Brexit: up the creek

Monday 21 May 2018  

There is a certain amount of wibble going on about Emma Barnett's interview with Barry Gardiner yesterday on the Marr Show, with Barnett standing in for the witless hack who is apparently indisposed.

Gardiner, of course, is Labour's shadow international trade secretary, and he was charged by Barnett to explain Labour's policy on the single market. All she managed to do, though, was conform something we already knew- that Labour's policy is so far lacking in coherence that it gives incoherence a bad name.

Perversely, on the list of transcripts, the date given for the interview is 13 May – last week. This is when Nick Robinson stood in for Andrew Marr, the list thus making it appear as if Barnett and Robinson were co-hosting the show.

I missed the Robinson spectacular last week, which is perhaps just as well. The only thing consistent about him is that every time he opens his mouth, he confirms himself to be a vacuous fool.

Thus, when it was his turn to stand in for Andrew Marr, he interviewed Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney. But there was no intellect at play, We simply had an automaton mouthing questions at an Irish politician, only to demonstrate that he was almost incapable of understanding the answers.

In the early stages of the interview, Coveney reminded the egregious Robinson that Mrs May had agreed there would be no border infrastructure of any kind on the island of Ireland, no related checks or controls.

"That means", said Coveney, "we're not talking about cameras and scanning system and drones here. It means we're talking about a political solution that allows for regulatory alignment in a way that prevents the need for border infrastructure".

One was almost sense the rusty cogs, creaking and whirring in the Robinson brain – a masterpiece of microscopic engineering. The mere utterance of "regulatory alignment" triggers a semi-automatic diatribe, straight out of the BBC Today playbook.

"That", burbles Robinson, "would sound to many people like you're merely restating the hope. Hope one we hope the UK doesn't leave at all. Hope two we hope they stay in the single market. Hope three we hope they stay in the customs union. But the government are not doing any of those things".

One wonders how long the script advisors worked on that one, and how long Robinson had to rehearse the precise wording, but however long it took, the BBC collective spent exactly no time at all on devising anything sensible.

This is, in fact, the first and only mention of the single market in the entire interview, and a clear aberration. But it is only one of three mentions of the term "customs union".

The second comes later in the interview when Robinson accuses Coveney of a lack of flexibility, telling the Irish foreign minister that he sounds "awfully like a man who's saying let's hope the British parliament votes for the customs union which we've always wanted".

However, when Coveney returns to repeat that he wants "the outcome of there being no physical infrastructure on the island of Ireland and no related checks or controls, Robinson leaps on this to imply that he would be happy if parliament voted for a customs union.

At this, Coveney gives up, telling the fool that he's said from the start that we believe if we had a shared customs space or shared customs territory, which would need to be negotiated, that would help to solve a lot of the issues that are stalling these negotiations right now".

And that's enough for Robinson. He's got precisely nothing out of Coveney that we didn't already know, and reinforced in less-educated viewers' minds that the customs union is the issue of consequence.

Now, with a week gone by since Robinson put his oar in, we're no further forward. In fact, we're steadily regressing as the imbecile collective that masquerades as the British media has steady converted the Irish question into one of the UK adopting the customs union.

This culminates in a fatuous piece in the Guardian which has the vile Johnson blathering about he and "his fellow Brexiters" still expect Mrs May to deliver a deal that avoids triggering the "backstop" that would keep Britain aligned to the customs union beyond 2020.

From an issue about "regulatory alignment", which the media never understood – and was far too complicated for their little brains – the "backstop" has now become in the words of Johnson, the "customs backstop" – putting it firmly in the comfort zone of the zombie media.

As copy writers dig themselves in deeper, not understanding the basics, they produce endless gibberish that harbours so many contradictions and infelicities that it can only be a meaningless jumble of words. It is very difficult for the hacks to explain things clearly if they themselves have little understanding of the things about which they write.

Someone who should know different – but doesn't – is Daniel Hannan, now usurping Booker's spot in The Sunday Telegraph, to deliver his own brand of gibberish.

Totally lacking in self-awareness, he complains of Tribal MPs, accusing them of "doing the EU's dirty work". This is an odd charge, given Hannan's attachment to the "Ultras" who are doing more than any other group (apart from the government) to prevent the UK reaching a sensible Brexit settlement.

Never having been slow to parade his ignorance, Hannan generously offers his "take" on what he calls "the preposterous row" about the Irish frontier.

A confident British government, with a united Parliament behind it, he says, could have been both firm and friendly, saying to the EU: "We won't put any hard infrastructure on our side of the line, and we will work with you on any reasonable proposal that will allow you to do the same on your side".

You would have thought that someone who has been an MEP as long as he has might know something about the EU and the way it works. As long as I've known him, though,. he has only ever swanned into Brussels to stay in the most expensive hotel in town, then to have dinner with his Tory chums and collect his expenses, ready to return with his mind as clear of any troubling detail as it has ever been.

This idiot's idea of a "reasonable proposal" is a "comprehensive UK-EU trade deal based on the mutual recognition of standards", something which he takes straight out of the Legatum/IEA playbook. He doesn't have the wit to understand that mutual recognition – in the sense that he describes it – works in the EU only within the framework of the Single Market. This is the very thing he would now have us leave.

The sheer arrogance of this is underwritten by Hannan's closing remarks, where he transfers the blame to parliament for the UK not seeking to implement something that even Mrs May knows is a non-starter. And, having rather taken a shine to the word "preposterous", he uses it again (a sure sign of a sloppy writer), to assert that we have "ended up in the preposterous position of making what happens on the Irish side of the line our responsibility".

At least in this piece, Hannan is not blathering on about "trusted traders" – which is perhaps just as well. The Irish Independent has hired Carol Lynch, a partner in BDO Customs and International Trade, to tell us about the difficulties in acquiring that status.

It is, she says, "a very comprehensive and time-consuming process", taking "six months to prepare an application and put in place the required procedures". Following the application, she says, "it can take another six months to actually obtain authorisation. Due to this you would need to start this process a year before you require authorisation".

This is addressed to Irish readers but, for the UK there is the added fun of trying to get mutual recognition of any UK AEO scheme. This is where the term "mutual recognition" really does bite. For the UK scheme to work in respect of exports to EU Member States, the EU must accept our systems, all of which depend on the exchange of electronic data.

For that to happen, the UK must gain the status of "data adequacy", under the EU's General Data Protection Regulation, something which is by no means automatic and is far from being assured.

In other words, we are still up the creek without a paddle, yet all we get is the prattle of our zombie media, and the inane mouthings of our ignorant politicians. And, to cap it all, a Tory donor is asking us to believe that Mrs May's "incompetence" is deliberate.

I could almost wish that was true.

Richard North 21/05/2018 link

Brexit: betting the farm

Sunday 20 May 2018  

It is instructive to see Tony Connelly revisit last December's Joint Report, produced by the UK and EU Commission negotiators.

In particular, he asserts, the text of Paragraph 49 is coming back to haunt us, the wording apparently committing the UK to maintaining "full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South Cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement".

Connelly has it that UK negotiators are now taking the text as meaning that the whole of the UK would align with the rules of the single market and customs union, precisely so that there would be no difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. And, as this sits on the table for the next round of talks, he argues that the implications are enormous.

The big problem with that, however, is that the text is inherently contradictory and, at the time, was never intended as a basis for serious negotiations. The report was merely a device to keep the EU-UK talks moving when, without some form of agreement, they would have collapsed.

Through roundabout reports sometime later, we got the backstory. Essentially, the "colleagues" were concerned that a breakdown would fatally weaken an already weak Mrs May, and perhaps precipitate a change of government, putting Corbyn in the hot seat. On the basis of preferring to work with "the devil you know", Mrs May was given a much-needed "victory" to keep her in office a little while longer.

With the ink not even dry on the Joint Report, we got from an official in the Department of Brexit – via the Irish Times - a savage qualification of what was being termed the "full alignment" Brexit pledge.

The commitment, we were told, applied only to the six areas of North-South economic co-operation identified in the Belfast Agreement. These are transport, agriculture, education, health, environment and tourism.

As opposed to 142 cross-border policy areas identified by Barnier's task force. The official claimed that these were merely subsets of the original six, and insisted that the commitment did not undermine Britain's declaration that it would leave the single market and the customs union.

"It's the six areas. The 142 are a deeper dive across those six areas. The ambition at the moment clearly is to get cross-border trading arrangements to maintain the status quo as much as we can", the official said, adding: "There are a very unique set of circumstances that apply to Ireland that don't apply to anywhere else in the UK. But in terms of customs union and single market membership, the UK as a whole will be leaving".

Nevertheless, the Joint Report paved the way for the Draft Agreement and the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

This offered a legal text which would give form to the Northern Ireland "backstop" which would come into force in the absence of a suitable proposal from the UK government. But, since Mrs May never had intention of adopting this solution, it had her rushing to the barricades declaring that "no British prime minister could ever agree" to it.

With the cabinet unable to agree an alternative, however, and with the proposal discussed already having been rejected by the Commission, this has created a fantasy island situation where the idea of staying in the customs union has been seriously discussed as part of a "third way" solution – even though it cannot make any practical contribution to the Irish border question.

Now, in an attempt to break the logjam and end the attendant uncertainty, later today during its annual dinner, CBI president Paul Drechsler is weighing in with what is styled as a "major speech", declaring that "the current Brexit impasse is a handbrake on our economy that can and must be released".

But so fixated with the non-solution is even the CBI that Drechsler is to "call on both sides" to focus on "a pragmatic decision for the UK to remain in a customs union, unless and until an alternative is ready and workable".

Firmly embedded in the fantasy island alongside the government, the CBI wants any solution to meet four customs tests. It should: maintain friction-free trade at the UK-EU border; ensure no extra burdens are incurred behind the border; guarantee there are no border barriers for Northern Ireland and; boost export growth with countries both inside and outside the EU.

However, doffing his cap in the approximate direction of reality, Drechsler will argue that even sorting out customs will only solve 40 percent of the problem. The other 60 percent, he states, "depends on securing a deep relationship with the single market with urgent attention needed to find a solution for services, which makes up 80 percent of our economy".

Where this 40-60 split comes from isn't disclosed and the idea of having a "deep relationship" with the single market harps back to the days of having our cake and eating it, where the May government was talking glibly of enjoying the benefits of the Single Market without being part of it – something Mr Corbyn is still doing.

At least, though, we're getting some sense that there is more to Brexit than just customs arrangements, something which Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar has been keen to emphasise. This refers back to last week's meeting with Mrs May in Bulgaria. We now learn that Mrs May offered a "verbal, conceptual" proposal on the UK staying within Europe's customs structure, but "no clear shape of how that would operate was presented". And. as always, Varadkar is saying: "We need details in black and white".

What the Irish prime minister also says is that, crucially, consideration for the Single Market that deals with standards and regulations, was missing from Mrs May's proposal. Varadkar was particularly concerned about the "large quantities of animal produce that criss-cross between the two jurisdictions every day".

"Any move on customs would be welcome", he says, "but I think I need to be very clear - that avoiding a hard Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is about more than customs".

This, he adds, he emphasised to Mrs May, giving her the same message, that resolving the issue of avoiding a hard Border requires more than customs. As to a customs deal, he states that, "if the UK is going to make a move in that space then it's something we're willing to examine, but we haven't seen anything yet, nothing in writing".

Despite that, he was unwilling to disclose exactly what the British prime minister had proposed, but he made clear it fell short of Irish objectives on the Border and would not work in a place of the "backstop".

The reluctance of Mrs May to offer any detail, though, has typified her whole approach to the negotiations. Long on rhetoric and generalities, she has never set out in detail what the UK expects of its negotiating partners – although we are now told to expect a White Paper in June, before the European Council.

For all that, one cannot avoid observing that, behind Mrs May's silence is a strong element of deliberation. She has had plenty of opportunities to set out the detail of what she wants, but has never taken advantage of them – other than to talk of the aspiration of a "deep and comprehensive" trading agreement with the EU after Brexit.

One wonders if her real strategy is to run the talks to the wire in the hope (or expectation) that the EU will cave in and give UK traders unrestricted access to Member State markets, with no political strings attached.

To say that this would be a high risk strategy is no exaggeration but, in the absence of anything else from Mrs May, it seems more and more likely that this is the game she is playing – relying on the oft' repeated Tory mantra that "they need us more then we need them".

Yet, even now we have run out of time when it comes to providing the infrastructure required to make a hard border work. Thus, if Mrs May is gambling on an EU cave-in, she is taking a huge risk because there is no fall back on which she can usefully rely.

Here, Mrs May might be wise to take note of the old adage about gambling: never stake more than you can afford to lose. Betting the farm on one wild spin of the wheel doesn't seem the brightest thing she can do.

Richard North 20/05/2018 link

Brexit: the price of ignorance

Saturday 19 May 2018  

A propos
yesterday's post, I was entertained to see an article in The Times yesterday, informing us that BBC listeners "are ditching politics for classical music in the morning", with the flagship Radio 4 Today having shed 65,000 listeners in a year. But I was especially taken by this observation in the paper, which told us:
The Today programme's audience slip comes amid a debate about the show's direction under Sarah Sands, who took over the editorship last May. Ms Sands sought to refocus the programme on "revelation and illumination" with more in-depth features. Some staff have expressed doubts about the prominence given to what she has described as "girls' stuff".
Given the irritating propensity of the BBC of having its journalists interviewing each other (very often repeating what the presenter has just said), and the exponential increase in high-pitched ladies giving their all, we live in expectation of seeing the BBC motto changed and simplified from its current: "Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation". In future, it will read: "Girlie Shall Shriek Unto Girlie".

Back in what passes for the real world, we see a press release from the Department of Transport, announcing "new plans to keep Kent moving during Channel disruption".

In a nutshell, this is an upgrade of the standing plan for "Operation Stack". It will allow traffic to travel in both directions between junctions 8 and 9 while lorries are being queued for the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel. This means drivers can access these junctions, rather than being diverted onto smaller local roads.

There is also to be a contraflow on the northbound carriageway, which will be available for use by early 2019, if there is ever disruption to cross-Channel traffic and lorries have to be queued. Highways England will start work soon on improving the northbound hard shoulder of the M20, to allow for two-way traffic to be contained within one carriageway, enabling the road to remain open.

The Department for Transport is also setting out plans to improve overnight lorry parking, so that fewer lorries will be left on local roads or parked in lay-bys overnight. There are plans from private developers for an extra 1,000 additional lorry parking spaces across the country, which will provide benefits across the UK, particularly in the south-east.

Missing completely from the press release is any mention of Brexit, and it might be sheer coincidence that the news should appear at this stage. But it could be taken as a belated recognition by government that disruption at the ports will occur, and especially at Dover and the Channel Tunnel.

The DfT, however, is not the only organisation making plans. We have also seen reports that a multi-million-pound upgrade to the Port of Grangemouth in east Stirlingshire is on schedule to be finished later this year. This, it is said, should "Brexit-proof" its operations.

The project includes container terminal surfacing work, a new terminal operating system, warehouse development and investment in ship-to-shore cranes. On completion, the port will be able to cater for any additional demands on container storage times as a result of border controls necessitated by Brexit.

Significantly, Grangemouth is Scotland's largest reefer port – handling temperature-controlled containers, principally from the country's fresh food exporters. The use of refrigerated containers has expanded the season for shipping of produce such as potatoes, cheese, fish and seafood to markets across the world.

And it is in terms of imports that we can anticipate substantial growth, post Brexit. As Ro-Ro traffic hits the buffers, it is likely that container traffic will take up the slack but, with the increased handling time, refrigerated capacity will be essential.

Usefully, there is already a Border Inspection Post in Grangemouth, as well as a Designated Point of Entry for some cargoes, both operated by Falkirk Council. These are facilities which are not available at the main Channel ports.

However, if there are moves to deal with surface transport issues – even if they may be inadequate – huge uncertainty remains in the aviation sector, despite the attempts of some pundits to play down the problems.

The latest broadside comes from Henrik Hololei, director general for Mobility and Transport at the European Commission, via Reuters.

Hololei was speaking at the CAPA Centre for Aviation conference in Dublin and told his audience that the clock was ticking and that the effects of Brexit on aviation "could be significant" after 29 March 2019. He added: "The possibility still exists that on day one no flights operate. It hasn’t disappeared".

One of the key problems here, he explained, is that before any negotiations could be done specifically on aviation, or any other sector, the overall framework of Britain’s departure had to first be agreed. The only thing clear, he said, "is that this is a very sad chapter currently being written".

Nevertheless, this candid approach is at odds with the delusional "it'll be alright on the night" stance taken by ministers and many others. There is a strong tendency to believe that, because the consequences of an uncontrolled Brexit are so devastating, that the UK government (or even the EU) will take action to stop them happening.

Doubtless, the UK, the European Commission and Member State governments will be implementing mitigating measures right up to and beyond B-Day, but unlike the appliance, not everything can be washed away at the touch of a button.

Ministers, officials, the media and the public in general will need to come to terms with a unalterable truth that the EU is a rules-bound organisation. This limits its flexibility to respond to Brexit problems, especially as its other trading partners will be watching closely and demanding equal treatment in the event that concession are made to the UK.

There is no point in protesting, therefore – as Willie Walsh, CEO of British-Airways owner IAG, has been doing that some measures will be just as damaging to European interests. In such a high-profile, high-visibility event, we must expect EU institutions and Member States to stick to the letter of the EU law.

Nevertheless, one can quite understand why so many people are having difficulty with this. The cumulative effects on the movement of goods to and from EEA member states, after B-Day, are such that it is very hard for me to suggest anything other than complete stoppage.

The natural reaction to that is denial, but it is not until you deconstruct all the different elements that it is possible fully to appreciate what we're letting ourselves in for.

Re-reading the Notice to Stakeholders on EU Food Law, for instance, it is easy for me with direct professional experience of dealing with food imports, and the broad sweep of EU law, to see the implications of what the Commission is writing. For the BBC "girlies" and the Telegraph or Mail hacks, though, it is a different matter.

Here, one reads that, "as of the withdrawal date, the importation of food of animal origin from the United Kingdom into the EU-27 is prohibited, unless certain requirements are met". The first of those requirements is that the United Kingdom is "listed" by the Commission for public and animal health purposes.

And, as we all know, for the "listing" of a third country, Article 6(1)(a) of Regulation (EC) No 853/200438, Article 11 of Regulation (EC) No 854/2004 and Article 8 of Council Directive 2002/99/EC apply.

Specifically, these provisions set out the procedures required for a third country to obtain a "listing", something which cannot be done until the UK is a third country – which will not happen until we have left. And until we apply for listing and the Commission is formally able to list the UK, " the importation of food of animal origin from the United Kingdom into the EU-27 is prohibited". You cannot get clearer than that.

Furthermore, this does not kick in just in the event of a "no deal". It applies equally in the event that we secure a free trade agreement, and anything short of full application of Single Market measures, through EEA participation.

These are the sort of things that the prattling Today programme should be telling us, rather than Ms Sands giving prominence to "girls' stuff". I would like to think that this is why people are deserting the programme – and the legacy media in general.

Either way, the public is not being told the things it needs to be told, and our idle politicians – even those enjoying the resources of parliamentary select committees – are failing to acquaint themselves with the details. And for that, there will be a price to pay – the price of ignorance.

Richard North 19/05/2018 link

Brexit: shaping up for the fight?

Friday 18 May 2018  

I've got to the stage now where I'm drastically limiting my access to UK media websites. I've completely stopped watching television news and current affairs output and I can't remember when I last listened to the radio. Even in the car, I prefer silence.

The atmosphere is akin to the leaden stillness just before a thunderstorm, when the heaviness of the air is stifling. Everything is on hold, waiting for the absurd political charade to end and the Brexit crisis to break.

And crisis there must be. We cannot continue like this, with the cabinet indulging in endless arguments about fantasy solutions to problems ministers scarcely seem to understand, against a backdrop of idiot politicians who's only contribution to the debate is to share their ignorance and add to the confusion, all egged on by the clamour of white noise from a media which has long demonstrated its almost total inability to report Brexit coherently.

Interestingly, I'm far from alone in deserting the media. Newspaper circulation figures just released present a picture of unremitting gloom, with all but one of the national titles showing a year-on-year decline.

Particularly prominent in the list is the Telegraph. For technical reasons it is showing a drop of 19 percent – nearly a fifth of its entire readership – bringing its average daily circulation to 377,159. This is a newspaper which, as recently as 2002, topped a million copies a day.

Its sister paper, The Sunday Telegraph, which in 1980 topped a million copies for each day sold, crawls in under the wire with a current average of 298,720, down nearly 18 percent on the year. And, although online figures are not published, even these are said to be declining.

It is a truism in the industry, however, that when the political temperature rises (as during general election campaigns), daily sales also rise. With Brexit verging on crisis, the temperature could hardly be higher. But, if people want information on the issue, they are not turning to the legacy media for it. And, if my attitude is any guide, a goodly number who visit their websites are only there to mock, or to remind themselves of how ghastly the coverage is.

That is not to say that the media are entirely useless, but mainly they act as a noticeboard, warning us of developments that need investigation. With stories showing up on a heavily customised Google News, the displayed links, augmented by Twitter and with the invaluable help of readers on this blog's comment facility, we are able to keep track of the ongoing saga, with a modicum of efficiency.

One thing is for certain, we would not have been able to perform as well without access to the Irish media which, despite its limitations, is streets ahead of its UK counterparts. Thus we have the Irish Times from yesterday warning us that patience is running out on the other side of the Irish Sea, with foreign minister Simon Coveney telling his fellow politicians that it would be far better to have a crisis next month, at the June European Council, rather than leave it to October for the big bust-up which, we all know, must come sooner or later.

Coveney, though, is actually striking an optimistic note, arguing that it would be better to address the issues of contention now, which would "give time for any damage to be repaired". On the face of that, it would seem that he still believes that the situation is reparable – something about which I would not be so sure.

That comment came ahead of a meeting between Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar and Theresa May at the margins of an EU western Balkans summit in Sofia, Bulgaria. The meeting, though, does not seem to have produced much for public consumption, other than a picture of stilted figures smiling for the camera (above).

The exact "take" on the meeting, however, rather depends on the media source from which you care to take your opinions. The Irish Post, for instance, offers the line that Leo Varadkar is warning that there is a "serious" chance that the UK will crash out of the EU without a Brexit deal.

This is the man being quoted before the meeting took place though. After the meeting, we have the village idiots' journal, the Express, wibbling about Mrs May giving Varadkar "fresh insight" into what it dignified with the title of "Britain's Brexit strategy".

Varadkar was treated to "new thinking" from British negotiators and the suggestion that they could even offer "new customs proposals" within the next two weeks. This allowed the paper to headline: "Varadkar hints May is ready to accept FULL ALIGNMENT to EU on customs".

A day before this fluff hit the web, we had Denis Staunton, London editor of the Irish Times offer his analysis, telling us that the internal debate (in Whitehall) over customs "bears little relation to existing negotiations with EU".

Much of his piece though attends to the sort of court gossip that journalists seem to find so fascinating, but which bores the average reader witless, contributing exactly nothing to our understanding of the issues.

For all that, Staunton does manage to point out the simple truth that seems to be evading the bulk of UK commenters – that "remaining in the customs union but leaving the single market will not allow for frictionless trade because border checks would still be required to deal with issues such as phytosanitary standards".

Here we have an interesting test. Very often, when a journalist is halfway there (beyond the stage of calling Spitfires "jet" fighters), but hasn't really mastered the subject, he will refer to "phytosanitary standards", not realising that the full group embraces the rather more clumsy "sanitary and phytosanitary standards", the one applying to animals and products of animal origin, the other to plants and products of plant origin.

For this, though, though Mr Staunton has an "elegant solution". He would have us extend the proposed backstop - which would allow Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union and parts of the single market after Brexit - to the whole of the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, we are told, Brussels "will resist such a move", on the basis that Northern Ireland is only being allowed to cherry-pick the single market because of its special circumstances. The UK as a whole would be expected to adopt the whole of the Single Market, or nothing.

All this depends, of course, on which bits of the Single Market is being considered, but even Staunton fails to understand that there is far more to the Single Market than simply regulatory alignment. But then, anyone who suggests that suggests, as he does, that the EU enjoys "seamless trade" with Switzerland, really hasn't got a grip. Denis has been in London too long. He needs to come home.

Despite that, if we stay in London (spiritually), one can hardly avoid bumping into the Guardian, which has Mrs May denying the claims made in yesterday's Telegraph that she is preparing for Britain to remain in the customs union after 2021. We are not climbing down, she says. The UK will be leaving the customs union, we are leaving the EU. Of course, she adds, "we will be negotiating future customs arrangements with the European Union".

But what really keeps the paper hard in the fray is a trenchant editorial. Like Varadkar – and so many of us – it is losing patience, remarking that there was a time, perhaps, when the government's ineptitude over Brexit was almost funny. But, it observes, there is nothing funny about it now. It continues:
For 15 months Theresa May has groped her way towards an approach that could reconcile her party's Europe-loathers with her party's Europe-pragmatists. All too predictably, none of her efforts have succeeded. Mrs May now has a month before the June European council at which the UK and the EU are due to review progress. She has five months before some kind of deal is struck. Progress? Deal? These words have lost all meaning. Getting two pandas to mate in captivity turns out to be a cinch compared with getting the Conservative party to agree what it wants.
Lefty rhetoric aside, the tone of this piece is getting perilously close to real journalism – not at all what we expect from the legacy media. But then, if one ignores the entire Guardian commentariat, we might have to concede that, occasionally, the paper stumbles on old-fashioned journalistic values, even if it is only as a last resort.

It's current offering is enough to underscore what has been blindingly obvious for some long time – that Brexit has become so much of a plaything between warring Tory tribes, that the protagonists have completely lost their (always slender) grip on reality, and have launched into stratospheric fantasy. Having exceeded escape velocity, there is no certainty that they can ever get back down to earth.

The same, however, goes for the media. Shorn of the high-flown headline rhetoric, The Times report of the Varadkar-May meeting differs little in substance to that of the Express. Supposedly, a "breakthough" is in the air.

Giving the game away, though, Varadkar says of May's "new thinking", "We haven't been able to get any detail". Clearly, May is no Thatcher, a prime minister who was always conscious of the fact that the devil was in the detail. And it is the detail in Brexit that we have always lacked.

Without this detail, we have nowhere to go. There is nothing yet to relieve that leaden feeling of an overcharged atmosphere. But when the fight finally comes, it will be a relief.

Richard North 18/05/2018 link

Brexit: not even at the starting gate

Thursday 17 May 2018  

The purpose of the current Brexit talks being conducted within the Cabinet are, we are told, mainly concerned with how the UK is to avoid a "hard" border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

So far, the entirely fruitless discussions have been focused on two options, the so-called "customs partnership" and the "maximum facilitation" plan, neither of which would secure free movement of goods across the border, or be acceptable to Brussels.

But, in her desperation to avoid the "backstop", which would inevitably involve a "wet" border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, it seems Mrs May has come up with a stunning "third way" alternative.

In order to keep the goods flowing, the prime minister - we are told - is ready to tell Brussels that the UK is prepared to stay in the customs union beyond 2021.

By such means, the UK will stay aligned to the customs union, to allow the "highly complex technology needed to operate borders after Brexit" to be procured and installed, processes which are said to take until 2023 to complete.

What is absolutely staggering here – if the report is correct – is the belief that continued membership of the customs union will in any way facilitate the free movement of goods across the Irish border and thereby avoid the need to set up a "hard" border.

This appears to rest on the continued perpetration of error of confusing the "customs union" with "customs cooperation ", two entirely separate concepts which rest for their authority on distinct parts of the Treaty of the European Union (Chapters 1 & 2, respectively, of Title II).

Confirmation that this error is at the heart of this initiative would seem to rest with Telegraph claiming that remaining in a customs union would keep the whole of the UK within the EU "customs territory" for a temporary period, avoiding Northern Ireland being under a separate regime.

This in itself is a mistake. For a start, the European Union itself is based upon a customs union. That much is written into the treaty, so the only way the UK can remain in the customs union is to stay in the EU. In fact, the UK will leave the EU on 29 March 2019 and, in so doing, will leave the customs union.

Thus, what is actually meant is that the UK will adopt all the regulations pertaining to the customs union, but without actually being in it. But this is largely what the UK has said it intended to do through what was originally known as the Great Repeal Bill.

As to the "customs territory", this is not defined by the customs union, per se. Rather, this is defined by Regulation (EU) No 952/2013 (Article 4) - the Union Customs Code Regulation. As a formally defined area, this embraces much more than just the customs union – it also takes in the internal market.

As such, the "customs territory" does not define the customs union, any more than the customs union defines the customs territory. It actually defines the area to which the Union Customs Code (UCC) applies. That is the common administrative code which defines customs procedures applicable to the Union as a whole, administering the application of the customs union and the import and export of goods to and from the internal market.

Thus, for the UK to remain within the customs territory, the EU would have to amend or extend the application of Regulation 952/2013 (and all the related regulations) to ensure continuity of application. But, the UK would no longer be in the EU and therefore outside its jurisdiction. One can only imagine therefore, that the provisions would be carried through in the formal Withdrawal Agreement.

If this looks complicated, that's because it is. One has to recall that no country has ever left the EU under the Article 50 process so everything is being tried out for the first time. And there will be plenty of work here for the lawyers to define the precise legal structures. Even then, that will not necessarily guarantee that they will withstand scrutiny if the ECJ comes calling.

The upshot of all this though is that the best we can get from the application of customs union rules, and the relevant parts of the UCC, is that we will have a tariff-free border, with no rules of origin (ROO). But that in no way ensures free movement of goods. As we know, that only comes with full participation in the Single Market, requiring regulatory alignment and much else.

In other words, conformity with customs union rules do not solve the "hard" border problem. We need much, much more.

Right up front is our old friend, conformity assessment. When we drop out of the EU, none of our Notified Bodies will be recognised and any goods requiring third party testing will no longer have valid certification.

Unless by the time we leave, there are Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRA) on conformity assessment in place, any goods requiring third party certification will require re-testing before they are permitted to circulate freely within the Single Market.

There is no point in asserting that this testing can be done "beyond the border". In the immediate aftermath of Brexit day, Union customs officials will need to be in their guard for a torrent of goods which previously was entitled to free passage and will then be prohibited access until complex formalities have been complied with.

Not only will this include the general range of manufactured goods, but also chemicals, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, vehicles and their components, aircraft and their components, and much else. Even waste which we export to some EU countries for treatment or recycling will be caught in the net.

This will necessarily mean an enhanced level of document scrutiny, a massive rise in load inspections and huge quantities of goods detained for testing and certification. All of this is untouched by customs union provisions, as are the sanitary and phytosanitary checks, which must be carried out in approved facilities which, at present, do not exist.

Where Mrs May thinks she is going with this, therefore, is beyond understanding. Nothing on the table, now or previously, addresses the "hard" border issue.

Yet, perversely, if Mrs May took the time out to look at the EEA Agreement, she would see that Article 10 makes provision for the prohibition of "customs duties on imports and exports, and any charges having equivalent effect" – exactly what be achieved through application of customs union rules.

With the adoption of the EU's WTO schedules of tariffs, and continuity arrangements on third country trade agreements, that has the effect of maintaining the common external tariff, while we are only limited on making deals with other countries of we adopt the common commercial policy (which is not part of the customs union.

If ROO issues arise, there is provision for dealing with these in the 34-page Protocol 4 of the EEA Agreement, which could be amended to suit specific UK requirements.

Customs cooperation is arranged through Protocol 10 and Protocol 11 of the EEA Agreement, and conformity assessment is dealt with in Protocol 12.

Together with the Annexes, and especially Annex I on veterinary and phytosanitary matters, there is in the EEA Agreement much of what is needed to ensure free movement of goods. Add to that your "maximum facilitation" and you have the makings of a plan which would give us an invisible border.

And in all that, the customs union is a complete irrelevance. If Mrs May genuinely thinks that adopting customs union rules is going to get her out of the hole she has dug for herself, then she has reached the nadir of comprehension. In all her period in office, she has learned nothing and knows nothing.

We are not even at the starting gate.

Richard North 17/05/2018 link

Brexit: EEA lies

Wednesday 16 May 2018  

Not content with the ignorance-driven confusion driving discussions about the EEA, we now have the likes of Brexit Central (aka "Ultra" Central) resorting to the lie direct.

In this endeavour, they rely on Hjörtur J. Guðmundsson, an Icelandic citizen who calls himself a historian, to assert that being in the EEA through membership of Efta is an "arrangement" which was "originally designed by Brussels to prepare countries for becoming part of the EU".

Guðmundsson thus claims that The EEA Agreement was "in fact the predecessor to the pre-accession program which Brussels later mainly designed for countries in Eastern and Southern Europe". He further claims that "the EU floated the idea in the 90s to use the EEA Agreement not only to prepare EFTA/EEA countries for joining the bloc but those countries as well". But, according to Guðmundsson, this was rejected by the Efta countries.

What is seriously disconcerting about the way that these claims are presented is that Guðmundsson does not trouble us with anything like evidence, even though the medium of online publishing provides ample opportunities to reference supporting material through the use of hyperlinks.

However, resort to real evidence adequately demonstrates that what became the EEA originated from an initiative taken by the Efta member states. The starting point is generally taken to be the summit in Vienna of 13 May 1977, where the members expressed a need to develop trade and economic co-operation with then EC on a "pragmatic and practical basis". The text of the communiqué can be read here (from p.51), with the key paragraph 4 starting at the bottom of page 53. 

This much was set out in an admirable paper published in 1993 by the Directorate General for Research in the European Parliament, with Niels Kristoffersen as the lead author. The document, as with many others, is easily accessible on the internet and an excellent starting point for any serious student of the EEA, not least because it references and thereby identifies what are clearly the key documents relating to the establishment of this organisation.

The Vienna Summit communiqué, almost by itself is sufficient to demonstrate that the EEA was an Efta initiative, but the more one reads, the clearer this becomes. But from the European Parliament report (more than adequately referenced to primary sources), we learn that, following the Summit, there was a series of bilateral talks between the EC and each of the then Efta countries, through which cooperation was extended in many fields not directly within the scope of free trade agreements (FTAs) already in existence.

However, although several arrangements were concluded, "the EC and the Efta countries were not fully satisfied with the way in which cooperation was unfolding". During celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the FTAs, this led to a joint declaration the EC Council, the European Commission and the Efta Council that there was between them the political will for strengthening the cooperation between the parties.

This culminated in the Luxembourg Declaration of 1984, the text of which is available on the Efta website. It is not exactly difficult to find.

The declaration arose from a meeting at ministerial level between the EC and its Member States and the Efta states, held on Monday 9 April 1984 at the Kirchberg European Centre, Luxembourg (pictured). Stressing the very special importance the participants attached to relations between the Community and the EFTA countries, Ministers sought to "lay down orientations to continue, deepen and extend cooperation within the framework of, and beyond the Free Trade Agreements".

While the Commission responded positively in May 1985, it had reservations on what was to become the core issue, noting that: "Community integration and the Community's independent powers of decision must under no circumstances be affected".

Nowhere in the documentation, therefore, does one get any sense that the then EC is coercing the Efta states to join, or that the ground is being prepared for them to join the then EC. The publication of the Commission's response, in COM(85) 206 final, not only confirms that what was to become the EEA was an Efta initiative, but it also shows a cautious Commission, hedging the enthusiasm with a series of caveats.

Not least of these, the Commission stated that: "It will only be possible to progress towards achievement of a wider European market if the costs and benefits involved are shared equally". It then declared: "Measures taken in parallel must involve real reciprocity".

A month later, however, the Commission published its White Paper on the completion of the internal market. And it was this that set the tone for the subsequent talks for it was this, more than anything else, which had Efta states worried about marginalisation and trade diversion effects from a more developed EC market.

Despite this, progress was not rapid, again indicative of a certain of caution on the part of the Commission. Even the establishment of a High Level Group. To negotiate and manage further cooperation, by 1988 the Efta states were expressing "disappointment" at the incomplete progress, with the observation that the EC has become "more and more sceptical about bilateral cooperation with the Efta states".

The breakthrough, however, was not long in coming when, on 17 January 1989, Commission President Jacques Delors gave what was described as a "visionary speech " to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Referring to "our close Efta friends", he suggested "a new, more structured partnership with common decision-making and administrative institutions to make our activities more effective and to highlight the political dimension of our cooperation in the economic, social, financial and cultural spheres".

Then, "not forgetting the others who are knocking at our door", he referred to Mikhail Gorbachev's notion of a "common European house", which had been articulated as early as 1987. As an alternative, Delors offered a "European village", in which he saw a house called the "European Community". "We are its sole architects; we are the keepers of its keys", he said, "but we are prepared to open its doors to talk with our neighbours".

This was exactly what the Efta states wanted to hear. On 14-15 March 1989, they responded with the "Oslo Declaration", declaring their readiness "to explore together with the EC ways and means to achieve a more structured partnership".

What then intervened in a series of meeting was the cataclysmic and unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 – to be followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the newly liberated Soviet satellites of central and eastern Europe in flux, their relationship with the EU yet to be defined, Delors changed the shape of his original offer to the Efta states, removing the prospect of joint decision-making.

My personal view is that the EES structure was so attractive that the former Soviet satellites would find this more attractive than full membership of what was to become the European Union. And Delors, with his eye on his own legacy, wanted the "big bang" – the largest of the successive enlargements in the history of the Community.

This untested theory begs a very logical question. Why, if Delors had in mind the EEA as institution "to prepare countries for becoming part of the EU" did he not bring in the former satellites at this stage, rather than submit the EU to the most traumatic enlargement it has ever experienced? In my view, had he done so, they might never have joined the EU, the alternative – as it clearly was – providing those former satellites with everything they needed.

Either way, the point is that the development of the EEA is extremely well-documented, with most of the primary sources easily accessible on the internet. There is no need to make unsupported assertions and, on an issue so important, there is no excuse for it.

Any dispassionate review of that evidence could only allow the conclusion that Guðmundsson, in asserting that the EEA is a pre-accession "ante-room", is wholly wrong. Yet this man calls himself a "historian". He has no business commenting on the history of the EEA without knowing that history.

Nevertheless, a gentle interpretation of Guðmundsson's efforts might allow for the conclusion that he is simply mistaken in his assertion. But this is also a man who has written a lengthy report on why "the EEA is not the way" for the UK, in which he devotes 1,500 words to the thesis that the EEA was "designed as a waiting room for EU accession".

Yet, in this lengthy treatise (about the same length as this piece), not once does he refer to or rely on any of the primary sources to which I refer. His main official reference is to a neutral European Parliament briefing note which provides no support for his thesis.

One could be charitable and suggest that the work (and its "mistaken" conclusion") is simply the fruit of shoddy scholarship. But Mr Guðmundsson only seems write for outlets with a particular agenda, and his work always supports that agenda.

In such circumstances, shoddy work lends support to the lie. And, if one takes the Jesuit concept of the lie, as encompassing the act, default or omission, one can only conclude that Mr Guðmundsson is a liar. And that is the way the "Ultras" seem to work – by perpetrating the lie, and repeating it at every opportunity, they make their case. 

We should have none of it.

Richard North 16/05/2018 link

Brexit: EEA myths

Tuesday 15 May 2018  

Today, at an Open Reason event in Essex, writes Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, a tri-party trio of Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nicky Morgan (pictured) "are seeking to advance the cause of a version of the customs union/single market called the European Economic Area (EEA), as enjoyed by Norway".

This surely has to represent the nadir of legacy media reporting when an former editor of The Times can blithely make such a huge mistake in writing for a national newspaper. But it represents not only alarming ignorance on the part of the man but also the system - which supposedly includes fact-checking sub-editors - which allowed the error through unchecked.

Had Jenkin wanted to check, he could always have read the paper he used to edit, which has an article about the EEA. It manages to get one thing right, in declaring that Efta members (of the EEA) are not in the customs union.

That said, The Times piece's arrogance represents much that is objectionable about the legacy media as its title asserts: "Brexit: everything you need to know about the European Economic Area" - a cover for trotting out the usual quota of errors and misunderstandings, telling us very little of what we actually need to know.

For instance, the paper asserts that EEA membership would enable the UK to continue to participate in the single market and "this would allow, for example, a chocolate manufacturer in Birmingham to continue selling its goods across Europe with no new checks on its produce".

It is interesting that – doubtless unwittingly – the paper has picked on a product which may be based on a food of animal origin (milk) and is certainly of plant origin. Imported from the UK with the status of a third country, this would be problematical, requiring checks to be made either a Border Inspection Post (BIP) or a Designated Point of Entry.

As it stands, Norway (and to an extent Iceland) is exempt from these checks, but this exemption does not come automatically by virtue of EEA participation. It requires additional sectoral agreements incorporated in Annex 1 of the EEA Agreement. Liechtenstein does not share the exemptions and it has adopted the Swiss legislative code.

Thus, for The Times assertion to be true, the UK would need to trawl through the hundreds of provisions in Annex I, making amendments as necessary, to ensure that we fully participated in the single market for animals, products (including foods) of animal origin, plants and products (including foods and things such as timber) of plant origin.

This underscores something that I doubt any single paper has picked up – and has passed by most of the EEA enthusiasts – that the EEA Agreement is not a single homogenous treaty but a series of detailed bespoke agreements tailored to the three Efta members.

This has advantages and disadvantages. The obvious advantage is that (potentially) we end up with a bespoke agreement, tailored specifically to UK requirements. It will not be the "Norway option" that we adopt but the "UK option", a subset of the Efta/EEA option.

Furthermore, unlike the EU treaties, the EEA Agreement is extraordinarily flexible and can be amended with ease. This is because of the remarkable structure of the Agreement which takes on board EU law by amending the treaty and incorporating it into the treaty text via the annexes. As such, the treaty is amended as many as ten times a year, the changes agreed respectively by the EEAS on behalf of the EU and the individual Efta/EEA states.

Thus, there is no question (or need for) a "once and for all" agreement, as will be the case with the Withdrawal Agreement under the Article 50 provisions being discussed in Brussels. We can keep going back for as long as the EEA Agreement is in force, adding specifics to it via the protocols and the annexes.

As to the downside, this means that the Efta/EEA Agreement is no quick fix. Apart from the need to rejoin Efta – which is by no means certain and will take some time – we then will have to do a line-by-line analysis of the EEA Annexes, making sectoral and country-specific adjustments as necessary.

We will also need to negotiate country-specific protocols, most definitely on mutual agreement of conformity assessment, on customs cooperation (which would include mutual recognition of Authorised Economic Operators), on rules of origin and on agriculture and fisheries. We might also tuck into Protocol 15, adding our name alongside Liechtenstein, to extend control of freedom of movement to the UK on its own negotiated terms. That would remove the need to invoke Art 112.

This, though, is not the end of it. As with the decision in the EU-US Air Transport Agreement, which allowed Norway and Iceland to join EU-US open skies deal, we see provisions for the EU to fold Efta/EEA countries into international agreements, without having to negotiate separate agreements.

Such provision have their own upside. Much of what is currently being negotiated for inclusion in the Withdrawal Agreement and would also have to be the subject of further negotiations, can be managed through the far less demanding process of the EEA Agreement, using the existing institutions of the EEA Council and the Joint Committee.

Such subtleties, however, are way beyond the scope of a legacy media which has yet to understand the difference between the customs union and customs cooperation.

As far as The Times and its "everything you need to know about the European Economic Area". All it can cope with is the Janet & John version of EEA, telling us that, "if the UK were to remain in the EEA it would have no power to control EU migration, a key reason why many people voted to leave in the first place".

In addition, it says, "while countries such as Norway are obliged to follow new EU laws that relate to the single market they have no formal say in setting those rules. This, critics argue, would make the UK a rule-taker and warn that in the end it would only be a matter of time before the EU proposed a rule that was unacceptable to UK national interests".

What is entertaining about The Times, though, is that it opens its piece with the claim that, "Before June 2016 even European political afficiados (sic) only had a hazy idea about what the European Economic Area was but Brexit has changed that". Bearing in mind that Flexcit was first published in 2014, and we are nothing if not political aficionados, this is the classic arrogance of the beast, where nothing exists until it has discovered it.

Between them all, though, the legacy media seems to have learned nothing about the EEA, remaining locked into the same tired clichés that they have been trotting out for years. To its overweening ignorance, however, the Financial Times adds irony as it calls on its readers to "make informed decisions" and "become an FT subscriber".

It then cheerfully tells us that "EEA membership would mean the UK retaining full access to the EU's single market but making financial contributions and accepting most EU laws. Free movement would also continue to apply". Not only has this paper learned nothing, it seems incapable of learning anything.

Pete has had a go on Twitter - a vain attempt to educate the ignorati. But we are largely dealing with a community which is convinced it already knows everything and needs to learn nothing. It is beyond redemption.

That's the worry of it all. We have an option here which solves most of the immediate problems of Brexit, and would set us fair for a longer-term solution. But it is a solution about which most the media know terrifyingly little, and most of what they think they know is wrong.

It is also a solution where even most of its advocates don't fully understand it, and where some of its supporters have ulterior motives, wrongly believing that EEA participation keeps us closer to the EU and would make it easier for us to rejoin at some later date.

That encapsulates another pernicious myth – that the EEA is the "ante-room" for aspiring EU members. Like so many, this myth persists even when the reality is the exact opposite. The EEA was devised for those European counties which wanted strong trading relations with the EC (as it was then), but did not want to buy into the full political integration package.

From the original proposal of a European Economic Space, it emerged as the EEA, complete with safeguard measures to compensate for the lack of voting rights, and serves to this day as an alternative to EU membership – offering precisely what so many Eurosceptics sought.

If we leave the EEA, that means deserting the Single Market. And as, I point out in Monograph 15 we have nothing to gain from leaving it. We have even less to gain from leaving the EEA.

And yet, there is still room for optimism. Says Peter Hitchens, s tiny gleam of light in the endless, swirling, flatulent fog of the European debate: The possibility that Britain may remain in the European Economic Area, so getting rid of three quarters of the EU's laws, while not madly damaging its trade with EU countries, is still just about alive.

One day, he concludes, people will realise what a good idea this is.

Richard North 15/05/2018 link

Brexit: trust in me

Monday 14 May 2018  

I have three clear tests for the outcomes that we want to see, says Mrs May, in an authored piece for The Times, repeated extensively elsewhere.

First, she says, any deal with the EU must protect our the Union and also honour the Good Friday Agreement. This means there can be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Second, any agreements must create as little friction as possible for trade to protect the jobs that rely on speedy and integrated supply chains. These are a valued part of our economy, particularly for our manufacturing regions.

Third, we must not constrain our ability to negotiate trade agreements with other countries around the world by being bound into a customs union. We must be a global Britain that makes the most of the opportunity to create jobs and growth by trading ambitiously with partners across the world, old and new.

For all of that - and the inherent, unresolvable contradictions - Mrs May tells us, "I have put forward a plan to negotiate all these outcomes and to leave the European Union". She tells us that, throughout this process, she has tried to balance the legitimate concerns of those on both sides of the debate and believes that "our negotiating objectives answer those concerns".

The path she is setting out, she avers, is the path to deliver the Brexit people voted for. "Of course", she then says, "the details are incredibly complex and, as in any negotiation, there will have to be compromises".

That means we must trust our prime minister. "If we stick to the task, we will seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a stronger, fairer Britain that is respected around the world and confident and united at home", she says.

She will, of course, need our help and support to get there. In return, her pledge to us is simple: "I will not let you down".

And in simpler, more trusting times, that might have been enough. A figure of the stature of Winston Churchill might have got away with it. But Theresa May is no Winston Churchill. A "blood, toil, sweat and tears" speech from her carries no conviction. It lacks weight or conviction and comes over as lightweight and superficial.

In these modern times, prime ministers need to do more than offer empty rhetoric and vague promises. Mrs May needs to open up ad come up with specific details of her intentions, concrete proposals and a realistic timescale.

In short, she needs to stop addressing us trusting children and start treating us as adults capable of dealing with the real world. Hiding behind "incredibly complex" details simply doesn't cut it. Nor does telling us that she has "proposed different options for a new customs arrangement with the EU and the government will continue to develop them during the negotiations".

You would have to be on a different planet to remain unaware that these "different options" are in deep trouble and are going nowhere. Yet, Mrs May, from the sanctuary of her little bubble, is giving the impression that she can gloss over the conflict and uncertainties – that her "people" will rally behind her for the price of second-rate rhetoric and a few soothing words.

One really does wonder if they are actually convinced that we're that stupid. Or whether Mrs May is going through the motions because she's run out of options. Or perhaps her advisors – imbued with the contempt they have for all of us – think it doesn't matter. We've been taking this sort of political vacuity for so long that a little more won't make any difference.

But that apart, one remarkable thing about the May bubble is that it seems to be locked in a time warp. She still talks in terms of taking back control of our borders, as if this phrase had any real meaning. She says the public want their own government to decide on the number of people coming into Britain from across the European Union when, in reality, it's people from the resto of the world that are often of greater concern.

She tells us that she "will ensure that we take back control of our money", when actually all she means is that "we have agreed a settlement with the European Union and the days of vast contributions from taxpayers to the EU budget are coming to an end".

In her limited framework, Brexit "means there will be billions of pounds that we used to send to Brussels that we will now be able to spend on domestic priorities, including our National Health Service". This, presumably, is doffing her cap to her foreign secretary and the "lie on the side of the bus". But is there really any sentient adult that really believes that we are gong to save any money out of Brexit?

Then we get this the repetition of the tired little soundbite that really has long ago lost any meaning. "I will ensure that we take back control of our laws". She say. "So Brexit means that, while we may sometimes choose to take the same approach as the EU, our laws will be made in Westminster, Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast, with those laws tried by British judges".

Has this woman seriously never heard of globalisation? Does she really think that there is any nation in this interdependent world that has total (or any) control of the global legislative agenda". Is it even possible for a halfway intelligent person to believe that the UK can be a successful global trading nation and maintain an independent law-making capability.

And, as if to prove that time stands still in No. 10, Mrs May asserts that "We will leave the single market because staying in the single market means continued free movement of people". A whole world of debate has passed this lady by. For her, it's not a matter of whether she agrees or disagrees with the alternative proposition. She doesn't even recognise that one exists.

Being charitable, we could put this down to the bubble effect. Otherwise, Mrs May is demonstrating an overweening arrogance which is so typical of the political class. Once her kind have spoken, that is the end of it. Dissenters are invisible.

Nevertheless, having rejected any chance of a developing a working trade relationship with the EU, Mrs May then gives us a dose of unreality which has us questioning her sanity – and our own. "But we will maintain the strongest possible trading partnership with our European neighbours", she says. However, he note the weasel words: "strongest possible trading partnership". Is she taking us for fools?

When it comes to word salad, though, there is possibly nothing as finely crafted as this vacuous piece of rhetoric. We will, she says, "create new trade deals around the world ensuring that we seize the opportunities to build an economy that works for everyone".

Then, with absolutely nothing on the table by way of firm (or any) proposals, Mrs May blandly asserts that: "We will get a fairer deal for our farmers and fishermen by leaving the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy, regaining control over access to our waters and safeguarding the interests of the UK fishing industry".

As aspirational rhetoric, this might have worked when she stood outside parliament shortly after her appointment as prime minister, but nearly two years after the referendum, we need more than that. Technically, these are amongst the most difficult policies to devise, and it is going to take more than a few gushing clichés before we can accept that the government has anything workable in mind.

But clichés are truly Mrs May's speciality. "We will take back control of our social policy and our tax policy so rather than being decided in Brussels, we will decide them in the interests of ordinary working people in Britain". She says. I wonder if she appreciates just how empty that sounds, coming from the mouth of a Conservative prime minister.

Thus, about the only thing we might accept her word on is when she promises that "we will leave the customs union". Even then, her reasoning is flawed. This is "so we can establish our own independent trade policy and negotiate trade deals in our interests".

Not for Mrs May is the simple truth that customs unions do not stop nations making independent trade deals. In EU terms, the restriction arises from the common commercial policy. And this from a woman who tells us that "the details are incredibly complex". Indeed, they would appear to be – so complex that she hasn't yet mastered them, even if many of us have.

Perhaps, though, there is a hitherto unrecognised majority that actually likes being patronised by its politicians, likes being treated as if they are retarded five-years-old and wants to be given the "stupid" version of Brexit.

Certainly. If Mrs May is taking her cue from business, and in particular the car industry, she could run away with the impression that the nation was populated by extremely thick people.

But even at their thickest, the nation has long learned to be wary of politicians asking people to trust them. And in Mrs May's case, she has done nothing whatsoever to deserve that trust. If she doesn't actually realise that, then we must be dealing with a seriously thick woman.

Richard North 14/05/2018 link

Brexit: our incapable politicians

Sunday 13 May 2018  

Watching our politicians going around in circles over our future customs arrangements with the EU, writes Booker in this week's column, one is reminded, in a very different sense, of that famous observation attributed to Isaac Newton: that he felt like a boy on the seashore, diverting himself with the odd "smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me".

With barely six weeks to go to that last crucial European Council before Brexit talks conclude in October, our politicians divert themselves with endless chatter about "customs" and "tariffs", while the real obstacle to any continued "frictionless" trade with the EU still lies virtually unnoticed before them.

This is something scarcely recognised, it seems, by the majority of people. But the traditional customs process is one of tax collecting. Not for nothing were customs officers known as "revenue" men, their specific duties being the recovery of dues levied on imported goods.

But, as with almost all payments to government these days, the bulk of these are now made electronically. Regular shippers have accounts with HMRC, they assess their own liabilities and submit their payments periodically. In more sophisticated system – such as the Swiss border system - individuals can even use their smartphones to assess and pay import duties.

The same goes for Rules of Origin and other revenue issues. None of these require border administration or checks. Evaders can be picked up by cameras and mobile patrols. Specially-equipped vans can set up in lay-bys or other stopping points, to act as mobile checkpoints. Firms are audited at their normal places of business, in exactly the same way that they are for VAT and other taxes.

The real problems, says Booker (as do I), which affect Ireland and all our EU borders when we leave, lies with all those other "border controls" which our departure will make inevitable.

Goods from the UK, in its newly acquired status of a "third country", become subject to a vast range of "non-tariff barriers" involving inspections, checking of loads and delays – which have nothing to do with customs – that threaten to put at risk much of our trade with our largest export market, now worth £270?billion a year.

Rightly, Booker reminds us that these barriers could overnight bring to a halt those 14,000 trucks now waved through between Dover and Calais every day, and a great deal else.

When I first raised this as a possibility, back in 2012 and subsequently, I was accused by some of exaggeration. But, as time has passed and others have joined in the chorus of warnings, it has become more or less accepted that border delays are a serious issue.

For all the torrent of media chatter, there are still no answers to the massive problems posed by the exports of our medicines, chemicals and aviation industries, when we leave the EU agencies whose regulations make those exports legally possible. These alone are worth £100?billion a year to the UK economy and the effect of Brexit on earnings is (at present) incalculable.

As for our food exports, products or animal origin and those of plant origin, have to be submitted for time-consuming inspections, respectively to Border Inspection Posts or Designated Ports of Entry. At least, when the new regulations kick in, we will only have to deal with Border Control Posts.

Even with (or despite) the recent select committee, there is still a comprehensive failure to understand that, short of full participation in the Single Market, these non-tariff barriers will apply to our exports come what may.

The prattle about "equivalence" and "mutual recognition" is just that. The full regimen of the EU's "official controls" will apply once we are a third country. There is no example of any country in the world, with third country status, which is exempt from these controls.

And the delays involved, says Booker, would bring an end to much more than just our export trade in Welsh lamb. They will also affect the 30 percent of food on our supermarket shelves currently imported from the EU.

The point here is that, under WTO rules non-discrimination rules, we would have to impose the same strict border checks on imports from the EU as we currently do on those from non-EU countries. And, as a Lords Committee warned last week, "the UK does not have the staff, the IT systems or the physical infrastructure to meet that increased demand. Any resulting delays could choke the UK's ports".

On the other hand, Rees Mogg argues that, if we're negotiating a free trade agreement, we can continue with existing provisions for ten years.

Such specificity, however, is an invention although WTO rules do allow exemptions under exceptional circumstances. These, though, would will probably have to take the form of waivers, which have to be directed at specific problems and extend for no longer than absolutely necessary.

Doubtless, there would be some relief as WTO rules could not be enforced if they compelled a nation to allow its people to starve. But it is unlikely that disruption to the international order will not have a political price, as other nations seek to exploit the situation to their own advantage.

Yet, the greater problem is that the infrastructure in the EU Member States is by no means ready. Therefore, what applies to the UK in terms of its inability to handle the increased checks will apply in spades when our products are exported. This, says Booker, is the real problem we face, which not one of the fantasy "customs" schemes being squabbled over by ministers could begin to solve.

As we are constantly reminded, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. And, as prime minister Leo Varadkar put it last week, if meaningful progress on Brexit is not achieved at the June European Council, "it is difficult to see how we will be able to come to an agreement by October at all".

Yet, with just six weeks to go, Booker concludes, most of our politicians still seem incapable of recognising even that the problem exists.

Just how the politicians – as well as the media – can be brought to face reality is not easy to fathom. The EU law is clear enough and, although complicated, it is not beyond the wit of those responsible to read it and understand what it is saying. And, to make it even easier, the Commission has published its "Notice to Stakeholders" series.

Currently, the only thing standing between us and the prospect of certain disaster is a 21-month "transition" period, but that doesn't seem at all certain, given Mrs May's prevarication on the Irish border question.

Possibly. Even at this late stage, there is the possibility of a fudge, conceded only because the EU Member States themselves need more time to prepare for Brexit.

What really hasn't dawned on anybody though is that, after the June European Council, there isn't – as Booker pointed out – another meeting until October, when the negotiations are expected to be concluded. Any fudge in June might extend only to keeping the talks alive but, as a "senior Irish government source" says, come October, "We still need the backstop".

After the end of June, though, Brussels starts winding down and it closes down almost completely during August. If you wanted to mount a coup to take over the EU, then would be the time to do it.

September and the first week of October is a difficult time for UK politics, as the party conferences tend to freeze political positions, making external negotiations difficult.

Therefore, we might already be too late to secure a settlement on the current basis. We will need to look for something more radical if there is to be any rational solution to Brexit. We need those MPs and an EEA resolution more than anyone can possibly imagine.

Richard North 13/05/2018 link

Brexit: acting in the national interest

Saturday 12 May 2018  

Stephen Hammond is Conservative MP for Wimbledon. And, for a Tory MP, he's doing a slightly unusual thing – writing in the Guardian.

Furthermore, Mr Hammond is setting himself up as something of a hero, telling us that Brexit is a "national crisis". We need "a compromise solution", he says, presenting us with the view that protecting Britain’s economy is vital – "joining Efta and remaining in the EEA is the best way to reach a consensus".

Mr Hammond hasn't always felt this way. In February 2016, prior to the referendum, he had seen the terms of David Cameron's "renegotiation" and the uncertainty of leaving the European Union weighed heavily on his mind. "We have no idea what out would look like", he said, "and different leave campaigners have wildly different views on what it should look like".

His concern, was to retain good access to the European Union's market but didn't like the idea of membership of the EEA like Norway. We would, he said, be subject to most European Union regulations anyway with very little influence over them".

Rather, he thought that we should stay in the "reformed EU which gives us access to the single market, stops ever closer union and political integration out of irritation and pique". Leaving, was a move that he did not think was "in our national interest".

Now, however, he seems to have undergone a change of heart. "Everyone agrees that Brexit must not harm our economy", he now says. "Everyone also agrees that we will need a customs arrangement that allows frictionless trade coupled with the ability to access the single market without barriers, if not be a member of it".

The problem, though – in Hammond's view – "is that a consensus has not yet emerged as to how this can be achieved. However, there is now a growing acceptance that compromise must be achieved and a dawning reality that the slogans need to be ditched". He adds:
The House of Lords has passed amendments to the EU withdrawal bill to the effect that a customs union and access to the single market are necessary. This has concentrated the minds of many pragmatic politicians to seek practical solutions that are achievable within the ever-shortening timeframe.
Unfortunately, he then goes slightly adrift, asserting that real evidence of this willingness to build a consensus "came on Thursday when Daniel Hannan MEP, an arch leaver, backed joining the European Free Trade Association (Efta)".

In fact, for most of his career, Hannan has advocated Efta membership, but exercising what he calls the "Swiss option". But Hammond now wants to go further, joining Efta alongside retaining our membership of the EEA.

This, he says, "would remove the need to check regulatory compliance and allow goods and services to continue to be traded freely". But he' s changed his mind about having very little influence over the law. "The UK would be consulted on all new regulations, which is when the real decisions are made", says the born-again Hammond.

But he's not quite there. "The UK could also restrict the free movement of people, as EU citizenship would not apply", he says. No Article 112 for this man. And we would be out of the common fisheries and agricultural policies, he tells us – as if this was necessarily a good thing in the immediate future.

Nor can the man be said to be on top of his brief – whatever that was. "We will need a customs union or partnership-type solution as well to avoid damage to our economy", he says, because: "this is essential to avoid tariffs and costly rules of origin requirements that would create a physical barrier to trade across Ireland, but also to prevent the need for increases of infrastructure at ports in England, Scotland and Wales".

Clearly unaware of what the Single Market does, he declared that "the assertion that technology renders a customs union unnecessary to avoid a hard border in Ireland does not survive scrutiny", citing the Commons' Northern Ireland affairs committee as its source.

Not for Mr Hammond is the idea that the Single Market, plus technology could give us a near-invisible border. The Conservative MP for Wimbledon wants to go the whole hog, then arguing that new free trade agreements could still be possible, in a customs union or partnership with the EU.

For example, financial services are not covered by customs rules or arrangements so would be the best starting point for any new deal. But we should also be clear on the real economic benefits the UK could gain from new free trade agreements once we leave the EU. There is little evidence that these would compensate for the loss of EU trade and offer anything above the EU’s existing free trade agreements – which is true, after a fashion.

In something of an understatement, Hammond then observes that it is abundantly clear that no model will satisfy everyone. But, he says, "there is a recognition that 'no deal' is potentially catastrophic for our economy and our living standards".

Thus, he asserts: "joining Efta and remaining in the EEA with frictionless trade and customs arrangements would be sensible and command majority support in the House of Commons".

If we took out the nonsense about "customs union" and substituted "customs cooperation", then we are nearly there. And if Hammond is right that Efta/EEA would command a majority in the House, then there is at last a glimmer of hope for us all. And Mrs May's Brexit strategy is in serious trouble.

Hammond concludes by saying that, "in a national crisis – and this is a national crisis – the British political class has always had the ability to put aside ideology, reach a national consensus and act in the national interest". He therefore says that: "We must build that national consensus and achieve the best outcome for Britain".

Better late than never, we might observe – Brexit should always have been a matter for national unity rather than party politics. But this is closer than we've ever been to our Efta/EEA target.

Sadly, though, just as we could be seeing real progress, Corbyn has formally dismissed calls to back EEA membership.

Speaking during a visit to Scotland on yesterday, Corbyn displayed his profound ignorance of the issues, stating that "We've made it very clear our whole strategy is that we recognise the result of the referendum, that we obtain a tariff-free trade relationship with Europe and that we develop a customs union to go alongside that".

"The EEA of itself", he says, "does not offer that because the EEA would not offer us any power to negotiate, we would merely be rule-takers not rule-makers in that".

With even the likes of Hammond now knowing this to be false (even though he doesn't have the complete picture), we have backbenchers who are ahead of the game, in what could have the makings of a grass-roots revolution.

But, for this to prevail, MPs from both sides of the House must rebel against their leaders in sufficient numbers to make it happen – and that's going to be difficult. Nevertheless, we are led to believe that there are enough from Labour and the Conservatives who, together with the Lib-Dems and the SNP, could carry the day.

This most likely explains what Mrs May is delaying bringing back the Withdrawal Bill to the Commons until after the Whitsun break. In the meantime, the whips will be busy and party strategists will be working to get the rebels back into the fold.

However, there is a thought here. Since Corbyn is also failing to back the Lords amendment, this issue is taking on a cross-party dimension. It will be very difficult, therefore, for the prime minister to turn a defeat into a vote of confidence issue. And, in the event that a vote was held and lost, Corbyn would have forfeited any claim to be the natural successor.

And while the Commons has a never-ending capacity to disappoint, it would be hugely ironic if Brexit was to precipitate a successful cross-party back-bencher rebellion – with the rebels acting in the national interest.

We might then even begin to think that we have not lived in vain.

Richard North 12/05/2018 link

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