Richard North, 30/01/2020  

I would have preferred our exit from the European Parliament yesterday to have been done with dignity. But Farage and his ghastly crew don't do dignity, preferring instead to break the EP rules by waving national flags in the chamber to accompany the Great Leader's final speech.

Farage had previously been warned (in an earlier session) against such demonstrations and the repeat, in this case, predictably drew a response from Mairead McGuinness, the vice-president in the chair. She switched off Farage's microphone, leaving him to mouth soundlessly to the chamber.

Rebuking Farage, she told him to "Sit down, put your flags away", adding: "you're leaving - and take them with you". This did not stop his MEPs raising a cheer for their leader – another tasteless, if somewhat raucous display.

When it came to the vote, 621 MEPs approved the motion to consent to the Withdrawal Agreement, 49 opposed and a mere 13 abstained. With 751 MEPs elected for this round, that means that 68 did not vote, either because of absence or for some other reason.

That provoked an outbreak of singing from the chamber, with a rather fractured rendition of Auld Lang Syne, some MPs waving EU-UK "half-and-half football scarves", with prominent union flags, the like of which had recently invoked McGuinness's ire. All that was left was a few public displays of emotional gushing by reluctant departees and it was done.

The General Affairs Council is now scheduled to declare that the Article 50 proceedings are concluded, as required by the Treaty. This will be conducted in writing today, presumably by the permanent representatives acting as plenipotentiaries.

Then, and only then, will all the formalities be complete, clearing the way for the UK to leave the Union at midnight, Central European Time, on Friday, ending our membership of 47 years and one month, respectively of the European Communities (which included the EEC and Euratom), the European Community and the European Union.

Should there ever be a United States of Europe, we are unlikely to be part of it. Even though some MEPs have pledged to "leave a light on" for our return, Guy Verhofstadt has made it clear his preference for a UK shorn of "opt-ins, opt-outs and [budget] rebates. These are conditions which, if applied, would present an insuperable barrier to a UK determined to rejoin.

For the moment, however, it is clear that any thought of returning to Brussels with our tails between our legs (or otherwise), is firmly off the UK political agenda, with the Labour leadership campaigners all refusing to include that commitment in their personal manifestos. It may be that a new Lib-Dem leader is prepared to burn a candle in the window, although who cares? It will do nothing more than attract moths for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Johnson has signalled to the fanboy gazette that he will be telling the EU that he is prepared to accept post-Brexit border checks rather than allowing Britain to be a rule-taker.

Johnson, of course, is not the one who personally will have to bear the delays, disruption, costs and loss of business concomitant with accepting border checks with the EU, but he is nevertheless preparing to concede this in what is being slated as a "major speech", setting out his aims for a trade deal next week.

The man, we are told, will say that sovereignty is more important than frictionless trade. Whitehall sources have told the Telegraph that, while Johnson wants to avoid tariffs and quotas on cross-Channel trade (to say nothing of trade across the Irish Sea), he will never "cave in" to demands for alignment on regulations, despite knowing "the consequences that flow from that".

Bolstering this "hard line" stance is Sir Robbie Gibb, described as Theresa May's Downing Street chief of staff, but actually her press spokesman/comms chief. He asserts that the EU has failed to grasp that the UK's political landscape has "utterly changed" as a result of Johnson's majority at the general election.

The new year, he says, is producing the same old briefings from Brussels: that the EU will set the sequence for the coming talks; that we will have to make concessions over our fishing rights for access to EU financial markets; and that EU judges should have the final say over any trade disputes with Britain.

That this man ever had anything to do with advising Mrs May, however, illustrates the lack of knowledge and understanding that pervades even the highest level of the state.

Gibb asserts that the current Irish protocol – as a "stand-alone provision" - has the effect of keeping Northern Ireland in both the EU and UK customs areas and, he says, with these arrangements, Britain is free to diverge from EU rules when it wants. This is the biggest change that the EU does not seem to grasp.

This government, he goes on to say, wants a good trading agreement with the EU but not at the expense of UK sovereignty. With that, he avers, the EU can also choose to keep friction to a minimum for the benefit of its business as well as ours.

And then, in what amounts to the "money quote", he actually suggests that the EU "can stop playing hardball and accept mutual recognition of our standards as they do for many other countries in certain sectors, such as Canada, Japan and the US".

Even after all this time, we have people such as this who fail to understand the difference between "equivalence" and "mutual recognition of standards", the latter applying exclusively to members of the Single Market – a concession given to no third countries, including Canada, Japan and the US.

The trouble with such people is that they never step outside their own little bubbles. Had Gibb done so, he might have recorded the complaints of Canadian meat producers, which I reported in March 2017.

Here we got an understanding of how "equivalence" actually works in practice. Despite implementation of CETA, we had Ron Davidson, head of international trade for the Canadian Meat Council, saying, "We do not have what we would call commercially viable access to the European market".

More than two years later, we have an article in CBC News reporting (predictably) that the Canada-EU beef trade deal was "not working as well as hoped".

European health standards, it said, were "too costly and complicated for Albertan beef exporters", stating that: "a difference in food health standards between the European Union and Canada is being blamed for beef exports falling short of expectations, despite a promising modification to a trade agreement between Canada and Europe".

Remarkably, in 2018, Canada sent just 3.1 percent of the 50,000 tonnes of meat authorised for export each year, and in 2017 the total was only 2.3 percent. That means CETA earned only $12.7 million for Canadian producers in 2018, against a theoretical potential of $600 million in any one year.

This is by no means an isolated report, with the Financial Post later publishing a headline that complained: "Beef and pork for cheese deal sours as strict EU health rules hinder Canadian exports under CETA".

Here, we see that, despite the new opportunities afforded by the deal, pork and beef exports to Europe have hardly budged, despite being "one of the most important elements for Canada in this negotiation".

Canadian exporters filled none of their frozen beef quota in 2018, and just 1.5 percent of their pork allowance. By contrast, European cheese exporters have taken almost full advantage of CETA, filling 99.2 percent of Canada's quota for fine quality cheese in 2018 and 71.1 percent of the quota for industrial cheese.

Then, in the last few days, we had France 24 asking: "Is Canada on losing end of CETA free trade agreement with EU?"

The answer, as one might expect, is yes. But that is the reality Johnson must be prepared to accept when he sets the pace for the coming negotiations. And when his stance is endorsed by the ignorance of such people as Gibb, with Farage apparently telling us that everything will come right as German car manufacturers will insist on a good deal, we haven't much to look forward to.

They can all wave their little flags, and I suppose we'll be seeing a lot of that over the next few days. But then the reckoning will start.

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