Richard North, 17/01/2018  

It is heartening to see Lost Leonardo pursuing a theme similar to this blog on the inadequacies of the media and our politicians.

Referring to the Peston interview which we noted briefly yesterday, he records that we have the leader of the opposition and the lead journalist on one of Britain's leading Sunday news programmes talking "total toilet" about the most important political issue facing the country.

This, says Lost Leonardo, is not a failure to understand arcane technicalities, these are the basics, and Britain's political class, even after 18 months, has apparently failed to grasp any of them. "I'm not sure", he concludes, "how it is possible to be this out of touch".

Although it is a constant theme of this blog, the inadequacies of our political and media classes cannot be overstated. They go to the heart of our democracy and impact on the legitimacy of the entire political process.

If our politicians simply don’t know what they are doing, and the media are incapable of explaining what is happening with any deal of coherence, then the fundamental building blocks of our society are missing. It really is that bad, and therefore warrants our constant attention.

One of the most serious failures of the political process, amplified so readily by the media, is the continued presence of Alexander (aka Boris) Johnson and, in this instance, his readiness to repeat the "side of the bus" lie and even add to it.

According to this ghastly man, the UK's weekly gross contribution to the EU would rise to £438 million by the end of a post-Brexit transition period – still picking on the gross payment as the source of his putative largesse.

Even then, Johnson admits that not all the money would go to the health service. "As and when the cash becomes available – and it won’t until we leave – the NHS should be at the very top of the list", he says. This left the shadow Brexit minister, Matthew Pennycook, to state the obvious, that Johnson had no shame after parading a "bogus claim" during the referendum and now inflating it.

On the other hand, we get endless attempts to quantify the costs of Brexit, the latest one coming from Oxford Economics. This time this organisation is suggesting that the UK would still be the biggest loser from crashing out of the EU without a new trade deal – with a cost to the economy of £125 billion by 2020.

It is asserted that the EU would also suffer a "big economic hit" and although the estimated effect on the UK economy is not so very different from our own, the truth is that no one really knows what will happen – even to the extent of being within the same order of magnitude.

Everything in this context depends initially on the nature of the transition period agreed between the UK and the EU – and its duration. And about that, very little is being said – a staggering omission when the importance and the potential impact is considered.

What tends to happen in such instances, when something really important looms, is that the media come late to the party and, invariably, get it wrong. Having devoted so little time to the issues before the event, its people rarely have the depth of knowledge or the grasp of the issues to do the matters justice, whence we get the turgid sludge that is so often our fare.

Yesterday, though, we did get a mention of the transition period from the Financial Times with a front-page story suggesting that Brussels was going to take an even harder stance than had so far been suggested – although it is difficult to see how much more rigorous their approach could be, or whether it could add to the 20 December Commission proposals.

However, according to the FT, referring to as yet unseen revised "directives" drawn up by EU member states for Michel Barnier, the talks have been complicated by demanding that Britain abide by stricter terms on immigration, external trade agreements and fishing rights for the entire transition period.

Apparently, these include extending free movement rights and a special status to all EU citizens arriving before the final day of the transition at the end of 2020. They will also require British ministers to seek "authorisation" from Brussels in order to continue benefiting from EU trade deals that it would otherwise fall out of on Brexit day.

On the immigration issue, the FT is asserting that the changes are being made at the behest of Poland and other central and eastern European countries, and will limit the UK's ability to apply a new immigration system to EU nationals arriving during the transition.

Highlighting what is likely to become one of the hardest parts of the negotiation, the text also clarifies rules for setting fishing quotas. Diplomats said the language aimed to underline that Britain's share of catches in UK waters - fixed for decades under the "relative stability" quota arrangement - was not open to negotiation.

This was something we reported on recently when it appeared in the Guardian and now it seems that there will not be a special procedure to negotiate the total allowable catch in British waters. Instead, EU Member States want to restrict discussions to "specific consultations" which remain "in full respect" of EU law. The UK will only be invited to attend regulatory committees "exceptionally on a case-by-case basis".

Then, to rub salt in the wound, the Member States add language making clear that the legal effect of EU law will be the same on Britain as any other EU Member State. This will mean that the direct effect and primacy of union law should be preserved.

That, we had expected. The essence of the transition already proposed is that of the status quo where we remain bound to the EU acquis for the duration. This is the only way, short of the Efta/EEA option that we can retain full access to the markets of the EU Member States. And if we go this way, the immediate financial penalties should be minimised.

Since, under current proposals, the transitional period does not end until the end of December 2020, only in the extreme circumstances of the talks collapsing before that could we see the worst projections of Oxford Economics come to pass. Such doomsday scenarios now seem to be redundant.

It would make more sense, therefore, for the focus to be entirely on the progress of the transition proposals. So far, we have not seen any formal response from the UK government and the response in general has been so muted that we keep having to pinch ourselves to remind that the proposals have been issued.

Possibly, because the directives are subject to a near-constant process of revision up until they are approved, and they could well change again before a key meeting of the General Affairs Council on 29 January, at which they are expected to receive final sign off, the media and politicians are not taking them entirely seriously.

Thus, the only high-profile politician who seems prepared to put himself in harm's way at the moment is Jacob Rees-Mogg. He is to lead the notorious European Research Group, replacing Suella Fernandes who has been appointed junior minister in MinBrex.

Mogg has been one of the few "ultras" to make fuss of the so-called "vassal state" transition proposals, raising questions as to why the Tory right is being so quiet about something which, on the face of it, goes against everything they value in Brexit.

If you Google for "Brexit" and "transition", though, very little shows up, apart from Mogg complaining that accepting the EU's proposals would mean that the UK was remaining in the EU for a further two years. That, he says, is not government policy, adding that "free movement ought to end in March 2019 not two years later".

For many years we got used to the idea that the EU was something that UK politicians didn't talk about, creating an elephant in the room of mammoth proportions. It's replacement now, however, seems to be the transition period. And if only Rees-Mogg and a limited band of his supporters is prepared to talk about it, we are really in trouble.

Come the 29 January, we will see whether the "elephant in transition" is taken seriously. One hopes it will be. The entire Brexit process is going to be shaped by it.

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