Richard North, 25/01/2020  

It's a bit like the morning after the night before. No sooner does the buffoon Johnson scribble his signature on the Withdrawal Agreement, then the Commission publishes a 51-page explainer, setting out how it should work in practice.

I don't suppose it would have helped that much if these details had been rehearsed during the general election campaign. With a terminally useless opposition, there was not much point in telling the nation that the Agreement was crock, when there was nothing else on the table worth voting for.

To that extent, it was a Hobson's choice election, but now comes the dawning realisation that we are  lumbered with an almost impossible system for Northern Ireland, despite the consistent denials from our mendacious prime minister, who is still trying to assert that it is business as usual.

For those of us who read the Northern Ireland Protocol at the time, it was self-evident that the system was going to be a bureaucratic nightmare, but on top of that we now have to suffer the conceit of the likes of the Guardian which, in the self-important way of the legacy media, now "reveals" some of the complications written into the EU's system.

Ironically, we find the newspaper referring to "a complex 557-page document, which is almost incomprehensible to an untrained eye", which turns out to be the Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2015/2446 of 8 July 2015.

But if the paper recoils with fright at this single regulation, then we should perhaps draw a veil over the reality – that this is but one of a suite of documents, which starts with Regulation (EU) No 952/2013, the original 101-page version of the Union Customs Code (UCC), which has since been amended several times, including by Regulation (EU) 2019/474. In its consolidated version, it has now become a 162-page document.

The UCC itself relies for its detailed rules on Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2015/2447, which runs to a mere 336 pages. Then, of course, we have Commission Delegated Regulation ((EU) 2016/141, another slender volume running only to 320 pages, which deals with certain transitional provisions pertaining to the creation of "a fully electronic customs environment".

A list of what is known as the UCC legal package - for those who are interested - can be seen here. On top of that, there is a whole raft of Guidance documents, the extent of which would probably leave War and Peace standing. These include such delights as the Guidance on binding origin information, the General Guidance on Customs Decisions and the best-selling Guidance on non-preferential rules of origin.

It is probably fair to say that no single mortal human being has ever read the entire package of legislative and guidance documents – which only represent a fraction of the total output. Even undertaking such a task is likely to impossible as, by the time the full range of documents had been read, most of them would have been amended anyway.

The Guardian is not that far wrong when it resorts to describing just one document a "almost incomprehensible to an untrained eye", but when you add the totality of the documents in the system, you are confronting a specialist area that a lifetime of study would hardly scratch. No wonder I cast a jaundiced eye over those who claim to be "experts" in this field. A certain familiarity with some aspects of the system is about the best one could hope for.

However, unlike the Guardian, to which the UCC seems to have come as something of a revelation, this blog has been writing about the issue for some considerable time, most notably on 22 December 2016 when I wrote a piece headed "confusion on customs". And there, I did actually refer to the UCC as a "highly complex and detailed code", pointing out the difficulty the UK would have in applying it.

Well, it seems the genius Johnson has lumbered Northern Ireland with just that, with some of the difficulties foreseen in my piece of 17 May 2018, with another of more recent origin drawing attention to the then prevailing (and continuing) confusion and the shallow grasp the legacy media had (and has) of the technicalities of Brexit.

Had all these issues been thoroughly addressed in the legacy media at the time – and even discussed in the House of Commons – we would not now have a national newspaper "revealing" something that should already be well known. That we are facing untold complications should hardly be news – not at this late stage in the game.

Although there was never any chance of it being any different, this is probably the worst time imaginable to implement Brexit, as the EU is still in the process of undertaking the most comprehensive review of its customs system in its history, a process which is aimed at introducing a high degree of automation and electronic processing.

For the UK, even dealing with our transition from an EU member to third country status is difficult enough, but when that coincides with a major system upgrade, with an entirely new raft of legislation and procedures, this is something that should have been avoided.

For this reason alone, we would have been better off staying within the framework of the EEA – which would have been problematical enough – but to drop out of the system entirely just when it is undergoing such fundamental change really is asking for trouble.

In fact, Johnson has led us by the nose into an administrative cul-de-sac, with the media asleep on the job, whence they are only now waking up to the implications.

Needless to say, such "boring" detail still seems quite beyond the ability of our gifted MPs to understand, which means that business can expect little relief as it tries to grapple with what are largely impossible demands. And, with the Chancellor all over the place as regards regulatory alignment, and Johnson still in denial, there is little prospect of government delivering coherent messages.

Unlike the usual morning after, therefore, when the hangover eventually dissipates, this one is set to get worse.

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