Richard North, 14/03/2017  

Illustrating exactly the stance of the Tory right, the so-called Brexit zealots, we saw yesterday an article from Matt Ridley in The Times.

"Deal or no EU deal, Britain has little to fear", the headline runs, with the sub-heading: "Trade agreement with Brussels can be struck swiftly but a future under World Trade Organisation terms looks bright".

Opening his piece, Ridley complains about the "incessant pessimism" from the political class here, let alone in Brussels, about those two years: it will be fractious, we are not ready to negotiate, a trade agreement is all but impossible, the timetable is too tight, we’re going over a cliff. This, says Ridley, "is mostly wishful thinking by those who want us to fail".

In support of that assertion, he cites a conversation he had last week with Tony Abbott, the former Australian prime minister. When he became prime minister, says Ridley, Mr Abbott did something unusual. Noticing that his country's trade negotiators had spent years meandering towards deals with China, Japan and other countries - enjoying room service in five-star hotels in different cities as they did so - he set them deadlines.

Within six months, we are told, Australia had signed a trade deal with South Korea. Japan took eight months, China 13. There were just 150 people or so involved on the Australian side.

The inference, of course, is that if Australia can conclude such agreements in so short a time, the UK should have no difficulty in concluding a trade agreement in a similar period. In fact, Ridley, later in his piece asserts just that. "UK-EU trade talks could therefore conclude quickly with goodwill", he says.

Making that link, though, demonstrates only on thing: that Ridley is not very good at logic, as he falls for the classic Politician's syllogism: "All cats have four legs. My dog has four legs. Therefore, my dog is a cat". Here we go: "Australia was able quickly to conclude trade deals with South Korea, Japan and China. The EU and the UK need to conclude a trade deal. UK-EU trade talks could therefore conclude quickly with goodwill".

Put that way, the syllogism is blindingly obvious, but clearly not to this towering intellect. And that is without dealing with Ridley's lies.

For instance, if we look closely at the China deal that supposedly took thirteen months, we see that the first round of negotiations began on 23 May 2005 after a joint feasibility study published in March 2005, and then only after Australia had agreed to recognise China's "full market economy status" – something neither the EU nor the US were (or are) prepared to do.

Even then, the negotiations went to 21 rounds before the free trade agreement was signed between the two countries on 17 June 2015. Door-to-door, it took ten years.

Before we go any further, we should note that Ridley has Mr Abbott say that "trade deals are simple - if (shock!) you make them about trade". We are told: "It's only when you make them about standards, regulations, legal disputes and corporate interests that they get difficult".

However, if instead of simply conversing with Tony Abbott last week, the Lord Ridley had devoted a little time to genuine research, and actually read the 163-page China-Australia Agreement, he would have found that, amongst other things, it deals with standards, regulations, legal disputes and corporate interests.

He might also have noted in passing, that this was a complex agreement which included 266-pages of tariff schedules, four annexes and multiple "side letters" which also constitute parts of the agreement.

Included here is the agreement on investor state dispute settlement, and one on the free movement of natural persons, allowing Chinese workers entry into Australia. And, given its complexity, its wide scope and controversial nature, it is unsurprising that it took ten years to conclude.

If Ridley is lying on the China deal, however, it is interesting to see how he fares on the South Korea deal, which he implies took six months. And here we find that the process started with a feasibility study in April 2008. The deal was signed in April 2014 – not six months, but six years after negotiations had started. And, as with the China deal, the scope was considerable.

As for the free trade deal with Japan which Ridley implies took eight months, preliminary discussions started on March 2005 before moving on to a joint study which was published in December 2006. The economic partnership was finally signed in July 2014 – over nine years, door-to-door.

All three of Ridley's claims, therefore, are false – badly askew. Yet, on the basis of his falsehoods, he tells us that, "when you hear the usual Sir Humphreys babbling on to the BBC about how it takes at least seven years to negotiate a trade deal", remember there is another way: Australia "did quick trade deals with China that were about ... trade".

And then, in the ultimate insult, he proclaims that "there seems to be a growing misapprehension that you need trade deals to trade, as if they were licences to trade. America, China and India, with which the EU has no deals, are among its [Australia's] biggest trading partners".

To be blunt, I'm sick of this, the likes of Ridley deliberately distorting the debate, relying on his prestige and privileged access to the media to spread his lies and half-truths, all in pursuit of an agenda that is simply unsupportable.

He and his likes are arguing that we can leave the EU on World Trade Organisation terms, talking merely of WTO tariffs, with no real idea of the consequences, and then coming up with the utter tosh that, "under the WTO's national treatment principle, the EU cannot use non-tariff barriers, such as regulations and standards, to discriminate against British goods and services".

This is so wrong. National treatment principles apply only after products have entered the market. There is nothing to stop the EU applying its already existing barriers to regulate access to its markets, which is precisely what it will do.

We know exactly where Ridley's little gem came from, snake-oil salesman Shanker Singham, who is exercising a Rasputin-like grip over the feeble-minded Tory right, filling their heads with his nonsense under the benevolent gaze of Steve Baker, his ever-gullible sponsor.

Like Ridley, he is so superior to us mere mortals that he doesn't consider it necessary to check his facts. These people are allowed to produce any amount of trash and their fans still come back for more. But it's time it stopped. Ridley and his ghastly allies should be put out to grass, and the debate should be re-focussed on the real world – not the one the Tory right are inventing for themselves on their foundation of lies.

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