Tensions were always going to rise in the final stretch of the Brexit talks but hostile briefings from London this week pushed the temperature to boiling point.
Some are left wondering whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson and those around him really want a Brexit deal, or are simply going through the motions as they gear up for a general election.
The Conservative leader wants Britain to leave the EU on October 31, ideally with a deal, but Brussels says the plans he has presented fall far short of what is needed.
The mood soured dramatically with a series of combative briefings to the media on Monday and Tuesday from Downing Street accusing Germany and Ireland of blocking progress.
Johnson insists he will leave the EU with no deal if necessary and one Number 10 briefing even threatened to cease cooperation with nations who sought to stop him.
European Council President Donald Tusk, who is known for his blunt approach, accused Johnson of trying to win “some stupid blame game”.
The briefings reflect the mixed messages emerging from Downing Street as the prospect looms of the Brexit negotiations ending in failure.
Without a deal, Johnson would be forced to ask the other 27 EU leaders to delay Brexit under a law passed by MPs last month — something he has said he will not do.
With a snap election likely in the coming months, he would have to explain a delay to angry voters, something made easier if the blame lies elsewhere.
“There are some in the UK who seem to be planning for a general election ahead of trying to plan to get a deal,” said Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.
Anonymous briefings to journalists are not unusual but an account of Johnson’s phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Tuesday was extraordinary in its breach of diplomatic protocol.
Attributed to a Downing Street source, it accused the German leader of taking a new and harder position that made reaching a deal “essentially impossible”.
Merkel’s office insisted she had no new position, however, while EU diplomats point out the bloc’s transparent approach to Brexit contrasts starkly with London’s closely guarded policies.
The briefing came just hours after a similar anonymously sourced tirade against Ireland in The Spectator magazine, which is generally Conservative supporting and eurosceptic.
It accused Prime Minister Leo Varadkar of reneging on previous promises over the toughest part of the Brexit talks, relating to the Irish border.
The source is widely believed to be Dominic Cummings, a combative figure who worked with Johnson on the Brexit campaign in the 2016 EU referendum.
Now a top Downing Street adviser, he has previously been reported to have called the EU negotiations a “sham”.
Johnson spoke to Varadkar on Tuesday evening, and his office said they both “strongly reiterated their desire to reach a Brexit deal”.
‘Blame the British’
A Downing Street source told AFP the tough talk was “a deliberate strategy” to warn EU leaders hoping that Johnson would take a softer approach that this would be a “serious misreading of British politics”.
But Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, said the aggressive tone was a mistake.
“Making these kinds of idle threats is not actually a way of getting what you want in the EU,” he said.
He said the suggestion in The Spectator that Britain could cease security cooperation with EU countries who agree to delay Brexit would go down particularly badly.
This threat also caused some alarm in government, with Northern Ireland minister Julian Smith saying it was “unacceptable” with regards to cooperation with Dublin.
Grant noted however that with a real divide between both sides on the tough Irish issue, a deal remained difficult — and both sides were seeking a way out.
“If there’s a no-deal Brexit that is of course bad for Ireland but he (Varadkar) can blame the British — everybody will blame the British,” he said.