Richard North, 29/02/2020  

When it comes to trade in goods, there are three basic levels of regulatory integration: mutual recognition; equivalence; and harmonisation. The least onerous for enterprises wishing to export to the EU is mutual recognition, except that the EU permits this only for intra-union trade and then only in the absence of relevant harmonised standards.

Nevertheless, that didn't stop the likes of Shanker Singham advocating this back in 2018 as the basis on which the UK could trade with the EU in a post-Brexit world, conferring on it the much sought-after regulatory autonomy.

It has taken from then until now for this Muppet tendency to understand that mutual recognition isn't a flyer, leading us to the situation we were exploring yesterday, where HMG seems to have embraced the second option, going for regulatory equivalence.

Even then, the government seems to have an extremely slender grasp of the nature and application of this option, and appears to be treating it as a slightly firmer version of mutual recognition, with little more than semantics separating the two concepts.

But this is the latest attempt by HMG to assert its regulatory autonomy, symbolising its determination at all costs to avoid harmonisation of standards. In its book, harmonisation means ceding regulatory autonomy to the European Union, whereby we become mere "rule-takers", with no say in the formulation of new standards.

However, the fact that the government has fixed upon equivalence actually shows a lack of understanding as to how the EU tends to apply the concept, in most cases taking "equivalent" to mean "the same", with very little if any flexibility. In practice, it becomes harmonisation in all but name.

Not only does the government fail to understand this, though, it seems to be running away with the impression that equivalence will bestow on businesses that magic property of frictionless trade.

Despite constant explanations and reminders from Michel Barnier, it still hasn't taken on board the need to maintain the regulatory ecosystem, and even full harmonisation is only a starter for ten. Equivalence, even if accepted, will not give us frictionless access.

The government's White Paper on our future relationship with the EU, therefore, is not only flawed. It betrays an inherent weakness in the UK's position, where it is fighting for something which is essentially unattainable and, even if granted, would not give the UK what it thinks it would get.

If we had a halfway competent media, this crucial weakness would have been exposed and dissected, identifying the fact that the government is badly mishandling its trade negotiations with the EU.

But, for want of the ability to carry out a technical appraisal of the government's negotiation position, the media has by-and-large gone for the lightweight, easy pitch, reporting on the government's threat to walk away from the talks if by June significant progress has not been made in reaching a deal.

As it stands, the negotiating mandate the government has set itself means that it cannot achieve any progress – however that is measured. Our negotiators are setting us up for a fall, seeking an outcome which would not begin to satisfy the trading needs of this nation. This is like taking an exam with the deliberate intention of failing.

Yet, with coronavirus dominating the headlines, about the only media pundit of any consequence prepared to address the government's Brexit policy this weekend is Matthew Parris , writing under the headline: "We’re talking ourselves into a Brexit bust-up".

Even then, Parris is way behind the curve. He is critiquing the speech of David Frost which was delivered nearly two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, Parris is not impressed, arguing that our chief negotiator's simplistic and nationalist vision of our place in the world "doesn't deserve to be taken seriously". Taking exception to the reliance on Burke, he notes that the text was billed as being "striking, heavyweight and philosophical" but, while conceding that it was certainly "striking", dismissed it as "lightweight and tendentious: a call to battle, not to negotiation".

"I'm at a loss", he says, "to explain why most of the media treated this, the keynote speech on Britain's negotiating position, as a profound and intellectually serious contribution", declaring:
It is peppered by giveaways about the spirit in which our chief negotiator is approaching his task. He sees himself as a pugilist, full of passion. For him this is a liberation struggle. He's going into battle against a usurping force that has been "governing" us. He sees the EU as intrinsically a bad thing, bad for all its peoples, most of whom are deluded about its supposed merits.
This, of course, is Parris the Europhile speaking, but that is the best we have on offer for the moment. Otherwise Frost, and his master Johnson, are being given a free pass by the media, which has largely given up even attempting to promote a serious or informed debate.

Even the supposedly sober Financial Times, sharing ground with the BBC, avoids the substance and goes for the headline: "France warns UK on 'artificial' Brexit talks deadlines". Thereby following in the tradition of biff-bam journalism, the FT reduces the narrative to a spat between France's Europe minister, Amélie de Montchalin, and the Johnson administration.

Speaking at Chatham House in London, she said that the EU governments "do not care so much" about the existing deadlines for the talks. "If we need six more months so it will be",” she added, stating: "The 10-month deadline is only relevant in terms of the British political agenda".

In all probability, Montchalin is not much brighter than our own dismal crew of politicians, although I may be being unfair to the woman. She was, after all, able to observe that the UK was not Canada, it had a much bigger economy, was much closer (to France) and was much more important.

In a sense, however, the EU (and Member States such as France) is part of the problem. Knowing the UK's hang-up about regulatory autonomy and the related dispute about the "level playing field", it still seems reluctant to offer us a way out, or even a sop to our wounded pride.

Yet, it should not be too difficult to point out that many of the regulations about which the UK seems so concerned have originated at a regional or global level, to which effect the EU is as much a rule-taker as the UK, if not more so. The UK has its own voice on the global councils, so it is wholly wrong to say that we have "no say" in the formulation of the rules coming out of Brussels.

Despite the first round of talks starting on Monday, and with the terms of reference published we are not really any further forward. The debate has ossified, largely around a few badly explained points, with both media and politicians seemingly unable to address the substantive points.

But then, the Twitter commentariat doesn't seem much better, and I am not getting any sense that the public is at all engaged with the issues. It is fair to say, though, that we are entitled to look to the media for a lead, leaving Pete to remark that, with Brexit having moved on to the details stage, it's now outside our media's gnat-like attention span. It wouldn't report the issues correctly even if they were capable of it.

Brexit, he says, was notionally about accountability but nobody seems serious about holding the government to account. Johnson can please himself. The one standard that won't change after Brexit is good old British incompetence. And it wouldn't surprise me if this was "directed" incompetence, dedicated to ensure that the coming talks can do nothing but fail.

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