Richard North, 08/02/2019  

The day before Mrs May was due in Brussels, both Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker – alongside Leo Varadkar – issued statements declaring that the Withdrawal Agreement was not open for re-negotiation.

However, this was also the day that Tusk made his now famous "hell" comment – and it was this which got the lion's share of the media attention. The refusal to re-open the negotiations was barely mentioned.

Had this been the media focus, today's headlines might have been rather different. The media would have had to concede that Mrs May's trip to Brussels had been futile. But, with the refusal downplayed, it opened the way for just the sort of confrontation narrative which the British media so loves.

Thus we see The Sun delivering the headline: "Furious Theresa May in icy showdown with Donald Tusk as she slaps him down over Brexit 'hell' row", while the Evening Standard has: "Theresa May confronts Donald Tusk on Brexiteer hell jibe... as he says there is 'no breakthrough in sight'".

The juxtaposition is clearly an important part of the narrative, and it simply would not have worked if the media had been parading the refusal before Mrs May had even arrived at the headquarters of the monster.

As it stands, a casual observer would have had a hard time working out that the Reuters report actually referred to the same meeting, with its headline: "In Brussels, EU gives May glimpse of Brexit hope". According to this rendition, Mrs May "came away from a day in an increasingly impatient Brussels … with a pledge of renewed talks that held out some hope for a new Brexit deal, if no sign of compromise yet".

Possibly, that gets closer to the text of the joint statement from Mrs May and Juncker which, in diplomatic terms, refers to talks "held in a spirit of working together to achieve the UK's orderly withdrawal from the EU".

This, of course, is the sort of bullshit that convinces no-one but it is also a neat convention that allows antagonists to speak civilly of their meetings. But there was still no equivocation. President Juncker "underlined that the EU27 will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement", but he did express an "openness to add wording to the Political Declaration".

Hinting at the underlying tensions, the statement refers to the discussion being "robust but constructive", the latter simply conveying the fact that relations didn't break down – after all, the two leaders have "agreed that their teams should hold talks".

This, though, is a long way from re-opening negotiations. All the "teams" are to discuss is whether "a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK Parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European Council".

From a strict deconstruction of the words, it would appear that there isn't going to be a discussion about changes to the backstop – which is what Mrs May wants. Merely, the talk is to be about whether such talks are even possible.

At this late stage, therefore, we're having talks about talks and, to put a cap on it, May and Junker will not meet again until the end of February, and then only "to take stock of these discussions".

That effectively rules out any idea of a meaningful vote in the Commons next week, although the government is still planning to table an amendable motion for debate on 14 February. As to the substantive vote, the speculation is that a modified deal won't be put to MPs until a few days before we are due to leave. This is extreme brinkmanship that would supposedly require an Article 50 extension to give time for Westminster to pass all the Brexit legislation.

To get parliament to vote for the deal, there is talk of offering a revised political declaration which would provide detail on schemes which could avoid a hard border and thereby remove the need for the backstop. But this falls far short of "legally binding changes" to the Withdrawal Agreement which Mrs May is demanding, and which the "ultras" are setting as their condition for supporting the deal.

That the vote should then go to the wire, therefore, is no guarantee that the Withdrawal Agreement will be ratified – even if Corbyn and some of the Labour MPs can be induced to vote with the government. An accidental "no-deal" Brexit is still very much on the cards.

With the emphasis on the biff-bam politics, though, the media has largely taken its eye off the no-deal ball. We are thus seeing fewer blood-curdling accounts about the effects of a "sudden death", and even a piece telling us that "the short-term impact of a no-deal Brexit would be not nearly as bad as predicted, but the long-term impact will be much worse than feared".

This was the theme I rehearsed about three weeks ago so the author of the piece - Tom Kibasi, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research – has caught up relatively quickly, even if it would be too much to expect him to get it right.

Kibasi's thesis is that the EU would phase in compliance and rules of origin checks over a period of several years, allowing firms to make an orderly departure from the UK to the single market. It will be, he argues, a steady drift away from the UK, not an avalanche.

Yet again, therefore, we are seeing someone fairly high up in the information hierarchy completely failing to understand the dynamics of cross-border trade, and the likely impact of Brexit on UK trade flows. The man arrives at his end point more by accident than anything else. demonstrating to all the world that he simply doesn't know what he's talking about.

Illustrative of the issue-illiteracy of such people, we see Kibasi assert that, if the UK pocketed the £39 billion divorce bill while pursuing trade deals around the world, the EU "would, calmly and rationally, place tariffs on UK trade until it had collected what it is owed".

In the first instance, does he not know that WTO rules prohibit the arbitrary imposition of tariffs and, more importantly, that any such tariffs would be paid by traders in EU Member States? Rather than levies on the UK, as he implies, the tariffs would be a tax on EU-based businesses.

Another thing that Kibasi has failed to note is the fate of goods being loaded in ships now, which arrive at foreign destinations after we have left the EU. This is something I noted last week.

Ships bound for the Far East, I wrote, take six weeks to arrive. Prior to Brexit, goods loaded will be processed with regards to EU agreements with the destination countries. If we are out of the EU by the time the goods arrive, existing free trade agreements may no longer apply. Shippers might be faced with unexpected restrictions, while importers might be confronted with demands for tariff or other tax payments.

This is now being picked up by the Guardian, the very paper for which Kibasi writes. And this report adds that ships carrying UK goods could even be refused permission to unload until the status of the goods had been clarified.

Thus, while Brexit day for most of us is still a little way into the future, for some shippers, the moment of decision is already upon them. They have to gamble on whether to fulfil orders, without knowing what is going to happen when their goods arrive at their destinations.

Some industry analysts are suggesting that, as a consequence of the uncertainty, some shippers could turn to airfreight, despite the cost implications – the extra costs in some cases being less than the penalties for late delivery.

But this, amongst other things, highlights the crass incompetence of this government, amounting to gross irresponsibility, in leaving everything so late. The delay alone is set to cost business huge amounts of money, perhaps amounting to billions of pounds – losses which could so easily have been avoided.

Nothing of this, of course, concerns parliament, which even has its chaplain complaining about MPs behaving as if they are on the football terraces, shouting at one another. Brexit, to them – alongside the media - is just another game.

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