EU and UK officials meet in London on Thursday amid worsening relations that suggest 2021 has been pretty much a rinse and repeat of 2020.

Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice-president in charge of relations with the UK, and his counterpart Michael Gove will hold crunch talks about the Northern Ireland protocol, which has been the source of a new rift between Brussels and London.

The FT reports that Sefcovic will be given “limited room for manoeuvre” in the talks when he sits down with EU ambassadors at a breakfast meeting in Brussels on Wednesday.

EU capitals are hardening over UK demands to extend grace periods by up to two additional years for businesses to adapt to new trading rules for Northern Ireland. One diplomat said Sefcovic will be sent to London with a “solid and tough” negotiating hand.

Brussels is in little mood to show much generosity towards Gove, who started the week telling a Commons select committee that the EU’s “integrationist theology” should not be put before the cause of peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.

EU officials acknowledge that the UK government has understandably seized upon the commission’s blundered invocation of an emergency safeguard for Northern Ireland. Yet many bristle at claims by Gove that Brussels is singularly responsible for “eroding trust” in the protocol, particularly after UK threats last year to override parts of the agreement and break international law.

A potentially unforeseen source of tension could be the EU’s decision to extend its timetable for ratifying the EU-UK trade agreement. The current date of February 28 is almost certain to be pushed back to the end of April after member states said they needed the 1,200-page agreement ready in all the EU’s 24 languages before fully approving it.

That means the European parliament is likely to shelve its February 23 date to vote on finalising the trade deal, which is currently being provisionally applied.

In theory, the administrative delay should be little cause for concern. But the UK government has already hinted at its annoyance with the setback. Britain would have to give its consent for the mini-extension. Lord David Frost, former UK chief Brexit negotiator, told the House of Lords on Tuesday that he was “disappointed” by the EU request for more time.

“We'll talk to them and see what can be done. I don't think there is any wish on our side to extend this more than necessary,” said Frost.

For the most part, EU officials think UK complaints about ratification are little more than bluster. They don’t expect Boris Johnson’s government to seriously entertain the idea of rejecting the extension — a situation that would plunge exporters and businesses into temporary chaos as the existing no-tariffs, no-quotas agreement would disappear until ratification.

One diplomat said that despite strained relations, the risk of a new no-deal scenario and threats of triggering Article 16 of the protocol would be “a route for chaos even for the UK”.

Chart showing development time of Covid vaccines

There is growing concern that new variants of Covid-19 may outpace the speed of vaccine production, after discouraging news about the efficacy of the AstraZeneca jab against a strain identified in South Africa. But a glimmer of hope lies in the speed at which drug companies say they can recalibrate vaccines. Reporting by the FT suggests that jabs could be ready within several months, much faster than the years-long timeframe for normal vaccines. (chart via FT)

Italy’s erstwhile firebrand Eurosceptic wants to rebrand himself as a radical centrist (sort of).

Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s League party, gave his assent on Tuesday to the Mario Draghi-led unity government and made some striking claims about his political ideas — which now seem to include prospering in the EU and backing the bloc’s recovery fund.

Speaking to the press after meeting the former ECB chief, Salvini said he rejected “labels” such as left, right or pro-European, that he wanted a strong Italy inside Europe and that he was a supporter of the western alliance of democracies.

Salvini’s moderate new posture is largely self-serving. It comes as polling showed an overwhelming number of his party members supported Draghi. The League leader may also be eyeing a job in Draghi’s cabinet, which is due to be formed in the coming days.

La Repubblica points out that for all Salvini’s pro-EU platitudes, the League are still members of a far-right Eurosceptic alliance in the European parliament. Salvini said he would speak to his MEPs about staying with Marine Le Pen's group or joining the centre-right European People’s party.

A defection to the EPP, which has enough trouble handling Hungary’s Viktor Orban, is unlikely. The addition of the League would also disrupt the party’s power dynamics by making its Italian contingent the largest national delegation in the group — dwarfing the powerful German Christian Democrats, who are unlikely to welcome the born-again League.

Results of the European parliament’s vote on approving the recovery fund are due this morning. The fund is set to win overwhelming backing from MEPs.