EU Referendum

Brexit: a global future for global newts


The speed with which the Johnson speech is fading from the legacy media is perhaps an indication of its inadequacy. It was supposed to be an agenda-setter but its half-life has been less than 24 hours. By the weekend, it'll be political history.

Mrs May now bears the torch, which will doubtless be prominent when she visits Germany today for what are described (by some) as "crunch talks" with Angela Merkel, and then delivers her much-anticipated speech.

One wonders if our prime minister has learned anything from previous experience and understand that the UK's fate will not be determined in Berlin. The meeting, therefore, may be considerably less important than she anticipates. In any event, the powers of a politically enfeebled Merkel are waning.

As for her speech, the focus on security may play well with our Nato allies – or not. Her government's defence cut-backs and its inability even to commit the promised two percent of GDP to defence spending, may speak louder than her words.

Even if Mrs May's speech has anything genuinely of interest to add on the subject, which is unlikely, it will most likely be seen for what it is – an attempt to distract attention from the intractable problems besetting the Brexit talks.

Mrs May has tried this on before, at Florence, using the issue as a carrot which she hoped would motivate the "colleagues" to forget about the finer points of the withdrawal agreement.

In particular, she proposed a "bold new strategic agreement that provides a comprehensive framework for future security, law enforcement and criminal justice co-operation: a treaty between the UK and the EU". This, she said, "would complement the extensive and mature bi-lateral relationships that we already have with European friends to promote our common security".

The ploy didn't work last time, and she should not expect any better treatment this time round. While security cooperation will be welcome – on the EU's terms – there will be no quid pro quo that enables the UK to trade concessions on market access for commitments to support European security initiatives. The EU simply doesn't work that way.

Mrs May would be better advised to focus on undoing some of the damage caused by her idiot foreign secretary, with his obsession for "taking back control" of law-making, and his belief that the UK can go it alone on regulation.

There is probably no better way of spooking the EU than by indulging in the sort of stupidity that Johnson has made his speciality. Not least is his complete failure to understand that so much trading legislation is of global origin, which we would have to apply whether we were in or out of the EU.

Thus, when Mr Johnson in his speech, made an offhand reference to environmental impact assessments, as an "EU regime", he forbore to mention that the requirement for such assessments stems not primarily from EU legislation. It actually originates in the Espoo Convention which started off life as a European treaty under the aegis of UNECE and has since become a global instrument.

One of Johnson's particular references was to need "to build special swimming pools for newts", an entirely valid complaint that has caused no end of delays and extra costs to building developments.

This was an issue raised by Owen Paterson who noted that, each year over 1,000 licences are issued to keep great crested newts out of development sites, stopping housing being built and costing businesses dearly. One developer in Buckinghamshire had been forced to spend £1 million catching 150 of the amphibians – a species that in the UK is not even threatened.

Yet, they are much scarcer on the continent so, because of this, desperately needed homes in Britain can't be built. But when Mr Paterson, as environment secretary, attempted to secure amendments to the Habitats Directive to relieve British businesses of this burden, the then Environment Commissioner Janez Potocnik refused to open "Pandora box".

Said Paterson, lawmaking in a sane system should not be a Pandora's Box. A huge advantage of leaving the EU is that should we find that our legislation interpreting international conventions did not work well in practice, we could amend or repeal - or if necessary strengthen it - in response to changes in our own species and habitats.

However, even Paterson got it wrong – having like most ministers, and especially Johnson, only a slender grasp of our international commitments. The reason newts are listed in the Habitats Directive is because they appear in Appendix II of the Bern Convention, a treaty agreed under the aegis not of the EU but of the Council of Europe.

That puts the Great Crested Newt (Triturus cristatus) on the IUCN Red List of "threatened species" and, as long as it is there, the EU is obliged to keep it on its own list. Similarly, once we leave the EU, it will remain on our equivalent of the Habitats Directive – which we are committed to re-enact.

Had Mr Paterson been serious in his attempt to deal with the problem, it was not Brussels to which he should have gone, but Strasbourg – home of the Council of Europe - to seek an amendment to the Bern Convention listing.

Since the IUCN "red list" categorises this amphibian as "Least Concern", and acknowledges that it is "widely distributed from the United Kingdom and northern France, through southern Scandinavia, and central Europe", it should not have been overly difficult to have obtained a suitable change, thus reducing the costs and delays to UK developers.

The complex interaction between national, regional and global provisions was something I noted in my study of the Somerset Levels flooding (Appendix 1), and it is something the UK government will need to address before its starts meddling with the law books. Our scope for action in many different areas is far more constrained than most would imagine.

But such subtleties (and complexities) are totally beyond the grasp of the likes of Johnson – and, indeed, any of his cabinet colleagues.

While Johnson himself would prefer to waffle about "carrots" in his own inane way, and the debate in general gets bogged down own in interminable discussions on tariffs and customs union, these are the realities of Brexit that none of the politicians (or the media) are addressing.

Glibly, the foreign secretary talked about "an outward-looking liberal global future for a confident United Kingdom", but in fact he knows so vanishingly little about global governance that his burbling is supremely irrelevant.

So ignorant is he that he doesn't even begin to understand the scale of his own ignorance, allowing him to declare without so much as a blush that, "in a world that demands flexibility and agility, we should be thinking not of EU standards but of global standards".

This is ignorance beyond the reach of any remedy, the typical High Tory malaise where those afflicted are so imbued with their own magnificence that they cannot conceive that there is something they don't know.

These people will go to their graves more ignorant than when they were born, having built through their careers impenetrable barriers against the acquisition of knowledge. They are the people who are wrecking Brexit, simply because – in their own estimations - they know it all and have nothing left to learn.