Brexit: bartering in a souk

Sunday 23 September 2018  

It is axiomatic that political leaders facing intractable domestic problems tend to look for foreign adventures to divert attention from their difficulties. The corollary is that when leader crash and burn on foreign fields, they face renewed opposition from their home base, whence long-neglected difficulties return to haunt them.

Thus, as long as Mrs May had us all focused on the Brexit talks and there was a prospect of movement in Brussels, she managed to keep leadership challenges and other distractions at bay. But now that Salzburg has so spectacularly backfired on her, the home front has erupted.

Much as she would like to have herself cast as a titanic figure, bulldog at her side, fending off the Brussels bullies – the initial response of the likes the Express - political realities are reasserting themselves.

The Sunday Times, for instance (along with the Mail), is talking general elections, with Theresa May's aides secretly planning for a snap election in November to save the Brexit talks and her job. The Sun, on the other hand, is carrying a denial with its headline declaring: "Not another election: Theresa May denies claims she's planning another snap election".

The Telegraph has a "Tory donor" threatening to fund a breakaway party. The Observer has the Labour Party's Tom Watson tell Corbyn that the party must support another referendum and the Independent reports a Labour plan to trigger an early election "within days" if Theresa May’s Brexit deal is defeated in parliament.

What I don't see on any of the main pages though is any attempt at a post mortem at to why Mrs May failed to convince the "colleagues" that the Chequers plan was the one and only true plan or, more importantly, why it was that the prime minister had convinced that her plan stood the slightest chance of succeeding.

We all know the genesis of the plan, as attempt to carve out a compromise position that would unite her fractious cabinet and then her party behind a single position. But it is a very long way from producing some that will keep the Tories happy and then believing that this is something the Brussels will buy.

A clue of the mindset came last Tuesday when Dominic Raab was headlined saying that it was "the EU's turn to compromise on Brexit", with Mrs May apparently making a similar pitch at the Salzburg European Council, while also being prepared to compromise further.

Perversely, shortly after Mrs May had made her address to the Council, the Independent's Jon Stone was writing that a deal was in the air. The combination of concessions – with Britain accepting regulatory checks at ports and the EU moving some customs checks in-land –appeared to clear the path for a potential solution.

The fact is that this was another paper that didn't see the rejection coming. But the key issue is the way Mrs May has been treating the negotiations. Right from the start, alongside David Davis, she has been behaving as if she was trying to buy a Turkish carpet from a Middle East souk, adopting the classic bartering style which has both sides starting from extreme positions and gradually narrowing their differences in a series of compromises until they reach a deal.

Such a stratagem was never going to work, but equally implausible was her bid to sell her "Chequers plan" to the general public. This is the theme of the EU piece in Booker's column today, written before we knew the outcome of Salzburg.

Booker notes that Theresa May had posted on Facebook a short film in which she explains why it is there is only way to get "a good deal" for the UK on Brexit.

To make the case, she starts by saying that the EU has only "put two options on the table". One is the Canada-type trade deal which is unacceptable because it would mean breaking up the United Kingdom and staying in "the Customs Union".

The other is a "relationship built on the one Norway has with the EU". It would mean accepting "free movement of people", we would "still have vast membership bills”" and we would again still be members of "the Customs Union which would mean we couldn't strike our own trade deals".

Says Booker, none of this is true. Although Norway is completely outside the EU (and three-quarters of its laws), and as part of the wider EEA has full access to the markets of the Member States, it is not in the Customs Union, to which only EU members can belong.

Furthermore, Norway makes no contributions to the Brussels budget and, as a member of Efta, it is party to a long list of trade deals with the outside world. And parties to the EEA agreement (Article 112) can impose selective controls on migration from the EU.

But what is so utterly bizarre is what Mrs May asserts when it comes to selling "Chequers". Then she claims as its advantages the right to make trade deals with the rest of the world; the right to control EU immigration; and the fact that we could be outside the EU's Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy. Yet, all of these rights equally apply to Norway.

Even more relevant is that her cockamamie Chequers plan, attempting to split "goods" from "services", has already been rejected as unworkable by virtually everyone else, from the EU itself to the "ultra-Brexiteers" in her own party.

Thus concludes Booker, there is no way, as Mrs May claims, that it could guarantee "frictionless" trade, or solve the Irish border problem. So why, he asks, "in seeking to discredit the only workable alternative on offer from the EU, does she have to say so many things that are simply not true?"

On this, Booker and I have many discussions as to whether Mrs May is telling the lie direct, or is simply deluding herself. I take the more rigorous view, but concede that it is possible that she is so far from understanding the nature of the EU that she can have convinced herself that she is doing the right things.

Here, we are possibly paying the price for the political classes having isolated themselves from the reality of the EU and its predecessors for the last 40 years, refusing to engage in discussion of its nature an ambitions.

Thus, we may well be dealing with a structural ignorance where the entire band of Tory politicians really have no idea about how to deal with the EU, what it can do and, more importantly, what it can't.

Endlessly, now, we are heading calls for the EU to be "flexible" yet anyone with even a passing knowledge of how the EU works will understand that it is not capable of flexibility in matters dictated by treaty law. That, after all, is one of the reasons why so many of us wanted to leave the EU.

But if Mrs May really believes that the EU can barter in the manner of the archetypal shopkeeper in the souk, it is no surprise that she expects her "compromise" to be met with a matching move by the "colleagues". In her mind, the very fact that it is Chequers is compromise is sufficient for the EU to accept it.

And that is what really went down at Salzburg. Mrs May touted her "compromise" in anticipation of a reciprocal move. Instead, the EU leaders stuck to principles – as anyone who knew the EU would have expected. This is what they do. It is written into their DNA. And, on that basis, Chequers was always doomed to failure, as indeed Mrs May was always doomed to believe it could be a success.

Richard North 23/09/2018 link

Brexit: a lot to answer for

Saturday 22 September 2018  

With virtually every national newspaper yesterday referring to Mrs May's "humiliation" in Salzburg, it is perhaps significant that the BBC's political editor chose to describe her experience at the hands of the EU leaders as an "embarrassment".

If anything, it illustrates the flexibility of political language, where words are not only used in a descriptive sense but also to define the stance of their authors. But what the use of the word "embarrassment" doesn't do is convey with any accuracy the nature of what transpired at the informal European Council.

Had it done so, one might have thought that Mrs May's self-indulgent statement would have been necessary. After all, the woman routinely embarrasses herself – as with her dancing displays in Africa – and we didn't have the BBC called in to hear statements each time she does so.

On balance, therefore, I think we need to stick with "humiliation", but I would stop short at suggesting that this was something visited on her by the "EU leaders". This is something she inflicted on herself by going to Salzburg and insisting against all logic that her Chequers plan was "the only serious and credible proposal on the table".

The only thing remarkable about the action of the EU-27 was the timing. That they would publicly reject the Chequers plan at the Salzburg European Council simply wasn't expected. But one should recall that it has only been in deference to Mrs May's political difficulties that they didn't reject it out of hand in July. The only real criticism one can have is that they took so long to do the inevitable.

That said, if the EU – or, more specifically, Michel Barnier – is to be criticised, it is in blurring the issues between the Single Market and the Customs Union and his insistence that the only way frictionless trade can be secured is through a combination of the internal market and the customs union.

We saw that, by way of an example, in November 2017 when Mr Barnier pointed out that the arrangement for Norway "still entails a system of procedures and customs controls, among other things in order to check the preferential rules of origin".

Technically, of course, he is right about Norway's rules of origin within the framework of the EEA Agreement – as set out in Protocol 4 to the Agreement.

But implementation of that Protocol does not require border checks. The system is based on a system of certificates proving origin and verification checks are undertaken by the customs authorities of the exporting countries, usually by auditing the certificate holders' processes at their places of business.

Bearing in mind that the EEA Agreement is an adaptive framework, and includes provision for the elimination of customs duties on imports and exports, and any charges having equivalent effect (Article 10), there is actually no need for Efta/EEA states to sign up to a customs agreement. There is nothing to be gained from it, in terms of improving the cross-border flow of goods and, as a result, none of the Efta states are members of a customs union with the EU.

This should be known to Mrs May and her negotiating team. The EEA Agreement, with specific adaptations to suit the specific needs of the UK, is a means by which we can get as close to frictionless trade with the EU as makes no difference. Such elements which might be "sticky" can be dealt with administratively – or be subject to separate agreements – and need not cause significant barriers to trade.

For Mrs May, therefore, to assert that the first (of two) options offered to the UK by the EU "would involve the UK staying in the European Economic Area and a customs union with the EU" is, by even the kindest measure, disingenuous. The less generous amongst us might consider it downright dishonest.

But where there can be no argument about her dishonesty is in her follow-up. "In plain English", Mrs May said, "this would mean we'd still have to abide by all the EU rules, uncontrolled immigration from the EU would continue and we couldn't do the trade deals we want with other countries".

Taking the first claim, it has long been established that continued EEA membership would involve accepting roughly 27 percent of the EU's acquis, most of which comprising technical rules instigated by global bodies that we would have to implement anyway – inside or outside the EU.

As to "uncontrolled immigration", even within the EU, that description does not apply. Within the framework of EU law, there are controls built-in – many of which the UK did not properly (or at all) implement. But, within the EEA, there are the Article 112 Safeguard Measures, which can be invoked unilaterally, affording some relief to freedom of movement measures.

Then there is also the option of following in the wake of Liechtenstein (and Switzerland, had it remained in the EEA) of brokering a country-specific amendment to the Agreement, allowing freedom of movement provisions to be tailored to the specific need of the UK, allowing a return of some of the control we are said to lack.

As to doing trade deals with other countries, even within a customs union there is no general restriction. Within the EU, that comes with the Common Commercial Policy. But the issue is far more complex than Mrs May would allow.

If we are going to enjoy continued access to the EU's trade deals, then there are going to be some limits on our ability to take independent action. And once we start making separate deals – as Efta/EEA states are free to do – that might have implications for our "frictionless" access to the EU – see "rules of origin", passim.

And, just to call Mrs May a liar, yesterday the three Efta/EEA states signed a Mutual Recognition Agreement (on conformity assessment) with Australia. Far from prohibiting such deals, MRAs are built-in to the EEA Agreement (Protocol 12).

Nothing in the Efta/EEA option, therefore, justifies Mrs May's claims or her rejection of the option. Her arguments are spurious, not supported by the facts on the ground. Furthermore, applied to the Northern Ireland border, as part of the overall Brexit package, that would obviate the need for a hard border.

As for the second option mentioned by Mrs May - a basic free trade agreement for Great Britain – she asserts that this would introduce checks at the Great Britain/EU border. And with this, I would not disagree.

But, in rejecting the first option (which she did in her Lancaster House speech), Mrs May has shut down the only workable option available in the short- to medium-term. This has forced her to engineer what she calls "a third option for our future economic relationship" – the so-called Chequers plan.

This, she says, is based on the frictionless trade in goods and it will "avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, while respecting the referendum result and the integrity of the United Kingdom".

In reality, it will do none of these things. More specifically, it demands that the EU should allow the UK to cherry-pick from the Single Market and, while the UK will not be part of the Single Market regulatory ecosystem, it is demanding all the access privileges that go with full membership.

Bizarrely, though, Mrs May complains that, "at this late stage in the negotiations, it is not acceptable to simply reject the other side’s proposals without a detailed explanation and counter proposals".

Yet, as Mrs Merkel said in Salzburg: "No-one can belong to the single market if they are not part of the single market", while Mr Barnier has explained many times the role of the regulatory ecosystem in the functioning of the Single Market.

Not in any conceivable way can the Chequers plan measure up to the requirements for securing "frictionless" access to the markets of the EU Member States, and if Mrs May doesn't already realise this, it was up to her senior ministers and her official team to tell her. That they have failed to impress on her the inadequacies of her plan suggests that they have a lot to answer for.

Then to demand counter-proposals from the EU is utterly absurd. It is not for the EU to decide for the UK what relationship we should secure. This is for our own government to decide, in consultation with the Parliament and the people.

What the EU should be doing is setting the parameters within which any arrangement must fit, for it to be acceptable. But that is precisely what it has already done. All Mrs May needed to do was listen to M. Barnier and any one of his innumerable speeches.

Thus, if Mrs May, "victim" of what is now being styled as an "ambush", had no idea that it was coming, that simply represents another of her failures. In Salzburg, she was at the back of the line but back in London, she is making a complete fool of herself. "We need serious engagement", she says. One of these days, she needs to try it.

Richard North 22/09/2018 link

Brexit: no more cake for Mrs May

Friday 21 September 2018  

On 7 July, in the wake of the now infamous Chequers meeting, I wrote of what has now become known as the "Chequers plan" that: "the precise reasons for the EU's rejection, when it comes, will not be at all difficult to work out".

It was always going to be the case that the EU would reject the plan but, at that point, I reasoned that it would be given the deep six by the European Council at the October meeting. What no-one reckoned on was it being thrown out at the informal European Council at Salzburg.

In fact, the balance of opinion was that the "colleagues" would give Mrs May a few soft plaudits to help her through the Tory conference, on the basis that weakening her at this stage might open the way to a leadership election and the prospect of Johnson moving into No.10.

This, the BBC's Katya Adler admits was on the basis of multiple briefings in advance of the European Council meeting, in "off-the-record conversations" with those ubiquitous, anonymous "European diplomats".

This had crystallised as the accepted narrative as early as 4 September, when we had the Guardian has the EU27 "planning a 'carrot and stick' approach to Brexit, offering Theresa May warm words on the Chequers proposals to take to the Conservative conference alongside a sharp warning that they need a plan for Northern Ireland within weeks".

That narrative was still current more than a week later when the Economist on 13 September informed us mere mortals that, "Next week Mrs May will lobby her fellow EU leaders at an informal summit in Salzburg. They will listen politely and are likely to avoid declaring Chequers dead".

But, for some pundits, this intelligence wasn't good enough to demonstrate their insider credentials. They had to go further. Pre-empting the Economist, we had Bruno Waterfield in The Times, on 6 September, followed by Alex Barker and George Parker, in the Financial Times on the 10th, with their own line.

Joined by the Parliament Magazine, they were predicting that the European Council was ready to give Michel Barnier a new mandate "to close Brexit deal", in what was described by the FT pair as "a conciliatory move" that would "bolster Theresa May as she suffers savage attacks from Brexiters at home".

Interestingly, the pundit's pundit, Tony Connelly – RTÉ's Europe editor – was having none of it, arguing on 15 September that such reports were "false". To him, "all the signals" were "that the most Theresa May can expect is some positive words, and at the very least, a hope that the EU-27 won't say anything that kills off her Chequers plan altogether".

Two days later, Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC's star reporter, on 17 September was also reporting that "we may see friendlier rhetoric this week at an EU leaders' shindig in Salzburg". That same day, ITV News correspondent Angus Walker was confidently asserting that: "There is feeling around Westminster and Brussels that a Brexit deal could be within touching distance".

Such was the mood that the Irish Times was retailing news that the pound had risen in value, "buoyed by reports of progress on the Border question, an obstacle to Brexit that diplomats will seek to overcome at a an European Union summit later this week".

A day later, in an analytical piece, Peter Foster, writing for the Telegraph, advanced the proposition that a resolution must be found "between Salzburg and November's 'emergency", merely conceding that: "No one should expect this to be easy".

For the Spectator on 19 September, that other star of stage and screen, Robert Peston, was prepared to guess the leaders at Salzburg "will conclude that ripping the heart out of the PM’s Chequers plan is simply too bad manners at this juncture – since they'll fear the PM would never survive".

Wunderkind James Forsyth, in the print edition of the magazine did not even get that far, focusing his predictive powers on the latest "bubble" obsession, the so-called "blind Brexit".

What is very clear, therefore, is that no one was expecting what has actually happened. Even on 20 September, with the European Council under way, the all-knowing Politico didn't see the storm coming.

Keeping in with the prevailing narrative, it wrote that, "despite continuing disagreements, particularly over Ireland, the contours of a deal on a withdrawal treaty seem to be in sight. More important, at the moment, seems to be to keep everything on an even keel until U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May gets through her Conservative Party conference, which begins later this month".

Summing up the actual events, we have the Guardian headlining: "May humiliated by Salzburg ambush as she fights to save Chequers plan", with the sub-heading, "PM on the defensive after EU leaders take turns to rubbish her plan – just a week before the Conservative conference".

After having gallantly offered cake but "no cherries" to Mrs May, Donald Tusk had cut off future supplies. In his post-meeting review, he broke the news that "Everybody shared the view" of the Chequers proposal that, "the suggested framework for economic cooperation will not work. Not least because it risks undermining the Single Market". The game was over.

French president Emmanuel Macron then plunged the dagger in, announcing that the plan was "not acceptable", then accusing: "Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be alright, and that it's going to bring a lot of money home" of being "liars".

Angela Merkel also pitched in, confirming that the EU was "united that, in the matter of the single market". There can be "no compromises", she said, adding: "No-one can belong to the single market if they are not part of the single market".

A "clearly nervous and angry" Mrs May was left to hold her own press conference, described in a devastating review by John Crace. Under his headline of "Theresa May in denial after her Salzburg ordeal", he had the prime minister pretending that nothing had changed.

Still arguing that: "Our white paper remains the only serious and credible proposal on the table for achieving that objective", she told reporters that EU leaders were engaged in "negotiating tactics " designed to throw her off course. "I have always said these negotiations were going to be tough", she added. "And at various stages of these negotiations, tactics would be used as part of those negotiations".

Needless to say, commentators have been quick off the mark to explain that the events of Salzburg were all so predictable, George Eaton of the New Statesman claiming that Chequers was always doomed and that, "The rejection of Theresa May's plan was inevitable".

Peter Foster ventures that, "in the absence of an 'easy solution', it seems as if Brexit enters a new world of hard choices in the run-up to the Oct 18 meeting of the European Council".

But, of course, there never was an "easy solution" and there is no new world. There were only the delusions of Mrs May and her advisors, who believed against all the odds that Chequers provided a solution. But, from the very start, it was obvious that it provided no answers, and now the delusions have come crashing down. And if the media didn't see it coming, neither did Mrs May.

Cynically, however, Katya Adler suspects that a theatrical play may be in progress. "If Theresa May can survive this next political storm at home", she writes, "it rather suits both the EU and the UK in the long term to have the public perception of Brexit negotiations now as fraught. So that if a Brexit deal does finally emerge later this autumn, the perception will be that it was hard fought and hard won".

That, though, would rather pre-suppose that there is an alternative plan that the two sides could agree on. But, as Pete avers (yet again), the only practical way out is the Efta/EEA option. And that has been so comprehensively ruled out by Mrs May that its resurrection is not a viable political proposition.

From the very beginning, to this current mess, we've had the politicians and the media faffing around, obsession over cod solutions, the latest one of which has crashed and burned. Now, collectively, they will need a new narrative to sustain them.

Of the next developments though, Tusk has made it clear that there will be an "emergency summit" in November, only if the European Council in October determines that there is a realistic chance of concluding as deal. With the "bloody difficult woman" in denial, there is little room for optimism.

The sins and failures of the past are now coming back to haunt us. The days of cake are over, and we'll soon be back to stale bread and water.

Richard North 21/09/2018 link

Brexit: of boosts and blows

Thursday 20 September 2018  

In the wake of Barnier's press conference yesterday, when the EU's chief negotiator announced that the EU was ready to improve the "backstop" proposal, Sky News was chirping about the "boost" for Mrs May. Not 24 hours later, though, after Donald Tusk had warned that the UK proposals on the Irish question "will need to be reworked and further negotiated", the Guardian was writing about the "blow" to the British prime minister. 

That is a good measure of the roller-coaster ride we're getting from the media on Brexit. The narrative lurches from one extreme to the other as we progress (or not) through the negotiations, to the extent that the typical reaction is one of bewilderment, with people finding it increasingly difficult to work out what is going on.

Such responses are entirely understandable. No sooner had Barnier lodged his "washes whiter" proposal, up bobbed Mrs May to reject it as "unacceptable", refusing to accept any option that involves customs checks on goods moving from the mainland UK to Northern Ireland.

The reality, however, is that these wild fluctuations in the apparent fortunes of the negotiations are an artefact. As recorded by Reuters, the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is pointing out that there has been no progress in six months on the Irish question. And if there is no progress here, there is no progress at all.

If the Brexit talks were a patient on life support, therefore, it would be flatlining – showing no signs of life at all - with the relatives earnestly debating whether to pull the plug. Only the intense concern for the consequences is staying their hand.

Had the issues been set out clearly in the first place, we could perhaps have been spared the drama. We've spelled them out often enough and, when you do, it becomes obvious that progress is unlikely. The two sides have irreconcilable differences, stemming from Mrs May's Lancaster House speech and her determination that the UK should leave the Single Market.

The only real beneficiaries of the ignorance and confusion, therefore, are the media. As long as no one really knows what's going on, the hacks can spin to their hearts' content, filling space and the airwaves, giving the impression of an evolving story.

In fact, the more profound the ignorance, the greater the opportunities for strident copywriting, evidenced by the recent effort from Spiked. Writer and born-again "expert" on the EU, Ella Whelan, graphically misunderstands the nature of Barnier's improved "backstop" proposal, believing – as did many other hacks – that it applied to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

This gave her 600 words of utter tosh to write on why the EU had been "lying about Ireland", demonstrating how the education system is producing English literature graduates who lack basic English language comprehension skills.

"Brussels bureaucrats are changing their tune", she asserts, relying on "newspaper reports" which supposedly tell us the EU is "secretly preparing to accept a frictionless Irish border after Brexit". So, Whelan smugly declares, "perhaps the Irish border wasn't such a big problem after all", adding: "The Times reports that, 'EU negotiators want to use technological solutions to minimise customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic'".

But it is the collective ignorance, rather than the efforts of any particular individual, that has brought us to the pass where Mrs May was still able to tell the press on her way into the meeting that her Chequers plan was the only option that would deliver frictionless trade and resolve the Irish question.

One might recall at this stage that this is the "summit" at which some commentators predicted there would be a deal agreed, giving Mrs May a magnificent victory, right up to press where Philip Johnston, writing for the Telegraph, tells us that "the single-minded Theresa May can almost smell victory".

"What we are now seeing", he writes, "is a carefully choreographed exercise designed to let her claim some sort of domestic triumph without compromising the EU's cherished fundamental principles". Johnston goes on: "We can expect to hear more of this at Salzburg as European leaders seek to protect the integrity of the EU while seeking to maintain good future ties with the United Kingdom".

This, of course, was never to be. Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, holder of the rotating EU Council presidency, set the scene, warning that Mrs May would need to compromise, declaring: "We stand ready to compromise but we also expect that from the UK and so I hope that in her speech today we will hear a step forward".

For that speech, all Mrs May was allowed was ten minutes after the dinner in the Felsenreitschule, a theatre familiar from the closing scenes in The Sound of Music (pictured). Somewhat less entertaining than the von Trapps, her initial pitch had been uncompromising. "If we are going to achieve a successful conclusion then, just as the UK has evolved its position, the EU will need to evolve its position too", she had said on her way in. 

After the actual dinner, she told her fellow leaders that: "The idea that I should assent to the legal separation of the United Kingdom into two customs territories is not credible", thus confirming her rejection of Barnier's initiative. Then we have the Guardian reporting that she "tried to threaten EU leaders", telling them the UK would not seek to delay Brexit – thereby hinting at a "no deal" outcome.

Prompting a remark from Jean-Claude Juncker that a deal remained "far away", this is hardly the sound of victory. And nor is the prime minister holding the domestic front. Being as unhelpful as possible, her former Brexit secretary, David Davis, has lifted bits from a speech he is due to give in Munich to keep the hacks entertained.

Dismissing her Chequers plan as "unpopular" and failing to represent what people voted for at the time of the referendum in 2016, Davis beat a familiar drum, declaring that the prime minister had previously promised to "return control over our law, our money and our borders".

But the Chequers plan, he said, crossed on all of those red lines. "The EU is often correctly described as having a democratic deficit", he added: "But Chequers is devoid of democracy altogether".

Unsurprisingly, when Donald Tusk spoke of there being "perhaps more hope", he was addressing the media before the meeting had begun. He hardly needed to observe that "there is surely less and less time", but he confirmed that he will be asking today at the meeting of the EU-27 for an additional European Council meeting in mid-November.

If that is agreed – and there are no indications that it won't be – this will probably be the only constructive thing on Brexit to emerge from Salzburg. The meeting will be held four days after the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. But, with the two sides as far apart as ever they were on the crucial Irish question, it is difficult to see how two more months will make any difference.

Perhaps, after all, something will be resolved from talks on the margins at Salzburg, between Mrs May and EU leaders. Inevitably, the hacks will attempt to keep the narrative going, with talks of rifts and separate deals. Failing that, there will be plenty of friction to report during the Tory conference, which is the next big event on the agenda. Since reassuring her Tory tribe will be her first priority, not a few are suggesting that we're not going to get any sense from Mrs May until after conference.

That leaves the October European Council from which to glean clues as to whether there is a mood change, and whether serious attempts will be made in November to conclude a deal. There will, of course, be much theatre and an amount of ritual posturing, but if there is victory to be had for either or both sides – the October meeting will be the one to watch.

Richard North 20/09/2018 link

Brexit: the moment of truth

Wednesday 19 September 2018  

Can it really be the case that our prime minister believes that Efta/EEA States are part of the customs union? Yet that's what she tells us in a promotional film for her Chequers plan, asserting that a relationship built on the one Norway has with the EU "would also involve membership of the customs union which means we couldn't strike our own trade deals".

If the woman isn't telling a deliberate, unconscionable lie, then she is more ignorant than we could possibly have imagined. Bluntly, I don't know which is worse. Possibly, it is the latter. We expect politicians – even prime ministers – to be economical with the réalité, but to have one who doesn't know even the basics of something like the Norway Option is quite shocking.

But, if Mrs May really is that ignorant, she is in good company. Her cabinet secretary Dominic Raab seems to display that same lack of grip of the essentials in arguing that it was the EU's turn to move on its red lines. Interviewed by a group of continental newspapers, he told them, "We have shown a lot of flexibility and we have been very pragmatic", adding: "So I think this is the moment to see that matched… The ball is a little bit in the other court now".

This is another of those wondrous moments, where it is difficult to believe that a man in his position could be so far adrift from his brief. But if he needs to get back on track, all he needs to do is read the latest report from the select committee on exiting the European Union.

"The European Commission", it says, "has now indicated that the Chequers proposals for a Facilitated Customs Arrangement and a common rulebook are not viable and if this remains the position then the Government will need to adapt its approach to the future EU-UK economic relationship".

For this, therefore, we don't need any secret squirrel briefings from anonymous "EU diplomats", or messages in a bottle floated up the Thames. And, if anything, the select committee is late to the party, articulating what we have known for an awful long time.

But if you did want any confirmation, the Evening Standard is the place to be, with Ann Linde, Sweden's acting Europe minister. Speaking to the paper, she adopts an emollient tone, telling us that the EU leaders "could see Chequers positively", but there are some "problematic big areas". She is not prepared to be so undiplomatic as to say it is a "non-starter" but observes that "some of the things give rise to difficulties because it goes against EU principles". In other words, it's a non-starter.

As to any likelihood of "flexibility" – the crucial issue remains the Irish border. And, in setting out the programme for Salzburg, Donald Tusk is being less than supportive of British fantasies.

As regards Brexit, the EU leaders are seeking to reach "a common view on the nature and overall shape of the joint political declaration about our future partnership with the UK". They will then discuss how to organise the final phase of the Brexit talks, "including the possibility of calling another European Council in November".

Finally, they will be asked to "reconfirm the need for a legally operational backstop on Ireland, so as to be sure that there will be no hard border in the future". Limiting the damage caused by Brexit is our shared interest, Tusk says, but, "unfortunately, a no deal scenario is still quite possible".

Interestingly, the European Council president goes on to talk of acting "responsibly" in order to "avoid a catastrophe", but he needs to direct that sentiment directly to Mrs May. Whether deliberately, with malice aforethought, or through a profound ignorance that she has no business allowing, hers is not responsible behaviour. Not under any circumstances can it lead to a happy outcome.

At least, though, if the EU leaders agree to the extension of the deadline, they have given the UK another month to settle an agreement. But, if Mrs May and her ministers are effectively in denial, no amount of extra time will be to any avail.

The point, of course, is that the EU cannot deliver the flexibility that Mr Raab wants, and there was never any likelihood that it could. Thus, if at this late stage, it is still being expected by the UK team, led by a prime minister spouting error-strewn propaganda about the Chequers plan, we must consider the possibility that we are dealing with people so ignorant that they haven't the competence to see the Brexit talks to a successful conclusion.

Mrs May certainly shares Raab's fantasy. According to Reuters, she has been writing in Die Welt, arguing that both sides needed to show goodwill to avoid a disorderly UK exit from the EU.

"We are near to achieving the orderly withdrawal that is the essential basis for building a close future partnership", she wrote, adding: "To come to a successful conclusion, just as the UK has evolved its position, the EU will need to do the same. Neither side can demand the unacceptable of the other, such as an external customs border between different parts of the United Kingdom".

Taking a break from her literary endeavours, the prime minister will be at Salzburg today and she will get a chance to address the EU-27 over dinner. What she will say to them won't be recorded, and there will be no journalists present. The media will have to rely on statements from No.10 and leaks from the meeting where, one presumes, Ireland will be discussed.

But, if Mrs May thinks she is going to drive a wedge between the Commission and the Member States, we already have one of those helpful senior EU officials to deflate expectations. EU leaders will show their "strong support for Michel Barnier and strong support for the position of Ireland", he says.

Mrs May won't be there to hear this. She gets to speak today, but there is no discussion on Brexit until tomorrow, by which time she will have left. And the substance of those talks won't be recorded either. There may not even be much by way of an official communiqué.

Meanwhile, Michel Barnier has been preparing the ground with a press statement following yesterday's General Affairs Council in Brussels. Emphasising the need to "move decisively forward" on the Irish question, he reminded us that the formal proposal for the backstop had been on the table since February.

Using slightly different words from Tusk in his written statement, we see him talk of the need for a functional rather than legally operational backstop, although when delivered, Barnier was fully on-message using exactly the same words.

Once again we heard of the need to "de-dramatise the checks that "are required and that are caused by the UK's decision to leave the EU, its Single Market and Customs Union", while in what has been hailed as a "boost" for Mrs May, Barnier stated that: "We are ready to improve this proposal".

"Work on the EU side is ongoing", the chief negotiator said, "We are clarifying which goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would need to be checked and where, when and by whom these checks could be performed. We can also clarify that most checks can take place away from the border, at company premises or in the markets" – adding words in his oral delivery.

Sky News seems to have an even fuller account, with quotes that are not on the Commission recording. These have Barnier saying: "What we are talking about here is not a border - not a land border, not a sea border. It is a set of technical checks and controls".

That leaves, says Barnier, the October European Council, which he says, "will be the moment of truth". He adds: "This is the moment when we will see if an agreement is within our reach, as I hope and as we are working on it".

This clarification on the border issue is helpful, not least because it is clear that Barnier is referring to checks carried out between the mainland and Northern Ireland – something which Sky News doesn't seem to understand, and where the Independent seems confused. This is not the ERG solution.

The original BBC rendition was similarly flawed, the website wrongly claiming: "The EU's negotiator said he wanted most new physical checks to be carried out away from the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a key demand of Conservative MPs". It has now been corrected.

Necessarily, the Commission's proposal still pre-supposes that there will be regulatory and customs harmonisation between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The only thing that changes is that the putative "wet border" between Northern Ireland and the mainland becomes a fuzzy transition where checks are not tied to a particular location. But checks there will be, to ensure the UK does not sidestep EU controls on British goods. Once again, the Guardian gets close.

Whether this is the fudge, or part of it, that will get Mrs May off the hook remains to be seen. But there may be some greater significance to her Die Welt piece, where she specifically highlights the "external customs border between different parts of the United Kingdom". The "fuzzy border" could be presented as the concession that lubricates a deal.

At the very least, this may add some dynamism to talks on the margins at Salzburg, from which more could emerge at the Tory conference when the prime minister gives her speech. Then, we could even see the fat lady preparing to think about whether she should consider singing – or not.

Richard North 19/09/2018 link

Brexit: a sense of irritation

Tuesday 18 September 2018  

Why is Mrs May trying to sell us her "Chequers plan", arguing that if parliament doesn't support it, "the alternative to that will be having no deal"?

Even Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC understands that the plan, in its current form, has not the slightest chance of being accepted in Brussels. And since, if the MPs do get to decide, they will voting on the agreed plan, it follows that she's wasting her time (and everybody else's) by calling for the support of something that won't ever be put to the vote.

On the other hand, if she persists in pushing it, unchanged, in Brussels – and goes right to the wire - the automatic outcome will be a "no deal" Brexit. Again, it will never be put to a vote.

In order to get it past the EU, there is only one credible scenario – that Mrs May heavily modifies her Chequers plan, bringing it closer to what Mr Barnier can recommend to the European Council. But with that treatment, what would emerge would be so different that it would have no chance whatsoever of getting approval from her "ultras" – not that there is really any chance with the plan as it stands.

Thus, Mrs May is at an impasse. What she's got pleases no one. If she modifies it to keep the "ultras" happy, Brussels won't accept it. If she changes it to accommodate Brussels, her "ultras" will throw it out.

That leaves the possibility of a fudge – a non-agreement so vague that all it does is kick the cannery down the road, leaving the hard issues to be battled out during the transition period against the cliff-edge deadline of the end of December 2020.

But since that's a ploy so transparent that every pundit under the sun has now worked it out – long after Sir Ivan Rogers sniffed the wind and pointed in that direction – it might have a hard time getting through parliament. It could even be something that unites the Tory party, in total opposition to it.

That, though, is the reality. It's not going to be "my way" or "no deal", as Mrs May proclaimed to Nick Robinson on Panorama last night. It's going to be fudge or no deal, with a strong bias towards "no deal" unless parliament finally wakes up to the peril of leaving the EU without an agreement, and votes for the option which defers self-immolation.

The thing is that this is a static position – and has been for some while, even if the pundits have only just realised. It hasn't changed for months and it isn't going to change. The only thing we can look forward to is seeing the precise wording of the fudge, whence we can marvel at the creativity deployed in the service of constructive ambiguity.

In the meantime, the rest is theatre, with the legacy media assuming we are all so stupid that we can't work it out for ourselves what is happening and have to be guided by their "brilliant" analyses.

Thus, they think we're going to be content with a diet of quotes from anonymous sources, and "leaks" from unpublished documents which only they have seen – when they pontificate from a world in which the internet doesn't exist so that they can write contradictory stories in different newspapers and they think we won't notice.

That's been the case with the Salzburg "summit", where we've been regaled with "breakthrough" stories, only to be treated to rebuttals, then to have the Telegraph loftily declare that Mrs May is to attend "a two-day EU summit that starts on Wednesday in Salzburg, Austria, where she hopes to make a breakthrough in the Brexit negotiations by selling her Chequers plan directly to fellow leaders".

It's bad enough the politicians treating us as if we were congenital morons, but when the media address us as if we were gullible children, it's time to call it a day.

Sadly, though, this stance undoubtedly pleases some, those who prefer to leave the intellectual challenges to half-wits, rather than expend any cerebral energy themselves, but for those of us who have learned to think for ourselves, the media coverage of Brexit is nothing short of insulting.

Just yesterday, we noted Michael Gove's assertion that any relationship settled between the UK and the EU could always be altered in the future. That, I ventured, was an idea that might mystify EU negotiators. In their reality, an agreement reached will be locked in by way of a formal treaty, unchangeable without the agreement of both parties.

So blindingly obvious is this that only a Tory politician could be ignorant enough to believe otherwise – a speciality successive Conservative MPs have honed and developed over the generations.

This, however, does not account for the self-regarding pomposity of The Times which, in all seriousness, intones that it "has learnt that" Brussels is "preparing to demand that Theresa May makes 'credible' assurances that any deal will not be unpicked by her successor".

This is as if the whole corpus of international treaty law didn't exist, and the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties – embodying as it does, customary law – simply had no effect. We are supposed to be entertained by the mouthings of a flatulent minister, and a follow-up that would hardly challenge the intellect of a five-year-old.

There is perhaps nothing quite so absurd as the media's solemn insistence on telling us what they have "learnt", matched only in fatuity by their constant use of the phrase "we can reveal". Thus it was that the self-important Faisal Islam "revealed" his error-ridden story on pilots' licenses, when the details were already in the public domain.

Fortunately for most journalists and their peace of mind, the Dunning-Kruger effect kicks in. Defined as a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is, this fits most of them to a tee.

The cognitive bias of illusory superiority, we are told, comes from the inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence.

Thus do these people churn out their low-grade product, their own stupidity insulating from criticism and preventing them recognising their own errors. Buoyed by the easily-pleased, who are quick to award them with gushing compliments – and happily distributing awards between themselves – these are the people who have taken it upon themselves to keep us informed about Brexit.

The monument to their failure stands with their inability to convey objectively and clearly the devastating effects of a "no deal" Brexit, arising in part from their lack of research skills and, in the main, because they treat this as an issue where the juxtaposition of conflicting opinions is sufficient to tell the story.

This ends up with the ignorance (and mendacity) of Rees-Mogg being given a greater airing than the fact-based Notices to Stakeholders produced by the European Commission, and where the oaf Johnson is allowed to parade his own ignorance, without challenge, when knowledgeable commentators struggle to gain a hearing.

There can be no better example of the lack of self-awareness than the headline in the Telegraph which declares: "Voters prefer no deal to Theresa May's Brexit. Project Fear won't change their minds".

Having failed in its duty to inform its readers about the consequences of a "no deal", falsely labelling valid concerns as "project fear", the paper has its own correspondent Asa Bennet actually applaud its own failure, unable to distinguish between the circumstances of the referendum campaign and the process of planning for Brexit.

This inability comes over in yesterday's treatment of Christine Lagarde and the IMF's annual report on the health of the UK economy.

The evident support of the IMF for the "remain" proposition during the campaign is thus unfavourably compared with the now valid prediction that a "no deal" exit would cause "serious disruptions" to UK growth, so much so that Lagarde's warnings are treated as a continuation of "project fear".

We are lucky, I suppose, that the media can even bring themselves to report such things, when it would be happier with its fare of court gossip, speculating about leadership contests. That much, Mrs May has in common with the rest of us. She too gets "irritated" by the constant speculation about her future.

But our sense of irritation is far wider. The media is an industry which makes it its business to criticise government, and anyone else which incurs its disapproval, yet which can't get its own house in order – or even acknowledge its manifest failures. The Dunning-Kruger Times continues to set the agenda and no one is allowed to tell it is wrong.

Richard North 18/09/2018 link

Brexit: closing the loop

Monday 17 September 2018  

So, speculation which lifted off in The Times in the earlier part of this month has died a death in the same newspaper ten days later. Thus, no more are the extravagant claims that the heads of state and governments were preparing to dump Barnier, rip up the draft Withdrawal Agreement and lay down a carpet of flowers to welcome Mrs May to Salzburg, where a sweetheart deal awaited her, decorated with a pretty ribbon bow. 

Sadly, there will be no flower-strewn paths for Mrs May. Rumours "swirling in Brussels" that EU leaders would agree a new mandate for Barnier at Salzburg have been scotched. "This expectation is totally wrong", says one of those ubiquitous, anonymous EU diplomats.

Instead, a new narrative awaits. EU leaders are now expected to offer the UK prime minister "little more than kind words". Hopes of a Brexit "breakthrough" at Salzburg are gone, leaving the prospect of meeting the "looming autumn deadline" somewhat hanging in the air.

The Times picks up Midair Bacon's claims that UK negotiators were "closing in on workable solutions to the outstanding issues" – already denied by Brussels - wrongly linking this with Barnier's supposed claim that a deal was "possible" within six to eight weeks, omitting to add the "realistic" qualification.

But, having given some credence to the hope that things were getting close, it then shoots that hope down in flames, restating what we already know – that the talks have made no progress on the most difficult issue - the Northern Ireland "backstop".

As expected, attempts to seek what is loosely termed as a "breakthrough" have been deferred until after the Tory conference. Seemingly, our "EU diplomats" are now so "wary" about any initiative they propose being twisted and used against May by "ultra" MPs that they have decided to hold off on new proposals until she gets through her annual jamboree.

In fact, there never was the slightest chance of a "breakthrough". The bubble of the Brussels hothouse is every bit as prone to fantasising as the Westminster equivalent. This still has Peter Oborne in the Mail on Sunday, earnestly declaring that he has spoken to "well-informed sources" close to the British and European sides of the Brexit negotiating teams, on which basis he detects "signs of a breakthrough". There's a mood of optimism, of friendship even, he says.

You pays yer money and makes yer choice on that one, as Oborne has Mrs May bypassing Barnier and dealing directly with Macron and Merkel. Otherwise, it looks very much as if the European Council meeting at Salzburg – once the focus of endless speculation – has reverted to its original status as a mere "stock-taking exercise". Another helpful but anonymous diplomat has been roped in to declare: "The less that comes out of this summit, the better for everyone".

With any expectations of progress at the October Council having already been discounted, the next milestone is a possible emergency meeting in November, yet to be agreed. A date may be the only substantive thing to come out of Salzburg, and even that may not be agreed.

All this puts the talks right at the edge. Barnier initially set October as the deadline and any extension cuts into the time set aside for ratification. The time allowance, however, undoubtedly had some inbuilt flexibility which means a delay is unlikely to be fatal.

The question then arises as to what might happen if the parties fail to reach a new agreement in November. We are led to expect that this will be the end of the process, but it beggars belief that everyone will sit tight, twiddling their thumbs until the time runs out in March and we leave without a deal.

Before we even get to November, though, Mrs May's plans have to run the gauntlet of Tory activism, with the oaf Johnson doing his level best to sabotage Chequers and undermine the negotiations from the London end.

His latest stunt is to mount a full-frontal attack on it in today's Telegraph column, asserting that it is a "constitutional abomination". If Chequers were adopted, he writes, "it would mean that for the first time since 1066 our leaders were deliberately acquiescing in foreign rule".

Launching such lurid hyperbole in the run-up to conference effectively amounts to Johnson declaring war on his own leader. There is no way back from this. The battle lines have been drawn and only one contestant is going to come out alive.

If Mrs May backs away from her Chequers plan, even her residual authority will be torn to shreds and she will have no option but to resign. On the other hand, Johnson needs to show he has the support of a sizeable number of Tory MPs if he is to force the issue – something which is by no means certain.

Yet, what makes this contest bizarre to the point of being unreal is that, even if Mrs May wins the day and emerges to take the Chequers plan to Brussels intact, she has no chance of it being accepted by the EU. The issue, therefore, will be whether she comes away feeling strong enough to offer concessions which will make the plan more acceptable to Mr Barnier and the European Council.

But here, one wonders if she has any intention of offering any concession, in any circumstances. According to a Sunday Times report, in a Panorama programme to be broadcast this week, she is to re-emphasise herself as a "bloody difficult woman". On that basis, she could still be negotiating in the expectation of a last-minute cave-in by Brussels – something that is unlikely to happen.

Even then, there is a further complication, arising from comments made by Michael Gove. He asserts that any relationship settled between the UK and the EU could always be altered in the future, an idea that might mystify EU negotiators. In their reality, an agreement reached will be locked in by way of a formal treaty, unchangeable without the agreement of both parties.

Nevertheless, unlike Johnson, Gove publicly supports Mrs May. "The Chequers approach is the right one for now" he says, adding that the responsibility rested with the EU to compromise, "because we've shown flexibility".

If this represents the settled view of Mrs May's government – and there is no way of telling for certain – then the negotiations are in serious trouble. There is little if any possibility of a compromise, if it involves the EU having to weaken its stance on the integrity of the Single Market.

Of course, that doesn't rule out the possibility of the Roger's "fudge", whereby some formula is found which enables both sides to save face and preserve their essential interests. But it is going to need a great deal of creative thinking to resolve the "backstop" and there are no obvious solutions on the horizon, unless you accept today's Times report.

From the same journalist who had it that the Salzburg European Council was set to consider new guidelines for M. Barnier, we now have it that the EU is "secretly preparing" a new plan for the Irish border.

This is drawn from an unpublished "diplomatic note", recording talks between EU ambassadors last Wednesday, where it suggested that "technological solutions" could be used to minimise customs checks at the border, while "goods could be tracked using barcodes on shipping containers under 'trusted-trader' schemes administered by registered companies".

Even though this looks suspiciously like the already rejected "Max Fac" solution, the new plan is supposed to remove the need for new border infrastructure. The proposals, it is claimed, are to be circulated to European governments after the Conservative Party conference on 3 October.

As we have seen in the recent past, such reports have a habit of springing up out of nowhere, and disappearing just as fast, while the news overhang means that people such as Oborne can be recycling speculation which has long been replaced by new, "washes whiter" fantasies.

In terms of the Irish border, we may actually be seeing attempts of what Barnier calls the process of "de-dramatising" the issue, emphasising the role of technical controls and highlighting the fact that some checks on the movement of animals and other goods between the UK and Northern Ireland already exist – with nothing of substance changing.

For all that, the only bankable certainty is that we are no further forward than the last time I wrote that we were no further forward. And with the media closing the circle on its Salzburg speculation, bringing us back to the starting point, the chances are that we will be no further forward next week.

Richard North 17/09/2018 link

Brexit: dealing with the dregs

Sunday 16 September 2018  

If you want a measure of the way the Brexit debate is being played out, read this week's Booker column, where he writes under the headline, "At last someone is talking sense on our post-Brexit trade nightmare. But is anybody listening?".

This is about Sir Ivan Roger's speech in Dublin last week, to which Booker says, remarkably little attention has been paid, despite it being "easily the best-informed and weightiest speech yet made by any senior public figure on why we are making such an unholy mess of Brexit".

But what one should then do is read some of the comments. Peter Barnes, for instance, tells us that "Rogers is an ineffectual twerp that has had a cushy government job that got difficult because of our excellent decision to leave the eu (sic) nightmare and quite frankly he wasn't up to it".

Martin Jenner's comment has the merit, at least, of being more succinct: "Rogers has got a face like a smacked arrs. Petulant little man", he writes. And, of Booker's article as a whole, John Condon helpfully opines: "Crumbs what hopeless article. Everything is 'delusional' and bereft of any solutions. Absolutely pointless reading this drivel".

We've been getting a lot of this sort of thing – and much worse. It's stuff that has no place on the website of a national newspaper. Yet the Telegraph permits it, and even encourages it – its moderators never intervene as the bile pours out, week after week, month after month, without stopping.

Of course, those sort of comments on this blog would last about as long as it would take to delete them, with the authors banned from making further contributions. But then, we're only an irresponsible blog, without the credibility and gravitas of the mighty Telegraph which seeks to set the moral tone for the nation.

In a world which still had values, the paper's owners and its managers would be ashamed of themselves, and staff would be instructed properly to police their own website. But, if the world does have some residual values, the Telegraph doesn't. It is content to be represented by the filth that some of its readers deem fit for public consumption. It has no shame.

As to the Booker column, his analysis of the Rogers speech is something that needed doing and deserves better treatment than afforded by some of its more obnoxious readers.

The speech itself – as readers here will know - was given last week in Dublin by a man who resigned as UK ambassador to the EU in January 2017, warning of the "muddled and ill-informed thinking" that, in his view, was about to send the British Government's Brexit strategy in a wholly disastrous direction.

This warning came after he learnt that Theresa May was about to abandon her earlier indications that she wanted Britain to continue enjoying "frictionless" trade with the EU by remaining "within" its single market – something she executed in her infamous Lancaster House speech.

At the start of his detailed lecture in Dublin, Rogers opined that this now seems likely to bring about a "severe political crisis between the UK and the EU", and domestic "political turmoil on a scale we have not seen since the war".

He forensically dismissed all the various bubbles of make-believe that look increasingly likely to see us, in his words, "sleepwalking into a major crisis". Chequers is "a non-starter"; as is any idea that we could somehow rely on a WTO "rule book" that doesn't exist ("there is no such animal"). As is the fantasy that "smart technology" could somehow solve the impossible Irish border problem.

The fact is that, by Mrs May's insistence on our stepping outside the entire legal system that allows "frictionless" trade inside the EU, as Sir Ivan points out, "the British have brought this on themselves". It is delusional to think that, even with any amount of last-minute "mini-deals", the UK can hope to reach any settlement that would give it more advantageous trading terms than could legally be allowed to any other third country.

Whatever happens, Sir Ivan said, we cannot avoid "very major dislocation to the UK economy". And, while there was a time two years ago when we might have resolved most of these problems by going for the Norway option and thus remaining in the wider EEA, it is now too late for that.

The best we could hope for is some version of a Canada-type free trade agreement, but that could never give us terms of trade with our largest export market remotely as favourable as those we currently enjoy.

As for suggestions that, without a deal, we could withhold the money we owe the EU for past commitments, it might well respond by unilaterally imposing its own conditions on any further UK trade, entirely to suit the interests of its own members. "That is not taking back control. That is giving it up".

As he starkly concluded, we may "look back from 2038, wondering why the rupture became so much deeper than was desired by any of the main players".

Thus concludes Booker's "take" on the speech. It is shorter than my precis but brings his words to a wider audience, where more people can appreciate what is at stake as we go into the final stages of the Brexit talks.

If the Telegraph was half the newspaper it once was, it would already have done the job, rather than leaving it to Booker in his ghetto, then to be insulted for his efforts.

The dereliction of this newspaper, though, is just part of the continuum about which I've been writing for so long. With the media industry which is entirely self-referential, impervious to criticism and unresponsive to the need to change, it falls to this blog to point out where it is going wrong.

One of their more egregious tricks we've been recording it its tendency to produce crap stories which, for them, is a win-win situation. Not only do they fill space with the duff stories, they then get to print follow-up stories modifying or debunking the original copy.

We're now seeing this yet again. With the past fortnight taken up with speculation of great things happening at the Salzburg informal European Council, we now have the Independent regaling us with the headline: "Why next week's Salzburg meeting could be a false summit on Theresa May's climb to Brexit".

Reflecting exactly what I've been saying right from the start, part of the legacy media is coming to the same conclusion, that – as far as Brexit goes – this is going to be a non-event.

That it was ever going to be a significant meeting, though, is entirely an invention of the legacy media, which has devoted many thousands of words to speculation which has encompassed wild predictions that we might even see a "breakthrough" engineered by the Member States taking over the negotiations from Michel Barnier.

Never in a million years was anything like this going to happen, yet the media will give space to its pathetic little fantasies, leaving the heavy lifting to the likes of Booker, whom it then ignores. His column, with my help, has had any number of exclusive "scoops" which have been disregarded, only to appear in the main news pages months after he has reported them.

The same, of course, goes for the Government's "technical notices" which – as I remarked yesterday, have disappeared from the media agenda, and then there is the perpetual stain of the media ignoring the Commission's Notices to Stakeholders.

What gets me though is the smug, self-congratulatory tone of so many of the media's favoured commentators, who are either trawling over the obvious, or missing the point entirely as they indulge themselves in trivia or outright invention.

But, if that leaves Booker marginalised, and this blog out on the edges, at least we are in good company, with Sir Ivan Rogers getting the same treatment. As for the dregs who comment on the Telegraph, that's clearly where they belong. They have found their spiritual home in a newspaper that matches their values.

Richard North 16/09/2018 link

Brexit: DIY news

Saturday 15 September 2018  

There is an odd feature which emerges when reading internet-based news. In the traditional news cycle, you would get news reports and then, only days later, could you read credible rebuttals which effectively killed the original stories. Yet, on the internet, such is the speed with which initial reports are posted, with the rebuttals coming just as fast, that we're seeing the laggards still putting up the original story long after it is dead and buried.

This seems to have been happening with the latest adventures of Midair Bacon, aka Dominic Raab or, occasionally, Rabid Manioc. The sequence starts with a Reuters report published yesterday declaring: "Britain and EU 'closing in' on a Brexit agreement, Raab says".

Initially, Midair Bacon was scheduled to be in Brussels talking to Michel Barnier but, for reasons unspecified, this did not go ahead. Instead, the pair discussed matters by telephone for about 30 minutes, following which the Reuters report had Raab say:
While there remain some substantive differences we need to resolve, it is clear our teams are closing in on workable solutions to the outstanding issues in the Withdrawal Agreement, and are having productive discussions in the right spirit on the future relationship.
The pair were reported to have reiterated their willingness "to devote the necessary time and energy to bring these negotiations to a successful conclusion", and both have agreed to take stock again following the Salzburg informal European Council.

This report was then picked up by numerous media organs, and was popping up all day in different guises on Google News and, even as I write in the wee small hours of this morning, it is still being repeated, the latest iteration via Hellenic Shipping News.

Around 4pm yesterday, though, the Guardian - which is occasionally a trusted source and is without paywall restrictions – came up with the headline: "EU diplomats reject Raab claim that Brexit talks are 'closing in' on deal".

The Secretary's comments on negotiations over the Irish border problem, it appears, are seen as "optimistic", thus surprising EU officials and diplomats. In reality, EU diplomats suggest that there was a "complete impasse" on the most difficult issue of finding a solution to the Irish border question.

This was essentially confirmed by a tweet from Michel Barnier, which had been posted about 3pm yesterday. It declared:
Useful dialogue w/ @DominicRaab this morning on the progress our teams have made this week on the #Brexit WA. But substantive differences remain on the Protocol for IE/NI, governance and GIs. We are also continuing our discussions to find common ground on the future relationship.
With a reasonable level of confidence, one can now take it that the original claim, made in the name of Raab, does not accurately represent the current state of the negotiations. So, despite the continuing reports, the situation has not changed, and we are exactly where we were – and have been since the beginning of the negotiations.

This episode, therefore, provides an adequate illustration of the febrile nature of the media, and a warning against relying on any single report or source. As far as is possible one needs to "triangulate" – cross-referring to multiple sources - and to get as close to primary source as possible, maintaining a high level of healthy scepticism at all times.

That much can be said of the multiple reports, popping up for over a week now, suggesting that the European Council was going to consider giving Barnier a new (or modified) mandate at the Salzburg meeting. One doesn't even need a rebuttal here: to anyone with a knowledge of EU procedures, such a development looks improbable, and we have not been alone in considering many of the reports "overblown".

Once again though, the Guardian comes to the rescue, putting the story further to bed. Under the headline, "EU leaders will not give Michel Barnier new Brexit instructions", we get confirmation of our suspicions from "a senior diplomat".

This is one of those anonymous sources and it is not possible either to refer to a primary source or to triangulate. But the report has the ring of truth, something the previous reports lack – having also been based on anonymous sources. Despite the prevalence of the claims, not a single named official or politician have put their names to it.

The "scuttlebutt" – as American servicemen used to call it – stems from an almost obsessive determination on the part of UK politicians, encouraged by sections of the media, to believe that they can bypass Michel Barnier, as the official negotiator, and appeal above his head directly to Member States.

The current narrative rests on the idea that the Member States will take a direct part in the negotiations at Salzburg next week, allowing Mrs May to hijack the European Council and thrash out the deal that has so far evaded the "inflexible" M. Barnier.

We had a not-dissimilar dynamic played out prior to the Gothenburg informal Council, with exaggerated expectations, brought to a fever-pitch by the media before the event – only to be deflated afterwards, in a massive anti-climax.

Then, of course, Barnier was in the process of formally proposing new guidelines – which had been signalled well in advance. But now, in an inversion of the usual procedure, we are led to expect that the European Council itself will, effectively, impose a new mandate on Barnier, more favourable to the UK.

Winding down the expectations for Salzburg, all that is going is happen there is that Mrs May will be allowed to give a short presentation to the other Heads of State and Government during lunch on the first day.

Taking a precedent from the previous occasion in Gothenburg, there will be no questions or discussion at the time. Only on the next day, when Mrs May has left, will the EU-27 consider whether to agree a special meeting of the European Council in November.

If there are any new guidelines required, it will be up to M. Barnier himself to make formal proposals – and none are expected. One of those ever-helpful anonymous diplomats tells the Guardian: "I don't see a situation where Michel Barnier says 'I'm fine with the mandate’ and the heads of state give him another one. If we should give additional guidance, and that is a big if, it would only be done in concerted discussion with the Commission".

This, of course, means that the considerable effort expended by the UK government in touring the capitals of Europe, schmoozing other Member State leaders, has been a complete waste of time and effort. It has achieved nothing constructive and, if anything, has irritated other Members, who have long been telling the UK that such approaches are futile.

It might have helped if the media had been more forthcoming in pointing this out, but most of the legacy media has been quite happy to go along with the theatre, and take the UK initiatives at face value, as if they had any relevance to the talks.

In the meantime, though, the UK media has other fish to fry. To its delight and preference, the domestic political agenda has re-asserted itself, with Emily Thornberry all but ruling out Labour backing a Chequers-style Brexit deal. According to The Times, the shadow foreign secretary savaged Theresa May’s attempts to find a compromise with the EU, saying a workable deal was "just not going to happen".

We can add to that the intervention by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney who has warned that house prices would fall by 35 percent over three years after a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

He has also voiced the opinion that Brexit had been bad for wage growth. It has had an "additional dampening effect" by causing uncertainty and putting businesses off investing in technology that could improve productivity.

Whether right or wrong, that gave the media quite enough Brexit fuel for yesterday, with the 28 "technical notices" having slid almost completely off the agenda. Far too complicated for the average hack, editors must have been delighted to have had plenty of alternative news.

The one thing of which we can be assured, however, is that they are not going to tell us anything worthwhile about the Brexit negotiations and the current state of play. If we want to obtain the detail there, we have to do it ourselves.

Richard North 15/09/2018 link

Brexit: more secrets needed

Friday 14 September 2018  

If the government had wanted to maximise the publicity for its latest batch of "technical notices" on a "no deal" Brexit, I suppose, it should have marked them "secret" and leaked them to the media. I'm sure the intrepid Faisal Islam would have rushed to "reveal" his treasure, yet more evidence of how brilliantly clever he is.

As it stands, however, the government hasn't done too badly, with the media homing in on the "news" – as the BBC put it – that the "UK driving licence 'may not be valid in EU' after no-deal Brexit".

Never mind that I published this on 14 January 2017 – 20 months ago - based on information gleaned from looking up the relevant EU law. By far the best way to keep a secret is to "reveal" it on Your average hack would prefer to poke out his eyeballs with a bent screwdriver rather than admit he read the blog. They prefer stale news, 20 months old, spoon fed from government releases - unless it's "secret".

Now the current "secrets" are out, real journalists like Andrew Sparrow can write about them. "Ostensibly", he opines, in his afternoon news summary (posted yesterday on the Guardian website), these additional 28 papers "are supposed to show that, although the government does not want or expect to leave the EU with no deal, it could cope".

But, he added, "it may also be the case that ministers would be happy for people to conclude that the documents show how unacceptable this option would be". Sparrow cites as supporting evidence the morning's Today programme where Dominic Raab said that MPs would ultimately have to choose between a Brexit deal modelled on Chequers and a "no deal" exit. Faced with this binary choice, he expected the potential Tory rebels to swallow their reservations and embrace Chequers.

Personally, I don't entirely buy the first theory. Digging into the detail of the notices produced to date, it is easy to paint multiple scenarios that the government simply could not mitigate. How, for instance, do you deal with the cancellation of "mutual recognition" rights on the export of goods to the EU?

On the other hand, if the government really wanted to spook potential rebels, it is doing a seriously bad job. If one takes the driving document, for instance, its main thrust is to advise readers that, after March 2019: "Your driving licence may no longer be valid by itself when driving in the EU". If there is no deal, "you may need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) to drive in the EU".

Bluntly, though, the fact that large number of private motorists may have to acquire IDPs before venturing into the EU Member States is the least of our problems, when EU Member States no longer recognise our driving licenses.

By far the bigger problem is the commercial sector. As I wrote in my piece 20 months ago, truck and coach drivers will no longer be able to demonstrate that they have undergone the additional "periodic training" required under EU rules, because the "certificates of professional competence" (CPC) issued by the UK authorities will no longer be considered valid in EU Member State territories.

Furthermore, before most commercial vehicles can be used on the roads, the firms (or individuals) running them must have an operator's license, granted in accordance with Regulation 1071/2009/EC. After Brexit, UK-issued licences will go the same way as the CPC – worthless for operation on EU Member State roads.

The upshot of this is that no UK licensed commercial driver (in the band of vehicles covered) will be able to drive outside the UK, and no UK registered trucks can be taken into mainland Europe or be allowed to cross the Northern Ireland border.

Obviously, the practical and economic consequences of this are immense. But there is no refence to the problems in the government's technical notice, and not a single hack in the popular media has had the wit to make up for the omissions.

The Times attempts to up the "scare" quotient, writing that, despite their "neutral tone", the notices "do not mask the profound effect such a scenario would have on everyone living in Britain - and arguably the continent as well".

"From selling a car, to getting on a plane to Paris, to buying or selling any kind of good or service, life will not be the same in a very profound way", the paper says, going on to give a brief summary of some of the notices.

If from the 28, however, I was to pick the issue which had the potential to cause the greatest economic harm to the UK, I would perhaps go for the notice headed: "Trading under the mutual recognition principle if there's no Brexit deal". Yet, such is the determination of The Times to bring home the effect of a "no deal" exit that it doesn't even mention this notice.

The issue is important in several respects, but not least because mutual recognition of standards is one of the favoured components of a post-Brexit free trade deal between the UK and the EU.

The principle itself applies to manufactured goods traded in the EU's internal market. Where no harmonised standard exists, goods can circulate under the mutual recognition principle. This prevents EU Member States prohibiting the sale of goods that have already been legally sold in another EU State - even where there are different national requirements covering the same good.

As an example, the government's notice states that a bicycle made to comply with French national requirements and sold in France can then lawfully be marketed in other EU countries – even though those countries may have different national requirements for bicycles.

It is difficult to get data on the scale of application of the principle, but I have seen figures which suggest that anything from 20-50 percent of all manufactured goods traded in the internal market rely on mutual recognition.

When, after Brexit, UK exporters are no longer able to invoke mutual recognition, their products will have to conform with local standards. A bicycle manufactured in Britain intended for sale in Germany, will have to comply with any relevant German law. If it is shipped to France, it will have to comply with French law; in Italy, Italian laws will apply – and so on.

Theoretically, this could apply to as much as 50 percent of UK manufactured goods intended for export to EU customers. And, in businesses where economies of scale so often dictate whether a product is price-competitive, the costs of producing to multiple, different standards could be crippling.

That much would be known to only a very few specialists and, for the peril to register with the average hack, the government would have to spell out the implications, where possibly exports worth billions of pounds are potentially at risk. Noticeably, such detail is absent from the government document.

Regardless of the government's actual intentions, though, the media just cannot help itself when writing about regulation – obsessively trivialising it by labelling it "red tape". This is how the Mirror treats the subject of vehicle (and component) type approval, which is addressed in other technical notice.

"British carmakers and firms supplying car parts from the UK would face more red tape to sell their vehicles and components on the continent" as "EC type-approvals issued outside of the UK, would no longer be automatically accepted on the UK market".

By way of analysis, we get a quote from the Best for Britain anti-Brexit group. It claims this could be "another blow to the motor industry" - which employs thousands of hard-working Brits. Yet, that "blow" could prove the last straw which makes it no longer viable to produce cars in the UK for the export market.

Of course, one can't expect much from a tabloid, but the Telegraph doesn't fare much better. It reports that "British businesses will be hit by a 'sledgehammer' of red tape that will increase costs for companies and damage trade", relying on the CBI for that description.

Industry really doesn't help itself here. The paper cites Stephen Phipson, chief executive of the manufacturers' organisation EEF. "Clearly a 'no deal' Brexit would increase the burden of red tape on business", he says, wrongly going on to state: "Firms that manufacture products in the UK under the basis of mutual recognition will be required to have that product certified in both the UK and the EU in the event of a no deal Brexit".

Not only is this wrong – it doesn't even begin to capture the nature of the handicaps confronting British firms seeking to export to the EU, which could face the nightmare of producing goods to meet 27 different sets of standards.

To an extent, though, we can have a little sympathy with the media. Comprehensive reviews of 28 documents, each covering issues of some complexity, is far more than most newspapers can deal with. The BBC tries to provide an overview on its website, but a precis alone can't possibly capture the flavour of a "no deal" event.

When you think about it, Mrs May declared that "no deal" was better than a bad deal in her Lancaster House speech of January 2017. She has had 20 months to prove the point, but only now is her government attempting to explain what is involved in a "no deal" scenario.

Then to bring out all these documents in a rush is not an exercise in communication, but one of obfuscation. And in giving the media a task which it cannot do adequately, it doesn't improve the public's understanding of the dynamics of the Brexit process.

Most of all, as Phipson points out, this instalment of technical notices has still not addressed some of the critical issues for business: "trade continuity, borders and customs arrangements, mobility of workers, services, aviation and energy". In ducking these crucial issues, one wonders what the government's real agenda really is.

Like as not – to judge from recent performance – it doesn't know itself. My guess is that, even in the anodyne form presented in these notices, much of the information will come as a rude shock to ministers and MPs, those that take the trouble to read them. If they rely on the media, though, they will be no better off.

Obviously, we need more secret documents before the media can do its job.

Richard North 14/09/2018 link

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