Richard North, 11/06/2017  

Have voters rescued us from crazy hard-Brexit, asks Booker in today's column, retailing his son Nick's view that the British people have somehow managed to steer a safe path between Corbyn's suicidal economic illiteracy and Mrs May's hard Brexit.

The effect, which for many was an unforeseen outcome, has effectively been to relegate Mrs May's "no deal" strategy to the dustbin of history. But, inasmuch as a walk-away (in anticipation of the "colleagues" rushing after the UK delegation to offer a better deal) was probably a central part of her strategy, that may have left our "isolated and friendless" Prime Minister completely without a strategy.

As for Booker, he reflects that, for months now, he has been in the oddest position of his political life. In all the 25 years that he has been writing in The Sunday Telegraph about Britain's relations with the European Union, he has learnt two things.

One, which he was arguing long before it was remotely fashionable, was that one day, for every kind of good reason, we would have to leave the EU, which was doing more damage to Britain than most people had realised.

But the other, which he came to see ever more clearly the more he came to understand how the EU works, was that to extricate ourselves would be fiendishly complicated. It could only be sensibly achieved if we were fully wised up to all the dangers we would face if we did not handle it in the right way.

Initially, he was cautiously optimistic through all those months when Mrs May was still telling us that we would remain "within" the European market, which would give us the freedom to continue trading with Europe much as we do now, while so many other complex issues also need to be settled.

But when in January Mrs May delivered her Lancaster House speech, telling us that she was planning to leave not only the Single Market but also the wider European Economic Area (EEA), he (like many of us) was plunged in gloom.

As ever more knowledgeable people have been pointing out, this would inevitably present us with terrifying practical problems, which could so easily have been avoided if she had stuck to what she originally seemed to be promising.

Never did Booker think that he would be lined up with Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator. But he was entirely right to point out that if we leave the EEA – and even more so if we "walk away" without a deal – we would be faced with a horrendous range of new obstacles to our trade.

The real problem, he says, is nothing to do with tariffs. What we have to worry about are those "non-tariff barriers" we would have made inevitable. Trucks piling up at Dover and in Northern Ireland because they would face border controls and inspections.

Exclusion from the system that allows our airliners to fly freely out of UK air space. Exclusion from supply chains that provide 59 percent of components for our successful car industry. Exclusion from many of the arrangements that have helped to make London the financial capital of the world. And much, much else.

It has been spooky how little of this has been openly explained and discussed, most notably in that dismally vapid election campaign. But ever more heavyweight voices have been chipping in – among them the World Bank, the OECD and JP Morgan – to warn of the colossal risks we would be running if we pursued Mrs May's hard Brexit – and, even more so, her threat to walk away without any agreement.

Yet now, with only eight days before those fateful negotiations begin, it is just possible that hard reality has the chance to break in on her hubristic dream. The woman Booker has in Private Eye been calling "Mrs Me" has already had one very unpleasant collision with reality.

But, whether consciously or accidentally, the British people may have given us an opportunity to save our country from another reality that is far, far worse.

Encouragingly, the immediate outcome has been to reactivate interest in the Efta/EEA option, with us seeing Ambrose Evans Pritchard dipping his toe in the water with an entry-level briefing in his Saturday column.

Although nearly a year has passed since the referendum, few journalists have displayed any evidence of improving their knowledge on the nature of the EEA option, largely trotting out the "same old, same old" mantras about losing the ability to control immigration, not having any influence over new laws and having to make contributions to the EU budget.

AEP does, however, make a passing reference to an "emergency brake" in respect of immigration, which suggests that he's actually regressed – choosing to opt for the prestige-laden, yet error-strewn outline from Lord Owen, ignoring the more reliable Flexcit of which he has been fully briefed.

Should the Efta/EEA option lodge this time round, we are going to have to go through the tedious process of watching sundry journalists and politicians attempting to ascend a precipitously steep learning curve – with no help from the academics and think-tanks who have nurtured their own ignorance to quite a staggering degree.

Most likely, the "collective" is probably incapable of acquiring the necessary level of knowledge. Their main handicap is that they are trapped by their insistence of prestigious sources – which are as ill-informed as they – but they will also have to admit that much of what they have been trotting out over the years is wrong. And if there is something the legacy media find very hard to do, it is to admit its own errors.

The thing is that, while the EEA Agreement is a formal treaty, with the same status as an EU treaty, it is very, very different in structure and mode of operation. In the way it treats EU legislation, the Agreement is unique, as indeed its inherent flexibility which affords opportunities to the UK that have scarce been appreciated outside a very small circle of specialists.

As long as the media and the politicians – together with their fellow-travellers in academia and the think-tanks – insist on remaining at key stage one, they will miss the detail that makes the EEA more than just another option into a powerful, all-embracing tool, which could help resolve many of the technical problems confronting the UK's Team Brexit.

Another thing being missed by the collective is any intelligent discussion on the shape of the end game. Not one of the commentariat seems to have understood that, if Efta/EEA is chosen as an intermediate option, simply to buy time to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU, we will be in the absurd position of seeking an end game with puts us in a worst position then the "temporary" expedient.

To agree to the Efta/EEA option without a very clear idea of the end game, therefore, is to risk continued EEA membership becoming permanent – that is for as long as it takes the EU to "reform" the Agreement and turn it into associate membership by any other name.

That, of course, is what makes Flexcit different. And while our solution has attracted its quota of sneers, I have yet to see anyone come up with a lasting solution which offers as many possibilities, and rests on such a firm historical and political base.

This is also why, despite the naysayers and detractors (many of whom have never really understood the plan), Flexcit is still a viable plan and, with the general election result, is about to take on a new lease of life.

And what may give it a further boost is that which has been discussed on the comments of this blog, the suggestion that the media are being by-passed by social media and technico-political blogs such as ourselves.

Certainly, traffic on this blog has doubled since the referendum and the indications are that we are getting as many as 30,000 visitors (hits from unique visitors) on our best days – not that I am going to argue the toss on the finer meaning of net statistics. All I know for sure is that traffic is significantly up.

As for the comment traffic, this speaks for itself. I was rather pleased (and amused) to see not only a record level of well over 1,000 for the election special, but that it was more than double Conservative Home live election blog. What is also encouraging is the high quality of the comment. We are without the rancour which poisons so many other sites.

What this says is that the "conversation" is moving away from reliance on the media. People who really want to be informed have learned that they must go elsewhere, and this blogs prides itself for being in the forefront of Brexit analysis. That it is so obsessively and deliberately ignored by the jaded and increasingly irrelevant legacy media we wear as a badge of honour.

It seems the British people are not only making their views known in elections, but for every day that they are increasingly turning away from the media when they want properly to be informed. One of these days, the politicians will learn to follow.

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