Richard North, 01/02/2021  

Attempts at measured analysis, it would seem, are no longer permitted in certain quarters. If one does not immediately launch into foam-flecked condemnation of Brussels and all its works, whenever certain subjects come up – such as Brexit, and latterly vaccination – one becomes a "full-blown apologist" to the "EU bullies", or worse.

One can so easily condemn the media for its inability to deal with nuance, and its insistence on turning every contentious subject into a binary issue, but it is also the case that many people like it that way. They prefer the certainty and simplicity of a black and white, shadowless world, where there are no shades of grey and the middle ground does not exist.

There is no room, therefore, for arguing that Brexit was a just cause, but its execution has been lamentable and needlessly damaging. One must not look at what are now being called the "vaccine wars" and conclude the nobody comes out particularly well out of the crisis, with the Commission having behaved ineptly while others have over-reacted, especially as the EU may have some cause for complaint.

Worse than that, though, is the indifference to knowledge. And although one cannot take Twitter as measure of our society, that limited microcosm does represent a sub-species which will award tens of thousands of "likes" to a photograph of a chip butty, and single figures to a dissection of Johnson's version of Brexit, by one of the best analysts in the game.

Yet another area of concern is the low bar of expectation, where media consumers (a dwindling band) will accept low-grade factually incorrect reporting – even praising error-filled reports such as this as "brilliant" – currently one of the most over-used words in the English vocabulary.

Personally, I regard the pursuit of accuracy in writing – by no means always achieved - as a mark of respect to one's readers and oneself. I owe it to them and myself to deliver work as close to the truth as I am able, notwithstanding the foibles, failings and misunderstandings of mere mortals.

But then I have to read in the much-lauded Financial Times of fishermen struggling to export their catches to the EU on a timely basis, "because of Brexit red tape". Before 1 January, we are told, they could simply load their produce on to lorries for next-day delivery to the EU. But now, according to the combined wisdom of Peter Foster, Judith Evans and Daniel Thomas – three of the paper's "finest" – they "must now fill in customs declarations, catch documents and export health certificates, among other things".

Stepping back from this briefly, we see in today's Guardian we see a piece by Lisa O'Carroll - who has not always acquitted herself well – headed: " Brexit 'teething problems' endemic and could ruin us, say UK businesses". The sub-heading tells us that: "Ease of trading is key measure of success, say cross-channel businesses, not lack of lorry traffic", with the text finally getting down to the nitty-gritty of the post-Brexit situation.

This warns that the "teething problems" Johnson described in a visit to Scotland last week are in fact symptomatic of endemic disruption that will force many businesses to restructure and will mean the end of some British businesses altogether.

That is possibly as close to the truth as we have yet to come. Pre-Brexit, many businesses which successfully traded with the EU did so on the basis of the free movement of goods afforded by the UK's membership of the EU and, in particular, participation in the Single Market.

No we have stepped outside the "fortified walls" of the EU, traders are exposed to a plethora of non-tariff barriers so formidable that many businesses will either have to undergo savage restructuring (code for contraction) or simply acknowledge that their trading model no longer works, and give up exporting completely.

If we now return to the Financial Times, we see the usual blather about "Brexit red tape" – a common resort with most of the legacy media – which gives a flavour of the "teething troubles" so airily dismissed by Johnson. Irritating and complex it might be, in due course hauliers, traders and officials will get used to it (those that survive) and deal with it in the same way that those exporting to the rest of the world have had to do.

The "red tape" therefore, is by no means the worst of the problems – certainly in the longer term – but here we have the FT trio airily tell us that the fishermen "must now fill in customs declarations, catch documents and export health certificates, among other things".

What is particularly wrong about this – and an insult to readers – is the assertion that the fishermen, as exporters, have to fill in customs declarations. They don't. These have to be filled in by the importer.

But, as I have rehearsed many times on this blog, to make the distinction is no idle pedantry. What we see as a concomitant of leaving the EU is that the entire relationship between seller and buyer is irrevocably changed – and very much for the worst.

Rightly, the FT says, before 1 January, fishermen could simply load their produce on to lorries for next-day delivery to the EU. But now, a point which the FT omits is that, as exporters, their responsibility for their products extends only to the border of the EU customs areas. From thereon, control is transferred to the border authorities.

To release products from that control into what is known as "free circulation" requires an importer – a legal entity who (or which) has to be resident in an EU member state. Known as the "declarants" in EU legal jargon, they have to lodge the customs declarations. They then have to manage the notification to the EU's TRACES database, which then generates a Common Health Entry Document (CHED) to allow the products entry into to the Union, whence official controls are applied, followed by the (separate) customs formalities.

The point, therefore, is not so much that the exporter has to deal with "red tape". Rather, it is the fact that importers (formerly known as customers) themselves are burdened with a significant amount of "red tape". They also have to pay any fees or duties (even if they can then reclaim them from the exporter) and then they have to take on the legal liabilities associated with the sale or use the products.

Long-term, it will be these issues which will have (and are having) the greatest impact on trade. Few EU-based buyers, able to enjoy the simplicity of ordering from a supplier within the Single Market, will accept the burdens of importing from the UK, unless there are very strong reasons to do so.

As an individual blogger, it took me a considerable amount of time and effort to understand this problem and its implications. In my view, without at least the basic knowledge of how the system works, no one is qualified to report on it. Yet we have the FT and other media organs, far better resourced than I, with privileged access to government and other sources – and still they don't understand it, thus misrepresenting what is going on.

By the same measure, the discussion on the comments section of the previous blogpost, on "invoking" Article 16 of the Irish Protocol, readily illustrates how difficult – and time consuming getting to grips with the detail really is, something most of the media have never bothered to do.

This blog is now in its 17th year. Through rain and shine, seven days a week, 365 days a year (and one more on the leap years) adding up to more than 6,000 days, I and my former partner (the late Helen Szamuely) and now Pete, have provided a free service – unfunded but for the generosity of our readers. The number of days when there has not been a post you can count on the fingers of one hand.

During the Referendum campaign, and in the years since – as the debate became more heated and the issues multiplied – it has been rare for me to see my bed before 3am and, on some summer nights, I've seen the sun come up before I've pressed the "publish" button.

And yet, we get the (usually anonymous) drive-by comments on the blog, the off-piste snark, and the new form of censorship comprising sustained no-platforming, which ensures that this work is seen elsewhere less often than I would like. For all that, blogging is its own reward, developing a momentum of its own, with a sizeable readership looking at our blogs.

Traitor to the cause I might be but, higher powers and Covid permitting, we'll still be here tomorrow – 6,000-plus days and counting – doing our best to get it right.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few