Brexit: playing with fire

Monday 23 July 2018  

One of the most interesting moments of the Dominic Raab (aka midair bacon) interview with Andrew Marr yesterday was the line of questioning on the EU-US open skies agreement.

Marr specifically put to the Brexit secretary that: "with no deal we fall out of that", to which Raab said quite simply, "Yes". As a follow-up, Marr asked: "That does mean that the planes can’t carry on flying in at the moment doesn’t it?", to which Raab responded: "I think we would resolve that issue".

There we have it in blunt terms. Yes, a "no deal" Brexit would mean that UK airlines would lose their access to US skies. And while Raab blandly assures us that "we would resolve that issue", can we really be certain that President Trump would give us the access we want, immediately, and without asking for significant concessions elsewhere?

But had Marr been on the ball (something he's never been), he might also have asked about the US-EU bilateral agreement on safety in civil aviation – the so-called BASA. Even if the open skies agreement could be resolved, this is a far more complex issue, where there is no obvious or simple resolution.

And then, rather than confine his questioning to just the EU-US agreement, why didn't he ask about Varadkar's comments about the Single European Sky and the loss of access rights to the airspace of EU Member States?

Furthermore, rather then accepting the bland assurance that such issues would be resolved, Marr might have probed a little more deeply and asked how precisely the UK government intended to resolve issues in the event of a "no deal". Are we even to take it that "no deal" means "no deal" or, as we have generally surmised, just a phase where we start a new round of talks – albeit in a crisis atmosphere.

As regards the aviation issue, Dominic Grieve has certainly "got it", arguing that "It wouldn't be possible, for example, for someone to fly to Rome because the overflying rights over the other countries of the EU are regulated by EU law".

But he points to the possibility that, if an all-encompassing agreement is not reached before March next year then "side deals" would address some of the issues of a "no deal" Brexit.

This is indeed possible, if not likely, but the initiative would remain with the EU and the Commission might be expected to drive hard bargains – more so if, as Raab has indicated it might, the UK government has drawn back on the financial settlement.

And it's all very well relying on these "side deals" but the sheer volume of issues to be address, and the very obvious complexity of some, suggests that we are not going to resolve them in a matter of days. One can see this crisis process lasting weeks and then stretching in months as harassed UK negotiators commute between London and Brussels.

Understandably, therefore. Grieve believes that a "no deal" Brexit would be "absolutely catastrophic" and precipitate a state of emergency. But, with John Major repeating the "catastrophic" meme, we are getting the wrong people make the point, simply adding to the polarisation of the debate.

This, on the one hand, we have the "ultras", masquerading as Brexiteers representing the 17.5 million "leave" voters, happily declaring that "no deal" will be a breeze, as we adopt the WTO option, while prominent "remainers" are stating the opposite.

In the middle, we have the media playing their dire, "he says, she says" games, providing uncritical platforms for each side to parade their wares, never getting to grips with the issues or even trying to resolve the dispute.

A story I heard recently comes to mind, where a journalism lecturer tells his students of their responsibilities when confronted with conflicting witnesses. If one says it's raining and the other says it's dry, he says, you don't just record the views of both and call that a report. Your job is to look out of the window and see who is telling the truth.

If that story is true – and I hope it might be – it is a lesson the legacy media have yet to learn. There is a certain moral cowardice in the reluctance on the media stars to confront their "witnesses", and to establish where the truth lies.

Instead, we get the boorish Rod Liddle in the Sunday Times writing his column under the headline: "Ireland's Leo roars like any EU bully but his UK flights threat is all hot airspace", going on to state of Mr Varadkar that, "the man is plainly a moron".

Of the threat of aircraft excluded from Irish airspace, Liddle says: "this is another paper tiger, a chimera, a false threat occasioned by spite and pique, which has rightly been ridiculed across the world on social media". It is then worth staying with Liddle for a brief moment, to record him saying:
The entire process of negotiating our exit from the EU has been accompanied by much the same sort of stuff: empty threats and vindictiveness flung at us each week by the rabble of drunkards and lawyers the EU employs to make sure that anyone who wishes to leave the benighted institution gets first of all a punch in the face and then, later, a punch in the face.
That attitude is not untypical of a certain type of commenter. Were they to direct this sort of venom against approved victim communities, they would no doubt be arraigned for "hate crime", but it's open season on taking cheap shots against our negotiating partners, from whom the UK government is expecting considerable concessions.

Finally, though, while the politicians posture and the pundits prattle, we see a whiff of the real world in The Times, with Doug Gurr, UK manager for Amazon saying that there could be "civil unrest" within two weeks if Britain leaves the European Union with no deal.

We could have told them that, and the paper could have worked that out for themselves but, in accordance with conventions of the legacy media, nothing said is of any consequence unless it is uttered by a person of prestige.

The person in question gave his warning at a meeting on Friday organised by Dominic Raab, where representatives of the UK's biggest businesses were present. This worst-case outcome, Mr Gurr said, formed part of his contingency planning.

Yet, this seems to have had little overt effect on Raab. Returning to his performance on the Marr show, this man even went so far as to accuse Brussels yesterday of "irresponsibly" stepping up pressure by setting out the potential consequences of leaving the EU without a deal. His view, incredibly, is that we ought to be trying to reassure citizens on the Continent and also here".

Taken straight from the horse's mouth, this patronising, crass statement is so typical of the way government (and especially Tory governments) treat their voters. Faces with a crisis of major proportions, where it is absolutely vital that we have an informed citizenry, and all this silly little man can do is blather about reassurance.

Mr Raab, whose full name also sports the anagrams "bionic drama" and "rabid manioc", wants us to know that he is "focused relentlessly and unflinchingly" on getting the deal. And that means "we don't have to be concerned" about the technical details.

One might surmise, however, that Mr Amazon is in closer touch with the capabilities of the British people than Mr Raab. When we have been so royally shafted by incompetence of his government, we should not be surprised if the more violent amongst us express their displeasure in the only way left to them.

To that extent, it is good to have a little whiff of reality. Our politicians need to know that they are playing with fire, with the order and stability of our society at stake. Should the day come where they do lose control, one also hopes that the media will get their share of the attention. Their incompetence easily matches that of the government.

Richard North 23/07/2018 link

Brexit: dog days

Sunday 22 July 2018  

Inside the mind of Jacob Rees-Mogg is not a place any sane person would want to be. This is the man picking up on the obvious - that we are heading for a "no deal" Brexit and that leaving on WTO terms is now likely. But he then loftily declares that WTO is "nothing to be frightened of".

Elsewhere, on Channel 4, he is asked whether he would resign his post as an MP if he was wrong about the glowing economic opportunities Brexit presented, he declined to answer, saying that: "We won't know the full economic consequences for a very long time, we really won't... The overwhelming opportunity for Brexit is over the next 50 years".

This is very much the Minford approach to Brexit, where we are supposed to accept the short- to medium-term damage caused by a "hard" Brexit in return for a place in the sunlit uplands on a timescale which means that, by the time the benefits accrue, nearly half of the population currently alive will be dead.

As always, though, the media are asking the wrong questions. What we really need to know is whether it is necessary to take the most damaging route to Brexit, when a staged approach designed to minimise the immediate damage arising from Brexit could achieve similar long-term results, without causing the long-term pain.

The thing is, though, if Rees-Mogg truly believes that the WTO option is "nothing to be frightened of", we are dealing with a man who is either nurturing a staggering level of ignorance or is setting out to deceive.

Either way, this has his co-conspirator, John Redwood, asserting that, under his fabulous WTO regime: "Planes will fly & lorries will move thru ports the day after we leave just as they did the day before.

Bearing in mind just the one example of exports of foods of animal origin, where (when such exports are permitted) goods must be submitted for inspection at the ports to a Border Inspection Post, one wonders whether these ERG zealots have asked themselves why the Port of Calais has brought 17 hectares (42 acres) of land, which could house inspection posts for sanitary checks and logistics warehouses.

In this Brexit debate, to ignore such details is irresponsible. And, for someone of the status of Rees-Mogg – with all the resources at his command – it is almost inconceivable that he could be unaware of them. For him not to take them into account in his public pronouncements suggests a man setting out deliberately to deceive.

The same must also apply to his recent comments on aviation in the wake of Leo Varadkar's observation that the UK is part of the single European sky. If we leave the EU a "no-deal", hard Brexit next March, he said, the planes would not fly, adding: "You cannot have your cake and eat it. You can't take back your waters and then expect to use other people's sky".

This elicited a front-page headline from The Sun, proclaiming: "AIR HEAD Ireland's PM has been branded 'mad' for threatening to stop British planes flying over Ireland as revenge for Brexit".

There are several issues which arise from this, not least the idea common in the media that somehow things such as restrictions on airline flying are something which are imposed on Britain, either by the EU or Member States such as Ireland, effectively amounting to a "ban".

The point, of course, is that freedom to fly for UK airlines, variously a right or a privilege, is specifically granted by virtue of EU legislation, in this case Regulation (EC) No 1008/2008. When we leave the EU, that regulation – as it applies to the UK – lapses. There is no ban as such. It is Brexit and the UK's decision to leave the EU which will have the effect of removing the permissions for its airlines to operate outside domestic airspace.

Some pundits who should know better point to the 1944 Chicago International Air Transport Agreement, arguing that such rights are conferred by this agreement, upon which the UK can rely.

But here one has to understand that the Chicago Agreement does not in itself confer any rights. Rather, it requires contracting states to grant to the other contracting states what are known as the "freedoms of the air". Thus, such rights do not take effect until contracting states formally agree between themselves bilateral or multi-lateral treaties, generically known as Air Service Agreements.

In the EU context, as between Member States, these have been absorbed into the regulation, the benefits of which will no longer apply to the UK after Brexit. Unless there is then a specific air service agreement between the UK and the EU, there will be no reciprocal rights. The result, as Varadkar quite rightly says, is "planes would not fly".

It is quite true, of course, that such rights are reciprocal, so that – in theory – aircraft registered in EU Member States will not be able to access UK airspace. However, since under the Withdrawal Act, we will be re-enacting the EU law, that will have the effect unilaterally of granting access.

One can imagine that the EU will quickly respond after Brexit. Although I am open to correction, I see no reason why the EU could not also act unilaterally – for what it is worth. The problem is that there are also the safety certification issues to address, and these cannot under ICAO rules, be resolved unconditionally. Even with the "freedoms", UK aircraft could not operate in the airspace of EU Member States.

Nevertheless, to Jacob Rees-Mogg, the issue is simplicity itself. He tells The Sun: "Air traffic control continued between Russia and the Ukraine after Russia invaded the Crimea so this idea is just silly", then adding: "On the other hand most flights from the EU to America pass through our air traffic control so this rather lightweight Irish gentleman is proposing an absurd act of a masochistic nature. His words are those of an airhead".

Thus does The Sun get its headline epithet, and Rees-Mogg cements his reputation as the all-purpose know-it-all, in fact spreading misinformation far and wide.

Interestingly, it is a senior UK government source who brands Varadkar's comments "mad", but if there is madness here, it is not to be found in the Irish prime minister. Booker actually puts his finger on it, observing in his column (no link yet), that the last days of July were known to the ancient world as the "Dog Days", associated with oppressive heat and drought, causing human affairs to become feverishly unreal and men (and dogs) to lose their marbles.

Certainly, he says, recent days have lived up to that billing, most obviously in the ever more glaring shambles we are making over Brexit. First, we had Chequers and Theresa May's tortuous "final offer" White Paper, not only prompting a stream of ministerial resignations but almost immediately dismissed by the European Commission as wholly unworkable. Then came those fractious Commons debates which showed that scarcely a single MP has any idea of what an impossible situation we find ourselves in.

This was followed by Liam Fox warning the EU that, unless it accepts Mrs May's "fair and reasonable" offer, several of its economies, such as that of Ireland, would face severe damage, amounting to tens of billions of pounds. No mention of the far greater damage we are risking to our own economy.

Finally, Booker says, any sense that we might be fast approaching a denouement to the mess we have made of our negotiations could only have been confirmed by the Commission’s 16-page "Communication" on Thursday, warning all concerned that they must urgently prepare themselves, with or without a deal, for the very serious consequences of the UK's decision to withdraw itself from every aspect of the EU's economic system, to become what is termed a "third country".

This followed the now-68 Notices to Stakeholders issued by the Commission since March, setting out the legal repercussions of our decision to become a "third country", for almost every sector of our economic activity (how many British politicians have read them?).

This latest paper reminds us that our decision to leave not just the EU but also the wider EEA makes it inevitable that, even with an agreed deal, we shall face often fatally time-consuming border controls all along our new frontiers with the EU (including Ireland).

So enmeshed have we become with Europe over four decades that previous Notices to Stakeholders have already pointed out just how much of our national life is now only legally authorised under EU regulations, from our driving licenses and our right to fly into EU airspace to those "passporting rights" which have helped London to become the financial centre of Europe.

Yet we now have barely three months to sort all this out before October when we were supposed to have signed a final deal: all because our politicians have frittered away 17 months putting forward nothing more than fantasy "non-solutions" not one of which could have worked.

Barely imaginable economic chaos now seems inevitable. And this will be the result of a quite unprecedented failure by our entire political class, so lost in its soap bubbles of wishful thinking that it has never begun to appreciate the reality of what we were up against.

Worst of all is the realisation that virtually all of this mess was avoidable, if only Mrs May had not made her fateful Lancaster House decision to leave the EEA, our membership of which could alone have ensured that continued “frictionless” trade “within the market”, which until them she told us was what she wanted.

The full implications of leaving the EEA were never explained in the referendum campaign, and they have never been understood by our politicians to this day. But in eight months they will begin to be brought home to us. To put it mildly, Booker concludes, we will not be pleased.

Sadly, though, this may not happen. The Sunday Telegraph is parading the headline "Dominic Raab: Britain will refuse to pay £39 billion divorce bill to Brussels if the EU fails to agree trade deal", a special kind of madness which speaks for itself.

The "Dog Days" look set to continue into the New Year and thence into March, where the "no deal" Brexit will confirm that madness is stalking the land, one which Rees-Mogg so wantonly represents.

Richard North 22/07/2018 link

Brexit: two Bs are not to be

Saturday 21 July 2018  

In Belfast, Mrs May was nothing if not entirely predictable. The White Paper, she said, represents a significant development of our position. It is a coherent package.

Early in this process, she said, both sides agreed a clear desire to find solutions to the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland through a close future relationship. We have now developed our proposals and put an approach on the table which does precisely that.

Then came more words: "It is now for the EU to respond. Not simply to fall back onto previous positions which have already been proven unworkable. But to evolve their position in kind. And, on that basis, I look forward to resuming constructive discussions".

Five hundred miles roughly to the southeast is Brussels. There, Michel Barnier was saying different words. "We are open to any solutions as long as they are workable", he said. But everything he had already said pointed to the huge divide between him and Belfast.

You can analyse the words said to the end of time – but there is little point. They mean only one thing: there is no workable solution. A deal is not to be.

Whether those words can stand, only time will tell. Maybe, as each side looks over the precipice, wise heads decide that the consequence of a "cliff edge" Brexit is unacceptable. And the talks take a different direction. But one would have to be a very brave optimist to believe that will happen.

However, if we may adopt Churchillian terms, this may not be the end, or even the beginning of the end. It may only be the end of the beginning.

Perhaps, it is embedded in the English psyche that, in order to deal with a major policy change, we need more than a sense of crisis. We need a real, full-blooded disaster on the scale of Dunkirk or the loss of Singapore to the Japanese before we can get to grips with what is needed.

Whatever else, we are not going to see the adoption of the Efta/EEA option under our current prime minister. This stupid woman has convinced herself that it "would mean continued free movement, ongoing vast annual payments and total alignment with EU rules across the whole of our economy, and no control of our trade policy".

If that was true, it would be unacceptable. That Mrs May believes it to be true makes it unacceptable to her and her followers. And that puts it out of reach as a solution for the time being.

Actually, this is one area where Barnier has made a major misstep. In indicating that the EEA might be part of the solution to Brexit, he has added the idea of continued membership of the customs union, to make it EEA-plus. But the customs union is neither possible nor necessary. The EEA Agreement has within it provision for tariff-free trading and a few bolt-on extras would give us the "frictionless trade" that everybody needs.

By introducing the customs union as part of the package, Barnier has in fact made it easier for Mrs May to justify saying "no" to the EEA. She needed little excuse as it was, and now she has wiped out the last vestiges of any chance that she could adopt the one option that has the slightest possibility of working.

With Barnier continuing to insist that the "backstop" is the precondition for the Withdrawal Agreement to be concluded, he has quite obviously rejected Mrs May's plea for compromise. It was always unrealistic that she should expect anything different so she has painted herself into a corner. There is no escape.

The "ultras", meanwhile, are preening themselves about their clever little plan that will bring them to what they believe will be the end game of a "no deal" scenario. Having convinced themselves that the WTO option is tenable, the "no deal" hold no terrors for them.

However, they are being too clever for their own good. No amount of managing can entirely mitigate the effects of leaving the EU without a firm withdrawal agreement.

The EU may take measures, in its own interests, to reduce the immediate impact of withdrawal, and there are things that the UK government can do as well. These could reduce the headline effect of a "no deal" Brexit, even to the extent of making the situation less damaging than it actually is.

We know, for instance, that the Port of Calais has purchased additional land, on which it plans to build a major Border Inspection Post (facility). It will be some time before that is operational, leaving the possibility that the Commission devises legal waiver which will allow UK produce to enter the EU without the full range of checks that normally apply to third country goods.

On the other hand, it would be unwise to expect, or rely on this. The Commission instead might stick to the letter of its own law, and exclude the import of live animals and products of animal origin from the UK, until the British government has gone through the formal procedures required for listing as approved exporters. By the time that has been completed, the Calais BIP could be up and running.

In the interregnum, however – before EU Member States had fully committed the investment needed to deal with the UK as a third country – there might be a short window of opportunity. Having acquired the status of a third country, there would be nothing to stop the UK applying to join Efta and then bidding to become part of the EEA. In other words, the Efta/EEA option is not dead until the fat lady sings.

What might reactivate the possibility of us exercising this option are two things. Firstly, the effects of a "no deal" Brexit needs to be so damaging that the UK population demands that something be done to resolve the ensuing crises. Secondly, the political pressure arising, in an atmosphere of bitter recriminations, must mean that Mrs May is forced to relinquish her post as prime minister.

A not-unrealistic outcome of this could very well be a general election and, in crisis conditions, a cross-party government of national unity cannot be ruled out. There are good historical precedents for such an event.

Whatever the actual outcome, the new government would then have to approach Brussels with an outline proposal which, if accepted, could pave the way for the Efta/EEA option, by which time the dose of hard reality in the "no deal" purgatory would make the option politically tenable.

All this pre-supposes that a "no deal" scenario would be a disaster – and of sufficient impact to motivate politicians to seek remedies that lie in the direction of working with our European neighbours. In the febrile atmosphere of the moment, though, we could see sentiment turn the other way, as the blame for any hardship is focused on the European Union.

If that led to an upswelling of hostility, we could find the nation embracing isolation, despite the consequences. Once such a mood takes hold, policy is not necessarily going to be driven by rational people.

Furthermore, as the EU and its Member States are force to invest in systems and infrastructure to deal with the UK as a third country, they will become increasingly less interested in helping us to find solutions to what they will regard as self-inflicted wounds. The post-exit window of opportunity, therefore, may be very short.

One hopes that that prospect could focus minds over the next few months, lending urgency to the search for a workable solution to Brexit. But, as we see from the latest contributions from Mrs May and M. Barnier, the gap seems to be so great as to be unbridgeable.

Despite that, we can all live in hope that a last-minute solution will be found. But only fools will embrace the current situation or look upon it with any degree of optimism. We are sleepwalking into a political crisis, the like of which has not been experienced in living memory.

From our point of view, we must never accept that a "no deal" is the end of the matter, or abandon hope that, some day, we can get things moving in the direction of the Efta/EEA option. This requires an intensification of effort, to overcome the ignorance and misinformation that has so damaged perception of the option.

But this is the time also to think seriously about personal survival. It is not at all alarmist to be thinking in terms of stockpiling food and other essentials, including torches, and the basics in life from toilet paper to washing up liquid and even, closer to Brexit day, bottled water.

The very fact that we are thinking in such terms, though, underlines the extraordinary situation in which we find ourselves. In a time of plenty, and in the absence of war or natural catastrophe, to be thinking in terms of shortages of food and other essentials says volumes about how badly the Brexit process has been managed so far.

And, for this, there must be a political price to pay. Come what may, things can never be the same again. There must be a reckoning – the sooner the better while there are still opportunities for peaceful change.

Richard North 21/07/2018 link

Brexit: heads in the sand

Friday 20 July 2018  

It was Mrs May's in her Lancaster House speech who declared that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain".

That was on 17 January 2017, almost exactly eighteen months ago. Natural curiosity alone might suggest that one should start exploring precisely what that entailed. Certainly, it set me off on a trail which produced multiple posts all pointing to one inescapable conclusion: "no deal" is not a credible option.

About a year later the European Commission started its series of Notices to Stakeholders, setting out the consequences of the Brexit without a formal, ratified agreement. Largely ignored by UK politicians and media alike, the Commission has now upped the ante with the publication of COM(2018) 556 final - a communication on: "Preparing for the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on 30 March 2019".

Accompanying the Com is a press release and an annex listing the 68 Notices to Stakeholders so far published, plus a downloadable factsheet which sets out "Seven things businesses in the EU27 need to know in order to prepare for Brexit".

Collectively, this bundle of documentation paints a far more comprehensive picture of a "no deal" scenario than I ever could, but one could only draw the same conclusion that I did. There is no mistaking the severity of those consequences, across a wide spectrum of economic activity.

Yet, for all that, The Times, once known as the paper of record, seems to have ignored the Commission initiative, instead opting for a story headed: "Brexit - civil service chief John Manzoni warns no deal could have 'horrendous consequences'".

This is classic British media, obsessed with "planting the flag" on its reports, using UK sources for its reports rather than relying on anything of foreign origin. It is hardly surprising, as a result, that the population is so ill-informed about the European Union.

As to this Times report, we are told that the UK will be ready to crash out of the EU but there will be "horrendous consequences" if co-operation breaks down completely. We then get Manzoni, chief executive of the civil service, stating that while preparatory planning was being put in place for a "no deal" scenario, "not everything will be perfect" if it happens.

Manzoni was sharing his complacency with the public administration and constitutional affairs committee, to which he was giving oral evidence. The UK was doing what it could but it was difficult to determine how "third parties" such as EU member states, their local governments or private companies would act - and whether they would be "spiteful or ignorant" about the consequences.

There were, he added, "some things that really are very complicated in the absence of co-operation" such as data sharing, which is currently covered by EU agreements. And, in Manzoni's view, "These things are all in everybody's interests to get right but, on the other hand, we have to prepare in the event that there are either spiteful or ignorant or whatever activities by third parties".

That would make it "very uncomfortable" and could have "some horrendous consequences" but "that's what we have got to try and do our best to mitigate against". Nevertheless, he indicated that more work was needed before March 2019, saying: "I'm not sitting here today saying it's all going swimmingly well and we are ready, because we are not".

Then, to cement in this stunning level of complacency, we got a comment from Sir Mark Sedwill, the acting cabinet secretary. He though, "That puts it very well - we will be ready but we shouldn't assume it will be smooth, if it's a disruptive outcome".

So that's what we're getting from our supposedly Rolls-Royce civil service: if we are hit by a "no deal" scenario, "not everything will be perfect" and "we shouldn't assume it will be smooth".

Predictably, not a whiff of this or the Commission communication touches the Telegraph which continues to project the myth that the WTO option would be an acceptable outcome, with suggestions that this is actually being planned as a fall-back option if Barnier doesn't accept the White Paper – which, of course, he can't.

But, while the Europhile Independent does cover the Commission communication with its own report, it downplays the consequences. Offering scarcely any detail, it blandly observes that contingency plans are needed to prevent a "complete meltdown" if talks with the UK fail to reach agreement by October, while having senior EU officials warning that the "volatile" political situation in the UK made the outcome of talks hard to predict.

This, though, is positively alarmist by comparison with the piece in the Guardian by Simon Jenkins, who grandly declares: "Don’t worry, a no-deal Brexit won’t be allowed to happen".

"Even if Britain does leave the EU on WTO rules next March, life will still go on largely as normal", he writes. "Nothing will change. Planes will keep flying. Ferries will keep loading. Channel Tunnel officials will wave vehicles through. Orders will go out to keep moving, and await further instructions".

In this, Jenkins is entirely at one with John Redwood, who gaily tweets: " There is no cliff edge. Planes will fly & lorries will move thru ports the day after we leave just as they did the day before. We'll carry on trading, travelling, investing in EU countries as we do in non EU countries".

Several papers, including the Mail as well as the Independent give more coverage to IMF warnings on damage caused by a "no deal", preferring theoretical modelling to real-life detail, while the Mail, which seems to have ignored the Commission com, also runs a piece on an NAO report on the effects of Brexit on transport.

This report, covered by most national dailies, deals with – amongst other things – the lack of agreement on driving license recognition. Oddly, this was one of the first issues I dealt with on this blog, a few days before Mrs May's Lancaster House speech.

In the Mail piece there is also an "explainer". "Anodyne" would be a fair description. For sure, we get: "Customs checks on cross-Channel freight would cause havoc at ports, hitting food supplies and other goods", but on "aeroplanes", we are told: "Fears of planes not being able to fly appear far-fetched – unless the EU is determined to destroy both business and tourism".

Hardly anyone in the politico-media nexus, it seems, is prepared to lay out with any clarity the full extent of the consequences of a "no deal" Brexit, the overall impression being that it is somehow tolerable, with maybe a few problems round the edges.

Perhaps one slight (and temporary) exception this time is the BBC, which reports on the obscure business section of its website that the arrival of the Commission com is "timely". It coincides with a palpable shift in the minds of UK business leaders on the probability of leaving without a negotiated deal. It has gone up - and many UK companies are intensifying and accelerating their contingency plans to mitigate potentially severe disruption.

Nevertheless, the cultivated ignorance which dominates the media allows Mrs May to go to Ireland and utter bellicose statements about not accepting the EU's plans for the border. In Belfast today, she is expected to brand the EU's insistence on regulatory alignment north and south of the border as a "backstop" solution in the event of no deal as "unworkable", repeating her assertion that a border down the Irish Sea is unacceptable to any British prime minister.

By so doing, she is set to lock the Brexit talks into an impasse, the inevitable consequence of which is a chaotic "no deal" exit. And the only way this could be politically sustainable, this side of Brexit, is by playing down or obscuring the effects of such an outcome.

If people really had the first idea of what "no deal" actually meant, in detail, there would be such a storm of protest that no politician could even think of pursuing this line. But as long as they have their heads in the sand and, with the complicity of the media, practice mushroom management on the rest of us, the coming disaster will be on us before the majority realise how damaging it will be.

Richard North 20/07/2018 link

Brexit: closing in

Thursday 19 July 2018  

If something particularly unmentionable had legs and could speak in the House of Commons, it would possibly look rather like the erstwhile foreign secretary. And, in delivering his wormtongue personal statement in the House yesterday, Johnson illustrated the great divide between himself and the prime minister.

While he harped on about the Lancaster House speech, which marked the collapse of any sentient Brexit policy, Mrs May has been progressively forced to inch closer to reality, ending up with the White Paper. But getting closer to what is needed – but by no means close enough – this has the oaf Johnson throwing his toys out of the pram, unable to cope with a world of which he has never really been a part.

One way of describing Mrs May's current approach is to picture a wide estuary up which a ship must be piloted. The prime minister imagines that the navigable channel runs up the median line – a course she has charted with the White Paper. But, in fact, the deep water skirts one bank. Anything wide of that risks running aground.

If one takes one bank to be her Lancaster House "vision", the other is Efta/EEA. Johnson would have us running aground well before the ship reached its destination. The trouble is that Mrs May isn't going to get much further.

That much is evident from a report in the Guardian which seems to have taken time out to do some real journalism.

It is telling us that the EU's team of officials, led by Michel Barnier's deputy, Sabine Weyand, has picked apart the most contentious parts of the White Paper when it was presented to them by Olly Robbins this week. Discussions, apparently, were "difficult", with the Brussels team voicing the oft-deployed accusation of "cherry picking".

An EU diplomat representing a Member State says: "What the UK has proposed is unacceptable. We have had no progress on the issue". He adds: "it is good that the UK has tabled the White Paper but that is not what we are talking about at the moment. The withdrawal agreement and Irish protocol in it comes first".

The outcome, according to another of those omnipresent but anonymous senior EU diplomats, is that: "the White Paper is not going to form the basis of the negotiations". Nevertheless, there is still a reluctance in Brussels to speak out in open criticism of the White Paper. The feeling is that a full-blooded rejection would prove an existential threat to Theresa May's premiership, and hasten the collapse of the talks.

With this in mind, Barnier is expected to pull his punches on Friday when he addresses reporters at the end of a meeting of ministers from the 27 member states, where they are expected to be presented with a dossier drawn up by the European Commission laying out how to plan for a "no deal" Brexit. Instead of anything specific, Barnier is expected offer anodyne comments about the need to make progress on the Irish "backstop".

But, with concerns being expressed at the chaotic events unfolding in Westminster, British government sources are admitting to "growing despair" over what they regard as the "intransigence" of their EU counterparts. The new Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, is preparing to make public detailed plans on how the UK would deal with a lack of agreement by 29 March and a cliff-edge Brexit.

This means both sides are making preparations for a "no deal", although there are no indications that British officials understand the gravity of the situation. A UK source told the Guardian: "Of course both sides have to be ready for no deal and we have made extensive plans. The difference is that our plans include sensible mitigations to alleviate some of the worst imaginings that some people have".

Despite this, it seems the UK pharmaceutical industry is preparing to stockpile medicines and medical supplies against the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU. This is one of many signs of a growing sense of urgency, which even seems to be pervading the Brexit negotiations, with the Commission about to propose that the talks continue through the usual holiday month of August.

Furthermore, both UK and Brussels sources are suggested that an informal European Council in Salzburg in September could become a "crunch moment" when EU leaders will have a chance to revise the negotiating guidelines and instruct Barnier to take a more flexible approach. Alternatively, they could send the UK back to the drawing board.

Either way, it is thought, agreement in October on the withdrawal deal and the political declaration on the future relationship is highly unlikely. An emergency Council meeting is being pencilled in for early November.

In anticipation of failure, real world measures are being taken, with the Dutch government hiring nearly 1,000 customs officials to deal with Brexit. Pieter Omtzigt, the rapporteur on Brexit for the Dutch parliament, confirmed the recruitment had taken place. 

On the basis that the Netherlands are, after Germany, the second trading partner with the UK within the EU, he declared: "That means that because of the political uncertainty within the UK, I asked my government a year ago to start hiring new customs officials. They've hired almost a thousand customs officials just in case Britain crashes out".

Warming to his theme, he said: "We're a trading nation; we cannot afford our customs system to completely get stuck because from one day to the next we also have to check all the British exports of goods and services. We also hired veterinary officials because if you crash out, you also have that problem".

Not to be left out, the Irish government is also in the thick of it, apparently gearing up for a major confrontation with the WTO over the commitment to retain a soft Border in Ireland in the event of a "no-deal" Brexit.

It is understood that among the contingency plans being considered is a resourcing of the Revenue (Customs) to deal with the increase in customs-checked transactions that will take place after Brexit. It is investing in new data storage systems, security and staff to facilitate the increase.

Now government sources are saying they are prepared for major confrontation with WTO officials, who will insist on a border with the North as part of strict trade laws. "That's just not politically deliverable; we won't be doing it," a source said. "Brussels knows we can't go back to the borders of the past; it'll be a very difficult and different conversation".

This seems a confused situation as I would not expect WTO officials to be directly involved here. This is more a matter for the Commission and the WCO, which hosts the many customs conventions. However, the very fact this this issue is being raised is a sign of the increasing tensions over Brexit plans.

Even then, this is just part of the bigger picture where Ireland is quite deliberately stepping up contingency plans for a no-deal. Heavily influenced by the instability in Westminster, Leo Varadkar, believes that even if the withdrawal agreement was agreed in Brussels, there is no guarantee that it would get passed in London.

Varadkar also warns that the UK will be restricted in flying aircraft in European airspace in the event of a no deal Brexit. "The situation at the moment", he says, "is that the United Kingdom is part of the single European sky, and if they leave the EU they are not and that does mean that if there was a no deal hard Brexit next March the planes would not fly and Britain would be an island in many ways and that is something that they need to think about".

In a rather tart comment, he observes: "You cannot have your cake and eat it. You can't take back your waters and then expect to use other people's sky", adding, "In the unlikely event that we have a hard Brexit next March, with no deal, I think every country will struggle to put in place the necessary infrastructure and customs and veterinary officials in their ports and airports. It won't be just us".

With this dawning realisation of impending chaos, we now see even in the strangest of places, signs that the rats are seeking ways of abandoning the Mrs May's stranded ship. Thus we have Paul Goodman of Conservative Home sniffing round the edges of the Efta/EEA option. But, in common with a number of latter-day quasi-coverts, he sees the EEA as a temporary safe harbour, while the UK gets its act together and looks for something better.

Notwithstanding that the complexities of adapting the EEA Agreement to the needs of the UK would probably take a couple of years to negotiate, I can think of no better way of being rejected by Efta States than for the UK to expect them to roll over and accept the disruption of its presence, just so that we can sort out our own self-inflicted problems.

This points to an almost complete lack of any appreciation of what the Efta/EEA option actually entails, typifying the general approach of so many pundits to Brexit, where knowledge of the issues is treated as a handicap.

Not even their profound ignorance, though, can subdue the impression that the walls are closing in. Any confidence in the ability of the May administration to resolve Brexit has drained away, like that ebbing tide which will most certainly ground her metaphorical ship.

Richard North 19/07/2018 link

Brexit: the House of Stupid

Wednesday 18 July 2018  

OK, so Vote Leave and the ghastly Darren Grimes have been fined by the Electoral Commission for exceeding spending limits. I'm not sorry – they deserved what was coming to them and I hope they don't escape on a technicality and the fines stick.

I am not going to accept, however, that this in any way affects the legitimacy of the referendum result. Those that complain about a weakening of democracy need to remember that we joined the EEC in 1972 without a democratic mandate.

Joining was not in the Conservative manifesto, the vote in the Commons was rigged and, in the 1975 referendum, where the effect was reversed, there were no spending controls. The pro-EEC groups, got through £1,481,583 (roughly £11.2 million in today's money), vastly outgunning the "no" side, which spent a mere £133,630 (just over £1 million today).

Those born-again democrats who argue that the extra spending by Vote Leave would necessarily have garnered extra votes (as if politics was that simple) must, if they apply that measure to the 2016 referendum, concede that the 1975 vote was invalid.

That notwithstanding, the chances of a re-run are vanishingly small and it is about time frustrated remainers stopped trying to re-run the referendum and concentrated on the issues to hand – not least the almost complete collapse of our parliamentary system.

For my part, I can't remember exactly when it was that I decided that the House of Commons had lost it over Brexit. But if we needed any reminders of how far the MP collective has departed from reality, yesterday's proceedings in the House serve more than adequately.

There are various reports on which we can rely, but they all say roughly the same thing. The PM "squeaked home" on a vote on a customs union, only to lose by 305 to 301 a vote on an amendment calling for the UK to stay in the European medicines regulatory network.

The amendment was tabled by former minister Phillip Lee, who quit over Brexit last month. In his view, continued participation "makes the process of accessing life-saving new medicines and moving medicines quick and easy". It was vital, he said, to ensure that British citizens continued to get the treatment they needed after leaving the EU.

Specifically, the amendment required the government to make it a "a negotiating objective" to secure an agreement that would allow the United Kingdom to continue to participate fully in the partnership.

The point about this fatuous Clause 17 amendment is that membership of the European medicines regulatory network is open only to the national competent authorities in the Member States of the European Economic Area (EEA).

This is a man, a self-declared remainer, who resigned from his post as Justice Minister in order to campaign for a "proper meaningful vote" on Brexit. Yet, unless he was conspiring to invent a back door into the EEA (which seems unlikely), his fog of ignorance absolutely typifies MPs' approach to Brexit – much noise and very little knowledge.

And just in case there is any idea that this ignorance is confined to the Tory ranks, we can see Jonathan Ashworth, Labour MP for Leicester South, declare on Twitter: "Can't understand why Tory govt opposed amendment to keep Britain in the European Medicines Agency – its (sic) vital for patients and NHS - fortunately govt lost the vote just now".

If parliament was ever in need of a new motto, at least Mr Ashworth has found it for his fellow MPs, in the first two words of his tweet: "can't understand". For some, though, "won't" might be more appropriate, even if the effect is the same.

Not one of the 305 MPs who voted for the measure appear to have understood that the object of the amendment was unattainable. For instance, Kenneth Clarke could "not understand, given that the White Paper also supports keeping our present arrangements, if we can, by remaining within the European Medicines Agency, is why on earth these proposals are being resisted".

This is the Mr Clarke who famously didn't read the Maastricht Treaty, so he was not going to read the negotiating guidelines which states that, "the Union will preserve its autonomy as regards its decision-making, which excludes participation of the United Kingdom as a third-country … in the decision-making of the Union bodies, offices and agencies".

Chris Leslie, Labour MP for Nottingham East thought the new clause was "a no-brainer". Said "no brain" Leslie, "If we are going to preserve anything, we must surely keep the frictionless flow of medicines and treatments for our national health service going".

Dr Paul Williams, Labour, Stockton South, similarly exposed his ignorance when he declared that "we still have the chance to be part of the European medicines regulatory network partnership, and continue to benefit from the work of the EMA (European Medicines Agency)", adding to this by stating that "we could do that by remaining a member of the EU, by becoming a member of the European Free Trade Association, or by negotiating an associate membership of the EMA".

While the first of his three options is correct, Efta, per sec does not give access to the network, and while there are international agreements with EMA, there is no provision for associate membership.

For all that, the actual debate on the motion was remarkably brief, yet not one MP opposing the motion – nor even a government minister – intervened to say that current government policy of remaining outside the Single Market made the amendment impossible for the government to pursue it.

What gives this wider relevance is that it illustrates how the House has lost touch with reality, arguing over the details with not the slightest appreciation of how Brussels will respond to their votes. So self-obsessed and inwards looking have MPs become that they seem to have lost any awareness that the European Union is a party to Brexit. They behave as if Brussels has ceased to exist.

Despite that, the political instability in London and turmoil in Westminster has not gone unnoticed. The Irish government is to step up its preparations for a hard Brexit and there is a report that the EU is preparing the release of "strongly-worded" emergency guidelines on preparations for a no deal Brexit, with an announcement planned from Barnier on Friday.

Meanwhile, in Calais, former French minister and president of Hauts-de-France, Xavier Bertrand has said that his port and his counterpart in Dover are facing "economic catastrophe" because of Brexit.

He complains that both the UK and the EU are allowing the two ports to drift towards disaster and has called on Emmanuel Macron to break the EU ban on bilateral talks to salvage the situation and have direct negotiations with Theresa May. "The way things are going", he says, "we are going to be left standing staring at each other like strangers. It's madness, pure utter madness".

Bertrand has made five trips to Britain to try to impress upon politicians and officials the need to swing contingency plans into action. He said his talks had been frank, but Dover-Calais was not "first in line in negotiations" meaning nothing was happening. "I am going to one more time try to increase the pressure and warn people about the dangers: what about the catastrophe?" he says, but time is running out.

"For a long time I was very optimistic", Bertrand adds. "I was afraid, but I believed the common sense and pragmatism would prevail. Now I am losing my sense of optimism but I want to find a way to avoid that catastrophe if things are not going to get better".

Rather than appreciating the urgency and potential consequences of this inactivity, the House of Commons is indulging in the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns, perhaps better put as "blathering while Brussels fumes". It must surely realise that in a world of television and the internet, what it does and says can be seen round the world. No longer does one have to wait for the following day to see a print copy of Hansard.

Basically, if the House of Commons can't do better than it has been doing, and start realistically to address the problems of Brexit, it doesn't deserve to exist. Largely, it is devoting time to party political games and internecine squabbles, making it a complete waste of time and space. From the House of Commons, it has become the House of Stupid.

Richard North 18/07/2018 link

Brexit: snake oil strikes again

Tuesday 17 July 2018  

While our MPs were playing their games in Westminster, lifting Brexit to new heights of what a Guardian columnist termed "peak confusion", dark forces were nibbling around the edges in an attempt further to undermine Mrs May's White Paper.

At first sight the response to the Mrs May's White Paper, amounting to 154 pages, is pretty impressive. That's the length of the new IEA report which claims that, by 2034, its alternative could mean a GDP of up to 7.25 percent higher than it would otherwise have been.

But, when one finds that the authors are Shanker "Snake Oil" Singham, Radomir Tylecote and Victoria Hewson, it doesn't take long to realise that this is reheated Legatum Institute trash, despite being dressed up in the new title: "Freedom to Flourish".

The declared theme of this paper is "UK regulatory autonomy, recognition, and a productive economy", arguing that "withdrawal from the EU must mean regulatory autonomy for the United Kingdom – sovereignty over its regulations".

This is the means by which the authors argue that their 7.25 percent GDP hike will be delivered, spelt out in detail as requiring the UK to gain autonomy to make its own regulation, standards and system of conformity assessment.

Rejecting the imposition of EU law, it must also ensure that any recognition of EU regulations, standards and conformity assessment system is unilateral, and, finally, when it comes to the UK counterparts, we should seek EU recognition, thus completing the loop on mutual recognition.

Even before exploring the fatuity of this strategy, however, we need to look for the evidence to support the GDP claim, when we find one meagre paragraph which blandly informs us that "estimating the impacts of regulatory reform is challenging".

To overcome this "challenge", Team Singham relies on methodology used in a previous paper, written largely by himself. This supposedly provides the basis for a calculation which involves costing the effects of improved productivity and reduced anti-competitive barriers.

But the core of the calculation (apparently – the working out isn't shown) relies on matching "reforms" from Trans-Pacific Partnership countries and the United States which reduce domestic distortions by 30 percent over a 15-year period (starting from 2019 when the UK withdraws from the EU).

These miraculous events, which the UK must get under way in less than 20 months, are supposed to deliver an annual two percent reduction in distortions, each year estimated to improve GDP by 0.4 percent.

In the absence of any distortions reductions, GDP would grow by around 1.9 percent per year. But with a two percentage point annual distortions reduction, the annual GDP growth rate could increase to 2.4 per cent (for the UK, US and the TPP 11).

Tenuous, I would venture, doesn't even begin to describe this, but it is enough in the minds of Team Singham to justify dumping Mrs May's White Paper and substituting their own.

Autonomy, they say, must be the starting point: it is not simply one of the benefits of withdrawal, but a central requirement of the process that will allow the others to take place. Autonomy is therefore the vital competitive opportunity for an independent UK economy.

Given the importance of this "central requirement", one might have thought that we would be offered comprehensive lists of regulation with details of their costs and estimates of savings once they are removed or replaced with something less inhibitory to competition.

For all the hype, though, when we get down to the detail, we find Team Singham relying on regulatory costs produced by Open Europe in 2016, all based on government impact analyses of some antiquity and dubious accuracy. But how we are then supposed to grow our economy faster by dealing with these regulations simply isn't shown.

By any reasonable expectation, I think can be said with confidence that the papers comes nowhere near justifying its GDP growth figure – this point alone invalidating the thesis. For the sake of an entirely unsupported figure, we are supposed to ditch any idea of regulatory alignment with the EU, and then push for mutual recognition.

At the end of this path, of course, lies "no deal". On multiple occasions, the EU has made it very clear that it will not agree to mutual recognition of standards outside the framework of the Single Market. Therefore, if the UK insists on such mutual recognition, there is not even a resolution of the Irish border to be had.

Putting that element into the mix, the scheme on offer from Team Singham involves pitching for a 0.4 percent annual enhancement in GDP, potentially arising from better trading conditions with the US and TPP countries but, in so doing, putting at risk the £270 billion annual trade with the EU, currently worth ten percent of GDP.

This, though, seems to be the relationship which Davis and Baker are seeking, yet it is one that lacks any coherence whatsoever. At the heart of this flawed strategy is the dogma that we must "take back control", which translates into the UK making its own laws – "sovereignty over its regulations". This is the starting point of Singham et al, which is then (falsely) argued to be economically advantageous.

But even if we take away the EU dimension, we still have the "double coffin-lid" effect, where the UK is still bound by laws made at a regional or global level. Regulatory autonomy does not come with Brexit, under any conditions. To attain that state, we would have to walk away from dozens of international standard-setting bodies.

At this level, even if we could achieve regulatory autonomy, why would we want to? What would be the point of having our own separate standards for aerodrome safety when, to fall below the ICAO Annex 14 standard would be to have our airports made off limits to international traffic.

We might recall that ICAO also sets the technical standards for passports, something about which I was reminded when I sought recently to renew my passport on-line.

The system requires submission of a digital photograph, which is not easy to get right. Mine failed the automated checks, then eliciting a message from the Passport Office, declaring: "The photo you submitted with your passport application can't be used. It doesn't meet the photo standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation".

If Brexit demands that the UK has sovereignty over its regulations, then we could end up with our own photo standard, whence our marvellously blue passports would not be acceptable anywhere in the world, other than in British sovereign territories.

One could go on, and it would be useful some time to expose the tricks Singham et al use to give their work spurious credibility. But it is so plainly obvious that this "plan" is a non-starter that we need not waste any more time on it.

But, as we move from one incoherent plan to another, we get closer to a "no deal" Brexit, from which Pete warns the Brexiters have most to fear.

Even the Guardian is cottoning on. After last night's shenanigans, it observes that fears are growing at Westminster that there is now no Brexit deal – not the Chequers plan, nor David Davis's Canada-style trade deal, nor a no-deal scenario – that could command the backing of a majority of MPs.

That leaves the one plan standing – the Efta/EEA option. Systematically trashed by both official campaigns during the referendum campaign, it has nevertheless stood the time as the only thing that could work. And, if it comes down to that or no deal, under normal circumstances, it would be a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, as we move from a no-brainer to a parliament with no brains, a "no deal" has never seemed more likely.

Richard North 17/07/2018 link

Brexit: down to the stump

Monday 16 July 2018  

In dealing with something like Brexit, when the noise level gets too high, one tends either to shut down, or apply a filter. In the latter event, the filter is usually selective, so one is bound to lose some intelligence and an amount of objectivity. And by this mechanism, one finds that once we reach saturation point, situational awareness – as they term it in the military – actually decreases.

You can get really into this, with a discussion of the OODA loop but, without taking it too deep, it is relatively uncontentious to assert that, when it comes to information, more isn't necessarily better. When there is too much, not even a filter is of any value. One resorts to that higher defence level and simply shuts down.

Most people, I suspect, reached this point a while ago. And this weekend, I've probably got as close to it as makes no difference. Fortunately – from the perspective of my sanity – we had the tree surgeons in last week to remove a spruce which had grown over-large and was too close to the house. It had to go.

That, of course, leaves us with a stump which, because of its particular location, needs to be removed. One can spend many happy hours on You-Tube learning how to do this. The most entertaining way was to shackle a Russian tank transporter to a stump and apply maximum horsepower – only to watch the chains break.

My technique, learned from past experience, it to treat the area like an archaeology site, using no more than a trowel painstakingly to expose the major roots, whence one can sever them with a saw or an axe and liberate the stump. If you have patience, and do it little and often, the job is soon done.

It comes to something, though, when this is more fulfilling than charting the serpentine progress of Brexit, more so when one has to deal with what Pete might describe as the "bellend" David Davis. Wasting time and space in The Sunday Times following his resignation, he claims that Mrs May has "left our fingers in the EU mangle", but then asserts, "there is a way to get free".

Instead of [partially] adopting the "common rule book", Mr Davis would have us operate within a "mutual recognition of standards and inspection" regime to minimise the burden of bureaucracy. The Commission, he says, "does not like this much, but it has negotiated mutual recognition regimes with other countries in the past. And on the basis of my experience, most European countries are comfortable with this".

Thus does this man demonstrate that, in his period in office – to say nothing of his entire career – he has learned precious little of the ways of the EU. To my knowledge, no country in the world has successfully negotiated a "mutual recognition of standards" regime. This applies only to Single Market participants, and then only in the absence of a harmonised standard.

An earlier edition of the Telegraph looked at the distinction in conspiratorial terms, calling in aid the odious Steve Baker to tell us that an "establishment elite" had secretly been pursuing a plan for a much softer Brexit than the one on which he and Mr Davis had been working.

That Mrs May has rejected the flawed idea of relying on "mutual recognition of standards" is perhaps the one saving grace of the White Paper. But when one recalls that this is the brainchild of Shanker "Snake Oil" Singham, and comes straight out of the Legatum (now IEA) play book, this also represents a turning point in Singham's influence.

Whatever the eventual outcome of Brexit, with the departure of Singham's sponsors, we may have seen the weakening of the grip of this Rasputin-like figure over the Department for Exiting the European Union.

Had either Davis or Baker the brains they were born with, though, they could have read Barnier's speech from last Tuesday in New York. There, he specifically mentioned the UK wanting the EU to accept a system of mutual recognition of standards, a proposition which he rejected.

Once again, we had a reference to the common "ecosystem" of regulation, supervision and enforcement, with Barnier then declaring that, "the UK needs to understand that the EU cannot accept such mutual market access without all the safeguards that underpin it".

Barnier could not be more direct, or blunt, but still it doesn't percolate into the brains of the "Ultras", and their ministerial representatives. They should not even need telling but, since it has been spelt out to them, the very least they could do is take "no" for an answer.

This is something Andrew Marr could have picked up when he interviewed Mrs May on his show yesterday but, as we've found to our cost, the BBC doesn't do detail.

One could see Marr itching to explore the tensions between the prime minister and her Brexit secretary, turning the issue into a biff-bam personality contest. One was allowed to know that, in seeking a "common rule book", Mrs May had come up with a different approach, but Marr did not trouble his interviewee to explain the differences in approaches. All he wanted to know was when Davis had learned about the intention to pursue the different approach.

Nor indeed did Marr question whether Brussels might accept the White Paper and he even allowed Mrs May to get way, unchallenged, with asserting that adopting the "EEA-plus" option "would have meant accepting free movement and accepting being in the customs union".

To that precise point, Marr responded by saying that, "in doing all of this you cut out the man you put in charge of the Brexit negotiations and his department". They were working on a different plan, said Marr, "they had no idea about this common rule book, and you cut them out and therefore he had no option but to resign, and he's clearly very angry about it".

From this, you can see why digging up tree stumps with a trowel becomes more interesting than Brexit. Marr and his BBC colleagues are fundamentally incapable of stepping outside their own self-imposed limitations, and constantly regurgitate the same personality politics paradigm. It's as if it was written into their DNA.

But even when you look wider, it gets worse. The legacy media are currently trumpeting headlines about a speech Mrs May is to give today at the Farnborough airshow, the BBC version stating that her "Brexit plan will protect UK aerospace", with the prime minister ready to declare that the "common rule book" will ensure "frictionless" exchange.

It won't, of course. Nothing short of full participation in the EEA will give the UK the status it needs for a trouble-free Brexit, but there is not a single media organ capable or willing to tell us why the May plan won't work. And by their default does ignorance grip the land.

At least the Observer gave us a little more meat, with an authored article from Peter Mandelson, headed: "The Chequers Brexit compromise offers the worst of both worlds".

Whatever you might think of Mandelson as a person, he does have the experience as EU trade commissioner, and was highly rated in the post. And it's interesting that he too should refer to a "compromise". That's how I see the White Paper. Mrs May has not studied the ground to see what is needed to bring Brexit home. She has tried to steer a course between two extremes in the hope that both sides will give way.

Anyhow, Mandelson thought the plan would please nobody, but assumed that the public might conclude that these proposals represent the best available. In reality, he says. "it's a spatchcocked, half-in, half-out plan".

In his view, every aspect of the plan is fraught with uncertainty about how it will operate in practice and whether it will endure. It will not, he says, "be agreed on by the EU in its present form because of the issues of principle it raises for EU trade policy".

Mandelson goes on to say that, "if it is somehow accepted as a starting point for negotiation there is no chance of the detail being agreed by next March". Its probable unworkability will only be exposed after Britain has left the EU, when Britain will have even less bargaining power than it has now.

That, it seems, is the very best the White Paper offers - a starting point for negotiation. With 17 months down the line, with a timetable that was already impossibly tight, all Mrs May has been able to do is cobble together a "spatchcocked, half-in, half-out plan" that might just keep us at the negotiating table.

Nevertheless, Mrs May does seem to hint – as she did during the Marr show – that there is room for more concessions. Yet this is precisely what the "Ultras" fear. Already concerned that she has gone too far, the brightest among them realise that "the plan" isn't enough. The government will have to go further.

There are enough clues, though, to demonstrate that Mrs May is not master of her brief. She really seems to have no understanding of Barnier's "ecosystem" of regulation, supervision and enforcement, and therefore will not realise that nothing short of the institutional structures of the EEA will give us what we need.

But, above all – as Mandelson observes – there simply isn't time to treat the White Paper as a starter for ten. It is out of our hands now.

Richard North 16/07/2018 link

Brexit: a scorpion's work

Sunday 15 July 2018  

Having regard to Theresa May's response to Nigel Dodds concerning the Irish "backstop", which I mentioned in yesterday's piece, there can be little doubt that, on this point alone, there can be no Withdrawal Agreement.

If that wasn't enough, though, a gimlet-eyed reader also noted another important intervention last Monday, this one by the DUP's Sammy Wilson. Addressing the prime minister, he noted that it had been argued that the policy agreed at Chequers "was necessary to protect the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, because it would avoid the need to implement the backstop arrangement with the Irish Republic".

Thus, Wilson asked: "Is it part of the agreement that the Government will sign a legally binding protocol with the EU that would treat Northern Ireland differently? If not, why is it necessary to have a divisive future trade arrangement that is designed to protect the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom if that was never in jeopardy?

The prime minister's response to this was, to say the very least, instructive. "We have rejected the European Union's proposal in relation to the protocol", she said, then adding:
The expectation is that there will be a protocol in the withdrawal agreement, but we have always made clear our belief that the best resolution of the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland will come within the overall trading relationship that we develop between the United Kingdom and the EU, and that is exactly what this plan delivers.
Again, we see another interesting use of the indefinite article – experienced in the Brexit debate when discussing the customs union as against a customs union.

Here, we see the distinction between the protocol and a protocol. Explicitly, Mrs May is saying that the current text has been rejected, but she keeps open the proposition of another text being agreed. Implicitly, this has to be different to the original text. It could hardly be the same, otherwise Mrs May would be agreeing the protocol.

If we go back to December's Joint Report and the infamous paragraph 49, we recall the statement that: "The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements".

It was intended at the time (and remains the intention) that these objectives would be achieved through the overall EU-UK relationship. But, if this was not be possible, the United Kingdom would "propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland".

Then, in the absence of agreed solutions, the UK would "maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement".

With respect to the commitment to maintain "full alignment" with the rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union, this did not pre-suppose that Northern Ireland would remain in either the Internal Market or the Customs Union – merely that the relevant rules should continue to apply.

Clearly, the "overall EU-UK relationship" as set out in the White Paper is not sufficient to avoid a hard border, whence there must be "specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland", failing which there was the so-called "backstop", which was set out in the protocol to the draft agreement.

With that protocol now firmly and unequivocally rejected, there is no "backstop" in place. Before there can be any further progress on the Withdrawal Agreement, a new protocol text must be produced and agreed.

Given that the "backstop" was supposed to have been settled in June and that there are no new proposals on the table, it does not seem possible that a new draft could be prepared and agreed by the time of the next European Council in October, even if the EU was prepared to discuss the issue.

And it must be remembered that, if any proposal from the UK lies outside the EU's current negotiating guidelines, M. Barnier must go back to the European Council for a new mandate. His first opportunity to do that would be in October, which necessarily precludes an agreement by that Council of a protocol which differed substantially from the original.

However, even with that hurdle out of the way, we still have the overall relationship to address. And that gives Booker his theme for this week's column (no link yet).

Ever since 17.4 million of us voted to leave the European Union, he says, we have been confronted with one question overriding all others: how could we free ourselves completely from the political structures of the EU without doing irreparable damage to our economy?

Through more than 40 years of European integration, the UK economy has become so enmeshed with those of the rest of the EU, that a vast tranche of our economic activity is only legally authorised by a thicket of EU laws.

Was it possible, he asks, that we could extricate ourselves entirely from the EU, while holding on to that economic relationship which, in exports alone, provides 14 percent of our national income, also yielding a hefty slice of Government tax income?

Even before the referendum, he reminds his readers that some of us were urging that there was only one practical way we could get pretty well all we wanted: to become a fully independent country, freeing ourselves from three quarters of the EU’s laws, while continuing to enjoy "frictionless" trade, and also free to sign trade deals across the world, and even to exercise some control over EU immigration.

This was to remain in the wider European Economic Area (EEA) by re-joining Norway in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Membership could have solved virtually all the problems which have proved so intractable, including the Irish border, But Theresa May chose instead to leave the EU's economic system altogether, to become a "third country".

Thus have we wasted 17 months discussing entirely fanciful proposals, each of which contradicted the "core principle" which the EU made clear even before we triggered Article 50: that “it will not be possible to cherry-pick and be a participant in parts of the Single Market", to enjoy a uniquely privileged status not open to any “third country” outside the EEA.

Yet, Booker declares, what is Mrs May’s latest proposal, which has provoked such uproar, but again exactly that. It is so detached from reality that it can only end next March in the ultimate disaster, where we crash out without an agreement. Few people in Britain yet have any idea of the chaos which will ensue, as we are shut out of our largest export market and much besides.

Whole industries will go into meltdown. It would be the gravest economic crisis in our history. And we shall have brought it entirely on ourselves, because those in charge of our affairs have never begun to understand the technical realities of what we were up against.

That sums up the Booker view, but it is clearly not one shared by his own newspaper. The Telegraph view is that Brexit needs to be "urgently renegotiated" and, if the EU refuses, the Government has other options at its disposal.

One of the few positives to emerge from the Chequers meeting, the paper says, was a commitment to step up plans for "no deal". These, it says, must be accelerated massively. The Government should be publicly preparing to inject billions into the economy to mitigate any short-term economic uncertainty.

Then, according to the Telegraph, the government should make it clear that "bizarre threats" to, for example, "cut off electricity supplies to Northern Ireland or prevent British planes from landing in European airports are insulting and unacceptable, and will receive a resolute response".

And this is as far as it gets although, symbolically, the clown Hannan would vote for Mrs May's Brexit plan – not that he would get a chance, being a lowly MEP.

Taking on the Telegraph's response to the "bizarre threats", though, it should be aware that there are laws made by the EU, with the active participation of the UK, which prohibit the sale of electricity to third countries via an interconnector, unless there are specific agreements in place to manage the transfer. Equally, no third country airliner may land at an EU/EEA airport unless it conforms with the Third Country Operator safety checks, as administered by EASA.

These are laws which, to date, the UK has been entirely content to have applied. Yet it appears that, when those same laws apply to the UK as a third country, they become "insulting and unacceptable".

Nevertheless, the chances are that the UK will not get a chance to decide whether it wants to be "insulted" by "unacceptable" laws. Mrs May has to resolve the "backstop" and, if it is anything close to being acceptable to the EU, the DUP will most certainly reject it.

There are those who say that, for the DUP to stand its ground would bring down the Conservatives and thus, also, deprive the DUP of its influence. But we are not looking at rational behaviour here. The DUP is the scorpion to Mrs May's frog. It will sting her to death midstream, and drown itself – because "that's what it does".

Richard North 15/07/2018 link

Brexit: the Irish conundrum

Saturday 14 July 2018  

It was inevitable that the Trump visit was going to distract the media from the detail of Mrs May's White Paper. But then, it takes very little to distract the legacy media. But when it comes down to it, Trump is just noise. We are not negotiating Brexit with the United States. What its president says, in the short-term really doesn't matter.

What does matter, and really matter, is Ireland. Whether we like it or not, the outcome of Brexit depends on resolving the Irish border question. And upon that depends the fate of the United Kingdom. For, despite the fatuous, malign ignorance of the likes of Liam Halligan, "no deal" is not a walk in the park.

In fact, Halligan, in asserting that Britain "already conducts most of its trade outside the EU, largely under WTO rules", is lying. And he must know he's lying. Furthermore, what he's doing is irresponsible. It's equivalent to shouting "fire" in a crowded cinema auditorium – dangerous public misinformation on an industrial scale.

What we really need to know is whether our Government is going to do enough, in the words of the White Paper, thereby "preserving the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK and honouring the letter and the spirit of the Belfast ('Good Friday') Agreement" (GFA).

But therein lies the essence of the Irish conundrum. Honouring the letter and the sprit of the GFA means avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. On the other hand, "preserving the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK" effectively prevents the establishment of a "wet" border, which is the necessary outcome of adopting the so-called "backstop" solution.

As far as Mrs May is concerned, the "partnership" outlined in the White Paper "would see the UK and the EU meet their commitments to Northern Ireland and Ireland through the overall future relationship". Yet, despite that, the UK is prepared to accept the "operational legal text the UK will agree with the EU on the 'backstop' solution as part of the Withdrawal Agreement will not have to be used".

This convoluted wording is to be found in the Chequers statement and it is repeated verbatim in the White Paper. And, to say it is ambiguous is not an overstatement. On the face of it, it could mean that Mrs May is prepared to accept the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, something to which, she has said, "no British prime minister could ever agree".

That she might be prepared to backtrack was certainly something that concerned Nigel Dodds, MP for Belfast North and deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. Last Monday, in questions following her statement on the Chequers cabinet meeting, he tackled the prime minister on "the continuing obligation of the Government to the so-called backstop arrangement".

Dodds asked her to "make it clear that as far as the backstop is concerned she stands by her rejection of the EU's legal interpretation and there will be no constitutional, political or regulatory differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK".

The prime minister's response was unequivocal. "I am happy to say", she told Dodds, "that I continue to reject the protocol proposal of the so-called backstop put forward by the European Commission earlier this year". Continuing, she said: "The fact that it would have effectively carved Northern Ireland away from the rest of the UK and kept it in the customs union and most of the single market would have meant that border down the Irish sea - that is completely unacceptable to the Government of the UK".

This was picked up by the Irish Times but scarcely, if at all, by the UK press. Even then, the significance was not explored and, since then, reportage on Brexit has been swamped by the rush of resignations, followed by the Trump visit.

But what Mrs May has affirmed is that the "operational legal text" in the protocol has been junked by the UK government. The text to which it "will agree" is something that has yet to be tabled and, if it is ever agreed, the UK expects that it will not be used.

From our partial evaluation of the UK's proposed partnership agreement, however, it is manifestly clear that it does not offer a solution to the Irish border – not least because the "Single Market in goods" does not have the slightest chance of being accepted by the EU.

The net effect of the Chequers cabinet meeting, the statement and then the White Paper, is to put us back to a position before the draft withdrawal agreement was published – on 15 March. To think that we were back to square one would be optimistic. We have landed on the "go to jail" square, and don't even get to pass "go".

So far though, we can see Barnier and the "colleagues" playing this low key. This is entirely as expected, and very much accords with what we were led to believe was the way it would be played. Even Leo Varadkar is restrained in his response. He describes the White Paper on Brexit as an "evolution" of the UK's position, but does not see it as a solution to Brexit.

Understandably, the EU collective has no interest in pulling the plug on the talks until preparations for the UK crashing out are very much more advanced. And then, it will be tactically more appropriate for the UK to be seen as jumping, rather than being pushed. We need not, therefore, expect much drama over the next few months.

An indication of the way things will be played comes here with a report that the European Commission's "preparedness unit" has given Member States "strongly worded guidelines" on stepping up contingency planning to cope with a "no deal" scenario. This, it is understood, was drafted after the publication of the Chequers statement.

The guidelines warn Member States to make preparations across a range of areas, including customs, aviation and controls on food, animal and plant products, and financial services.

"Although the withdrawal of the United Kingdom may appear to be playing out at a very high and rather abstract level between the United Kingdom and the EU,” they say, "its consequences will be very real for citizens, professionals and business operators".

Under the "no-deal" scenario, the guidelines advise Member States that, "the EU must apply its regulation at all borders with the United Kingdom as a third country, including checks and controls for customs, sanitary and phytosanitary standards and norms verification, movement of persons (potentially including visa requirements) purposes".

Thus, while the absurd UK legacy media frets over how the Conservatives are reacting to their leader's White Paper, and whether it might be acceptable to Parliament, the real world focus is elsewhere, on how to cope with practical problems of considerable magnitude.

Here, though, there has been what could have been taken as a flash of realism, with The Sun reporting that ministers have drawn up "secret plans" to stockpile processed food in the event of Brexit talks collapsing. Similarly, there is some recognition that supplies of electricity might be at risk, through loss of the interconnectors.

However, rather than examples of sensible planning, responses are being cast as gesture politics, to show Brussels that "no deal" is not a bluff. Yet, Brussels is way ahead of the game. With the White Paper being framed by some as the last and best "offer" from the UK government, the Commission is taking it as the most explicit confirmation that the Brexit negotiations are on the rocks.

And, as if we needed reminding, we are all conscious of the sequence: if there is no settlement of the Irish border question, there is no withdrawal agreement. And if there is no withdrawal agreement, there is no transition period. We crash out of the EU on 29 March next year.

Richard North 14/07/2018 link

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