Divorce isn’t easy, especially if you’re condemned to live next door to each other for ever more. For now, the current state of EU-UK relations might best be described as an uneasy truce. But could it get better than that or might 2023 see a renewed falling out between the neighbours?

The EU has more important challenges to deal with than a difficult UK – from Russia’s war in Ukraine, to climate change, migration and the cost-of-living crisis (and not forgetting the mounting scandal of the alleged bribery scandal of Qatargate).

Surely, the same is true of the UK too.

There are some positive signals. The combined Russia and energy crisis has, to some extent, forced some constructive collaboration between Brussels and London. And EU-UK talks continue in an effort to solve the UK’s wider problems with the Northern Ireland protocol – the deal that Boris Johnson signed up to.

This week, European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic announced that the EU will extend its temporary deal facilitating trade in veterinary medicines, under the Protocol, through to 2025. Also this week, the EU and UK agreed their next annual fishing catch allocations – though roundly condemned by environmentalists for leading to over-fishing.

So, it’s clear the neighbours are talking and can even, on occasion, do deals or at least show flexibility. But the EU is only too well aware that the state of the UK and its politics is parlous.

The UK’s cost-of-living crisis has been exacerbated by Brexit, not least in the ending of free movement and its impact on labour availability in sectors ranging from the NHS to agriculture, tourism, university research and more. The latest study by the Centre for European Reform’s John Springford, published on Wednesday, argued that UK output was 5% lower by mid-2022, investment a stunning 11% lower and trade in goods 7% lower, due to Brexit.

Meanwhile, a November YouGov poll found 64% think leaving the EU was the wrong decision, suggesting that facts and opinion on Brexit are finally aligning. The problem remains, firstly, that Brexit has happened and, secondly, that the UK’s government and main opposition party are choosing to ignore both facts and opinion on Brexit.

Rishi Sunak faces a tough multi-crisis in the UK, much of it the result of years of Tory austerity and of Brexit. He is currently refusing to negotiate with public sector unions that are striking – a stance which will intensify the crisis if he sticks to it. But in his deeply divided, rancorous party, amidst polls showing a Tory wipe-out if the election were held now, there are still plenty of extreme Brexiter ideologues.

Calmer EU-UK relations will become rapidly stormy should the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill go through. The Bill would abrogate core parts of the Protocol – an international agreement. This is a red line Brussels will not fudge: the EU and UK will be in dispute, even a trade war, if the Bill becomes law. This week US President Joe Biden appointed Joe Kennedy III as his Northern Ireland envoy – this is not a little, local dispute. The US and EU want, ideally, a deal resolving the Protocol issues before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April 2023. But whether Sunak can deliver that past his truculent backbenchers remains an open question.

Even without a deal, if Sunak can, somehow, halt the Bill, then Brussels will probably go on negotiating, even if it means finalising a deal had to wait for a more constructive Labour government to arrive in 2024 (if it does). After all, Boris Johnson threatened to abrogate the Protocol deal back in 2020 through the then Internal Market Bill but Johnson took out the offending clauses before it became law. Surely, Sunak can face down the ultra-Brexiters too.

Other potential bumps in the road are looming too. The UK government’s Retained EU Law Bill threatens to create deregulatory chaos if it becomes law, with its sunset clause of getting rid of almost all retained EU law by the end of 2023. This, like most of Brexit’s impact, will be directly damaging to the UK.

These thousands of laws – from environment to working conditions to competition – are ones that the UK mostly supported, often proposed, and always implemented in its 47 years of EU membership. But the UK also agreed with the EU, in their overarching Trade and Cooperation Agreement, that the two sides would abide by several so-called level-playing provisions. This doesn’t mean regulatory alignment but it does imply no regulatory race to the bottom, including no regression on labour rights.

The EU will be watching closely as to how the UK moves to remove and replace EU laws, making sure its trade deal is not being broken by a deregulating neighbour. Here too, Brussels is doubtless crossing its collective fingers and hoping for a Keir Starmer government soon. But if the Tory government has created regulatory chaos before then, there will be much to do just to sort that out.

Starmer has been deliberately minimalist on his EU-UK polices should Labour come to power. He talks of a veterinary standards deal, a push for mutual recognition of professional qualifications, participation in the EU’s Horizon research programme (which may happen under Sunak if the Protocol stand-off is resolved).

At the same time, Starmer rules out the UK rejoining the EU’s customs union or single market, though some around him hint he might move closer in a second term. This cleaving to the Brexit flag may get Starmer the red wall English votes he wants to get to Downing Street. But it’s certainly not putting the UK’s interests first in any way.

But in Brussels, a governing party not riven by Brexit, that abides by international agreements, and that looks for warmer if not much closer cooperation, has much to recommend it. For now, the real question is what happens to EU-UK relations while this divided, damaging, Brexit-twisted UK government is still in power.