Brexit: the litmus test for the ignorati

Wednesday 25 April 2018  

Yesterday (and not for the first time), I touched upon the history of the EU's customs union, introduced with the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and completed on 1 June 1968, when the last tariffs on goods moving between member states were abolished.

But, as I remarked, this by no means led to the abolition of frontier posts or the abandonment of border checks. And, as I was able to show, there is plenty of photographic evidence of the continued presence of frontier posts.

Today's picture shows part of very substantial border post straddling the German-Belgian border at Lichtenbusch, near Aachen, on Bundesautobahn 44 which becomes the E40 on the drive into Belgium, taken in 1979. The facility exists to this day, currently pressed into service as a truck stop.

Interestingly, two years after this photograph was taken, the European Commission published COM(81) final "on the state of the internal market". It noted that:
The customs union, the implementation of which is intended to ensure the, internal market, is proving to be increasingly inadequate for ' the achievement of this aim. The substance, of what has been achieved is instead being, jeopardized and undermined by the fact that old barriers have survived for too long and new barriers have been created.
The Commission went on to observe that, twenty-three years after the founding of the EEC and thirteen years after the Customs Union was set up, the public was "justifiably annoyed" that customs clearance procedures within the Community were scarcely any different from customs procedures with non-member countries. In commercial terms, it said, these procedures increase the cost of goods by around 5-10 percent.

Considering that the objective of a Common Market is integration, it added, the application of customs procedures to goods crossing internal frontiers would seem to be an anachronism dating back to the days before the Community. And on that basis, it began the process of developing the legal framework which would emerge as the Single European Act, leading to the completion of the internal market and the abolition of frontier posts be December 1992.

This adds still more evidence to the undeniable thesis that the EU's customs union contributed nothing to the abolition of internal frontiers and their attendant border checks. Indeed, the Commission rejected the idea that revenue collection was a valid and necessary part of border control, and concentrated on measures to eliminate non-tariff barriers. These were the real reason for border checks.

Yet, 37 years further on from this communication, we have the Financial Times, totally oblivious to what went before, opining that "the customs union is imperative for Britain's future prosperity".

"The conclusion of a lengthy debate among policymakers, customs and trade experts and businesses", it says, "should be clear". In order to "fulfil its promises to keep the Irish border open, and to maintain Britain’s sophisticated just-in-time supply chains with the continent, the UK should seek a new customs union with the EU that in essence replicates current arrangements".

This is the considered conclusion of what passes for the UK's premier financial journal and one, by its own reckoning, is considered to be an authority on EU matters. From such a source, the lack of understand of very basics of the nature of EU trade and the supporting structures is profoundly disturbing.

The newspaper does, however, at least doff a cap to the need to remove (some) non-tariff barriers, declaring that: "On top of this, it [the UK government] should seek to keep those EU regulations, particularly in food and agriculture, needed to reduce the need for hygiene inspections as well as checks for customs tariffs and rules of origin".

Again, the lack of understanding is profoundly disturbing. Many times on this blog, I have pointed out that, in order to export live animals and products (including food) to the Union, the exporting nation and its "establishments" must comply with the full gamut of EU regulations. But compliance alone does not eliminate the need for "hygiene inspection" at the EU's external borders.

The Financial Times should know this. If its editor and staff had read the blog, they would know it – not least from this report, to which I have cross-referred many times. There are also my Monographs. Two are especially relevant, here and here.

Certainly, the FT is well aware of the blog and the editor knows me, having rung me on occasions to ask for my input on some issues. That they choose to ignore the analyses from one of the foremost UK experts on the EU's "official controls" is nothing short of arrogance.

There are those who say that, if only I took a more emollient, conciliatory approach, I would be listened to more. This is not convincing when we hear Jacob Rees-Mogg describe Theresa May's plans for a customs partnership as "completely cretinous" - with not the slightest diminution in media interest.

That aside, we do rather tire of the assumption that we should politely blog away to ourselves in our appointed corner, and if we are very good and well-mannered, the great ones will eventually drop in offer us a few patronising words of encouragement and occasionally steal out stuff.

Bluntly, these people are ignorant, on the one part, because they want to be. On the other part, they are able to maintain their ignorance because there is no penalty for misinforming the public and displaying their disdain for facts. That much is evident in the FT's assertion that, "For the UK to be outside a customs union would undoubtedly mean some kind of infrastructure at the Irish border".

This is simply not true, yet its foolish writer goes on to say that, "Extensive investigations by a parliamentary committee have established that neither of the much-touted EU border arrangements between France and Switzerland, or Sweden and Norway, remove the need for physical border infrastructure".

Indeed that is the case, but then to assert that the adoption of a customs union would remove the need for infrastructure is a staggering non sequitur. As I have observed, that there is a physical border between Sweden and Norway owes much to policy decisions taken by both countries which, if made differently, could remove even the vestigial controls that we see.

If the UK so decided, by adopting the full gamut of the EEA acquis - which would include across the board abolition of tariffs – and certain other measures, an invisible border between the Republic and Northern Ireland could be secured. But one of those measures is not a customs union, as the EU experience so adequately demonstrates.

However, such intelligence is not for the FT. From behind its bastion of ignorance, it opines:
Brexiters who oppose a customs union have had two years to propose a technologically and politically workable alternative. They have failed. The imperatives of promoting a dynamic British economy and an open Irish border point inexorably to the UK being in a customs union with the EU. Mrs May should summon her political courage and seek to safeguard Britain’s future.
Nevertheless, the arrogance and self-importance of the legacy media and its political handmaidens knows no bounds. But, if you want another example, you can have the issue-illiterate piece by William Hague in yesterday's Telegraph.

In the next two months, he writes, the Brexit process reaches a crossroads where the irreconcilable requirements of assuaging business sentiment, securing future trading freedom and maintaining an open border with Ireland meet and have to be sacrificed, amended or assured.

With that, he declares: "The question of whether the UK stays in a Customs Union with the EU is integral to all those issues, and thus is becoming the fundamental and decisive controversy".

With not enough wit to understand that a customs union is completely irrelevant, he reminds us that, a few weeks ago, he drew attention to the attractions of a "partial customs union", as set out in a paper from the Institute of Directors.

Despite being a facile, ill-considered stratagem, which I easily demolished, Hague averred that this was "a serious attempt to find an answer" to the problem of securing an EU-UK trade framework.

This had author Allie Renison twittering about how "honoured" she was to see William Hague's reference, adding that the FT leader (which I've analysed above) had linked to it as well.

From such interventions we get useful insight. If you are intent in producing sound, high quality work, your expose it to the toughest critics that you can find, and then fight your corner. The work can only be improved as a result.

But the likes of Renison and her media friends don't do this. When they expose their work to the public gaze, all they want is unconditional praise. Thus, they surround their work with defensive walls to exclude the critics, while they ignore dissenting voices – often weaponising indignation as a tactic for disengaging when the critics get too close.

By this means, we are being swamped by a sterile, futile debate which is distracting us from the important issue of devising a credible response to the EU's demands, and setting up a Brexit settlement which will serve the needs of the UK.

That is the price we are paying when we have an establishment which is out of control and which elevates its own ignorance above the pursuit of knowledge and decides – despite evidence to the contrary – that it knows best.

More than anything else, it is their arrogance which is bringing us down. How ironic it should be that it boils down to this fatuous debate about a customs union, which more than anything else could, illustrates the inadequacy of our "top people" to get to grips with the issues.

The customs union, then, has become the litmus test, the Quatermass "mark on the arm" which can show up the ignorati for what they are. The one thing you can guarantee is that not one of them will admit their ignorance. These superior beings are so far above even the thought that they could be wrong, that us plebs must only be allowed to stand back and look at them with awe.

Sooner rather than later, though, the whole thing will come crashing down around them. What will the poor things do then, I wonder, as we ask them to explain why they have so easily devoted their energies to wrecking Brexit. And I guess we won't be too gentle about the way we demand answers.

Richard North 25/04/2018 link

Brexit: in the beginning, there were tariffs

Tuesday 24 April 2018  

There was a reason why Spaak and Monnet elected to push for a customs union in order to eliminate tariffs amongst the original Six. It was for the same reason that Bismark established his zollverein. In order to administer common external tariffs – a defining feature of a customs union - a central government was needed.

In Bismark's case, this was his instrument for uniting Germany. In the case of the founding fathers of the EU, it was their instrument for uniting Europe – with the added advantage that the income collected by the member states from the external tariffs could be used to finance the institutions of what was to become the EEC.

The legal base for the customs union was established in 1957 with the Treaty of Rome, with provision made for a phased reduction in tariffs until they were entirely eliminated from internal trade. This was achieved on 1 June 1968, two years ahead of schedule, at which point the customs union was complete.

That, coincidentally, was almost exactly fifty years ago – the event occurring before the majority of legacy media journalists were actually born. Later this year, perhaps, we may see celebrations to mark its fiftieth anniversary.

Now, through the modern miracle of the internet and the application of a technique called "research", it is possible for people to discover things about the world before they were born, and before they achieved sentience – although in the case of many journalists, that has yet to happen. Nevertheless, the product of this "research" thingy is often called "history".

In the annals of the history of what is known as the European Union, it can be seen – as we found out using the "research" thingy – that the completion of the customs union did not result in the abolition of customs controls. This should come as no surprise: the main purpose was to promote the political integration of Europe. 

That notwithstanding, a lot more goes on at borders than just the collection of tariff revenues and, as systems have improved over time, tariffs have been paid by importers in the same way they pay other taxes – periodically, and direct to the central agency. There is little in the way of revenue collection at the border.

Despite this, even by the early 1980s, customs checks were still common at internal borders in the EEC, more than a decade after the completion of the customs union. By 1984, Customs formalities at the French-Belgian border were taking an average of 80 minutes for every lorry going through. Each hour's delay cost between £2.50 and £3.25. The overall cost of customs controls was therefore in the region of £1.7 billion (at 1980 prices) – between 5-10 percent of the value of the goods transported across frontiers.

This, obviously, had to stop and, to cut a very long story short, in 1985 we saw the adoption of the Single European Act. Article 13 added measures to establish an "internal market". This was "an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured in accordance with the provisions of this Treaty", the work to be completed by 31 December 1992.

It was this, therefore – the internal market – which brought about the abolition of internal frontiers and with them the abolition of customs checks.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I very rarely use swearwords in the text of these blogposts but, knowing something of the history of both the customs union and the single market, one has to ask what kind of fuckwit writes something like this:
What is a customs union? This is an agreement by a group of countries, such as the EU, to all apply the same tariffs on imported goods from the rest of the world and, typically, eliminate them entirely for trade within the group. By doing this, they can avoid the need for costly and time-consuming customs checks during trade between members of the union.
In fact, this is Dan Roberts, styled as "Brexit policy editor" for the Guardian. And to compound his stupidity, he adds:
Asian shipping containers arriving at Felixstowe or Rotterdam, for example, need only pass through customs once before their contents head to markets all over Europe. Lorries passing between Dover and Calais avoid delay entirely.
Paying lip-service to the fact that there are other things aside from tariffs, the idiot Roberts then goes on to say that, "Customs are not the only checks that count – imports are also scrutinised for conformity with trading standards regulations, security and immigration purposes – but they do play an important role in determining how much friction there is at the border".

The thing is, though – they don't, not in the sense that Roberts means. In actually, there is a lot more that goes on, including checks for smuggling, VAT invasion, substitution fraud and much else. But very little of this goes on at the borders, and virtually nothing of the tariff collection system. Nevertheless, says Roberts:
A strict customs regime at Dover or between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would lead to delays which will be costly for business and disruptive for travellers. Just-in-time supply chains in industries such as carmaking could suffer. An Irish peace process built around the principle of entirely unfettered travel between north and south could be jeopardised.
By this, he means tariff collection. And he's talking rubbish. A customs union agreed between the EU and the UK, applicable after Brexit, would not have the slightest impact on the flow of traffic across the external borders. It would neither speed it up, nor slow it down. It would be a complete irrelevance.

To eliminate customs checks would require – as we see from the history of the EU – the inclusion of the UK in the internal market. This has been done partially with the Eftas/EEA states, but since they haven't included agriculture and fisheries in their agreement, and maintain duty disparities on tobacco and alcohol, trade it not entirely frictionless. However, it is the basis for a system which could apply the UK, and especially at the Irish border.

That notwithstanding, it is a matter of absolute certainty that a customs union would not achieve anything. Furthermore, as we keep saying, the EEA agreement makes provision for the abolition of tariffs. And if rules of origin (ROO) become a problem, there are ways of dealing with them, the answer to which is not a customs union.

What then, we must ask, is going on with the legacy media, where it cannot get its collective brain around the simple concepts of "customs union" and "internal market", and the implications of each? There is something terribly wrong when then such matters elude them.

The point here is that it isn't just the Guardian that's getting it wrong – not by any means. In The times, we have a leading article which has this:
The benefit of a customs union is that it would reduce friction in trade between the UK and the EU. There would be no need for customs officers in Calais or Ireland to stop lorries and make sure that importers were paying the difference between British and EU duties, as those duties would be the same. Other countries outside a customs union with the EU, like Switzerland, have customs posts near the border for checks.
Never mind that, on the Turkish border with EU states – within a customs union – there are borders posts. This is unexpurgated drivel, matched only by the self-important pomposity from the BBC which tells us that a customs union means that businesses "like those in the car industry that rely on complex manufacturing supply chains" can "move stuff from one country to another throughout the EU without added costs or delays".

Yet, for our photograph, we show the border crossing between Vaals, South Limburg, Netherlands, and Aachen, in Germany. The date is December 1973, more than five years after the completion of the EEC's customs union – the same year that the UK joined the EEC. Almost inconceivably, you also had to show your passport once you crossed the border into the Federal Republic of Germany.

I have many more such photographs from the same period. The evidence is there - all you have to do is look for it. The EEC customs union didn't get rid of border checks. The checkpoints were still there and being photographed long after the customs union was officially complete.

The lack of diligence on the part of the media, and its impact on the Brexit debate, is unforgivable. The journalists producing the rubbish we're seeing should hang their heads in shame. Their employers should wind up their publications and do something useful, like sweeping the streets.

Richard North 24/04/2018 link

Brexit: GCSE customs union

Monday 23 April 2018  

There are few more serious insults to one's readers, in my view, than to present them with false information. And there is no greater insult to a diligent writer than to ignore his work in preference to the posturing of the charlatans with their snake-oil and shoddy arguments.

Yet, false information seems to be the currency of modern journalism, while the real sin in the eyes of some seems to be the "offence" of pointing this out. To say that someone is ignorant, even when that is a statement of fact, is thus deemed unacceptable, and one is certainly not allowed more strident epithets, no matter how accurate or appropriate they might be.

How, therefore, is one to respond to the stupidity of the modern journalist – in this case typified by Raphael Hogarth, writing a comment piece for The Times under the headline: " May could get the best customs union deal by performing a U-turn"?

To set the foreground scenery to this assertion, we need to know that, after a weekend of Westminster gossip, the BBC's Katy Searle is telling us that a Number 10 source says there is no change of policy on coming out of Customs Union. The official line is: "We will not be staying in the customs union or joining a customs union".

Mr Hogarth, however, thinks he knows different. "They cannot avoid it for ever", he declares. "Sooner or later, ministers will have to let MPs vote on whether the UK should abandon its Brexit policy and try to negotiate a customs union with the EU".

He notes that the government was defeated on this issue in the House of Lords on Wednesday last, and would have it that the question will inevitably return to the House of Commons in the coming weeks, whence the government is expected to lose again.

In the opinion of this enfant savant, it would then "probably be possible to do a UK-EU customs union well", but he fears that, "if forced into a customs union by parliament, the government will negotiate it very badly".

The temptation now is to walk way, head shaking, ignoring this sort of crass assertion, but this is currently what passes for mainstream political analysis. The entire media establishment seems to have locked itself into the "customs union" narrative, and can scarcely talk about anything else. And into this walks Mr Hogarth, to offer this Janet & John dissertation:
A customs union is a deal of two halves. First, the parties agree not to charge tariffs on each other's goods. Second, they agree to charge the same tariffs as one another on everyone else's goods. This "common external tariff" makes it easier to do business. To see why, imagine life without it. If British tariffs on Australian shoes were lower than EU tariffs, the French customs authorities would have to stop shoe consignments arriving in Calais to check that they were not from Aussie exporters trying to dodge EU duties by routing products through Britain. Similar checks would be needed at the Irish border.
This, believe it or not, is a serious offering from a journal that once embraced the status of "newspaper of record", a former "broadsheet" intended for an adult audience.

On that basis, one would expect most readers to know what a customs union was – even though most people (and certainly most politicians) do not seem to have a grasp of the basics. So, we get told of the abolition of tariffs between members and the adoption of the common external tariff.

From there, though, the explanation is laughably puerile, based on the idea that "Aussie exporters" might be trying to evade the EU's eight percent import duty by shipping shoes via the UK which might, perhaps, have a zero tariff.

Firstly, one has to struggle with the idea, however, that Australia exports any significant amounts of footwear – to anywhere. Apart from limited production of specialist footwear, there is effectively no domestic industry.

Secondly, exporters don't dodge tariffs – because they don't pay them. The tariffs are paid by the importers. And it is the importers, at their places of business, who would have to convince the suspicious French customs authorities that the goods came from the UK.

At this point, therefore, it is entertaining to introduce Tim Broomer, who offers this comment on Hogath's piece:
Dear God, is this the best The Times have? I'd be ashamed to exhibit such ignorance to so many people. FFS get off this nonsense of confusing the CU with Customs cooperation and the Single Market. This isn't even GCSE standard.
Broomer, of course, is right but, unusually (for the legacy media), Hogarth responds by saying:
I don't think I do confuse those things. Customs cooperation is chiefly about the sharing of data, intelligence, infrastructure and staff (in ascending order of intensity). Customs union, as I say in the piece, is a very simple deal of two halves: no tariffs on each other's goods, and the same tariffs on everyone else's goods.

Rules of origin checks do not arise as a result of a lack of customs cooperation. They arise as a result of a lack of common external tariff. Customs cooperation can allow the two sides to use the same resources to perform those checks. But cooperation, in itself, does not obviate the need for the checks.
Here it gets interesting. Let us suppose out mythical Australian manufacturer was trying to evade EU tariffs – a venture which goes under the name of fraud. Would it not package the goods in such a way as to give them a UK identity, complete with a fictional address of the UK factory in which they were made? How then would a border inspection ascertain that these were in fact Australian goods?

In practice, what would happen is that, where suspicions were aroused, the French customs would demand proof of origin from the importers, the evidence produced then being cross-checked with the UK authorities, who would then confirm (or refute) the details – a classic example of cooperation.

In fact, though, origins of goods are rarely that simple to ascertain. What one is normally dealing with are manufactured products, with components from many different countries. The tariffs payable with then depend on the percentage contribution, by value, of the different components to the finished product.

Again, it is unlikely that this can rarely be ascertained by inspection – at the border or elsewhere. Customs officials are reliant on the importers' declarations and, if these need to be checked, the audit trail will lead to the originating countries, the accuracy of which will be ascertained through customs cooperation.

Therein lies just one illustration of where a little knowledge simply isn't enough. The debate is being driven by ignorance – journalists who have not the slightest knowledge of how the world work – not even enough knowledge to realise how ignorant they are.

If one was to be kind, one would not blame the individual journalists. Twenty years ago, a newspaper such as The Times might have employed a specialist trade correspondent of some seniority, charged with writing only one article a week, or even less. Nowadays, the task is left to children, ignorant. Inexperienced, but cheap and willing.

And it is this manchild that wants to lecture us on the merits or otherwise of a "good" or a "bad" customs union, despite his having no real idea of why we should need one at all, and what might take its place to ensure "frictionless" trade.

Hogarth finished off his response to Broomer by saying that he hadn't dealt with the single market in this piece. "If there is any element of this piece which you think I have claimed is a matter pertaining to the customs union, where it is actually a matter pertaining to the single market, please tell me what it is!", he added.

And there we go to Article 10 of the EEA Agreement (aka Single Market), which prohibits customs duties on imports and exports between the contracting parties.

The Single Market thus comprises an agreement where the parties agree not to charge tariffs on each other's goods. As to the "other half" of the deal, the UK has already set in train the process whereby we will adopt the EU's WTO schedules of tariffs.

When we leave the EU, we will have the same external tariffs. We do not need a customs union for that and, when we also adopt all the EU's free trade agreements (which is our intention), there will be no tariff differentials between third country goods, whether imported into the UK or the EU. Rules of origin cease to be an issue.

When it thus comes to insults, we have the one-time "newspaper of record" palming us off with an ignorant (if well-meaning) manchild, in place of the well-founded information that we pay for and expect. When we don't even get GCSE standard, I think we are entitled to take offence.

Richard North 23/04/2018 link

Brexit: from muddle to Pulitzer-level stupidity

Sunday 22 April 2018  

Last week, peers voted for us to explore "a customs union" with the EU, writes Booker in this week's column, and this week they want a vote on us staying in "the customs union". Meanwhile, he adds, the EU says that none of our "customs options" for the Irish border will work.

Wearily, he then asks, "Is there, in fact, a single UK politician who could properly distinguish between the customs union, a customs union and access to the single market?"

Although Theresa May used to say she wanted us to remain "within" the market, with "frictionless borders", she and the rest of them seem to have got into a total muddle. You can only belong to the customs union, of course, if you are a member of the EU. On the other hand, a customs union, like that between the EU and Turkey, is a very much lesser thing, creating a far from "frictionless border", with checks and long delays.

And there's the muddle. Booker picks up the thread from the blog and tells his audience what we have been saying so often and what so few of our politicians understand; a customs union as such is concerned only with tariffs, which can be dealt with quite easily by electronics.

What these dumb creatures seem incapable of understanding is that the real problem lies with the system of "customs co-operation", a quite different matter. This, for the education of politicians and other ignoramuses, this concerns "non-tariff barriers", such as the need for checking goods like all food and plant-related products, and a great deal more.

Thus, says Booker, the only way to retain virtually "frictionless borders" with the single market from outside the EU, as some of us have long been trying to explain, would be to join Norway in the European Free Trade Association and thus remain in the wider European Economic Area.

But that is far too simple. What our politicians fail to grasp is that this would instantly free us from three quarters of all the EU's 20,000 laws, while giving us more influence than we have now on shaping those 5,000 which remain, chiefly covering trade.

In addition, it would free us from the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and (it almost goes without saying) free to negotiate our own trade deals with the rest of the world.

Then, despite the continued attempts of the naysayers to downplay Article 112, we would be free to exercise selective control over immigration from the EU. These are the very things Brexiteers say they want. And these things Mrs May has rejected. She has turned her back on them.

If, against all the odds, enough politicians could actually look at the facts, instead of the ludicrous caricature they have been led to believe, they might see that this could solve almost all the horrendous problems, including the Irish border, which are now threatening to turn Brexit into a complete shambles.

To conclude, Booker notes that, if only all of this had been properly explained at the time of the referendum, the majority for leaving might have been even larger than it was. As it is, we now have just six months to escape from a dreadful mess entirely of our own making. But what he doesn't say is that it doesn't look at all good.

Not least, occupying the spot that the Booker column once occupied is the great pretender Hannan who has managed to write a piece so fatuous that, if there were prizes for such endeavour, he would be lining up for the equivalent of the Pulitzer.

This is a man gifted with innate intelligence so he must have worked phenomenally hard to attain the degree of stupidity that he is currently displaying, as he writes under the headline: "The EU believes it can push Britain around over Northern Ireland. They don't know Britain".

As befits a man who has made a career out of dishonesty, everything Hannan writes is skewed, right from the point where he tells us that last week's Brexit talks seemed to be progressing well enough. He then continues:
Unremarked and unreported, officials had reached agreement on outstanding liabilities, the status of each other's citizens and the rolling over of a number of technical accords. But, with only weeks to go before the EU's crucial summit meeting, Michel Barnier has slammed a dead cat onto the table. The only way that the EU will sign off on a deal, he says, even on the transition terms, would be for Northern Ireland – and, by implication, the rest of the UK – to accept, not only EU supremacy in trade, but also in technical standards.
You can see the technique here. No one with any grip on last week's talks in Brussels was under any illusion that there was going to be any progress. The Irish question has been sitting there since day one of the talks and the UK has done nothing to resolve the outstanding issue - to the extent that David Davis has ceased making even his token appearances.

What happened, therefore – in terms of the EU rejecting the UK's "reheated casserole of ideas" – was entirely predictable. There was no question of Barnier slamming "a dead cat onto the table".

Not only – like Davis – was he not part of the talks, everything on the table had been there from the very start, uncharged. If nothing else, the EU has been entirely transparent in its conduct of the talks and has made every effort to ensure that the agenda is in the public domain.

Perhaps Hannan doesn't realise this, that we mere plebs are as every bit as well informed as he is, if not more so. Behind his educated veneer, his ignorance on matters EU is quite staggering. Whenever he contributed to Owen Paterson's speeches in the days I helped write them, I had to remove his error-strewn material to avoid embarrassing Owen.

But, with the agenda on the table, we are talking about the "backstop", to which the UK has already agreed in principle, in the absence of any agreement – which would amount to regulatory alignment on both sides of the Irish border.

Hannan is one of those people of slender intellect who actually believes that this can embrace mutual recognition, based on the principle of seeking common outcomes, something that the EU does not accept in terms of the broad sweep of its trading arrangements.

But, in his foetid little brain, he sees the rejection of his version of the "fantasy island unicorn model" as a demand for "EU supremacy on trade" and "in technical standards". This, he stridently declares, "no British government – no self-respecting democracy, indeed – could agree to such terms". They, he says, "amount to a form of thralldom, forcing Britain to accept all the downsides of EU membership with none of the rights".

Without a pause for breath, this then gets translated into "remaining in the customs union while leaving the EU", which he defines as "the worst of all worlds, far worse than where we are now".

From there, Hannan offers the fallacious argument about the low levels of trade across the border – exactly the point I addressed yesterday but which is so far above Hannan's intellectual paygrade that he has not the slightest chance of understanding it.

Incredibly, the man then even calls in aid Norway and Switzerland, notwithstanding that the Norwegians are in the EEA and Switzerland is tied to the EU with a network of over 200 agreements that amount to much the same thing.

Most laughably, Hannan lifts from the low-grade work of Lee Rotherham, to cite the East-German exception written into a Protocol in the Treaty of Rome, whereby trade between the two Germanies was regarded as internal trade.

The basis of this of course, is that West Germany never recognised the partition and continued to claim sovereignty over East Germany. One can really see that arrangement going down a bomb on the Emerald isle, where the Republic claims sovereignty over Northern Ireland and thereby treats cross-border trade as internal trade.

During the referendum campaign, the bright things at Vote Leave came up with this idea, suggesting that Owen Paterson offered it as a solution at a seminar in Belfast. I warned him against it, on the basis that he would be lucky to get out alive if he tried that on. But here we are now with Hannan – never one to throw away a thoroughly bad idea – trying it on in his column.

As regard the EU's Cyprus regime in Council Regulation (EC) No 866/2004, I am sure Article 4 would go down a treat, viz:
… goods may be introduced in the areas under the effective control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus, on condition that they are wholly obtained in the areas not under effective control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus or have undergone their last, substantial, economically justified processing or working in an undertaking equipped for that purpose in the areas not under the effective control of the Government of the Republic of Cyprus.
This is especially as the quantities crossing the line have to be registered with the authorities and the crossings are limited to designated crossing points. The goods have to be accompanied by a document issued by the Turkish Cypriot Chamber of Commerce and, after the crossing, the Cyprus authorities check the authenticity of the documents and whether the correspond with the consignments – which involves a physical inspection of all loads.

Entertainingly, "the movement of live animals and animal products across the line shall be prohibited", now with the exception of fresh fish and honey.

This is the thing about Hannan. He is so full of himself, but the moment you subject any of his grandiose claims to scrutiny, they fall over. But the man is without shame. As fast as his crass ideas wilt into obscurity, he comes up with another, and another, before he then starts recycling all the original schemes that have already been discredited.

As for his views on Ireland, none other than Jean-Claude Piris was moved to intervene, saying that there had been no discriminatory treatment of the UK. It will be treated exactly like any other third country.

The Ireland issue, he says, is a consequence of the will of the British Government, not only to leave EU, but also the Customs Union and the Single Market. "It was known before the referendum", Piris adds, "that such a will would lead to a difficult dilemma".

Yet, Hannan will be back again next Sunday, spouting his nonsense, and the Sunday Telegraph will continue to give him top billing. That in itself tells us a great deal.

This corrosive stupidity has eroded the Brexit debate and clouded the minds of simple politicians to the point where there is no longer any sense to be had, with the paper effectively arguing for a "no deal" Brexit. Should the crowds at some later day burn down the Telegraph's London offices, we will understand why.

Richard North 22/04/2018 link

Brexit: serious and dangerous

Saturday 21 April 2018  

It says something of the nation that BBC TV chose to run as its lead item on the main evening news yesterday the resignation of a football manager. And while such news might be of very great interest to some individuals, it was not the most important thing happening in the world, or the nation – not by a long chalk.

High on that list must be the failure of the talks in Brussels, once again on the vexed issue of Irish border – now being picked up by diverse newspapers, but mostly down page. Whatever their "take" however, there can be no dispute that the developments over the last few days have been very serious and we are headed for dangerous waters.

In a marginally more intelligent report than it managed yesterday, the Telegraph offers the headline: "Britain risks 'disorderly' Brexit, Michel Barnier warns after EU rejects Theresa May's Irish border solution" – thus indicating the nature of our peril.

The headline comes from Michel Barnier's statement on the talks, where he confirmed on French television that "substantial parts" of the Withdrawal Agreement – and especially the Irish border issue, remain to be agreed.

He then declared, in his role as the Union's negotiator: "there are still difficulties, still a risk of failure. On 25 percent of the text, we don't have agreement. If there is no agreement, there is no orderly withdrawal, there is a disorderly withdrawal and there is no transition".

Then asked if the UK could obtain a "single market a la carte" deal, he replied: that the EU had repeatedly said that Britain will not be able to do what the British call "cherry picking", adding "no way".

Nothing here warns us that we are going then to be locked into the customs unions, as the Telegraph idiots are insisting, leaving the Guardian to put it more directly with the headline: "Leaving EU rejects Irish border proposals and says Brexit talks could still fail".

However, according to the hired help, Stefaan De Rynck, reports that talks have ended for the moment are not correct. The EU and UK, he says, have before the June European Council planned four rounds of talks, with the next round in the first week in May. The talks will cover the Irish issue, plus other withdrawal issues, including the future relationship.

Yet, not a great deal more clarity comes from other newspaper reports, although we do have a more ruminative piece in the Irish Times. This reminds us, in terms, that the view at EU level on the border question is that the UK has been trying to serve a "reheated casserole of ideas" that London has persistently dished up – and Brussels has consistently sent back – since last August.

But, even here we see the customs union "infection" which is blighting any discussion of the issue – a fantasy non-solution that has swamped the discourse and is now blocking any possibility of sensible developments being explored.

The only thing consistent is the EU's refusal to accept ideas that have already been presented and explored, an action which embodies a rejection of the so-called "technological solution" upon which the UK government seems so keen to rely. Nor will the EU accept the so-called "customs partnership" that would see Britain collect tariffs for the EU on European-bound goods and apply tariffs to imported goods. Tariffs are the least of the issues here.

As always though, what is being lost in the torrent of noise is the basic principle involved here – the unalterable fact that, once the UK leaves the EU, what was once an internal border between EU Member States becomes part of the EU's external border.

In that context, the current levels of traffic across the border – and the nature of the traffic – are largely irrelevant. What matters, as the EU has pointed out so often – is that the integrity of Single Market is maintained, which means that the same rules which apply elsewhere between Member States and third countries must also apply to the Irish border.

There is absolutely no point in arguing, therefore, that traffic levels from the North to the Republic are so slight that they are insignificant in the grander scheme of things. Once there is an unguarded "back door", goods from Northern Ireland can enter into the Republic and, once there, they must be allowed free access to other Member States, with no checks at the internal borders.

Thus, should a low-profile "technological" border be established, the way would then be free for exporters, not only in the UK but also right across the world, to use Northern Ireland (via mainland Britain if necessary) as a portal into the EU, evading most or all of the checks that would normally apply to third country goods.

We are not, therefore, dealing with what is, but what could be once Brexit is place. And once the rules have been agreed, it is very hard for the EU to go back and demand that they should be tightened up. The net effect could be that the EU would have to reintroduce customs controls between Ireland and all the other Member States – something that would put it in breach of its own treaties.

This prospect coincides with the formal naming (the Irish Times calls it a "christening") of the MV Celine in Dublin Port, to which we introduced readers last October.

This is the ship that can carry more than 600 lorries and is almost twice the size of any ferry currently operating out of Dublin Port. If all the parking lanes on the 235metre vessel are laid end to end, they would stretch to almost five miles, making it the world's largest short sea roll-on roll-off vessel.

The hopes for this vessel are high, with plans for hundreds of thousands of additional tons of freight go to and from the Continent each year, bypassing Britain and any border controls and paperwork that may be inevitable if a hard Brexit becomes a reality.

Should there be, contrary to expectations, minimal controls on the Irish border, the starting point for those "hundreds of thousands of additional tons of freight" may be outside the Union. And there would be nothing to stop them - something the Muppets simply haven't worked out yet. Knowing some of the characters involved, it is unlikely they ever will.

On the other hand, if it's sense you are after, go to Ivan Rogers in The Times, who advises us that Britain's preferred solution the Irish border after Brexit has been dismissed as a "fantasy island unicorn model" by European leaders.

Solving the issue with a free trade agreement is not considered a "runner" by EU nations and neither Brussels nor the Irish government believed using technology to manage the frontier was realistic. Rogers thus suggests that the "backstop" is the only viable model – the very option the UK has rejected.

Thus, to put it succinctly, the EU has rejected everything the UK has to offer and the only thing acceptable to the EU has been rejected by the UK. There is no middle way.

That brings us right back to square one and, unless this can be sorted, we have to confront Michel Barnier's warning that the Brexit talks could fail. In fact, there's no "could" about it. We have been told often enough, if there is no settlement of the Irish question, then the talks will fail.

This is a reality which the UK government doesn't seem to understand. There is going to be no last-minute change of heart from the EU and no movement from its insistence on the backstop, where North and the Republic maintain regulatory alignment.

But if the backstop creates a "wet" border between the mainland and Ireland, there is a whole new world of grief awaiting HMG. Not only can ports such as Holyhead not handle the burdens of managing this border, the creation of a whole new infrastructure will cost hundreds of millions and take years to implement.

With no plans in place, and a transition period that is scarcely long enough, the UK, even if it agreed to it, could not deliver on the "backstop". And whether it "can't" or "won't", the effect is the same. Mrs May has driven us up a one-way street to a dead end, in a car with no reverse gear.

And yet, all the Guardian can suggest is that we stay in a customs union. Is this the end of intelligent life as we know it?

Richard North 21/04/2018 link

Brexit: on a "no deal" trajectory

Friday 20 April 2018  

An (issue-)illiterate report from the Telegraph's "Europe editor", Peter Foster (paywall), tells us that "the EU has comprehensively rejected British proposals for avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland".

That much is straightforward, and only to be expected, but Foster then adds that this is a "move" which will "cast serious doubt on the UK's ability to leave the customs union". The addition is drivel, of course, and exactly the sort of low-grade confusion that makes the Telegraph a completely unreliable source of information about Brexit.

Foster says that "senior EU diplomatic sources" have said that Mrs May's plan for avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland was subjected to a "systematic and forensic annihilation" this week at a meeting between senior EU officials and Olly Robbins, the UK's lead Brexit negotiator.

"It was a detailed and forensic rebuttal", the source is reported to have said – and apparently with some authority, as the person has been "directly briefed" on the meeting in Brussels on Wednesday. "It was made clear that none of the UK's customs options will work. None of them".

This is the review that we were expecting to hear from, and the fact that all we were getting was silence did not augur well for a positive outcome. But, with its comprehensive rejection (which was only what we expected), the fool Foster writes that it "now sends the Cabinet and Whitehall back to the drawing board and raises the serious prospect that Mrs May will have no choice but to remain in the EU customs union if she wants to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland".

Foster, together with a sizable proportion of the Lords, and many equally clueless MPs, has obviously guzzled the Kool Aid on the customs union, but even then he is way off beam. As late as yesterday, Tusk was saying that, if there was no deal on Ireland, there would be no Withdrawal Agreement and no transition.

It follows that, according to Article 50, we drop out of the treaties on 29 March 2019. The customs union is not a fallback position – and neither is it a solution which will allow us to avoid a hard border.

It seems, though, that there is no end to the stupidity perpetrated by the members of our legislature (or our media), with the Irish Times reporting that the House of Commons liaison committee (made up of the ten chairs of the main select committees) is to call on Theresa May's government to seek to remain in a customs union with the European Union "in order to avoid a hard border in Ireland".

This is to be the subject of a debate next Thursday where the assembled cretins will consider a motion which notes the importance of frictionless trade with the EU for British manufactures and "further notes that the free circulation of goods on the island of Ireland is a consequence of the UK and Republic of Ireland's membership of the EU customs union".

Not one of them, it seems, is capable of reading the consolidated treaties, but if any of them had the wit to do so, Article 28 would tell them that:
The Union shall comprise a customs union which shall cover all trade in goods and which shall involve the prohibition between Member States of customs duties on imports and exports and of all charges having equivalent effect, and the adoption of a common customs tariff in their relations with third countries.
On the other hand, Article 26(2) gives them the definition of the "internal market" (aka Single Market), which "shall comprise an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured in accordance with the provisions of the Treaties".

From this, it could not be clearer that the free movement of goods which depends on the absence of "internal frontiers" stems from the internal market, and not the customs union.

When we are caught up in this epidemic stupidity, though, all normal rules of politics are suspended. These people are no longer engaging their brains and while most of them on a good day would struggle to think rationally, this sad crew isn't even trying.

As the time of my writing this post, however, the legacy media was only just beginning to report what is self-evidently a disaster for the Brexit talks, as it puts us on a trajectory for a "no deal" with all that that entails. was on the case, and it is adding that EU negotiators "have made clear that they are willing to discuss terms by which Britain remains inside the bloc's customs union, or to negotiate a separate customs union like the EU's deal with Turkey, which would entail agreed-upon, common tariffs on imported goods".

Bluntly, this looks confused. A customs union on the style of Turkey clearly doesn't address the issue of a frictionless border and, unless people have suddenly taken to living in a parallel universe, there can't be anyone with a claim to sentience who believes this is a solution – or even getting close to one.

As to remaining inside the EU's customs union, this simply is not legally possible within the terms of the treaty. The European Union itself is the customs union – as per Article 28. The two are inseparable, which means you cannot be inside the customs union and outside the European Union.

Where this puts us now with the June European Council is anybody's guess, but it now looks extremely unlikely that the negotiators will have come up with a solution by then. Failure, however, would mean that the Council could not sign off on the Withdrawal Agreement text, allowing it to focus on the political declaration for the future EU-UK relationship.

From the look of it, though, the UK government has already given up on any attempt at seeking a June resolution. An official spokesman, responding to the current failure to agree, said: "We have put two sensible and practical solutions on the table and are working constructively towards getting this solved by October. We're just waiting for the Commission to engage with the same spirit of cooperation".

Strip away the extruded verbal material and one is left with the factual kernel – that the UK is going to push these talks right to the wire. This is indeed what David Davis intimated some time back, even though Stefaan De Rynck, senior advisor to Michel Barnier, has ruled out a last-minute settlement.

On the face of it, this puts us on a trajectory to a "no deal" outcome. The Commission has made it abundantly clear that it is not going to concede any points on the NI border, and will preserve the "integrity of the Single Market" at all costs. Waiting until the last minute and re-presenting the same proposals in the hope that the commission will cave in, is not a strategy that is going to work for the UK government.

The worst of it is though that, gripped by the epidemic of stupidity that is afflicting our politico-media nexus, there is no one close to the seats of power who seem to understand the peril we face, or even the seriousness of the consequences.

We are headed for an "accidental Brexit" by default, the worst of all possible outcomes, because our "establishment" has lost its ability (tenuous at best) to think rationally.

For those who think (or hope) that, eventually, someone must see sense, that is a brave expectation but not one which is born of fact. So far, getting close to two years from the referendum, MPs are showing no signs of understanding even the basics. If anything, they are regressing.

Similarly, the legacy media (and not just the Telegraph) seems completely to have lost the plot and ceased even to offer any pretence that it is adequately (or at all) scrutinising government or the legislature.

With all these bodies taking a rain-check on sanity, we can now only expect the worst. Until this psychic epidemic runs its course, it is no longer sensible to expect anything else.

Richard North 20/04/2018 link

Brexit: a psychic epidemic

Thursday 19 April 2018  

I wrote yesterday that the bulk of MPs we encounter seem to be the most ignorant people on the planet, unable even to master the basics and prey to just about every myth and falsehood on Brexit that it is possible to imagine.

To these, we must now add the Lords, many of whom seem unable to understand what a customs union is, 348 of whom have voted to call on the Government to "explore" the possibility of remaining in (or joining) one – with 225 against. And the reason why many voted for the proposition was the mistaken belief that a customs union will remove customs checks - even to the extent that this will resolve the Irish border question.

Supposedly this is one of largest votes in history of the Lords and is being styled as a "crushing defeat" for the government. It is, of course, no such thing. The anodyne wording of the amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill simply calls upon the Government to consider the prospect of staying in a union. It does not actually require any executive action. The government, therefore, can (and will) go through the motions and then, having done precisely nothing, will move on.

This makes the whole charade a crass distraction from the business of government – signalling an epidemic of cretinism in our legislature, the like of which we have rarely if ever seen. It's almost as if an evil alien power has descended on Westminster and sucked the IQs out of their Lordships, leaving them with the deductive powers of five-year-olds.

Leader in the nursery stakes in the Lord's debate was Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, imbued with the stupidity which has infected the place.

Amazingly, after all this time, the man is clueless, arguing that it is not possible to "maintain an open border with no checks and no infrastructure if the UK leaves the Customs Union". And thus, he asserts, he workable solution to the Irish border conundrum is a customs union. The man thus blathers:
Even if cross-border trade is tariff free, as I hope and believe it will be, rules of origin, phytosanitary and other checks will require a hard border. They will make that inevitable unless we have a customs union. A customs union is not in itself a sufficient condition for an open or soft border - there will still have to be a degree of regulatory alignment, particularly in the agricultural sector - but it is a necessary condition for an open border.
This is madness beyond peradventure. The simplest of reality checks calls out the errors. A customs union does not in any way eliminate border, as we see with the borders between Turkey and EU Member States.

On the other hand, the nearest thing we have to frictionless borders between member and non-member states is on the crossings between Sweden and Norway – both participants in the Single Market, but with Norway firmly outside the customs union.

Affecting the brains of these hapless people is the simplest of flaws – the naïve belief that because it is called a "customs union", such an agreement deals with border checks – and will eliminate most of them. They are unable to distinguish between this concept and the entirely separate idea of "customs cooperation", and then the further concept of the Single Market.

All a customs union does is remove tariffs and quantitative restrictions (quotas) between members, and superimpose a common external tariff so that all members levy the same tariffs on goods from outside imported into the customs area.

Just supposing you wanted to maintain tariffs between members (and quantitative restrictions), these could be managed administratively, without border checks. The processes for tariffs are quite simple.

The consigner of goods must fill in a customs declaration, which can be posted into the system electronically before the goods even start moving. On receipt of the goods (i.e., once they have arrived at their destination), the consignee must pay whatever tariff is due – either directly to the carrier or via an electronic account, which is settled periodically.

Fraud and evasion can be policed "beyond the border" and only in exceptional circumstances is there any need for checks on the border.

On the other hand, you do not need a customs union to secure tariff-free trade. As with the EEA Agreement and any number of free trade agreements, there exist arrangements were no tariffs are charged, in either direction. The only thing missing is the common external tariff, the absence of which means that rules of origin may apply (if there are significant external tariffs). But again, these can be sorted administratively, without the need for border checks.

In short, policing tariffs does not require border checks and you do not need a customs union to remove tariffs.

Crucially though, even the most comprehensive of customs unions – with absolutely no tariffs - does not remove border checks, as indeed the European Union experience adequately demonstrates.

Beyond tariffs, there is a galaxy of border controls, all devised to deal with "non-tariff barriers", which have nothing to do with a customs union. To eliminate checks, you need cooperation on customs procedures and a Single Market (the former being part of the latter).

Thus, if you want frictionless trade (i.e., the absence of border checks), forget about a customs union. It is, as we have written so often, a red herring - a complete irrelevance. If you want more detail, you can find it here.

When it comes to Brexit, only in the event of a catastrophic breakdown in relations is it anticipated that tariffs will be re-imposed on trade between the UK and the EU. And while Rules of Origin might cause minor administrative difficulties, the problems are vastly overstated – and can be eliminated completely if the UK voluntarily harmonises its external tariffs with those of the EU (which will happen anyway when we adopt the EU's tariff schedules).

Thus, the only mechanism that we need concern ourselves with, in order to ensure frictionless trade, is the Single Market. And, outside EU membership, there is only one way of securing participation – through the Efta/EEA route.

As to the workings if the EEA in respect of Efta states, the land border between Norway and Sweden is not entirely frictionless. But many of the border checks currently carried out are a matter of choice – arising from the policing of alcohol and tobacco duties, for instance.

I have pointed out many times that the EEA Agreement is infinitely flexible. The structure readily allows for country-specific sub-agreements to suit local circumstances. A modified EEA Agreement, entirely within the scope of the treaty, with enhanced cross-border cooperation, could deliver free movement of goods across the Irish border – or so close that the no one would notice the difference.

And such principles have been known for years. There is no case whatsoever for staying in the EU's Customs Union (not that we can), and none for negotiating a new agreement. This will not give us frictionless trade. Participation in a modified EEA agreement, through Efta, will give us what we need.

Yet, the ennobled cretins yesterday obsessed about a customs union, mentioning it in their facile debate 125 times – against a mere fifteen mentions of the single market. The obsession has the hallmarks of mental illness – a psychic epidemic. Their lordships are not well.

The trouble is that this psychic epidemic has spread to the Commons. Indeed, it may even have started there. And the fourth estate is thoroughly infected, trotting out the annals of stupidity without not the slightest engagement of brain cells.

Meanwhile, distant from the noise and fury of the imbeciles in Westminster, the negotiations in Brussels go on. Donald Tusk reiterated yesterday that there would be no withdrawal agreement without settlement of the Irish question, but of any developments in the talks, there has been no news.

Yet events in Brussels have far greater importance than anything the baying hounds of Westminster can deliver. Nothing they did yesterday brings us any closer to a resolution of a problem that has the potential to collapse the talks. How interesting it is, therefore, that the legacy media should concentrate on the noise and fury. And so the epidemic spreads.

Richard North 19/04/2018 link

Brexit: nobody is listening

Wednesday 18 April 2018  

There was a seminar organised by the Efta secretariat in Geneva yesterday on the European Economic Area (EEA). Opening the proceedings was Deputy Secretary-General Dag Wernø Holter (pictured) who informed his audience (repeated on Twitter) that: "The objective of the EEA agreement is to extend the internal market to the participating EFTA states".

It is good to see this sort of information getting a wider currency and it is the sort of thing that should be spread to all those involved in the Brexit debate. However, it is of some concern that this sort of thing should even need saying. Such information is readily accessible to anyone with the wits to find it – I included it in Monograph 9, published in August 2016 – and it should already be widely known.

At the same seminar, there was also Brit Helle, Director of the Goods Division of the Efta Secretariat. She tackled another basic fact – one often misrepresented: "Efta is not a fax democracy", she said. "The Efta/EEA states are not waiting for the latest legislation to be faxed from the Commission. Efta/EEA experts have the right to participate in EU expert groups. This is our most important channel for influence".

This, of course, is by no means the only channel of influence, and later in the seminar the "two pillar structure" was explained, which gives further opportunities for consultation and decision shaping.

The procedures involved are so well-known and well-established that Efta even published an explanatory document about it, way back in 2009. And that is enough to destroy the canard that Efta/EEA membership places the Efta states in a wholly subordinate position, where they are obliged to accept all (relevant) EU law automatically, and have no influence in its making.

Yet in the Guardian in December 2012, we had a piece by Roland Rudd, then chairman of the Europhile lobby group, Business for New Europe. The topic was Norway's relationship with the EU, the piece bearing the headline: "No power, no influence and we would still have to pay the bill".

The claim, and especially (but not exclusively) that part relating to "influence", was a lie - a direct, obvious and easily verifiable lie. And while Remainers to this day (rightly) complain about Vote Leave's £350 million lie on the side of the big red bus, less is said about this lie – one repeated uncritically by a newspaper which is now in the forefront of exposing the machinations of the Leave campaign.

This same newspaper was quite content to give David Cameron a platform when, in October 2015, a Downing Street spokesman said that Norway was "the 10th largest contributor to the EU budget and is bound by the rules of the single market without any say in the decision-making process".

Both these lies went unchallenged, while others – including the Independent, repeated the canard in early 2016 that Norway had "to effectively implement all EU rules, has no say in how they are made, and still contributes a significant amount of money to the EU budget".

But then, David Cameron was quite at ease with lying on his own account, which he did during his notorious Bloomberg speech in January 2013 when he stretched the lie beyond breaking point. "Norway is part of the single market - and pays for the principle - it has no say at all in setting its rules: it just has to implement its directives", he declared.

If Mr Cameron didn't know that was a lie, he could easily have found out. As prime minister, it was his responsibility to find out, and tell the truth. But these days, and especially in relation to the Brexit debate, lies have become part of the normal currency of politics, delivered routinely and repeated often, with rarely even a hint of an apology when the lie is found out.

Perversely, the lies on Efta/EEA have been repeated by both sides, but perhaps none more egregiously than by Peter Lilley who described the EAA as an organisation "devised for countries whose governments wanted to join the EU but whose people were reluctant", adding: "It is an ante-room, not a departure lounge".

Imagine then how the current situation might be different had the truth been told, primarily that the EEA was devised as a mechanism for European countries to participate in the Single Market without having to commit to the political integration involved in full membership of the EU.

How different would it have been if there have been an honest, open discussion about influence, and decision-shaping? Not only would there have been the two-pillar structure to explore, but the more informal political mechanisms and the role of global bodies and the ability to shape the rules before they even reached the EU.

Less frequently discussed has been the ability of nations such as Norway to initiate or sponsor global conventions such as the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) where it has been able, through this means, to protect a vital economic interest in the form of the Antarctic krill resource.

We saw a similar dynamic with Norway's involvement in the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, where it helped shape the regulations and the regulatory system which were subsequently adopted by the EU.

For too long, though, people have been content with the lies and, of a single group beyond the media, the most common transgressors seem to be Members of Parliament. These are people who, in terms of information resource, are fabulously wealthy.

Not only are they paid to employ their own research staff, they have access to a world-class library and research facility that any university would kill for. They have, though the medium of parliamentary questions, oral and written, access to ministers and though them the civil service, and they can write personally to any minister and expect answers.

Collectively, they have their select committees, their cross-party interest groups and, in the wider world, MPs (or their researchers) only have to pick up a phone to arrange a visit to virtually any commercial facility in the country – and many more – where endless numbers of people are only too pleased to explain how things work.

Yet, for all that, the bulk of the MPs who we encounter seem to be the most ignorant people on the planet, unable even to master the basics and prey to just about every myth and falsehood on Brexit that it is possible to imagine.

And so we have corrective seminars in a far-off city, delivered by anonymous bureaucrats from an organisation that is scarcely known outside its specialist field. There, the truth is spoken, to a gathering attended by not a single MP and probably none of their staff either.

Thus, in the wider world, the lies and misunderstandings remain unchecked and the distortions which poison the Brexit debate continue to exert their malignant influence. The truth will out, they say. But nobody is listening any more. The liars have inherited the earth.

Richard North 18/04/2018 link

Brexit: displacement activity

Tuesday 17 April 2018  

Having described the (as yet unverified) chemical attack in Douma as "utterly haunting", prime minister May went on to say yesterday that: "The fact that the atrocity can take place in the world today is a stain on humanity".

She cited intelligence showing a "wider operation to conceal the facts of the attack" was under way "supported by the Russians" and said it was morally and legally right to strike and "degrade Syria’s chemical weapons activity".

I am not going to say that the prime minister has deliberately sought out this alleged attack as a way of distracting attention from her domestic policy woes, but it is clearly the case that she is highly selective in her concerns, while her claim the UK's air strike on Syrian assets is hotly disputed.

And even to this day, with none of the inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons having yet visited the scene of the original incident, and the events being called into question, there can be no certainty that there ever was a gas attack.

The idea of staged attacks, of course, is nothing new, pace the Gleiwitz incident in 1939, when a faked attack on a German radio station was used as a pretext for war. And then, in 2006, we investigated the Qana incident, which had all the hallmarks of being staged in order to invoke western sympathy.

Nevertheless, it is unarguably the case that, coinciding with the ramping up of the temperature on Syria, media coverage on Brexit – and with it public debate – has subsided. And it would not be untoward to suggest that Mrs May might be content that this is the case, or that weak leaders often seek out foreign adventures to divert attention from domestic woes.

Whether by accident or design, though, we cannot afford this interruption in the "great debate" that has barely got started and most certainly is not yet addressing the substantive issues. Nor is there any benefit in the self-indulgent posturing of the "People's Vote" campaign, which provides yet another distraction from the reality of Brexit – as if we did not have enough already – and a thinly disguised attempt to reverse Brexit.

There is no utility whatsoever in calling for a popular vote on the Article 50 settlement. One it is finalised and agreed by the European Council and the Parliament, there is no question of re-opening the books. For the UK, it is "take it or leave it" and if we leave it we drop out of the EU without an agreement.

In any event, the subsequent trade deal and the associated side-deals will have a far greater long-term effect. Since these will comprise a fully-fledged treaty, Parliament will have every opportunity to debate the issues and vote on the outcome.

Yet, even with all that, reality is able to poke its face through the cracks occasionally, whence we find that things are not progressing very well at all.

Here, the latest glimmer comes the shape of Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney who has just put down a marker of behalf of his government on the need for progress in the Irish border question.

Speaking in Luxembourg, Coveney reminded us – although no one should need that reminder – that unless substantial progress was made by June with the British government in enshrining the Border "backstop" arrangement in law, then the efforts to agree a withdrawal treaty to govern the UK's exit from the EU "will be in jeopardy".

This is seen as a "noticeable hardening of the Irish position" and comes after last Thursday's meeting between Coveney and Germany's new foreign minister, Heiko Maas.

Referring to the prospect of a "hard" border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Mr Maas is reported to have said that Germans understood the emotional sensitivities around the border, given his country's own experience of division. "I do understand the need that we do whatever we can in order to avoid a flaring up of a historic conflict", he said.

Coveney came away from the meeting claiming that Ireland had got "unambiguous solidarity" from the largest country in the EU. "I think the Germans do understand actually the significance of borders and barriers and the emotions that get stirred up by that type of imagery", he said, then adding: "The idea that anybody could be talking about the re-emergence of physical border infrastructure on the island of Ireland is something that we simply can't allow to go unchallenged or unchecked".

Coming back to yesterday's statement, Coveney warns that without significant progress towards trying to find a wording that puts in place an operational backstop in the withdrawal treaty, "we'll have to ask some very serious questions as to whether it’s possible to do it by October".

The point here, as set out in the Guardian, is that the border question is the subject of six weeks of side talks between officials from London and Brussels. They are three weeks into the talks and a formal review due tomorrow, between Britain’s lead negotiator, Olly Robbins, and the EU’s deputy chief negotiator, Sabine Weyand. Coveney is concerned that the UK is no closer to agreeing wording that would be satisfactory to all parties.

From Luxembourg, Coveney was due in London where he had a number of meetings with British ministers scheduled. But he took time out to say that a lack of significant progress would mean "difficulties in June", at the next European Council due on 28-29 June.

If there was no agreement by then, Coveney says, it would put the transition period at risk. "It puts everything at risk", he says. Michel Barnier, he adds, has been "very clear": there will be no withdrawal agreement if there isn't a backstop relating to the Irish Border … and the political commitments in December.

Putting it the other way around, the UK Government has committed to a resolution of the Irish question. "If that isn't in the withdrawal agreement then there will be no withdrawal agreement, and if there is no withdrawal agreement there will be no transition deal either, says Coveney.

For all that, the "technological solutions" on offer have been comprehensively rejected by the Commission while the Mrs May has been unyielding on the only solution that might settle the border issue – continued participation in the EEA (aka Single Market).

That leaves us exactly where we have been since the Lancaster House speech, locked in an impasse that is going nowhere. And nor can it go anywhere unless or until Mrs May pulls back from the edge or accepts the "backstop" – something which remains, for the time being, politically untenable.

For how much longer this can continue is anyone's guess but, currently, we are on our way to a "no deal" scenario with nothing standing in its way. No amount of distraction will change that and neither are our chances improved if the media and politicians continue to ignore this pressing issue.

It should by no be apparent even to the UK Government that there are no acceptable technological fixes and, with the latest German intervention, there is going to be no weakening in the EU's resolve. Mrs May must either make the necessary concessions or risk economic catastrophe.

Here though, we need also to be looking at the failure of the opposition to focus. To say that Labour's Brexit policy has been incoherent would be overly generous. Time and again, the Party has let Mrs May off the hook and it is no closer to pinning down the prime minister on this make-or-break issue.

Sometimes, though, where there is no obvious solution to a problem, the temptation is to fall back on displacement activity and let things find their own level. Either the problems solve themselves or the build to a crisis where the circumstances more or less dictate the solution.

In this case, this is very far from being a wise option. Brexit imposes a series of technical demands and administrative challenges which cannot be settled by default. Failure to prepare in good time, devoting sufficient resources to new systems is to surrender to the forces of chaos. And that seems to be the journey on which both the government and the main opposition have embarked.

And while the events which so preoccupy both media and politicians at the moment are transitory, there can be no dispute that Brexit is forever. Failure to engage on this is set to extract the most savage of penalties.

Richard North 17/04/2018 link

Brexit: a question of options

Monday 16 April 2018  

I like grapefruit for breakfast – not the tinned variety but the whole fruit, cut in half and served in a bowl, chilled with its own crisp sugar topping. I also enjoy the evening ritual of preparing it, the special curved, serrated knife which takes delicate skill to get the cut just right.

But no more. I've had Mrs EU Referendum touring every supermarket within a five mile radius and there is not a single grapefruit to be had. We are at the epicentre of a grapefruit famine.

Under normal circumstances, you might think that this would merit a mention in the legacy media. For sure, it's not front page news, but the disappearance of a popular fruit from the shops is of some significance. But such is the incontinence of the media that seems able only to handle one subject at a time.

Mrs May's vainglorious adventure in Syria, playing with Tonkas and million-pound bombs over the Mediterranean, has consumed all available space. There is no room for mere details such as the fate of part of the nation's food supply. I can find nothing in the popular media to explain why our grapefruits have disappeared.

As it happens, though, there is an interesting – and worrying – story here. The proximate cause is the failure of the Florida harvest, recounted in detail by the Fort Lauderdale Daily. In the late 1990s, Florida was shipping ten million cartons of grapefruit a year to Japan, nine-million cartons to Europe. But this season, the amount is down to 700,000 cartons for each of those markets – the lowest level since 1918.

This catastrophic fall stems from the emergence of a disease known as "greening", caused by the bacterium Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus introduced by the Asian citrus psyllid, a sap-sucking insect the size of a grain of rice.

Like the citrus trees they feed on, psyllids are not Florida natives. They are thought to have landed in the US around the year 2000 as stowaways on plants shipped through the Port of Miami. When psyllids then fed on citrus shoots and leaves, they inadvertently infected trees with the disease, which has spread to the current epidemic levels.

This has some relevance to Brexit. Ostensibly, the invasion signifies a failure of US border controls, the very phytosanitary controls which are also part of the EU system for preventing the introduction of plant diseases into EU Member States. Whether this disease can be stopped is questionable but, so far, the disease has not become established in mainland Europe.

The principle legislative control for plants and plant products in the EU is Council Directive 2000/29/EC which we lose on Brexit, leaving us to set up a replacement. At the very least, we will have to match the Union system. Without that, there is not the slightest chance of the EU accepting plants and plant products from us, especially if they have been re-exported from third countries, without stringent border checks.

And there we confront core issues which should be dominating the Brexit debate but are scarcely being heard – exactly the same issues that we have with aviation. In essence, we have to ask what sort of regulatory system we want, what system we need, and what are we prepared to pay for it.

In the case of aviation, one can definitely see the CAA's point, one which goes to one of the justifications for the European Union. With 27 countries in the Union (after Brexit), there seems little sense in all of them, separately, carrying our all the regulatory functions associated with aviation.

There is no obvious advantage, for instance, in all these countries having their own airworthiness certification. It is far more efficient for them to group under the one (European) umbrella and subscribe to a common system, then negotiating with third countries for mutual recognition.

Now the UK is able to stand aside from this system and exercise its own "sovereignty", it can go to all the expense of duplicating the various systems. But it will find that, if we are to gain mutual recognition, all the essentials must be the same as those of every other country. Thus we end up separate, but identical regulation. We get to change the label, but the contents stay the same.

Before taking this route, we need to ask ourselves whether there is anything to be gained from so magnificent an enterprise. Yet, clearly, the CAA has already made that decision. But it has yet to work out how it will then relate to the EU if it decides to throw in its lot with EASA regulators. More to the point, the EU has yet to decide whether it wants the UK to remain on board and, if so, on what terms. In turn, we would have to decide whether those terms would be acceptable to us.

One alternative, of course, is that we could move closer to the United States, working as an adjunct to the FAA – if they would allow it. But then, that might be seen as the UK moving towards the status of the 51st State – not something that would be universally popular.

Whichever way we care to go, there is a debate to be had. We could hardly, for instance, accept a permanent, subordinate status in EASA, where we become a law-taker and never again have any consultative or voting power. That would negate the whole point of Brexit. And if our "sovereignty" is so special to us – or the EU's terms are so unacceptable that we feel impelled to go it alone – how many hundreds of millions of pounds a year are we prepared to pay for the privilege of giving our regulatory systems a UK badge?

Then multiply those costs through all of the twenty regulatory chapters covered by EU law, potentially bringing our annual bill into the billions. See how many beat police, nurses, doctors and even street sweepers the public is prepared to forego in order to afford the new phalanx of UK officials dedicated to duplicating the systems we abandoned on Brexit.

But if we decide to go down the path to deregulation, we have a different set of problems. Grapefruit provides a good illustration. We don't produce them in this country, so we might decide that we don't need to protect ourselves against invasive pests which might affect the crop.

But Spain and Cyprus are significant producers. Neither country is going to take kindly to importing any agricultural produce from a deregulated UK – including those all-important re-exports. And what concerns these two countries will concern the whole of the EU (and EEA). If our exports to them are restricted, it will affect access to the whole bloc.

So, we find ourselves in an awkward situation. If we are going to make any sense of Brexit, we have to decide how we are going to be regulated, or how we are going to regulate ourselves.

There is no point, as Mrs May is doing, trusting to relationships that don't or can't exist - such as mythical memberships of agencies which simply cannot be permitted under EU law. We have to settle working arrangements which are practical, acceptable to the European Union and other states, and affordable.

On that basis, we can decide our regulatory systems first and then define our broader relationships. In this, the overall structure has to be compatible with our regulatory system, not the other way around. If we try to define the structures first, we close down our regulatory options. They will have to be made to fit with whatever we have decided.

On the other hand, if we define our relationships first, they define our regulation. Staying with the EEA, for instance, requires that we conform with the EEA's acquis. We have no discretion – the one is dependent on the other.

And there's the rub. We need to stop playing games and start making those fundamental decisions. Initially, we have to make the choice as to whether we optimise on relationships or regulatory structures.

What we can't do – or continue to do – is mix and match incompatibles. We can't elect for relationships which require certain regulatory structures and then insist on a regulatory free-for-all. That simply can't work. Likewise, we can't set up an elaborate regulatory structure and then find that it is incompatible with the requirements of the bodies with which we seek to associate.

And this, is seems to me, is what we're failing to do. This is more than the government wanting its cake and eating it. It's a question of avoiding the inherent incompatibilities that any new relationship throws up. But it also says that we have very few options. We have to stop thinking we can make it up as we go along and work within realistic frameworks.

Whatever else, though, if all that is ensuring that there is a continued supply of grapefruit is phytosanitary regulation, when supplies come available again, then we need to think very hard about what we do next. A chap can only go without his grapefruit for so long.

Richard North 16/04/2018 link

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