THE mood music around the UK’s negotiations over its future relationship with the European Union – when the transition period that has kept everything largely unchanged following January's technical Brexit runs out at the year-end – is increasingly troubling.

Another round of talks between the UK and EU kicked off on Monday and, even before they started, the atmosphere surrounding these latest negotiations, being conducted by video-conferencing amid the coronavirus pandemic, did not look good.

As the negotiations started, things seemed to get worse rather than better. It is lamentable the Conservative Government’s attitude to our EU neighbours, going by the soundbites on social media as well as official statements, appears to be in such stark contrast to its approach towards the US. It seems testy towards the EU, while fawning over the US.

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Solely on the basis of the size of the respective markets for UK exporters, this approach is topsy-turvy.

And it is difficult to escape the impression that there is an acute awareness in some quarters of taking and portraying a stance that pleases the Brexiters who secured the Conservatives their significant majority in December’s General Election, even in these entirely altered circumstances.

In any case, it remains incredible, amid the global public-health crisis and developing human tragedy of coronavirus, that the UK continues to pursue an exit from the European single market by the end of this year.

This is absolutely not the time to be conducting difficult and seemingly frequently fractious negotiations on a future free-trade agreement with the EU.

Countries around the world, including the UK and EU member states, are battling to minimise the death toll from Covid-19. That is, and must remain, the priority.

Moreover, the economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis look ever more grim. Against this backdrop, it is nonsensical for the UK to heap further trouble on top of the economic woe already in the pipeline by putting households and businesses at risk of a no-deal departure from the European single market.

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Taking a longer-term perspective, given the huge economic challenges to be faced once the worst of the coronavirus crisis has passed, the UK Government could use an extension of the transition period to reflect on whether it actually wants to limit its recovery and growth potential by losing the benefit of free movement of people between the UK and EU as well as frictionless trade.

Last week, the Republic of Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister (Tánaiste), Simon Coveney, became the latest to flag the common sense of the UK extending the transition period amid the Covid-19 crisis.

Ian Blackford, the SNP’s Westminster leader, has in recent weeks continued to call for the Conservative Government to extend the transition period by the maximum two years.

Mr Coveney, who is also Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, said last Friday: “Given the complexity of what we’re trying to deal with here and the added complications, and there are many, as a result of Covid-19, it surely makes sense for us to seek a bit more time.”

David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator in the talks with the EU and a former chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, signalled no change in the country’s seemingly hard-line attitude towards future relations with our European neighbours. Such an attitude has, of course, been to the fore for years now from those driving the departure from the EU, in the run-up to the technical Brexit on January 31 and since.

On Saturday, as he geared up for the latest round of talks, Mr Frost tweeted: “I and the whole UK team are looking forward to the third round of our negotiations with the EU, which will once again take place remotely. The talks begin on Monday and here is the agenda.”

He declared: “I would also like to make clear that the EU have from us a full set of draft agreements, as set out in my next tweet. These cover the full ground of the negotiations. They set out in legal form the approach explained in our 27 February paper.”

His next tweet stated: “We have shared: a complete draft Free Trade Agreement...agreements on: air transport, air safety, civil nuclear cooperation, energy cooperation, law enforcement, unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, readmissions, social security, and a Fisheries Framework Agreement.”

It was difficult to escape the notion, given the seeming determination to highlight the length of the list of things provided, that at least some of what Mr Frost was submitting, far from easing the mood in talks, would be more likely to open up conflict. And there have already been signs that what is proposed by the UK on fisheries is going to hinder rather than help broader agreement.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator in the talks, waited until the day on which discussions started to take to Twitter.

He tweeted on Monday afternoon: “Round 3 of negotiations began today with @DavidGHFrost [and] team. We need tangible progress across all areas, [including] open [and] fair competition standards. We are negotiating on behalf of the entire EU. There must be a proper balance of rights [and] obligations.”

This seemed like a reasonable enough point. If the UK Government is not willing to extend the transition period, it must enable tangible progress if it wants the comprehensive free-trade agreement it says that it desires. And it is difficult to argue against a balance of rights and obligations.

Of course, many in the Brexit camp have made it plain all along that they either desire a no-deal departure, or do not care one way or the other.

The Conservative Government, while claiming to want a deal with the EU, seems to be approaching these talks in a very different manner to a fortnight of discussions launched last week on a trade deal with the US. What was perhaps notable, given Mr Frost’s robust approach to our EU neighbours, was the degree of his enthusiasm about the talks with the US, which are being led from the UK side by Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss. We have been told there are 100 negotiators on each side in the UK-US trade talks. This enthusiasm seems doubly surprising given that the global economic woes stemming from the coronavirus crisis are likely to lead to growing protectionism around the globe.

President Donald Trump recently hit pause on applications of foreign nationals seeking permanent residence in the US because of the coronavirus crisis.

He declared: “It would be wrong and unjust for Americans laid off by the virus to be replaced with new immigrant labour flown in from abroad.”

Given its seeming determination to turn its back on the EU, the UK will surely be hit particularly hard by any rise in global protectionism. It was interesting to see Ms Truss highlight the importance of resisting protectionism, in a global context, on Twitter at the weekend.

Mr Frost seems unperturbed by the challenging backdrop for transatlantic trade talks. He tweeted last week: "It is great news that we have today begun a second major free trade negotiation, this time with the US. Good luck @trussliz in getting a great deal that deepens still further the incredibly rich economic relationship we already have with [the US].”

If we could have heard such enthusiastic compliments rained down on the EU, perhaps negotiations with our European neighbours might have gone better. Around 45% of UK exports went to EU countries in 2018. The US accounted for 19% of UK exports. Seven of the UK’s 10 largest export markets in 2018 were EU countries. The EU relationship is surely “incredibly rich”.

With the coronavirus pandemic rightly dominating everyone’s thoughts, contemplation of what could be achieved with a friendlier approach to the negotiations with the EU should be put off for another day by extending the transition period. This is simply not a time for robust tweets and posturing.

Most of all, hard-pressed UK households and businesses should not have to suffer even more damage to their living standards because of the Conservative Government’s intransigence on Brexit.

Mr Coveney said: “I think anybody looking at this from the outside could only conclude it makes sense to look for more time but I wouldn’t be raising expectations to the British Government agreeing to seek more time…Covid-19 has made what is already a very, very difficult timeline to get agreement virtually impossible.”

And that really is the long and the short of it.