Brexit: the ayes to the right

Wednesday 16 January 2019  

Possibly, the only surprise about last night's vote was the scale of the defeat. With the noes taking 432 as against the ayes who garnered a mere 202, that put the prime minister 230 votes behind. Some of the smart money reckoned on her losing by less than a hundred.

Wasting no time at all, though, Mrs May quickly pitched in to set out her government's position. "The House has spoken and the Government will listen", she declared, adding with delicious understatement: "It is clear that the House does not support this deal".

The next points she made, though, were of considerable relevance to the ongoing debate. "Tonight's vote", she said, "tells us nothing about what it [the House] does support; nothing about how, or even if, it intends to honour the decision the British people took in a referendum that Parliament decided to hold".

And now we go into a predictable regime, starting with a motion of no confidence that Mr Corbyn has obligingly tabled at the invitation of the prime minister. Thus, we can have the next instalment of the soap opera today, from which Mrs May is expected to emerge unscathed, putting the general election genie back in the bottle.

For a follow-up, the prime minister will hold meetings with her colleagues, the DUP and then "senior parliamentarians from across the House to identify what would be required to secure the backing of the House". A "constructive spirit" will prevail but Mrs May is in no mood for playing games. Given "the urgent need to make progress", she is only prepared to entertain ideas "that are genuinely negotiable and have sufficient support in this House".

What precisely those might be were not stated, but if the meetings yield such ideas, we are led to expect that the Government "will then explore them with the European Union".

Before yielding the floor, Mrs May concluded by offering two reassurances. First, she was not playing for time, attempting to "run down the clock" in order to end up with a no-deal. Secondly, addressing "the British people who voted to leave the European Union in the referendum two and a half years ago", she expressed her belief that it was her "duty to deliver on their instruction". That, she intended to do.

In terms of her demeanour, the prime minister did not come across as defeated. If she was "humiliated", as some would have it, she didn't show it. If anything, she seemed more determined and uncompromising than she had been before the vote.

"Every day that passes without this issue being resolved", she said, "means more uncertainty, more bitterness and more rancour", before concluding with a call to Members on all sides of the House "to listen to the British people who want this issue settled, and to work with the Government to do just that".

Nevertheless, she got little sustenance from Donald Tusk who, in an off-the-cuff tweet, asked: "If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?"

But the more considered response came in a formal statement from Commission president Juncker, who took note "with regret" of the outcome of the vote, while stating that, "on the EU side, the process of ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement continues".

The Agreement, he said, was "a fair compromise and the best possible deal". The European Commission and Michel Barnier had "invested enormous time and effort" to negotiate it, and he, together with president Tusk, had "demonstrated goodwill again by offering additional clarifications and reassurances in an exchange of letters with Prime Minister".

Juncker concluded by saying that the risk of a disorderly withdrawal had increased with the vote. "While we do not want this to happen", he said, "the European Commission will continue its contingency work to help ensure the EU is fully prepared". And, with that, he urged the UK "to clarify its intentions as soon as possible".

It would not be possible to read into that any suggestion that the EU is prepared to consider further negotiations. But that does not stop The Times telling us that "it is understood" that EU governments are ready to reopen "all dossiers" of the Brexit deal.

The newspaper also reports that, while Mr Juncker has flown back to Brussels from Strasbourg to be ready for "emergency" talks, Mrs May is expected to travel to Brussels "within 48 hours" for fresh negotiations to save her draft withdrawal agreement.

UK media expectations appear to be centred on an extension of the Article 50 time period, with the Guardian having "EU officials" predicting that the first step will be for MPs to tell May to request an extension of the two-year negotiating period. This will remove the cliff edge of 29 March and set off a debate among the other 27 Member States on the terms of a prolongation.

Yet, there was no hint of that from Mrs May in her addresses to the House yesterday. In closing the debate before the vote, she had unequivocally ruled out any of the options being touted, leaving us only with the deal that she was proposing. Her belief was that, with this, "we can lay the foundations on which to build a better Britain".

Concluding that speech, Mrs May spoke of "the test that history has set for us today", telling MPs: "we each have a solemn responsibility to deliver Brexit and take this country forward", calling on the House "to charge that responsibility together".

From now on, though, media noise will build to a crescendo and the sense of what Mrs May was saying will be lost. But there doesn't have to be any great perspicacity to realise what she is doing. If she is out of her depth with EU politics, she has proved herself adept at defensive manoeuvres on the domestic stage, and here she is quite clearly transferring blame for failure onto the MPs.

In this, she can probably rely on there being far more support in the country at large for her as a person than there is for the braying rabble that constitutes the House of Commons. And if there is a single theme unifying the country, it is the desire to see Brexit over and done with. Deftly, Mrs May has put MPs in the frame. She can now afford to stand back and let them take the heat.

As to the "colleagues", it is instructive to see Mr Juncker's comments on the "disorderly withdrawal" and his emphasis on not wanting it to happen. Despite the claims of French local politicians, and others, continental countries are far less prepared for Brexit than they would have us believe.

My firm impression is that there has been a strong element of complacency. EU Member State governments (with the notable exception of Ireland) have been working on the premise that the Withdrawal Agreement will go through, buying them time to prepare their border controls and to make other arrangements. As a result, they are nowhere near ready for a no-deal Brexit on 29 March.

On that basis, some of the front line Member States could actually welcome an Article 50 extension and the delay it brings – without necessarily wanting to see any other outcome from it. Six months to a year extra could transform their situations.

At first sight, it might then seem counter-intuitive for Mrs May not to seek an extension. But she could gain a certain amount of leverage by refraining from making a request, forcing the Member States to take the initiative. This could enable her to extract just enough concessions to make the next vote in the Commons a more winnable proposition.

Without putting too fine a point on it, though, there seems to be very little that Mrs May can do to make the Withdrawal Agreement more palatable to its critics. Her best bet, therefore, might be to tough it out, and dare MPs to tip us over the cliff edge.

For sure, she can make the maximum use of the theatrical opportunities afforded by her jetting off to Brussels for "emergency" talks, complete with the long-expected drama of her returning with a "piece of paper" in her hand spelling out new concessions. Corny and transparent though this might be, it could be the face-saver that the Labour Party needs. With that, it could back the "new" deal against recalcitrant ERG "ultras".

And if that much is speculation, it is no more or less so than the torrent of self-aggrandising clatter filling the legacy media. No one in all honesty can begin to predict where and how this is all going to end.

But, in a perverse way, it can only end well for Mrs May. If she gets her deal, it is a famous victory. If she fails, she will go down in history as having tried her very best against insuperable odds, only to be blocked by an irrational parliament determined to force us into penury.

That, by most normal measures, is a win-win. Would that they knew it, it is the MPs who are on the rack.

Richard North 16/01/2019 link

Brexit: gridlock reprised

Tuesday 15 January 2019  

There is an air of desperation in the way "ultras" are attempting to make the case for Calais being ready for a no-deal Brexit, the latest recruit to their cause being James Rothwell, the Telegraph Brexit correspondent. 

In a report headed: "'More efficient than clockwork'? How Calais is gearing up for a no-deal Brexit", he seeks to convey the impression that the Channel port will be ready for business on 29 March, even though it is clearly the case that it will not.

Amongst other things, we are told that "around 200 veterinary inspectors are being hired to carry out checks on food and plants at both the tunnel and the port of Calais", and that they "will begin their training next week".

This, however, is not supported by the documentary evidence. The French Agriculture Ministry has deliberately not specified numbers, not knowing at this stage how many vets will be needed. And recruitment interviews have only just been carried out, with a view to starting up training in February.

The plans, necessarily, are tentative because arrangements are very far from being complete and, as we left the story, the French government was awaiting the final word from Brussels as to whether it could undertake remote inspection, having already been told by a Commission official that this was not permissible.

The site in question is indeed La Zone Turquerie, and Rothwell tells us that "diggers are laying the groundwork for a warehouse complex for inspectors and a lorry park, where those lacking the correct paperwork will be diverted after Brexit".

If all goes to plan, Rothwell says, the complex – which spans 40 hectares and costs around €20 million to build – "will insulate the port and tunnel areas from delays, averting the nightmare scenario of trucks being trapped in long tailbacks around the town".

To put this to bed, Rothwell relies on Jean-Paul Mulot, a spokesman for the president of the Hauts-de-France region, who says he was "confident the new complex would be ready within 11 weeks".

That, to put it bluntly, is an absurd claim. A Border Control Post is a complex building, with multiple refrigeration requirements, which must be finished to full food safety standards. It is not within the realms of possibility that such a building could be commissioned within such a short period.

But then, if we go to the same Jean-Paul Mulot, he was on record on 9 November. But then he was saying that "We are ready to go with pre-built temporary installations, which would cost around €20 million, but permanent structures would cost much more".

This meant it was unlikely that Calais would be able to start building the infrastructure until December, meaning some aspects of controls and new administrative sites "won't be in place for March 29th, the day the UK is scheduled to officially become a non-EU state".

If a deal is agreed, a transition phase will effectively extend the departure date until December 2020 and give French officials more time but, said Mulot, "In the case of a no-deal, we will not necessarily be ready, but we will not close the ports".

This then fits with the Statement of Pierre-Henri Dumont, a deputy of the 7th district of the Pas-de-Calais, who in a report published by the French Senate on 21 December, told us that the customs infrastructure "will not be ready in time for a no-deal Brexit on 30 March 2019".

Against that, of course, we have Jean Marc Puissesseau, President/Chairman of the ports of Boulogne and Calais. Revisiting his interview when he told the Today programme that, "for the 29 March, we will be ready", if we go further into the interview, we find him being asked whether the absence of delays applies in all scenarios – a deal or a no-deal.

Intriguingly, Puissesseau responds by saying it will not make any difference, "because there will not be a no-deal". Therefore, he can easily say that the port will be ready on 29 March because he does not believe it will ever be called upon to put the claim to the test.

He does admit, however, that there will be "veterinary and phytosanitary control", for which he claims, "we have already been building infrastructure and parking". What he doesn't say, though, is that this is only at the groundwork stage, and the government has yet to get approval from Brussels on the siting.

Nothing of this is mentioned by Rothwell, who has spent his paper's money on going to France, where on a "chilly, raining evening in Calais hundreds of lorries are feeling their way through the dark into awaiting freight containers and ferries".

He might have done better had he consulted evidence in the public domain, but that isn't what the Telegraph is about these days. It has an agenda and, for the purpose of this evening's vote in the House of Commons, it wants to project the view that a no-deal Brexit is a safe option.

Interestingly, the BBC is on the case with its irritatingly smug Reality Check, asking: "Could leaving with no deal cause traffic jams?"

This is a fair enough question, and I've already suggested several times on this blog that there is no intrinsic reason why we should see traffic stacking up. It all depends on the advice given to transport operators by the government, the nature of the traffic management plans adopted, and the view taken by the transport operators themselves.

A huge amount will depend on the advice given by our own government. If it takes a cavalier attitude and misleads transport operators as to the severity of the checks they will experience, we could find transport flows heavily disrupted very soon after 29 March.

However, one might expect shippers to have a good idea of what will and will not be acceptable for export to EU Member States. In anticipation of certain goods being rejected, they might ensure that these were not consigned in the first place. Rather than finding traffic building up at the ports, therefore, we might find that traffic is untypically light, with few delays and no resort to traffic management schemes.

In these circumstances, the penalty will not be time lost in queues. It will manifest itself in a severe curtailment of the volume of goods exported to EEA states, with consequential financial losses. And, with the inability of UK suppliers to meet continental demand, some of the losses may be ongoing.

As for goods coming into the UK, we have already been led to expect that there will be no additional controls imposed on goods coming from EEA states, in which case there are unlikely to be any delays to inbound traffic, or to vehicles clearing Channel ports. In terms of spectacle, Brexit day and the few days thereafter may prove to be non-events.

If this is the case, we are unlikely to see any shortages of food or other essential supplies – at least in the short-term. But there will be plenty of news, as the media is forced to record the cries of anguish of companies suffering financially, with substantial job losses as a high number go out of business.

The one thing transport operators would be unwise to rely on is assurances from local politicians in the port regions – especially French politicians such as Jean Marc Puissesseau, who are desperately anxious to prevent loss of trade to perhaps better-prepared ports in Belgium and Holland.

Specifically, when it comes to the nature of the checks that will be carried out, their conditions and frequency, these are determined by central governments in accordance with EU law. Neither port operators nor local or region government have any say in the matters. And then, if the facilities are not ready, there will be no throughput at all.

Having regard to the multiple uncertainties, those who trade with Europe might be advised to emulate some of the car manufacturers and plan to shut down international transport operations on Brexit day and for the weeks immediately afterwards.

There are, in fact, indications that this is what might happen. Many firms are stockpiling goods both sides of the Channel, and slowing down or diverting production to reduce the dependence on internationally-traded goods. The immediate impact of Brexit, therefore, will be largely invisible, the "hit" confined to business balance sheets.

And, with imports largely uninterrupted, and export flows curtailed, we might even see some consumer prices drop as produce originally intended for export is diverted to the UK domestic market.

To that extent, some of the claims of the "ultras" about "project fear" and overblown scare stories might appear justified – even if the queues don't materialise for reasons entirely different from their projections. But what they will not be able to conceal is the massive economic damage that this nation would suffer.

Whatever the "ultras" might want us to believe therefore – with or without the assistance of their fellow travellers in the media – there is no possible way that no-deal is a penalty-free option. In truth, we cannot even know for sure whether it is survivable.

Richard North 15/01/2019 link

Brexit: the price of indecision

Monday 14 January 2019  

Relying on that trusted journalistic device, the anonymous EU official, the Guardian is telling us that the EU is expecting Tuesday's vote to fail and is thus preparing to delay Brexit until at least July.

According to this narrative, the EU is expecting a request from Mrs May to extend the two-year Article 50 period and will convene a special European Council to consider the matter.

We are then told that the extension period offered will depend on the reason given for the delay. Initially, a "technical" extension until July might be the first step, set to give Mrs May breathing space "to revise and ratify the current deal once Downing Street has a clear idea as to what will command a majority in the Commons".

Then we get the fabled "senior EU sources" who say that a further, lengthier extension could be offered at a later date should a general election or second referendum be called, notwithstanding that the May elections for the European Parliament would create complications.

All this, though, is unsupported speculation and only one variation of the many different strains that are swirling around Westminster, keeping the hacks entertained while they wait for the vote of the century.

However, while no one can know what Mrs May's intentions might be in the event of parliament refusing to ratify the withdrawal deal, there is a certain amount of logic in the EU being prepared to consider an Article 50 extension. Despite what the likes of Jean Marc Puissesseau have said most recently, it is very clear that the continentals (and the Irish) are not ready for a no-deal Brexit, and they could always use the extra time.

That is not to say that the European Parliament would necessarily be keen on the idea. The very last thing they want is a new contingent of Ukip MEPs showing up, and they thought they had got rid of Farage for good.

But since the parliament doesn't really get going until late August, after the elections, a July cut-off might be tolerable. Any longer might have MEPs throwing a strop, themselves threatening to refuse to ratify the withdrawal treaty and thus precipitating a "no deal" departure when the Article 50 end point is finally reached.

In the meantime, Mrs May is swanning up to Stoke-on-Trent today to deliver a speech to the bemused workers of some factory or another. There, she will warn that parliament is more likely to block Brexit than to allow the UK to crash out of the EU without a deal.

That is the meme that seems to be circulating, relying on the premise that there will be an attempt made to repeal the Withdrawal Act, thus removing the formal reference to the departure date from the statute book.

Why, as some think, this could block the UK from leaving the EU is hard to imagine. The UK's departure, as we reminded readers yesterday, is mandated by EU law, to which UK law is subordinate. It is seriously worrying that so many MPs still seem to have so little understanding of EU mechanisms that they believe that their actions can have any direct (or even indirect) impact on Brexit.

Nevertheless, it seems that the pitch that Mrs May wants to sell the nation is one of do or die: her way or no way at all. This perhaps is more scary than the idea of a no-deal which is just what the "ultras" want and a goodly proportion of the population is yearning for.

There is a possibility here that Mrs May is on her way to sidelining the ERG once again, having already neutralised their threat to her premiership. If the "ultras" so desperately want this to be a contest between her deal and no deal, in the expectation that the no-deal is the winning hand.

Certainly, they are still pushing their nostrums for all they are worth, the latest iteration being a tawdry, multi-author pamphlet asserting that: "No Deal is the Best Deal for Britain".

Predictably, their usual techniques are at play, with copious use of the same lies on which they have been relying for so long. For instance, we see repeated the false claim about sanitary and phytosanitary inspections "at facilities physically separate from ports to avoid congestion".

The example of Rotterdam is cited, where the distance of the Border Inspection Post has increased from the original claim of "up to 20 km from the docks themselves" to a more convenient "40 km away at Rotterdam". And, while EU law mandates that 50 percent of consignments comprising foods of animal origin should be physically inspected, the ERG asserts that less than ten percent of such shipments are actually inspected.

Despite their lies (or, perhaps, because of them), they have the support of a dozen former cabinet ministers, including Johnson, David Davis and Dominic Raab. These are urging Tory MPs to vote down Mrs May's deal and leave the EU on WTO terms.

Unsurprisingly, they are not getting it all their own way. According to the Telegraph, "pro-EU MPs" are planning to raise the stakes by publishing draft legislation to force a second referendum, the intention being – as it always has been - to reverse the result of the 2016 vote.

This is a cross-party group of MPs, with Dominic Grieve prominent amongst them, which apparently wants Mrs May to give parliament "a greater say" in deciding how Britain leaves the EU. With Lib-Dem leader Sir Vince Cable and Lord Lisvane, the former clerk of the House of Commons, supporting them, they want Mrs May to respond to her failure to them rather than the "ultras".

The outcome of their endeavours, they hope, is another referendum where voters are given the choice between Mrs May's deal or staying in the EU. That would put us back in the realm of seeking an Article 50 extension, the purpose being to give the time to hold the referendum.

So, we are descending into a complex realm where we have a three-way punt: Mrs May's negotiated withdrawal agreement, a no-deal withdrawal on "WTO terms" and an option of returning to the fold via a referendum.

Somewhere in all that is also the "Norway group" which is pushing for a "Norway-style" solution of its own making, which actually solves nothing and has nowhere to go. This was the one solution that could have had a chance in intelligent hands, if introduced at the right time. But it has been so compromised by weak minds that it is no longer a viable proposition.

At the start of the Brexit process, way back in June 2016, I could not have begun to imagine that we would end up more than 30 months later with not one choice but three, and with no majority for any of them. And with none of the three anywhere close to optimum, we might be better off throwing dice to determine the outcome. Certainly, we've given up any expectations of our MPs making a coherent decision.

Nor, I fear, does it look likely that the issue will be resolved with the vote on Tuesday. This looks to be just an opening gambit, from which as yet unidentified plays could emerge.

Unfortunately, not enough MPs seem to realise that we are playing with fire. As Pete remarks, the only really coherent choice is for Mrs May's deal, "like it or lump it", and it is the measure of how far our politics have deteriorated that our MPs will turn it down.

It is another measure that, when I wrote Flexcit, I devoted minimal space to the WTO option because I thought I didn't need to. It was so self-evidently flawed that I thought that no sensible person could even think of opting for it. Yet here we have a bunch of Tories pushing for it, floating their arguments on a raft of lies.

What is appropriate in all this though is that, for all the posturing and prancing, the EU will probably have the last word – but not the EU of today. It will be the EU of 2003 which dreamt up the European Constitution that morphed into the Lisbon Treaty containing Article 50. It ensured that the price of indecision would be written into that Article, with the automatic departure from the EU in the event that the withdrawal agreement is not ratified.

Thus, whatever the aspirations of the protagonists, when the vote goes the way expected on Tuesday, one certainty we will be able to confront is that we are now closer to a no-deal withdrawal.

Relying on another referendum is a huge gamble that could lead us to the same destination, so the one thing that should happen is the parliamentary ratification of the withdrawal agreement – the one thing that we can be sure that won't happen.

Richard North 14/01/2019 link

Brexit: politicians at their lowest ebb in history

Sunday 13 January 2019  

Booker is in reflective mood in his column this week, writing under the headline: "If the Brexit negotiations are a game of chess, Theresa May is dangerously close to checkmate".

Two years ago, after Theresa May's fateful decision that she wanted us not just to leave the EU but to shut ourselves off from "frictionless" access to the export market which provides one pound in every eight we earn as a nation, he tells us that he wrote that we seemed to be embarking on a game of snakes and ladders.

But in this game we were determined to avoid every ladder that might help us to climb the board towards the desired goal, and to seek out every snake which would slide us back down again to square one.

Another sporting analogy since used by others has been that which chess players call zugzwang. This is where a player reaches a position where any subsequent move will be disastrous for him. Such is the position we have boxed ourselves into today, where MPs are this week faced with a choice between the devil and the raging sea.

On one hand our MPs can vote for a deal imposed on us by the EU, which would leave us much worse off than we are now. On the other, we can drop out of the EU with "no deal" for what Mrs May only coyly calls "uncharted territory" although she must now realise this would be a far greater disaster than her own "bad deal".

The real problem, of course, says Booker, is that our politicians have got themselves into such a hopelessly ill-informed muddle that there is no longer a Commons majority in support of any next move we might make. The various vociferous factions all know what they are against, but they cannot agree on any positive move that might dig us out of the gaping hole they have all unwittingly conspired to get us into.

We still hear one lunatic fringe claiming that, if we leave without a deal, we can somehow just rely on those fabled "WTO rules". This is an option that simply doesn't exist, Booker says, because the WTO merely provides principles, which can only take force when used to shape a formal trade agreement.

And while we have to put up with the endless propaganda from this source, another bunch clamours ever more loudly for a second referendum, which would take months to set up and plunge the country into an even more toxic state of chaos than it is in already.

For the best part of two years, and with increasing intensity, these groups have been tearing themselves apart over one little bubble of make-believe after another, to the point where we now seem to be sliding by default towards the worst possible option of all: an economic, social and political catastrophe far greater than most people have yet begun to imagine, as we shall only discover when it hits us.

In Booker's view – one with which I am in complete agreement - the fault for this lies squarely with our entire political class. Locked away with the media in their Westminster bubble, they never began to understand the reality of what we were up against, and how much of this mess could sensibly have been avoided.

One cannot think of any time in history, he concludes, when the standing of British politicians, either with the public at large or in the eyes of the outside world, has ever – quite deservedly – been lower.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be getting through to them in any material way. The bubble which they inhabit may allow them brief glimpses of the loathing which we have for them, but their bubble insulates them so effectively that they are barely, if at all, influenced by it. They carry on regardless, apparently heedless of the damage they are doing.

This points up the role of this blog, doing what has to be done in what passes for a free society – recording the events that the media fail to note and providing an alternative narrative for those who are interested. Most of all though, it provides a record of what passes, one that is outside the grip of the bubble, which neither media nor politicians can control. Their influence stops at the gate.

In my view, it is just as well someone is doing it, as we seem to be entering new realms of fantasy. Today's Sunday Times, for instance, has an over-excited headline declaring "a very British coup", outlining what it reports to be a "Commons plot" to seize control of the Brexit "negotiations" and sideline Mrs May.

This, apparently, relies on an assertion, that the UK will leave the EU on 29 March "unless there is a new act of parliament overturning existing legislation", whence Nick Boles and others are seeking to make it "illegal" to leave the EU without a deal.

This, on the face of it, is gibberish. A no-deal Brexit is the default outcome, in the event of the withdrawal agreement not being ratified. This is mandated by EU law to which UK law is subordinate. Parliament can no more make a no-deal scenario "illegal" than Canute could have held back the tide back in the day.

As to taking over control of the negotiations, there are none. They have ended and both the Commission and European Council have made it abundantly clear that there is no possibility of their being re-opened.

According to the ST story, though, Downing Street believes that the "coup" would enable MPs to suspend Article 50, putting Brexit on hold, and could even lead to the referendum result being overturned — a move that would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.

Yet, this is just as much gibberish. There is no provision, as such, for putting the Article "on hold". For sure, the UK government (but not parliament) could seek a time extension, but this requires the unanimous assent of the EU-27. And as for overturning the referendum result, again this is for the government, in revoking the Article 50 notification.

The story, as written, is not internally consistent, nor consistent with reality, any more than is the Sunday Telegraph story which has the Tory Party on the brink of an "historic split", occasioned by the government offering incentives to Labour to get its backing for the withdrawal agreement.

Needless to say, this obsession with domestic politics neglects the core issue: unless parliament votes for the withdrawal agreement, the default outcome is a no-deal Brexit. The government doesn't have to do anything – it does not have to declare it as a policy objective. It will happen automatically.

The turmoil in parliament, however, does point to Mrs May losing control, but there is no guessing as to whether rival Tory MPs will drive us to a general election. But even if that is the eventual outcome of Tuesday's vote, it could still leave Mrs May in charge and, should the Tories be returned, we are back where we started.

What people should be focusing on, therefore, is the dominant choice which is still the only serious offer on the table: the withdrawal agreement or a no-deal. It is not possible to give any guarantees that the necessary outcome of a vote against Mrs May won't be a no-deal scenario.

Here, the lack of preparedness is an issue – not here but in France. Earlier in the week, we saw transmission of comments from Jean-Marc Puissesseau declaring that Calais would be "ready" for Brexit on 29 March, despite copious evidence to the contrary.

To add to this, we also have a committee report from the French Senate published on 21 December. It has Pierre-Henri Dumont, a deputy of the 7th district of the Pas-de-Calais - which includes the Channel Tunnel and the port of Calais – who unequivocally states that the customs infrastructure will not be ready in time for a no-deal Brexit on 30 March 2019.

There is also an important intervention by president of the committee, Jean-Louis Bourlanges. He addresses the question of whether the import controls will have to be applied at the border or whether they may be exercised further from the border in order to avoid bottlenecks.

According to rapporteur Alexandre Holroyd, the French government (as of the end of December) was waiting for the Commission's answer on whether the controls can be several kilometres from the border, connected to the ports by "maritime corridors". And at that point, Bourlanges refers to the "unacceptability" of proposals published in the summer, when a remote customs area was mooted.

In this context, we can refer to yet another French Parliament Committee, this one on 16 October 2018. It took evidence from Jacques Gounon, President and CEO of GetLink SE (Eurotunnel), who complained that there was no symmetry between France and the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom, Gounon said, planned to carry out physical checks up to twenty-five kilometres inland. France, on the other hand - due to Community rules – could not exercise controls on goods outside the entry points. They had to be stationed in the "secure corridors" of the ports and tunnel terminal areas.

From this, it appears that the Tunnel operator is well aware of the constraints of EU law, far more so than Jean-Marc Puissesseau. As it stands for Calais, therefore, not only is the infrastructure not going to be ready, the French government has not even got the clearance from Brussels as to where import controls might be exercised.

Inescapably, this means that chaos is going to be the result of a no-deal, yet nothing of this has found its way into the UK media. It is thus not only the standing of British politicians which has never been lower, as Booker avers. It is also the media, which is constantly demonstrating its inability to report coherently on Brexit – something that Booker is not allowed to say, bearing in mind his own newspaper is one of the worst offenders.

Richard North 13/01/2019 link

Brexit: one problem at a time

Saturday 12 January 2019  

David Davis has been talking to Spiegel, repeating the same nostrums he has been pushing through the UK media: we should not be afraid of a no-deal.

Dismissing fears of food shortages and other "scare stories", he also asserted that it is unlikely that (the ferry traffic between) Calais and Dover will "choke up", arguing that "the head of French customs has already said they could change the inspection regime to make sure that business runs smoothly".

If that is not possible, he says, "we can move 40 percent of the trade from Dover-Calais to other ports". Practical concerns are "real" but "limited" and there "may well be lorry queues". We "may even see some hostile action by European states" but within a year, "everything will be ironed out".

For that, we can at least thank Mr Davis for setting out what amounts to the ERG position – an incurable, unsupported optimism that brooks no argument: there may be limited problems with a no-deal Brexit but, after a year, everything will be fine.

And even though nothing of what Davis says is true, in the final analysis, the only certain way to challenge this thesis is to let it happen. Nevertheless, we can bring forward more refined predictions, using a far better standard of evidence, which would suggest that Davis is wrong – very wrong. That, in fact, we've already done, but against the torrent of misinformation and indifference, it is not enough.

But this is not just our failure. Such is the febrile nature of the debate that there is no one who could turn the tide. There are those with far greater ranking and influence than we enjoy, who also complain that they are not being given a hearing.

With a prime minister notorious for her secretive behaviour and her lack of responsiveness, there is no hope of influencing events from the outside. Not even parliament is capable of making the lady turn. Most likely, the die is cast and we will end up with the accidental no-deal scenario.

There is always a chance, however, that MPs will bottle out and realise that a no-deal is not a credible option. While that may not change the outcome of next Tuesday's vote, I don't think many people expect this to be the last word. By whatever means, Mrs May is expected to manoeuvre parliament into another vote, which may or may not deliver the negotiated withdrawal agreement.

If parliament ends up ratifying the agreement, then we will have the benefit of the transitional period, which will buy us some time – and then open the debate to embrace our future relationship with the EU. That should keep us occupied for a few years, while the talks are in progress.

The no-deal, on the other hand, will also keep us busy but in a different way. Initially, we will be charting the growing disaster, interspersed with some judicious expressions of "I told you so", and an amount of synchronised gloating.

Nevertheless, there is no point at which a no-deal is the end game. It will create an unsustainable situation that will require remedy. In the short-term, there will have to be a series of emergency fixes, to keep some sort of a show on the road, and a measure of retrenching as all parties struggle to get used to what in some respects will become the new normal.

The situation is not aided by the European Parliament elections, the end of this Commission's mandate and the appointment of a new Commission president. It will be November, or even later, before the EU is in a position to entertain serious negotiations with the UK, by which time we could be living in a world that has changed irrevocably.

Possibly, at that stage, the UK will be engaged in the process of rebuilding a shattered economy, and be looking for something not dissimilar to the post-war Marshall Plan. Or perhaps David Davis will be proved right: after a short period of perturbation, we shall be on the way to the sunlit uplands, with the rest of the world flocking to our door, anxious to negotiate new trade deals with us.

Frankly, I would love to be wrong and have my pessimism swept aside. But, if I'm not, I will have a great deal to write about how so many people got it wrong, and what we need to do to salvage something from the wreckage.

For the moment, though – with the situation so uncertain and with 76 days to go before we can be certain that we have left the EU – it is too early to start setting out plans for the future. To do so might even presuppose we have a future as a nation, other than one of a slow decline into national penury.

Yet, for all that, there are many areas where attention to detail would yield dividends, and provide answers to pressing problems identified by the Brexit process. Had the likes of David Davis, IDS and others in the ERG focused on such details, they might have been able to offer solutions which did not involve outright lies or require distorting the evidence.

For instance, having to confront the inconvenience of sanitary and phytosanitary border inspections, the group has been tearing itself apart, trying to find ways of circumventing requirements or reducing the impact of what is a make-or-break issue.

In their desperation, they are seeking to bend EU law, pretending that inspections can be carried out away from the ports, as a means of easing the congestion that will inevitably arise once the controls are applied.

Yet, as I remarked yesterday, there is a partial answer in Regulation (EC) No 882/2004, which currently sets out the "official controls" on foods imported from third countries, as will be the UK when it leaves the EU.

The Regulation (Article 23) makes provision for pre-export controls in the country of origin, in which event the UK could perhaps build a giant inspection facility outside Dover, to be operated under EU supervision. It might look rather like the unit in Bilbao (pictured), and perhaps situated outside Ashford. After loads had been inspected, I wrote, vehicles could be sealed and then directed by a supervised transit corridor (under continuous CCTV observation) direct to the ferries or shuttle.

As the law stands, this would not remove EU import controls applied at the border, or the requirement to present consignments comprising foods of animal origin to Border Inspection Posts. But, on the basis of an agreement with the Commission, it can substantially reduce the frequency of inspection.

And, just for once, things are set to get better. On 14 December 2019, a replacement law, Regulation (EU) 2017/625 (Article 73), takes effect. Similar in nature to its predecessor, there is an important difference in that it allows under certain circumstances the pre-export controls to replace the official controls applied on entry.

The nature and extent of the pre-export controls would have to be negotiated with the Commission but, potentially, an agreement could resolve a major problem that comes with Brexit.

And, as this one example demonstrates, even when problems seem intractable, there are often solutions if you know where to find them. An inspection centre for pre-export controls would cost only a fraction of the money that Mr Grayling wants to spend on additional ferry capacity, and would do far more to reduce port congestion than his meagre efforts.

One wonders why the government's lavishly-paid consultants haven't come up with this idea for their £75 million, or why the government hasn't spent the money on such an eminently practical solution rather than frittering it away on over-priced consultants.

And taking this approach is the way we might have to tackle the post-Brexit no-deal scenario. The "big bang" solution was perhaps too much to ask of this government. We will find ourselves solving one problem at a time.

Richard North 12/01/2019 link

Brexit: project reality

Friday 11 January 2019  

The car industry is making headlines again, and although some are talking of "carmageddon" it is easily possible to overstate the impact of Brexit in the reported events. A fair analysis would suggest that Brexit is only one factor in a long-overdue industry adjustment. And even the Guardian manages to host a commentary telling us not to blame job losses at Jaguar Land Rover and Ford on Brexit.

However, the news on Honda is rather different. The company plans to halt production at its UK plant for six days after Brexit, enabling the group to stockpile parts in the days immediately following Britain's departure from the EU, and to ride out any short-term interruptions in supplies.

Honda, of course, is not on its own. The BMW-owned Mini plant is shutting down for its four-week maintenance period in April instead of the summer and Toyota is prepared temporarily to cease production in the event of any disruption to its supply chain following Brexit.

This puts clothes on the predictions of disruption. Hard-headed businesses are not given to attacks of the vapours, their plans driven by "project fear" to the extent that they drop millions from their bottom lines. These are real concerns, based on the best evidence available.

Evidence, though, is not something which our revered government seems to understand. Nor does it even seem to have the capability to acquire it, sufficient to enable it to make sensible decisions – even despite spending around £75 million on consultants.

This brings us neatly back to "ferrygate", whence we learn that Seaborne Freight were "vetted" by lawyers Slaughter & May, accountants Deloitte and consultants Mott MacDonald. With their focus on the potential ferry-provider and the port of Ramsgate, these geniuses, alongside their minders in the DfT, failed to realise that it would be "impossible" for Ostend to be ready in time for Brexit.

This made the media a couple of days ago, after the BBC interviewed the mayor of Ostend who told the broadcaster that the port needed guarantees from the ferry line, in view of concerns about their solvency. The mayor also pointed out that spending was needed for security measures to contain migrants, adding: "If the ferry line is getting millions of pounds [from] the government, I think they have to do some investments in the harbour".

But this, it seems, turns out to be only just another of the growing list of problems. Although a deal between Ramsgate port and Seaborne Freight is expected to be confirmed "imminently", the trade journal Loadstar is telling us that any ferry service will not be "fit for purpose".

It has been speaking to a former "seafarer", with 45 years’ experience, 25 of them on Dover-Calais ferries, who has outlined multiple reservations. "The Ostend to Ramsgate is undoubtedly a route that will interest drivers", he says, "but I cannot see it gaining that much interest, largely due to the times involved".

Ramsgate's claim that it can cater for 24 sailings a day, he says, "is nothing more than a pipe-dream, when you consider the port's facilities". Both Ramsgate and Seaborne claim a sailing to Ostend can be completed in four hours, but actual sea journey represents just part of the time taken.

It ignores turnaround times, which, based on similar vessels trading in Dover, average around three hours at each port. Then, bearing in mind that the mile-long approach at Ramsgate is too narrow for two-way traffic, it doesn't account for pilotage in – another half hour – and the same for pilotage out at both ports.

What this amounts to is a 16-hour rotation, which rules out any possibility of operating 24 sailings a day. And the 16-hour rotation will not be popular with truckers. It means different sailing times each day.

Furthermore, says the seafarer, parties seem to be ignoring the limitations imposed by Ramsgate's third berth. Unlike berths one and two, it operates under a linkspan system, which is only capable of handling a certain type of vessel, of which the numbers available are limited.

"So", he says, "number three berth will be left open, unless they can persuade DFDS or P&O to lend one of their ships. And you can't use a traditional stern-loading vessel as it would damage, or even destroy, the linkspan equipment". However, without linkspan equipment, and particularly the double-deck ramps available at Dover and Calais, high speed loading and unloading cannot be achieved. And while Ostend is equipped with three ferry berths, these can only handle the conventional stern loaders (pictured).

As if that was not enough, questions have also been raised about the limited number of pilots available, leaving larger-scale operations reliant on exemption certification.

But exemption certificates can only be obtained by masters and first mates on completion of an examination process, which requires the applicant to complete eight inward and eight outward movements, 50 percent conducted in darkness, on a vessel of similar characteristics to the one they will be sailing. These movements must be made within a 12-month period prior to the application, with at least half conducted within a six-month window.

For this to happen, the process needs to be under way now, but there is an obvious hurdle. Seaborne don't have the ships, nor do they know what ships they will have, so they cannot be lodging applications for the exemptions. Without exemption certificates, Ramsgate would, at a minimum, need to provide four harbour pilots. It is not clear that the post has that number. Thus, the more that emerges about the DfT ferry contract, the more ill-considered it appears to be. 

And, adding still more to the pain, we have Getlink, operator of the Eurostar Shuttle, complaining about the anti-competitive nature of the contract. This is from chief executive Jacques Gounon who has written to Chris Grayling, stating that the Le Shuttle is the most efficient way of supplying vital goods to the UK, which will "remain the case" even if border controls are introduced between the states. Getlink would be prepared to mount additional "missions" under equivalent contracts to those signed with the ferry operators.

With the threat of further action, possibly in the courts, Gounon makes good points but the DfT seems to be determined to add insult to injury. A source has confirmed that it is talking with German-owned DB Cargo and Swedish-run GB Railfreight about running extra trains through the night from April to guarantee the flow of food and medicines.

As the situation thus gets more complex and absurd, perhaps Jean-Marc Puissesseau was on the ball when he suggested that a better way to spend £100 million might be to invest in facilities at Calais. Even the £75 million spent on consultants would go a long way.

Considering that the Pif-Pec at Le Havre cost €3 million, the sum Mr Grayling is prepared to spend on extra ferries, much less the consultant fees, would cover the installation of substantial facilities and even provide a dowry to keep them operating. In terms of speeding trade flows, this would seem at first sight a far better option.

There is even provision in EU law for pre-export inspection in the country of origin (see discussion here), in which event the UK could perhaps build a giant inspection facility outside Dover, to be operated under EU supervision. After their loads had been inspected, vehicles could be sealed and then directed by a supervised transit corridor (under continuous CCTV observation) direct to the ferries or shuttle (see Article 23 - this would not remove EU import controls but it could reduce their frequency).

As regards Calais and generally, there is no provision in EU law for the inspection to be anything other than in the "immediate vicinity" of the point of entry. In the run up to the Puissesseau interview, Iain Duncan-Smith spoke of facilities being supplied at Calais 12 kilometres from the port.

That seems to fit with provision being made at the Turquerie site. But, while Commission official Ms Gauer spoke of being able to defer inspection of low risk products, those which were not of animal origin, it is not possible under EU law that a Border Control Post in the "veterinary domain" can be operated there. Any site must be within the port perimeter.

As regards the Tunnel, Getlink does run trains directly to Dunkirk port, where it owns some land. Here, the law might be stretched and it be argued that the "point of entry" for these trains was Dunkirk rather than Calais, provided there was no intermediate stop.

Even then, deferring inspection does not really solve anything. Observation of the Le Havre Pif-Pec indicates that it has parking, at a pinch, for about 40 lorries. And, with a maximum inspection capacity of about 100 lorries a day, this is hardly going to make a dent in the UK traffic, which might account for 2-3 thousand lorries a day requiring inspection.

On that basis, a modestly sized inspection centre will still have the traffic backing up all the way to the port and clogging the flows. Positioning it a few kilometres from the terminals would only buy a few hours. Thus, the only answer in the long-term is either the investment in massive, high-throughput facilities, or permanent reductions in trade – or both.

This, however, happens whether we have a no-deal scenario or, eventually, a free trade agreement. In either event, the UK becomes a third country and full border controls apply. What approving the withdrawal agreement gives us is more time to prepare, in the form of a transition period. It also allows new regulations to apply, which may give us a way out. 

Small wonder, therefore, that the CBI is warning that a no-deal Brexit would have profound economic consequences with GDP shrinking by up to eight percent, putting thousands of jobs at risk. But having cried "wolf" so often, its intervention will be dismissed by many as simply another instalment of "project fear".

From CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn, who will be speaking today on the subject, all we will get is generalised whiffle, with no detail to support the eight percent claim. What we need, therefore, is "project reality" – a determined effort to put factual evidence before the public, setting out costs and detailed information of what mitigation measures might be needed.

Facts are a great antidote, but so far no one seems to be prepared to put them on the table. They can only be built up from painstaking evaluation of the evidence, which puts us back where we started. In an evidence-free environment, reality is being forced to take a back seat.

Richard North 11/01/2019 link

Brexit: politicians play while business bleeds

Thursday 10 January 2019  

I have absolutely no interest in the pathetic prancing of Westminster politicians, and the games they are playing on Brexit. Like it or not, Mrs May is right. There are only two choices on the table: her deal or no deal. And the way these blustering fools are going, they are driving straight down the road to a no-deal, with potentially devastating results.

Even more irresponsible, if that was possible, is that rag-tag contingent that exploits every opportunity it can find to support its ongoing campaign to present the no-deal scenario as an acceptable option – and even one to be welcomed.

Their opportunity came again yesterday when BBC Radio 4's Today programme aired a squib from Jean-Marc Puissesseau (pictured), styled as the Deputy Calais Mayor. Triumphantly repeated on Twitter, it had him saying that the Calais authorities were preparing for a no-deal Brexit and "we will be ready".

This version of Puissesseau said, "No more trucks will be stopped crossing the Channel than at present". Adding that the UK Government's efforts to move trade away from Calais to other ports were "shocking" and "disrespectful".

This was immediately seized upon by Bernard Jenkin, who chortled: "This interview is big news. Well done for carrying this". The comment addressed to the BBC, he added: "But why is this not now in the hourly news bulletins? It completely spikes the fear campaign about WTO Brexit causing queues at Dover".

The likes of the Guido Fawkes website quickly followed, identifying the man as "President Chairman of the ports of Boulogne-Calais". The customs at his port would only be checking for veterinary and sanitary controls,  he said, "for which we have already been building infrastructure and parking, but that will not influence the traffic in Dover".

"We will not control the exports, only asking the papers already, the custom declaration, that’s all! The import, as you won't control [restrict], there will not be a queue in Dover because there will not be control, so where is the problem?!"

Said Guido on the basis of these claims, echoing Jenkin, "Maybe it's time that scaremongering Remainers started to listen to the experts".

Oddly enough, though, the likes of Jenkin were not so quick to retail the views of Puissesseau in March when he said that there could be tailbacks up to 30 miles in all directions and potential food shortages in Britain if a Brexit deal involves mandatory customs and sanitary checks at the French ferry terminal.

This was the very same Jean-Marc Puissesseau, making "an impassioned plea" to Theresa May and Michel Barnier to put plans in place immediately to avert congestion in Calais and Dover, where bosses had "already warned of permanent 20-mile tailbacks".

And that's what typifies this rag-tag contingent. When people say something of which they approve, which helps their cause, they talk them up and spread the word. But if they dare to say anything else, they are ignored.

When it comes to Puissesseau, though, we are dealing with something of a mixed bag. Born on 13 August, 1940, he is – to English eyes at least – one of those strange French mixes of businessman and politician, for which there is no real equivalent in the UK.

President of the Strait Ports Operating Company (SEPD) which was created in 2014, he was previously President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) of Calais, followed by a term as President of the Côte d'Opale CCI, representing Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk, before standing down in December 2015 to avoid "conflict of interest" in his current position.

Politician rather than "expert", he has business interests in the Calais football club, in a household appliance wholesaler, publishing and housing rentals. Through his links with the port, he has been a high-profile spokesman for its interests, a voluble critic of the French government for not dealing effectively with the migrant problem, and equally critical of the European Commission when it sought to exclude Calais from its "Motorway of the Sea" project once the UK had left the EU.

As such, he is something of a "hired gun", ready to defend the interests of the port whenever necessary. But in this last intervention, apparently contradicting his claims made in March, there is more to this than meets the eye – much more.

In what is and remains a murky picture, we have to go back to early October of last year, when Gérald Darmanin, Minister of Action and Public Accounts came up from Paris to meet 50 or so customs officers from Dunkirk, Boulogne and Calais.

Brexit was discussed but only in private, but what came out of a subsequent meeting with the mayor and Natacha Bouchart, vice-president of the Region in charge of port issues, about forty guests, was more than interesting.

The Minister announced the creation of a customs office in Calais and then Natacha Bouchart proposed the creation of a central control centre that would bring together the customs office and the Veterinary and Phytosanitary Service at the borders (SIVEP) at a site known as the Turquerie.

This is a proposed logistics park, part of an ill-fated regeneration programme dreamed up in 2011 and more or less abandoned after an incomplete phase one, although the politicians, Natacha Bouchart amongst them, are reluctant to give up on their pet project, which they regard as a strategic necessity in the post-Brexit trading environment.

Situated along the Calais-Dunkirk railway line and between Calais Port and the Channel Tunnel, it is some distance from both terminals. But this was at a time when the French government wrongly believed that there could be derogations to the EU law requiring border inspection posts to be "located in the immediate vicinity of the point of entry".

When in early December, Ms Céline Gauer, Deputy Secretary General of the European Commission, told the National Assembly that there would be no derogations, that must have thrown the plans for Calais into complete disarray, completely scotching the idea of using the Turquerie site. Not only could there not be a combined facility to service both port and tunnel, separate installations would have to be built in both terminals.

Since then, while there has been some discussion in the French press about inspection facilities for the Normandy ports, there has been an almost complete absence of references to provisions at Calais. Despite intensive trawling, I can find no further references since October. It seems that the local politicians, having found they could not use Brexit to reactivate their pet scheme, had no alternative to fall back on.

Yesterday's Guardian, however, referred to the French authorities in Calais building temporary border inspection posts near the port "for the mandatory checks on food and live animals that will be required after Brexit in a no-deal scenario", but that is either old news or incorrect.

The article itself had Cabinet Office minister, David Lidington, responding to Puissesseau's claims that the port had already been building infrastructure and parking. Lidington reminded us that "European law says all food exports and livestock exports from a third country to the EU have to be inspected 100 percent [and] checked at a designated border inspection post", stating that Calais did not have infrastructure in place to carry out all the necessary checks in the event of a no-deal exit.

Given the "radio silence", one can take it that this is more likely to be true. If there was any progress at all, it seems hardly likely that there would have been no mention at all of it in the French media. Thus, Puissesseau's protestations seem more like bluster to cover up the lack of any progress, representing an opportunity to protect the interests of his beloved port, trying to stave off the prospect of business going elsewhere.

As to the details of his claims, we have since seen a detailed rebuttal from the Road Haulage Association (RHA), affirming that there would be "significant delays" at the port.

This is the crunch. The very fact that the "no deal" contingent is so keen to play down the likelihood of delays tells you how important this issue really is. Yet nothing of this is being addressed by the prattling MPs in Westminster, nor indeed assisted by the self-interest of French politicians.

While Brexit has now become a crisis, and business bleeds, all we have is the unedifying sight of politicians playing their games - on both sides of the Channel. As the wealth of the nation drains into the sand, there must surely be a reckoning.

Richard North 10/01/2019 link

Brexit: the net closes

Wednesday 9 January 2019  

If there is anything useful to take from the government defeat on the amendment in parliament yesterday, it is that the majority of MPs seem opposed to a no-deal.

If that meant that they were prepared to support Mrs May's deal, the prime minister's troubles would be over. But that isn't the way it's going to work. In the perverse dynamics of Brexit, majorities can only be found to oppose things.

And for all that, there surely cannot be any MPs who seriously believe that their actions are going to stop the UK drifting into a no-deal scenario, especially as the amendment will have very little material effect. However, clearly, some MPs believe it will, apparently unaware that no-deal is the default outcome in the event of the withdrawal agreement not being approved.

But while the MPs have been playing their fatuous little games, others are making their own judgements, not least the French government which now seems to be firming up on its views about UK intentions.

The trail leads back to a memorandum dated 20 November published by the French Ministry of Agriculture. From this, it is apparent that the French government was already fully aware that Brexit permanently changed the trading relationship with the UK.

In particular, it noted that Brexit meant that sanitary and phytosanitary measures would have to be applied to animals, plants, animal products, plant products and other goods imported from the UK, in approved border control posts. As a result, it was embarking on a major staff recruitment programme to enable this to happen.

It had decided to create new border inspector jobs, with inspectors at Calais Port and Calais Eurotunnel, Caen-Ouistreham, Cherbourg and Roscoff. Where there were already established border control posts, the establishments were to be increased. This would apply to Dunkirk, Le Havre, Saint-Malo and Brest.

Different categories were involved, from heads of posts and their deputies, to veterinary and phytosanitary inspectors. The number of posts per category had not been precisely determined and was to depend on the nature of the controls to be implemented.

Although applications were invited before 14 December, the memorandum noted that the date of the re-establishment (sic) of the border controls was "not yet known" and would depend on the outcome of the ongoing negotiations.

As far as the Ministry was concerned, the starting dates could be either 30 March 2019 or 1 January 2022. But it nevertheless warned that the regional departments of Hauts-de-France, Normandie and Bretagne must prepare to recruit "emergency teams" at the border posts. As a result, it said, the new positions had to be filled as of 1 February 2019, giving time for mandatory training of two months, from 1 February to 30 March 2019.

Jobs are now being formally advertised, although the job descriptions (for example, head of post and inspector) seem to lack details of starting dates. However, a Facebook advertisement indicates that interviews are to be from 10-14 January. This seems a little late if the positions are to be filled by 1 February and, given that two months of training is "mandatory", it doesn't seem possible that the inspection service will be ready in time.

Nonetheless, this provides evidence of a formal commitment by the French government to staff border control posts, even if the lack of further information on staffing levels does not indicate the scale of that commitment. And crucially, we are to see border posts attached to Calais port and Eurotunnel.

A further mystery is the precise location and scale of the border control posts. What is not generally understood is that these facilities are provided and maintained by the private sector, which also manages the buildings for the officials who occupy them.

In Marseilles, for instance, the Syndicate of Freight Forwarders created a dedicated company called STM Entreprise to manage the Pif-Pec there. In Le Havre, the Union of Freight Forwarders and Commissionaires du Havre funded the existing inspection facilities (pictured), spending in 2007 nearly €3 million on a 10,000 square metre building, equipped with seven docking bays.

Utilisation, however, seems remarkably low, handling between ten and 100 consignments a day with 17 inspection staff (one of whom has some strange ideas about personal hygiene – see the link).

Even though the unit is earmarked for expansion, as of October last year the president of the Le Havre syndicate was still seeking clarification from Brussels on health certification and was mooting collaboration with other Normandy ports under the banner of Ports Normans Associés. Clearly, no decision had been made on what additional infrastructure was required.

There is, of course, still the possibility of furnishing temporary facilities, but those – if they can be found – will hardly be satisfactory. But, whether or not they are late or on time, the net is closing on UK food exports. The days of free movement of goods are coming to a close with a vengeance.

And nor are we going to be alone in seeing the effects. The European Livestock and Meat Trades Union (UECBV) has produced a report, suggesting that the magnitude of the shock of a hard Brexit would be significantly greater than that caused by the Russian food import ban in 2014.

Looking at the situation from the European perspective, it assumes that the UK will impose its own border controls and calculates that the additional burden of veterinary and health checks on animal products would increase costs at current trade levels for EU meat exporters by over €43 million per year.

Its concern is that the UK market is one of the highest value markets for EU meat, and the UK beef price is one of the highest in Europe, with the same largely holding true for pig meat and sheep meat prices.

A situation in which trade with the UK was severely restricted, it says, would therefore not only mean a massive loss in volume of trade for the EU-27, but also a loss in high value trade with a sophisticated consumer market. Its greatest fear is that trade in all meat products between the UK and the EU could be eliminated.

Here, of direct interest to the UK, it notes that every carcass, whether beef, pig or sheep, is butchered into an array of cuts, each with differing value. These are sold across multiple markets and market channels in order to match supply and demand and maximise the overall market revenue for the full carcass.

Meat trade therefore involves a carcass-balancing element. The UK, for example, imports and exports a similar quantity of lamb, but its imports are primarily leg while its exports are primarily carcass. Thus, trade is important for finding a market equilibrium, as it would be impossible for producers to extract value from cuts for which there is no domestic demand.

Interestingly, the report also draws attention to the UK as a land-bridge for trade within in the EU27 - the two-way flow of product between Ireland and the other 26 EU countries – which would become extremely problematic and, at a minimum, highly bureaucratic.

More than 90 percent of Irish meat exports to continental Europe flow via the land-bridge through the UK, due to the cost-effectiveness and speed of this transit route compared to, for example, the sea route direct to France. Transit using the land-bridge from Ireland to Calais takes an average of 10.5 hours, compared to 20 hours by sea to the port of Cherbourg in northern France, or at least 38 hours to the port of Zeebrugge in Belgium.

And in what seems a familiar lament, it states that "it is essential that preparations of ports begin ahead of time, in order to protect against a hard Brexit outcome". That, it might seem, is too late to make a difference, with the ports struggling to deal with the implications. All too soon, we will discover what these are, from direct experience.

Richard North 09/01/2019 link

Brexit: gridlock

Tuesday 8 January 2019  

Forced to decide whether a Secretary of State might be lying or is simply ignorant, I think I would prefer to choose the former. The idea of senior government members not knowing what they are doing is not one with which I am terribly comfortable.

When it comes to the Secretary of State for Transport, though, I would find it more difficult to accept that he is lying. It is the easiest thing in the world to believe that, in Chris Grayling, we have a man who would struggle to get to grips with the Ladybird book of motor cars. Tootles the Taxi might be more his level.

Thus, when yesterday he delivered a written statement to parliament, updating MPs on the government contracts with ferry operators, one has to give him the benefit of doubt on his more dubious claims, and assume that he doesn't realise the errors he is perpetrating.

What particularly sticks in the craw is the way the assertion that the Department for Transport has completed a procurement process to secure additional ferry capacity between the UK and the EU gets transformed into a process of providing additional freight capacity, as if they were the same things.

It is not pedantic to say in this context that, when it comes to ro-ro ferries, these ships do not carry freight, as such. They carry lorries and it is those that carry the freight – assuming they are loaded, which is not always the case. About a third of the lorries travelling on ferries from the UK to the continent are returning empty.

Measurement of capacity, though, is rather more complex, as we are not so much talking about individual ferries or lorries, but of the tonnage that can be delivered via the combination of the various routes to their final destinations in a given period.

Comparing lorries with a the same load-carrying capacities, if one group takes twice as long to deliver the goods via a specified route than by another, and if a similar number of ferries transporting them can only hold half the number of vehicles, that route capacity is only a quarter of its comparator.

Given that this will apply, to a greater or lesser extent to the routes chosen by Mr Grayling for his largesse, and his ferries are not carrying additional lorries but those displaced from the Dover corridor route, the net effect of his intervention will actually be to reduce the overall capacity. The lorries concerned will be engaged in the load delivery (and return) for that much longer. They and their drivers will not be available to carry fresh loads. To maintain the capacity, many more lorries will be needed.

Nor does it stop there. Mr Grayling tells us that, in addition to the Seaborne Ferries plying the Ostend route, Brittany Ferries and DFDS will run from the Ports of Immingham and Felixstowe (DFDS) and Poole, Plymouth and Portsmouth (Brittany) to destinations in Germany (Cuxhaven), the Netherlands (Vlaardingen) and France (Caen, Cherbourg, Le Havre, and Roscoff).

Yet, if one adds in Ostend, only two of the destinations (Cuxhaven and Le Havre) are serviced by Border Inspection Posts. Although Vlaardingen is close to Rotterdam, it is the wrong side of the river for traffic to access its inspection centres.

On that basis, the actual load-carrying capacity for these routes, in delivering foodstuffs, is nil. Even if temporary facilities were provided, one might expect the ports to become so congested that their load processing capabilities might be seriously limited, especially as there are low numbers of ramps, and very few of the double-deck type.

It is certainly the expectation of the French authorities that there will be congestion and delays, which suggests that, if there is any sense behind the Grayling scheme, it is not in providing additional capacity. Rather, it is a way of getting urgent goods into the UK, by-passing the blockages on the Dover corridor.

If that is the case, then it would be helpful if Mr Grayling would say so. For the very limited capacity afforded to be actually put into use, it would suggest that the Dover corridor had come almost to a complete halt, and there was a real danger of food and other essential supplies, such as medicines, running out.

Putting a little meat on the bone, we now have some UK academic research which is endeavouring to model more accurately the effect of delays at the ports. This is the UCL, which is assessing the impact of different processing times for outbound journeys using Dover's existing layout and traffic flows. It anticipates that extra customs checks of up to 40 seconds per vehicle would have no impact on the queuing time for outward journeys through Dover.

However, if delays reach 70 seconds per truck, a queue of between 1,200 and 2,724 heavy goods vehicles is expected, leading to tailbacks taking six days to clear. "[The queue] starts Monday evening and ends by Saturday noon", the UCL estimates. However, if the processing time goes up to 80 seconds the result would simply be "no recovery". The whole country would be gridlocked in a massive traffic jam.

This research was actually commissioned by the DfT, and if it is giving the right picture, the traffic from Ramsgate won't be able to get clear of the port, as it will be caught up in the Dover congestion.

This is especially the case if separate research by Imperial College London has got it right. It predicts "paralysis" on the M20 motorway and A20 trunk road if new customs delays are introduced. Nearly five hours of traffic delays in Kent is predicted at peak times, with an extra two minutes spent on each vehicle at the border tripling existing queues on the M20/A20 to 29 miles.

The worrying thing about this research, though, is that it is only one of "a number of documents commissioned" by the DfT since the 2016 referendum. The UCL work was presented to ministers in 2017 but never published.

Perhaps, though, one might have to change one's view of Grayling. On the basis of this, he undoubtedly knows far more than he has been letting on. One can see why he is so keen to get the extra ferries in place.

It also explains, to an extent, the otherwise inexplicable road tests from Manston yesterday, when a meagre 90 lorries were used to rehearse procedures in the event of disruption arising from a no-deal Brexit.

What is so frustrating about all of this, though, is that modelling all seems predicated on congestion on this side of the Channel, with very little understanding or information about conditions in the continental ports.

It is there where the longest delays might be. Forget 80 seconds. It can take 2-3 hours to process one load through a BIP and throughput is limited by the number of bays. More time still can be taken if multiple consignments of different foods are presented for inspection.

On top of this, one has to recall that, in the event of a no-deal, UK notified bodies are no longer recognised and, without a mutual recognition agreement on conformity assessment in place, their third party certification of regulatory conformity will no longer be valid.

Unless very stringent measures are imposed, UK exporters will doubtless be attempting to continue sending goods to the continent which, without the valid certification, will not be admitted. No doubt, French and other national customs and trading standards officials will be inspecting large number of vehicles in anticipation of intercepting these prohibited goods.

The food trade, therefore, is only part of the problem. Lorries used to ship a wide range of manufactured (non-food) goods, bearing CE marking, will also come under extra scrutiny. Full loads might take considerable time to inspect.

Here, there is the question not only of secure inspection bays, but the handling equipment and manpower needed for the labour-intensive processes of unloading and reloading vehicles. Then, if re-testing of goods is permitted, numbers of vehicles and/or trailers may have to be detained for several weeks, awaiting results.

Nothing of this seems to be factored in. UK media coverage of the problems is scant, and even French publications are taking the issue more seriously than one finds in the UK. Sometimes, I find myself having to do a double-take, wondering if these issues are somehow not real.

Sadly, though, just because the media ignore a problem does not mean it doesn't exist. The problems, if anything, have been massively understated. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, cross-Channel trade will be on the brink, with gridlock the inevitable consequence.

Richard North 08/01/2019 link

Brexit: tip of the spear

Monday 7 January 2019  

Belatedly, the Booker column has been published, with a short Brexit segment observing that, after Watergate and Climategate, we now have "Ramsgate".

At one level, this is the curious little tale. It tells us how, as part of the Government's contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit, Chris Grayling's Department for Transport has promised £13.8 million to a virtually penniless company to reopen a very limited ferry service between Ramsgate and Ostend, to help replace the projected very severe reduction in traffic through the Dover-Calais corridor.

With few staff and owning no ships, says Booker, it seems this company is rewriting that old music hall song to read: "We don't want to fight, but by Jingo if we do, we haven't got the men, we haven't got the ships, but at least we've been promised the money".

But there is a further much more serious twist to this tale, which has been widely missed. The Government's own worst-case scenario envisages that Dover- Calais traffic could be cut by 88 percent. That is from the current 81,000 truck movements a week to fewer than 10,000.

Expert analysis of the £107 million allocated by Grayling to set up substitute ferry routes suggests that these could at best provide only 3,700 truck movements a week, leaving a massive potential shortfall, which could, over six months, cost the UK about £100 billion in lost business.

Heaven knows who Mr Grayling gets to do his maths, but does he really think that, in addition to all the other anticipated possible losses to our economy, taking this massive further hit is not significant? As on so much else, this man seems to live permanently in a land of make-believe.

That indeed seems to be the case, not least because the whole concept of additional ferry capacity is fundamentally flawed. Even if Seaborne Freight could acquire additional ships, the extra movements would not deliver extra freight. They would simply move existing lorries by different routes to the continent where they would experience exactly the same problems as the traffic on the Dover corridor.

Those who would argue that we could weather the loss of much of our cross-Channel trade, dismissing it as "temporary disruption", need to address the potential level of damage we could suffer, and assure us that we could survive the effects of a £100 billion hit on the UK economy, taking out key sections of economic activity.

However, not only is there lacking any attempt to explain how we would manage in this event, the main response seems to be one of denial. Diverse parties simply reject the idea that the port system is at risk from a no-deal Brexit.

That includes the Secretary of State for Transport stating that he was "expecting the Channel ports to operate normally in all Brexit circumstances", with the oaf joining in the chorus.

This wishful thinking is at the heart of the matter: if the "ultra" Brexiteers can maintain their belief that the port system will be unaffected by a no-deal, then there is little cause for concern. And it is here that the likes of Peter Lilley concentrate their arguments.

To any honest student, though, the evidence suggesting that there will be serious problems is overwhelming. In previous pieces, I have offered many different sources that point to trouble ahead. All Lilley can do is offer a quote from the prefecture of the Hauts-de-France region, from 18 July, and a BBC news report from late October.

Wishful thinking aside, though. the Commission Contingency Plan, published 19 December, unequivocally states that "if the Withdrawal Agreement is not ratified, all relevant EU legislation on imported goods and exported goods will apply as of the withdrawal date".

This will include Regulation (EU) 2017/625 on "official controls", which deal with the requirement for Border Inspection Posts (to be re-named Border Control Posts), with the mandatory inspection of foods of animal origin, at specified levels.

There are actually three systematic levels of control: documentation and identity checks; physical checks of the goods; and laboratory, etc., checks. For the first level, 100 percent checking is required while the level of physical checking varies according to the food type. Laboratory, etc., testing is ad hoc, based on past experience and level of risk.  

Set out in Commission Decision 94/360/EC, which is still in force, Annex I specifies and inspection rate of 20 percent for such things as fresh meat and offal, whole eggs, fish products, lard and rendered fat. Poultry and rabbit meat, milk and milk products and – surprisingly – honey, have a higher rate of inspection, at a frequency of 50 percent.

Aware of the requirements, on 3 October, the French government published a draft law empowering it to take emergency measures to deal with a no-deal Brexit.

The explanatory statement noted that the no deal Brexit "would imply a reinstatement of the checks on goods and passengers to and from the United Kingdom", and in particular "would also involve a reinstatement of veterinary and phytosanitary controls at the borders of the European Union for live animals, plants and animal and plant products from the United Kingdom".

It also noted that veterinary and phytosanitary border controls were governed by European regulations and must be carried out in dedicated installations, the border control posts, which have an approval issued by the European Commission. In a rider, it added that: "Should derogations be allowed under European Union law, a legislative provision would be needed to comply with these derogations".

As regards the present situation, border posts were identified at Le Havre, Dunkirk, Saint Malo and Brest. However, they did not have the capacity to deal with all the batches coming from the UK, nor the approved facilities for all types of goods. In addition, Roscoff, Cherbourg, Caen-Ouistreham, Dieppe and Calais, as well as the Channel Tunnel, do not have border posts.

To fulfil their obligations, port operators would need to provide premises adapted to the nature and volume of the flow for goods from the UK, with the possibility of "restricted access zones" for certain entry points.

Also noted was the unarguable truth that, "carrying out these checks will take a significant amount of time, which will slow down the flow of traffic and may therefore quickly lead to congestion in the port, rail and road infrastructures".

In order to maintain the fluidity of the port and ensure the safety of the various convoys, adequate parking areas would have to be created and improvements needed would include the construction of roads, car parks, buildings, control areas , and the installation of any equipment necessary for carrying out the controls concerned.

More in hope than expectation, one assumes, the statement says that these works will have to be completed before Brexit day. To that effect, the law allows for derogations, "particularly in terms of development, urban planning, expropriation for public purpose, preservation of heritage, roads and transport, public ownership, public commissions, rules applicable to seaports, public participation and environmental assessment, in order to adapt them to the urgency of these operations".

To amplify the situation, the provisions were considered on 3 December by a special committee of the National Assembly , which took evidence from Ms Céline Gauer, Deputy Secretary General of the European Commission, in charge of policy coordination. Asked about the possibility of allowing some flexibility in the application of border controls, Ms Gauer agreed that there was indeed flexibility for certain types of checks that can be made, subject to securing the containers between the exit of the tunnel and the point at which the checks will be made. But, she said:
There is, however, one important caveat in terms of flexibility: it concerns veterinary and phytosanitary controls, taking into account the major risk posed by these imports for animal health and the safety and health protection (SPS) status of the importing state - and in the first place France, which is the point entry of imports. Nobody wants, obviously, new cases of mad cow disease to appear in France simply because controls are too lax. Veterinary checks will therefore remain extremely strict.
This brought a deputy, Mr Vincent Bru, into the fray, arguing that border inspection posts "are notoriously insufficient to carry out such checks". The draft law, he said, provided for derogations in order to be able to reinstate these controls outside these posts and points of entry, and not necessarily at the time of the introduction of goods into our territory. Since such measures had to be adapted to Community provisions, he asked whether the European Commission intended to modify and adapt certain rules.

And on this, Ms Gauer could not have been more explicit. Quoting the relevant passage in full, she said:
With regard to border inspection posts, there will be no derogations. What types of border controls are we talking about? The most stringent are veterinary controls. And again, we have to distinguish between products of animal origin and live animals. Products of animal origin must be subject to three types of control: a documentary check - you have to know what happens in the container; an identity check - we were told that they were boxes of corned beef but is it really?; and a physical check - opening the boxes, looking at what's inside, doing lab tests and making sure it's not dangerous to the consumer's health.

Let us never forget that the United Kingdom still has very important trade flows with many third countries. So we are not just ensuring the status and the respect of the rules of hygiene of what is produced in the United Kingdom but also of what is imported from all over the world. There is a real health safety issue. Of these three controls, only the first two are absolutely systematic. The third is the one which really takes time and is really complex - opening the box of corned beef and doing tests in the laboratory - depends on the risk, analysed according to the nature of the product. This control can also, however, be extremely limited, especially for products really coming from the United Kingdom. It is therefore not necessary to over dramatise the question of controls.

As for the control of products that are not of animal origin, it can very well be done at the point of arrival of the shipment rather than the port. However, precautionary measures may be taken, such as affixing seals, to ensure that the cargo is not handled between the point of entry into the EU and verification.

It is in the control of living animals where we are most strict. Few British and New Zealand sheep arrive at our borders but - given the seriousness of the diseases they may carry, the ease with which they can be transmitted and the impact they would have immediately on the exports of France - should contamination ever affect the SPS status of the territory, we cannot afford to give up these controls. It will therefore not be possible to derogate from or amend the applicable legislation at European level. On the other hand, we will naturally be able to show all the necessary flexibility for the least dangerous products, in particular by allowing these to be some distance from the point of entry.
Lilley, in his latest report, asserts that the French will create a Border Inspection Post to inspect live animals and food 12 kms from Calais to avoid congestion. But clearly, according to Ms Gauer, that cannot be the case. There are small concessions in relation to low-risk products that are not of animal origin, but that is the full extent of any "flexibility". Lilley is being vastly over-optimistic, claiming something which will not happen.

One can see here absolutely unarguable evidence that control posts will be required at the points of entry, and a high level of inspection will be required. The French are fully aware that, "carrying out these checks will take a significant amount of time, which will slow down the flow of traffic and may therefore quickly lead to congestion in the port, rail and road infrastructures". Grayling's comments are farcical and any attempt to downplay the problem is ill-founded.

And yet, we are fully aware that there are no firm plans in place for the provision or expansion of control posts at the nine French posts which take traffic from the UK. Diverting traffic away from Calais will thus have little effect, and even Ostend will do no good. It too is without a control post, so Seaborne Freight can dredge Ramsgate as much as they like (pictured). It will make no difference.

Even the better-prepared Dutch are anticipating problems, and then there are all the other goods to consider. If products of animal origin are the "tip of the spear", there is a long shaft to follow.

While Mrs May would have it that if a Brexit deal is rejected, UK will be in uncharted territory, the reality is that the outcome is actually quite clear. And it all points to one thing: a no-deal scenario is not a credible option.

Richard North 07/01/2019 link

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