Richard North, 20/09/2017  
 


I wonder if I'm alone in being bored out of my skull with the Foreign Secretary's resignation soap opera. One just wishes he would get on with it, except that he has decided not to resign and is now to accompany the Prime Minister to Florence.

There may be a deeper meaning to that although I've completely lost interest. Only two things of significance have emerged over the last 24 hours. One is that Mrs May is to hold a special Cabinet meeting on Thursday to acquaint her colleagues with the contents of the speech. The other is that she met Donald Tusk at the UN yesterday and the pair agreed to meet in London on Tuesday.

In that latter development, who invited whom to have a discussion may be significant. But we are not given that information. But the fact of the meeting does suggest that Mrs May is not going to stage an immediate walk-away when she goes to Florence – not that we ever thought she would.

On the other hand, the Financial Times has gained information which might indicate that the Prime Minister will be taking a conciliatory approach in her speech.

It is saying that the newly-transferred Oliver Robbins has been in touch with his counterparts in several Member State capitals, offering to fill the post-Brexit EU budget hole with a contribution of at least €20 billion – even if others say this is "pure speculation".

According to the FT, this money is to match the budget deficit that would otherwise arise from the UK's withdrawal, covering the period from 2019 to the end of the MFF period in 2020. But, if that is the case, it does not settle the Reste à liquider commitment and cannot constitute a final financial settlement.

It seems to be the case that the sum on offer will cover a notional UK transition period, evoking a response from an EU diplomat that, although it is something to talk about, "this is not where the landing zone is". Another is said to have remarked that, "transition payments do not cancel the bill".

Despite this, there is a possibility that Mrs May believes the payment will be accepted as a reasonable compromise, upon which basis she will be framing an ultimatum. Nothing so far, including the Tusk meeting, rules this out as the current UK strategy.

That apart, Johnson has managed to drive much of the technical debate on Brexit out of the media – although not entirely. We've seen a concerted effort from the disaster capitalists and their allies to rubbish the EEA option, with Minford talking up what he calls "Canada-plus", arguing for free trade agreements all round, and walking away from the EU if it won't agree to one on our terms.

This has the BBC Newsnight's Chris Cook questioning whether the Government is serious on opting for a no-deal scenario. In the absence of any preparations, he says, the government is not currently behaving like it is plausible.

To that effect, Cook offers "a small list of the stuff in ports we need to have sorted in March 2019 if we are to walk away from a negotiation". This includes buying actual space in ports for immigration officers, customs facilities and sanitary checks to make sure imported food meets whatever standards we set. Dover, he says, should be humming - soon, at least - with bulldozers and cement mixers as we prepare for a new world with an independent customs policy.

Typical of Newsnight, though, which made such a pig's ear of safeguard measures and Liechtenstein, all Cook manages to do is parade the ignorance that pervades his unit. He says there have been estimates of a need for 3,000 to 5,000 extra customs officers to cope with the extra traffic inherit in Brexit, but he does not understand that these and the other things he lists will be required whether we have a deal or not. Even with a free trade agreement, we will still be a "third country", where these requirements will apply.

Not content with messing that up though, Cook demonstrates his further ignorance when he informs us that "Defra will also need to increase staffing and capacity at ports, to allow for the testing of agricultural products and livestock entering the country". We will, he says, "need new border agents. All these people need recruiting and training".

The point here, of course, is that port health functions are mainly discharged by local authorities – although some plant health stuff is done by the Forestry Commission. Defra is not directly involved. But then, you wouldn't expect a BBC staffer actually to know what he's talking about, much less understand how government services work.

At least, though, the man is able to extend his horizons beyond the UK shores as he observes that if our farmers are going to keep selling into Europe, we need west European states to have capacity to perform the checks on our produce - which they currently lack.

Some of that preparation, he adds, "is actually stuff which we might need to do anyway for whenever transition ends", but he fails to recognise that some of that "stuff" has to be done by continental authorities – and will probably be required even during what passes for Mrs May's idea of a transition process, and which will take years to prepare.

Once again, therefore – and at all levels – we're seeing politicians and the media simply failing to grasp the complexities and nuances of Brexit. Such is the state of art, though, that the London chatterati will actually applaud Cook as being well-informed.

Yet another example of this pervasive ignorance is the arrogant Andrew Lilico who on Twitter argues that: "Certain folk like to make themselves seem clever by pretending certain issues are beyond a solution when they're not". Using air routes as an example, he asserts that "most of the world flies planes to and from the EU despite having not FTA (free trade agreement)".

But, he says, "we have special arrangements". And, in Mr Lilico's fog of ignorance, the EU would "find it mutually advantageous to continue those special air route arrangements" or we would "shift to the sort of arrangements most of the world has with the EU". He then presumes that we "can carry on with current arrangements until we've decided on new ones".

We actually dealt with this issue in January but Lilico is far too clever and important to read a mere lowly blog. But had he descended to our level, he would have found that the EU has exclusive competence on airline access deals and has brokered airline agreements in its name, on behalf of all Member States.

Thus, unlike the rest of the world, we do not have our own airline agreements. We have a deal only by virtue of our membership of the EU, being designated a "Community Air Carrier" by virtue of Regulation (EC) 1008/2008. When we leave the EU we drop out of the agreements. Even re-enacting the Regulation via the EU Withdrawal Bill (when passed) will have no effect. We cannot legislate to require the EU to recognise us as a Community Air Carrier.

We will thus have to negotiate entirely new agreements – both with the EU and the rest of the world. There are no "current arrangements" we can carry on with because we will have removed ourselves from their scope by virtue of leaving the EU.

For sure, we can do an access deal with the EU as part of our withdrawal settlement – if we ever get round to negotiating it and do not walk away without a deal. But the rest of the world will have to wait until we have left and have restored our negotiating autonomy.

This is foreign territory to Lilico. One wonders if he's ever read an EU Regulation. But since he hasn't got to grips with the issues, he patronises his audience. So many of them do that: if we don't agree with them, it's because we're not clever like wot they are. It is us who don't understand the issues. That is the proper order of things. The master race cannot be wrong - especially when challenged by mere plebs.

Thus, in his own mind, Lilico invents a scenario where the EU decides to impose a blockade to stop UK airlines flying. And this, he decides, is "silly". And if it's silly, it can't possibly happen. This is absolutely classic. You see a lot of academics doing the same thing. Confronted with something they can't cope with, they brand it as "silly", so justifying their retreat from reality.

But there won't be a blockade. The restrictions will be self-imposed. All airliners must fly in controlled airspace but it is illegal to enter controlled airspace without first filing a flight plan.  Since they do not have guaranteed destinations, as they lack open skies permissions, the airlines cannot file. Without them, they cannot take off - there is no need for a blockade.

All in all, pervading the entire debate are commentators such as Lilico. It's not just that they have no idea what is going to hit us when we leave. They can't even conceptualise the problems. As I have remarked before, they simply do not have the intellectual architecture. It is so beyond their capability to imagine that they are left to construct their own private fantasies which have nothing to do with a reality they can't understand.

But when government too is in the same fog of ignorance, we are in deep trouble. Mrs May needs to know that she can't go to Florence and buy off the "colleagues" with a €20 billion "bribe". Without a full financial settlement, without resolving the Irish question and without dealing with the expats' civil rights, the "colleagues" are not going to budge.

Furthermore, she is not going to be able to sideline the Commission and seek negotiations directly with the Member States, looking to exploit "wedge issues" which will give the UK an advantage. If she thinks that is a worthwhile strategy, she really doesn't know the EU at all.

Thus, Mrs May's fog of ignorance alone is enough to bring us all down. Add the rest and the cause begins to look hopeless.






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