Brexit: nothing is clearer

Saturday 16 February 2019  

As I write, the BBC website is full of the latest news about Trump and his wall. And, in its own, pompous, arrogant way, it deigns to instruct us on whether there is a crisis on the US-Mexico border.

The BBC website is full of that sort of thing – there is barely a subject on which it does not feel qualified to lecture us, setting itself up as the "go to" authority on virtually every subject under the sun. All too often, it will advertise itself as precisely that.

The scope of that hubris extends, as you might expect, to Brexit where, with insufferable arrogance, it hosts a webpage authored by reporters Alex Hunt and Brian Wheeler, claiming to offer: "All you need to know about the UK leaving the EU".

Given the complexity of the subject, that alone should dissuade anyone from making such a hubristic claim, but even more so when the exact meaning of so many issues is contentious – and often hotly argued – and where, in others, careful interpretation is required.

In the first category, there is a more than adequate illustration where the Hunt and Wheeler pair purport to tell us what the European Union is, asserting that: "It began after World War Two to foster economic co-operation, with the idea that countries which trade together were more likely to avoid going to war with each other".

Here, as a co-author of a definitive history of the European Union, I would not agree. With the preamble to the Treaty of Rome declaring the objective as "the ever closer union" of the peoples of Europe, the "idea" of the EU is and always was the political integration of its member states. Economic cooperation was always the means to the end, and never the end in itself.

Some people would claim that this is arguable. I wouldn't, but even if one accepts that it is, that leaves no room for such a definitive, unequivocal statement of the type made by Hunt and Wheeler. This isn't information: it's propaganda.

As to the other category, we can see a more recent example where the pair address the issue of whether Brexit can be cancelled. They claim that the ECJ has ruled that the UK could cancel the Article 50 Brexit process unilaterally, "provided the decision followed a 'democratic process', in other words, if Parliament voted for it".

Yet, actually, that is not what the judgement says, even if the press release, rather unfortunately, has elided some of the text of the judgement to come up with this statement: "The revocation must be decided following a democratic process in accordance with national constitutional requirements".

At this level, though, there is no reference to a parliamentary vote, merely a democratic process, "in accordance with national constitutional requirements". Arguably, the cabinet of an elected government which agreed a decision by the prime minister to revoke the Article 50 notification, followed by the formal revocation initiated by the prime minister, would satisfy that requirement.

Fortunately, however, we don't have to argue the point. We need only to refer to the actual judgement, which (not unusually) differs in detail from the press release.

In its reference to a "democratic process", it declares that refusing to allow a Member State to revoke its notification, after it had decided to do so "through a democratic process", would be "inconsistent with the Treaties' purpose of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe". Interestingly, we see declared the purpose of the Treaties – and it is not economic cooperation.

This section, though, is part of the preamble and only later does the judgement set out the formal condition for revocation, viz:
… as long as a withdrawal agreement concluded between the European Union and that Member State has not entered into force or, if no such agreement has been concluded, for as long as the two-year period laid down in Article 50(3) TEU, possibly extended in accordance with that provision, has not expired, that Member State … retains the ability to revoke unilaterally the notification of its intention to withdraw from the European Union, in accordance with its constitutional requirements.
Strictly speaking, therefore, the only condition which is relevant to the BBC claim is that the notification must be made in accordance with the UK's constitutional requirements. And again, even if you want to assert that this is arguable, a strict requirement that there should be a parliamentary vote (in favour) is an invention.

With this, and much more, therefore, one rather wishes the BBC would tone down the hubris, and confine itself to statements of fact. But there is more to it than that. There are issues relating to Brexit which are both complex and important, and which would benefit from simple, factual explanations. Properly presented, they would immeasurably enhance the quality of the debate. And yet here, as much as in the explanations they do volunteer, the BBC is often singularly lacking.

To look for a topical example, one does not have to go far. Yesterday, I reported on the conclusion of the US-UK MRA on conformity assessment, emphasising its importance and also (then) noting that the BBC had not reported it.

In fact, it took until after midday yesterday for an article to appear on the website and, from the content, it is very clear that the (anonymous) author had very little appreciation of what an MRA on conformity assessment is, much less how important such agreements are.

It would have helped if the BBC had referred to the agreement by the full title that is found in the government press release, where it is referred to as: "The Mutual Recognition Agreement on Conformity Assessment (MRA)".

Unhelpfully, though, not only does the term "conformity assessment" not appear in the BBC script, neither is there any explanation of what the agreement does. Yet, this is clearly set out by the government, in this passage in its press release:
The agreement will maintain all relevant aspects of the current EU-US MRA when the EU-US agreement ceases to apply to the UK. It helps facilitate goods trade between the two nations and means UK exporters can continue to ensure goods are compliant with technical regulations before they depart the UK, saving businesses time, money and resources. American exporters to the UK benefit in the same way.
It would have improved things if a little bit of detail had been added, such as telling readers something about the context. The issue, of course, is about conformity with local regulations – EU-produced goods with US requirements and US-produced goods with EU requirements.

Without the MRA, goods would have to be tested in advance in the countries of their destination or, when intercepted by the customs on entry, would be tested then – causing considerable disruption (and expense) at the borders.

With the MRA in place, manufacturers in the countries of origin can submit their products to approved testing houses in their own countries and certificates of conformity (attesting to conformity with regulations at the point of intended destination) are recognised by the respective customs authorities, without any need for further testing.

This is a massively important agreement, saving huge amounts of time and money - and is no small thing. The basic EU-US Agreement runs to 78 pages, covering telecommunications equipment, electromagnetic compatibility , electrical safety, recreational craft, pharmaceutical good manufacturing practices, and medical devices. Additionally, there is an agreement on marine equipment.

Together with the lists of approved testing houses, the implementing protocol, the procedural agreements and the specifications concerning assessment and supervision of systems, this is a substantial body of work which will do much to facilitate post-Brexit trade between the UK and the US.

All the BBC can grudgingly concede, though, is that "the UK-US agreement is not a free trade deal - which can relax trading rules, reduce taxes (tariffs) on imports and exports, and grant easier market access".

Yet, this is a trade deal. Make no mistake. While it is not a formal Free Trade Agreement in its own right, MRAs on conformity assessment can be found embedded in most of the modern EU trade agreements. So important are the EU's agreements that there is a special protocol in the EEA Agreement extending them to the Efta states – thus enabling "simplified market access".

And it is there that the BBC have introduced an egregious error, declaring that the agreement "is not a free trade deal - which can … grant easier market access". This simply is not true.

A switched-on organisation could do far better than this. It could not only get it right, it might point out that this is how trading nations organise their affairs when they do not want to commit to full-blown free trade agreements. It could also tell us that these agreements are over and above WTO rules and that countries with sophisticated economies would find it very hard to trade without them. WTO rules are not sufficient.

The UK government is to be congratulated for concluding this agreement. It was very necessary that it should have done so. But it was also very necessary for the media to explain what is going on. The BBC tried, and failed. As for the rest of the media, they don't even seem to have tried.

Where the agreement has even been mentioned elsewhere, as in the Independent, the narrative has been side-tracked into personality politics. It is far more important for the newspaper to tell us that Mr Trump has declared trade links had been "strengthened", with lengthy quotes from the president and Liam Fox than it is to explain to us what the agreement is about. All we get in that quarter is that it allows goods made in the UK to be sold in the US, and vice versa, "with less bureaucracy for manufacturers and exporters".

The Evening Standard falls for the same trap, actually providing less detail than the Independent. The Daily Mail, in substantially more space, manages to say even less on the MRA. Oddly enough, the best (although by no means full) report comes from the non-paper, the Daily Express, which parades the story on its front page as "Trump's Brexit boost for Britain". Predictably, although this rag has been at the forefront in promoting the WTO myth, any reference to WTO rules is absent.

And that, sadly, conceals the ultimate irony. Brexiteers are said to welcome the continuation of the deal, thereby contradicting the very claim made by so many "ultras" that the EU doesn't have a trade deal with the US and relies on WTO rules – permitting the UK to do likewise. It does, and it doesn't, which means that the UK is not even trying to. 

But nothing the media is saying makes this any clearer.

Richard North 16/02/2019 link

Brexit: the annals of emptiness

Friday 15 February 2019  

I gazed yesterday upon the excitable hacks, prattling away from inside and outside the House of Commons, and their breathless interviews of sundry MPs and pundits. And for all the impact and relevance, I might just as well have been watching Japanese reality television – in the original language.

There have been some votes in the Commons. In one of them, a government motion was defeated, 303 to 258 - a majority of 45 against a motion endorsing the government's negotiating strategy – a strategy that had been approved by the self-same MPs only two weeks ago. 

Why there was even a vote, though, no one has yet been able to explain. For a parliament that is so keen on meaningful votes, this was a meaningless one. The defeat, we are told, has no legal force and Downing Street said it would not change the prime minister's approach to (non-)talks with the EU.

To make the proceedings even more meaningless, some amendments were defeated and another was withdrawn. And since none of these votes had any legal implications either and the government is not bound by anything, we are no closer to ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement. We are, however, a few hours closer to a no-deal.

In the meantime, it seems, Mrs May has vowed to press ahead with her Brexit plan – whatever that is. In a statement from Downing Street, her spokesman declared: "While we didn't secure the support of the Commons this evening, the prime minister continues to believe, and the debate itself indicated, that far from objecting to securing changes to the backstop that will allow us to leave with a deal, there was a concern from some Conservative colleagues about taking no deal off the table at this stage".

The spokesman continued: "The motion on 29 January remains the only one the House of Commons has passed expressing what it does want – and that is legally binding changes to address concerns about the backstop. The government will continue to pursue this with the EU to ensure we leave on time on 29 March".

With that, we await the next episode of the soap opera, scheduled for 27 February. Closer to the day, we'll have to focus on it a bit more, long enough to find out what the plotline is. Then, perhaps – or not – we can put it on hold again until the episode after that, when there will be another storyline to follow.

And yes, I know we should care more about what's going on. But that doesn't include exposing oneself to a gibbering troop of half-trained monkeys, filling the ether with their noise, polluting our screens with their self-important posturing. We've had enough of them. We'd had enough of them a while back. But we've really had enough of them now.

Bluntly, the only thing I want to know now is the result of the next vote on the Withdrawal Agreement ratification. I don't want to hear any more progress reports about non-existent negotiations, and I certainly don't want to hear any more breathless reports about what a television reporter thinks he might have heard in a Brussels bar.

I'm also sick to the hind teeth of profound statements from anonymous "EU diplomats" and from the rest of the corps of willing but anonymous informants that the hacks use to pad out their reports. Those who are not prepared to put their names to their statements aren't worth listening to.

And to the next gormless hack who wants to write yet another puerile piece, headlined, "Six things we've learned …", a word of advice. Stay very clear of me or I will put a bullet in your brains. If I have to read another such article, be it six things, or seven things, or eight, I will put a bullet in my own.

By the way, for the simpering little girlie writing for the Telegraph, the Mexican drug-traffickers' weapon-of-choice is not an "AK57". There is no such thing. It's an AK-47 written with a hyphen, you airhead, the most prolific firearm on the planet, with over 100 million made. Next thing, we'll be told that Spitfires are jet fighters.

As for the rest, there are 43 days left to a no-deal – 43 days for the media to fill their papers and populate their studios – television and radio – with trivia, leaving us none the wiser than we are now. Doubtless, we will be a lot more confused.

Nevertheless, there is some prospect of clarity. If we do drop out without a deal, the media can devote their energies to telling us what a terrible time we're having. But, until then, we are expected to put up with the endless speculation and soap opera.

Back in the real world, though – or what passes for it – the government has a little good news to share after the doom and gloom of my previous blogpost. In a press release released yesterday, the Department for International Trade announced that the UK and the US had agreed to continue their Mutual Recognition Agreement on conformity assessment.

This will help facilitate goods trade between the two nations and means UK exporters can continue to ensure goods are compliant with technical regulations before they depart the UK, "saving businesses time, money and resources. American exporters to the UK benefit in the same way".

Highlighting the importance of this agreement, the release points out that the total UK-US trade in sectors covered by the deal is worth up to £12.8 billion, based on recent average trade flows. Of this, the UK exports covered are worth an estimated £8.9 billion - more than a fifth of total UK goods exports to the US.

The agreement, we are told, benefits a range of sectors, including pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceuticals account for around £7.7 billion of UK exports to the US - nearly 18 percent of total UK goods exports to the US. Other industries that will benefit include the tech sector and telecommunications equipment suppliers.

Furthermore, similar agreements have been signed in recent weeks with Australia and New Zealand (announced on 18 January), ensuring continuity and safeguarding revenues for British businesses and consumers.

In respect of the US, this is the first time I have seen specific figures attributed to this MRA and again it underlines the vacuity of the claims for the WTO option. Although MRAs on conformity assessment are not full-blown Free Trade Agreements, they are powerful tools of trade facilitation, and an essential part of any modern trade relationship.

As a measure of where we are with the media, it is interesting to note that none of the major media organs seem to have published the news about the US MRA. And where the BBC refers to the signing of the deals with Australia and New Zealand (and then only recently), it dismisses them as "mutual recognition agreements" and not free trade agreements, failing to note that they cover UK exports worth an estimated £2 billion.

The essence of this experience, therefore, is to confirm (and update) Mark Twain's observation that those who do not read the news are uninformed while those who do are misinformed. Despite the torrent of media coverage on Brexit, most of it is focussed on the narrow band of activity in Westminster, with emphasis on personalities and confrontation.

Another example of the vacuum created by the absence of information in the media– the annals of emptiness – comes with an article about the fate of Formula 1 in respect of Brexit, covered in some detail by Autosport magazine.

Here we have a leading figure in the industry warning that Formula 1 teams cannot risk having their "heads in the sand" over Britain leaving the European Union without a deal. To date I cannot recall any serious coverage of this issue in the national media. And yet, it was in March 2017 - nearly two years ago – that I wrote a comprehensive analysis on this blog.

Thus, while we can rightly complain about our politicians making a pig's ear of Brexit, considerable blame must also go to the legacy media, both for trivialising the narrative and also for the superficiality of its reporting. What should be a detailed and fascinating record of history being made is reduced to the level of a biff-bam storyline that wouldn't even make it into the Beano.

The politicians are, in fact, the easy target (and no less worthy for that), but the drain on our energies occasioned by the impoverished media coverage is also of note. I think, alone, I could stand the politicians. Have the media amplify their stupidity and they become intolerable.

Richard North 15/02/2019 link

Brexit: a paucity of deals

Thursday 14 February 2019  

One of the more prominent scare stories during the EU referendum campaign was the claim that, after Brexit, we would have to renegotiate all the existing EU trade deals with over 50 different countries.

At the time, I was suitably scornful about this claim, arguing that we could apply the "general presumption of continuity" in respect of the treaties and request of the parties that they continue to apply the provisions.

Continued participation would not be automatic and the consent of all parties would be required – including the EU where relevant. But the "continuity" process is well-established requiring formal notifications to be made, followed by straightforward administrative procedures.

The point I made at the time, therefore, was that third country treaties were manageable. For the most part, ensuring continuance was a relatively minor administrative task that could be resolved relatively simply. There was (or should have been) no question of any need for major renegotiations.

Latterly, there have been several reports on this issue, including a comprehensive study for the European Parliament, which looked at future trade relations between the EU and the UK. The 52-page report was published in March last year.

To a great extent, the findings confirm the essence of the argument I had made two years previously, in the March just before the referendum. However, it did make the distinction between the transition period and the future relationship.

During the transition period, it noted that the UK would still be bound by EU law in exactly the same way as any Member State. Although non-EU contracting parties could point out that their agreements no longer appeared to apply to the UK, as it was no longer an EU Member State, absolutely nothing would have changed for the export and trade relationships.

On that basis, all that would be needed was for the EU and the UK to confer with the third countries concerned, and to reach an agreement with them. This could be done by simple exchange of letters, whence all parties could continue to apply the trade agreements as before.

Post-transition was not quite as straightforward, as the legal position would be different. Not least, the UK would no longer be an EU Member State, and would not be able to claim that EU law continued to apply in its territory.

The crucial point, though, would be the UK's degree of disassociation from the EU's internal market. Substantial differences would enable third countries to exclude the UK from their EU-related trade deals. Thus, the report said, whether the UK can continue to benefit from EU free trade deals with third countries "will depend enormously on the future terms of EU-UK trade".

Had the UK decided to take up the Efta/EEA option, ensuring treaty continuity would probably have been relatively simple. Most of the third country relationships that we wished to keep up would have survived – long enough, at least, for us to negotiate new deals without any disruption.

At the other extreme, in a no-deal Brexit, the degree of formal disassociation from the EU's trade arrangements would be absolute. The general presumption of continuity would not apply and we would need to renegotiate 50-plus treaties.

Actually, it isn't even as "simple" as that. We have often pointed out that UK trade relations via the EU are not managed entirely through registered Free Trade Agreements. We also rely on a network of trade-related agreements which are not registered with the WTO and therefore do not qualify as FTAs.

Nonetheless, these are vital to the conduct of our trade and, when I last counted, we were the beneficiaries of 881 bilateral treaties between the EU and third countries, together with 259 multilateral agreements.

Now, with a no-deal Brexit beginning to look a real possibility, we need to be looking hard at these agreements. Even if we stick just to the FTAs, it seems we have something of a problem. According to The Sun, it appears that we have something like 70 FTAs that need renegotiation to cope with a no-deal, with the government promising to conclude 40 of them by Brexit day.

As it turns out though, the likely number that will be concluded is a mere six. Four have already been agreed: Switzerland – signed on Monday - Chile, an Eastern and Southern African block, and the Faroe Islands. Two more deals, with Israel and the Palestinian Authority, are "on track".

Fairly obviously, this relative lack of success is down to international trade secretary, Liam Fox – he who, at one time, boasted that: "The free trade agreement that we will have to do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history".

He made a similar sort of claim for the rest of the trade deals. In October 2017, during a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference, he famously promised that the UK would easily be able to copy and paste all 40 of the EU's external trade deals "the second after midnight" on Brexit day.

"We're going to replicate the 40 EU free trade agreements that exist before we leave the European Union so we've got no disruption of trade", he told his audience, adding – to resounding cheers: "I hear people saying 'oh we won't have any [free trade agreements] before we leave'. Well believe me we'll have up to 40 ready for one second after midnight in March 2019".

All he has left now is to play down his failure, insisting that trade deals are "not a numbers game". The focus, he says, should be on the "proportion of trade we can maintain".

Unhelpfully, one of Fox's civil servants, speaking for him, "would not deny the leaked tally's grim prognosis". Instead, he pointed out that, in 2018, around 12 percent of UK trade took place under formal EU Free Trade Agreements. The Guardian then put the numbers together, recording that the concluded trade deals covered just £16 billion of the £117 billion relying on the trade deals.

Furthermore, when the impact of the additional non-FTA agreements is taken into account – on which we rely for much of our £45 billion exports to the US and our £22 billion to China – then the lack of continuity could prove devastating to our overall export effort. Agreements such as the comprehensive Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) on Conformity Assessment with the United States are every bit as important to our trading performance as the FTAs – many of which actually include such MRAs.

Directly confirming the essence of the European Parliament report cited earlier, Fox does at least say that the best way to avoid disruption is for parliament to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. This, he says, which would maintain Britain's current trading relationships for the duration of the two-year transition deal, until alternative arrangements could be made.

What he doesn't say, but perhaps should, is that the situation makes a nonsense of the "ultra" claims about the WTO option. Clearly, if trading solely under WTO rules was all that it was made out to be, we wouldn't have Fox struggling to replace the EU trade deals before we drop out of the EU.

If we ever get so far as to suffer a no-deal Brexit, those who believe that WTO rules will sustain UK trade will at least be fully acquainted with their folly.

Richard North 14/02/2019 link

Brexit: when the believing has to stop

Wednesday 13 February 2019  

If one were to sum up the entire proceedings of the House of Commons over the last few months, one partial sentence from yesterday's session might suffice: "Order. There is a lot of noise and heckling …".

That was the speaker intervening during the prime minister's statement yesterday, a sign of how the ill-disciplined rabble are dealing with the most important political event of the century. "I think it is right that she should have a proper and respectful hearing", the speaker went on to say, "and the same courtesy must be extended to the leader of the opposition in due course".

Respect, of course, is something almost completely missing in the Commons, between the different factions and between members, and not least from the SNP's Ian Blackford who called the prime minister a liar before being forced to apologise.

Calling a Member or Hon Member a liar is not permitted in the chamber – on pain of suspension – which makes for the odd situation where the penalty for calling someone a liar is greater than it is for actually lying. Mind you, Blackford had just accused the prime minister of living in a parallel universe and that, apparently, is permitted. He was also allowed to call the prime minister's deal "a fraud".

But if respect is hard to come by in the Commons, that is nothing compared to the sentiment outside the institution. There can rarely have been a time when the MP collective has been regarded with such profound contempt by the public at large - and even by the international community, with the Czechs remarking on the infantilisation of politics.

If contempt solved anything, we would be well on our way to a rapid solution for Brexit. Sadly, that is not enough. And nor, it would seem, are Mrs May's efforts.

Her statement told us nothing we didn't already know: that the EU will not reopen the withdrawal agreement while the UK "needs to see legally binding changes to the backstop, and that that can be achieved by changes to the withdrawal agreement". With that in mind, the UK and EU teams will hold further talks to find a way forward, whence president Juncker and the prime minister will meet again before the end of February to take stock of the discussions.

That was basically it, following which we were told:
The talks are at a crucial stage, and we now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes that this House requires and to deliver Brexit on time. By getting the changes we need to the backstop, by protecting and enhancing workers' rights and environmental protections and by enhancing the role of Parliament in the next phase of negotiations, I believe we can reach a deal that this House can support.
Understandably, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn was less than happy. "Our country is facing the biggest crisis in a generation", he said, "yet the prime minister continues to recklessly run down the clock".

Complaining that we had been promised a deal last October that did not happen, with a promise of a meaningful vote on a deal in December, which also did not happen, he asserted that MPs had been told to prepare for a further meaningful vote this week.

But this was to be after the prime minister had again promised to secure "significant and legally binding changes to the backstop". And this had not happened. Now, Mr Corbyn declared, "the prime minister comes before the House with more excuses and more delays".

To be fair, despite a lot of happenings not happening, Mrs May had come before the House with something quite special. She had delivered a belief system. And the basis of this new faith is simple: while the EU is not prepared to reopen the withdrawal agreement, the prime minister believes her team can ignore everything she is told by the EU and negotiate changes that the EU says won't happen.

This belief will sustain the prime minister until the end of February, and Mrs May was generously inviting MPs to join her in this exciting exhibition of blind faith. Nor can this be so very much to ask. As we leave February and enter what should be the final month of the Brexit process, we will enter uncharted territory. Then the believing has to stop and Mrs May will have to deliver.

Very few people, I would venture, would be prepared to wager serious money on Mrs May delivering. So the smart money is on speculating on how she will spin her failure – with or without the help of the EU. We wait in awe to see whether she can put something to parliament that will motivate enough MPs to ratify the withdrawal agreement.

This, we are told, will happen on 27 February if it is to happen at all. If it doesn't the government will table another of those magical mystery amendable motions, allowing MPs to play their incomprehensible games – incomprehensible to themselves and just about everybody else.

As to what happens after that, there is already considerable speculation, centring around a choice between accepting a revised deal or a prolonged extension to the Article 50 negotiations.

For want of that, the media can always do what it does best – make things up. There is nothing wholly out of bounds, right up to a military coup, if that takes your fancy.

That should keep the media entertained until the next possible milestone, which could be as early as 13 March. If parliament has by then not ratified the withdrawal agreement, MPs might get to opt for a no-deal Brexit or request the government to seek an extension to the Article 50 period.

After that, there is the European Council scheduled for 21-22 March in Brussels. There, in theory, Mrs May could broker a last-minute agreement and rush it home for parliament to ratify it before the skies fall in.

This would involve running a cart and horse through all known statutory procedures, cutting the usual waiting period for international agreements to be ratified.

The timescale makes this more than a little fanciful, but it would also breach the EU's procedural guidelines. The European Council (EU-27) does not engage directly in the negotiation process. It approves the mandate and allows – in this case – the Commission's Michel Barnier to get on with the job, then responding to his recommendations.

Basically, therefore, if there is nothing agreed by the time the European Council meets, the chances are that the game will already be over. But that doesn't stop the media speculating about a make-or-break vote in the Commons on 26 March, 72 hours before Brexit – based on whatever is decided in Brussels.

The narrative for that is that MPs would either be given the stark "deal or no-deal" choice, with Mrs May daring MPs to dump the nation in the mire, or then be given the choice between Mrs May's deal and a prolonged Article 50 extension.

Given that choice, it is thought possible that MPs could opt for the deal – assuming the choice is real, where the EU-27 would be prepared to approve any extension. There is some hope that the ERG members could react positively to this, fearing that Brexit might be cancelled altogether if a long delay is accepted.

Nevertheless, the need for unanimous approval of all 27 Member States would make this a high risk strategy. Any one of them could refuse to play ball or demand conditions that prove unacceptable. And then, the period offered could end up being very different to what the UK actually asks for.

And all the time, 29 March looms as the automatic deadline, when, in the absence of a withdrawal agreement, the treaties cease to have effect. There still seem to be many MPs who don't realise what default actually means. It is not possible, by procedural means, to take a no-deal "off the table".

With that, we have no means of knowing whether Mrs May's real intent is to secure a no-deal Brexit and, despite her denials, is running down the clock. But if she is actively seeking to avoid a no-deal, she has an odd way of showing it. Her approach to Brexit is daily looking less like a coherent policy and more like the despairing tactics of the Imperial Japanese Navy in late 1944, resorting increasingly to Kamikaze strikes. 

There is no way that this ends well.

Richard North 13/02/2019 link

Brexit: scanning the horizon

Tuesday 12 February 2019  

There is possibly only one person in the world who knows what Mrs May intends to do – and that's Mrs May. But it is just as possible that she herself doesn't know what she's doing – or has simply run out of options.

For the rest of us, though, we have no way of knowing the difference. Not even the media "in-crowd" have any idea of what is going down so, like the rest of us mere mortals, they are reduced to speculating – some at greater length than others.

Needless to say, this is a highly unsatisfactory situation. Despite following the Brexit drama since its inception, I personally have no more idea of what might happen than the proverbial man in the street. Anybody's guess is as good as mine. We might as well flip a coin.

That said, if I was forced to put money on the outcome, it would be the no-deal scenario – occasioned simply because Mrs May had failed to get the Withdrawal Agreement ratified, and parliament didn't have the wit to call a halt to the madness into which we're descending.

If it's any comfort, the "colleagues" don't have a much better idea of what's going to happen than we do, illustrated by yesterday's press conference with Xavier Bettel, prime minister of Luxembourg, and Michel Barnier.

Barnier picked up on the theme introduced by a series of slides published earlier in the day, explaining the Withdrawal Agreement – sixty sheets in document form, including the cover sheet.

The slides start with a statement from Barnier, drawn from 25 November when the Withdrawal Agreement was finalised. It has him saying: "We have negotiated with the UK, never against the UK. This deal is a necessary step to build trust between the UK and the EU. We need to build, in the next phase, an unprecedented and ambitious partnership. The UK will remain our friend, our partner and our ally".

It looks here as if the EU is getting in its narrative first – not sitting back waiting to take the blame for the collapse of the deal. And, in Luxembourg, Barnier starts off in much the same way, saying that the Withdrawal Agreement was negotiated with the UK, not against it. The EU has no intention of punishing the UK or acting against it.

The backstop, Barnier says, was agreed but the future is not one where they envisage putting it into effect. Using the political declaration they look forward to working out a future relationship between the EU and the UK as partners, as friends.

However, embedded in the velvet glove is the steel fist. The EU needs the border in Ireland to protect the safety of its citizens, to protect their industry by ensuring that their conformity is maintained. They cannot – and therefore will not - allow goods to enter Ireland from the UK without controls.

Brexit, the retrait ordonné (orderly withdrawal) was agreed with the UK, with Mrs May herself. It was agreed with the countries of the EU and cannot be renegotiated. And so, the EU still hopes for an orderly withdrawal but it must prepare for every scenario, including a no-deal. And so endeth one of a series of flat statements, repeating what has gone before, with a resigned acknowledgement that the EU is reconciled to the worst outcome.

One almost gets a sense of fin de siècle. There is no last-minute appeal to rationality, or any suggestions as to how things might proceed. All we got was a warning. "Something has to give," Barnier said, with a reminder that the time left was "extremely short". The EU was "waiting for clarity and movement from the United Kingdom", something that Barnier must know that he is not going to get.

Back home, we still get endless prattle from the media about parliament introducing a motion to "block" a no-deal, a move which – if pursued – will indicate that parliament has failed to understand the limits of its own power, alongside the media's inability to appreciate the finer points of our constitution. As it stands, no-deal remains the default under Article 50, leaving open only three possibilities if it is to be prevented from taking effect automatically on 29 March.

The first is the one we've more or less written off – the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement by parliament sometime before the date. There is even talk of this happening within the last days of March, which is a possibility. But there is no second-guessing the mood of parliament. A troop of baboons would be easier to predict.

A second option, one that has been well rehearsed, is the delaying action: seeking an extension to the Article 50 period. Some appear to assume that all we have to do is ask and it will be granted. But the unanimous assent of the EU-27 is required. This cannot be taken for granted and the price demanded might be unacceptable – even if an agreement was in the offing.

That leaves option number three, the unilateral revocation of the Article 50 notification – stopping the Brexit process in its tracks. But this is not for parliament to decide.

The confrontation was skirted last time but, if a vote instructing the executive to take this option ever succeeded, it would precipitate a constitutional crisis. The power to revoke the notification rests with the prime minister as the custodian of residual crown prerogative. It is not for parliament to intervene.

Take down all three and leaves us where we started, looking down the nose of a no deal – but not just yet. Today, if the Guardian has it right, Mrs May is going to indulge us with her latest round of can-kicking. She is to ask the Commons to give her another fortnight's grace to keep up what amounts to the pretence that she is renegotiating the backstop.

This, I suppose, beats Jeremy Corbyn's pretence that he is capable of making an intelligent contribution to the Brexit debate, so much so that the prime minister is casting him adrift. Labour wrote itself out of the script right at the beginning and that's where it intends to stay. It is not even worth the time and effort charting the convolutions emerging from that quarter.

For us mere mortals there is no escape from the eternal soap opera presented to us by a media desperate to keep some sort of narrative going. Thus we are assailed with endless speculation, titillated by court gossip and lectured by knowing commentators, all with the intention of projecting the impression that it is possible to know the unknowable.

Just occasionally, it would not hurt to return to earth and address the most straightforward of issues: there is only one certain way to avoid a hard deal, and that is for parliament to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement when (or if) it is again submitted to a vote.

At the moment, we don't even know when that will be, or under what terms. Even now, having left it so late, the damage will be incalculable. But that is the price of allowing our political system to disintegrate, letting the morons take over.

In a situation replete with so much irony though, one simply cannot ignore yesterday's editorial in the Telegraph, where the teenage scribbler responsible complains about the lack of activity in parliament and argues that, if we really are heading for no-deal, this week should be crammed full of the legislation that will be needed to ensure that a no-deal "can happen relatively smoothly" on 29 March.

This, of course, is the newspaper which, perhaps more than any other, has embraced the idea of a no-deal so it would have a vested interest in making it work "relatively smoothly". But, if we are anywhere near close to understanding the ramifications, any belief that a no-deal could be "relatively smooth" is absurd.

Still, with less than 50 days to go, we have a new game in town. We stand poised on the brink of the precipice, scanning the horizon for the last-minute miracle that will drag us back from the edge and make everything right. Doubtless, there is a deep-seated belief that, like the Hollywood westerns of old, the US Cavalry will come charging over the hill, just at the point when everything looks lost, and save us from the ravaging Indians.

Just nobody please mention Little Bighorn or General Custer. The nation is in the market for fairy tales, not gritty realism, as we go through the motions of giving a damn.

Cartoon: Chris Cairns@cairnstoon - commissioned and first published by Wings Over Scotland, 9 February 2019.

Richard North 12/02/2019 link

Brexit: the Singapore myth

Monday 11 February 2019  

If I had the time and energy, I would probably enjoy deconstructing Roger Bootle's latest piece in the Telegraph where he argues that once we are free of the EU's "over-wrought regulations", our country can thrive.

But at least we can make a start on one little gem: in making a case for reduced regulation in the UK, Bootle praises Singapore. He states that few people have fully understood the way that country really works. It is certainly not a paragon of laissez-faire, he states, acknowledging that the state is extremely powerful and plays a major role in the economy.

What should not go unchallenged are his key points, where he asserts that Singapore's regulations are made by Singapore for Singapore, with a keen eye on promoting growth and fully aware of the economic consequences of excessive restrictions. The excellence of its economic governance, Bootle claims, is the reason why this tiny island has transformed itself into one of the world's most prosperous countries.

This, I suppose, is what is technically known as bullshit. The reason why Singapore has grown so significantly came from the decision in the late 70s and early eighties to develop the then limited port facilities into a major container port, turning it into a regional hub serving the Asian "tiger" economies.

Much of the development depended on the influx of migrant labour, creating an unbalanced demography where, currently, the island state in 2015 with a population of just over five million recorded 29 percent non-residents.

That alone, would preclude the UK following the Singapore model but that is not the least of it. That famous laissez-faire regulatory regime has its darker side, where Singapore has become a destination country for women and girls trafficked for the purpose of labour and commercial sexual exploitation.

Not only that, it has also become a global hub for the exploitation of maritime labour, where its vibrant recruitment agency sector has become the by-word for modern-day slavery, exploiting (mainly) Filipinos, but also sailors from India, Indonesia, Mauritius and Tanzania.

Just to add to this glowing picture, Singapore's exports have been falling and last December they fell 8.5 percent in its worst decline for two years, slowing further from a 2.8 percent decline the month before.

Nor is the overall picture much better with a recent poll of economists expecting the Singapore economy to slow a notch further in 2019 than predicted. A significant problem is the trade war between China and the United States. Shipments across Asia are noticeably in the red and the trade data almost certainly means a downward revision to GDP. And nor is this helped by the expansion of Shanghai, which has displaced Singapore as the largest container port in the region.

Pundits generally are gloomy, noting that Singapore's stellar record of economic growth can no longer be taken for granted.

Perversely, one of the main reasons is that the nation's labour force growth – one of the two main pillars of economic growth along with productivity growth – is slowing to a crawl. Between 2006 and 2010, the labour force grew at an average of about 4.5 percent a year. This slowed to about 2.4 per cent a year between 2011 and 2016.

Now, low birth rates are partly to blame. Singapore already has a high labour force participation rate and is grappling with an ageing population, further stunting the growth of the resident workforce. And despite government intervention and considerable investment, productivity growth continues to disappoint.  

Although no one would begin to suggest that the Singapore economy is a basket case, or anywhere near approaching one, this nation is far from the nirvana that Bootle suggests. And, while it continues to freeboot on much of its regulation, international pressure is increasingly forcing the Singapore government into line.

But the ultimate irony is that Bootle's claim that "Singapore's regulations are made by Singapore for Singapore" is just as hollow as the rest of his assertions. The Singapore government considers itself part of the international community and has fully integrated its banking regulation with the Basel standards.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) is a member of the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision (BCBS) and the Financial Stability Board (FSB) and actively participates in its discussions on the global financial system and banking supervision.

The government itself states that standards issued or developed by BCBS and FSB "are taken into consideration, where relevant to Singapore". For example, MAS Notice 637 implements Basel III capital standards for Singapore-incorporated banks, and establishes the minimum capital adequacy ratios for banks incorporated in Singapore.

This stands to reason as only international pariahs such as North Korea can stand apart from the global regulatory system. Thus, the Singapore government also works closely with the EU on regulatory issues, and especially on financial services.

The contact is organised through the Financial Services Committee (FSC) of the European Chamber of Commerce in Singapore (EuroCham), which represents the European financial services industry in Singapore. EuroCham itself "engages with market participants, regulatory authorities and other stakeholders on important issues concerning the financial services industry".

This works under the aegis of the EU–Asia Pacific forum on financial regulation. And, unsurprisingly, the topic of its 2018 meeting was "EU and Asia-Pacific regulators meet in KL to strengthen cross-border cooperation and regulation".

The parties involved were regulators from the European Commission Directorate-General for Financial Stability, the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) and Asian regulators participating to the International Organisation of Securities Commissions (IOSCO) Asia-Pacific Regional Committee.

They met in Kuala Lumpur to discuss regulatory developments in the two regions, including cross-border implications of EU regulations. Illustrating the international scope of the forum, the meeting was also held back-to-back with the IOSCO Asia-Pacific Regional Committee meeting.

Oddly enough, the first meeting in 2016 was held in Singapore, where the agenda was future regulatory developments at EU and at Asia-Pacific level; issues and challenges that may arise in cross-border coordination for regulatory purposes; and forward-looking and emerging policy priorities for the global regulatory agenda.

Of course, there is no suggestion that the Asian and European systems are fully integrated, but there is clear evidence that they are working together, and will be closely cooperating in the future – and especially Singapore which only recently signed up to the EU Singapore Free Trade Agreement.

Looking at the detail at that FTA and the Investment Protection Agreement that runs alongside it, it cannot in any way be said that Singapore is any more standing alone as a wholly independent regulatory entity. Bootle, as he so often does, is talking nonsense.

Richard North 11/02/2019 link

Brexit: this insanely unnecessary shambles

Sunday 10 February 2019  

"Despite its reception elsewhere", Booker wrote for the Sunday Telegraph this week, "regular readers of this column will not be unfamiliar with the point so deliberately made by the European Council President Donald Tusk. This was when he said "I've been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely".

That was Booker's opening paragraph, which was then followed by this:
In 2015, before the referendum, the Vote Leave campaign was presented by my expert friend Richard North with a long and detailed analysis showing why the only way for us completely leave the EU without seriously damaging our economy was to join the European Free Trade Association, thus remaining in the European Economic Area with free access to the EU market (and no Irish border problem). Vote Leave's director Dominic Cummings rejected this paper on the grounds that proposing any specific plan would only provoke fractious argument.
However, without any further intervention from Booker, when the piece came to be published in the newspaper, this is all the reader was allowed to see:
In 2015, before the referendum, the Vote Leave campaign was presented with a long and detailed analysis showing why the only way for us to leave the EU completely without seriously damaging our economy was to join the European Free Trade Association, thus remaining in the European Economic Area with free access to the EU market (and no Irish border problem). Vote Leave, however, decided against proposing any specific exit plan as that would only provoke fractious argument.
There is something particularly Soviet about this behaviour, redolent of May 1920 when Lenin gave a famous speech to a crowd of Soviet troops in Sverdlov Square, Moscow. In the foreground were Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev but, in later copies of this photograph, both these figures had completely disappeared.

So it is here. Booker's "expert friend" Richard North is not allowed to appear in the column (except when occasionally allowed as Booker's co-author) and, since the favoured child Dominic Cummings is portrayed in an unfavourable light, the reference to him is discreetly erased from the record.

One is reminded of Dr Tim Coles, author of Real Fake News who, in this clip ,talks of the "propaganda of omission" – keeping issues out of the public domain as a means of keeping them off the agenda. "If you're given facts and information", he says, "you can counter it, but if you're not told about key information and analysis, you can't even think about things".

In respect of the Telegraph, Booker and I have been putting up with this for some years but, for me, the sentence is wider than just this newspaper. Not only have I been deliberately no-platformed by a wide variety of media organs, any mention of the exit plan we pioneered has been ruthlessly excluded from the debate. Despite over 100,000 downloads before the EU referendum, Flexcit is almost completely invisible.

Yet, when it's convenient, we see a crack appear in the system, albeit a small crack, when columnist Juliet Samuel is allowed to make a brief reference to the plan.

Writing in the Telegraph under the headline, "Brexiteers are rejecting exactly the kind of Brexit they used to want", she also picks up on Tusk's outburst, but with a difference.

The reason why Brexiteers have "so spectacularly failed to take control of the negotiations over the last two years" she asserts, is not, as Donald Tusk claimed this week, that they had no plan. They were flush with plans – pamphlets, articles, speeches, journals.

"There's Flexcit, a 400-page blueprint for leaving the EU over a 20-year period. There's Change or Go, a 1,000 page dossier laying out every option under the sun", she says, and "there might even be a feasible strategy for a no-deal". The problem, she avers, "is that the Brexiteers have so many plans and they change so often that they can't unite consistently behind any of them".

Before we go any further, though, we should note that Mr Tusk was not exactly in analytical mode, complaining about a lack of any plan, per se. His precise concern was for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely. That there were plans aplenty is not disputed – although Change or Go wasn't one of them. The problem was that, when it really mattered, the official leave campaign, Vote Leave, rejected in its entirety the concept of having a plan – any plan. Brexiteers weren't given a chance to unite behind a plan – there wasn't a formal plan around which they could unite.

Had there been an open debate about the plan to adopt, and the campaign had broken up without a decision being made, then Juliet Samuel might have had a point. But what the campaign suffered from was that unique act of political cowardice on the part of Dominic Cummings and his colleagues, making a decision on behalf of the entire campaign, that there should be no plan.

But there is another issue here as well, one which the Telegraph would never allow Juliet Samuel or any of its writers to make. And that is the failure of the media to question the absence of a plan – to scrutinise the leave campaign and bring it to account.

Instead, the media went for the soft option of pursuing the personality-driven campaign that was presented to it, largely avoiding the technical issues or dealing with them at a very superficial level, usually on a "biff-bam" adversarial basis.

During the campaign, though, there was one particular episode where David Cameron went to Iceland in late October 2015 and took the opportunity to denigrate our "Norway-style" future outside the EU, arguing that Britain would end up having the worst of all worlds if it adopted Norway's approach to the EU.

Bizarrely, at that point, the entire leave "aristocracy" joined in to make common cause with Cameron. Ruth Lea blithely told British Influence that "we all agree … Norway is not the way" and John Redwood declared: "Eurosceptics don't want the Norwegian model".

At the time, the Leave Alliance upped its tempo, with our group of bloggers actively supporting the Norway option. Yet, as I remarked at the time, nothing of this mattered to the guardians of ignorance. Of the legacy media, I wrote, "we are invisible – we simply don't exist. As for Flexcit, it is as if it was trapped in the enchanted forest, where the text fades to invisibility when viewed by someone from the inner circle".

Nicholas Soames wearing pink socks in the House of Commons got more publicity than Flexcit gained throughout the referendum campaign. Not once were either Booker or I – authors of the seminal history of the EU, The Great Deception - interviewed by the BBC.

Then and to a great extent now, there were two campaigns. The establishment-sanctioned effort, and the campaign run by the people. "We", I wrote, "are invisible. In the collective establishment mind, we don't exist as sentient entities. On voting day, we become the cannon fodder, to do as we are bidden".

It is simply not good enough, therefore, to pick on the issue of the backstop, as it stands now, and point to the incoherence of the leave response. The reason why we have ended up with the backstop is because Mrs May, in her fateful Lancaster House speech, rejected the idea of our continued participation in the Single Market. And that, to a very great extent, goes back to that October in 2015 when both sides appeared to round on the Norway option.

Not then, and not to this day, has any journalist gone into print to explain Flexcit, nor even to explore the Efta/EEA option properly. Mostly, when the hacks refer to Norway, they trot out the same tired clichés of "pay, no say", without the first idea of what they are talking about.

Sadly, this ignorance also prevails in the mind of Juliet Samuel, who manages to assert that the backstop is very similar to "nearly all" the plans that had been endorsed by Eurosceptics. It delivers, she says:
… all of the following elements of Brexit: an end to EU budget payments, full control over immigration, total control over the services industries (including finance) that comprise 80 percent of our economy, substantially increased control over all other industries, the right to reject any future EU employment, environmental or social legislation, control over farming and fisheries and an end to the jurisdiction of EU courts.
Even there, she is wrong. The backstop applies to Northern Ireland and delivers regulatory alignment in the province. The Withdrawal Agreement then takes us out of the EU but, in the longer-term, issues such as payments to the EU, immigration, services, and the other matters, will be determined during the talks on our future relationship.

What we most certainly don't get is the structured relationship afforded by membership of the EEA, with its institutional provisions and mandatory consultation on new, EEA relevant laws.

Thus, for all that Juliet Samuel has the luxury of a longer piece on the subject, it is still Booker who finishes off closer to the truth, despite the censorship from the Telegraph. Initially, he writes, "Theresa May insisted that she still wanted 'frictionless' trade with the EU, but was then persuaded by her ultra-Brexiteers that she should trigger Article 50 without any practical idea of how this could be achieved".

For two years we stumbled on through the negotiations, he adds, with the Brexiteers coming up with one unworkable proposition after another, none of which showed any understanding of the reality of what we were up against, until we reached the present complete impasse, making it ever more likely that we could face the ultimate disaster of leaving without a deal.

"I'm afraid" he concludes, "Tusk was entirely accurate in identifying the real cause of this insanely unnecessary shambles, the catastrophic consequences of which may be with us for decades to come". And it is so very telling that Booker is not allowed to disclose more about this "insanely unnecessary shambles".

Richard North 10/02/2019 link

Brexit: making it up

Saturday 9 February 2019  

Even after several days, the shockwaves from Donald Tusk's condemnation of those who promoted Brexit, "without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely" have barely abated, raising a controversy that doesn't look as if it is going to go away in a hurry.

What we are also seeing, though, in and amongst the faux outrage from the "ultra" tendency, is a determined attempt to re-write history, with a completely false claim that the official "leave" campaign did in fact produce an exit plan.

The claim centres around a 1000-page document called Change or Go, published by the now-defunct campaign group, Business for Britain, in June 2015, and promoted heavily by the Telegraph, which had partly funded it and also serialised it.

Leading the charge against Tusk was Jonathan Isaby in his tawdry on-line magazine Brexit Central, who claims that this document was an exit plan. Says Isaby, its subtitle, How Britain would gain influence and prosper outside an unreformed EU, provides the clue to it being exactly what Tusk claims did not exist.

Isaby also refers us to a specious piece by one of the principal authors of the work, Dr Lee Rotherham, but he doesn't even claim that it was an exit plan. Merely, he asserts, it was material "for policy makers to reflect on, and to assist in some measure with the planning of everyone considering the impact of Brexit on their businesses and activity".

Not to be outdone, though, we have Jacob Rees-Mogg making it up as he goes along. He asserts that Tusk's claim that "we do not have a plan" is just false. Change or Go which preceded Vote Leave, he writes, "produced a 1,000 page document setting out the options while the ERG has continued to develop these ideas".

Therein lies the classic dissimulation from this man who seems rarely to resort to mere fact, when he can tell a lie or swerve round the truth. Here, we see the technique when he states that Change or Go preceded Vote Leave – not actually realising that this was the name of the report.

Nonetheless, he seeks to imply that the official "leave" campaign subsequently adopted the work, even if it did not. Vote Leave, as we know, specifically rejected the idea of adopting a formal leave plan. Thus, it would be perfectly fair to extend Donald Tusk's condemnation to Vote Leave, even if Change or Go had been an exit plan. But even there, Rees-Mogg misleads. The document was not an exit plan and, at the time, was not seen as one.

To set the context, in June 2015 when this was published, renegotiation was very much in the air, and David Cameron was set to go to Brussels to broker a "fundamental reform" of the treaties, and bring back a "better deal" for the UK. Led by Matthew Elliott, Business for Britain was very much in the "reform" camp. Elliott himself was never a conviction "leaver" and, in the senior ranks of the Tories at the time, there was no enthusiasm for leaving – or even for an in-out referendum. This, it was thought, would be too divisive and could risk splitting the Tory party.

Thus, the preferred plan was for Cameron to negotiate his "reform" and bring back a treaty change. Then the referendum – which was not expected until 2017 - would be focused on this "better deal". We would either opt for Cameron's deal, or vote to leave.

Already, the battle lines were being drawn, with Tory MP Michael Fabricant telling us that a Eurosceptic colleague had told him, "the economic argument will be the key to this campaign".

It was to be a question of "persuading people that we face a bright future outside the sclerotic EU, and that foreign investors will not transfer their jobs to the continent, will be the principal challenge", even if immigration and who governs us were issues we should not ignore.

Fabricant wanted to leave the EU, but that was not the objective of Business for Britain. And it was precisely to address their preferred option of "reform" that Change or Go was produced. "There are clearly deep problems with Britain’s current relationship with the European Union", it said.

"A reforming Government needs to show that it understands all the current problems with the EU and appreciates that fundamental structural changes are needed", the document went on, then concluding: "'Tinkering around the edges' would fail to address any of the issues that we currently face. To quote David Cameron, nothing short of 'full on' Treaty change would lead to the type of relationship the United Kingdom could accept".

From the Telegraph at the time, we then see how this was couched, with James Kirkup writing about Change or Go, under the headline: "Britain needs to get a better deal from Brussels or leave the European Union, major new study argues".

"David Cameron should lead Britain out of the EU if he is unable to secure a veto for the UK over European laws", Kirkup argued, then asserting that: "Unless the Prime Minister can achieve a fundamental change in Britain’s relationship with Brussels, the country’s households and businesses will be better off if the UK opts to leave the EU".

The essence of the pitch though, was that: "With fundamental reform, the EU can work for Britain, but leaving should hold no fear for us". In other words, the threat of leaving was to be used as leverage to secure reform.

This was made perfectly clear in a Telegraph editorial on 21 June 2015, headed: "Britain can renegotiate from a position of strength", with the sub-title, "A major new report adds some welcome facts to the debate".

"In little more than three days", the text said, "David Cameron and his closest aides will set out for Brussels and start a journey that could take Britain out of the EU. Before he leaves, the Prime Minister would do well to read every word of Change or Go, a report published this week about Britain's European present and future". It continued:
Running to more than 1,000 pages and produced by some of Britain's leading business figures, economists and financial experts, the document cannot be taken lightly. It sets out in painstaking detail the reality of Britain's current EU membership, its deep flaws and the actions needed to correct those flaws. Perhaps most importantly, it also demonstrates convincingly that, contrary to the scaremongering claims of some slavish EU devotees, Britain has little to fear from leaving an EU that refuses to make the changes necessary for success in the 21st century.
The tone of the editorial was unmistakable, setting out the purpose of Change or Go. It had been produced to strengthen the hand of Mr Cameron in his negotiations, setting out what he needed to achieve and sending a message to Brussels that, without fundamental reform, the UK might choose to leave.

And although the preferred option was clearly that the UK should stay in the EU, the paper opined that "Britain has a bright future in Europe, whether it is an EU member or not". It concluded: "As he embarks on renegotiations, therefore, Mr Cameron is in a position not of weakness, but of enormous strength".

What comes over very clearly at the time, therefore, is that the document was part of a stratagem to help prime minister Cameron renegotiate our membership of the EU. Its function thus was not to speed our removal from the EU but to keep us in as a full-blown member.

Now to assert that this document can be taken as evidence of Vote Leave having an exit plan is to stand history on its head. The essential strategy of Vote Leave was to avoid committing to a plan. That its apologists now seek to pretend that a plan did exist after all can surely only do one thing: it reminds us how flawed that decision really was, so much so that they are scrambling to disown it.

Richard North 09/02/2019 link

Brexit: just another game

Friday 8 February 2019  

The day before Mrs May was due in Brussels, both Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker – alongside Leo Varadkar – issued statements declaring that the Withdrawal Agreement was not open for re-negotiation.

However, this was also the day that Tusk made his now famous "hell" comment – and it was this which got the lion's share of the media attention. The refusal to re-open the negotiations was barely mentioned.

Had this been the media focus, today's headlines might have been rather different. The media would have had to concede that Mrs May's trip to Brussels had been futile. But, with the refusal downplayed, it opened the way for just the sort of confrontation narrative which the British media so loves.

Thus we see The Sun delivering the headline: "Furious Theresa May in icy showdown with Donald Tusk as she slaps him down over Brexit 'hell' row", while the Evening Standard has: "Theresa May confronts Donald Tusk on Brexiteer hell jibe... as he says there is 'no breakthrough in sight'".

The juxtaposition is clearly an important part of the narrative, and it simply would not have worked if the media had been parading the refusal before Mrs May had even arrived at the headquarters of the monster.

As it stands, a casual observer would have had a hard time working out that the Reuters report actually referred to the same meeting, with its headline: "In Brussels, EU gives May glimpse of Brexit hope". According to this rendition, Mrs May "came away from a day in an increasingly impatient Brussels … with a pledge of renewed talks that held out some hope for a new Brexit deal, if no sign of compromise yet".

Possibly, that gets closer to the text of the joint statement from Mrs May and Juncker which, in diplomatic terms, refers to talks "held in a spirit of working together to achieve the UK's orderly withdrawal from the EU".

This, of course, is the sort of bullshit that convinces no-one but it is also a neat convention that allows antagonists to speak civilly of their meetings. But there was still no equivocation. President Juncker "underlined that the EU27 will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement", but he did express an "openness to add wording to the Political Declaration".

Hinting at the underlying tensions, the statement refers to the discussion being "robust but constructive", the latter simply conveying the fact that relations didn't break down – after all, the two leaders have "agreed that their teams should hold talks".

This, though, is a long way from re-opening negotiations. All the "teams" are to discuss is whether "a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK Parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European Council".

From a strict deconstruction of the words, it would appear that there isn't going to be a discussion about changes to the backstop – which is what Mrs May wants. Merely, the talk is to be about whether such talks are even possible.

At this late stage, therefore, we're having talks about talks and, to put a cap on it, May and Junker will not meet again until the end of February, and then only "to take stock of these discussions".

That effectively rules out any idea of a meaningful vote in the Commons next week, although the government is still planning to table an amendable motion for debate on 14 February. As to the substantive vote, the speculation is that a modified deal won't be put to MPs until a few days before we are due to leave. This is extreme brinkmanship that would supposedly require an Article 50 extension to give time for Westminster to pass all the Brexit legislation.

To get parliament to vote for the deal, there is talk of offering a revised political declaration which would provide detail on schemes which could avoid a hard border and thereby remove the need for the backstop. But this falls far short of "legally binding changes" to the Withdrawal Agreement which Mrs May is demanding, and which the "ultras" are setting as their condition for supporting the deal.

That the vote should then go to the wire, therefore, is no guarantee that the Withdrawal Agreement will be ratified – even if Corbyn and some of the Labour MPs can be induced to vote with the government. An accidental "no-deal" Brexit is still very much on the cards.

With the emphasis on the biff-bam politics, though, the media has largely taken its eye off the no-deal ball. We are thus seeing fewer blood-curdling accounts about the effects of a "sudden death", and even a piece telling us that "the short-term impact of a no-deal Brexit would be not nearly as bad as predicted, but the long-term impact will be much worse than feared".

This was the theme I rehearsed about three weeks ago so the author of the piece - Tom Kibasi, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research – has caught up relatively quickly, even if it would be too much to expect him to get it right.

Kibasi's thesis is that the EU would phase in compliance and rules of origin checks over a period of several years, allowing firms to make an orderly departure from the UK to the single market. It will be, he argues, a steady drift away from the UK, not an avalanche.

Yet again, therefore, we are seeing someone fairly high up in the information hierarchy completely failing to understand the dynamics of cross-border trade, and the likely impact of Brexit on UK trade flows. The man arrives at his end point more by accident than anything else. demonstrating to all the world that he simply doesn't know what he's talking about.

Illustrative of the issue-illiteracy of such people, we see Kibasi assert that, if the UK pocketed the £39 billion divorce bill while pursuing trade deals around the world, the EU "would, calmly and rationally, place tariffs on UK trade until it had collected what it is owed".

In the first instance, does he not know that WTO rules prohibit the arbitrary imposition of tariffs and, more importantly, that any such tariffs would be paid by traders in EU Member States? Rather than levies on the UK, as he implies, the tariffs would be a tax on EU-based businesses.

Another thing that Kibasi has failed to note is the fate of goods being loaded in ships now, which arrive at foreign destinations after we have left the EU. This is something I noted last week.

Ships bound for the Far East, I wrote, take six weeks to arrive. Prior to Brexit, goods loaded will be processed with regards to EU agreements with the destination countries. If we are out of the EU by the time the goods arrive, existing free trade agreements may no longer apply. Shippers might be faced with unexpected restrictions, while importers might be confronted with demands for tariff or other tax payments.

This is now being picked up by the Guardian, the very paper for which Kibasi writes. And this report adds that ships carrying UK goods could even be refused permission to unload until the status of the goods had been clarified.

Thus, while Brexit day for most of us is still a little way into the future, for some shippers, the moment of decision is already upon them. They have to gamble on whether to fulfil orders, without knowing what is going to happen when their goods arrive at their destinations.

Some industry analysts are suggesting that, as a consequence of the uncertainty, some shippers could turn to airfreight, despite the cost implications – the extra costs in some cases being less than the penalties for late delivery.

But this, amongst other things, highlights the crass incompetence of this government, amounting to gross irresponsibility, in leaving everything so late. The delay alone is set to cost business huge amounts of money, perhaps amounting to billions of pounds – losses which could so easily have been avoided.

Nothing of this, of course, concerns parliament, which even has its chaplain complaining about MPs behaving as if they are on the football terraces, shouting at one another. Brexit, to them – alongside the media - is just another game.

Richard North 08/02/2019 link

Brexit: a special place in hell

Thursday 7 February 2019  

Well, he said it and then, just to make sure we got the point, he tweeted it: "I've been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely".

Whatever else, Mr Tusk's remark was not off-the-cuff. This had the hallmark of a deliberate, premeditated comment coming as it did at the end of a prepared statement after his meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. The full statement itself is worth noting. Not a word is wasted.

"There are 50 days left until the UK's exit from the European Union, following the decision and the will of the UK authorities", Tusk said. "I know that still a very great number of people in the UK, and on the continent, as well as in Ireland, wish for a reversal of this decision".

But, he said, "I have always been with you, with all my heart. But the facts are unmistakable. At the moment, the pro-Brexit stance of the UK Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition, rules out this question. Today, there is no political force and no effective leadership for remain. I say this without satisfaction, but you can't argue with the facts".

And then came the key part: "Today our most important task is to prevent a no deal scenario", Tusk said, stressing that the position of the EU27 was clear. They were not going to make any new offer. "Let me recall", he said, "that the December European Council decided that the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for re-negotiation".

With that, he hoped today to hear from Mrs May "a realistic suggestion on how to end the impasse, in which the process of the orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU has found itself, following the latest votes in the House of Commons".

The top priority for the EU, according to Tusk, "remained the issue of the border on the island of Ireland, and the guarantee to maintain the peace process in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement".

There was no room for speculation, Tusk said. "The EU itself is first and foremost a peace project. We will not gamble with peace; or put a sell-by date on reconciliation. And this is why we insist on the backstop".

In what amounted to a direct warning to Mrs May, he then said, "Give us a believable guarantee for peace in Northern Ireland, and the UK will leave the EU as a trusted friend".

"I hope", he said, "that the UK government will present ideas that will both respect this point of view and, at the same time, command a stable and clear majority in the House of Commons. I strongly believe that a common solution is possible, and I will do everything in my power to find it".

Coming to a conclusion, he then delivered a further warning: "A sense of responsibility", he said, "also tells us to prepare for a possible fiasco". And at that point came the "plan" comment. Clearly, this was an intended remark.

Needless to say, this has provoked a storm of protest, not least from Andrea Leadsom, who thought Mr Tusk an "EU Commissioner". It showed, she said, that he had no manners, the "sign of a charming fellow".

Health secretary, Matt Hancock, said: "It's this sort of arrogance that drives antipathy towards the EU. We are a country that upholds the result of democratic votes. Our EU partners need to respect that", and home secretary, Sajid Javid – he who wants more "goodwill", tweeted that Tusk's remarks were "out of order".

Arlene Foster, DUP, condemned Tusk for being "deliberately provocative [and] very disrespectful", while Sammy Wilson described him as a "devilish Euro-maniac". And, in the House of Commons, Peter Bone complained about what he described as a "completely outrageous" insult. "I don't recall any president insulting members of this House, members of the government and the British people in such a way", he said.

Of course, what really must hurt is the simple fact that Tusk is right. In the first place, we had the leave campaign refuse to commit to an exit plan and then, after the event, Mrs May launched the Article 50 process without the first idea of where it was going to take us.

Through the entire process, she has been a study in negativity, knowing what she didn't want, but failing at any time to express to the EU precisely what she did want. And now, at the eleventh hour, she comes to Brussels, as Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald puts it, "with no plan, no credibility and no honour".

As for those who deserve those reserved places in hell, Verhofstadt seems to have a different view. "I doubt Lucifer would welcome them", he said, "because according to what they did to Britain, they might even be able to split hell".

Nevertheless, I wrote about this only a little while back. In the number one spot, I would put Nigel Farage, followed by Lord Lawson and his colleagues in the IEA, and then Dominic Cummings and his vile crew in Vote Leave. Only then would I open the gate for Mrs May, but Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the opposition, also gets a slot.

But for all that, dwelling on this isn't going to get us very far. One wonders what Donald Tusk expected to achieve by his remark. The Guardian's John Crace picks up the exchange between Leo Varadkar and Tusk after the fateful words had been delivered.

"They'll give you a terrible time in the British press for that", Varadkar whispered. Tusk merely smiled: "Yes, I know. Hahaha". According to Crace, he no longer cared that much what anyone thought. He had tried to be nice to the Brits "but all you got in return was news bulletins with Theresa May in a Spitfire and people comparing the EU's aims with Hitler".

And there may be an element of truth there. If this is taken as a signal, it says that the EU has virtually given up hope of achieving anything from Mrs May's visit, and they don't care who knows it. They've gone through the hoops – to hell and back, even – and now it is just a question of going through the rituals once more, Frankly, if they have reached even a fraction of my level of boredom, then I'm surprised they've stayed the course this far.

Furthermore, while the focus is on Tusk, he is by no means alone: yesterday the EU was doing things in stereo, with Leo Varadkar also meeting Jean-Claude Juncker, from which a joint statement emerged.

In this case as well, no one could accuse the pair of beating about the bush. "The Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration have been negotiated in good faith and have been agreed by all 27 Leaders of the European Union Member States as well as by the United Kingdom Government", they said, adding, "As we have said on many occasions, the Withdrawal Agreement is the best and only deal possible. It is not open for renegotiation".

Reiterating that the backstop was an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement, they reminded us that the agreement, including the backstop, was "a balanced compromise" and "not a bilateral issue". This was a European issue: "Ireland's border is also the border of the European Union and its market is part of the Single Market. We will stay united on this matter", they said.

As with Tusk, there was a reference to stepping up preparations for a no-deal scenario, leaving the UK in no doubt that there was a limit to how far the EU is prepared to go.

Fortunately for Mrs May, Brussels officials are stressing that Mr Tusk's remarks about special places in hell only apply to the relevant personnel when they are dead and "not right now". That leaves Mrs May free to respond when she arrives in Brussels.

Early comment from Number 10 is telling us that Mrs May will ask representatives of the EU institutions to work "urgently" with her to secure changes to the withdrawal agreement that she can use to win over fractious Conservative Party members as well as MPs across parliament.

She will acknowledge that the agreement "was the product of much hard work and was negotiated in good faith", but will add that Westminster had sent "an unequivocal message that change is required". It was thus for everyone involved to "show determination and do what it takes to now get the deal over the line".

The trouble is that Mr Tusk had already given his response before these words were even uttered, leaving the media geniuses to speculate that the chances of a breakthrough "are not good". What would we do without these sages?

Richard North 07/02/2019 link

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