Richard North, 20/12/2016  

What annoys me most about the legacy media and the Financial Times in particular is (with one recent exception) their sheer arrogance in behaving as if they are the only toilers in the vineyard. Thus do we see Gideon Rachman in the FT today, writing on Brexit that, in additional to a "hard" or "soft" Brexit, there is a third possibility that is little discussed but increasingly likely: a "train-crash Brexit".

In this version of events, writes Rachman, the UK and the EU fail to agree a negotiated divorce. Instead, Britain simply crashes out of the EU - with chaotic consequences for trade and diplomatic relations.

Yet, although this may just have occurred to this self-regarding person, we were writing about the possibility back in July under the title: "an accidental crisis". And we've written about this possibility many times since.

What Rachman illustrates, therefore, is not his knowledge and perception, but his self-induced ignorance arising from the insistence of his breed to stay within their respective bubbles, refusing to venture out and take on board information does not come from "approved" sources.

It is not that they do not know of sources such as – social media long ago broke into their bubble and made them aware of this and other dissident sources. It is that they wilfully refuse to accept anything that we write about, preferring to stick doggedly to their ignorance and errors.

Another example is the ever-pompous Nick Robinson, spreading his intellectual flatulence over the Today programme as he tries, and laughably fails, to get to grips with the notion of a customs union.

The idiocy starts when he speaks to Andrew Cahn, the former chief executive of UK Trade and Investment. Robinson hears Cahn tell us that "the problem is that Britain exports 45 percent of its total exports to the European Union. We have to have some arrangement with the European Union after 2019 about how we export and we need a free trade agreement. But that can't be negotiated by 2019 so we need some access to the European market.

At this point, Robinson interjects saying: "If we didn't, we could go back to the days before the Single Market of queues at borders", interestingly referring to the Single Market rather than the customs union.

Cahn obligingly chips in, agreeing that we can, referring to the Indo-Pakistan border, where lorries have to wait "five or six days" to get across. Cahn concedes that this would not happen for us, but "waiting some hours and having voluminous paperwork to fill in" is exactly what could happen if you're not in the customs union".

So here we have the classic confusion between customs cooperation and a customs union. But, far from correcting the error, Robinson blathers on, asking Cahn: "So the idea of a customs union, which means basically that any of your goods – or the goods that you agree to have in, at least – can cross borders without these customs checks, that on the face of it sounds like a good isn't it?"

Now we have the ignorance leading the terminally stupid (or vice versa), as Cahn declares: "Well I think it is a good thing but you have to abide by all the rules and regulations of Brussels. That's what Turkey does. It accepts all the industrial standards that Brussels sets now and in the future, without having any say in them and it abides by the rulings of the European Court of Justice as they apply to these standards".

Robinson now hares off down a different path, asking whether we could do this for some sectors but not for others, only to be told that this would probably not be WTO compliant and, in any case, the EU would probably not allow us to cherry-pick.

The appeal, though, says Robinson is that "it gives you the advantages of being inside the Single Market but, of course, if you wanted to leave the EU, it's got many of the disadvantages too". Here, therefore, we have him eliding the terms "single market" and "customs union", confusing the two and not really understanding what either means.

Way back in August of last year, I wrote a piece called "naming of parts", pointing out the importance of getting the terminology right. Sloppy use of vocabulary leads to confusion and muddle, I said. And that is what is happening now.

The problem is you cannot tell people like Robinson that they've got it wrong. Like contemporary politicians, they erect barriers around themselves which prevent us mere mortals reaching them. But, most of all, they erect intellectual barriers which filter out unwanted material and ensure they never learn from their mistakes.

In making his mistake, however, what Robinson cannot have known – as it was published after his programme was aired – was that the House of Commons Library has produced a "Brexit glossary", repeating the very same mistake.

In defining a customs union, it tells us: "The common external tariff allows trade between members of the customs union to take place by removing costly, complex and time-consuming customs controls on trade between its members".

Apart from our Monograph 16, can they really be unaware of the border situation between EU Members Greece and Bulgaria, and neighbouring Turkey, with which they share membership of a customs union? 

At the top of this page is a photograph of the border post at Ipsala, in Greece. Are these and the many other border posts with Turkey – and the attendant checks – a figment of our imagination? Below is a picture of the Kapıkule Border Gate in Turkey where, as recently as last October, more than 1,000 trucks were waiting for days to cross through to access European markets via Bulgaria - and not by any means for the first time. Is that my imagination?

Nevertheless, the prestige of the House of Commons Library is such that we will now, most likely, see the error locked into the Westminster bubble: customs union equals no border checks - it must be true, the HoC Library says so. And once locked in place, it will probably be impossible to remove it. There is no more impenetrable a barrier than the certainty that comes with accepting information from a "prestige" source.

Another person who apparently surrounds himself with an impenetrable barrier – albeit of a different kind - is Brexit secretary David Davis. Civil servants are said to brief visitors as to what they can and cannot say, requiring them to be upbeat and positive. Anyone telling him of the difficulties in securing Brexit finds their meeting cut short.

Certainly, Mr Davis hasn't mastered the terminology, and thus displays his own brand of confusion and muddle. In his recent talk to the Brexit select committee, he was confronted by Emma Reynolds, who challenged him on CETA, the duration of the negotiations, and the time taken to ratify it.

This, in Davis's view, was "the Walloon problem". But, he said, a large part of the negotiating phase is over the whole question of common standards. "On the last day of our membership of the European Union we have identical product standards and service standards, and so on, to the European Union. We have perfect mutual recognition for most areas".

Not only was that bit "instantly resolved", it meant that the other element of most international agreements, the "entry-into-force period" will not be a problem. There is no time lag between harmonisation EU and UK standards.

Unwittingly, though, Davis had confused two terms: "mutual recognition" and "regulatory convergence". On the last day of our membership of the European Union, the latter may well apply but whether we have "mutual recognition" remains to be seen. The degree to which that is achieved - not only in terms of standards, but in terms of conformity assessment – will depend on the outcome of negotiations.

Davis's failure to understand that is a serious fault. He talks in terms of the "Great Repeal Bill" being the great continuity bill, but he does not appreciate – stemming from the misuse of the term – that "mutual recognition" cannot be adopted unilaterally. By definition, it requires agreement between parties.

But the even greater lacuna is Davis's focus on standards. In an earlier post, we identified over 300 identified components in a modern, comprehensive free trade deal, of which agreeing common standards is but one.

The point we made in Flexcit, though, is that there are so many issues to agree, outside the trade framework, that it was best to "park" that issue, by adopting the EEA template, in order enable a full discussion and agreement on the rest – not least, the financial settlement.

Sadly, these errors cannot prevail. Once they are exposed to reality, they will be stripped away – but most likely too late for credible alternatives to be devised. More than anything, Brexit seems to have the almost magical property of turning the brains of politicians and journalists into mush

And it is that which threatens an accidental or "train-wreck" Brexit. With such profound and extensive ignorance driving the agenda, the risks are higher now than they ever have been.

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