The improbable demanded by the unreasonable

Sunday 21 January 2018  

A theme we often return to on this blog is how easy it is to read things wrong if you assume the actors are working rationally and with good information. This is something we are often guilty of. The process of blogging Brexit, therefore, is a process of understanding who thinks what and for what reason.

Were we to depend entirely on logic and reason then the mechanics of treaty and trade law would dictate a number of outcomes. We are, however, dealing with politicians who don't know the system, don't know its rules, and will never take measures to remedy this. It is for this reason we see politicians repeatedly asserting that things that are not possible are not impossible.

Since the media has no institutional knowledge and the collective memory of a gerbil with ADHD it will uncritically repeat every utterance as though no events preceded it. Especially so should a story be convenient to the house narrative. This is how we find the media constructing its own parallel universe.

What further complicates matters is when member states flatly contradict that which has been set out by M. Barnier. No doubt that member states will have influence but there are certain laws of Brexit physics which cannot be broken. All of this, though, is ignored by the media who are only too happy to acknowledge that UK ministers have no idea what they are doing, but somehow accept that foreign politicians are oracles on all matters from financial services to the inner workings of the EEA.

This phenomenon will be especially familiar to anyone who has tried arguing the case for the EEA where europhile Norwegian politicians are repeatedly quoted despite them having precisely zero exposure to the Efta process. These such appeals to authority make it all but impossible to separate truth from fiction.

We then have mixed signals from politicians like Corbyn who says that we must leave the single market but also must have "some sort of customs union". It is an absolute certainty that a man like Corbyn can not tell us the difference between either, meanwhile we have yet to see a legacy media journalist able to make an accurate distinction either. We are therefore left to wonder how anyone can make confident assertions about the public will. 

The Evening Standard tells us that "The majority of Britons would support remaining in the single market and customs union post-Brexit, a new opinion poll suggests. Some 60 per cent of those surveyed said they backed remaining in the single market, with 24 per cent neither agreeing nor disagreeing and 16 per cent opposed. The BMG Research poll for website Left Foot Forward found that 57 per cent said the UK should remain a member of the customs union, with 16 per cent said it should leave".

Since it is similarly certain the public does not have a working understanding of the two concepts we are no further forward in understanding what the UK wants. We know what it needs but when armed with notions that the single market somehow prevents renationalisation of services, we are again confronted with opposition from people who would otherwise see sense. 

It would appear that our approach to Brexit will be entirely dictated by a number of public misapprehensions which our media has been unable to skewer. Given that the misapprehensions themselves are not static and are different on any given day, we might as well let a roulette wheel decide our fate. The danger is now that events will slide into autopilot now that the public and the media have expended their capacity to engage in the issues. 

The question of whether we should leave the EU was always the easy bit. Any nation locked into the EU will always have a government more answerable to Brussels than its people. Leaving is a no brainer for democrats. The question of what comes after and what sort of relationship we do want, though, really depends on our preferred outcomes in the realms of the possible. Having failed to present a plan it is left to a government that doesn't want to leave and doesn't understand why we are leaving to make it up as they go along.  

Since we are dealing with neither rational nor informed actors working toward ill-defined objectives in pursuit of the improbable, demanded by the unreasonable (and often objectionable) it is now anyone's guess as to what Brexit will look like. We cannot then be surprised if business does not wait around to find out. 

Peter North 21/01/2018 link

Brexit: a political void

Saturday 20 January 2018  

With the way Brexit is going, more than ever, we need active monitoring and critical analysis of the government's performance. And, in our system there is probably no organisations better suited to these tasks than the opposition political parties.

Very obviously, our main party, Labour, is not doing terribly well and the Lib-Dems do not even register. To say they were useless would be something of a compliment.

Logically, the most obvious operation to step into the breach is Ukip, although that ship sailed a long time ago. The party is a shadow of its former self and increasingly, under the baleful tutelage of its new leader, it is said to be descending into civil war.

And now, we learn from that ever-reliable source, the Daily Mail that that party is on the brink of bankruptcy. Its recent accounts show it was £380,630 in debt before last year's election and now a group of senior party figures, led by MEPs Stuart Agnew and Bill Etheridge, are demanding radical cost-cutting to keep it afloat.

The party has been told that it needs immediately to start laying off staff and giving notice on its tenancies for office buildings. It will also have to ditch mailouts to party members, all part of "radical structural change" necessary to "save Ukip from going under".

The party has been called upon to "give immediate notice" to its chairman, national agent and spokesman whose wages they claimed make up 45 percent of Ukip's salary bill. Thus, in addition to "giving notice on all rented property", the party is being told that it needs to consider "suspending the practice of paying expenses to any senior personnel".

Furthermore, to add to the travails of the party, it faces the prospect of losing its leader. The National Executive Committee will hold a vote of confidence on Henry Bolton on Sunday - after he left his third wife, the Russian-born Smurova-Bolton, for a model less than half his age, who it emerged had posted a slew of racist messages online.

The only thing that might possibly save Bolton is the very financial crisis that is causing so many problems. The party simply can't afford another leadership contest.

Nor does there seem to be any obvious replacement. However, he is also being described by his former campaign manager as a "Walter Mitty character" who is killing off Ukip.

This Susie Govett who says of Bolton, "He's put the future of the whole party at stake at a key Brexit juncture, setting UKIP back a decade". She adds: "Now the party looks like it's full of fruitcakes and loonies like the Tories always said it was. If a party can't even govern ourselves, how can we seriously expect people to back us to govern the country?"

Interestingly, one name that does not feature in any report of a putative rescue is Nigel Farage. This is a man who used the party as a platform to bring him fame and fortune. And now he seems to have deserted the very party that has served him so well – to say nothing of the cause he so publicly championed – with no suggestion that he is to be part of the solution.

On the other hand, all sorts of mud seems to be floating around, if not exactly sticking, with talk of Russia, FBI investigations and much else.

Whatever one might think of Farage (and Ukip), not even his best friends would accuse him of leading a conventional lifestyle or of being surrounded by ordinary people. One member of his parliamentary group staff in Brussels, for instance, has been known for making trips to the Russian embassy in Belgium, and has been accused of orchestrating a smear campaign against a critic of the Kremlin.

This is Kevin Ellul Bonici, a native of Malta known to have a relationship with the Russian embassy. Bonici was part of a small team who worked in the administration of the secretariat office at the Farage's EFDD political group until at least 2015. Several sources said Bonici was close at that time to Farage, who relied on the core secretariat staff to help manage the EFDD.

Information about that came via the Guardian but much else has been published by a variety of sources, not a lot of it making sense. There lacks a unifying thread or anything approaching closure.

Someone who keeps an eye on such things is Greg Lance-Watkins who has posted some official papers from the US House of Representatives which adds further murk to an already murky situation – but very little light.

The latest on this is Nigel Farage supposedly having been thrust into the Donald Trump Russia scandal after being accused of secretly handing data to Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder.

Farage is said to have repeatedly met Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy and delivered him a "thumb drive" of information. It is unclear when the trips are alleged to have taken place but it appears the claim includes suggestions some visits happened before the 2016 vote.

The suggestion is that Farage was secretly passing data to the group that published hacked Democratic emails before the US election - to the benefit of Mr Trump. Unsurprisingly, Farage denies that charge, dismissing it as "yet more conspiratorial nonsense".

As to Russian links, rumours have extended to Arron Banks, with calls for an inquiry into "foreign interference".

The great danger is that rumours of Russian involvement, financial malpractice and other shady dealings will add to the strength to the case for reviewing if not Brexit itself but the conduct of the referendum. Although nothing yet has come to a head, there is every indication that such issues are going to run and run.

But whether or not this is the case, at the very least, it represents a huge distraction from the task at hand. Ukip members need desperately to be focusing on Brexit, with many good people having devoted years of service to the cause of leaving the EU. But now any utility the party ever had as a useful vehicle for addressing Brexit issues has long gone.

All of this creates a political void the like of which we have not known since the creation of Ukip. An awful lot of people no longer have a political home. And yet, as we indicated at the start of this piece, the need for a political organisation dedicated to the pursuit of Brexit has never been greater. 

How we fill that void is something we need to be thinking about, and thinking very hard indeed.

Richard North 20/01/2018 link

Brexit: the avoidance of doubt

Friday 19 January 2018  

Even on EUReferendum, readers might have noticed that we have an overnight break from blogging, an acknowlegment of the inherent weakness of mankind and the need for sleep. 

Most usually, during that period, the presses - in the old-fashioned sense - are rolling and the output of the day's activity is being processed for the next day. Thus, when one emerges to confront the new day, the expectation is that there will be a fresh ration of information, loosely described "news", ready to entertain and inform us.

It is a measure of the staleness of the Brexit debate, however, that yesterday morning the news displayed very little change from the day previously. When the Twitter feed was also sparse, one had to do a double-take to check that a new day had indeed dawned and that one was not locked into some grotesque version of Groundhog Day.

Thus, while on this blog, in anticipation of Macron and his ministers visiting the UK today, I had already written of concerns expressed about whether the transition was a "done deal", we found that the early morning version of the Telegraph (no paywall) was addressing the same issue.

In this context, we have a typically jingoistic headline presentation by this newspaper with: "Hopes of early Brexit transition deal in doubt as France 'refuses to ease pressure on the Brits'". Some might even think of this that this was at attempt to stoke up anti-French xenophobia.

That is certainly one reasonable interpretation of the opening passage which tells us that "British hopes of securing an early Brexit transition agreement this March have been thrown into fresh doubt after EU sources warned that an early deal was 'not a foregone conclusion'".

Despite as much already having been stated on this blog, we are nonetheless enjoined to admire the perspicacity of this noble journal as this intelligence is supposed to have been "revealed" to us by the Telegraph, the timing being such that we are acquainted with the information "as France tries to drive home its Brexit advantage".

The thing is, of course, that the negotiating mandate on the transitional period has yet to be finalised and will not be so until 29 January. And, as we have already observed, we have yet to be acquainted with the formal UK response – which is hardly surprising as there is nothing formal to which the Government can respond.

To say that there is "fresh doubt" over the progress of the transition agreement, therefore, could therefore be regarded as an exaggeration, or even a complete distortion of the current situation. This is a process shrouded in doubt – the very quintessence of doubt, where the outcome is not known and cannot be known until the conclusion of the negotiations.

That notwithstanding, we have been aware for some considerable time that Mrs May's room for manoeuvre has been heavily circumscribed and has been so ever since she took the precipitate step of committing us to withdrawing from the Single Market.

Basically, if we are to avoid the "cliff edge", Mrs May must agree to a transitional period and any such agreement must afford considerable degree of market access. We also know that such access will come with a price, and that the EU is not disposed (or able) to be generous in making concessions.

As yet, though, the full consequences of Mrs May's actions have yet to impact on the body politic. When the country comes to terms which what will be on offer (when the proposals are finalised), there may well be a sharp, even hostile reaction which may further limit Mrs May's room for manoeuvre. It may even close down her options to such an extent that the UK is unable to reach an agreement with the EU.

To that extent, such doubt as exists about the nature of the transitional agreement that can be reached rests in its greatest measure on the potential political reaction in the UK, and the tolerance of the "vassal" status that the agreement is expected to confer on us.

It might be fair to say that, while the EU is going through its process of establishing a formal mandate for its chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, Mrs May has neither sought nor obtained any sort of political or popular mandate which would direct her actions in response to the formal proposal from the EU.

However, it is an odd reflection of the situation that, while the EU is going through the prolonged and relatively transparent process of determining its negotiator's mandate, no equivalent process exists within the UK political system.

On the basis that the government subscribes to the doctrine of collective responsibility, one assumes that Mrs May will seek Cabinet approval for her response, although such approvals do not seem to have been sought in the past.

Mrs May has been known for her somewhat autocratic approach to such matters. Ironically, some might think, the "democratic" UK is being somewhat less transparent – and accountable – than the anti-democratic European Union when it comes to deciding on negotiation strategy and responses. And, given the absence of any transparency in the UK process, it is impossible at this stage to ascertain how the UK negotiators might respond. And therein lies much of the doubt in the process.

For the Telegraph, however, its focus seems not to be on the nature of any transitional agreement – it makes no comment at all on what sort of agreement that might transpire.

Instead, the newspaper seems entirely concerned with the timing of a "handshake agreement" and the need to conclude affairs by the European Council on 22-23 March. The pressure is on for an agreement by then, in order to clear the way for negotiations on the EU-UK future relationship. What exactly we agree appears to be of little importance.

Earlier, it had been asserted – specifically from the Bank of England's "top banking and insurance supervisor" – that the banks' Brexit preparations would have to "go up a gear" if the government failed to secure a transition agreement by the end of March this year.

This is seen by the Telegraph as an "implicit admission" that the UK is vulnerable to "EU foot-dragging" although, once again, there is no discussion on the nature of what might be agreed. One might be forced to conclude that only the fact of an agreement was of interest. What is actually agreed seems to be an irrelevance.

In practice, though, this cannot be the case. A good (or better) deal, if there is one to be had, would be worth a delay. Accepting a humiliating "vassal state” deal just for the sake of keeping to a notional timetable is hardly a rational approach to complex negotiations where there is everything to play for.

Where, as is the case, any transitional deal would not take effect until the end of March next year, there can be no absolute requirement for an agreement to be reached by this March.

An assurance that there will be a transitional agreement by the time we leave - and that the minimum baseline with be the "vassal state" scenario – should be enough reassurance for the banks and other businesses who need to prepare for our withdrawal. Delay under such circumstances is less of an issue, and of considerably less importance is the eventual outcome is an improved deal.

Assessing the current situation, therefore, the least of our concerns at the moment would appear to be the possibility of delay – whether or not arising from French intervention. The far greater concern is the quality of the deal, in pursuit of which some delay is tolerable, especially if – after this March – negotiations can continue in parallel with discussions on the EU-UK relationship.

Above all else, when it comes to doubt or delay, the biggest problem we have is Mrs May's insistence that we can conclude a trade deal by the end of March 2019, so that we are looking to conclude not a transitional deal but an "implementation" agreement.

That confusion, to me, would appear to be a far greater problem than the prospect of delay from the French or other EU sources. It the parties cannot even agree about what it is they are negotiating, that might prove a more potent cause of delay than any procedural hold-ups.

For all that, there has been little in the media, or in terms of political discussion, to address Mrs May's potentially fatal confusion about what transition actually means. For the avoidance of doubt, our most pressing need might be for the Prime Minister more clearly to state her intentions. And that is not for the French to do, even our new-found friend, Mr Macron.

Richard North 19/01/2018 link

Brexit: the gathering storm

Thursday 18 January 2018  

Preoccupied with our own concerns as we are, it is easy to overlook the very real fact that the march of European integration goes on. Something of a milestone in that process is the appointment of Portuguese finance minister Mário Centeno as the new president of the eurogroup. His first concern is Germany though, declaring that Europe needs the German government "as soon as possible".

Wasting no time, he nevertheless promises to bring "consensus across the aisle" to strengthen the eurozone, which is no more or less than one would expect. But Centeno has also welcomed the reform proposals agreed by Germany's two biggest parties in their preliminary coalition talks. "There are positive signs on European policy coming from the exploratory talks", he says.

The German draft, agreed between Merkel's "conservatives" and the SPD last week raised the prospect of an "investment budget" for the eurozone, and also considered whether the ESM bailout mechanism should be turned into a full-blown European Monetary Fund under parliamentary control and anchored in EU law.

The particular relevance of this is that it builds on the Five Presidents' Report and the Commissions own plans, pointing to the inexorable build-up of activity that will eventually lead to a new treaty. It is only a matter of time, therefore, before the "colleagues" are embroiled in the treaty-making process, creating even greater distance between the core states of the European Union and the UK.

Lest we forget, therefore, the referendum and the Brexit process has relieved us of the responsibility to involve ourselves in further European political and economic integration. That is already a tangible benefit of Brexit and one which should not be under-estimated.

There was no status quo in voting to remain in the EU and had the remainers succeeded in the referendum, it would only have presented us with the future challenge. We would have had to have voted on the new treaty when it cames, with all the disruption and political trauma that that would have entailed.

For once, therefore, Mrs May has got the mood absolutely right, having dismissed what is described as a "plea from Brussels" to rethink the decision to leave the EU.

What this amounted to was an exchange during the proceedings in the European Parliament. European Council president Donald Tusk had told us that, if the UK Government stuck to its decision to leave, Brexit would become a reality - with all its negative consequences - in March next year unless there was "a change of heart among our British friends".

Invoking David Davis, who had said "if a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy", Tusk went on to say that the EU had not had a "change of heart" over Brexit, telling us: "Our hearts are still open to you".

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker apparently then joined the group hug movement, declaring "the exit of Britain is a catastrophe" and suggested he would like the country to stay. He added: "Our door still remains open and I hope that will be heard clearly in London". His deputy, Frans Timmermans, then said that the Union was ready for any British "second thoughts".

However, Juncker appears to be going for Article 49. The clue came with a latter comment when he said: "Once the British have left under Article 50 there is still Article 49 which allows a return to membership and I would like that". Pressing home the point, he then said: "I would like us now to treat each other with respect and not abandon each other".

Even then, Juncker was not the end of it. No sooner had Juncker done his stuff then the French President was stretching out "a hand of friendship”, calling for Britain to reconsider Brexit "amid fears it will wreak economic damage both sides of the Channel".

With Macron due to arrive in the UK today for an Anglo-French summit, a key aide to Mr Macron has stressed France would "look with kindness" on any future decision by Britain to remain in the EU.

For all that, Mrs May has not taken the bait. She has been unequivocal and direct. Meeting with Austrian president Sebastian Kurz – with his country next to hold the EU rotating presidency – she used the occasion to send a message to Brussels that she had no intention of reopening the question of Britain's EU membership. The Government, she said, "will respect the decision taken by the British public to leave the EU".

Alongside this, though, we seem to be setting the scene for an element of confrontation, if the negotiation "directives" go ahead on the basis of demanding a continuation of free movement until the end of the transition process. Downing Street, we are told, rejects this idea. If, on the 29 January, the demand stays, the UK will need to decide whether it is going to make this a "red line".

Another sticking point, and one that is probably going to become more prominent with time, is the question of the future relationship between the EU and the UK. Juncker, in this instance, is calling for more clarity on the UK's vision. Only then would the EU leaders meet and decide on the way the EU saw its future relationship with the UK as a third country.

What this most certainly does tell us it that the negotiations have as yet made very little progress in terms of substantive issues. That was a point picked up in Strasbourg by MEP Manfred Weber, leader of the European People's Party, who averred that blue passports had been the first and the only real thing that the British Government had achieved in more than one-and-a-half years of negotiations.

Weber is also warning that any transitional period could not be taken for granted. The cliff edge, he says, "is far from being avoided". And that has to be considered a shot across the bows, as the European Parliament has the power to veto the Article 50 settlement.

Another presentiment of trouble comes not directly from the European Parliament but from the Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, who is insisting that the Brexit commitments made by Britain in relation to the Irish border should be legally binding within the framework of the withdrawal agreement.

This demand was made when Varadkar spoke to the European Parliament in the first of a series of debates on the Future of Europe. The UK, he said, could not "backslide" on commitments made. He would ensure that "what has been promised in theory is delivered in practice".

Considering that the UK has yet to offer any firm proposals on exactly how the Irish border should be managed, and the need for detail is getting more urgent by the day, this whole issue shows every sign of becoming a major sticking point.

Varadkar's concern is hardly surprising as, almost daily, the importance of this issue is being reinforced. The latest indicator comes from Nestlé which has its chairwoman, Fiona Kendrick, warning that all products sold in Ireland are imported via Britain, amounting to 22,000 tons of product a year, via 2,500 truck movements.

As every product sold in Ireland was identical to those sold in the UK, it followed from this that any changes to trading rules and regulations post-Brexit would push up the company's costs. Kendrick also signalled that border delays would hit its exports to Ireland more than to other EU states, as the company has no distribution centres in Irish Republic.

Leigh Pomlett, executive director of freight management group Ceva, and president of the Freight Transport Association, adds to this cautionary note, warning that managing border checks on the island of Ireland would be "huge and complex".

Furthermore, says James Hookham, deputy chief executive of the Freight Transport Association, trade between Ireland and Britain had grown to the point where border checks at ports could not be accommodated at UK ports. In "areas such as Holyhead and the south Wales ports, but even in the port of Liverpool, there simply isn't the physical space for customs and border controls to be conducted", he says.

Collecting all the strands together, once again one gets the feeling of a Phony War - the calm before the storm. While the Brexit narrative generally is all over the place, there is still the brooding presence of the negotiations where the unresolved issues are stacking up.

Ignoring them or simply indulging in displacement activity – as so much of the politico-media nexus is doing – is not making them go away. Soon enough, we will discover that the Phony War becomes the gathering storm.

Richard North 18/01/2018 link

Brexit: an elephant in transition

Wednesday 17 January 2018  

It is heartening to see Lost Leonardo pursuing a theme similar to this blog on the inadequacies of the media and our politicians.

Referring to the Peston interview which we noted briefly yesterday, he records that we have the leader of the opposition and the lead journalist on one of Britain's leading Sunday news programmes talking "total toilet" about the most important political issue facing the country.

This, says Lost Leonardo, is not a failure to understand arcane technicalities, these are the basics, and Britain's political class, even after 18 months, has apparently failed to grasp any of them. "I'm not sure", he concludes, "how it is possible to be this out of touch".

Although it is a constant theme of this blog, the inadequacies of our political and media classes cannot be overstated. They go to the heart of our democracy and impact on the legitimacy of the entire political process.

If our politicians simply don’t know what they are doing, and the media are incapable of explaining what is happening with any deal of coherence, then the fundamental building blocks of our society are missing. It really is that bad, and therefore warrants our constant attention.

One of the most serious failures of the political process, amplified so readily by the media, is the continued presence of Alexander (aka Boris) Johnson and, in this instance, his readiness to repeat the "side of the bus" lie and even add to it.

According to this ghastly man, the UK's weekly gross contribution to the EU would rise to £438 million by the end of a post-Brexit transition period – still picking on the gross payment as the source of his putative largesse.

Even then, Johnson admits that not all the money would go to the health service. "As and when the cash becomes available – and it won’t until we leave – the NHS should be at the very top of the list", he says. This left the shadow Brexit minister, Matthew Pennycook, to state the obvious, that Johnson had no shame after parading a "bogus claim" during the referendum and now inflating it.

On the other hand, we get endless attempts to quantify the costs of Brexit, the latest one coming from Oxford Economics. This time this organisation is suggesting that the UK would still be the biggest loser from crashing out of the EU without a new trade deal – with a cost to the economy of £125 billion by 2020.

It is asserted that the EU would also suffer a "big economic hit" and although the estimated effect on the UK economy is not so very different from our own, the truth is that no one really knows what will happen – even to the extent of being within the same order of magnitude.

Everything in this context depends initially on the nature of the transition period agreed between the UK and the EU – and its duration. And about that, very little is being said – a staggering omission when the importance and the potential impact is considered.

What tends to happen in such instances, when something really important looms, is that the media come late to the party and, invariably, get it wrong. Having devoted so little time to the issues before the event, its people rarely have the depth of knowledge or the grasp of the issues to do the matters justice, whence we get the turgid sludge that is so often our fare.

Yesterday, though, we did get a mention of the transition period from the Financial Times with a front-page story suggesting that Brussels was going to take an even harder stance than had so far been suggested – although it is difficult to see how much more rigorous their approach could be, or whether it could add to the 20 December Commission proposals.

However, according to the FT, referring to as yet unseen revised "directives" drawn up by EU member states for Michel Barnier, the talks have been complicated by demanding that Britain abide by stricter terms on immigration, external trade agreements and fishing rights for the entire transition period.

Apparently, these include extending free movement rights and a special status to all EU citizens arriving before the final day of the transition at the end of 2020. They will also require British ministers to seek "authorisation" from Brussels in order to continue benefiting from EU trade deals that it would otherwise fall out of on Brexit day.

On the immigration issue, the FT is asserting that the changes are being made at the behest of Poland and other central and eastern European countries, and will limit the UK's ability to apply a new immigration system to EU nationals arriving during the transition.

Highlighting what is likely to become one of the hardest parts of the negotiation, the text also clarifies rules for setting fishing quotas. Diplomats said the language aimed to underline that Britain's share of catches in UK waters - fixed for decades under the "relative stability" quota arrangement - was not open to negotiation.

This was something we reported on recently when it appeared in the Guardian and now it seems that there will not be a special procedure to negotiate the total allowable catch in British waters. Instead, EU Member States want to restrict discussions to "specific consultations" which remain "in full respect" of EU law. The UK will only be invited to attend regulatory committees "exceptionally on a case-by-case basis".

Then, to rub salt in the wound, the Member States add language making clear that the legal effect of EU law will be the same on Britain as any other EU Member State. This will mean that the direct effect and primacy of union law should be preserved.

That, we had expected. The essence of the transition already proposed is that of the status quo where we remain bound to the EU acquis for the duration. This is the only way, short of the Efta/EEA option that we can retain full access to the markets of the EU Member States. And if we go this way, the immediate financial penalties should be minimised.

Since, under current proposals, the transitional period does not end until the end of December 2020, only in the extreme circumstances of the talks collapsing before that could we see the worst projections of Oxford Economics come to pass. Such doomsday scenarios now seem to be redundant.

It would make more sense, therefore, for the focus to be entirely on the progress of the transition proposals. So far, we have not seen any formal response from the UK government and the response in general has been so muted that we keep having to pinch ourselves to remind that the proposals have been issued.

Possibly, because the directives are subject to a near-constant process of revision up until they are approved, and they could well change again before a key meeting of the General Affairs Council on 29 January, at which they are expected to receive final sign off, the media and politicians are not taking them entirely seriously.

Thus, the only high-profile politician who seems prepared to put himself in harm's way at the moment is Jacob Rees-Mogg. He is to lead the notorious European Research Group, replacing Suella Fernandes who has been appointed junior minister in MinBrex.

Mogg has been one of the few "ultras" to make fuss of the so-called "vassal state" transition proposals, raising questions as to why the Tory right is being so quiet about something which, on the face of it, goes against everything they value in Brexit.

If you Google for "Brexit" and "transition", though, very little shows up, apart from Mogg complaining that accepting the EU's proposals would mean that the UK was remaining in the EU for a further two years. That, he says, is not government policy, adding that "free movement ought to end in March 2019 not two years later".

For many years we got used to the idea that the EU was something that UK politicians didn't talk about, creating an elephant in the room of mammoth proportions. It's replacement now, however, seems to be the transition period. And if only Rees-Mogg and a limited band of his supporters is prepared to talk about it, we are really in trouble.

Come the 29 January, we will see whether the "elephant in transition" is taken seriously. One hopes it will be. The entire Brexit process is going to be shaped by it.

Richard North 17/01/2018 link

Brexit: a media desert

Tuesday 16 January 2018  

A year or more after we started writing about problems associated with customs checks at the borders, post-Brexit, we finally see in the Herald Scotland an article about customs arrangements when we leave the EU. The story in the paper is couched in terms of one of Scotland's more important industries – whisky production – about which we hear specific concerns from a leading distiller.

This leading distiller is Martin Leonard, managing director of Airdrie-based Inver House Distillers and he fears that the new customs system will be ill-equipped to deal with the huge increase in workload the UK's exit from the EU is expected to bring. We do not need to explore in any detail the nature of these concerns. The reason for us looking at the article at all is to note how the media is finally catching up with the issues, just as they cease to have any relevance to the debate.

The earlier concern was that, when we left at the end of March 2019, the customs service (HMRC) would not have the software and systems in place to handle the huge increase in workload that is expected. However, with Mrs May's commitment to a transitional process – which will give us at least 21 months of the status quo - we are no longer faced with a "sudden death" scenario once the Article 50 negotiations are complete. All being well (for the government), HMRC will have that extra time in which to prepare.

The point thus to make is that this newspaper is trailing badly behind when it comes to reporting the actual situation – something we see elsewhere. The Telegraph, for instance, is offering a travesty of a story on radioactive isotopes, based on an equally illiterate report to a select committee.

Neither bears much relation to reality, as explained on this blogpost last July. Yet that is all the newspaper can manage when it comes to informing its readers.

However, when it comes to recounting the latest twists and turns of the Ukip leader, who has split with girlfriend over racist messages about Meghan Markle, the papers leave no stones unturned. There is no limit to the amount of detail that they will entertain and the speed of their reporting despite the total irrelevance of Ukip.

What is equally relevant is what the newspapers leave out. A classic example is this, where the Tories recently tried to claim credit for reducing credit card charges when, in fact, the initiative had come from the European Union. Meanwhile, The Guardian has discovered the term of "third country" and is taking it out for a spin while having little conceptual understanding of it.

Another example is the recent news on the epidemic of fly-tipping where The Times manages to omit that much of the problem arises from EU legislation and the insistence on phasing out landfill in favour of more costly methods of disposal. The result has been a massive increase in charges which, entirely predictably, had led fly-tipping reaching an eight-year high last year with more than a million incidents in England.

This is an absolutely classic omission which typifies the fourteen years of this blog, where we have routinely noted the media's inability to report on the EU. We have watched as it has hollowed itself out, asset stripping and delegating the serious work to juniors, casually dispensing with its institutional knowledge. Its contemptible ineptitude is far from a new development. We no longer hold any expectations of it. There is no longer a distinction between broadsheet and tabloid.

We also find that television media is in a similar state of disrepair with the likes of Andrew Neil and Robert Peston, they who are paid extraordinary sums to know what is happening, and indeed influence events, still cannot come to terms with the most basic terminology. It strikes us that these people are no longer in the business of reporting news or informing. Rather they are there to produce content for its own sake.

The sole intent now seems to be the production of what is loosely called "clickbait", published solely for the purpose of starting conversations and generating readers, but not with any intent of leading the debate.

Largely, the media are simply adding to the noise. There is no obligation to bring clarity or to set standards for public discourse. And without a media capable of living up to its obligations, and a public broadcaster joining them in the race to the bottom, there is no possibility of an informed electorate nor a worthwhile dialogue between the governors and the governed.

Despite all that, though, there are occasional flashes of usefulness, as with this report in the Independent. The paper has found video footage of a Sky News broadcast from three years ago which has Alexander (aka Boris) Johnson categorically stating he would vote to stay in the Single Market.

When asked whether he would vote to leave or remain in the European Union in the event of a referendum, Johnson says he was "in favour" of staying in a Single EU trading bloc. He wanted, he says, to ensure good trade links with "our European friends and partners".

This not only contradicts his recent stance on the issue during the referendum campaign but also his comments reported recently in the wake of Farage's effluvia, where we informed us that staying in the Single Market was akin to staying in the EU.

This is wholly indicative of the almost complete inability of both politicians and media to deal rationally with the argument over the Single Market. Even in this report, we find the Independent blithely informing us that Norway "has access to the single market but must accept all the regulations of the bloc, including free movement of people into the country".

Such a level of commentary, bluntly, is pathetic – so basic and trivial that it hardly qualifies as an adult contribution. Time after time, though, we get this type of remark uncritically repeated, representing the basic knowledge level of the media. Any subtlety or detail is totally beyond the legacy media journalists.

On the back of all this, we get a report from Lord Ashcroft on the views of his latest focus groups.

Of the 31 weeks since the general election, he muses, much has happened in politics but little of it could be said to have lifted the spirits. Even then, the opposition has failed to open up the clear lead they might have expected over what has often seemed a hapless governing party, and surveys show the Tory ratings to be all but unchanged since polling day.

What we get for many is a Brexit were the story had just become "background noise". Says one respondent: "You kind of zone out of it. It's been going on for nearly two years". Another says, "I'm bored with it. I'm bored to the back teeth so I switch off. You've just got to hope they know what they're doing".

Unfortunately, says Ashcroft, evidence that the government does indeed know what it's doing seemed thin on the ground, and many of his respondents agreed. "It seems a bit shambolic", says one. "A bit patchy, a bit sketchy", says another. And then, on the generality of the news, we get: "Apart from Brexit, all I've heard recently is that the NHS is on its arse, the police service is on its arse, and the exchange rate when you go on holiday is on its arse too".

Our readers, however, don't need a focus group to convey the utter sense of boredom and frustration that pervades the study of politics. Day after day, it's been felt keenly on this blog, sapping our enthusiasm and our ability to stay on top of issues.

To ignore it though would be to distort the record. When the story of Brexit comes to be told, we must convey how the politicians and the media between them managed to turn the most interesting and important issue of the day into an exercise in applied tedium, with the media in particular creating a desert of information.

That media desert is part of the story and one, more than anything, that will probably determine the popular response to the Brexit outcome.

Richard North 16/01/2018 link

Brexit: a complete lack of self-awareness

Monday 15 January 2018  

It was in 2002 that, as the senior staff member on Ukip's European Parliament team, I started talking seriously to Farage about setting up our own think-tank in Brussels. My argument was that the debate had to be driven by the best information available and that we would need to develop a post exit strategy in order to clinch the deal.

I will not go back into the detail of that period other than to say that Farage was committed to his election strategy and all available funding went into financing his ambitions to become a member of the Westminster parliament. Research was nowhere on his agenda.

It took until 2013 for there to be any wider recognition that a formal post-exit plan was needed, leading to the botched IEA Brexit competition, judged by the malevolent Lord Lawson who managed to pick a winner who disappeared into obscurity almost as fast as he emerged.

Come the referendum, the Ukip leader and his party were completely unequipped to fight the campaign, having spent no time or effort developing an exit plan of their own. Worse still, through Arron Banks, our attempts to introduce Flexcit were rejected, following on from the stupidity of Dominic Cummings in insisting that the leave campaign should not have an exit plan.

Following the referendum, we thus found ourselves in a political vacuum, an entirely predictable state of affairs, where the fragmented "leavers" had no settled ideas of how we should manage Brexit, while the self-proclaimed leaver-in-chief departed the field and had absolutely nothing of interest to say.

Now, this intellectual pygmy is returing to the fray with a complaint, enthusiastically retailed by the Observer on its front page, that the remainers "are making all the running" in the post-referendum debate. He fears, as a result, that "our historic Brexit vote could now be reversed".

With an extraordinary lack of self-awareness, this "former Ukip leader" tells the Observer that he was becoming increasingly worried that "the Leave camp had stopped fighting their corner", leaving a well-funded and organised Remain operation free to influence the political and public debate without challenge.

And this is a man who, while actually in post as the Ukip leader, prohibited his staff from reading and remains unware of its contents or the fact that we have never, ever stopped fighting. We have been there, every day, while he prats around in America and on his ghastly LBC radio show, doing anything and everything but focus on Brexit.

Quite obviously lacking any understanding of the processes involved, he whines that the "case for a complete break from the EU was no longer being made", even by pro-Brexit MPs in parliament. Instead, he says, the Remain camp was relentlessly putting out its message that a hard Brexit would be ruinous to the British economy and bad for the country, "without people hearing the counter-argument that had secured Brexiters victory in the 2016 referendum campaign".

And there, writ large, is the ineffable inadequacy of the man. The whole point is that leavers are not putting across any coherent plan for leaving the EU, but are allowing the "ultras" free rein to promote the idea of a "hard" Brexit which could only bring economic ruin upon us.

Farage says he now has a similar feeling to the one he had 20 years ago when Tony Blair appeared to be preparing the country for an eventual entry into the euro.

Amazingly, he then tells us: "I think the Leave side is in danger of not even making the argument", then asserting that: "The Leave groups need to regather and regroup, because Remain is making all the arguments. After we won the referendum, we closed the doors and stopped making the argument".

This, to the Observer is a "rallying call" to us leavers. It reflects, the paper says, "genuine alarm among hard line Brexit supporters that too many concessions have already been made to the Remain side of the Brexit argument by Theresa May's government, and that more could follow".

Yet, when it comes to closing the doors and ceasing to make the arguments, that criticism applies most directly and with greatest force to Farage himself. Even now he has no real (or any) idea of where to go next and how to recover the situation.

However, for all of Farage's inadequacies, we cannot leave the media out of the equation. Through the entire process, it has given Farage a platform and never once challenged his lack of vision. The Forth Estate, which supposedly holds politicians to account, has spectacularly failed to put the Ukip leader on the spot. And now, uncritically, it allows him whine about the travails of the "leave" movement.

To a very great extent, though, Farage is whistling in the wind – as out of touch as ever he was. He fears there is no longer a majority in the Westminster parliament for Brexit and that a "meaningful vote" on the final deal could see it vetoed by MPs.

Despite his, the crux of the matter is that the power resides in Brussels, not Westminster (or even Whitehall). Already, Mrs May is dancing to the Brussels tune with her (so far) uncritical acceptance of the "vassal state" transition process and there is every indication that the UK will be forced into the mould set by the "colleagues".

Given the opportunity to comment on the situation – as he has been – Farage would have been better advised to question Mrs May's negotiation strategy, and her apparent willingness to concede a transition agreement which will so much disadvantage the UK.

That, of course, would require Farage to be a master of detail and, throughout the referendum campaign and subsequently, he has never shown any indication of understanding the issues.

Nor indeed has the other intellectually challenged advocate of Brexit – Alexander Johnson, who privately shares Farage's concerns that the referendum result could yet be reversed. He is warning that Brexit is still far from certain and that leavers in the government "face a big fight" to deliver it.

The "establishment" across Whitehall and the City, he says, will step up efforts to stop Brexit over the next twelve months. He also fears that Mrs May will be worn down and eventually forced to accept a bad deal by mandarins and Remain-leaning Cabinet ministers during the "trade negotiations" that start in March.

It is a measure of the man that he should make this complaint when the trade negotiations don't start until we have left the EU. But we can expect nothing of a man who apparently believes that having to accept diktats from Brussels would leave the UK as "just another Norway", making the referendum "a total waste of time". He would, he says, "rather us stay in than leave like that".

That this is the best he can offer comes as no surprise. From Johnson and Farage, during the campaign we got classic examples of how not to fight a referendum so it would be more than a little optimistic to expect sensible contributions from either of the pair right now.

Hopefully though (and most probably), their contributions are just noise. Farage in particular has been a waning star for some time and the contortions of the new Ukip leader cannot be helping his already tarnished reputation. And as for Johnson, this man is also losing influence with each passing day.

On the other hand, not just Farage but neither seem to have the faintest glimmer of self-awareness – a trait common in British politics. Were they to realise how fatuous they both sound, be might currently be enjoying a period of silence.

But since neither of them have learned to shut up, and the incontinent media will always give them a platform, we have not heard the last of them just yet.

Richard North 15/01/2018 link

Brexit: the cost of the CAP

Sunday 14 January 2018  

Booker is back today, writing about the origins of the CAP. This is something we set out in The Great Deception, a tale that helps explain the real reason why Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed British entry to the EEC in the Sixties to why Margaret Thatcher had to battle for our budget rebate in the Eighties.

The official, entirely bogus version has it that the CAP was devised by a benevolent Brussels to guarantee Europe's "food security" and to save its farmers from the kind of depression they had suffered in the Thirties.

The truth is that, immediately after the war, all Western European countries, including Britain, introduced their own farm subsidies. But by the early Sixties this was leading in France to disaster, building up unsaleable food surpluses at such an unaffordable cost that a drastic solution had to be found.

The clever French noted that the Treaty of Rome promised a Common Agricultural Policy but without giving any details. So their answer was to devise a CAP so absurdly loaded in France's favour that two other countries would not only provide a market for its surpluses but pay for subsidising them into the bargain.

One of those countries was Germany, still atoning for its role in the Second World War, and Britain, which by then had announced its intention to join the Common Market.

Clearly, the UK had to be excluded from the Community until all these arcane financial arrangements had been agreed. Otherwise, it might well have blocked such a one-sided deal.

And that was the real reason for de Gaulle's two vetoes in 1963 and 1967. Only in 1969, at a summit in The Hague, did the French finally get the agreement they wanted, at which point the UK was needed to help pay the bills. Unsurprisingly, the very next item on the agenda was to reconsider Britain's application to join.

The following year, Edward Heath was so keen to get us into "Europe" that he accepted the CAP without demur. In 1973, the year we went in, British farm incomes were higher in real terms than ever before or since. 

But so loaded against us were the financial arrangements for the CAP that, by 1979, it was clear that within six years the UK would be the largest single net contributor to the Brussels budget, of which the CAP was then taking 90 percent: hence Mrs Thatcher's five-year battle to win her rebate.

Since then, much of British agriculture has been in decline. We now import 30 percent of our food from the EU. Much of it comes from France, which continues to be the largest beneficiary of the CAP.

It may seem odd that this strange story is not better known. But the British have never really understood the bizarre form of government we have lived under for 44 years. And this, says Booker, is why we are now making such a horrifying mess of our efforts to leave it.

As much to the point, this provides another important reminder of why we need to leave the EU and why the majority of us voted to leave. Over term, the depredations of the CAP have been an important factor in turning public sentiment against the EU.

Currently Mr Gove is telling farmers that direct payments will be retained until 2024, after which the support would be replaced with a system of "public money for public goods".

That, in itself is no bad thing. We suggest as much in Flexcit on the basis that the scenery created by farmers as a by-product of their activities is of benefit to the nation yet there is no market mechanism for rewarding those who deliver the greatest value.

However, former Northern Foods Chairman Chris Haskins is not convinced that farmers are on to a good thing.

Cynics, he observes, might say that the farmers' positive response to Gove's initiative was simply one of relief. The Environment Secretary seemingly wants to put off the evil day of change for several years, giving the agricultural community more time to prepare.

There are, however, some good things in Gove's proposals. Most people would agree with the suggestion these larger farmers should not receive the full benefits of the subsidies. But, nevertheless, elimination of the existing Single Farm Payment would immediately put the vast majority of farmers into trading losses.

Environmentalist support payments are intended to bridge the gap but those cropping marginal land, which can only produce modest yields, would probably be making a loss under the new scheme. They might convert to livestock but, on marginal land, that is not a lucrative business.

Farming slightly more productive land, but with a small acreage, would result in unacceptable losses. Without the single farm payment, it would take a sizeable arable farm, with productive soil, to deliver even a small profit.

Nevertheless, Gove has not supplied an overwhelming amount of detail on his "ambitious radical programme for a sustainable agricultural environment". What farmers don't know, therefore, is how the new payment scheme, which will require time and effort from the farmer, can compensate for the loss of the single farm payment.

Furthermore, since the UK is less than 70 percent self-sufficient in food, trade deals will be necessary to ensure that food imports are maintained. But that means any new agricultural support programmes will have to be compatible with existing and new trade deals.

Such deals will also be needed to ensure that British farmers are not disadvantaged by imports but Gove will also have to ensure that UK policies do not distort competition of conflict with EU standards. And if the UK supports genetically modified foods, as Mr Gove appears to do – while the EU maintains its ban – this could become an obstacle to a trade deal.

To add to complications, a US trade deal would probably require the UK to lower its environmental standards on US imports. Yet if Mr Gove's proposals require UK farmers to comply with higher environmental standards, that could seriously disadvantage the domestic industry.

All of this is to come, presenting farmers and policy-makers with a new set of challenges that are all part of the Brexit process. Before the CAP came into force, the UK had developed a sophisticated capability. For the decades since, we have had the EU and its predecessor organisations make our policy for us – at huge cost. And now, we have to learn the lessons all over again.

And that is the lesson of Brexit. What we left we should never have joined but, since we did, we now have a mess to clean up and new systems to create. This marks down Brexit not as the end but as the start of a long process.

But there is another lesson which farming policy in particular is going to teach us. Whether we benefit from Brexit is not going to be evident just by going through the process of withdrawal. We will make gains only if we are able to formulate and implement policies which are better than those they replace.

But with no expertise and little transparency to the process (so far), all we have to rely upon at the moment is a series of vague proposals from the untested Mr Gove – a man who most surely will not be in office by the time the new policy is implemented.

Any defects in that policy will add to the already huge costs that the CAP brought us. Thus, with Brexit a chapter may be over – but damage wrought may continue for some time to come.

Richard North 14/01/2018 link

Brexit: muddy waters

Saturday 13 January 2018  

A year after the referendum I was complaining that the "Ultras" had been thrashing around so much that they had muddied the waters. And if they kept it up, I warned, Brexit could go belly-up.

But whether it's the "Ultras" or others muddying the waters, the real point is that Brexit ain't in the bag yet and, as I observed, "it ain't in the bag until it's in the bag". If we lose momentum – as we seem to be doing - we really could end up seeing our dreams drain away into the sand.

Maybe, though, what we're seeing is Brexit fatigue. The cold and the long nights of winter always have their effect and, without any positive developments to bolster our spirits, it is only natural that we're downbeat. Under normal circumstances, when the nights shorten and the temperatures start to rise, the mood might improve of its own accord.

The trouble is that this is so much more than winter blues. The substantial failings in the government's Brexit strategy are sufficient in themselves to cause overwhelming gloom, while the inability of the various campaigning groups to focus on the mechanics of withdrawal is justification for any amount of despondency.

Amid this gloom, however, there has been one bright spot in the way the Irish authorities, media and businesses have reacted, leaving their UK equivalents flat-footed by comparison. And from their media we have been able to get some inkling of how Brexit is developing.

But even that has been something of a mixed bag. The Times, for instance, is conveying the views of Julie Sinnamon, head of Enterprise Ireland.

She has it that Irish businesses are still in denial over the impact of Brexit more than 18 months after the referendum result and have failed to plan for the risks it poses, blaming "wishful thinking" for companies' slow reactions.

Irish businesses are faced with a series of existential threats greater than those affecting UK operations. One can only observe that if they are unable to confront those threats, it is hardly surprising that UK operations are failing to respond in an appropriate or timely manner.

From that, one can infer that it may take some time yet before UK business as a whole fully appreciates the nature of the threats posed by Brexit and gears up to protecting its own interests. If there are stages of denial, then over here we are in the stage that currently dominates Irish business.

We are not helped in any way by the refusal of government to spell out its precise demands (or expectations) for the future relationship with the EU. Without any firm (or any) formal relationship having been defined, there is nothing for business to plan against. It can assume that plenty of notice will be given before action must be taken.

Another level of uncertainty arises from the failure of the German political system to agree the coalition necessary to form a government. As a result, policy signals coming from Merkel have been weak and ill-defined while SDP leader Martin Schulz has been given room to speculate on the EU's future, calling for a United States of Europe by 2025.

Recent developments though, have delivered a result, with Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union and Schulz's Social Democrats agreeing to enter formal negotiations with a view to forming another grand coalition.

One of the first casualties of the deal has been Schulz's grandiose plans for the EU, but the parties have agreed that Germany should increase its budget contributions to the EU. They have also agreed in principle to eurozone reform.

It will be a while yet before Germany is able to form a stable government – perhaps not until after Easter, leaving some elements of Brexit hanging while the EU's largest and most powerful contributor concentrates on its domestic affairs.

Various corners of the debate, therefore, are conspiring to defer decision time of Brexit, while boiler-plate drivel from the likes of the Legatum Institute serve further to muddy the water.

What is probably meat for future historians, we have a remarkable situation where there seems to be an inverse correlation between the need for urgency and the intensity of activity. The more important and urgent it is that our politicians come to a swift conclusion on Brexit, the less they appear inclined to do so.

On the other hand, there is the question of focus – or the lack of it. The more we need to concentrate on the resolving the detailed technical issues, the more it seems the media and the politicians are prepared to dissipate their energies on distractions such as another referendum or whether Article 50 can be revoked.

This raises the question that we have mooted several times and at diverse levels – as to whether the political system (and its media handmaiden) is actually capable of undertaking anything as complex as the Brexit negotiations.

As I think more about this – in the context of the situation deteriorating rather than improving – it seems to me that we should abandon any ideas of seeing the government deliver an effective or rational Brexit. There is simply no point in seeking out something that the government is incapable of delivering.

If this becomes the vade mecum, then we could see the politics of Brexit undergo a fundamental change. Instead of devising the best possible exit plan – as we attempted to do with Flexcit – perhaps the better strategy is to assess the modes of failure which we can expect.

In anticipation of failure – which we must treat as inevitable – we then look to devising piecemeal recovery programmes which will seek to reduce the adverse effects. In other words, we do not treat failure as an abnormality which we seek to avoid. Failure becomes the norm and the primary focus of policy is the response to failure. Planning becomes a matter of predicting how government will fail and devising the appropriate remedies.

By way of an example, we can expect the government to chase after a thoroughly unsatisfactory free trade agreement, which will prove highly damaging to the UK's economic interests. Strategy thus becomes a matter of devising programmes which will overcome the worst effects of such an agreement.

One might, in this context, look to beefing up our attempts to promote multilateral sectoral agreements to reduce the impact of non-tariff barriers on high value exports of interest to the UK, thereby mitigating the damage caused by an unsatisfactory FTA which fails to reduce NTBs.

In this there is a certain amount of irony, at a personal level. It was two decades ago that I attempted to move away from my speciality of food safety but, every time I do, I seem to get dragged back. In this context, one of the advanced food safety management systems we were considering back then was the concept of failure mode analysis – now better-known as failure modes and effects analysis (FMEA).

Turning full circle, FMEA-style policy-making  could end up at the heart of Brexit planning – an attempt to gaze into the murky waters of political failure and recover something of value from the incompetence of our politicians. Expecting something useful in the first instance is probably too much to ask.

Richard North 13/01/2018 link

Brexit: the burden of reality

Friday 12 January 2018  

It is given, one would have thought, that a massive trade bloc such as the European Union (or the EEA) would not be too concerned with deciding what sort of relationships it wants with its smaller trading partners.

In the general scheme of things, the more pressing need is for the smaller partner to define the sort of relationship it is seeking, and then to prevail on the larger bloc to give it what it needs.

To a very great extent, that seems to have been the view taken by the EU in relation to the Brexit negotiations. The UK is the party that has decided to leave the EU – and also the Single Market. It is therefore, up to the UK to set out what new relationship it wants with the EU, at least as the basis for discussions from which a scheme could emerge.

This, though, it not the current view being taken by Chancellor Philip Hammond. He now seems to be of a mind that it is up to the EU to produce its own ideas of how Brexit should look, instead of "obsessing" over how to "punish" British voters for their temerity in voting (by a majority) to leave the EU.

It was, he has been saying, up to European leaders and "Eurocrats" to specify what they want from a post-Brexit trade deal instead of (supposedly) sitting back and waiting for Britain to do all the legwork.

One may take one's own view as to how appropriate Mr Hammond's stance might be on this, but it takes very little to imagine how this might go down in the couloirs of Brussels. Simply by reference to the Joint Report and the latest set of European Council guidelines, one can readily see that there is not exactly a meeting of minds.

Then, even if there was some merit in Mr Hammond's view, it is more or less a matter of certainty that the EU (whether the Council or Mr Barnier's negotiation team) is not going to take much notice of it. The intervention of the Chancellor thus does nothing more than demonstrate yet again that our politicians are completely out of touch with reality.

Yet another of those is our revered (not) prime minister, who has been roundly condemning the EU for creating new barriers to trade, oblivious to the fact that such barriers that we (the UK) will have to confront are already in existence. The problem is not that new barriers have been erected, but that Mrs May, through her rash decision to quit the Single Market, has placed us on the wrong side of them.

This is something that our political masters seem to have extraordinary difficulty understanding, which really confirms that they have a limited grasp of the realities of the Single Market and how the EU's trading systems actually work.

Once again, therefore, we have to confront our own reality – that those in charge of our Brexit negotiations simply don't have sufficient knowledge and understanding to enable them to function effectively. Nor is the opposition any better. As a result, these people are expecting outcomes which simply can't be realised.

What makes this surreal is that, as we move towards the next round of the negotiations, issues raised previously and as yet unresolved will be re-presented. If not on this round, the scope for ambiguity will be reduced and eventually we will get to the point where reality and expectations collide. From that wreckage, one presumes, an agreement of sorts will have to emerge.

However, no amount of false expectations or wishful thinking is going to make that agreement better than the EU is prepared to give, or can be allowed by Union law. The limitations which affect the process are real.

What is truly delicious about the situation – if you're minded to look at it in such a fashion – is that reality is already making a guest appearance. German government officials, it appears, have made it clear – via the Bloomberg news agency – that the UK is likely to secure a deal with the EU which covers the all-important financial sector only if the government continues to contribute to the EU budget and ensures full conformity with the acquis.

Still more writing on the wall comes with news that fishing quotas available to fishing vessels from other Member States are likely to be set by Brussels, with the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) remaining in force for the duration of the transition period (and perhaps beyond).

This, of course, will mean that EU Member States will have a say in how the UK fisheries resource is apportioned, although the UK government will no longer be represented on the fisheries council and will not be involved in setting fishing quotas in non-UK waters.

Where Michael Gove will go with this remains to be seen but last year he was puffing himself up as the saviour of the fishing industry, claiming that the UK would "take back control" of its waters immediately after Brexit. Like so many promises made by Ministers, this is looking somewhat premature - to say nothing of forlorn.

In many senses, this sets the scene for the whole Brexit experience. When I prepared a draft fisheries policy with Owen Paterson those many years ago, we concluded that it could easily take five years fully to develop a policy to the point of implementation.

The technical aspects are difficult enough, and there are different views about how UK fisheries should be managed, but a huge complicating factor is the need to consult with and reconcile the multiple stakeholders, many with conflicting priorities and expectations. And, in view of the authoritarian approach of the EU, we could hardly impose something on the different stakeholders and ignore their interests.

So it is with whole areas of policy where, currently, the EU has the easier part of it, having established its parameters within the Treaty frameworks and no longer having to take account of the different needs – not that it ever did. Policy is so much easier when you can avoid the democratic process and retreat behind the excuse of treaty obligations.

But, while the implications of sticking with the hated CFP are absorbed, the EU is piling on the agony by setting out its preferences for post-Brexit dispute resolution. The idea of  a joint committee has been raised but, of the several options canvassed, most ensure that the ECJ takes a lead role.

Gradually, but with almost inexorable certainty, UK options are being closed down as we confront the unpleasant reality that, in the absence of a credible exit plan, the EU is making the running.

Meanwhile, Nigel Farage – the man who never troubled to have a plan and has had no serious ideas about how to make Brexit work - has belatedly pitched into the debate, supporting the idea of another referendum.

He claims another vote would end the "whingeing and whining and moaning" of remainers, a stance which has gained the backing of the ineffable lightweight Arron Banks, another one who could never bring himself to support a decent exit plan.

So it is that, following a collective failure of the Eurosceptic aristocracy to come up with anything better, all the lamentable Mr Farage can do is admit failure and call for another referendum as his idea for silencing the growing volume of concern about the way Brexit is being managed.

I suppose it is possible that he could have offered something even more fatuous, but that might have taken a bit of effort. It is much easier to go with the flow and settle on something that requires almost no imagination and nothing in the way of commitment.

But then, when just about everybody else is being forced, kicking and screaming, to confront the reality of Brexit and the consequences of being almost completely unprepared for the exit negotiations, it is entirely fitting that Farage should retreat so completely from reality and take refuge in an option than could well destroy everything he has supposedly worked for.

Rarely has a so-called "leader" been so bereft of ideas of what to do with his "victory" that he has had to hand the initiative to the enemy to exploit it. And how ironic it will be that the only opportunity we will have to "take back control" is when the EU has finished telling us what to do with our new-found freedom.

We are all aware that freedom doesn't come cheap but neither, it seems, does reality.

Richard North 12/01/2018 link

Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
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