SHARP exchanges between David Davis and Michel Barnier indicate that talks are hitting rocky ground even before the UK government sets out a clearer position on the future UK-EU trade and wider relationship. The UK needs a transition period much more than the EU, and since a deal must be done by this autumn, the EU has said for several months transition must be fully within existing EU laws and structures. UK sensitivies range from fishing quotas to EU citizens rights for those who come after the transition to enforcement of the withdrawal agreement. But the EU will not give the UK decision-making rights once it has left. And trust is in short supply so the EU will not bend either on clear enforcement rules. Nor will the EU accept a fisheries opt-out in transition.

The EU is drafting the legal version of December’s first phase Brexit deal. If neither the future trade deal nor technological solutions allow a frictionless Ireland/Northern Ireland border, then Northern Ireland will stay effectively in the EU’s single market and customs union in the main areas relevant to the Good Friday Agreement and to North-South cooperation. There will be potential disagreements in future (if it’s not specified in the text) of which sectors are encompassed by that – it won’t be all sectors. But if it’s not all sectors then there will be barriers and even border controls at Irish Sea ports. Theresa May promised the DUP this wouldn’t happen – but that promise is about internal UK arrangements and so won’t go into the Brexit treaty.

This draft legal treaty may give the Scottish government hope that Scotland too could remain in major parts of the single market. But if there are barriers or a border in the Irish Sea that too could apply between Scotland and England if Scotland were in parts of the single market. And the EU is currently determined to label any Northern Irish deal exceptional and unique – and based around the Good Friday Agreement. Moreover, the sectors that might be covered for Northern Ireland will not necessarily be ones that would be equally relevant or useful to Scotland. So the draft legal treaty looks more likely to re-open the UK government row with the DUP than to offer Scotland (or Wales or London) a smooth path to stay in the single market.

Brexit is currently descending into a new level of chaos and uncertainty. Warnings from the Japanese about relocation of investment in the face of a hard border between the UK and EU, failure to agree a UK cabinet position on the future relationship, and the deteriorating tone in talks where trust and goodwill should be vital, speak to a critical and unstable period ahead in politics.