Richard North, 08/06/2016  

In my view, anyone who actually uses the word "bonkers" in a political debate should be taken out and put to a long, lingering death pour encourager les autres.

That this is a word much favoured by the flatulent Johnson may well have influenced my preference for such an extreme penalty, but it would be a fitting end for someone representing a group which has put our democracy so much at risk, through its increasingly inept handling of the referendum campaign.

For all their many faults, though, none are more egregious than the mulish refusal to entertain an exit plan. This has left the game wide open for the "remains" to charge that Brexit is a "leap in the dark", reinforced by Vote Leave's ocean-going stupidity in arguing that we should abandon the Single Market.

Why "pro-Europe MPs", led by Labour's Stephen Kinnock, should then step in to prevent Britain leaving the Single Market after a Brexit vote is not immediately clear.

On the face of it, what Kinnock is saying is not entirely unreasonable. "MPs will be presented with a very difficult choice in the event of a 'leave' vote", he says, "because we have no idea what a post-Brexit UK looks like, and the referendum will not provide a specific mandate in terms of which Brexit model has the support of the electorate".

He thus claims to be "posing the question" as to what MPs could do if the option on the table was to leave the Single Market. This he says, would have a catastrophic impact on the economy.

Whether he realises it or not, Kinnock is providing a backstop to the incompetence of Vote Leave, offering exactly the reassurance that we needed to give voters – thereby mitigating the consequences of Vote Leave's unplanned exit.

Looking at the overall game plan of the "remains", this does not seem to be part of the overall strategy. More like, it is a question of nature abhorring a vacuum. So gaping is the hole left by the absence of a plan that even "pro-Europe MPs" felt impelled to fill it.

This certainly seems to be what The Times thinks. The weakest part of the "leave" campaign, is says, is that it lacks "a coherent or even an agreed alternative vision for Britain outside the European Union". As a result "pro-Remain politicians argue that a vote for Brexit will not be interpreted as an instruction by voters to leave the European single market of 500 million consumers".

"It is an indictment that the Leave campaign declines to spell out its vision of a post-EU future", the paper goes on to say, "largely because it cannot agree on it. If Britain is to retain a deep trading relationship with the EU, it will need to give some things up in return. That is how treaties work".

The Remain camp, it says, justifiably points out that membership of the EU gives Britain not just free trade but a Single Market, with the elimination of non-tariff barriers to trade. The House of Commons will not be violating the will of the British people in preserving membership of the single market if Brexit campaigners refuse to be straight with the voters about their alternative.

Needless to say, the noisemakers in the "leave" campaign miss the point, as they have done consistently since they first started opening their mouths. Liam Fox for instance – clearly unaware that Flexcit supporters are leaping with joy - burbles about it being "unthinkable" that when given a clear instruction, "politicians should have the arrogance to try to ignore the democratic will of the people".

Matthew Elliott then emerges for a cameo performance, telling us that, "If we vote leave, it will be very clear that people have voted to take back control of our border".

This response assumes, of course, something that he cannot possibly know. And nor is Elliott in a position to ascertain the effect on the electorate of knowing that, within the EEA, Efta States have unilateral "emergency brake". This has not been put to them.

The broader omission of a plan, however, leaves William Hague free to observe that, "if no clear alternative is put to the people in the next two weeks, there will be no clear mandate from the electorate to do anything else" but to keep us in the Single Market.

And in last night's non-debate on ITV, Mr Cameron made a particular point of the need to stay in the Single Market.

In a livelier, more flexible format, a member of the audience might have asked Mr Cameron whether, if we stayed in the Single Market, he would be so bothered about leaving the EU. Likewise, Mr Farage might have been asked any number of pointed questions about his absence of a plan.

The lack of any such contributions made for a lacklustre, even tedious event, where Farage in particular seemed to be more concerned to avoid making any presentational goofs than in pressing home a case for leaving. How different things could have been if he had pre-empted Cameron by saying we would remain in the Single Market – as "pro-Europe MPs" were suggesting we should.

Earlier in the day, however, we had seen David Cameron summons an emergency press conference on the roof of a London hotel to convey to the press corps his concern at the number of lies (six) Vote Leave were telling. There was nothing, of course, on his own lies – and especially nothing about his "dodgy deal" which isn't even a valid treaty.

If only all parties, one feels, could shut up – permanently – and let a proper debate ensue without their prattle. They are adding nothing to our knowledge or understanding.

Somebody to whom we should give a great deal of attention to is WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo who was in London yesterday to give the keynote address at the World Trade Symposium, on "Trade and Globalisation in the 21st Century". Specifically, although wildly misquoted in the Guardian he had some important points to make about the EU referendum.

Having spent his life as a trade negotiator, Azevêdo impressed on his audience (and through them to us) that trade negotiations are highly complex. Conducting multiple negotiations simultaneously would bring a further level of complexity.

In addition, he said, you need willing partners. Other countries already have their negotiating priorities and may not be ready to shift resources to a new negotiation overnight. Of course, all of this presumes that the UK has its own resources and negotiating infrastructure already in place and fully operational.

Moreover, he said, if you need to complete a deal quickly when the other side can wait, you are negotiating from a very weak position. This is a clear reference to the time limit on Article 50 and the need for unanimity should we need an extension.

The point we all need to take on board is that, if we are going to participate in the full Single Market, this must include agriculture, which is currently not part of the EEA Agreement.

Thus, we are not adopting the EEA Agreement, per se. It would be more accurate to say that we are going for EEA-plus. That "plus" includes elements of the CAP which have to be negotiated into the EEA agreement as country-specific protocols.

That, to say the very least, is not going to be easy. Once you break the seal on fixed agreements and open them up to re-negotiation, all manner of things can happen. If, for instance, you read pages 253-254 of Flexcit, you will see that a shit-storm awaits us on negotiating WTO quotas, and subsidy levels for agricultural products.

What people simply don't even begin to understand is that the 1960-63 UK Accession negotiations which failed in January 1963, were taken up almost entirely with the agriculture chapter. The plug was pulled by France, which felt its interests were threatened, and it was not to allow us entry until it had finalised arrangements on the CAP to its satisfaction.

We can expect France (to say nothing of other Member States) to be just as obdurate this time round. The issue thus, is even with the EEA agreement, getting a conclusion to the negotiations inside two years is going to be extremely hard to do. We'll be tipping concession of the sledge wholesale if we have any chance of meeting the deadline.

What makes this all worthwhile is that the long-term prospects outside the EU are so much better. Azevêdo speaks of the need to get trade moving again. Achieving that, he says, will require fresh thinking, and a step-change in members' political commitment.

That is where an independent Britain could make its mark, using its skills and global leadership to kick-start global trade. Worth potentially $2.6 trillion in annual GDP enhancements, with the UK share topping $60 billion, this is well worth any short-term cost in leaving the EU.

And that would make a boring debate interesting again.

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