A PATTERN seems to have emerged whereby each round of talks between the UK and European Union on their future relationship is preceded by days of heightened tension.

It would be fair to say that this tension appears to be fuelled in large part by the UK side, not helped by some sections of the media seemingly drumming up lashings of British nationalist fervour.

Tough negotiating stances are one thing but the whole sorry circus seems to be most counter-productive. And the big problem is that there is no subsiding of the tension when the talks begin, or in the aftermath.

Of course, as many people have almost run out of saliva pointing out, the question of the future relationship is one that should be parked for now amid the human tragedy that is the coronavirus crisis and the economic calamity arising from absolutely necessary measures that have been put in place to save many, many thousands of lives.

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A two-year extension of the transition period, to ensure the UK is able to avail itself of the huge benefits of being in the European single market during this period in terms of frictionless trade and free movement of people, is eminently sensible.

Moreover, governments in the UK and many countries around the world have a great deal of work to do in coming months as lockdowns are lifted in deciding on how best to rebuild and support their economies, hopefully making all necessary provision for millions of people who are struggling financially as a result of this awful crisis.

The last thing the UK needs is the Brexit sideshow of the Conservative Government and the Leave camp at large. The Leavers have had their technical Brexit on January 31 (so they can say they are no longer part of the EU). However, the transition period, for as long as it lasts, is insulating the UK from the actual effects of Brexit. This continued insulation was very important before the coronavirus pandemic hit and it is even more crucial now.

Extending the transition period should be the simplest of solutions – at least it would be in a world not blighted by the sometimes xenophobic and generally insular ideology of Brexit.

The Theresa May government’s own forecasts showed major economic damage from leaving the European single market, even with the type of comprehensive free trade agreement the Conservatives have claimed they want and will continue to try to negotiate next week.

And given the recent mood music from the UK, a particularly damaging no-deal exit from the European single market looks very possible indeed, especially at a time when many people are understandably looking in another direction in terms of dealing with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Conservative Government’s stance on Europe remains baffling: why would anyone with a duty not to exacerbate the economic misery arising from the coronavirus crisis rush headlong to leave the European single market when the transition period comes to an end on December 31?

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The UK line on not extending the transition period has been remarkable. The longer this stubbornness continues, the less likely it seems that the Government will relent and take the common-sense approach.

David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator in the talks with the EU and a former chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, took to Twitter last month to declare: “I want to reiterate the Government’s position on the transition period created following our withdrawal from the EU. Transition ends on 31 December this year. We will not ask to extend it. If the EU asks we will say no.”

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, highlighted the EU’s willingness to extend the transition period in a letter this week in response to UK opposition parties that had written to him calling for a two-year extension to be agreed.

In his response to the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru, the SDLP, the Green Party and the Alliance Party, Mr Barnier wrote: “Such an extension of up to one or two years can be agreed jointly by the two parties. The European Union has always said that we remain open on this matter. Any extension decision has to be taken…before July 1, and must be accompanied by an agreement on a financial contribution by the United Kingdom.”

Of course, some arch-Brexiters have appeared entirely disgusted at the notion of the UK making further contributions to the EU. However, it is difficult to envisage that the cost of the financial contribution would not be much smaller than the bill for the damage arising from not extending the transition period. So that is an easy enough argument to settle.

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Ian Blackford, SNP leader at Westminster, responded to Mr Barnier’s letter by tweeting: “Thank you @MichelBarnier for your letter today confirming the EU is open to a two-year extension to the Brexit transition period. Time is running out. @BorisJohnson must put his responsibilities to jobs and the economy first – agree an extension to prevent another crisis.”

However, it seems the Conservative Government is having none of it, with a spokesman for the Prime Minister declaring: “There is no change to the Government’s position. The transition period will end on 31 December.”

Mr Frost has been similarly categoric this week, repeating the UK would not agree to an extension even if the EU asked for one and declaring that the year-end deadline was “just part of the framework now”.

This rigid approach would seem likely to ring alarm bells with many, and chimes with Boris Johnson’s previous “no matter what” message on not extending the transition period. Mr Johnson will be leading the June talks, it has been confirmed.

Ahead of the round of talks with the EU due to begin next week, and as the mid-year point by which the UK has indicated it will take stock of progress in terms of a possible no-deal, walk-away call, Mr Frost seemed to be in pugnacious form.

He told the UK Parliament’s committee on the future relationship with the European Union on Wednesday that the current EU mandate was, in key areas, “not a mandate that is likely to produce an agreement”.

Mr Frost added: “So if you are asking, do we think the EU needs to evolve its position to reach an agreement, yes we do.”

One issue that continues to dominate the headlines around the UK-EU talks is fisheries, an often-emotive issue and one that seems inclined to drum up British nationalist sentiment.

There have been reports about the possibility of some narrowing of the differences on this front but who knows whether this will amount to any much progress at all at the end of the day.

It is also important to realise there is a long list of issues on which the UK and EU appear to retain major differences, years into the talks but little more than seven months before the end of the transition period. That clock is ticking loudly.

Mr Barnier said that he had a “good informal exchange” on fisheries on Tuesday with ministers from Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Spain, France, the Republic of Ireland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, and Sweden ahead of next week’s EU-UK talks.

He added: “We confirmed that there will be no FTA (free trade agreement) without a level playing field and a balanced, sustainable, long-term solution on fisheries.”

The level playing field appears to remain a major sticking point.

On Monday, Mr Barnier, in the wake of a meeting with the European Economic Area council, said: “Close coordination and regular dialogue with our EEA partners is essential during EU-UK negotiations. We must ensure the integrity of our single market. It is our greatest asset.”

It is indeed a great asset, for the UK and member states of the EU and broader EEA, and increasingly so in a world in which protectionism seems to have been rising even before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

With countries around the world facing huge economic challenges, it seems likely that protectionism will only grow. At such times, it is impossible to overestimate the huge benefits of being part of a powerful free trade bloc such as the European single market.

Mr Frost said this week: “We all want...a zero-tariffs, zero-quotas agreement. That is what we said in the political declaration that we wanted, and we still hope to get it.

“We are not saying that there can be no level playing field provisions. We’re simply saying that there must be provisions which are appropriate to a free trade agreement, like those found in the Canada or Japan agreements, and that is what we have put forward.”

The fact of the matter remains, however, that the UK is not Canada or Japan. Those two countries are obviously both geographically distant from the EU for one thing, and the importance of this in the negotiations should not be underestimated. Likewise, the starting point for the UK in its discussions with the EU could hardly be more different.

Mr Barnier said earlier this month: “The United Kingdom frequently refers to precedents. It tells us it would be content with a ‘Canada-style’ deal. But at the same time – and this is the real paradox of this negotiation – in many areas, it is demanding a lot more than Canada! It is even looking to maintain the benefits of being a member state, without the obligations.”

He added: “We are negotiating a trade agreement with a third country here – one that chose to become a third country. This is not an opportunity for the United Kingdom to ‘pick and choose’ the most attractive elements of the single market. This makes me believe that there is still a real lack of understanding in the United Kingdom about the objective, and sometimes mechanical, consequences of the British choice to leave the single market and the customs union.”

The situation continues to look bleak as we head into next week’s round of talks between the UK and EU, with this week’s to and fro between the two sides having only added to the already firm impression that the differences remain huge even after all this time. It is at times difficult to work out whether the UK is going backwards or forwards as the talks drag on but, then again, the whole rationale behind Brexit remains incomprehensible.

Businesses are facing massive immediate uncertainties amid the coronavirus crisis, as the painstaking reopening of major parts of economies across Europe progresses.

The UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU will obviously for good reason not be at the forefront of the minds of many businesses and households.

However, once businesses are further forward in navigating their way through the coronavirus crisis, the last thing they need is to be facing another wall of uncertainty and additional woe because the Conservatives will not put their ideology aside and park the notion of exiting the single market on December 31.

And, in the months, years and decades ahead, what happens now on the Brexit front will be a very big deal indeed for UK living standards. We are at a critical juncture.