EU Referendum

EU Referendum: more angst on Article 50


If any one of the great sages struggling to come to terms with the implications of leaving the EU, and particularly the timescale relating to Article 50, had actually read Flexcit instead of loftily ignoring it, they would save us all a great deal of time and trouble.

Instead, the arrogant minority who have hijacked our referendum are holding sway, fortified by their own ignorance and prejudices. Driven by the exigencies of prestige and the largely oral culture of the London-centric bubble demands, they don't actually read things - and especially not anything written by lowly serfs. Instead, the gilded chatterati prefer to imbibe their knowledge directly from high-prestige figures. 

If possible, they'll do it over a dining table in an expensive restaurant, where a "cheap" bottle of wine will set you back over £130. Failing that, they'll pick it up from the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, the house programme for the "bubble", feeding it with its talking points for the day. 

Thus it came to pass that on the Today programme yesterday that we had former head of the Civil Service Gus O'Donnell giving a more-or-less coherent rendition of the EU withdrawal procedure. The section in Flexcit is far more comprehensive and without the errors that O'Donnell managed to inject - but he is from the Master Race so he gets the slot on the Today programme to talk to the chatterati.

In a four-minute interview, he correctly invoked Article 50 and the two-year period, which was not so very difficult, even for a top Civil Servant. But he displayed his broad ignorance of the genesis of the Article, which is unsurprising. You have to do some serious research to know of the background (or read this blog). Being a former head of the Civil Service means never having to do your homework - and he wouldn't even know of the existence of this lowly blog.  

That notwithstanding, O'Donnell talked limited sense. For instance, he told us that the country would be likely to walk away from the exit negotiations without any "great successes". Countries like France and Germany, he said, would not allow Britain to leave with a good deal because they would not want to play into the hands of anti-EU opponents in their forthcoming elections next year

He could have taken it further and discussed the "better deal fallacy", which sustains many of the Muppets in the leave campaign. But his observations were enough to put the prospect of a "better deal" back in the box. 

Crucially, though, he warned that the negotiations would "take a very long time", which is precisely why, many years ago now when we started looking at this problem, we came up with the idea of an interim solution in order to bring us within the time frame available.

Still, however, we are getting these malign fools in Vote Leave who, according to the Telegraph and their own website, are arguing that "the UK could renegotiate an exit without triggering Article 50". There is no excuse for this, and no other way to describe this wilful rejection of common sense as anything other than the way we have. 

So here we are, less than three months from the referendum, and the leave campaign as a whole has not settled on the basics. Worse than that, in Vote Leave we have one of the main players offering a crass perversion which opens the door to the likes of O'Donnell and the "remain" campaign to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt when we could have had all the answers firmly in place. 

Instead, the best we get is a counter from justice minister Dominic Raab who grandly declares O'Donnell "wrong", saying – not without merit – that O'Donnell isn't a diplomat or an international lawyer. "I used to negotiate treaties and tell you we could get an exit agreement", he says.

But what we don't get from Raab is any intimation of how his apparent miracle is to be achieved. Apart from Vote Leave's insane proposal that we by-pass Article 50, trawling the newspapers leaves us none the wiser. All we have to work with is the usual tit-for-tat: he says this, he says that.

Had the High and the Mighty descended from their pinnacles and taken Flexcit on board, instead of ignoring it as they still do, Raab could have said with confidence, "we have a worked-out plan. It says ...". But despite all our efforts, it was peremptorily rejected by Dominic Cummings a man who, until I told him, was completely unaware that there was a two-year time limit to Article 50. 

Cummings did not even have the decency to tell me to my face that he going to reject Flexcit. He left us to find out though third parties. To this day we don't have a coherent reason. Nevertheless, we look elsewhere for support, then to have it ditched by a cowardly Arron Banks and his shambles, a man who promised everything and did precisely nothing. 

Without the coherent plan that Flexcit gives us - a plan that could have been in place two years ago - we have the Guardian happily parading the headline: "UK would struggle to negotiate EU exit in two years, warns O'Donnell", and the Independent running with: "Brexit negotiations could last a whole decade, former head of the civil service Gus O'Donnell warns". There are others, spread right across the media.

This is exactly what we wanted to avoid. This is why we spent so much time and effort writing Flexcit. This is why we persevered even after being shafted by the IEA and the thoroughly dishonest Lord Lawson. This is why we continued even after Lawson had so abused his position by rigging the voting for the IEA Brexit prize. And this is why we have kept going, long after the squalid excuse for a first prize entry has disappeared without trace, contributing nothing to the debate.

If the serried ranks of myopic fools had spent even a fraction of the time and effort we have devoted to the issues, they would (or should) have realised that Article 50 was a game-changer. They should have known (or be told by people who knew) that we were going to have come up with something imaginative and original to deal with it. But those few who even gave it a thought could never get past their own prejudices, and look at the issues afresh.  

Without the backstabbing and betrayals, there might have been Flexcit in place. Then there would have been no traction for headlines such as those which we are now seeing - and will see again before this campaign is out. And even then, there are other infelicities in O'Donnell's little dissertation which should not have survived either. They are also dealt with in Flexcit, and should have been long-buried as issues.

Some of these are pointed out by Mr Brexit in his analytical blogpost. He starts with O'Donnell telling us that we would have to negotiate our entry to the single market and we would have to negotiate our future relationship with the EU. That much is true, but O'Donnell then goes on to assert that, "we have to negotiate our trade treaties with all other countries". 

This, Mr Brexit has no hesitation in branding "wrong". There is absolutely no need for renegotiations. We are able to rely wholly or mainly on the presumption of continuity, which means that we will not be under any pressure to negotiate trade treaties with other countries during the Article 50 period. 

This then brings us to another issue, the possibility of extending the negotiating period. "Obviously at the end of two years anything we haven't negotiated has to be extended by unanimity of a vote excluding us so that's a bit scary", says O'Donnell. He is correct is saying this.

As explained perfectly reasonably in the Government's own analysis, for the UK to be confronted with the requirement for unanimity from a large number of negotiating partners, each of whom would seek to defend their interests, "should be expected to be difficult and involve potentially unpalatable trade-offs".

Basically, if we don't reach an agreement within two years, one option is the "sudden death" of the WTO Option. That would be catastrophic - even if there are many so ignorant of international trade rules that they still haven't been able to work out why. The other is being forced to make "unpalatable trade-offs" in return for an agreement to continue the talks. These are places we don't want to be. 

Cue then Fraser Nelson with his own particular brand of malign, arrogant stupidity. This was the man who, not so long ago was writing for the Telegraph sharing his ignorance on Article 50, earnestly telling us that, "if a nation votes to leave, it cannot be in the room when other EU members discuss the terms of its departure".

When confronted with his own stupidity, he did what people is his position so often do. He resorted to lofty condescension, denying error and then compounding it by declaring: "there will be other ways to leave the EU than Article 50" – exactly the message we're getting from Vote Leave at the moment, one which is destroying the credibility of the leave campaign.

But being Fraser Nelson means never having to admit that you're wrong - much less admitting to being terminally prone to the kind of stupidity that only over-promotion and lack of ability can bring. That means there is no corrective at work and no bar to his repeating errors or inventing them anew. Nelson, in common with most of the London-centric "bubble", has surrounded himself with an impenetrable barrier to the acquisition of new knowledge - allowing him to revel in his own ignorance.

Protected thus from any learning experience, and wholly insulated from the plebs who might venture that the Emperor lacks garments, he now has the utter gall to pontificate from the lofty heights that he so easily inhabits. In Nelson's imagination - an exclusive repository that exists nowhere else in the world - O'Donnell is "misleading the public about the EU rules on Brexit".

According to our new-found, supreme authority on EU law, "Sir Gus was involved in what can only be described as a systematic attempt to mislead the public about the EU and the terms in which Britain would leave". His errors, Nelson revealed to his readers with such obvious disdain were: "that it would take more than two years to negotiate the terms of UK's exit, and this deadline could only be prolonged with hard bargaining from hostile partners".

According to Boy Wonder, parading his supposed scintillating brilliance for all to see and admire: "there's only one problem with his argument: it's nonsense. The UK can take all the time it wants to leave the EU. Its rules require us to give two years' notice, which we do any time we want. So if we want six years, then we give notice after four years. The two-year period is a minimum, which Sir Gus is misrepresenting as a maximum".

If there were awards for chutzpah, surely Nelson would be in line for first prize. Not aware that he is in fact an object of derision, he tries out his size 12 boots to stomp over the territory, offering us this gem: "It does make you wonder about the quality of the advice he gave to prime ministers over the years: whether this is the first time that he made out that the EU has a gun to our head, when it didn't".

The mind-meld of stupidity and arrogance in this assertion is so profound that, initially, one is taken aback. We are left wondering whether we've missed anything, or whether this is an early 1 April send-up. Bearing in mind it was written on 30 March, that almost seems almost possible, except that the copy does bear the March date.

But without the treaty obligation imposed on them by Article 50, the "colleagues" are under no compulsion to partake in any talks. And while they might agree to engage in scoping talks, as is quite normal practice for such events, these cannot last indefinitely.

The one point Nelson does make with some justice is that O'Donnell could have challenged David Cameron's declared intent to trigger Article 50 as soon as Britain votes to leave. The two-year limit could be extended informally by delaying the notification, and it would make complete sense to do so.

But then to treat what is known as a "scoping period" as one capable of indefinite extension is, to put it bluntly, absurd. Not until they are in receipt of the Article 50 notification can the EU go through the formal procedures of agreeing a common position and appointing a negotiating team to represent the 27 remaining states in the talks. Nor indeed would they be prepared to devote the considerable resources required.

Much can be done in preliminary discussions, but there simply is no conceivable circumstances under which they could run on for four years or more.

Even to think they could is utterly bizarre. Amongst other things, it is pre-supposing that a UK government could withstand the "shitstorm" – as the Germans would call it - attendant on a delayed Article 50 notification. Imagine that the referendum in June 2017 had brought about a "leave" verdict. Would Mr Nelson like to give odds on the likelihood of the Conservatives being re-elected if they had not by May 2020 given formal notice of our intent to quit the EU?

But us mere mortals are not supposed to point out the stupidity of our "betters". Only they have the God-given right to waft in and bestow upon us their wisdom, without in any way having to account for reality, or stay long enough to engage with lesser mortals, even (or especially) those who happen to know what they are talking about.

And that is why, with the referendum closing by the day, we have not settled issues which should have been long resolved, and why this campaign has degenerated into one of the worst-managed displays of incompetence that I can ever recall. Then, it is far more important to remind us serfs of our place. Doing what is necessary to win this referendum is very much less of a priority.