Richard North, 18/10/2016  

If he was a little brighter, Nick Clegg, he would already know that a "hard Brexit" was not on the cards. But then, he is a politician, and a Liberal-Democrat, so we can't expect too much of him.

Nor can we really complain that he didn't see the result of the referendum coming – after all, we didn't either. Had he done so though, he and his fellow remainers might have hedged their bets and been more cautious about rejecting the idea of the EEA as an interim option.

But now he's telling us that leaving the EU and taking the "soft Brexit" option of joining Norway as a member of EFTA, is a credible alternative after all. And it's much better then exiting without any alternative trading relationship in place and relying instead on WTO rules.

The most important decision of all, Clegg says, is whether to remain a member of the Single Market, where we benefit from zero tariffs and can help to shape the harmonised non-tariff rules that ensure that goods and services can flow smoothly across borders.

Clegg is unequivocal on this. "It is completely possible to be a member of the Single Market while standing outside the EU: Iceland, Lichtenstein and Norway all do so".

Sadly, though, instead of pushing for precisely that option, Clegg has decided on the "scare" route of telling us how awful a "hard Brexit" is, in this instance telling us how badly the food industry will be hit. And he tells a good enough tale although, being a politician briefed by prestigious people, he doesn't grasp the full horror of it all.

In his accompanying paper, he tells us that, at present, UK food and drink products are traded across borders with no forms or checks. Once we leave the EU, he says, products will have to go through customs checks at the EU border.

But exporters of products of animal origin (not only meat but also eggs, milk, honey, and gelatine products) will need to go through a number of additional steps.

They must register with the EU as a third country company, authorised to export animal products to the EU. They must apply for relevant import licences along with documentary proof of the product's country of origin. And they must apply and pay for costly export health certificates to show that the product meets EU public health standards.

When the shipment is ready, they must notify the relevant EU Border Inspection Post (BIP) in advance of the arrival of the goods. When the goods arrive, they must submit them for veterinary inspection and then, only at that point, after payment for the relevant checks, will the UK exporter receive an import certificate. If the consignment fails the checks, it is either returned or destroyed.

What he doesn't say very clearly is that these products may only enter the EU via a Border Inspection Post, which must be approved by the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office as having the necessary facilities to carry out inspections, to the requisite standard.

And here's the rub. Had he checked with the official list, he would have found that the major port for UK goods into France – the post of Calais – is not a registered BIP. The nearest is Dunkirk, and that only has the capacity for inspecting 5,000 consignments a year - an average of less than 15 per day.

Failing Dunkirk – which invested €2 million in its facilities - the nearest French alternatives are Le Havre or Brest, but it is unlikely that they will have much spare capacity. And to develop the capacity is going to take time and a great deal in capital investment. For a very long time, therefore, it will not be possible to export some types of food product to France.

But not only does Clegg understate the problems, much of what he does say is, in any event, going to be dismissed as a continuation of "project fear". Despite him correctly saying that two years isn't long enough to negotiate a free trade deal, already he has the lunatic fringe dismissing him as "delusional".

Clegg's intervention, therefore, is not terribly helpful. His attachment to the EEA-interim option is seen at a ploy to keep us in the EU, and there are enough stupid people out there who believe the Efta state members of the EEA are in the EU and subject to the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

Since Clegg is also pushing for a parliamentary vote on Article 50, his credentials are coming under further suspicion so, when he argues that a "hard Brexit" will bring turmoil, he simply isn't being believed by the extremists.

Not least, for a man who was quite happy to see our parliamentary democracy undermined by the EU, his latter-day conversion to the need for a greater role for parliament is a little hard to take. Thus, the chances are that the former Lib-Dem leader wouldn't be believed, no matter what he says. His latter-day conversion to the "Norway option" can only do harm.

A better stratagem, of course, would be to push for an attractive end game, swamping the negative of a "hard Brexit" with a positive. That much, though, would be beyond Clegg and his Europhile cohorts, which leaves it up to Mrs May and her Cabinet - turmoil notwithstanding.

Given probably, that there is little support for leaving the Single Market, that may not be as difficult a task as it sounds. Even now, there is everything to play for.

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