IT was striking to hear Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief negotiator on the bloc’s post-Brexit relationship with the UK, express disappointment and surprise over what he regards as time-wasting from the British side.

His remarks, last Friday, chime with the growing impression that the Conservative Government, in spite of its continued stated ambition to secure a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU, does not really care that much whether it leaves the European single market with or without such an agreement.

The UK rhetoric continues to revolve around concepts such as “sovereignty”, “waters” and “borders”.

These are all the same things that were touted by the Vote Leave campaign ahead of the 2016 Brexit vote.

This campaign focused on ideology, particularly on limiting the very immigration from free movement of people to and from EU countries which has been so valuable to the UK economy and society over decades. Such immigration has been very important to Scotland’s outward-facing economy.

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The grim ideology from the Brexit camp might have whipped up British or English nationalist sentiment and delivered the outcome sought by the powerful forces behind the Vote Leave agenda. However, such dismal ideology is not helpful at all to the UK when trying to negotiate a free trade deal with its most important trading partner, the EU. Certainly not if you are talking about constructive negotiations in any case.

We have become used by now to statements from both the UK and EU sides revealing lack of progress after each round of talks on the future relationship. Usually, these statements are quite punchy but the remarks of Mr Barnier last Friday really caught the eye in terms of forthrightness on the dramatic lack of progress. They also seemed to signal a very significant degree of exasperation.

The time-wasting observation of Mr Barnier was particularly notable.

The clock is indeed running down.

And his comment about wasting valuable time brought to mind the image of the UK side as a football team late in a match, say with three minutes to go plus added time, running the ball to the corner flag and trying to draw a foul from an exasperated opponent.

The one thing which is upside down in this analogy, however, is that usually a football team would do this while trying to preserve a narrow lead and seal victory.

The Conservative Government is, however, in no such position.

When the whistle blows with the end of the transition period on December 31, the UK Government will have delivered a heavy defeat for its citizens, by taking them out of the European single market and losing the benefits of truly frictionless trade and free movement of people.

Whether it is equivalent to a 7-0 or 5-0 loss will depend on whether or not the UK Government is able to secure the comprehensive free trade deal it says it wants with the EU. That is to say the damage from leaving the single market in any scenario, even according to forecasts drawn up by the Tories themselves under the Theresa May administration, will be major over many years. But time-wasting, and a no-deal exit, will bring the heaviest defeat.

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Of course, the Conservatives have failed to convert all their big talk about huge new trade deals with countries outwith the EU into anything meaningful at all so far. Some talks are under way on deals which will surely be more difficult to land than winning an agreement with the EU, at least assuming a scenario in which the Brexit brigade’s anti-European sentiment is left on the sidelines for the sake of the greater good.

Even from the perspective of by now rock-bottom expectations relating to the Conservative Government’s attitude to the EU as it continues its tortuous negotiations with the bloc, last week’s updates from each side were truly demoralising.

It is interesting to note that the fisheries issue remains at the forefront of the UK Government’s protests as it tries to claim the EU is being unreasonable.

This is such a narrow topic in the scheme of things, but it is one that the Brexit brigade used to whip up anti-EU fervour ahead of the 2016 referendum. And it seems the Tory Brexiters remain keen to embrace the opportunities to appeal to populist British or English nationalist sentiment with imagery of boats from other EU countries scooping up Blighty’s fish. This British “waters” focus and the similar “sovereignty” and “borders” rhetoric from this UK Government show no signs of abating as the Conservatives keep on trying to persuade the electorate that, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, Brexit is a good thing.

Of course, opinion polls north of the Border show a significant majority of people in Scotland are not fooled, and the Brexit folly is one of several major factors fuelling intensified debate over independence.

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The fact of the matter is that the Conservative Government needs to move on from its “sovereignty” obsession in its talks with the EU. Of course the UK is a sovereign nation. And, apart from maybe for some Brexiters who it appears did not feel British enough as part of the EU, there was never surely any real question in anyone’s mind about the UK’s status as a sovereign nation as a member of the bloc. Assertions of sovereignty should not be used by the Conservatives as an excuse for intransigence in the negotiations with the EU, or for grandstanding.

Mr Barnier highlighted the EU’s recognition of the UK’s sovereignty. He also underlined the fact that, in the context of the bloc’s perfectly reasonable requests for a level playing field to underpin a free trade agreement with the UK, any country looking to do such a deal with another generally had to sign up to common rules or standards.

Interestingly, he observed the UK Government would have to accept such common rules if it wanted to do trade deals with the countries outwith the EU with which it has entered into negotiations.

Mr Barnier said: “We hear the British Government’s concerns about maintaining its sovereignty and its regulatory autonomy. And we respect that.

“But no international agreement was ever reached without the parties agreeing to common rules. And I can predict with absolute certainty: this will also be the case of trade agreements between the UK and other partners in the future, such as the United States, Japan or Australia.”

This might be helpful advice for the UK Government. At times it has seemed, from comments from Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss and others, that there may be a view in the Conservative Government that the likes of a trade deal with the US will be much easier to secure than one with the EU. We should note that, on the Conservative Government’s own forecasts, any benefit from a US trade deal to the UK will in any case be tiny relative to the damage from Brexit from December 31 onwards, even with a free trade deal with the EU.

Mr Barnier noted last Friday that, on fisheries, “we have made no progress whatsoever on the issues that matter”.

We are, alarmingly, little more than four months from the end of the transition period which has insulated the UK from the actual effects of its technical Brexit on January 31.

And time was also something on which David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator in the talks, focused last Friday.

Mr Frost said: “Time is short for both sides.”

This is true, but securing a deal is surely more important for the UK than the EU. After all, the EU comprises 27 countries, including some very big economies such as France and Germany. The UK stands alone, and internally divided.

Liam Fox, the former international trade secretary, claimed back in July 2017 that a free trade agreement with the EU should be “one of the easiest in human history” to reach.

More than three years later and Mr Frost, for one, thinks otherwise.

He said: “We have just concluded the seventh round of negotiations with the EU. As I said last week, agreement is still possible, and it is still our goal, but it is clear that it will not be easy to achieve.”

Mr Frost added: “We have had useful discussions this week but there has been little progress. The EU is still insisting not only that we must accept continuity with EU state aid and fisheries policy, but also that this must be agreed before any further substantive work can be done in any other area of the negotiation, including on legal texts. This makes it unnecessarily difficult to make progress.”

One thing the negotiators from each side have agreed on consistently has been the lack of progress in the talks.

Mr Barnier said last Friday: “Too often this week, it felt as if we were going backwards more than forwards. Given the short time left, what I said in London in July remains true: today, at this stage, an agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union seems unlikely.”

He added: “I simply do not understand why we are wasting valuable time.”

Mr Barnier seems, from an external perspective, to be perfectly entitled to such incomprehension on this point.

Surely the UK Government tactics cannot be the trade-negotiation equivalent of running the ball to the corner flag to maximise the scale of the Brexit defeat. However, assuming they are not, it is difficult to see what game the Conservative Brexiters are playing.