Richard North, 18/08/2018  

With nothing else much to report on in the silly season, the media are eagerly awaiting the publication of the Government's "technical notices", which will tell them how "vast parts of public life... would be affected by Britain's crashing out of the EU".

Currently, we have been warned to expect 84 of these papers, covering a range of topics from animal breeding to seafarer certification. And those newspapers which are unable to work out for themselves what they will say (which amounts to all of them) – or read up the details in the European Commission's Notices to Stakeholders - are sniffing round the edges trying to discover the contents.

First out of the traps, or so it would appear, is The Daily Telegraph which needs two of its journalists from its "award winning" pool to tell us that a "No-deal Brexit disruption could turn the M20 into a giant lorry park".

The essence of what these sleuths have found out comes from an "industry source" which has seen the first document. From this we learn something we've known for an awfully long time: that, in the event of a "no deal" Brexit, Operation Brock - which will see half the M20 closed off for a 13-mile stretch - will be a "key part" of contingency plans. One half of the motorway would be used as a lorry park for lorries queuing for Dover and Folkestone, with all traffic squeezed onto the other half.

However, this "technical notice" for the haulage industry also suggests that British lorries could be banned from travelling to the European Union entirely, forcing haulage companies to resort to shipping freight in containers instead. It also states that British drivers may have to apply for international driving permits after Brexit as the EU [Member States] may no longer recognise UK licences.

This, of course, I wrote about in some detail on 17 January 2017. I didn't need the government to tell me, or spend my time sniffing around "industry sources" to discover the contents of as yet unpublished work. All it took was to look up the relevant EU legislation and see what it had to say. But then I'm only a mere blogger, and not one of these clever journalists who get all these awards for copying out what the government tells them.

For those who could not work it out for themselves – which evidently includes the entire UK media – there was a second chance when the European Commission, almost exactly a year after I'd written my stuff, produced its Notice to Stakeholders on "EU rules in the field of road transport".

Needless to say, visiting the unfamiliar territory of a Commission website was obviously far too challenging a task for the average hack – whether award-winning or not. Therefore, the contents have lain almost entirely unregarded for more than six months, awaiting a "leaked government document" which says much the same things.

Then, by some mysterious alchemy known only to the denizens of the fourth estate, that which was already in the public domain - freely available for anyone who wished to consult it – suddenly becomes "news", to be splashed all over the daily papers.

Even now, though – more than 18 months after I wrote it - you can get far more detail from my original blogpost that any newspaper now has on offer. And we've expanded on that detail in multiple posts, ranging from this to this. Thus, blog readers will already be fully aware that a "no deal" Brexit will make it impossible to take a UK-operated lorry into the territories of EU/EEA Member States.

The one thing I didn't cover in my original blogpost was the multilateral quota system managed by the International Transport Forum, from which an allocation is required in order that UK-operated lorries can travel on the roads of EU Member States. But this was mentioned in the Notice to Stakeholders and I picked up more detail here, based on comments from the Freight Transport Association (FTA).

Bluntly, I never took much note of this as a problem. Since UK vehicles can't operate in EU territories anyway, the fact that they can't get permits is largely academic. To withhold them makes about as much difference as shooting a corpse. Like the corpse. the industry is already "dead".

That's not to say that elements of the media haven't been pointing up aspects of the story. They have, witness this report which we covered last March. The prospect of long queues at Dover has become fully lodged in the media consciousness, even if most hacks only have a tenuous grasp of the dynamics which are going to disrupt transport operations.

With or without my input - and the Notice to Stakeholders – there has been enough in the public domain to confirm that there could be serious problems in the event of a "no deal" Brexit. And those who would call in aid "WTO rules" need to know that international transport does not come within the purview of the World Trade Organisation. They will get no help from this quarter.

Yet, over the last few days, we have seen a torrent of media coverage, supporting the so-called "WTO Option", culminating in a recent piece from Iain Duncan Smith in the Telegraph, denying that there will be any problems.

Looking candidly at the issues, even if it was accepted that the EU might be prepared to entertain a series of "mini-deal" after Brexit day – in the event of a "no deal" exit, the range of issues to be covered is daunting. Apart from drivers' licenses, there is the certificate of professional competence issues, road transport operators' licenses and the rules on cabotage.

There is then the vexed question of whether the UK can secure a ruling from the Commission on electronic data "adequacy", before data can be shared on the European Registers of Road Transport Undertakings. Without access to that, enforcement would be near-impossible, with UK and continental authorities having to revert to paper-based systems.

Not least, that will make for considerable problems on the mutual recognition of insurance, the mutual recognition of MOT test certificates and cross-border enforcement of drivers' hours under the Working Time Directive.

Bearing in mind that these issues cannot be discussed in detail until after the UK has left the EU, it is hardly realistic to suggest that a road transport agreement will be easy or quick to conclude. Before arrangements are in place, there is bound to be a period when UK lorries (and drivers) are excluded from the roads of EU/EEA members.

All this necessarily means that the "no deal" rhetoric about frictionless trade continuing is entirely baseless, and demonstrably so – with ease. Yet, with their inability to resort to well-sourced detail, those media which have even attempted to debunk the "WTO Option" have made a poor fist of it.

Even today, we have an editorial in the Guardian which stridently declares that "the WTO is not a safety net". But the case made is weak, with the paper asking why no other developed country is content trading on WTO rules alone, when it should have been noting that there is no developed country in the world which actually relies on WTO rules alone.

However, at least with the publication of the government's "technical notices", the babies in the media can be spoon-fed with doses of reality which are largely incontestable. With their hands held all the way, even the meanest of the journalists can be led gently through the thicket and shown that "no deal" is in fact the suicide option.

The great pity of it is that these technical notices weren't published before Mrs May gave her Lancaster House speech on 17 January 2017, cementing in as government policy the view that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain".

Then, the media babies were happy to suck up this dangerous absurdity but now they are being asked to graduate to solids. Chewing on the ideas in 84 technical notices, we may yet see a transformation of the debate, fuelled for once by hard, unarguable information that even "award winning" journalists can understand without getting nose-bleeds.

But if they want a quick preview (dangerous though it might be for them to read a mere blog), all they have to do is look here, where we have been patiently amassing the detail that they are now seeking. As always though, I rather feel that we will remain invisible while the babies wait to be spoon-fed from mummy - to the applause of their infantile readers.

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