Richard North, 26/09/2016  

It's thirty months since we published the first version of Flexcit, pointing out that a trade deal with the EU inside two years was not possible, and now the Independent considers it news that "experts" have woken up to that fact.

Further, as if we didn't know already, these self-same "experts" are arguing that civil servants preparing for negotiations to pull Britain out of the EU face a task of "mind-boggling" complexity.

That a newspaper – even if it's only the Independent should actually believe that this is even worth remarking upon tells us a great deal about the current nature of the Brexit debate, and who the media chooses to accept as "experts".

Picking on an organisation that seems to specialist in spreading ignorance, it goes to Stephen Booth, co-director of Open Europe, who draws the amazing conclusion that "it was likely that Brexit would end up being a gradual withdrawal from different aspects of the UK’s entanglements with the EU, rather than a single 'big bang' event".

You really do have to give it to Open Europe that, when all else has repeatedly failed, they eventually stumble on the right answer.

Another stunningly perspicacious source on which the Independent relies is Hannah White, of the Institute for Government. She says that officials should be working on the assumption that a new trade relationship with the EU will take more than two years, and push for an interim deal.

If we hadn't been writing that for more than three years, and if it hadn't been downloaded in Flexcit more than 110,000 times, we might even think that this was something novel. But then, for the Independent to be only three years behind the curve is about what we should expect of the legacy media.

Ms White is clearly coming to terms with that three-year-old reality, telling us that: "Every time we look at the different aspects of it (Brexit), we see a whole new degree of complexity and new things that need to be taken into account".

Well, ya don't say!

But, with the bit firmly between Ms White's teeth, there's no stopping her. "First there's the process of getting to the negotiating position, which involves a lot of consultation with different levels of government and economic sectors and working out what trade-offs and compromises you can accept", she says. Then, she adds, "there's the process of negotiating the divorce agreement, then working out the new trading and immigration arrangements we want with the EU".

Her grip on the reality though is somewhat slender, as she then reaches down to us ignorant plebs to inform us that: "Before getting a trade agreement with anyone else, we need to sort out our baseline position with the World Trade Organisation, which involves negotiations affecting all sorts of sectors and could take years".

Thereby, she marks herself down as someone who doesn't read very widely or deeply. But then, I'm sure Ms White didn't get where she is today by knowing what she's talking about.

That much is clearly evident from her comment that, "Other countries need to know what our basic offer is within the WTO before they strike a free trade deal with us", clearly not understanding that the UK can settle its position by a unilateral declaration, under cover of a WTO waiver. That will more than suffice to get the show on the road.

To conclude, though, we get the canard from Ms White, that "For the US it's a legal requirement that a country's WTO schedules are agreed before they can enter trade talks with them".

I've seen that stated before, but not with an authenticated reference which gives chapter and verse on the legal base. In fact, it strikes me as another of those urban myths, not least because the US struck a WTO bilateral market access agreement with the Russian Federation in 2006, five years before its accession to the WTO, and long before it had finalised its commitments. And then, under certain circumstances, reciprocal tariff deals can be approved by executive agreement.

But then, as we see with Robert Peston, the Brexit debate is populated with people only too keen to parade their ignorance, and confuse the issues.

Here we have a senior legacy media commentator confusing the concepts of the customs union and the Single Market, as well as seemingly lacking any knowledge of rules of origin, or even of Community law.

The point about a customs union, of course, is that members adopt a common external tariff with third countries, and allow tariff-free movement of goods within their joint borders.

This does not, therefore, preclude parties, such as Turkey – which is also a member of the EU Customs Union, empowered by the Ankara Agreement – from making their own preferential trade agreements. So far, Turkey has concluded nineteen such agreements, including an agreement with Efta.

What prevents EU member states from concluding trade agreements with other countries is the Common Commercial Policy, reliant on Article 207 of the Consolidated Treaty.

Whether we actually stay in the EU's Customs Union, therefore, remains to be seen. There may be a case for staying in for a short while, which would give us more time to revise the Union Customs Code.

The one thing for sure, though, is that we aren't going to resolve the issues listening to ignoramuses such a Robert Peston, or Hannah White for that matter. They belong in the media, not in the real world.

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