Richard North, 05/04/2018  

Exercising steely self-discipline, I am leaving the government's handling of the Salisbury poisoning and returning to our normal beat.

There are, in fact, multiple issues demanding attention, but the one of greatest immediate interest is yesterday's report from the House of Commons Committee on Exiting the European Union. This is entitled, "The future UK-EU relationship", produced under the chairmanship of Hilary Benn. It should be noted also that Jacob Rees-Mogg is a member of this committee.

The subject matters is an exploration of six possible relationships (or combinations). Listed are Canada's Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (CETA), the Ukraine Association Agreement, the Swiss agreements, the EEA Agreement with Norway, the Customs Union with Turkey and, finally, what amounts to a non-relationship, the WTO option.

In producing its report, the committee is doing something we did in Flexcit more than four years ago and has been done by sundry pundits before and since. It is quite remarkable that the committee thus felt it necessary to repeat the exercise, and even more remarkable that there is any need for it.

Nonetheless, such has been the noise level and the amount of misinformation around the subject that such a report is indeed a necessary corrective – albeit that the recent track record of select committees on exploring and reporting of Brexit-related issues has been less than stellar.

As to whether the committee is even capable of such an undertaking is debatable, to the extent that one is reminded of Samuel Johnson's comment after being told by Boswell that he had been at a meeting of the people called Quakers, where he had heard a woman preach. Johnson had replied: "Sir, a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all".

With that, we see the committee setting fifteen "key tests" by which any deal agreed should be judged. These are quite lengthy, with just the summary running over the page, but including certain predictable issues.

First and foremost, the committee wants the Irish border to remain open, with no physical infrastructure or any related checks and controls. It wants to maintain existing levels of cross-border co-operation on crime and terrorism, retaining involvement with Europol and the European Arrest Warrant and continuing to participate in the EU’s information-sharing systems. It then wants institutional and decision-making frameworks which enable the UK fully to participate in foreign and security co-operation.

As one might expect, it wants there to be no tariffs on trade between the UK and the trade in goods must continue to be conducted with no additional border rules or rules of origin checks "that would delay the delivery of perishable or time-sensitive deliveries or impede the operation of cross-border supply chains". Furthermore, there must be no additional costs to businesses that trade in goods or services. However, the UK must seek to maintain convergence with EU regulations in all relevant areas in order to maximise access to European markets.

Next, UK providers of financial and broadcasting services must be able to continue to sell their products into EU markets as at present, UK providers of financial and other services should be able to retain automatically, or with minimal additional administration, their rights of establishment in the EU, and vice versa, where possible on the basis of mutual recognition of regulatory standards.

There must be no impediments to the free flow of data between the UK and the EU; any new immigration arrangements set up between the UK and the EU must not act as an impediment to the movement of workers providing services across borders or to the recognition of their qualifications and their right to practise.

The committees also wants the UK to continue participation in the European Medicines Agency, the European Aviation Safety Agency, the European Chemicals Agency and in other agencies where there is a benefit to continuing co-operation.

The UK must also continue to participate in the Horizon 2020 programme, the Erasmus+ scheme, the Galileo project and in other space and research programmes in order to support the work of our world-class academic institutions and the importance of cultural and educational exchange between the UK and the EU 27.

And then, we are told, the UK must continue to participate in all relevant air safety agreements and the Open Skies Agreement to ensure no disruption to the existing level of direct flights. Finally, the UK Government must ensure maximum access to European markets while agreeing reciprocal access to waters and a fairer allocation of fishing opportunities for the UK fishing industry.

Exploring all these issues, however, one has to conclude that they are entirely unrealistic. There is no chance at all that the EU would agree to all these things, short of us actually remaining in the EU. This is seriously in unicorn grooming territory.

The saving grace to the report, though is that the committee recommends that, if these "key tests" are not met, and the negotiations on a "deep and special partnership" are, therefore, not successful, Efta/EEA membership remains an alternative and would have the advantage of continuity of access for UK services.

What, effectively, the committee is saying is that the UK should pursue the Efta/EEA option – even though it does not come out any say so, outright.

Nevertheless, this was enough to divide the committee, with Rees-Mogg and other "ultras" on the committee voted against the report. They were defeated by ten votes to six, leading to Mogg complaining that: "The High Priests of Remain on the select committee voted through another report seeking to thwart Brexit by stealth".

This brought a sharp rebuke from fellow committee member, Stephen Kinnock, expressing himself "baffled" as to why Mogg should respond thus, when there was "absolutely nothing in this report advocating that the UK should remain in the EU". His comments, said Kinnock, "are divisive and puerile".

And welcome though this all is, the committee have fudged the issue on Article 112 of the EEA Agreement, wrongly arguing only that it "could provide a route for the UK to operate a temporary emergency brake on free movement". This undoubtedly reflects the poor standard of witness giving evidence to the committee and the inability of MPs to avail themselves of other sources.

Rather than use these provisions, they would prefer the more permanent way of dealing with freedom of movement issues by amending Article 28, notwithstanding that this does not provide for a unilateral resolution.

Doubtless unwittingly, through this the MPs underline an essential discontinuity in their own report, when they argue that "the EEA option is available off-the-shelf and could be negotiated relatively quickly". This short sentence really does show that, at heart, they don't understand what the EEA Agreement is all about, comprising as it does, what amount to three individually negotiated and tailored agreements with the three Efta states.

With the UK's own specific requirements – not least agency participation and the inclusion of provisions on agriculture and fishing – inclusion of the UK in the agreement as an Efta state would require extensive negotiation which would not be a quick process, and more so if freedom of movement was to be tackled by way of treaty change.

Another lacuna, and a major one, is that while recognising that it is dealing with the Efta/EEA option, the committee barely considers what problems might arise should the UK decide that it wants to rejoin Efta. There is a brief passage only from one witness about Norway's view of our joining. Dangerously, one might take from the report that the committee sees rejoining a done deal.

This and other weaknesses in the report (too numerous to deal with in one blogpost) will make it eminently easy for the government to ignore it. It was surprising to see the report done, but it would have been better it if it had been done well. We cannot, therefore, even damn it with faint praise. 

But then, noting MPs' tender sensitivities, it is perhaps better if we do not praise the report at all. After all, we do not want the poor dears fainting with damn praise.

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