Richard North, 21/07/2017  

One wonders why, when "leading academics" reach out to us mere plebs with their words of wisdom, they feel to need to adopt a report format redolent of a kiddies colouring book, with childish graphics which seem to have no other purpose than to break up the text.

But then, the answer is inherent in the question. As mere plebs, we must be patronised by these "leading academics". They are sending a message that a grown-up format (like A4 pages) must be reserved for genuine grown-ups (like themselves).

So it is that the taxpayer-funded intellectuals based at King's College London , styling themselves as "The UK in a Changing Europe", have deliberated long and hard and offered us 23 pages of a report on the cost of a "no deal" Brexit.

Unit director Anand Menon seems to be the principal author, although he names no less than 20 co-workers who assisted him in the great enterprise, thus averaging close to one page per person for this 23-page report.

Considering the "no deal" scenario was launched by Theresa May in her January Lancaster House speech, some six months ago, no one could thus accuse this talented group of breaking any productivity records. They average approximately three words per person per day.

However, if we had been treated to a study of unparalleled quality, one might have been happy to forego quantity and judge the report as being worth the (considerable) wait. But it would be a very generous (to say nothing of short-sighted) critic who awarded this production any sort of quality mark.

For those who might wonder, this is the reason for the hostility. These people set themselves up as "experts" and, funded out of the public purse, take it upon themselves to be our guides though the Brexit labyrinth. Yet, all they can produce on this vital issue is a tardy, sloppily-written report, patronising in style and language, and criminally shallow in scope. We are being short-changed.

For an example of the patronising style, we are invited to consider what "no deal" actually means, and what might be its consequences. For this, we have to wade through four pages of script, to find a section of immortal prose which advises us that, "there has been an awful lot of ambiguity about whether 'no deal' refers to a cliff-edge Brexit or a chaotic Brexit" – phenomena that have been previously defined.

Eventually, we get to the point where, as one might have guessed, a "no deal" Brexit involves leaving the EU without an agreement on trade or in the "divorce" negotiations. We must truly count ourselves as fortunate that we have this cohort of "leading academics" to explain such things to us.

Yet, when it then comes to explaining what "no deal" might mean, and what its impact might be, we are told that answering these questions requires "a significant amount of speculation". And with that in mind, our "leading academics" tell us that they "do not claim to provide precise answers", and nor do they "attempt to be comprehensive".

These two things are certainly true, but our "leading academics" nevertheless argue that "the stakes are so high that we consider informed speculation to be both necessary and important".

Actually, I would dispute the need for speculation – significant or not. The European Union is a treaty organisation, bound by an extensive and well publicised acquis which sets out in very great and precise detail the nature of its relationships with external actors. In particular, it sets out very clearly how it treats "third countries", which is what the UK becomes, and how we will be required to respond to its rules, in the absence of specific bilateral agreements.

Therefore, rather than speculate, all one has to do is read the rule books. In these, the EU obligingly tells us exactly what a "no deal" scenario looks like.

Here though, our academics indicate the scale of [their] problem – the "sheer range of issues that need to be discussed and the huge amount of technical detail that will need to be sorted out". Specifically, they say, there are "the many thousands of technical regulations which can get in the way of trade in goods and services".

At three words per person per day, you can certainly see the extent of their problem. We'll be in the next millennium before this group could complete any substantial work. And therein lies the problem. The devil is in the detail and these people are not prepared to do detail.

When it comes to their assessments of a "no deal" scenario on trade, therefore, we get told that there would be "considerable legal uncertainty" around "how trade would continue to flow between the UK and the rest of the EU".

One has to surmise at this point that these "leading academics" haven't quite got the hang of this Brexit thingy. When we leave, there will be the UK and there will be the EU – not the UK and the rest of the EU.

This notwithstanding, we are told that, the default position would be that World Trade Organisation rules would apply on trade between the UK and the EU. This means, the "leading academics" assert, "that exports to the EU would be subject to the same customs checks, tariffs and regulatory barriers that the UK and EU currently charge on trade with countries such as the US".

That assertion, of course, is not true – and one would have thought these academics could do better than repeat this lame canard. At last count, the US had 38 trade agreements with the EU, taking its relationship way beyond the minimum level set by WTO agreements. Not least, there is the Mutual Recognition Agreement on Conformity Assessment, together with a primary Customs Agreement and a secondary agreement to intensify and broaden the first.

Without dwelling on this too much, suggesting parity on WTO rules between the US and the UK - in their relationship with the EU – is sloppy, ill-informed work. It's not speculation. It's just misinformation. And with that, the progenitors seriously damage their credibility.

As we move on, though, sloppiness gives way to superficiality which begets a thoroughly distorted view of the post-exit situation. Of the "no deal" scenario, the academics say:
The first impact would be felt at the borders, where in theory all UK exports would have to pass through customs. The practical feasibility of this will vary from port to port – for some busy ports, like Calais, the practicality of this is uncertain. Dover, it is thought, will be particularly badly affected because it lacks the physical space to store all the goods needing to be processed – not to mention managing new immigration checks.
The first thing one has to address here is that there is no "theory" about UK exports having to pass through customs. On Brexit, the UK positions itself outside the EU's external border. Customs controls will necessarily apply.

It cannot be disputed, however, that the first impact of a "no deal" will be felt at the border – specifically, the ports. These include the airports, although these are not mentioned. But the academics argue that, "for some busy ports, like Calais, the practicality of this is uncertain".

This really doesn't go to the heart of the issue. Calais is ill-equipped to handle current traffic and is undergoing a much-needed upgrade. But that will not equip it to undertake the millions of customs checks that will be needed every year, in order to keep the traffic flowing. Uncertainty there may be on the precise scale of the problem, but there can be no doubt that there will be serious disruption.

As for Dover, space is of course an issue, but the real point is that the port is dedicated to ro-ro traffic enabled by the emergence of the Single Market. Take away the Single Market and the port can no longer function.

Interestingly, back in Muppet Land, some would have it that the report is simply an extension of "Project Fear". And that highlights the report's greatest failings – not that it does perpetuate fear. Rather, it seriously understates the problems attendant on a "no deal" scenario. And, for problems those to which reference is made, there is little evidence offered to suggest that we are confronting a crisis – which indeed we are.

In the "understatement" department, we thus get: "Some short-term disruption to trade is likely, over and above that resulting from new trade barriers". The academics then say: "Manufacturers, especially but not only the car industry, which rely on complex cross-border supply chains and 'just-in-time' delivery of parts, would be severely disrupted and would likely be forced to restructure their supply chains".

This really is ludicrously understated. There will be major disruption to trade, some of which will be so damaged that it will probably never recover. And there is an almost certain likelihood that overall trade volumes will be permanently reduced.

The major understatement, though, is in the many omissions. For sure, the report does not claim to be comprehensive but that does not excuse a lack of detail which serves only to diminish the extent of the crisis that "no deal" will bring.

When it was published, I went through the report and looked for the issues which it did not raise, which have been examined on this blog. Not in any particular order, we have the cessation of food exports and the damage to the meat industry, and serious questions over Border Control Post capacity.

It is likely that there will be no resolution of acquired rights in commercial fishing, there will be serious damage to the horseracing industry and a similar level of damage to Formula One in this country.

We will see the British Standards Institute drop out of CENELEC with the UK losing its place at the European standards "table", problems with the recognition of notified bodies. Then there is the export, and overseas installation and servicing of passenger lifts, escalators and the like, which may become impossible. Also, the small but important hazardous area equipment market may be threatened.

Strangely unmentioned in the report is also the chemical industry which, unable to comply with the provision of the REACH regulation, will be savagely hit. And although the report covers the airline industry, there is no mention of air traffic management. The fate of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients is ignored, and the all-important digital market is not considered.

Important issues such as Transport Operators Licenses don't get a look in, the threat to vehicle type approvals goes unnoticed, as do the potential problems with the timber industry and geographical indications. Then, our membership of decentralised agencies takes a hit, our investment in Galileo and other cooperative ventures is threatened.

Turning to the actual report, we see broad headings in relation to trade. These cover agriculture, fisheries, aviation, energy and the environment, pharmaceuticals, immigration and resident citizens, and the economy.

A significant part of the agriculture section is devoted to a discussion on tariff schedules, an issue which lies outside the Article 50 negotiations. These are a matter for the WTO and are not affected by a "no deal" scenario. There is also reference to the continuation of financial support for farmers – again a matter outwith the negotiations.

As to trade in agricultural goods, our academics tell us that the "default scenario" would be that "both tariffs and border checks would be reintroduced between the EU and the UK, slowing the flow of trade and affecting the entire food supply chain".

This is not only wrong, but so wrong as to trivialise what could become a national emergency. With anything up to 40 percent of our food dependent on EU sources (including imported animal feed), major disruption at our ports could lead to interruption of supplies and the very real prospect of food shortages.

Yet, to the question as to whether imported food will disappear from supermarket shelves, we get told that this "seems improbable". Laughably, these "leading academics" assert that "major food retailers will be likely to have contingency plans in place to replace imports from the EU with domestic products and imports from outside the EU". This is childishly absurd.

With that, I'm not prepared to waste readers' time on reviewing the other subjects in detail. But, finding a reference to the chemicals industry tucked into "energy and the environment", I will take a quick look at the "analysis". Chemicals product regulations, we are told, are covered by EU rules:
Without equivalent domestic approvals being put in place, UK exporters would find themselves unable to trade with the EU. It is conceivable they might even struggle to do so internationally should there be no UK registration and authorisation system.
Bluntly, this is appalling misinformation. The authors should be ashamed of themselves. However, the fact that no less than 21 academics have lent their names to this nonsense warns us of a crisis. But this one is not in Brexit. It is in academia.

The issue, of course, under REACH, is that the huge investment by British firms in registering chemicals may no longer be recognised by the EU after Brexit. All the products may have to be laboriously re-registered with the European Environment Agency, at great expense under the aegis of newly-appointed "own representatives".

A new domestic registration and authorisation system is an irrelevance. This will not be recognised by the EU and until products are re-registered with the EU, they cannot be exported to EU member states. With over £20 billion in annual exports at stake, this has the makings of a major crisis, both for the industry and the nation.

Possibly, just possibly, the UK could negotiate a continuance, keeping existing registrations valid until replaced, thus allowing trade to continue. But a "no deal" would lead to an abrupt cessation of exports, with some considerable time elapsing before they could be resumed – if at all, bearing in mind the perturbation multiplier. Continental buyers, forced to find other sources, may not come back to their former British suppliers.

It will say something of Anand Menon and his team, though, that my criticism will have no impact on them at all. Smugly content with their own efforts, they will ignore this blogpost, just as they have the previous posts that have offered far more information, with very much greater accuracy, than they have shown themselves capable.

For these people, though, the report has been a success. It has got their name in the papers, as the (largely) left wing media applaud their efforts and reproduce their punchline, that a "no deal" Brexit would be: "A political mess, a legal morass and an economic disaster".

If I came at this without the background knowledge that I have, and looked anew at this shoddy, badly researched work, the best I could give these "leading academics" is a lukewarm "case not proven". Their "informed speculation" is in fact error-strewn rambling. It is wholly unconvincing. It is also quite obviously partisan – as Lost Leonardo points out.

We can't afford this sort of dross. At this crucial time, when politicians seem to have lost the ability to think rationally (or at all), we need academia at its best, to inform and advise, and to put the record straight.

Instead, we have Anand Menon and his team, a disgrace to the very notion of scholarship. These people should be ashamed of themselves. But the tragedy is that they will go to greater heights on the back of their shoddy work, applauded by unknowing and uncritical audiences.

When the chips are down, Brexit will involve not only political failure but a collapse in academic standards. We get the production of unmitigated dross, where quality was desperately needed. Academia stepped up to the plate, but failed to deliver.

comments powered by Disqus

Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
Buy Now

Log in

Sign THA
Think Defence

The Many, Not the Few