Richard North, 16/02/2019  
 


As I write, the BBC website is full of the latest news about Trump and his wall. And, in its own, pompous, arrogant way, it deigns to instruct us on whether there is a crisis on the US-Mexico border.

The BBC website is full of that sort of thing – there is barely a subject on which it does not feel qualified to lecture us, setting itself up as the "go to" authority on virtually every subject under the sun. All too often, it will advertise itself as precisely that.

The scope of that hubris extends, as you might expect, to Brexit. With insufferable arrogance, the BBC hosts a webpage authored by reporters Alex Hunt and Brian Wheeler, claiming to offer: "All you need to know about the UK leaving the EU".

Given the complexity of the subject, that alone should dissuade anyone from making such a hubristic claim, but even more so when the exact meaning of so many issues is contentious – and often hotly argued – and where, in others, careful interpretation is required.

In the first category, there is a more than adequate illustration where the Hunt and Wheeler pair purport to tell us what the European Union is, asserting that: "It began after World War Two to foster economic co-operation, with the idea that countries which trade together were more likely to avoid going to war with each other".

Here, as a co-author of a definitive history of the European Union, I would not agree. With the preamble to the Treaty of Rome declaring the objective as "the ever closer union" of the peoples of Europe, the "idea" of the EU is and always was the political integration of its member states. Economic cooperation was always the means to the end, and never the end in itself.

Some people would claim that this is arguable. I wouldn't, but even if one accepts that it is, that leaves no room for such a definitive, unequivocal statement of the type made by Hunt and Wheeler. This isn't information: it's propaganda.

As to the other category, we can see a more recent example where the pair address the issue of whether Brexit can be cancelled. They claim that the ECJ has ruled that the UK could cancel the Article 50 Brexit process unilaterally, "provided the decision followed a 'democratic process', in other words, if Parliament voted for it".

Yet, actually, that is not what the judgement says, even if the press release, rather unfortunately, has elided some of the text of the judgement to come up with this statement: "The revocation must be decided following a democratic process in accordance with national constitutional requirements".

At this level, though, there is no reference to a parliamentary vote, merely a democratic process, "in accordance with national constitutional requirements". Arguably, the cabinet of an elected government which agreed a decision by the prime minister to revoke the Article 50 notification, followed by the formal revocation initiated by the prime minister, would satisfy that requirement.

Fortunately, however, we don't have to argue the point. We need only to refer to the actual judgement, which (not unusually) differs in detail from the press release.

In its reference to a "democratic process", it declares that refusing to allow a Member State to revoke its notification, after it had decided to do so "through a democratic process", would be "inconsistent with the Treaties' purpose of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe". Interestingly, we see declared the purpose of the Treaties – and it is not economic cooperation.

This section, though, is part of the preamble and only later does the judgement set out the formal condition for revocation, viz:
… as long as a withdrawal agreement concluded between the European Union and that Member State has not entered into force or, if no such agreement has been concluded, for as long as the two-year period laid down in Article 50(3) TEU, possibly extended in accordance with that provision, has not expired, that Member State … retains the ability to revoke unilaterally the notification of its intention to withdraw from the European Union, in accordance with its constitutional requirements.
Strictly speaking, therefore, the only condition which is relevant to the BBC claim is that the notification must be made in accordance with the UK's constitutional requirements. And again, even if you want to assert that this is arguable, a strict requirement that there should be a parliamentary vote (in favour) is an invention.

With this, and much more, therefore, one rather wishes the BBC would tone down the hubris, and confine itself to statements of fact. But there is more to it than that. There are issues relating to Brexit which are both complex and important, and which would benefit from simple, factual explanations. Properly presented, they would immeasurably enhance the quality of the debate. And yet here, as much as in the explanations they do volunteer, the BBC is often singularly lacking.

To look for a topical example, one does not have to go far. Yesterday, I reported on the conclusion of the US-UK MRA on conformity assessment, emphasising its importance and also (then) noting that the BBC had not reported it.

In fact, it took until after midday yesterday for an article to appear on the website and, from the content, it is very clear that the (anonymous) author had very little appreciation of what an MRA on conformity assessment is, much less how important such agreements are.

It would have helped if the BBC had referred to the agreement by the full title that is found in the government press release, where it is referred to as: "The Mutual Recognition Agreement on Conformity Assessment (MRA)".

Unhelpfully, though, not only does the term "conformity assessment" not appear in the BBC script, neither is there any explanation of what the agreement does. Yet, this is clearly set out by the government, in this passage in its press release:
The agreement will maintain all relevant aspects of the current EU-US MRA when the EU-US agreement ceases to apply to the UK. It helps facilitate goods trade between the two nations and means UK exporters can continue to ensure goods are compliant with technical regulations before they depart the UK, saving businesses time, money and resources. American exporters to the UK benefit in the same way.
It would have improved things if a little bit of detail had been added, such as telling readers something about the context. The issue, of course, is about conformity with local regulations – EU-produced goods with US requirements and US-produced goods with EU requirements.

Without the MRA, goods would have to be tested in advance in the countries of their destination or, when intercepted by the customs on entry, would be tested then – causing considerable disruption (and expense) at the borders.

With the MRA in place, manufacturers in the countries of origin can submit their products to approved testing houses in their own countries and certificates of conformity (attesting to conformity with regulations at the point of intended destination) are recognised by the respective customs authorities, without any need for further testing.

This is a massively important agreement, saving huge amounts of time and money - and is no small thing. The basic EU-US Agreement runs to 78 pages, covering telecommunications equipment, electromagnetic compatibility , electrical safety, recreational craft, pharmaceutical good manufacturing practices, and medical devices. Additionally, there is an agreement on marine equipment.

Together with the lists of approved testing houses, the implementing protocol, the procedural agreements and the specifications concerning assessment and supervision of systems, this is a substantial body of work which will do much to facilitate post-Brexit trade between the UK and the US.

All the BBC can grudgingly concede, though, is that "the UK-US agreement is not a free trade deal - which can relax trading rules, reduce taxes (tariffs) on imports and exports, and grant easier market access".

Yet, this is a trade deal. Make no mistake. While it is not a formal Free Trade Agreement in its own right, MRAs on conformity assessment can be found embedded in most of the modern EU trade agreements. So important are the EU's agreements that there is a special protocol in the EEA Agreement extending them to the Efta states – thus enabling "simplified market access".

And it is there that the BBC have introduced an egregious error, declaring that the agreement "is not a free trade deal - which can … grant easier market access". This simply is not true.

A switched-on organisation could do far better than this. It could not only get it right, it might point out that this is how trading nations organise their affairs when they do not want to commit to full-blown free trade agreements. It could also tell us that these agreements are over and above WTO rules and that countries with sophisticated economies would find it very hard to trade without them. WTO rules are not sufficient.

The UK government is to be congratulated for concluding this agreement. It was very necessary that it should have done so. But it was also very necessary for the media to explain what is going on. The BBC tried, and failed. As for the rest of the media, they don't even seem to have tried.

Where the agreement has even been mentioned elsewhere, as in the Independent, the narrative has been side-tracked into personality politics. It is far more important for the newspaper to tell us that Mr Trump has declared trade links had been "strengthened", with lengthy quotes from the president and Liam Fox than it is to explain to us what the agreement is about. All we get in that quarter is that it allows goods made in the UK to be sold in the US, and vice versa, "with less bureaucracy for manufacturers and exporters".

The Evening Standard falls for the same trap, actually providing less detail than the Independent. The Daily Mail, in substantially more space, manages to say even less on the MRA. Oddly enough, the best (although by no means full) report comes from the non-paper, the Daily Express, which parades the story on its front page as "Trump's Brexit boost for Britain". Predictably, although this rag has been at the forefront in promoting the WTO myth, any reference to WTO rules is absent.

And that, sadly, conceals the ultimate irony. Brexiteers are said to welcome the continuation of the deal, thereby contradicting the very claim made by so many "ultras" that the EU doesn't have a trade deal with the US and relies on WTO rules – permitting the UK to do likewise. It does, and it doesn't, which means that the UK is not even trying to. 

But nothing the media is saying makes this any clearer.






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