Richard North, 14/09/2018  

If the government had wanted to maximise the publicity for its latest batch of "technical notices" on a "no deal" Brexit, I suppose, it should have marked them "secret" and leaked them to the media. I'm sure the intrepid Faisal Islam would have rushed to "reveal" his treasure, yet more evidence of how brilliantly clever he is.

As it stands, however, the government hasn't done too badly, with the media homing in on the "news" – as the BBC put it – that the "UK driving licence 'may not be valid in EU' after no-deal Brexit".

Never mind that I published this on 14 January 2017 – 20 months ago - based on information gleaned from looking up the relevant EU law. By far the best way to keep a secret is to "reveal" it on Your average hack would prefer to poke out his eyeballs with a bent screwdriver rather than admit he read the blog. They prefer stale news, 20 months old, spoon fed from government releases - unless it's "secret".

Now the current "secrets" are out, real journalists like Andrew Sparrow can write about them. "Ostensibly", he opines, in his afternoon news summary (posted yesterday on the Guardian website), these additional 28 papers "are supposed to show that, although the government does not want or expect to leave the EU with no deal, it could cope".

But, he added, "it may also be the case that ministers would be happy for people to conclude that the documents show how unacceptable this option would be". Sparrow cites as supporting evidence the morning's Today programme where Dominic Raab said that MPs would ultimately have to choose between a Brexit deal modelled on Chequers and a "no deal" exit. Faced with this binary choice, he expected the potential Tory rebels to swallow their reservations and embrace Chequers.

Personally, I don't entirely buy the first theory. Digging into the detail of the notices produced to date, it is easy to paint multiple scenarios that the government simply could not mitigate. How, for instance, do you deal with the cancellation of "mutual recognition" rights on the export of goods to the EU?

On the other hand, if the government really wanted to spook potential rebels, it is doing a seriously bad job. If one takes the driving document, for instance, its main thrust is to advise readers that, after March 2019: "Your driving licence may no longer be valid by itself when driving in the EU". If there is no deal, "you may need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) to drive in the EU".

Bluntly, though, the fact that large number of private motorists may have to acquire IDPs before venturing into the EU Member States is the least of our problems, when EU Member States no longer recognise our driving licenses.

By far the bigger problem is the commercial sector. As I wrote in my piece 20 months ago, truck and coach drivers will no longer be able to demonstrate that they have undergone the additional "periodic training" required under EU rules, because the "certificates of professional competence" (CPC) issued by the UK authorities will no longer be considered valid in EU Member State territories.

Furthermore, before most commercial vehicles can be used on the roads, the firms (or individuals) running them must have an operator's license, granted in accordance with Regulation 1071/2009/EC. After Brexit, UK-issued licences will go the same way as the CPC – worthless for operation on EU Member State roads.

The upshot of this is that no UK licensed commercial driver (in the band of vehicles covered) will be able to drive outside the UK, and no UK registered trucks can be taken into mainland Europe or be allowed to cross the Northern Ireland border.

Obviously, the practical and economic consequences of this are immense. But there is no refence to the problems in the government's technical notice, and not a single hack in the popular media has had the wit to make up for the omissions.

The Times attempts to up the "scare" quotient, writing that, despite their "neutral tone", the notices "do not mask the profound effect such a scenario would have on everyone living in Britain - and arguably the continent as well".

"From selling a car, to getting on a plane to Paris, to buying or selling any kind of good or service, life will not be the same in a very profound way", the paper says, going on to give a brief summary of some of the notices.

If from the 28, however, I was to pick the issue which had the potential to cause the greatest economic harm to the UK, I would perhaps go for the notice headed: "Trading under the mutual recognition principle if there's no Brexit deal". Yet, such is the determination of The Times to bring home the effect of a "no deal" exit that it doesn't even mention this notice.

The issue is important in several respects, but not least because mutual recognition of standards is one of the favoured components of a post-Brexit free trade deal between the UK and the EU.

The principle itself applies to manufactured goods traded in the EU's internal market. Where no harmonised standard exists, goods can circulate under the mutual recognition principle. This prevents EU Member States prohibiting the sale of goods that have already been legally sold in another EU State - even where there are different national requirements covering the same good.

As an example, the government's notice states that a bicycle made to comply with French national requirements and sold in France can then lawfully be marketed in other EU countries – even though those countries may have different national requirements for bicycles.

It is difficult to get data on the scale of application of the principle, but I have seen figures which suggest that anything from 20-50 percent of all manufactured goods traded in the internal market rely on mutual recognition.

When, after Brexit, UK exporters are no longer able to invoke mutual recognition, their products will have to conform with local standards. A bicycle manufactured in Britain intended for sale in Germany, will have to comply with any relevant German law. If it is shipped to France, it will have to comply with French law; in Italy, Italian laws will apply – and so on.

Theoretically, this could apply to as much as 50 percent of UK manufactured goods intended for export to EU customers. And, in businesses where economies of scale so often dictate whether a product is price-competitive, the costs of producing to multiple, different standards could be crippling.

That much would be known to only a very few specialists and, for the peril to register with the average hack, the government would have to spell out the implications, where possibly exports worth billions of pounds are potentially at risk. Noticeably, such detail is absent from the government document.

Regardless of the government's actual intentions, though, the media just cannot help itself when writing about regulation – obsessively trivialising it by labelling it "red tape". This is how the Mirror treats the subject of vehicle (and component) type approval, which is addressed in other technical notice.

"British carmakers and firms supplying car parts from the UK would face more red tape to sell their vehicles and components on the continent" as "EC type-approvals issued outside of the UK, would no longer be automatically accepted on the UK market".

By way of analysis, we get a quote from the Best for Britain anti-Brexit group. It claims this could be "another blow to the motor industry" - which employs thousands of hard-working Brits. Yet, that "blow" could prove the last straw which makes it no longer viable to produce cars in the UK for the export market.

Of course, one can't expect much from a tabloid, but the Telegraph doesn't fare much better. It reports that "British businesses will be hit by a 'sledgehammer' of red tape that will increase costs for companies and damage trade", relying on the CBI for that description.

Industry really doesn't help itself here. The paper cites Stephen Phipson, chief executive of the manufacturers' organisation EEF. "Clearly a 'no deal' Brexit would increase the burden of red tape on business", he says, wrongly going on to state: "Firms that manufacture products in the UK under the basis of mutual recognition will be required to have that product certified in both the UK and the EU in the event of a no deal Brexit".

Not only is this wrong – it doesn't even begin to capture the nature of the handicaps confronting British firms seeking to export to the EU, which could face the nightmare of producing goods to meet 27 different sets of standards.

To an extent, though, we can have a little sympathy with the media. Comprehensive reviews of 28 documents, each covering issues of some complexity, is far more than most newspapers can deal with. The BBC tries to provide an overview on its website, but a precis alone can't possibly capture the flavour of a "no deal" event.

When you think about it, Mrs May declared that "no deal" was better than a bad deal in her Lancaster House speech of January 2017. She has had 20 months to prove the point, but only now is her government attempting to explain what is involved in a "no deal" scenario.

Then to bring out all these documents in a rush is not an exercise in communication, but one of obfuscation. And in giving the media a task which it cannot do adequately, it doesn't improve the public's understanding of the dynamics of the Brexit process.

Most of all, as Phipson points out, this instalment of technical notices has still not addressed some of the critical issues for business: "trade continuity, borders and customs arrangements, mobility of workers, services, aviation and energy". In ducking these crucial issues, one wonders what the government's real agenda really is.

Like as not – to judge from recent performance – it doesn't know itself. My guess is that, even in the anodyne form presented in these notices, much of the information will come as a rude shock to ministers and MPs, those that take the trouble to read them. If they rely on the media, though, they will be no better off.

Obviously, we need more secret documents before the media can do its job.

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