to find a way to maintain dialogue in the coming weeks and months to kickstart the talks, but a previous schedule for negotiating rounds, with weeks set aside for consultation and preparation, has been ditched.
The fact that the UK was still to table a legal text added an extra layer of difficulty, EU sources said.
The European commission published a 441-page draft treaty on 13 March that covers every aspect of the future relationship. The UK left the EU on 31 January and has until the end of the year to negotiate a new economic and security relationship or face trading on WTO terms with large tariffs on goods.
Despite Downing Street’s public insistence that a similarly comprehensive text would be tabled earlier this month, EU sources said the UK had tabled only four documents covering trade, transport, aviation and nuclear cooperation. London has not tabled legal text on significant issues including security cooperation or fisheries, and nor has it made its texts public.
EU sources also said the UK’s positions in the texts were in a “different galaxy” to those of Brussels.
“The first big difference is that we have a fully fledged proposal in line with the political declaration while the Brits have only tabled a few things, much less than we expected”, one senior EU diplomat said. “The scope is much narrower than we had thought it would have been and that makes it difficult to work with. That’s the basic problem.”
Officials on both sides are also struggling to find a way to get negotiations going, with plans for talks in London and Brussels now abandoned given the Covid-19 crisis.
UK officials said the legal text covering the outstanding areas would be produced at a time of the British government’s choosing, and attempts to find a new method of “continuous dialogue” were being made.
EU sources said the position was desperate. “We can’t even move out of Brussels to our capitals to talk it through,” said one source. “Everything is in the deep freeze.”
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, is in quarantine having been infected with the coronavirus. The UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, has been in isolation after showing symptoms.
The two sides need to agree on whether or not to extend the transition period by “up to one or two years” before 1 July. Johnson has insisted the UK will leave the EU’s single market and customs union by the end of the year come what may.
The former Brexit secretary David Davis has suggested in recent days that the coronavirus pandemic would limit the damage of failing to secure a deal because trade would already have been reduced to a minimum.
The main sticking points between the UK and the EU remain on so-called level playing field commitments to ensure that both sides retain high standards in the fields of environmental, social and labour regulations. Brussels is seeking non-regression from EU standards and for the UK to “harmonise” with Brussels on state aid rules that limit subsidies.