Richard North, 20/12/2018  

Either of two major events yesterday should have led the news agenda: the UK government's White Paper on immigration, and the publication of the European Commission's contingency plan to deal with a "no deal" Brexit.

That, however, is to reckon without the British media. Rather than deal with the hard stuff, the political media have chosen to lead on an incident during PMQs, when Jeremy Corbyn is said to have called Mrs May a "stupid woman" – a claim which he denies.

With this given front-page treatment, the politicians are in the frame for what is described as "panto politics", but no one has forced the media to give such extensive space to this charade.

As to the substantive issues, the immigration White Paper is of little immediate concern. It is predicated on the UK agreeing a deal with the EU, and is not intended to take effect until after the transition period at the end of 2020.

Between then and now, all manner of things might happen to prevent it coming to fruition, not least a "no deal" Brexit which would wreck all the assumptions on which the White Paper is based. And since a no-deal is beginning to look to be the most likely option, that puts the Commission plan on top of the list for attention.

One can see why our media might fight shy of it though. It is not one document but a series. It starts with a press release, moves on to COM(2018) 890 final, which is the plan itself, and then to Memo on questions and answers. 

It doesn't stop there, though, as the plan links with a list of legislative initiatives and other legal acts needed to implement the plan, 14 of which were published yesterday alongside the plan, to add to the eight already in place.

The Commission makes no concessions to the triviality of the UK media and its love of all things superficial, and it offers only limited personality quotes on which reporters prefer to hang their stories and base their headlines. If you want the detail, you have to work at it, which means that reports, such as that which the Telegraph has to offer, are extremely limited.

Typically, as in The Times piece, Jean-Claude Juncker gets pride of place, saying that no deal would be a disaster and that "British MPs" needed to back the withdrawal agreement to avoid it. "The risks of a disorderly exit of Great Britain from the EU are obvious", he is cited as saying. "It will be an absolute catastrophe". He adds: "The Commission is trying, as well as the Member States, to prevent this disorderly exit from the union, but it takes two to tango decently".

Thus, according to the press release, the measures will deal only with areas where a "no-deal" scenario would create major disruption for citizens and businesses in the EU27. These include financial services, air transport, customs, and climate policy, amongst others. But they will not mitigate the overall impact of a "no-deal" scenario, nor will they compensate for the lack of stakeholder preparedness or replicate the full benefits of EU membership.

Turning to the COM final for the detail, this sets out the basic parameters governing the plan, stating that measures should not replicate the benefits of membership of the Union, nor the terms of any transition period. They have to be temporary in nature and, crucially, they are to be adopted unilaterally.

With this, there is to be no "managed" no-deal exit, and what the EU gives unilaterally it can take away when it so pleases. Measures will remain in place only to suit EU interests, and then only as long as needed – by the EU.

For all that, one has the idiot tendency in politics, with Tory MP Michael Fabricant claiming that the EU has "blinked", making a "managed no deal" workable. Yet, Fabricant is not on his own, with The Sun sharing the sentiment, calling the contingency plan a "boost for Brexiteers as EU blinks and launches plans to make No Deal work". The report then cites Jacob Rees-Mogg, who declares: "This fits in with the idea of a managed No Deal".

A more sensible view comes from the Irish Times, which sums up by saying that the Commission has made it clear that it "will take some unilateral steps to limit the damage – making sure planes can fly and banks can continue to clear some transactions in London". But it says it will not collude with the UK in coming up with some kind of managed agreement to try to take the pain out of a no-deal.

Just visiting the four headline issues should disabuse anyone of the Fabricant fantasy. Financial services leads with some interesting provisions, which illustrates the Commission's thinking.

In order to mitigate financial stability risks, temporary and conditional equivalence will be afforded for 12 months, to ensure that there will be no disruption in central clearing of derivatives. But that isn't doing the UK any favours. Simply, the Commission has concluded that EU-27 companies need this time to put in place fully viable alternatives to UK operators.

For services provided by UK central securities depositories, there is also a "temporary and conditional equivalence" afforded, but this is to last 24 months. Again, it is to allow EU-27 operatives time to find alternatives. And then there are certain technical adjustments, allowing contracts to be transferred to Union holders without falling foul of the European Market Infrastructures Regulation.

As to aviation, the Commission has tabled a proposed regulation which will maintain "basic air connectivity" with the UK, extending to the UK only the basic four of the nine freedoms.

What this means is that UK registered airlines will be able to overfly the airspace of EU Member States, make landings for technical purposes and fly passengers from the UK directly to destinations within the EU, and pick up passengers headed back to the UK. Intermediate pick-ups and all forms of cabotage are gone – with freight as well as passenger traffic.UK carriers will no longer enjoy the right to provide intra-Union air services.

There are also extremely limited waivers on safety provisions, extending the validity of certain licences and certification for a period of nine months.

All the Commission has done here is take the action necessary to "avoid the abrupt interruption of activities in the area of air transport", and it does not make pretty reading. UK air carriers, for instance, will be required to obtain an operating authorisation from each Member State in which they wish to operate – potentially 27 separate authorisations to enable EU-wide operations.

Another point to take on board is that this is most definitely a unilateral arrangement. It requires from the UK a commitment to reciprocity, which makes it another example of coordinated unilateralism, thereby not qualifying as a bilateral deal.

Furthermore, the Commission's regulation explicitly prevents Member States from negotiating or enter into any bilateral air services agreements with the UK, and they must not otherwise grant UK carriers any rights other than those granted in its Regulation.

And, down on the ground, there are basic concessions on road haulage for a period of nine months. These will allow UK operators temporarily to carry goods into the Union, provided the UK confers equivalent rights to Union road haulage operators.

When it comes to customs, however, there are effectively no concessions. This is where the full force of the "no deal" scenario is going to hit hardest. Says the Commission: "All relevant EU legislation on imported goods and exported goods will apply as of the withdrawal date. This includes the levying of duties and taxes and the respect of the formalities and controls required by the current legal framework".

As befits the UK's status as a third country, Member States are enjoined to "take all necessary steps" to apply the Union Customs Code. This makes a nonsense of Raab's supposition that, if we hit procedural blocks in Calais, we can simply transfer business to Rotterdam or Zeebrugge. The Member States will be applying the Union code and what applies to one port applies to them all.

Additionally, all the relevant rules on indirect taxation to all imports from and exports to the United Kingdom will apply. That means VAT, from which a whole load of grief will descend.

Then, to top off the misery, the time-limits for lodging entry and pre-departure declarations will apply, with the Union Customs Code delegated regulation amended to require goods to be notified to the customs authorities at least two hours before arrival at the port of entry. That should ensure a good measure of chaos at Dover.

The technical changes to climate policy complete the headline list, but it is in the customs area that the hardship will be seen. The official controls on live animals and products of animal origin will apply, which will prevent any UK exports until the appropriate listing formalities are complete.

Mutual recognition of conformity assessments will no longer apply, which means that conformity with EU standards of goods sent to EU destinations will have to be verified at the border – with extensive and expensive checks when deemed necessary.

And then, of course, there are the technical provisions for medicines, medical devices, car manufacture, chemicals and cosmetics – to name but a few sectors. Each will have their own problems, and their own hurdles to surmount.

And then there is the Irish contingency action plan - all 131 pages of it. Don't expect any significant media attention though. The fourth estate is no longer in the business of doing news. We are in the world of panto journalism to match the politics of the madhouse.

And we really can't afford this. If there is to be a sensible response in parliament to the ratification vote, then MPs above all else must be informed about the consequences of a "no-deal" Brexit. Bizarrely, for all their resources, a large number of MPs still rely on the media for their information and here, once again, the media has ducked its responsibility to inform.

We are headed for the most important vote of the century and the memory of the moment when the EU set out its stall will be of whether the leader of the opposition called the prime minister a "stupid woman". When future historians come to write this up, will anyone believe them?

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