Richard North, 15/06/2020  

I don't know how I expected the UK's relationship to end. Before and during the referendum, I didn't have a mental picture and, after the famous victory, I was hoping for a Flexcit-type solution where we slipped effortlessly from full membership to a long-term transitional relationship based on EEA membership.

Bearing in mind that, in 2016, Johnson wasn't prime minister, I don't think anyone could have reasonably predicted that the wreckers were going to take over and drive us into a cul-de-sac.

Now, it seems, we are headed up that dead-end alley without an escape route as Johnson does his macho thing and tells the EU they must conclude Brexit talks by autumn "at the latest", with the threat that the UK will opt for a no-deal scenario unless there is a sign of agreement by the end of next month.

This bravado may impress Tory headbangers but it is a little too close to the Blazing Saddles gambit for comfort – the one where the non-white sheriff puts a gun to his head and warns his black life doesn’t matter, or words to that effect.

Johnson supporters need to be careful what they wish for. The "colleagues" could simply shrug their shoulders and walk away. Ostensibly, he is taking this line in order to "give certainty" to companies which, as the Telegraph puts it, are "affected by the UK's exit from the European Union". Perhaps someone should tell the paper that we already have left the EU. They are thinking about the end of the transition period.

But, whether or not this is real, or just posturing, we have at least some entertainment to look forward to when Johnson, his chief negotiator David Frost, and Gove hold "high-level talks" today with the "troika", Charles Michel, president of the European Council, Ursula von der Leyen, and David Sassoli, the president of the European Parliament.

To maintain the entertainment quotient, more talks will follow in each week of the five weeks between June 29 and July 27, as the sides go through the motions of trying to conclude a trade agreement.

Lost in the memory hole, of course, are the warning voices who've been saying that a fully comprehensive deal might take eight years or more to negotiate, so even if there is some sort of a deal, it's going to be a pretty sorry thing – nothing to get excited about.

Basically, therefore, this isn't really a serious process, especially as we have a UK Government spokesman telling us, "There's a high-quality FTA to be done, based on the agreements the EU has already reached with other countries".

If we're into that sort of posturing, we might as well have everyone join in. That certainly seems to be the view of Roberto Azevêdo, director-general of the WTO, who is saying that relying on WTO terms under no-deal would slow Britain’s recovery from coronavirus. Sticking closer to present arrangements would be better for jobs, he adds.

Bluntly, I don't know why he bothered with that comment, as we're not going to end up with "present arrangements", or anything like them. He does, though, have a point when he says that the car industry and agriculture would be hit particularly hard by failure to secure a deal, as they would be subject to heavy tariffs under default trade rules.

Once again though, this misses the point. Some sort of tariff deal is probably on the cards, as that is relatively easy to agree. But the killers are non-tariff barriers, which are far more problematical than tariffs, and usually more expensive. And there simply isn't time to agree anything of substance.

When it comes to the car industry though, one wonders whether "team Johnson" will decide to stick with UNECE's WP.29 automotive standards, in which case most, but not all non-tariff issues melt away.

In the absence of an agreement on Regulation 0, there is still the matter of type approval. To sell cars in the EEA states, car manufacturers will have to gain type approval for each model, from an approval agency based in one of the EU Member States.

Something similar will have to take place with the vastly more complex aviation component industry, with no convenient UNECE to set standards. There is next to no chance that we can conclude a deal on aviation safety standards, and certification procedures.

This is a discussion the legacy media have largely avoided having, and we're still seeing much of the focus on tariffs. Such is the elementary level of the discourse that, if Johnson is able to stitch up a basic tariff deal, then he will be able to proclaim it as a victory, and the Muppets will get away with it.

That much is evident from Andrew Marr's comments yesterday, when he had Azevêdo on his show. The idiot Marr introduced him as the man "in charge of administering" WTO rules. It would be more accurate to say that Azevêdo administers the organisation. The Ministerial Conference and the General Council (as well as the subordinate councils) administer the rules.

Then, we've long given up expecting anything better from Marr, but it was marginally worth reading the transcript to see Azevêdo's comments on global trading prospects for next year.

With the World Bank estimating that the global economy will contract by five percent, and the Eurozone by eight, we're in for a rough time even without Johnson's games. In 2009, the contraction was 1.8 percent and the last time we saw a peacetime contraction of five percent was in the Great Depression of 1932.

As to trade, projections fall into a range of between minus 13 and minus 32 percent. Minus 32 percent was hit during the Great Depression so, Azevêdo says, that is "pretty significant".

By contrast, the Director General says, WTO terms for the UK are "not a catastrophe" – something he's said before, although he does concede that they "will impose a number of adjustments and those can be painful, particularly for some sectors".

However, fighting a potential 32 percent downturn in global trade is also going to be painful. And you could say that a major depression, on top of the local restrictions arising from coronavirus controls, on top of a no-deal exit from the transitional period, might just qualify as catastrophic.

Needless to say, in the Marr interview, non-tariff barriers weren't mentioned at all, although there is a passing reference to "sanitary restrictions" for agricultural products. There is says Azevêdo, "the issue of recognition of standards, of sanitary standards, technical standards". Those are things, he tells Marr, "that can be differentiated between regions".

The reference passes by Marr though. It doesn't even register as he starts burbling about state aid rules and China.

Not anywhere, it seems, are we going to get any sense, with The Times (paywall) opining that a no-deal "would be a failure of statecraft". A "deal" seems now to be taken as a fixed quantum, with no possibility of graduations. A deal is a deal is a deal, it seems.

Thus, it cannot be said - by the legacy media, at any rate – that any deal is going to be a lousy deal, with very little to distinguish it from a no-deal. The prospects for a comprehensive trade deal evaporated long ago, and the best we can hope for is an amount of damage limitation.

Never failing to focus on the trivia, we thus have the BBC headline: "War of the deadlines at Brexit summit", forgetting even that it isn't a "Brexit" summit. We have actually left. This is a "trade talks" summit.

But as long as we can be distracted by meaningless dramas about deadlines, no one has to expend any energy on discussing the substance. Perhaps the more interesting thing is how the EU will manage to fudge a "non-extension" to buy time for the talks which will have to continue into next year.

Late in the day, though, a cross-party group of MPs is to urge the government today to allow a vote on extending the transition period, pointing to polls showing that voters would support it. Since Johnson (and Gove) have ruled out an extension, nothing is likely to change.  

Come the 31st December, therefore, our relationship with the EU is likely to come to an end. In the hands of the mediocrities that control our government, though, it will be with a whimper rather than a bang.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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