Brexit: the mandate has landed

Wednesday 26 February 2020  

Sometimes, the smallest clue can give a quite disproportionate insight into the game of an opposing player – like the "tell" skilled poker players might rely on to guide them in their bidding.

So here we have, at last, the EU's negotoiating mandate for the forthcoming negotiations, a document which does more than simply set out the Union's position. It also gives an insight into the thinking of the "opposing team" – if that's the way you want to think of them, and some idea of capabilities and skills.

For some time now, I've been coming to the conclusion that the intellectual capacity of the EU – as a collective – is declining. We're past the stage where the founding fathers and their immediate successors had a close grip on issues, and a real understanding of the nature, the aims and the objectives of the Union.

We've now got to the stage where we're dealing with apparatchiks, little more than jobsworths, who are in it for the power and prestige (and the money), but who do not have that deep-rooted understanding of their roles which can only come with conviction and emotional empathy.

This has become apparent in the recent past, where even the Commission has confused in its own rhetoric the difference between its Customs Union and the Single Market, and when we have a body which has lost sight of the definition of its own functions, we have an institution which has lost its soul.

And so to the "clue" that is going to give us an insight into the thinking of the EU's negotiating team, to be found in paragraph 30 of the mandate, which deals in depth with the sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) provisions which will form a crucial part of our trading partnership with the EU.

In the area of SPS, the mandate says, "the envisaged partnership should build on and go beyond the WTO Agreement on SPS measures, with the objective of facilitating access to each Party's market while protecting human and animal health, as well as plant health", then going into sone detail as the scope of the agreement.

All this is fair enough, especially as it asks that the SPS provisions "should respect Union rules and take into account the respective international standards, guidelines and recommendations of the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC), the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and Codex Alimentarius".

If we were looking for something that approximated CETA, that's almost what we've got. In that agreement, the EU is looking for compliance with an amalgam of Union and international standards, and since most EU standards are in any case based on those international standards - to which the UK also subscribes - there should be no great hardship in agreeing to the thrust of the proposals.

But there is one crucial difference between what CETA sets out, and what this mandate is angling for. This we see towards the end of paragraph 30, where it states that: "The envisaged partnership should uphold the application of the precautionary principle in the Union as set out in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union".

Now speaking personally, as something as an expert in the field of food safety, I have no great hang-ups when it comes to the application of the precautionary principle, as long as it is applied properly by people who know what they're doing.

And, in the context of food safety, the Commission's views are a model of its kind – despite now being published twenty years ago – predicated towards guiding legislators and those responsible for framing standards in the dark arts of risk management, especially where there are elements of uncertainty.

But the perspicacious reader with note that the reference offered is to a communication from the Commission, which falls far short of being a treaty provision. And yet, the mandate, in this case dealing with SPS provisions, refers to the precautionary principle "as set out in the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union".

In fact, in the TFEU, there is only one reference to the precautionary principle, and that is in Article 191, where it deals with the environment. For the mandate then to apply this to SPS provisions is to extend the Treaty into areas that it doesn't venture.

At best, this is an error. At worst – and we are probably in that territory – there is an underlying political agenda. The precautionary principle has been used in the EU to justify the prohibition of genetically modified crops (GMOs), so the inclusion of this reference is probably a coded indication that the EU will be looking for a similar prohibition in the EU-UK agreement.

Either way, this is an indication that we are not dealing with the "top team". The inclusion of a non-existent treaty reference is shoddy, and suggests that we are dealing with people who are not entirely on top of their brief. And that is useful information to know, even if "Team UK" is similarly lacking.

But the thrust of the mandate also suggests that it is going to be details, such as agreement on GMOs and fishing, that are going to be the battleground. There is no rigid demand for regulatory alignment, and nothing that could be construed as requiring "dynamic alignment". In these areas, the mandate is eminently reasonable, following largely along the lines of existing "new generation" treaties.

For sure, the envisaged partnership "should include an ambitious, wide-ranging and balanced economic partnership", but this is conditional on there being "sufficient guarantees for a level playing field so as to uphold corresponding high levels of protection over time".

However, according to Part 15 of the mandate, commitments should be "commensurate with the scope and depth of the overall envisaged partnership and the economic connectedness of the Parties". Essentially, the more you give, the more you get.

Nevertheless, within hours, No.10 Press Office was on the case, protesting that the UK was determined to protect "its own legal autonomy". The EU, it said, had respected the autonomy of other major economies around the world such as Canada and Japan when signing trade deals with them, adding: "We just want the same".

By way of comparison, it asserted that the EU had been willing to offer the US zero tariffs without the kind of level playing field commitments or the legal oversight they had put in the mandate, quoting Paragraph 36 on trade an competition from the TTIP mandate of 2013.

In general terms, this merely stated that the agreement "should aim at including provisions on competition policy, including provisions on antitrust, mergers and state aids", and "address state monopolies, state owned enterprises and enterprises entrusted with special or exclusive rights".

Game, set and match, you might think, except that the selective quoting leaves out Paragraph 36 on "trade and sustainable development". This declares:
The Agreement will include commitments by both Parties in terms of the labour and environmental aspects of trade and sustainable development. Consideration will be given to measures to facilitate and promote trade in environmentally friendly and low carbon goods, energy and resource-efficient goods, services and technologies, including through green public procurement and to support informed purchasing choices by consumers. The Agreement will also include provisions to promote adherence to and effective implementation of internationally agreed standards and agreements in the labour and environmental domain as a necessary condition for sustainable development.
If one compares and contrasts this with the Political Declaration, we see that Johnson has already agreed that the future relationship "must ensure open and fair competition, encompassing robust commitments to ensure a level playing field", while the adherence to international standards is a feature common to TTIP, the Political Declaration and this newly published mandate.

Essentially, there isn't a fag paper's difference between the phrasing of the EU-UK and the TTIP mandates. As to the declaration, it goes on to say that "the precise nature of commitments should be commensurate with the scope and depth of the future relationship and the economic connectedness of the Parties", a phrasing that is almost identical with the mandate phrasing. This states that commitments should be "commensurate with the scope and depth of the overall envisaged partnership and the economic connectedness of the Parties".

Thus, if the UK is looking for ways to sabotage a deal, blaming the EU for its "intransigence" as the excuse for failure, it will have to go beyond the ritual protests about the level playing field, so volubly rehearsed by the fanboy gazette.

The EU, basically, is playing it straight when it comes to level playing field conditions. These follow closely the lines set in the Political Declaration and are part of every treaty negotiation it has entertained since it embarked on its "new generation" programme.

The UK is being treated no differently than Canada, Japan nor any other country in this series. Furthermore, there is no quantum difference between these provisions and the sort of conditions that apply between the US and Canada in CUSMA.

If there are to be sticking points, these are going to be found elsewhere in the mandate, which has enough traps to keep negotiators busy for more time than there is available to settle the deal. These we will have to address in another post.

In the meantime, à propos yesterday's post, we are seeing a serious escalation in the coronavirus crisis, with cases having been reported from across Europe. Italy, Spain, Austria, Switzerland and Croatia are in the firing line.

There is a real possibility now that the hitherto separate issues of the putative pandemic and Brexit begin to collide. In the uncertainty created by current developments, no plans for the immediate future can be taken as read.

Richard North 26/02/2020 link

Brexit: uncertainty intensifies

Tuesday 25 February 2020  

When I think about it – I've been a Eurosceptic for longer than most people have been alive on this planet. And in all those years, I cannot honestly say that I've ever found the study of the EU boring. But I can quite understand why so many people do lose interest, and especially now when there is a lot of noise but very little hard information to go on.

Here we are, with only weeks before the start of what will perhaps be the most important treaty negotiations with our European neighbours since our accession to the EEC and yet, still, we have no firm policy statement from our own government as to what its intentions are.

All we have of recent effect are two speeches, one from the prime minister and the other from his chief negotiator. Neither can be taken as indicating where the UK is likely to be at the end of the year, or what the real intentions are of HMG in respect of our relations with our neighbours – or indeed with the rest of the world. Such things we are not allowed to know.

For a short time – and possibly much longer – we will be better informed as to the intentions of the European Union and its (now) 27 Member States. This will come today when the General Affairs Council authorises the opening of the negotiations with the UK, publishing the definitive version of the negotiating mandate.

The UK government, we are told, will publish its response later this week – possibly on Thursday. But experience warns us not to expect too much. Our governments have a habit of being less than forthcoming when it comes to declaring their intentions, treating us mere mortals with a degree of condescension that borders on contempt.

And whatever we might be told, we will never know for sure whether Johnson truly intends to cut short the negotiations by refusing an extension to the transition period, or whether his declared determination is simply a ploy to keep the Europeans off balance. We know what he says he intends, but from a man who is a congenital liar, nothing can be relied upon until it actually happens.

The truly worrying thing about all this is that, if Johnson is truly a man of his word – and for once in his life is actually telling the truth about something that matters – then we are in for a torrid time. There is no possible way the EU can achieve what it claims to be its objective, - an "ambitious, wide-ranging and balanced economic partnership with the UK" – in the time allotted. Simple logic, based on the comparison with other deals, tells us that December of this year can bring us nothing more than a "bare bones" agreement.

The trouble here is that, while such a description may have its own literary merits, no one actually knows what it means in practice. Most likely, it will amount to very little more than the "no-deal" we were schooled to expect in lieu of a withdrawal agreement. But, given the determination and cooperation of all parties, even in the ten months left to us, a great deal can be achieved. Even a worst-case scenario could surprise us all.

On the other hand, there could be other surprises in the works, which take us in completely unexpected directions. Since an outbreak of coronavirus (or the disease Covid-19 as we must now call it), has been reported in northern Italy, we must reconcile ourselves to the fact that the epidemic has lodged a toehold in Europe and is thus that much closer to our shores.

When the EU-UK talks have got underway - alternating as per the agreement between London and Brussels – imagine what might happen if an outbreak is declared in either of those capitals, especially if it was in one but not the other.

Although the UK authorities have indicated that they are unlikely to emulate the "lockdown" strategy adopted by China and other afflicted nations, could the talks really continue, with the movement of personnel and the media circus that this entails? There are many advocates of freedom of movement, but that does not amount to an acceptance of the free movement of disease.

Should the talks be suspended though – or even delayed for a while – will Johnson feel bound by his commitment not to extend the transition period. And even after the cut-off at the end of June, when the extension decision must be made, would the EU claim force majeure and go into extra time, despite there being no legal base for so doing?

And then there are the economic implications. Already, global trade has taken a hit and the finances of airlines and travel companies are in freefall. But, with the spread of the virus to Europe, we see reports that global stocks have had their worst day in two years.

The benchmark S&P 500 index plunged 3.4 percent, erasing its gains for the year "in its biggest fall since trade tensions rattled markets in February 2018" and the FTSE All-World index lost three percent. Investors flocking to government debt pushed the yield on the US 10-year Treasury bond down 10.2 basis points to 1.369 per cent, just above its record low, as expectations grew that the Federal Reserve would be pushed to cut interest rates by April.

Expectations of a global recession had been on the cards before the coronavirus hit, but much more of this and the expectations might become a reality. And should that then transmute to a depression – which is not beyond the realms of possibility – will European leaders be wanting to engage with the UK over the minutia of a trade deal, when their own economies are on life support?

Back home, where we have come to expect incompetence from the Johnson administration as a matter of course, can we then say with any confidence that it could handle a full-blown Covid-19 epidemic any better than it has handled the routine functions of government? And, should the population be caught up in dealing with a rampaging disease, will there really be the same degree of concern about the progress of trade talks?

And then there is another leg to this dynamic. The Johnson administration has expressed its enthusiasm for negotiating a trade deal with the United States. But should the coronavirus lodge itself in North America, with the primitive and predatory healthcare system in the States, some pundits argue that an epidemic there would be unstoppable.

With an excess mortality rate ranging from 750,000 to a million-plus, in an election year, the very last thing Trump will have time for is complex negotiations with the UK, over issues that will have very little relevance to the more immediate emergency.

Nothing of this, of course, might come to pass, but the one thing already with us is uncertainty. The prospect of an epidemic in the UK, as we merge into a global pandemic, adds immeasurably to the level of uncertainty that we have to confront. The world in three months' time could look a very different place, and not one where the changes are for the better.

The one consolation is that the human race seems infinitely adaptable, and we have been here before. The 1918 influenza pandemic – the so-called Spanish flu - which lasted until 1920, infected 500 million people, when the world population was only between 1.8-1.9 billion. The death toll is estimated to have been 40-50 million, although it may have been as high as 100 million – a case fatality rate of 10-20 percent, up to ten times higher than Covid-19.

But a much higher population, greater population densities and the lower severity of the disease could deliver an higher overall number of casualties, in excess of 600 million. Perversely, the relatively mild nature of the disease (and the fact that it is communicable before signs of illness become apparent) ensures that it is able to spread more widely.

If the human race can survive Spanish flu, though, then it most certainly can survive Covid-19. But, last Century, when the world was emerging from a devastating war, and censorship prevailed in many countries, the psychological and media impact was less than it might have been.

This is, potentially, is the first global pandemic to affect a world where the 24-hour news cycle coincides with a fully-developed social media, grabbing headlines in a way that even the 2009 swine flu pandemic did not, despite over 700 million cases.

It is ironic though that, when the UK should be uniquely focused on its future as a nation, we may well be preoccupied with more basic survival issues. Who amongst us might then dare call it Brexit flu?

Richard North 25/02/2020 link

Brexit: pacta sunt servanda

Monday 24 February 2020  

If the Sunday Times is correct in its claim that Johnson's Brexit team has been ordered to draw up plans to "get around" the Northern Ireland Protocol, then we are in an interesting, if not disturbing position.

The Protocol is an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement and, as such, has the status of an international treaty. Conformity, under international law, is embodied in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (Article 26), which states: "every treaty in force is binding upon the parties to it and must be performed by them in good faith". This is the doctrine of pacta sunt servanda, translated as "agreements must be kept".

If there was any doubt at all about the application of this doctrine, it is dispelled by the Withdrawal Agreement itself. Article 5, with the heading "Good faith", states that:
The Union and the United Kingdom shall, in full mutual respect and good faith, assist each other in carrying out tasks which flow from this Agreement.

They shall take all appropriate measures, whether general or particular, to ensure fulfilment of the obligations arising from this Agreement and shall refrain from any measures which could jeopardise the attainment of the objectives of this Agreement.
As to the specifics of Johnson's "get around", this is a reference to the checks on goods passing from Britain to Northern Ireland, whence we are given to understand that officials in Taskforce Europe, run by David Frost, are working in secret on proposals to ensure that these are avoided.

And yet, the purpose of any checks is, on the one hand, to protect the integrity of the EU's Single Market and, on the other, to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. On the face of it, even seeking to avoid these checks would appear to be an activity which could "jeopardise the attainment of the objectives" of the Withdrawal Agreement, and thus put the UK in breach.

The situation is complicated though, by a lack of information as to what checks will be necessary, and how they will be applied to the various classes of goods. In part, these issues are to be decided by the Joint Committee, established by the Withdrawal Agreement but yet to take effect. Doubtless, one of its first tasks will be to decide the criteria to be applied by inspection staff, which it will do so by way of a decision which will be binding on the parties.

Before that hurdle can be overcome, though, the precise nature, makeup and membership of the Joint Committee must be agreed, and it is this area which could become the first battlefield, delaying the implementation of the Irish Protocol and thereby preventing the adoption of an inspection regime.

It is this that is being suggested as a possible area which the UK will seek to exploit. But, if that is the case, the Johnson administration could be playing with fire.

Under Article 12 of the Protocol, European Union representatives have the right to be present during any activities of the UK authorities related to Customs and the movement of goods. Furthermore, if the Union representative asks for specific control measures in individual cases to be applied, UK authorities are obliged to carry them out.

It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to work out how EU officials could operate in circumstances where the Joint Committee had yet to establish inspection criteria, although here again there is an area which requires its intervention.

This is the requirement for the practical working arrangements relating to the exercise of the rights of Union representatives to be decided by the Joint Committee, upon proposal from the Specialised Committee. Presumably, without such arrangements being decided, the operations of EU officials might be hampered.

However, tucked into Article 12 is an obscurely-worded provision which appears to give the ECJ jurisdiction over the powers conferred on the institutions, bodies, offices, and agencies of the Union, invoking Article 267 TFEU.

In any or all respects, delays or obstruction in sorting out inspection details could place the UK in a position perilously close to a breach (or even multiple breaches) of the treaty.

Before we even get down to implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, therefore, we could be seeing dispute settlement proceedings being invoked. But we could even find ourselves arguing a case in front of the ECJ in Luxembourg.

Here, though, the EU is unlikely to treat any disputes as isolated affairs. Its attitude to the coming trade negotiations is very much conditioned by the UK's good faith in implementing the Withdrawal Agreement (together with the integral Irish Protocol).

Even at this stage, where the negotiations have not started, suggestions of bad faith on the part of the UK could bleed through into the Union's deliberations on its formal negotiating objectives, which are in the process of being concluded.

Union officials and negotiators are known to follow closely the British press, and can hardly be impressed by the claim in the Sunday Times that the new attorney-general, Suella Braverman, might have to give new legal advice to justify the UK's move to by-pass checks.

Still less will they be impressed by the assertion that she was appointed because her predecessor Geoffrey Cox was not willing to countenance action that would be seen in Brussels as a breach of the exit agreement.

In a situation where relations between the EU and the UK are on the edge, having deteriorated in recent weeks and the war of words intensified over the "level playing field" issue, this is precisely the sort of thing that will have EU negotiators under pressure from Member States to take a hard line during the talks, which are scheduled to start in the week commencing 2 March.

Various reports from Brussels and from Berlin and Paris, have already indicated that Member States are having difficulty in finalising the negotiating objectives, which are supposed to be published in their final form tomorrow.

There may, of course, be an element of grandstanding in what could be a leak inspired by No.10, couched in terms which are aimed to strengthen the UK's hand in the talks. This might especially be the case if "team UK" believes it can extract concessions from the EU, to be appended to any new treaty, which will have the effect of watering down the Irish Protocol.

That has not so much been hinted at, but when one reads between the lines, it could explain some of the recent behaviour by the Johnson administration. But it would tend also to strengthen the conclusion that Johnson himself is having difficulty in understanding where the EU's own red lines lie.

In the detail of the Protocol, the Union has probably gone as far as it can go and, in some respects, it might have gone too far, granting an overly favourable status to Northern Ireland. The chances of any further concessions being forthcoming, therefore, are probably as close to zero as makes no difference.

Thus, if the Johnson administration is playing games – a political version of "chicken" – this is singularly ill-timed. It is also unlikely to have any beneficial effect on the coming negotiations.

More to the point, there is a significant danger of collateral damage here. A certain amount of artistic licence is acceptable in the ritual pre-negotiation "dance", but if the UK acquires a reputation of playing fast and loose with treaty provisions, it could acquire the status of an international pariah, finding it very difficult to do deals with any potential partner.

Nonetheless, the official Downing Street position is that: "The UK will comply with all of its legal obligations". But with Johnson at the helm, these could be just words. It will be hardly surprising if, in Brussels, the political temperature has gone up a notch or two.

Richard North 24/02/2020 link

Brexit: dredging up the arguments

Sunday 23 February 2020  

As the rain continues to pour and the reports of flooding proliferate, we've seen re-emerge the assertion that the real cause of the flooding has been the intervention of the EU and its prohibition on dredging rivers.

Most recently, we've seen this on last Thursday's edition of the BBC's Question Time, when a member of the studio audience was allowed to ask the panel: "Why have the EU stopped dredging the rivers, and then they wouldn't have flooded in the first place?"

Not having watched the programme, I cannot tell whether this point was addressed by the panel but, to judge from the sharp reaction on Twitter, it was allowed to go unchallenged, only later being condemned in a Twitter post as "incredible ignorance".

That single post, at the time of writing, elicited 413 replies, 705 retweets and 2.4K "likes", with a not untypical response being one of denial – as in this claim that "Dredging rivers in England has absolutely nothing to do with the EU".

Another commenter suggests that, "all flooding will stop now we’ve left", while another (one of several) resorts to invective, declaring: "Proof if needed that there is nothing thicker than a Brexshitter".

As to the putative involvement of the EU in our flooding crisis, and its impact on dredging, the claim emerged well before the referendum, gaining currency in late 2015 in the aftermath of the Cockermouth floods which had swamped this Cumbrian market town in the early December, and following the flooding of the Somerset Levels which had captured the headlines over the winter of 2013-14.

The charge in 2015 came from author and former sheep farmer Philip Walling who, in his local paper, wrote that there had been an "almost complete cessation of dredging of our rivers since we were required to accept the European Water Framework Directive (EWF) into UK law in 2000".

No longer were the authorities charged with a duty to prevent flooding, he claimed. Instead, the emphasis shifted, in an astonishing reversal of policy, to a primary obligation to achieve "good ecological status" for our national rivers. This is defined as being as close as possible to "undisturbed natural conditions".

By the end of December 2015, this had been picked up by the Mail. It paraded the headline: "Britain's flooding crisis 'made worse by the EU': Green Brussels bureaucrats have 'banned' river dredging that allows water to drain faster, say farmers", from which point the culpability of "Brussels" became firmly lodged in the Eurosceptic narrative.

What sums up the current state of the art, therefore, is that we have two camps. One asserts that the EU is at the root of all evil, while the other denies any culpability on the part of the EU, and resorts to insult and denigration when confronted with those who disagree.

But what really typifies the "debate", in common with discussions about many aspects of the EU and Brexit, is that neither camp seems to be in the least concerned to bolster their arguments with facts. They are content, from positions of hazy ignorance and denial, to hurl brickbats at each other, never to resolve the issues.

Yet, as we were to see from an article in the Irish Times, days after the Mail had published, the UK was not the only country contemplating the effects of EU directives on flood defences.

In Ireland, Minister of State Simon Harris was concerned that plans to dredge the Shannon would breach not the Water Framework Directive, but the Habitats directive. However, he did observe that, with a humanitarian crisis in some areas, "in those instances protecting those communities may trump any EU directive that is in force".

Harris was not wrong and, in developing his point, I wrote a long piece adding detail to his argument. In so doing, I was able to point out that both the Framework and the Habitat Directives had derogations which allowed works to be carried out to prevent flooding.

As a matter of law, I wrote, the EU did not require the dredging of our rivers to be abandoned. And, in the real world, we had an Environment Agency spokesman saying that: "… over the past two years we have spent £21 million on dredging". In theory and practice, Walling was wrong.

In its own defence, the Commission told the Irish Times, that it was not to blame, its spokeswoman stating that the directives left scope for Member States to decide their own rules on how to manage their water courses.

Our government, in any case, argued through its chosen expert that dredging was not necessarily the answer to flood control and, in certain circumstances, could speed more water towards downstream communities even faster, potentially putting them at greater risk.

That was not the situation with the Somerset Levels flooding though, where proper maintenance of the entire drainage system, from ditches to rivers, could – in theory - have vastly increased the storage capacity of the system and held back the worst of the floods, allowing the excess to be discharged to sea.

However, in the autumn of 2013, Booker and I found, the Levels had been deliberately flooded, the background to which was charted on this blog and in more detail in my report of the floods.

What comes over is the complexity of the system, involving international conventions, EU law, national law and procedures, and local rules. And here, the EU cannot completely (or at all) escape responsibility for the flooding of the Somerset Levels.

It was the EU's insistence that Member States should meet quotas on restoring wetlands that set off the chain of events which led to the flooding of much of the area. The government, with the willing assistance of the Environment Agency and the complicity of the RSPB, decided that areas of the Levels should be allowed to revert to wetland in the autumn of 2014.   

It is far too simplistic, therefore, to assert that the EU "stopped dredging the rivers". Much more to the point, it has over many decades shaped water management policies in the UK and other Member States and which, in the UK and elsewhere, have increased flooding.

Nor can any single measure be relied upon. As this report on progress on flood defences in Somerset illustrates, protection comes from the combined effects of many different solutions.

Despite that, Owen Paterson – who was environment minister at the time of the 2014 Somerset flooding – asserted in 2016 that dredging had saved Somerset from being hit by flooding again.

David Hall, Chairman, Somerset Rivers Authority, was to make the same claim more recently, with a repeat performance by Paterson who last week asserted that: "Leaving the EU is a chance to rethink our disastrous flooding policy".

All this demonstrates, though, is how little Paterson learned while he was environment secretary – and what little attention he gave to the reports I wrote for him. As I explained with some care, underpinning the EU's Habitats Directive are the 1971 Ramsar Convention and the 1979 Berne Convention, both of which will continue to apply even though we have left the EU.

The real point about the EU, therefore - I wrote in 2016 - is that it is unnecessary. It simply adds another layer of government and adds to the confusion and lack of accountability in areas where clarity and certainty are required.

What leaving the EU won't do is change the essential direction of our water management policy – which is determined by international agreements - and nor, when one judges the way Brexit has been handled, will it necessarily lead to any improvement in its execution.

Richard North 23/02/2020 link

Brexit: CUSMA - more similarities than differences

Saturday 22 February 2020  

It is five days since David Frost delivered his speech and the media interest has almost died away, but for an article in the fanboy gazette by Jeremy Warner.

He takes a downbeat view of the proceedings. Many of the business leaders he meets are preparing for a messy ending. "Even a year ago", he writes, "the idea of leaving the EU on World Trade Organisation terms would have been thought completely off the wall. Now there is a growing sense of resignation".

Taking a line which typifies the newspaper for which he works, he writes under the title, "Brussels seems determined to cut off its nose to spite its face in trade talks with the UK", asserting that, in the controversy surrounding the Frost speech, the "UK has had a much better week of it than the Europeans".

Supporting this argument, he claims that it is "nonsense" to argue that the UK's close proximity to Europe, and the magnitude of its trade with the EU, makes it a special case, precluding the market access Canada enjoys without much greater subservience to the European acquis. There is, he says, "no such exceptionalism in US/Canadian trading arrangements, where the scale of trade is proportionately even bigger".

And there, perhaps, lies the nub of the argument as between the UK and the EU. Simply, in demanding a "level playing field" in certain (but not all) aspects of the relationship, the EU is asking too much. The UK, Johnson says, "will maintain the highest standards", better, in many respects, than those of the EU but "without the compulsion of a treaty".

But in making his assertion, Warner – like so many of his breed – seems to have little idea of what the EU is actually demanding, and how that compares with the US-Canadian relationship.

As regards the EU and the UK, much is made of the need for regulatory alignment – hence Warner talking in terms of "subservience to the European acquis". But reference to the Political Declaration, the famous Paragraph 77 actually presents a different picture. The key part is here:
The Parties should in particular maintain a robust and comprehensive framework for competition and state aid control that prevents undue distortion of trade and competition; commit to the principles of good governance in the area of taxation and to the curbing of harmful tax practices; and maintain environmental, social and employment standards at the current high levels provided by the existing common standards. In so doing, they should rely on appropriate and relevant Union and international standards, and include appropriate mechanisms to ensure effective implementation domestically, enforcement and dispute settlement.
What we need to take from this is that, in committing to the "level playing field", the parties have agreed to build into their new treaty, a reliance "on appropriate and relevant Union and international standards". That is crucial. There is no automatic requirement that the UK should adopt the EU acquis in its entirety, as Warner implies.

Rather, we see a composite of Union and international standards. Bearing in mind that many of the Union standards depend or build on international standards, to which the UK also subscribes, a mutual commitment built into any new treaty will doubtless suffice to ensure that the level playing field provisions are satisfied.

Then, before we retire hurt, complaining about how terribly unreasonable the EU is, it might be a good idea to see how the current relationship between Canada and the US is constructed, now via the Canada-United States-Mexico Agreement (CUSMA). This was signed on 30 November 2018, and awaits ratification. When it is fully in force, it will replace NAFTA.

Interestingly, Warner claims for US/Canadian trading arrangements, that the scale of trade "is proportionately even bigger" than the EU-UK, but that is not the case. The CUSMA website puts the total US-Canada trade at $921.1 billion Canadian dollars which equates to about £537 billion. By contrast, EU-UK trade for the same period (2018) totals £648 billion.

As to there being no "exceptionalism" in US/Canadian trading arrangements – comparable to that agreed by the parties in the EU-UK Political Declaration, that might also be open to question – and certainly some serious examination. For instance, in CUSMA, there is a six-page agreement on Competition Policy, a longer (17-page) section on "Labor" and a massive 30 pages on Environment, augmented by an Environmental Cooperation Agreement running to a further ten pages.

And what is striking about some of the provisions is their similarities with the approach taken by the EU in its "new generation" treaties, of which CETA is one example.

Here, the "Labor" section provides a good illustration in that in Article 23.2 the Parties affirm their obligations as members of the ILO, including those stated in the ILO Declaration on Rights at Work and the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization (2008). Much the same references appear in CETA and, doubtless, this is what the EU will be asking of the UK.

Similarly, in terms of regulatory alignment, the US and Canada agree to be bound on Technical Barriers to Trade to the WTO agreement, including the "preparation, adoption and application of standards, technical regulations, and conformity assessment procedures, including any amendments, of central level of government bodies, which may affect trade in goods between the Parties". The same approach is taken in CETA.

There is even in CUSMA, a 15-page chapter on Good Regulatory Practices, where the Parties agree to "specific obligations with respect to good regulatory practices, including practices relating to the planning, design, issuance, implementation, and review of the Parties’ respective regulations".

The essence of this is to require consultation, coordination and review, with many shared commitments which are by no means academic. In today's febrile environment, were the exact text to be included in a draft EU-UK agreement, the fanboy gazette would be shrieking in dismay at the "arrogance" of the EU.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I would suggest that if the EU was to adopt the CUSMA text, altered only to refer to the different parties, it would fulfil most of the declared needs of the Political Declaration in respect of trade. In context, the Political Declaration is merely mirroring the type of agreement which prevails between mature trading partners.

Of course there are differences, but it seems to me that there are more similarities between this agreement than there are differences between CUSMA and the EU's "new generation" treaties.

And therein lies the rub. Some time ago, I asked at a seminar of the high-level City delegates, so voluble on matters of trade, whether any had actually read a trade treaty. None had. So, before the likes of Warner – and many more like him – continue pontificating, they perhaps need to settle down to do some reading.

None will, of course. Ignorance is bliss in this game. Ignore the facts and you can win any argument.

Richard North 22/02/2020 link

Brexit: access for people

Friday 21 February 2020  

When the 24-hour global news cycle combines with the torrent of output from social media, there is one certain effect. No longer do we have a small number of issues – or even single issues - dominating the headlines for days on end.

In fact, the "nine-day wonder" – which used to be the measure of transient events - is a thing of the past. Rarely can one topic hold the popular attention for more than a couple of days and, with the tendency of the media to preview planned events, even an important issue may often be dispensed with within a day of its occurrence.

Thus, when David Frost delivered his speech on Monday evening, it was hardly surprising that it registered so briefly in the popular media, although the Commission's response has seen the issues revisited several times. Even now, they still have some coverage, not least from "Snake Oil" Singham in the fanboy gazette.

Perhaps coverage might have been more intense had Priti Patel not decided to launch the Johnson administration's immigration policy the day after Frost's speech.

One wonders if that was intentional, aimed deliberately at overshadowing the trade talks issue. Drowning out one issue with another is a classic news management technique, frequently deployed by government when it wants to give the impression of openness, yet wishes to curtail the debate.

Predictably – and entirely understandably – the immigration policy has dominated media coverage. And, equally predictably, Guardian readers hate it, as does the left in general, which is railing about the exclusion of low-skilled workers – and even the assumption that certain classes of workers (such as carers) are low-skilled.

Not all the comment is without merit, though, as one Guardian reader writes to the paper in these terms:
This immigration policy gives the appearance of one concocted by a keyboard warrior in a back room in Islington. A policy drafted without consultation with those sectors of the economy dependent on a number of unskilled workers appears foolish. Headline-catching it may be, and it will certainly appeal those core Tory voters who are opposed to immigration. But is it practical?
This is Derrick Joad from Leeds, but he may be a little premature in assuming that the policy will appeal to Tory (and other) voters "who are opposed to immigration". After all, a points-based system (which is already in force in the UK) is not a control policy as such. It does not limit the numbers – simply it shapes the skill-sets of those who migrate to these shores.

As such, to call it an Australian-style points-based system is rather misleading as the key component of that system – the annual quota – is missing from the UK version. The government actually refuses to put numbers on its policy.

It merely says that "around 70 percent of resident EEA citizens arriving in the UK since 2004 would be found ineligible for either a skilled-work, family or Tier 4 visa given their current (2016-18) characteristics".

However, we see sections of the Indian press, as in the Hindustan Times applauding the new policy, stating that it is "likely to enable more Indians to access employment opportunities in the post-Brexit UK".  And when the Lagos-based Daily Sun is reporting the British High Commissioner saying that the policy "is to the advantage of Nigerians", one wonders whether we are simply curtailing EEA migrants in order to open the doors to the rest of the world.

Looking askance at the situation in India – where the British High Commissioner has also been touting for business - Pete suggests that we might be looking at a backroom deal. To me, it looks suspiciously like the Conservatives are offering visas in exchange for the support of the Indian community in the UK.

Around the time of the general election, I observed that the two main parties were playing the race card, with South Asian support polarising. Moslems from Pakistan, Kashmir and Bangladesh tend to support Labour while the Tories are actively pitching for the Indians.

Certainly, Johnson's policy is far more likely to favour Indians than South Asian Moslems, giving the Tories a potential electoral advantage – but also intensifying stresses in the UK as we import political conflict over Kashmir and, in India, the unsavoury march of Hindu supremacy.

Here, though, the two policy strands of immigration and trade begin to merge. If the UK is not going to sign up for a comprehensive trade deal with the EU, then it must look urgently to the rest of the world to make up for our losses.

Yet, when it comes to India, this is not a good country to do business with. Apart from a staggeringly inefficient (and corrupt) bureaucracy, enforcement of standards is honoured more in the breach than the observance.

As Pete points out, food adulteration is acute, where the quality of food is lowered either by the addition of inferior quality material to bulk out the weight, or by extraction of valuable ingredients. It includes intentional addition or substitution of the substances, but also biological and chemical contamination during growth, storage, processing, transport and distribution of food products. In India it is an epidemic.

Far worse is fake and adulterated medicines, often lethal, which again is a serious concern. As much as procedures are not followed and standards auditing is poor, local officials are very often easily bribed and paperwork is often forged.

Indian officials very often have fake qualifications bought off the black market so there is little possibility of recognising Indian safety systems and inspections as equal - and the lack of security at ports often means goods are substituted or simply stolen.

And for all that we're complaining about the EU's demands for a level playing field, when it comes to India, any idea that we can rely on the government to enforce labour conditions, animal welfare or environmental standards, is a hollow joke.

Thus, the imports we would be prepared (or able) to accept from India, in exchange for access for our goods, would be so small in volume that we would have little leverage.

Services are not much better. To open up our market further, the UK would be risking wholesale theft of intellectual property. India is also unlikely to honour commitments on data protection. Pete informs us that, in 2017 data theft increased by 783 percent in India.

If you speak to anyone who has ever outsourced UK software development to India, he says, their advice is "don't". They're dishonest actors and there is no saving to be had. There is no polite way of saying it but India is a corrupt country from top to bottom. It is a caveat emptor society ever keen to exploit the unwary customer.

Thus, basically, the only tradable commodity we have is access for people – a flow of visas which will allow the sub-continent much freer immigration rules than at present apply.

Inasmuch as immigration was an issue in the referendum campaign, the main concern was about the numbers admitted to the UK, and the enforced multiculturalism that was the inevitable result. For Brexit simply to limit EEA migration in exchange for increasing it elsewhere – as a price we pay for trade – does not seem to be the outcome most leavers were expecting.

In all respects, therefore, it seems the Tory version of Brexit leaves something to be desired. More and more, we are finding that it is the people who are being "done" rather than Brexit.

Richard North 21/02/2020 link

Brexit: the slides war

Thursday 20 February 2020  

And so it goes on, with the Financial Times remarking that the "atmosphere sours" between the EU and the UK, "amid charges of hypocrisy and reneging on agreements".

One has to wonder, though, on which planet the FT has been hiding, if it thinks that only now is the atmosphere "souring". Given the behaviour of the media recently, and the rhetoric from No.10, relations might be better described as glacial- and have been for some time.

Things can hardly be helped by what is being described in some quarters as the "slides war", with the Commission hurriedly publishing a new PowerPoint slide (pictured), along with a rebuttal aimed at countering the snark from the No.10 press office, asserting that the EU has changed its mind on a Canada-type FTA.

The latest slide, however, has immediately drawn criticism as it appears to exaggerate the UK's volume of trade compared with other countries. Of Japan, Politico.EU says:
Its trade volume with the EU stood at some €117.1 billion in 2018, compared with the UK's €516.6 billion. That means the bubble representing the UK should be about 4.4 times larger than the bubble representing Japan. On the EU's chart, the UK bubble is more than 16 times larger than Japan's.
Nevertheless, an unrepentant Commission insists it did not "purposefully" manipulate the chart to exaggerate the differences, haughtily declaring that, "The purpose of today's slide is for information and presentational purposes only".

This non-mistake, however, has given some strands of the media the excuse to focus on the trivia rather than the substantive issues – not that they need much excuse. But that leaves the Commission having to rely on visitors to its website to get its full message across.

The single most important element that the Commission wishes to get over is that the UK is different from its other trade partners, to which effect, it emphasises five points.

In the first, it comes up with the obvious and wearily familiar statements that the UK has left the EU and will leave the Single Market and Customs Union at the end of the transition period, whence it will no longer benefit from the advantages of membership, nor be bound by its obligations.

But, says the Commission, the UK has agreed to have "an unprecedented and broad economic partnership – as a third country – with the EU, with zero tariffs and zero quotas on all goods entering our Single Market of 450 million people, and covering also other areas such as transport and energy". This is set out in the Political Declaration.

For its second point, the Commission states that the EU is "ready to offer this highly ambitious trade deal". On the other hand, though, "the UK cannot expect high-quality access to the Single Market if it is not prepared to accept the guarantees the EU requires to ensure that competition remains open and fair.

There must, it says, "be robust level playing field safeguards to avoid unfair competitive advantages in social, environmental, tax and state aid matters. And, it emphasises: "This is not new. The UK government - and Parliament - agreed this with the EU's 27 Member States less than six months ago".

In point three, the commission asserts that "every trade deal we do around the world has a level playing field element to it, tailored to the specific circumstances of our partners".

This is the case, it says, for Canada, Japan, Korea, where our agreements foresee non-regression clauses and rules on subsidies and safeguards, amongst other provisions. It is also the case for Turkey, Ukraine and the recent institutional framework agreement with Switzerland, which include comprehensive provisions on competition and state aid.

Point four notes that each agreement with a third country depends on a number of different factors, "including distance, and the level and intensity of trade we have with that particular country". All these factors matter and determine the content of the agreement.

For instance, it says, the UK will be the EU's third largest trading partner, with EU-27 imports from the UK worth € 197 billion for 2018. This represents almost 10 times more imports into the EU than Canada. At the same time, Canada is some 5000 km away.

The combined imports from Canada, Japan, and South Korea into the EU for 2018 together (€ 125 billion) are still considerably less than those of the UK alone (€ 197 billion).

That brings the Commission to its final point. Comparing the situation of the UK to other countries, such as Canada, simply does not work, it says:
In the specific case of the UK, the level and intensity of trade is determined as well by its past economic integration with the EU. We have been together with the UK for almost half a century.

This economic interconnectedness and geographic proximity are such that it is in our mutual interest to agree on fair competition standards between us, as well as on their effective enforcement.

This will also be in the interest of British consumers and businesses, as the EU is by far the greatest export market for UK businesses and most UK imports are from the EU.
In what could in part be an outtake from my post yesterday, the Commission then goes on to say that the European Council has been clear since its initial guidelines on Brexit (April 2017) that it would only be prepared to consider a future trade deal with the UK if accompanied by strong level [playing] field guarantees, beyond what the Union has required in its FTAs with partners such as Japan or Canada.

The European Council, it says, set this requirement based on the specific circumstances of the EU-UK relationship, characterised by geographic proximity and by the degree of interdependence and economic connectedness generated by more than 45 years of UK integration into the EU.

These circumstances, we are told, position the UK very differently from other trading partners, including in terms of the benefits the UK would be able to reap from the broad and ambitious economic partnership that we plan to negotiate. 

The principle of robust level playing field guarantees, the Commission then says, was already agreed by both Parties in the Political Declaration, where it is clearly outlined in paragraph 77 under the heading "Level playing field for open and fair competition".

Interestingly, it quotes verbatim exactly the piece I included in yesterday's post, making it abundantly clear that the UK has put its name to an agreement to accept level playing field provisions.

Unsurprisingly, the FT sides with the Commission. Arguably, it says, Downing Street that is being disingenuous about what kind of trade deal can be struck with the bloc, telling us that the Commission's new slide "will underpin the EU’s arguments for ensuring fair competition clauses in any trade deal".

Elsewhere, Frost has been described as a man "who uses Singham and Martin Howe". Says one senior source: "The speech was, to be kind, meretricious; to be unkind, dismal". And yet, a former Foreign Office colleague describes the speech as "an intelligent exposition of his view on the EU and an important explanation of Brexit thinking in the new UK government". The ex-colleague evidently is not concerned about the questionable grammar, poor punctuation and dubious historical claims.  

This puts the UK in a very difficult position. Negotiating for "Team UK" is a very tough job indeed at an exceptionally difficult time. Sloganising does not get you anywhere. The other side are not idiots. And they have experienced and wily operators.

But, as they now say in Whitehall, never mind the quality – just watch the PowerPoint.

Richard North 20/02/2020 link

Brexit: ringing the changes

Wednesday 19 February 2020  

In Monday's speech from David Frost, what is turning out to be one of the key (as in contentious) parts is the claim that:
We are clear that we want the Canada-Free Trade Agreement-type relationship which the EU has so often said is on offer – even if the EU itself now seems to be experiencing some doubts about that unfortunately.
What has made it so contentious is that this is coupled with an outright rejection of the EU's demands for what are termed "level playing field" provisions. And this has, in short order, led Michel Barnier to declare that, because of Britain's "very particular proximity", it cannot be offered terms similar to those agreed with the Canadians. Without equivocation, the Canada model is off the agenda.

This has provoked a tart response from the No.10 press office, which refers to the slide presented by Barnier to the European Council (EU-27) on 15 December 2017 (pictured).

In a somewhat truculent tone, the press office remarks that, in 2017, "the EU showed on their own slide that a Canada type FTA was the only available relationship for the UK". Now, it complains, "they say it's not on offer after all", demanding of Barnier, "what's changed?".

What has changed, of course, is that the Johnson administration has overtly and emphatically rejected the level playing field conditions. A single slide used by Barnier for illustrative purposes can hardly be taken as the EU's definitive statement, locked in aspic for all time.

One of the crucial statements in this respect can be seen in the European Council Guidelines of 15 December 2017. These remain in force, with paragraph 7 making it clear that:
The Union takes note that the United Kingdom has stated its intention to no longer participate in the Customs Union and the Single Market after the end of the transition period, and the European Council will calibrate its approach as regards trade and economic cooperation in the light of this position so as to ensure a balance of rights and obligations, preserve a level playing field, avoid upsetting existing relations with other third countries…
That the UK should thus accept the level playing field provisions is taken as a given, an issue explored at length in a study published by the European Parliamentary Research Service in September 2018 under the title: "The future Partnership between the European Union and the United Kingdom - Negotiating a framework for relations after Brexit".

This study concedes that the European Commission had concluded that "the only viable trade agreement model for the future relations between the EU and the UK would be of the kind negotiated with Canada or South Korea". However, it also refers to the guidelines produced by the European Council on 25 March 2018, mentioning that EU could reconsider its offer on a Canada-style relationship "should the UK's red lines evolve".

And sure enough, in the guidelines, we see references to a future relationship made conditional on positions stated by the UK. There is no ambiguity in the next statement, embedded in paragraph 6: "If these positions were to evolve, the Union will be prepared to reconsider its offer", it says. The European Parliament study was not exaggerating.

We then come to the revised text of the Political Declaration, published on 17 October 2019, as agreed by prime minister Johnson. And there we find in Part XIV, paragraph 77:
Given the Union and the United Kingdom's geographic proximity and economic interdependence, the future relationship must ensure open and fair competition, encompassing robust commitments to ensure a level playing field. The precise nature of commitments should be commensurate with the scope and depth of the future relationship and the economic connectedness of the Parties. These commitments should prevent distortions of trade and unfair competitive advantages.
The paragraph continues:
To that end, the Parties should uphold the common high standards applicable in the Union and the United Kingdom at the end of the transition period in the areas of state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, climate change, and relevant tax matters.
In a continuation of this long passage, again there is no ambiguity. It states:
The Parties should in particular maintain a robust and comprehensive framework for competition and state aid control that prevents undue distortion of trade and competition; commit to the principles of good governance in the area of taxation and to the curbing of harmful tax practices; and maintain environmental, social and employment standards at the current high levels provided by the existing common standards.
And just in case there was any doubt as to how this should be achieved, the paragraph concludes:
In so doing, they should rely on appropriate and relevant Union and international standards, and include appropriate mechanisms to ensure effective implementation domestically, enforcement and dispute settlement. The future relationship should also promote adherence to and effective implementation of relevant internationally agreed principles and rules in these domains, including the Paris Agreement.
Returning to Frost's speech, however, we see his assertion that:
… to think that we might accept EU supervision on so called level playing field issues simply fails to see the point of what we are doing. That isn’t a simple negotiating position which might move under pressure – it is the point of the whole project.
It would appear, therefore, that Frost – and his political master – cannot have read properly the Political Declaration. Johnson has agreed to accept in the new treaty, "appropriate mechanisms" to ensure effective implementation domestically of the level playing field provisions.

Not in any conceivable way could it thus be asserted that the UK has not agreed at a political level to maintain level playing field provisions and nor it is conceivable that the EU could be excluded from some form of oversight role, expressed in terms of "appropriate mechanisms".

Nailing the point home, when Barnier was asked if Frost was right in his speech to say that agreeing to such alignment in a trade deal would be undemocratic, he retorted: "Truly not. It is a sovereign decision of the EU, it is a sovereign decision of the UK to co-operate ... That is what Boris Johnson wrote in the political declaration".

And indeed, the parties, according to the Political Declaration, "envisage comprehensive arrangements that will create a free trade area, combining deep regulatory and customs cooperation, underpinned by provisions ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition".

One thus recalls the infamous statement of John Major when, after agreeing the Maastricht Treaty, he said that, now we've agreed it, "I suppose I'd better read it". Johnson, and his sidekick Frost, need to travel down the same path. And they had better talk to their own press office and tell them what has changed.

Richard North 19/02/2020 link

Brexit: a question of trust

Tuesday 18 February 2020  

The UK media treatment of Le Drian's speech can only reinforce the long-held conclusion that, when it comes to reporting EU issues, the entire fourth estate is completely unreliable.

But it took one of our commenters to point out that Le Drian's declaration had been completely mistranslated, initially by the Financial Times, which was the first to report that the French minister had warned that the "UK-EU will 'rip each other apart'".

What Le Drian had originally said is:
Je pense que sur les questions commerciales ou sur le dispositif de relations futures, que l'on va engager, on va s'étriper pas mal. Mais ça fait partie de la négociation, chacun va défendre ses intérêts.
The literal translation of s'étriper is indeed rather bloodthirsty – it means to gut or eviscerate, so even to assert that it entails "ripping apart" is a bit wide of the mark. But the crucial issue is that Le Drian was using colloquial French, where the slang term is merely a familiar way of describing a heated exchange, or tough negotiation.

As one of my e-mail correspondents remarks, in English we commonly use colloquial phrases that are very distant from their literal meanings, as in, "I could murder a pint", or "I'm so hungry I could eat a horse", or even "You'll be the death of me".

Thus, a proper translation of Le Drian's comments might be something like:
I think that about trade questions, or about future relations framework, which we are going to start debating, we're going to have rather tough discussions. But it's part of the negotiation, everybody is defending his interests.
This is a very far cry from any "bloodbath" and only the faulty translation could allow such a lurid impression to survive yet, without exception, all the media sources which ran the story repeated the "rip each other apart" phrasing.

This included the Telegraph which finally posted its report at 3.35am yesterday, with the headline: "Britain and EU will 'rip each other apart' in trade talks, says French foreign minister".

Then the BBC, albeit under a more restrained headline of "France warns UK of bitter trade negotiations", managed to assert that "Le Drian predicted the two sides would 'rip each other apart' as they strove for advantage in the negotiations".

I feel annoyed with myself for not checking the French language reports before I wrote my own story, although it takes a native French speaker (or someone with far better French than mine) to spot the error. Google translate, for instance, when given "on va s'étriper pas mal" to work with, offers: "we're gonna get pretty drunk" – which I'm sure wasn't what Le Drian meant to say.

However, another of my correspondents suggests that the pas mal tacked on to the on va s'étriper indicates a certain jocularity. He also observes that the Trésor de la Langue Française gives us another figurative meaning of s'étriper. It can be taken to mean "to exhaust oneself in finishing a task", perhaps - as my correspondent says - an equally appropriate (but totally improbable) meaning in our context.

That notwithstanding, one example of the French language media translated into: "The Minister of Foreign Affairs said he expected tense discussions with the British, particularly on trade matters", which seems to be a pretty accurate rendition of what he meant – even if the machine translator falls apart once you get further into the story.

At issue here is a matter of trust. No ordinary person can be faulted for failing to understand the precise nuances of a foreign language, but the national media – and especially the BBC - have no excuse. With their resources, they could and should make the effort to check speeches of foreign politicians with a native speaker or a proper translator.

And when it comes to the likes of the Express, which then turns a miss-translation into the lurid "EU threat of Brexit bloodbath", this is so beyond the pale that the publication has no right to call itself a newspaper – but we knew that already.

Recalling recently that RTÉ News was claiming that the ECJ had direct jurisdiction over the UK, in the enforcement of the Irish Protocol, we cannot even look across the Irish Sea for any better reporting or analysis. The media has most definitely made itself part of the problem.

Currently, for want of an official copy of the transcript (now provided), we're having to rely on diverse media reports of the awaited speech by David Frost, UK's chief Brexit negotiator.

He has been speaking at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles in front of a selected audience and, if we are to believe media reports, his main line is that the whole 'point' of Brexit is undermined if the UK continues to follow EU rules, where the freedom to diverge from EU rules was the "point of the whole project" of Brexit.

That, at least, is the "take" of the highly untrustworthy Telegraph, with similar renditions from other sources. But, given the tendency of the media to "hunt as a pack", and its coprophagic tendencies, even if the entire UK media came up with largely identical reports, that is no guarantee of fidelity – as we have just seen with Le Drian.

Even then, if we can get past the venality of the media, one has to confront the incompetence or mendacity (or both) of the UK government. Can it really be the case that Frost honestly believes that he can conclude a comprehensive (or any) trade deal with the EU without conceding conformity with key flanking policies?

Yet, Frost is reported as asserting that the EU's demands would compromise Britain's sovereign order, making them "unsustainable and undemocratic". The only way forward, he says, is to accept that FTAs are the most appropriate relationship for sovereign entities, and to build on this approach of "a relationship of equals".

The most obvious interpretation of this is that Frost is using the media to stake out the UK's negotiating position, especially as he is insisting that: "It isn't a simple negotiating position which might move under pressure - it is the point of the whole project". Nothing is true in politics until it has been denied.

In reporting Frost's speech, however, both the Telegraph and Sky News repeat Le Drian's misquoted comments, demonstrating that once it has become part of a narrative, an error will be repeated endlessly, without the slightest effort to confirm its veracity. Soon enough, the "first draft of history" will become locked in to become the unalterable "truth".

But even if the Frost speech is accurately reported, it is still pervaded by an air of unreality. With less than ten months for negotiations, HMG is still talking about a Canada-style deal – a treaty which, from door to door, took eight years to conclude.

We need to be reminded, therefore, that even if he is accurately reported, it doesn't really matter what Frost says. Actions speak louder than words and if the Johnson administration is intent on carving out a "sovereign path", then the UK is going to get very little more than a "bare bones" treaty – if anything.

To indicate that this is a serious speech, with a serious intent, is itself a distortion. As it stands, it would be more productive (and honest) for Frost to bay at the moon (C'est vouloir prendre la lune avec les dents, as I am told). Then, at least, the media might get the narrative right.

Richard North 18/02/2020 link

Brexit: roll up for the bloodbaths

Monday 17 February 2020  

It could, of course, be media bias, but there does seem to be a lot of grief coming from the land of the Gauls – more accurately, the western end of that ancient land. This time, it's Jean-Yves Le Drian, France's current foreign minister, speaking at the Munich security conference, the annual get-together of big-wigs to debate "the most pressing challenges to international security".

But security wasn't on Le Drian's mind, so much, as the coming EU-UK negotiations. And not by any means could it be said that he's a happy bunny. In fact, he's warning of a bloodbath in the making with countries ready to "rip each other apart" over the future relationship.

This has been picked up by the Financial Times, which has padded out its basic report with a recap of the issues, and the Guardian is also giving it an airing, going for the headline, "Britain and EU 'will rip each other apart' in trade talks".

Predictably, the Express gives it the front page headline treatment, with the banner: "EU threat of Brexit trade bloodbath", thereby converting a warning by a French minister into an EU "threat". There's objectivity and accuracy for you.

Oddly enough, The Times also runs it on its front page, but with the relatively restrained headline: "Europe talks tough on trade". Still though, it elides the words of French minister with "Europe".

The obedient fanboy gazette, however – clearly taking its instructions from No.10, seems to have ignored the story for now, trying like its master to pretend that Brexit is "done". Perhaps it'll run a report some time today when everyone else has finished with it.

As to Le Drian's precise words, what he said was that: "I think that on trade issues and the mechanism for future relations, which we are going to start on, we are going to rip each other apart". But he then rather puts the damper on his own blood-curdling, adding, "that is part of negotiations: everyone will defend their own interests".

For all that, Le Drian is an old hand who's been in some sticky situations. And while hyperbole is a normal part of any politician's toolkit, he speaks a lot of sense on some issues.

Mind you, Le Drian does have a dog in the fight. He is former president of the Brittany region, where nearly a third of the turnover of French fishermen is reliant on access to British waters. He thus declares an interest, saying: "Let us hope that it is done as quickly as possible even if there are many subjects and that we have substantial points to manage", adding that his particular concern was "the question of fish".

And while the man has added his qualification to his blood-curdling warning, I've not heard any politician – French or otherwise – speak in such lurid terms of an impending EU negotiation. This takes us into wholly new territory.

Given the timing, it also rather takes the steam out of David Frost's speech today. As Johnson's chief Brexit negotiator, he has been somewhat upstaged by the French foreign minister. Given his own input, he is hardly in a position to deny the prediction.

With that, there is not much more to add to the basic story, although the Guardian does observe that, despite Le Drian's words on the negotiations, France seems eager to avoid a rupture. In a more emollient tone, the foreign minister went on to say that France and the UK would be meeting soon in the Lancaster House framework, the Anglo-French defence format first sealed in 2010 by David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy.

Then we have Sir Mark Sedwill, the UK national security adviser and the sole British speaker at the Munich conference, appearing to respond in a positive manner – too positive for some, He predicted the UK would continue to co-operate on defence.

Pressed on whether the UK would back the Franco-German proposal for a European security council in which the UK participates, the Guardian tells us that Sedwill said the institutional structure was less important than the substance of the defence co-operation.

Generally, that is not how the continentals tend to see it, as they tend to be obsessed with institutional structures, but at least this is an issue on which the parties are not ripping each other apart.

If we are to take reports at face value, though, any blood-letting between the UK and the "colleagues" will be nothing compared to the carnage about to be let rip as the EU-27 sit down to discuss the multi-annual financial framework (MFF), Eurospeak for the budget framework to cover the EU's budget for the seven-year period, 2021-2027.

Always a fraught process, this takes on an additional edge with the absence of the UK's contributions. As always, the Commission is looking for more money, but it is also pushing for more fundamental reforms, observing that the addition of rebates and corrections over time has resulted in a system that is "opaque and unfair".

This was said at a time when it was known that the UK was leaving the EU, and one wonders whether the Commission would have been quite so candid had the UK still been on board.

Later this week, though, the Guardian tells us, presidents, prime ministers and chancellors across Europe will pack their bags in preparation for a long weekend in Brussels to finalise the framework.

They will, it is said, be preparing for that most infamous of events, a "four shirter", indicating the number of days and nights the talks are expected to last. Had we still been in the EU, our prime minister (which could well have been Cameron) would have been right in there, with UK media correspondents hanging on his every word as he prepared to fight the UK's corner.

As it is, the "colleagues", on top of calls for even more money, have to deal with a huge €75 billion hole in the seven-year budget. Another of those anonymous EU diplomats is thus cited, saying: "And now we are fighting like ferrets in a sack". And what do ferrets do when they fight in a sack? They rip each other apart.

Nonetheless, Charles Michel, a former prime minister of Belgium, has been engaged in furious shuttle diplomacy around the capitals, offering a compromise solution which brings the budget cap to 1.074% of the Member States' combined GNI, despite the Commission warning that just to make up for the loss of the UK requires the budget to jump to 1.116 percent, with the European Parliament calling for 1.3 percent.

"In this negotiation, we are not expecting member states to be happy, but the degree of dissatisfaction will be key", says a senior EU official, presumably relying on the doctrine of equal misery. This is regarded as the dominant requirement for any international agreement, where none of the parties must walk out of the room smiling.

On the other hand, another one of those diplomats responds with a curt, "No chance". He adds, "There is not a lot to say, except we won't pay. And as the Rolling Stones song goes, 'Time is on my side'". That perhaps augurs badly for the EU-UK talks where time is definitely not on our side. Maybe Le Drian has a point.

Richard North 17/02/2020 link

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