Richard North, 03/06/2018  

Evidence that the Sunday Telegraph subs don't actually read (or understand) the Booker column comes with the photograph accompanying today's column or – to be precise – the caption.

The picture shows the Antares, a Lerwick-based pelagic trawler, but the caption reads, "Fishermen will be unable to export their catch to the Continent while it is still fresh", thereby completely missing the point of the article.

Come Brexit day on 29 March, unless we have a cast-iron transition agreement (which looks increasingly unlikely), it won't be just a question of getting their catch to the Continent "while is still fresh". For while at least, fishermen will be unable to export at all.

The point that Booker is making in his column is one which is familiar to readers of this blog. This is simply that the EU has not sought to hide how it will treat us outside the single market, having published its "Notice to Stakeholders" series, published by the European Commission.

Says Booker, nothing could better expose the hollow unreality of our Brexit debate than this series of documents which, he suspects, few British politicians have ever read (and even fewer journalists).

Acquainting those who are not familiar with the series, he tells us that there are 63 documents (now 64), which clearly set out the legal consequences of our decision to leave not just the EU itself but also the wider European Economic Area (EEA).

There is a standard format to each document. They open with a paragraph explaining that Brexit will legally make us what the EU terms a "third country" – not a "third world country", which some people get confused with.

In assuming this status, we are choosing voluntarily to step completely outside the vastly complex framework of laws that currently authorise us to operate freely within the single market: even down to those that allow us to drive on the continent or legally authorise our aircraft to fly.

What is particularly striking about this is that, last Tuesday, there was a BBC Radio Four Today programme in which a number of fishermen were interviewed. They had in common businesses which depend wholly on being able to export langoustines and mussels to the Continent, a trade which demands that their live catches have to be trucked to their customers without any delays via the Channel ports.

According to the programme, these fishermen have now awoken to what one called the "existential" threat of time-consuming new border controls, which will make this impossible. As one Scotsman said, "you can actually taste the fear, see the fear in their eyes" as the fishermen realise that this will put them out of business.

The thing is, though, neither they nor the BBC knew the half of it. Had they read the Notice to Stakeholders on "food law ", they would see that exports to the EU of any "food of animal origin" from a "third country" are "prohibited unless certain requirements are met".

Under what are known as the "official controls" (in Regulation (EC) No 882/2004) – which also apply to fish, fishery products, bivalve molluscs, etc. – there are specific rules of considerable complexity.

Would that the fishermen knew it, these don't just include those fatally time-consuming border inspections (which include the goods having to be presented for inspection at Border Inspection Posts). The first condition is that a "third country" must be "listed" by the EU as eligible, via a laborious procedure which can last six months or longer, which cannot even be initiated until after we have left the EU.

In the case of fish and fishery products, unless the exporting "third country" is included in the list established under Commission Decision 2006/766/EC, they will – as the Notice to Stakeholders so succinctly puts it - the importation from the United Kingdom into the EU-27 "is prohibited".

For some fishermen, however, there is what might be considered a loophole, applicable to fish landed at EU Member State ports directly from the boats which caught them. To these, the "official controls" do not apply.

However, by reference to another Notice to Stakeholders, which deals specifically with EU rules on fisheries and aquiculture, we see that they are still caught in a raft of other laws.

These, I examined in April of this year, whence the effect of Brexit is severely to disrupt fishing in UK waters, preventing either boats flagged under EU Member States, or UK-flagged boats, from landing catches directly in ports in EU Member State territories.

Specifically, catches in UK waters (and, indeed, exports from the UK) are caught by Article 20 of Regulation (EC) No 1005/2008, which sets out requirements which must be satisfied before fish can be landed in EU ports or exported to EU Member States.

These requirements cannot be met without detailed agreements between the Commission and the UK. What this amounts to is that, before we are able to sell our fish to the Continent, we will have to agree a fisheries management plan with the Commission.

Within this context, certification of all catches in accordance with Article 20 is required. The means that the fisheries must be formally validated by the United Kingdom "competent authority" and must also conform with a certification scheme which must be agreed between the Commission and the UK government.

But this is by no means the full extent of the problems which the Scottish exporters face. As set out in another Notice to Stakeholders - this one on EU rules in the field of road transport – we see how our entire transport licensing system now depends on EU law.

The moment we leave, UK drivers will only be able to take their cars, trucks and coaches into the EU with an International Driving Permit (and for truck and coach drivers much else besides).

There is no way, writes Booker, that a mountain of such technical problems can be resolved by March, and this would still be virtually impossible within a further 21-month "transition period". But even for this to be available, as the EU repeatedly emphasises, is conditional on an agreed way to preserve a "frictionless" border in Ireland.

With both British suggestions for this proving equally unworkable, the latest fashionable idea is that we should go for a "Swiss option", based on the fantasy that the Swiss-EU border is "frictionless". In fact it has more than 100 border posts, with queues at one recently stretching four miles.

We could only possibly retain "frictionless" access to the single market, as Michel Barnier himself explained last week, if Britain went for what he called "the Norway- plus option".

By joining Norway in the European Free Trade Association to remain in the EEA, we would thus be wholly outside the EU and 73 percent of its 21,178 laws, subject only to the 27 percent that would allow us to trade much as we do now. Instead we are putting at risk much of that trade with our largest export market, worth 14 per cent of our GDP.

Booker thus concludes that the Notices to Stakeholders convey a sombre message. Without some dramatic change in thinking, he says, we risk inflicting on ourselves a far greater disaster than most people have yet begun to realise.

And this really is the crunch. After all this time, and despite the open publication of these Notices, perilously few politicians – and even the industries most directly affected – seem aware of the shit-storm that will hit them in the event of us leaving the EU without a cast iron deal.

It really is quite remarkable – to say nothing of dangerous – how pervasive the ignorance is – right down to Booker's own newspaper, which cannot even come to terms with what he is writing.

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