Brexit: a turn for the worst?

Thursday 18 October 2018  

While Mrs May was playing away in Brussels yesterday, I was visiting the Musée des Blindes in Samur, perhaps the biggest tank museum in Europe apart from Bovington in the UK.

But while Bovington easily exceeds in number the tanks in its collection, there can be no dispute that Samur has quite the most comprehensive array of historic French tanks in the world – as one might expect.

Pictured is the Char B in the Samur collection – the backbone of the French Army in 1940 when the Germans came invading, and the most powerful tank on the battlefield. Furthermore, when the UK forces were taken into account, the number of allied tanks far exceeded in numbers the Germans were able to field.

In qualitative and quantitative terms, therefore, the allies had the best of the Germans, yet the German Army was still able to sweep to victory, brushing aside the French Army which had yet to learn how to deploy its armour to effect.

And therein, perhaps, lies another lesson for Mrs May: you can have might (and right) on your side but, unless you are able to put your available resources to good use, you are unlikely to win your battles. In fact, you are actually likely to lose, whence you end up in a perilous retreat from Europe.

The trouble is, of course, that Mrs May seems beyond learning. She has gone to Brussels with the same failed strategies that she has presented right from the beginning, with no more chance of success than she had when she started.

The Irish Times is relatively kind to our dear leader, but there is still no deal on the offing and Mrs May has put nothing on the table that can take us closer to a deal.

What is rather worrying though is that the "colleagues" seem to have given up on the idea of an emergency European Council in November, while the parties are actively taking about extending the transition period.

How this could work without a withdrawal agreement in place hasn't been specified but, if there is any truth in it, then we are looking at a glorious fudge, with the cannery being kicked firmly down the road.

We'll know better when we've seen the communiqué later today but, for the moment there really should be a single word in the English language for "I told you so". It would save so much effort on my part, as we confront a European Council outcome more or less exactly as predicted.

Richard North 18/10/2018 link

Brexit: another country

Wednesday 17 October 2018  

I always found it to be the case when I was working in Brussels. Even though one would read the London newspapers with just as much attention as when I was at home, after a few days their petty preoccupations never seemed to have quite the same urgency as when one was reading them "in-country".

The same is happening again, except perhaps more so. I spent the morning visiting the Normandy beaches in the British sector, ending up at Arromanches where the famous artificial harbour was set up and where the remains can still be seen (pictured).

We finished off the day walking some of the ground of the Goodwood battle in July 1944, plus the obligatory visit to a military cemetery, which I will always find overpowering.

And, although I half agree with Ian Blackwell, who says in his book, "The Battle for Sicily" that you can't really understand a battle until you've visited the site, it really doesn't take much imagination to understand that, if you attempt to charge higher ground in broad daylight in weak tanks with poor guns, defended by a determined enemy with better guns and armour, you ain't maximising your chances of winning.

Perhaps that's a lesson Mrs May needs to take on board. She should be with me in Normandy, rather than in Number 10 – where, interestingly, I haven't seen a single EU flag, even on the local mayors' offices. Maybe she'll have to fly here before jetting off to Brussels today.

Certainly, one wonders what she's playing at, as her pronouncements get more and more bizarre.

Her latest comes after a cabinet meeting in London yesterday, where we learn she will urge EU leaders in Brussels on Wednesday to keep the door open to continuing Brexit negotiations. Apparently, May told her colleagues on Tuesday: "If we as a government stand together and stand firm, we can achieve this".

I can't really add much to this than what I observed in my previous post (and many before that one). Unless she's got some more powerful guns and better armour at her disposal, she is not going to achieve very much by charging up the hill.

We're getting much the same from Donald Tusk, who is warning Mrs May that, from the report on the state of the negotiation that he got from Michel Barnier yesterday as well as from Mrs May's statement in the House, he had "no grounds for optimism" before today's European Council.

He has invited Mrs May to give the UK Government's assessment of the negotiations today and, later, the EU-27 will decide on how to take the negotiations forward, on the basis of a recommendation by Barnier.

This is exactly the point I made yesterday, where the Commission proposes and the Council disposes. Nothing is going to be decided on the basis of what Mrs May tells the Council.

Tusk recalls that, at Salzburg, the 27 wished for maximum progress and results that would lead to a deal in October. As things stand today, he says, it has proven to be more complicated than some may have expected.

Nevertheless, he wants the 27 to remain hopeful and determined, "as there is good will to continue these talks on both sides". But he also cautions preparation for a no-deal scenario, "which is more likely than ever before", even though this must "not lead us away from making every effort to reach the best agreement possible, for all sides".

He concludes that, "As someone rightly said: 'It always seems impossible until it's done.' Let us not give up".

From the look of it, though, in that other country – that strange kingdom on the other side of the Channel – the prime minister has already given up. She flies out today, as far as we are aware, with her pockets empty. Will she dance a jig in the hope that the "colleagues" give her another chance? And if so, to what tune will she dance?

Richard North 17/10/2018 link

Brexit: we are where we are

Tuesday 16 October 2018  

For me personally, it was difficult to avoid the symbolism, but just as Mrs May was addressing the Commons on the abortive Brexit negotiations, I was watching the white cliffs of Dover recede into the distance, under a blazing autumnal sun which made her words even more unreal.

But there was no need to rest with the perception that the prime minister's words were unreal. By any measure, they were beamed down from another planet, lacking corporeal form and unable to exist in this atmosphere.

This is the woman who, just days before the crucial European Council which is supposed to resolve the Brexit agreement, has watched her strategy crash and burn, with negotiations totally stalled and no likelihood of a deal this month.

And despite that, and all the background that goes with it, she stands up in the Commons and declares: "I continue to believe that a negotiated deal is the best outcome for the UK and for the European Union.

She then tells us that she continues to believe that such a deal is achievable, and that is the spirit in which she will continue to work with our European partners, then burbling somewhere in between about the EU wanting a backstop to a backstop.

The media, however, are not much better, with the Guardian suggesting that Mrs May faces "a frantic 48 hours" to try to save her Brexit negotiating strategy.

The paper has it that the prime minister is expected to plead with EU leaders to drop their Irish backstop proposal "at a make-or-break summit dinner on Wednesday night after seeking the support of members of her cabinet on Tuesday morning".

After all this time, it still doesn’t understand that Mrs May will not be allowed to negotiate directly with EU Member States. If they hear Mrs May on Wednesday evening, then protocol demands that she is heard in silence, with no questions asked of her.

In that context, the Commission proposes and the Council disposes. There are no circumstances where Mrs May can short-cut the process and work round the established system. The best she can hope for is aa grudging resumption of talks once the Council is over.

As it stands, there is nothing to be gained from further speculation. We are where we are, and there will be no change, even if we invent an entirely new scenario that cannot and will not happen.

Richard North 16/10/2018 link

Brexit: the end of days

Monday 15 October 2018  

After the interminable to-ing and fro-ing, there were only a limited number of ways talks could have been concluded. And, as it turns out, despite high-pressure meetings in Brussels yesterday, with the last-minute, unscheduled intervention by Dominic "Midair Bacon" Raab, none of them happened.

At times yesterday, there was intense speculation that Mrs May was about to agree a "secret deal". But, in the event, her representative bottled out. Raab stayed for less than two hours and refused to meet journalists. Then, at 6.43pm, Michel Barnier tweeted the bad news:
We met today @DominicRaab and UK negotiating team. Despite intense efforts, some key issues are still open, including the backstop for IE/NI to avoid a hard border. I will debrief the EU27 and @Europarl_EN on the #Brexit negotiations.
This looks terminal, not least because a meeting of Sherpas scheduled for today has been cancelled. This means that there is to be no further negotiator interface before Tuesday's general affairs council – an essential prerequisite to a deal being presented to the European Council.

On that basis, it does not look as if there can be a successful outcome to the October Council – if by success we mean a negotiated deal. For others, this brings us to an outcome which has been the target all along.

Nevertheless, according to Patrick Smyth of the Irish Times, the development has been treated with "shock and dismay" in Brussels even though, as it turns out, Raab wasn't there to close the deal.

Contrary to some expectations, the Brexit Secretary did not go to Brussels to give a final political impulse to a deal that was close to signing. He was there to say it wouldn't happen. London could not stomach the compromises necessary for the Irish backstop agreement, says Smyth.

Given the behaviour of the "Ultras" this weekend, this comes as no surprise. But we will not be able to judge the full impact of this latest development until we know what the European leaders plan to do.

If, as surmised by Spiegel Online, they decide to allocate the special November meeting to agreeing contingency plans, then we can assume the negotiations are as good as over. But if further face-to-face meetings are planned, we may still be in with a chance.

Even the Guardian has picked up on the possible re-purposing of the November meeting. In the self-important way of the legacy media, it can thus "reveal" what was reported in Spiegel five days ago, and discussed several times on this blog.

Needless to say, the paper sees this through the prism of domestic politics, telling us that the plan "is likely to pile further pressure on the British prime minister". But if it comes to that, the last thing on the minds of European leaders will be such game playing.

A "no deal" presents serious challenges for EU Member States, and for the EU institutions. A considerable amount of physical preparation will be needed, together with a substantial number of legislative adaptations before even a minimal cross-border operation can be resumed with the UK. The same applies to the UK, and Ministers have been warned to step up contingency plans here – even if there are severe limitations as to what can be achieved.

In the interim, attention in the UK will doubtless be focused on Mrs May and whether she can survive this setback. Conservative Party factions will have to decide whether to mount a leadership challenge or try to salvage a new deal from the wreckage.

There is, of course, room for Mrs May to make a dramatic personal appeal at the European Council dinner on Wednesday, as is being suggested in some media reports. But, given the success (not) of the attempt at Salzburg, her advisers might counsel against such a move. Beyond that, she seems to have run out of options – unless this really is carefully crafted theatre designed to force an eleventh-hour resolution.

Officials, however, have moved to dampen speculation that the break-up in negotiations was in fact choreographed. "There’s trouble", one of those anonymous sources told The Times. "This was not the plan". A senior EU diplomat added: "This is not good and the backstop remains the problem".

Whatever the real agenda, we can expect to see a resumption of propaganda designed to talk down the impact of a "no deal" Brexit. We've already seen Lord Wolfson attempt this magic feat, declaring to the Marr show that he doesn't think it would be a disaster.

This is in stark contrast to his views expressed last month when his own company, Next, warned that Britain faced "crippling delays at ports and a further fall in the pound" if it left the European Union without an agreement.

His change of heart might have something to do with the fact that the think tank Open Europe of which he is chairman, is about to issue a report telling us that "no deal" is a walk in the park. Thus, contradicting his own company's findings, Wolfson states that customs do not need to be a friction for trade. Goods coming from outside the EU, he says, take "no more" than an hour to get through customs and work being done on the Irish border to make it frictionless should be applied to all borders in the UK.

As long as this sort or blether escapes unchallenged, and the media – with the complicity of the politicians – fail to bring home to the public the catastrophic potential of a "no deal" exit, then there will never be the head of steam needed to ensure Mrs May goes the extra mile to get a deal, with the "Ultras" backing off from their outright opposition.

For the moment, though, everything is up in the air and predictions have little value. The situation can change by the hour – the exemplar being media reports from yesterday when some would have had it that a deal was in the bag, even while others were reporting that talks had collapsed. Those leading the way found themselves having to backtrack on their own reports, while others are struggling to catch up.

In some respects, though, we are paying for past sins. If the dangers of a "no deal" scenario had already been lodged in the public consciousness, we perhaps would not be where we are. But so tenuous has been coverage of the options that it is still widely regarded as a tenable option – hence Open Europe's input today.

Add to that the media's terrible habit of relying on the "he-says, she says" style of reporting, where conflicting views are given equal weight – or even weighted according to prestige rather than the quality if evidence – and it is probably already too late to redress the balance. Like as not, we will have to find out the hard way what a "no deal" really means in practice.

Worst still, we are now almost certainly going to see an orgy of Westminster party politics, with the added complications of the SNP making its moves, and the DUP stirring the pot. Clinical appraisal of Brexit-related issues will disappear while domestic politics dominate the front row.

Behind that, it takes little imagination to expect an intensification of the campaign for another referendum as a thinly-disguised ploy to reverse the verdict of 26 June. There may also be a publicity boost when the ECJ rules on whether Article 50 is reversible, with strong political pressure to call the whole thing off – if indeed, the ECJ says that this is allowable.

If a week is a long time in politics, though, this is for the distant future when the situation may already have undergone as yet unpredicted changes, creating entirely new challenges (or not).

In anticipation of what might happen next year, I have decided to take (for me) the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour the invasion beaches in Normandy (pictured). This is in lieu of my annual break and, by this evening, I will be lodged – with Pete – in a hotel in Caen, ready to embark on our own personal invasion of France.

Given the uncertainty of Brexit, I felt we had to do it now. Next year, it may not even be possible, until things have settled down. And even then, things will hardly be the same.

Owing to the marvels of the internet, I will be able to stay in touch with developments and am planning to blog each evening, as always – albeit that my posts may be slightly shorter than normal. Moderation will be maintained on the comments.

All being well, I will be back in England on Friday - to what could even be a different country.

Richard North 15/10/2018 link

Brexit: a tree in the storm

Sunday 14 October 2018  

As we creep up to the European Council later this week, the Brexit narrative in the legacy media has almost completely internalised, with multiple reports of plots, rebellions and calls to reject Mrs May's "flawed" plan.

The more febrile elements of the media are speculating about an impending government collapse and possible coups against the prime minister, an increasing number of ministers are said to be close to resignation. Then, as the noise level rises, Arlene Foster is reported as believing that crashing out of the EU without a deal is "the most likely outcome".

Whatever the reality, therefore, there is no sense to be had of measured negotiations moving towards a known outcome, where parties are preparing to agree terms. At this stage, though, one might expect some theatricals, but these are usually staged between the negotiating parties. In this instance, the actual negotiations have assumed the character of "noises off" in some distant land, while the main plays are being rehearsed in front of a domestic audience.

In trying to judge how much is genuine, the "outrage" being recorded does not seem contrived and it would be unwise to assert that we're being treated to a vast, orchestrated theatre, designed to show that Mrs May has prevailed against all the odds.

If anything, we might be looking at a situation where Mrs May has lost control of the agenda, with her team in Brussels looking at terms which she will know do not have the slightest chance of being accepted by the dissenters in her own party, precluding any possibility of a deal being accepted by parliament.

This leaves us to conclude the third part of our analysis of the speech given by Sir Ivan Rogers in Cambridge last week, this taking on the mantle of a tree holding out against the raging storm of speculation which is currently driving Brexit.

However, the speech remains just as relevant as ever it was for, whatever the outcome of the current perturbations, there will come a point when the government – with the entire nation – will have to return to the issues raised by Sir Ivan.

As we left his speech yesterday, he was warning that the EU will treat us with the sheer lack of sentimentality in trade negotiations that the US and China, the other trade superpowers, deploy against everyone - and will also deploy against the UK in the next few years.

Trade negotiations with any regional power bloc or major country, he says, are hardball, brutal negotiations. Thus, when one reads recent tracts, like the IEA's recent one covering Britain's trading future and marvels at the sheer naïveté on every page, both about the EU and the US.

As for other world players, we read on China that "the UK should initiate discussions with China but be clear that its requirements for a UK-China deal are likely to be difficult for China to meet in the short term". It goes on that the UK would need "progress in many areas of China's approach to trade". Says Sir Ivan, "Good luck with that. I am sure Beijing is awaiting Dr Fox's Department's advice on how to conclude a path-breaking deal with the British".

On India, we read that among the main obstacles EU-India deal has been the EU's aversion to allowing India Mode 4 services access. We are told that this, "ironically, is due to the UK". But it’s not ironic at all. Because it's of a piece with the views on cross border movement of people espoused by the advocates of Brexit, and delivered into the negotiation by the former Home Secretary, now Prime Minister.

But never mind. We are assured that, when we are sovereign, we shall decide that the numbers of highly skilled workers arriving from India will be “very small indeed”. Sir Ivan (with the rest of us) looks forward to the celebrations when Delhi hears.

As we can see only too well from this weekend's press, nearly 30 months on from the referendum, we are still lost in campaign mode on fantasy island, even though the time for these fantasies is long past. Yet, it gets worse by the day. As tends to happen in revolutions, the core players have become radicalised. They have abandoned ideas of participating in the Single Market, or solutions based on the relationships that Norway and Switzerland have with the EU.

The "radicals" – those whom we define as the "ultras" - increasingly loudly declared these versions of Brexit a betrayal of the manifest “will of the people” – of which, of course, only they are the true interpreters. There is only one pure form of Brexit, and any compromises represented a treasonous betrayal and/ or a humiliation.

It was this "purity" that, via Lancaster House, duly set us on the path we have meandered slowly down over the last two years. And, predictably, the EU has reacted by averring that Mrs May's red lines, if immutable, pointed ineluctably to an economic relationship no deeper than a bog standard free trade area.

At the time, Sir Ivan had to deal first-hand with the extent of the surprise in the European elites that the PM should have taken such a hard line and unequivocal view on the UK's post Brexit destination.

That in itself tells us that those elites thought that Brexit was a long process not a single event, and that a number of end states for the relationship were in play after the referendum.

In other words, that the "hardness" of the Brexit destination and the extent of the unravelling of existing relationships and structures we wanted, depended on post referendum choices and had not been fully determined by the referendum itself.

We then had the remarkable situation where Mrs May herself started to discover what her speech's content actually meant to the other side of the Channel. It seems staggering that, before she delivered it, that she has not gauged precisely what the reaction in Brussels might be but, on this as in many other occasions, she seems to have been talking only to domestic audiences.

This means, of course, that her dream of frictionless trade with our partners, despite having left both Single Market and Customs Union, was just that – a dream, and an impossible one at that.

That perhaps is even more remarkable, where Sir Ivan is revealing that the prime minister of this nation embarked on the most important negotiations this country has conducted since the war on the basis of an "impossible dream" – with no concessions to reality. And she's still dreaming, with key components of her Chequers plan hankering after the "frictionless trade" that she was never going to get.

Therein lies an elephant trap lined with sharpened stakes. The "revolutionaries" were always going to denounce Mrs May for betrayal of the true path Brexit if she committed the UK to staying permanently in a Customs Union, and thus limiting the UK's post Brexit trade policy sovereignty.

And because she had no option but to agree to a legally secure, permanent backstop giving Dublin the guarantee that the UK's departure would not automatically lead to the re-erection of a hard border across the island of Ireland, she had only one place to go politically, if the Brexit revolution was not to eat her as its first victim.

And that was to say that she could agree a legal backstop to solve the Irish border question. But only because no such backstop would ever enter into force. Because there would be an all UK trade deal which would obviate the need for it.

And that, supposedly, would simultaneously guarantee the Brexiteers their goal of a sovereign, autonomous trade policy post exit, by leaving the Customs Union, and being free to depart from the Common External Tariff, but also guarantee manufacturing Britain the friction free trade that comes only when inside a Customs Union, by replicating all its features in the new dual tariff regime.

This is the world of revolutionary politics, in which this kind of total fantasy proposition starts to make sense. You persuade yourselves that, as there is no other way of your squaring impossible circles, it must fly. The slight problem, though, is that it makes no sense at all to Brussels, with whom we have to negotiate.

And that's where we are this weekend. We have the Brexit "revolutionaries" storming the citadels of Westminster, while the denizens of Brussels must be reading today's papers with a growing sense of bemusement, especially when the Sunday Mirror confidently announces that: "Theresa May could clinch Brexit deal by Wednesday".

The rider, though, is what will make sure it will not happen – the price is keeping us in the Customs Union until the end of 2021. In proper revolutionary fashion, says Sir Ivan, this betrayal will be laid at the door of the shadowy conspiratorial counter-revolutionary establishment elite determined to thwart the Revolution’s purpose.

And now, even the advocates of “Norway then Canada” are starting to receive the same “enemies of the people” treatment. The revolution starts to eat its own.

Whether we have reached the point where Mr Gove and acolytes get condemned by the pinstriped Robespierres of the Committee of Public Safety – or is it the European Research Group? – for insufficient revolutionary fervour, and being, like some latter day Danton, in the pay of foreign powers, Sir Ivan does not know.

Danton, of course, famously supposedly said, as he passed Robespierre’s house on the way to his execution: "you will follow us shortly. Your house will be beaten down and sowed with salt". Yet none of us can vouch for what now passes between Brexit supporting leadership candidates.

But, if Mrs May gets past this weekend intact, with a potential deal standing on the table for the European Council to discuss, she will have survived an attempted coup and perhaps the most serious challenge to her leadership to date.

Perhaps it's only fluff, but if it isn't and the "revolutionaries" get their way, then all bets are off – whatever they were. We will see which way the land lies, from how the European Council reacts, and what agenda – if any – it defines for any November meeting. If we see it looking to working on "no deal" contingency measures, then we are in serious trouble.

Bringing us back to earth with a bump, the "revolutionaries" must know that this will have a high probability of bringing down the May government and precipitating a general election with a new leader – with completely unpredictable results.

It could even be that the "Ultras" want a Labour government in place to take blame for the pain of a "no deal" Brexit – then taking the reins of power back at the next election. Who knows what passes through the minds of these people, or what will happen next.

In finishing his speech, Sir Ivan made three brief confident predictions about where we shall be in two years. First, he said, we shall be having precisely the same debate over sovereignty/control versus market access and as frictionless trade as is possible from without as we are now.

The trade negotiations, properly starting quite late in 2019 – a year of transition in Brussels and Strasbourg, and with the need for the 27 to agree amongst themselves a complex, detailed negotiating mandate for a new negotiator – will be getting to multiple real crunch issues. The private sector will still be yearning for clarity on where we are going, and not getting much.

The UK political class will, finally, be starting to understand what trade deals are, how mind-numbingly legally complex and turgid their provisions are, and how negotiations work. And that what they view as the essential pluses to make a Canada style FTA tolerable are precisely the big sticking points. And that all manner of strings, as alluded to by Claus Grube, will come into the deal.

Second, it will be obvious by early autumn 2020 – long before, in reality – that the deal will not be ready by the year end, and that an extension is needed to crack the really tough issues.

The EU, in no particular rush to get this done, as it sits rather comfortably with the UK in its status quo transition, with all the obligations of membership and none of the rights, will use the prospective cliff edge to force concessions, or to offer a thinner deal, more skewed to its interests, in the hope that the UK is desperate enough, pre-election, to get it done.

Third, the Irish backstop, enshrined in the Withdrawal Treaty will still be in place, and no other prospective Agreement being yet in sight which obviates the need for it. And, with that, he closes by venturing an even more cynical fourth.

The Brexit revolutionaries, Sir Ivan predicts, will be saying Brexit has really not turned out as badly as the Project Fear Mongers told you it would. It's fine. And the counter-revolutionaries will be saying it’s only not turned out that badly because nothing at all has actually changed yet, because we are in a long term purgatory transition with the Europeans having taken back control, and what was the point of that?

Whether, in the febrile atmosphere of this weekend, those predictions will even survive this coming week remains to be seen. Anything can happen in the next few days. The only certain thing is that I haven't done justice to Sir Ivan's speech – but then it is available on-line to read in full.

Tragically, we have enough from it on this blog to know that the Brexit negotiations are not in safe hands. This does not look as if it is going to end well.

Richard North 14/10/2018 link

Brexit: culpable naïveté

Saturday 13 October 2018  

Yesterday, I took a first look at the Cambridge speech from Sir Ivan Rogers, with a promise that I would take another look at it in today's post.

By coincidence, we also have the latest batch of "technical notices" on the impact of a "no-deal" Brexit. Not least, we see formal acknowledgement from the government that the tripartite agreement on the movement of racehorses will cease to have effect. The effects are not spelt out in detail but my blogpost in February 2017 sets out the implications.

Interestingly, the Telegraph gets the point, although the Express seems to be in denial. Most of the papers, however, focus on the relatively trivial issue of loss of the "portability of online content service", meaning that UK subscribers may not be able to access online services such as Netflix, Spotify and Amazon Prime when travelling to EU Member States. Yet, this was actually the subject of a notice on 24 September but missed by the media then.

The inability of the media sensibly to address the consequences of a "no deal" Brexit make it all the more important that commentary from the likes of Sir Ivan is properly heard and explored. And since we'll not see this in the legacy media, this blog intends to take some of the load.

As we left it yesterday, Sir Ivan in his speech was saying that, as we head towards 2019, "sobriety is gradually setting in". Here, we see Sir Ivan arguing that the failure of the "Brexit revolutionaries" to think through the nation's new relationship with the EU, and their determination in 2016 to rule out all other options as early as possible in order to secure the revolution, led them into the trap.

In fact, these "revolutionaries" did consider what was needed prior to the referendum being declared. They thought about whether to have a plan - and then rejected the idea. This much was evident from the non-dialogue with Cummings as early as June 2015, a full year before the referendum vote.

The factor that mainly influenced this decision what that there was no unity amongst Eurosceptics as to what line to take. In fact, there was heated disagreement between factions so, in order to avoid a divisive public debate, it was felt that it should be left to government to negotiate a new deal, which should then be put to a vote.

Furthermore, backers were conscious that the campaign had the potential to damage the Conservative Party, so they were determined to avoid "blue on blue" incidents. Hence the focus was on the spurious £350 million claim and, latterly, on personalities, with Johnson co-opted to front the campaign.

To my recollection, it was a combination of pressure from Ukip and the Labour opposition, as much as anything, which forced Mrs May's hand in making the Article 50. But Sir Ivan was not wrong in asserting that this led the "revolutionaries" further into the trap.

Having rejected the Efta/EEA option, the only one that could have smoothed the way out of the EU, it was inevitable that the UK would need a transition period before it could break fully with the EU. And, says Sir Ivan, the EU duly closed the trap door before they realised what transition they were in for. To mix metaphors, he says, the EU has been boiling the UK frog ever since. On process, sequencing, substance, there has been movement only one way.

That so many Brexit advocates think that the EU is only deploying such a strategy because it is desperate to keep the UK in the EU just tells you how far detached from EU reality much of our political class is, Sir Ivan adds. But he argues that the stance is undertaken "perfectly legitimately", where the clock and the cliff edge can again be used to maximise concessions from London.

Now, two years too late, some politicians are at last recognising that the revolution has misfired. They have been sobered by an exit process far more ghastly than they once imagined.

Latterly, of course, we have seen born-again converts arguing that we should spend several years in an EEA type transition chamber before graduating to a Canadian style FTA relationship at the end of the process. This, says Sir Ivan, is the "Norway then Canada" model one now hears so much about – and about which he is excoriating.

The ancien regime has no good reason to provide the finest transitional feather bed for the revolutionaries who want to leave it. Its own best interests are served by offering the bread and water of the 21 month voiceless rule-taking transition which is now on offer.

Nor does the EEA, which functions essentially fine as a permanent home for its members, whose economies are radically different from our own, want or need the arrival of a massive transiting cuckoo in the nest, which only wants in, in order to have a nice perch before it is ready to fly off out to something it thinks better.

What we are left with is a transition period where we will be bound by laws and decisions over which our representatives and voters had no say. And, says Sir Ivan, this is so obviously a bad outcome that the only thing one can do if one has failed to think seriously in advance about this crucial transitional phase, is to blame counter revolutionary forces for having landed one there.

For its part, the EU is secure in the knowledge that the alternative of jumping out with “no deal” is, for all the tedious and pointless bravado, the last thing the UK wants to do, because of the asymmetrical economic self-harm it would inflict.

Alarmingly, Sir Ivan observes that 21 months will anyway not be long enough to negotiate even the kind of Canada ++ deal that will be on offer. This is a version of "Canada" which, incidentally, differs radically from the version espoused by its UK advocates. Because the EU's pluses are not Boris Johnson's. Thus, they will have the UK against the wall again in 2020.

In terms of what we have ended up with, Sir Ivan could hardly be more caustic. "This then", he avers, "is a very British establishment sort of revolution. No plan and little planning, oodles of PPE tutorial level plausible bullshit, supreme self confidence that we understand others' real interests better than they do, a complete inability to fathom the nature and incentives of the ancien regime.

It is this, above all else, that is so worrisome. Malign, ill-intent on the part of the "revolutionaries" might even be more tolerable than the fantasy world they actually inhabit.

Personally, I think we might skirt around Sir Ivan's views about the "revolutionaries" and his characterisation of their belief that the EU "is a behemoth with preposterous, undesirable and unrealisable, sometimes, maybe often, malign, superpower and statehood pretensions".

It is undeniable that the founding fathers, from Monnet to Spaak and Spinelli, sought to create a "United States of Europe", with ambitions for a European Army, a fully-fledged foreign policy and a single currency with all that that entailed in terms of economic policy.

Whether this "hard power" version of the EU is unrealisable is, in my view, debatable, but I would concede that it has not (yet) been realised. "The federal superstate of Brexiteers' nightmares", Sir Ivan notes, "has neither army nor intelligence services, nor many of the non-economic regulatory capabilities which go with statehood".

But there is a further valid point here. Core Brexit advocates are often caught between contempt for the EU's complete inability to function as a "hard power" player, yet they also believe, bizarrely, that in the one area the EU HAS genuine superpower capabilities - the regulatory and trade domain - it will not exercise its superpower muscles when dealing with us as a former member.

Sir Ivan has a description for this: "culpable naïveté". That is a nice turn of phrase. And we've seen it "almost daily" for two years. Faced by a UK which essentially wants all the benefits of unchanged free trade from its EU membership days, with none or few of the obligations, the EU repeatedly says: "that is just never going to be on offer".

Again and again, we are told that we must choose between a Canadian-style relationship, which offers us greater autonomy but much lower access to the Member State markets, and a Norwegian type deal which offers far better market access but much less autonomy.

For anyone not afflicted with "culpable naïveté", it was never going to be any different. The EU was always going to put first the integrity of its current legal order and the need to demonstrate a very clear distinction between the benefits available to members, and the best that could ever be on offer to any third country.

Furthermore, it was never going to change its legal order for the benefit of a state that had chosen to leave it. And, therefore, no matter how many times "Snake Oil" Singham repeated his canard to his adoring fans, the EU was never going to agree to some generalised equivalence system which opened up regulation/legislation effectively to joint decision-making between itself and the UK.

Yet, says Sir Ivan, that is what appears in the Canada ++ propositions we now see floated as superior to Chequers. As with the core economic elements of Chequers, the chance of the EU agreeing them is precisely zero.

Just as an accession process for those joining the EU is not some symmetrical negotiation process with give and take, but a process of progressive crossing of thresholds by the applicant to meet the standards of the body it is joining, so the "de-accession process" which is the UK's departure, is simply not a process in which the rules of the club we are departing are up for grabs and for revision.

And here's the rub. Sir Ivan was saying this in Whitehall and indeed to British journalists in Brussels well before the referendum. Because we needed seriously to work through precisely how a Brexit process could be made to work before launching it.

This, he adds, "is really not too difficult to grasp unless one is determined not to". But Brexit advocates gave very little serious thought to how the EU would inevitably conduct an exit process.

They also always believed that the mercantile interests of individual key Member States would, in the end, trump the collective interests of the bloc. And that the dread theologian lawyers of Brussels would therefore be overruled and undermined by leaders, who were closer to their publics and their business interests.

This, Sir Ivan reminds us, is an age-old British misunderstanding of how the EU functions, or could ever function.

For my part, I've come across that view in the early '90s amongst certain Conservative parliamentarians. And nearly thirty years later, their ideas haven't changed one iota. It's as if they've been asleep since Maastricht and have just awoken to resume their fight on exactly the same grounds they were tackling all those years ago.

With this, it is hardly surprising that we're seeing so little progress in the Brexit debate. Various protagonists, from the different sides, are fighting over versions of an EU that do not exist, to achieve outcomes which are undeliverable.

Still, though, we're only dipping into the body of Sir Ivan's speech. You can see why the legacy media can't handle it. All being well, I will return to it tomorrow, in what I hope will be the final episode.

Richard North 13/10/2018 link

Brexit: the wreckers

Friday 12 October 2018  

"Brexitism" – a term I have not seen used before – is, according Sir Ivan Rogers, a revolutionary movement seeking a genuine rupture with the ancien regime.

He was speaking at Cambridge University, delivering another of his occasional and very informative lectures. But, to do it justice, today I'm just going to look at one part of the lecture. This explores the emerging revolution, where Sir Ivan tells his audience that the revolution is entirely separate from the 52 percent of the public who thought they were voting for Brexit.

For sure, the public had multiple grievances with the ancien regime, many of which were very well warranted and which had been building for many years. They hoped Brexit might help provide some answers - or at least felt Brexit could not make things any worse than they already were.

But the other Brexit, the revolutionary movement, is an elites project for a regime change, led primarily by entirely establishment figures, often masquerading as non-establishment ones, and what those people believed Brexit was about.

Those who drove (and are driving) Brexit politically are clearly not seeking incremental change, says Sir Ivan. Most wanted, and want, a radically different UK, and some want a radically different - or even, no - EU. There was never a version of the EU to which the other 27 could have agreed with which the bulk of the leading advocates of Brexit could have been content.

In Sir Ivan's narrative, the world started to go wrong for the revolutionaries when we joined the old EEC in 1973 and got even worse post the fall of the Berlin Wall – the point at which many of them concluded that the EU was inexorably becoming a single, federal state, from which it was urgent to liberate ourselves.

Certainly, it was about that time that the Eurosceptic movement emerged from its doldrums, energised by the battle over the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. This saw the emergence of what was to become UKIP and the growth of a permanent anti-EU caucus in the Conservative Party.

For them, in the post-Lisbon environment, David Cameron's style of outer tier membership was never going to be enough, whatever he had negotiated. They wanted a radical reconsideration and loosening of the EU project as a whole. And there was the making of confrontation. It was inconceivable the other 27 would, in 2016, have agreed the Treaty changes to permit.

The second driver, says Sir Ivan, was an abhorrence of any supranational sharing or pooling of sovereignty. This sustains a belief that powers passed to that level are sovereignty surrendered, which needs to be recaptured and resumed at national level. The international order should be essentially purely intergovernmental, involving treaties concluded and commitments made between sovereign nations.

Sir Ivan concedes that the entire legal order of the EU is unique and sui generis in the international legal order. He just draws other conclusions from this about how easy it is to exit from it, and then live next to it. But whatever the conclusions, the EU is basically anathema to Brexit advocates. It's a wrong turn in the Western world.

Thirdly – and this is peculiar to what I would call the "ultras" and their fellow travellers - they wanted, and want, a radical and rapid rupture. The "honourable exceptions", says Sir Ivan, were essentially ignored by the majority of the Brexit lobby.

The reason, of course, is that we – I and the many supporters of the Leave Alliance point of view – have been posing inconvenient questions. Even worse, we have been focusing on the process by which one might extricate oneself, with as minimal transitional damage as possible, from a huge number of legal, institutional and regulatory arrangements which had become central to the operation of the British State.

Thus, Sir Ivan speaks of "the curious paradox" of those who believe that the EU had inserted itself into virtually every nook and cranny of the country's social and economic life - a proposition with which he would also rather agree. Yet these same people believe that all these strings could be cut extremely rapidly, and that nothing would go awry for the UK.

It might have been appropriate at this juncture to quote from Lord Denning's famous 1974 judgement when he observed of the Treaty of Rome, that it "is like an incoming tide. It flows into the estuaries and up the rivers. It cannot be held back…".

For all that, this belief in the ability rapidly to cut our ties survives despite the obvious fact that the UK's very immersion in these structures meant its own State's capacity to resume sovereignty in areas where it had been pooled, has been much diminished across large tracts of the economy now regulated supranationally.

It continues despite the fact that the current operation of the UK economy, both in manufacturing and in services, is heavily predicated on membership of both the Single Market and the Customs Union, and what each had done, however imperfectly, over decades to facilitate trade and investment flows across what used to be hard, now internal, borders of a Common Market.

Says Sir Ivan, we live, and have lived for some time, in a comprehensive regulatory union, but despite wanting to leave it, we struggle at political level to understand what that means.

For the revolutionaries, this is all written off as the preoccupations of ghastly incumbent multinational CEOs, who themselves, we are told regularly, do not understand their own businesses’ business models as well as the gurus of the revolution. And therefore need, like their trade federations, to be ignored and/or replaced, presumably by corporate titans who spontaneously align with the revolution.

This, Sir Ivan observes, sounds rather more like Mussolini style corporatism than it does the free market economics to which we are told the revolution is wedded.

Before he quit the Civil Service, Sir Ivan was dealing day by day with senior cabinet ministers, many of whom were and still are central players in the current Brexit process.

They were arguing that the "trade deal with the EU" had to be negotiated, agreed and ratified BEFORE we left and in operation the day after legal exit. Furthermore, we had to have a plethora of new trade deals with other global players in force as well.

Plenty of such lofty promises to that effect were made in the referendum campaign of course. And, says Sir Ivan, they were, and have been proven, total fantasy.

The reality is that the maximum that could be agreed pre-departure, alongside the only legally binding document there will be – the Withdrawal Agreement, covering money, citizens' rights and the Irish border issue - is a thin, largely aspirational, but hopefully useful, political framework for the huge economic negotiation which can only happen after exit.

Yet, to say any of this in 2016 was clearly deemed gloomy, defeatist talk indicating counter-revolutionary intent. In reality, as is clear 28 months after the referendum, this "defeatist talk" was stating the obvious about the complexity and longevity of the exit process. Equally, it was stating the obvious to point out when the trade negotiation could even BEGIN – 2019 – let alone end.

Therefore, it always was inevitable, if we were to get the best conceivable Brexit outcome for the UK, that we would need a really protracted transition before we reached the post Brexit destination.

To that must be added the further obvious truth that the EU would not expend effort on negotiating a full, bespoke transition AS WELL AS the end state. "Why would they?", asks Sir Ivan. One therefore needed an off-the-shelf transition arrangement to swing into force next year.

Finally, Sir Ivan observed that the business of negotiating free trade deals worth having with the other strategic players in world trade would also take very many years. The negotiations would be highly uncertain in outcome and would see those partners wanting real clarity in our new relationship with the EU before they could be sure what they wanted in a deal with us.

Furthermore, they would have to be preceded by the major work to prevent UK trading arrangements worsening on exit day via our slipping out of the EU's network of existing preferential deals, which is larger than any other player's on the planet.

And, for this post, this is as far as I go. I'll pick up more of the speech tomorrow and develop the themes. It was important, here, just to focus on the elements raised. At this juncture, we should recall that there were people who knew, right from the outset, what had to be done and what was involved.

Sir Ivan is right to identify the establishment "revolutionaries". They are the wreckers. And, as Pete points out, they're still at it. They are still attempting to demolish the only workable option we have – the only one we've ever really had. And it is no accident that this is happening.

But, even if the "revolutionaries" have their own agendas, as we head towards 2019, says Sir Ivan, sobriety is gradually setting in. More of that tomorrow.

Richard North 12/10/2018 link

Brexit: grilled pain

Thursday 11 October 2018  

A couple of days ago, I was remarking that the media coverage of the latest instalment of the Brexit soap opera didn't make sense.

It doesn't make much more sense now, but at least we have another speech from Michel Barnier to work on. By rights, we should have been able to put this alongside Tuesday's statement by Dominic Raab in the House of Commons. But that was such a vacuous word salad that it wasn't even worth reporting. I regret the time wasted reading it.

As for Barnier, much of what he said at the closing session of Eurochambre's European Parliament of Enterprises was familiar ground. But the fact that much of what he had to offer was unchanged told us something. The Commission in large areas of its work has reached the end of the road. There have been some concessions but there are to be no more.

The crunch is what it has always been. The UK wants to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union and that means that there must be checks of goods between the EU and the UK. That is unarguable and is not up for discussion.

Interestingly, Barnier lists customs and VAT checks. I may be wrong but I cannot recall him ever having specifically referred to VAT checks. I wonder if its dawning on the Commission that cross-border VAT issues could end up being as big a problem as the rest combined.

Anyhow, Barnier then addresses the crucial question. Both the EU and the UK are agreed that checks will not take place at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, so the matter to be resolved is where those checks will take place.

On offer are some administrative devices to make the checks in the least intrusive way possible, but there is no compromise on the fundamental point that checks must take place. And the sticking point is going to be what Barnier calls "health and phytosanitary checks" for animals and products of animal origin.

EU rules, he says. are clear. These checks must happen at the border because of food safety and animal health reasons. And obviously, in the future, the island of Ireland will remain a single epidemiological area.

Barnier, however. notes that checks already exist in the ports of Larne and Belfast. Post-Brexit, though, they would have to be 100 percent of live animals – a tenfold increase on the ten percent currently checked. And animal-derived products would have to be included for the first time.

To be fair, the EU's chief negotiator understands why such procedures are politically sensitive. But he makes three remarks. Firstly, he says, Brexit was not our choice. It is the choice of the UK. Secondly, the EU's proposal limits itself to what is absolutely necessary to avoid a hard border, but it gives Northern Ireland benefits that no part of a third country enjoys.

I think this is the point where he is saying thus far and no further, but he also makes reference to meeting the leaders of all Northern Ireland – Arlene Foster, DUP leader, among them. And, to judge from the press conference held afterwards, there was no meeting of minds.

As to Barnier's third point, his language is a little confusing. He talks of a "backstop" which will be needed "because it will be negotiated after the UK's withdrawal". But that brings him to the outline of the future relationship, whence he notes that "certain British positions expressed in the White Paper do not correspond to the guidelines of the European Council and to my mandate".

That's obviously the code for saying that Chequers is toast, or pain grillé. Anglicised, that could mean grilled pain, which is probably what Mrs May is experiencing.

We agree to base our future relationship on a free trade area without a tariff or quota, says Barnier. "But", he says, "we have two points of divergence with the British proposals because these two points are clearly contradictory to the foundations of our, your single market".

Firstly, in customs matters, he avers that the UK would like to maintain the autonomy of its trade policy, to be able to negotiate its own agreements, while remaining in our customs area. It also wants to apply its own external tariffs while collecting European customs duties.

These are problematical enough but what really screws the pooch is the divergence on the regulatory framework for goods. The United Kingdom has asked to align with a substantial part of our standards for goods, but only part of them, in order to maintain the same participation as today in our internal market, for these goods only. At the same time, it wishes to remain free to diverge on all the regulations that apply to the factors of production of these goods, whether we think of services, labour, capital or social standards and environmental.

Here, it is worth referring directly to the speech as M. Barnier gives some worked examples of how this "single market à la carte" would be "tantamount to offering the UK and its companies a major competitive advantage over companies working in the single market".

For instance, in the regulatory cost of chemicals, only 31 percent of the regulatory price is related to the REACH regulation. The rest is induced by compliance with other Union regulations, for example environmental standards. And it is on this part that the British would like to remain able to diverge.

This is our pain grillé on toast, so to speak. But negotiations with the UK continue this week intensively, day and night, in an attempt to meet the goal set by the leaders of the 27 that the agreement should be "at hand" for the European Council of 17 October - Wednesday next!

This has been taken by some in the media to suggest that a deal could be finalised by next week, but the main UK news is more focused on the DUP plans to topple Mrs May's government if too much is conceded to Brussels - grilled pain indeed.

Some commentators, though, think Foster is bluffing. The DUP has a lot to lose by bringing down the May government, which means that there is a deal there to be found.

In his speech, Barnier is clearly aware of what is at stake. In case of "no deal", costs would be very high, he says, first for the United Kingdom but also for certain sectors of our economy. But, he adds, there will have to be adaptations. "It cannot be business as usual", he warns.

Here, Spiegel Online picks up the threads. Diplomats, it says, continue to believe that the Brexit negotiations could fail, largely because of the unpredictable situation in British domestic politics.

Thus, when the European Council meets next week, unless there is "decisive progress" in the negotiations, the EU-27 will be "prepared for failure". At that point, the special European Council pencilled in for November could be rededicated to prepare for a "no-deal" Brexit.

Furthermore, the Commission has already ruled out cooperating with the UK on planning for a no-deal scenario and is not anticipating any special measures for transport, customs or financial services. Thus, should it indeed come to no-deal-Brexit, says Spiegel Online, "in all likelihood, the consequences would be dramatic".

For all that, there are doubts in Member States as to whether the Commission's minimalist contingency plan is sufficient. Many EU countries, including Germany, would like to move faster. Legislative proposals must be drafted by mid-November at the latest, so the November venue is ideal. The next scheduled meeting is not until December. By then, Spiegel Online observes, "it might already be too late".

By that measure, if there is a November Council and the UK is still in the game, we can judge that progress has been made – whatever the noisemakers might say. With no meeting to settle contingency measures, the EU will be committed to a deal. For once, we will all be sailing in the same boat, sharing the same pain.

Richard North 11/10/2018 link

Brexit: false comparisons

Wednesday 10 October 2018  

It is interesting to see that disinformation on Brexit issues is not solely the province of the "ultras", especially when it comes to relative standards of food safety, as between the EU and the USA. Remainers and their fellow travellers in the media, it seems, are just as capable of delivering unremitting nonsense.

Latest in a long line of such is an article in Business Insider by political journalist Adam Payne , now recycled in the Independent.

Payne's thesis, as set out in his headline in Business Insider is that "insect-filled chocolates, rat hair noodles, and maggoty orange juice" are "the reality of a Brexit trade deal with Trump". His text goes on to assert that these are just some of the "horrors" that UK consumers could be "forced" to accept if post-Brexit Britain signs a wide-ranging trade deal with the USA.

In the US, he asserts, producers adhere to a "Defects Levels Handbook," which sets out the maximum number of foreign bodies like maggots, insect fragments and mould that can be in food products before they are put on the market.

For example, Payne writes, US producers are allowed to include up to 30 insect fragments in a 100 gram jar of peanut butter; as well as 11 rodent hairs in a 25 grams container of paprika; or 3 milligrams of mammalian excreta (typically rat or mouse excrement) per each pound of ginger.

The inference, of course, is that somehow US standards are inferior to those set by the munificent, caring European Union which would never allow its fragile citizens to be exposed to the "filth" so cavalierly permitted by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

Before going any further, it is worth me reminding readers that I am a former environmental health officer specialising in food safety, and have had considerable experience in dealing with food contamination – both from the prosecution and defence perspective.

Earlier this year I spent three weeks (barring a few days) in Hamilton Sheriff Court, as an expert witness acting for Errington Cheese Limited in a case of alleged unfitness, where Lanark Council were seeking to condemn large quantities of cheese on what, it transpired, were entirely spurious grounds.

This was the second time in twenty years that I took on the entire food safety establishment to argue successfully that the authorities were making false assumptions in their assessments of the safety of cheeses produced by ECL. In the first instance, the case rested on the pathogenicity of Listeria monocytogenes and this recent case dealt with the implications of Shiga toxin-producing E coli in food.

Thus, not only am I up to speed on food contamination law and enforcement practice in relation to EU law, my background gives me a good insight as to how contamination (microbial and physical) is treated on this side of the pond – and rather more so than a political journalist working for a low circulation business journal.

In reality, there is actually no practical distinction in the way that the two administrations – the US and the EU - deal with food contamination. On both sides of the Atlantic it is recognised that foods naturally grown in a contaminated environment will, from time to time, carry an amount of that contamination acquired through growing, harvesting, storage and processing.

And, as the FDA says in the introduction to its Handbook, "it is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects".

Payne, by the way, calls it the "Defects Levels Handbook", with defects in the plural. The exact title is "Defect Levels Handbook" – a small point, but indicative of a lack of attention to detail.

A more substantive failure is in Payne's assertion that US producers are "allowed" to include specified levels of foreign bodies in their food. But to cast the levels specified in that light is wholly misleading.

What the FDA is saying in setting levels is that these are "action levels", the limits at which FDA will regard the food product "adulterated" - subject to enforcement action under Section 402(a)(3) of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act. In other words, anything above the levels specified is open to prosecution without any further consideration.

But that does not mean that the FDA is setting tolerance limits. That is not the case. Rather, if natural levels of contamination do not exceed the levels, producers are spared automatic prosecution – as long as they are taking all necessary measures to reduce the levels.

This is set out very clearly in the introduction, where the FDA states that poor manufacturing practices may result in enforcement action without regard to the action level.

In fact, this brings the US very much into line with UK practice where "due diligence" is a statutory defence to a charge of selling contaminated food. If producers can prove that they have taken all reasonable steps to avoid the contamination, they cannot be found guilty of an offence.

Here, "due diligence" is effectively good manufacturing practice (GMP) which the US authorities require, on demonstration of which no action is taken when foods are below prescribed limits. In the broader EU context, the term "proportionality" applies throughout the Union, having like effect.

What amounts to the only substantive difference between the US and the EU, therefore, is that the FDA openly sets action levels for foreign objects. That said, it is quite common for both the US and the EU to set action levels for chemical contaminants, such as pesticide residues. The difference is one of scope rather than principle.

In the absence of action levels in the EU, though, it would be open for national authorities not to proceed with a prosecution even where foods exhibited contamination levels higher than set out in the FDA Handbook.

As for whether there is tolerance of contamination in UK food, that is indeed the case. Environmental Health and Trading Standards departments throughout the country receive many thousands of complaints of contaminated food from members of the public each year. But only a small fraction end in prosecution. Before taking action, it is usual to assess whether a due diligence defence would have any chance of success.

There is also an issue here where cash-strapped local authorities may be reluctant to take on the food giants, unwilling to risk huge legal bills prosecuting companies with deep pockets. By not having published "action levels", local authorities can avoid taking action when otherwise they might be forced to proceed.

However, one must also recall that the use of action levels is being considered in terms of their effect on UK-US trade. But, in fact, these levels already apply to UK food exported to the US. it should be noted that in setting action levels for domestic food, under WTO non-discrimination rules, the US must apply the same criteria to the food which it imports.

This gives an element of predictability to those who sell food to the US. Unlike exporters to the EU, where arbitrary standards can sometimes be applied, those who trade with the US know where they stand.

These, there is a rather insidious downside. Even in the UK, we find that port health authorities in different ports apply different standards. What might be rejected at one port can re-routed to another, where it can be accepted.

Thus, while there are indeed valid concerns about trading with the US, this is not one of them. More to the point, the story is the classic example of "project fear", where concerns are misplaced.

In a way, I find the transparency of the US authorities refreshing. Theirs is a grown-up attitude to foreign bodies in food. Quite rightly, they say, it is not economically possible to produce absolutely pure food. And some would argue that it is not even a good idea to try. It leaves immune systems unchallenged, possibly giving rise to the increase in food allergies being experienced.

One can see, though, the political dimension. Payne, in his piece, cites Bill Esterson, shadow trade minister, saying: "The Tories have some very unpleasant surprises for UK dinner tables if they have their way with a fast-track trade deal with the United States", adding, "We know the Tories are keen on chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-fed beef but they surely cannot expect that the British public will be happy to swallow these other horrors".

Caroline Lucas, ex Green party leader, gets to say that this "is the gruesome reality of the US trade deal being touted by Liam Fox as one of the great benefits of leaving the EU". She adds: "Under the government's disastrous Brexit, we will finally be free to eat all the maggot-ridden food we like. No-one voted for a Brexit that waters down the safety and hygiene of our food - but that's what the government is pursuing".

Then Sam Lowe, formerly of Friends of the Earth and now a born-again trade specialist at the Centre For European Reform, predicted that the US would want the UK to move away from EU food standards and much closer to its own in any future free trade deal negotiation. "The US actively dislikes many existing EU measures", he says, "and will certainly pressurise the UK to jettison many of them in any FTA negotiations with the UK".

In short, though, if the UK were itself to adopt "action levels", and then get the EU to follow suit, it would be no bad thing. As far as Brexit horrors go, this is not one of them.

Richard North 10/10/2018 link

Brexit: mending Humpty Dumpty

Tuesday 9 October 2018  

It's getting to the point where the reporting on Brexit isn't making any sense. For sure, journalists are trying to second-guess what may or may not be agreed as part of the withdrawal settlement, but we seem to be dealing with people who don't understand how the current system works.

For instance, the ever diligent Guardian is writing about a "new concept" of a veterinary deal between the EU and the UK to cover essential health checks on food produce between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland.

Under present EU law, the Guardian writers say, all products of animal origin ranging from cheese to frozen chicken coming from non-EU countries are required to undergo health and safety checks. Sometimes these involve laboratory tests and often require containers to be fully unloaded at special border inspection posts, they say.

Referring to "health and safety checks" is such amateur stuff, but we can let that pass. But what really jars is their claim that "one of the new suggestions" on the table in Brussels is that the scale of checks could be reduced from 100 percent to 30 percent trade talks go well up to 2020.

The thing is here that the normal rate of inspection is 20 percent. Concessionary rates, as with New Zealand, can drop to as low one percent. A 30 percent inspection rate is no concession at all. 

Making more sense is the assertion that "market surveillance" procedures will continue for goods destined for Ireland. Making no sense at all though, is the next apparent concession. Up until now, we are told, it has been reported that these checks would take place in British ports such as Holyhead and Liverpool. Now, it is understood that under the EU proposals, the checks would be done on premises, distribution centres and ports across the UK.

The point here, though, is that "market surveillance" means what it says – monitoring the performance of a product or system in its marketing environment. Largely, this involves the collection of information from a wide range of sources – from consumer complaints to the results of routine testing by official bodies. Not in any normal context can "surveillance" be interpreted as spot checks at any particular location.

The interpretation of what might be, therefore, is so wide of the mark that there is nothing we can learn from it. It looks as if we'll have to wait until we get some official documentation, where we can see what is really intended (if anything).

The same goes for what might or might not transpire at the October European Council - what people insist on calling the "summit". So far, the consensus from diverse media reports is that nothing formal is going to be submitted, while the Dominic Raab is not even going to Brussels this week.

Mrs May, on the other hand, is insisting that the apparent optimism coming out of Brussels is over-egged, a way of heaping pressure on the UK. She is warning that there are still "big issues" to settle and is demanding concessions on the Irish border issue.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the truth has a habit of leaking out from the most unexpected of quarters. Via an independent Cornish councillor, we learn that Brittany Ferries are concerned about the impact of Brexit could have on the ferry service between Plymouth and Roscoff.

Brittany Ferries have been warned that every vessel carrying refrigerated goods, food and other natural products may face inspections upon arrival in France after Brexit, with around a third of the 210,000 freight units carried by Brittany Ferries every year affected.

The firm said this would need infrastructure such as huge warehouses to carry out the task and those do not exist in Roscoff and other French ports and it is unlikely to be in place by March next year.

According to this report, Brittany Ferries also said there was a risk that some ports could be excluded from post-Brexit preparations entirely, which would mean there would be fewer entry points into France for hauliers.

The company’s CEO Christophe Mathieu said: "The British may take a pragmatic approach and wave lorries through upon arrival into the UK, but cross-Channel trade works both ways".

"In a worst case scenario", he said, " British hauliers carrying refrigerated goods could face the prospect of far longer journeys – perhaps hundreds of additional miles – to find a French port equipped to process their consignment. When they finally get there they could encounter further delays waiting for checks to take place".

How interesting it is that we haven't had such clarity from other ferry operators, but all Mr Mathieu is doing is stating the obvious, facts already known to readers of this blog for a considerable time. And nothing so far has happened to prevent this becoming the inevitable outcome.

In some respects, though, the situation is worse than is painted. Once we leave the EU, we cannot simply revert to pre-EEC days and pick up where we left off. Some of the systems and procedures which sustained us before we joined no longer exist and cannot easily be restored – if at all.

Before the "completion" of the Single Market, for instance, this country operated a system of meat inspection based on local authority environmental health officers (EHOs), working within a traditional framework of a public health system dominated by medical professionals.

For reasons lost in the sands of time, meat inspections on the continent have developed as centralised services under veterinary control, the basis of which has been used as a model for the EU, leading to the dismantling of the established UK system.

With little in the way of a veterinary public health resource in the UK, however, to run the service in a way alien to the UK has required the import of cheap vets from EU Member States, contracted out by entrepreneurs to the state inspection service to act as "official veterinary surgeons" (OVSs) in UK slaughterhouses. But now that we are leaving the EU, many of those vets are going home and replacements are not forthcoming.

One of those entrepreneurs has become exceedingly rich by exploiting foreign vets, (very often young, recently qualified and inexperienced) and selling their services at top dollar rates, with UK abattoirs forced under EU law to pay for their presence. And now he is whingeing that Brexit "has the potential to decimate the United Kingdom's veterinary, food and agricultural sectors".

This is Dr Jason Aldiss, managing director of the well-named Eville & Jones, who claims that the UK will be "in deep peril" if a post-Brexit deal with Brussels does not include "guaranteed access to properly-qualified vets from other EU states and mutual recognition of professional veterinary qualifications".

There is, he says, already a veterinary recruitment and retention crisis in the UK, and that problem is getting worse. Currently, 45 percent of UK government vet posts are filled by vets from other EU member states and 95 percent of OVSs are non-UK EU vets. With less than six months to go until Brexit, there is still no guarantee than these individuals will be allowed to remain in post.

In the absence of these cheap vets, there are not enough UK vets to do the work. And not only don't they want to do it, they are too expensive. The additional costs would bankrupt the meat industry. However, the EHOs who once did the work are no longer trained for it, and also don't want to do the work.

What we should have done, of course, is sought recognition of our EHOs under EU law, which would have enabled us to maintain traditional (and more cost-effective) services. But now the system is broken, like Humpty Dumpty, it's not going to be possible to put all the pieces back together again.

That will leave the UK struggling to maintain EU export standards, which we've allowed to become based on veterinary inspection, which means that the meat industry will find it increasingly difficult to keep up current export volumes – with operating margins also under pressure.

Nothing of this, though, is understood by the media pundits, and our own government negotiators seem to be unaware of the implications of breaking with the EU. Short of staying in the EEA, nothing is going to fix this in a hurry. Certainly, a free trade agreement is not going to afford any relief.

And this brings us back to where we started with this piece. So few people understand in detail how systems work that they are unaware of what happens when you break them. And then they don't have the first idea of how to fix them.

We thus have negotiators circling round the margins of complex agreements, trying to find political fixes which simply will not deliver the goods. Small wonder the over-riding impression is one of confusion, as the Mrs May's men confront the impossible task of putting Humpty together again.

Richard North 09/10/2018 link

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