Richard North, 21/08/2017  
 


Parading a classic lack of self-awareness, the Sunday Times has published a lament from the minor tele-sleb Neil Oliver, whingeing that he is "now as bored as it is possible to be by the very mention of Brexit".

He cannot, he says, be the only "regular person" who does not understand why it has to be so difficult, so ludicrously incomprehensible. "Maybe", he adds, "I am hopelessly wrong but I firmly believe the vast majority of the citizens of the EU member states must be as bored by it all as I am".

If there is boredom to be had, though, it is in the lacklustre media coverage. Only our media could take the most important and most interesting political events of the century, and turn it into something which the luvvy Oliver could find so boring.

Not least of the reasons why they have managed to achieve this remarkable feat is the predilection for repeating the same limited set of stories, failing to expand its repertoire or deal with the more complex and interesting issues that arise from our quest for Brexit.

So it is that the BBC is running the tiresome zombie idea from Patrick Minford of unilateral free trade. We thus see a rehash of the same tired claims which have been debunked again and again, only to see them re-emerge essentially unchanged.

In true debate, of course, this would not happen. The sequence should be thesis, antithesis and, from that, synthesis as a new position emerges from arguing out the issues. But this isn't the way the Minfords of this world operate. His style is to launch his mad thesis and, when it gets slapped down – as indeed it should – he goes quiet for a while, only then to pop up with exactly the same arguments.

A media which was able to exercise editorial judgement would be wise to this. It would host the debate, see it through to a resolution and use the newly-forged synthesis as the baseline for the next stage in an ongoing debate.

But what we have now is children at the keyboards, with neither wisdom nor corporate memory, controlled in the main by malevolent agenda setters who have their own interests at heart. And for them, each repetition is an opportunity to fill space and to advance the original agenda.

Another wholly undesirable development in the decline of the media is its penchant for ceding its space to government ministers, given over to propaganda (at our expense when it is tucked behind a paywall), where it is immune from critical analysis by virtue of it being editorial content.

A classic example of that is also in the Sunday Times this week, a scurrilous article from David Davis, exploiting the criticism-free opportunity to spin the government's case on the Brexit negotiations.  Of particular concern to Mr Davis is the UK's argument that talks around our withdrawal cannot be treated in isolation from the future partnership we want. In his view, "many questions around our withdrawal are inextricably linked to our future relationship".

"Nowhere", he says, "is that point truer than on the question of Northern Ireland. It is simply not possible to reach a near-final agreement on the border issue until we've begun to talk about how our broader future customs arrangement will work".

Furthermore, he adds, "if we get the comprehensive free trade agreement we're seeking as part of our future partnership, solutions in Northern Ireland are easier to deliver". Therefore, he asserts, there is "real value" in discussing a few issues upfront.

Although our chief negotiator might have a point, he is paying the price for Mrs May's failure to set out our position when she invoked Article 50. Had the position papers we've seen recently been attached to the papers sent to Brussels in March, the tenor of the current negotiations might be very different.

However, what he clearly doesn't yet seem to have understood is that, even with a free trade agreement with the EU – as deep and as comprehensive as you like – the UK still takes on the status of a "third country" and border checks will apply between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

On that basis, fixing in advance the idea that we will be seeking a free trade agreement does absolutely nothing to resolve the border question. Essentially, if the UK is determined to work from outside the Single Market, it needs to agree a special political status for Northern Ireland which allows for free movement to and from the province.

Possibly, what we could be looking at something like declaring the whole of Ireland a single administrative area for customs and immigration. At the moment, Ireland effectively acts as the UK's external border when dealing with the movement of people under the CTA.

Post-Brexit, the position would have to be reversed, with the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK becoming the "hard" border, in order to allow free movement within the Irish island as a geographical entity.

Such a settlement, on the other hand, is so fraught, especially as the Conservatives are reliant on the DUP for their parliamentary majority, that it has clearly been rejected without even a formal discussion. And to reduce the potential political embarrassment, Davis is now attempting to depoliticise the question by lumping in Northern Ireland with the overall UK settlement.

Even if this sleight of hand has been glossed over by the UK media (and missed by the Irish journals), I doubt it has gone unnoticed in Brussels, where they clearly have a better idea of what is needed to keep the goods flowing.

On the other hand, we can be fairly well assured that we will not be offered a general concession that addresses all our border issues, just to make life easier for the Northern Irish. For the EU's own political reasons, a border deal on the Emerald Isle must be seen to be one of a kind. If it is applicable elsewhere, it creates a precedent. Then the EU will be under pressure to make concessions with its other trading partners, creating undesirable stresses in its wider neighbourhood policy.

Thus, while Davis writes glibly about the UK-EU Brexit talks needing to take a "big leap forward", asserting Britain's readiness to do just that, he is once again looking at the negotiations from a narrow UK perspective. He has not factored in the EU's own "red lines".

Now that he has boxed himself in, Davis is going for broke, and attempting to work the Northern Ireland settlement in with the rest of the UK. If he succeeds, he can kiss goodbye to the idea of an invisible border. With the UK a "third country", the Irish border becomes the EU's external border, and it will have to be policed.

Of course, once Davis - and the UK Government generally – is forced to come to terms with the practicalities, he may well have to rethink his current stance. The land border cannot be effectively policed. The seaports and airports can be. Go figure.

If this is being glossed over by the UK media, though, the growing legion of complications has not entirely evaded the Irish Times. There, Chris Johns writes of the UK's stance being "madness without method". As a matter of EU law, he observes, all of the infrastructure necessary to police this new customs frontier between the EU and the rest of the world would have to be placed on the Irish side of the Border.

"Think about that for a second and appreciate the ironies", he says, "the discomfort and the expense. All of the border checks inside the Republic. Nothing on the UK side".

Somebody in Whitehall, he suggests, "is willing to bet that the Government will put pressure on Brussels to compromise, to do anything to avoid this outcome". He thus asks whether the British have finally discovered some negotiating leverage.

The tack has changed towards minimising the costs by changing as little as possible, giving the world (not just the EU) tariff-free access to the British economy and dumping all of the consequential blame on Brussels. "This could, at a very long stretch", concludes John, "be described as a well thought out strategy but for one simple problem: it's nuts".

If that is the best the Irish can offer by way of analysis, though, they have a long way to go. On the continental mainland, national politicians are at last beginning to appreciate that manning a hard border with the UK has considerable resource implications, while the necessary infrastructure will require huge investments.

There is talk, therefore, of Macron punching numbers into a special, wide-screen version of his calculator, ready to present the UK with a bill that will dwarf the amount expected from Brussels by way of a financial settlement. By the time all the Member States have added theirs (not forgetting that air freight also has to be processed), we are looking at three figures, with a billion attached to it.

With that, Minford and his pals can prattle away all they like about unilateral free trade – with the active and growing support of the Telegraph Muppets, while Davis, in his naïve innocence, believes that the "key question here is how we fairly consider and solve disputes for both sides".

In fact, they are about to get the benefit of a master class in how to stuff Britain. When the complications come, they come in legions, and we haven't even begun to understand how bad it is going to get. For starters, the Slovenian prime minister is indirectly answering Davis's plea, stating that there is no chance of trade talks in the autumn. 

If there is one consolation, though, at least we can assure Mr Oliver that he ain't going to be bored for very much longer. As for us, we never were.






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