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Brexit: Kamikaze pilots

2018-08-02 08:22:32

You would think that, with all the resources available to him, and after all this time, the Telegraph's Allister Heath might have learned something of the way the European Union works.

But, in an utterly mad article, headed: "The kamikaze Brexit strategy of this Government beggars belief", the man manages to display a staggering lack of comprehension that, had it not been part of a continuum, would simply beggar belief.

At least, however, the article does one thing – it portrays a common view of Mrs May's administration. Thus writes Heath, "Its incompetence in its handling of the greatest question of our times is now so extraordinary, so mind-boggling, that it is at times hard to believe that any of this is actually happening".

But, from there, it's all downhill. Mr Heath asserts that we have ended up with a "kamikaze government" that appears to have – deliberately or inadvertently – "put itself in a situation where the only way it thinks it can convince us to buy its ridiculous Chequers plan is to highlight all the problems, real, inflated or imaginary, that a no deal with zero preparations would entail".

And this is where the man starts going so spectacularly wrong in assuming that it is at all possible to prepare for a "no deal" scenario. Heath actually asserts that it is this government's job to ensure such preparations are made. He wants it "to identify and implement policies to eliminate or minimise disruption from a 'no deal' outcome.

And this supposed lack of action has the government "in effect campaigning against itself, exposing or even exaggerating its own failings". An administration, says Heath, that once claimed to believe that "no deal is better than a bad deal" has tacitly allied itself with the most extreme of Remainers, and through its inactivity, blundering and silence, is doing their work for them.

From here, we then descend into a bizarre fantasy as Heath declares that a "normal government" would have worked out exactly what needs to be done to keep planes flying and supermarkets stocked.

This, he says, "is not about succumbing to the fear-mongers: a series of tricky yet solvable technical problems would arise from terminating our membership of the EU while not replacing it with any other legal arrangement" He then continues:
A sensible government would not be shy about telling us, in extreme detail and accompanied by extensive legal advice, how it would resolve these issues: all of this would be public information, and directed at UK as well as European audiences. Better the truth than have to rely on the sewer that is the Twittersphere for gossip and rumour. Some good, technical work may indeed have been done under the leadership of some ministers, but unfortunately not in a visible way, and it has been overshadowed by the failure of central government to communicate with local authorities or business.
Mr Heath lambasts civil servants who want to use the M20 as a lorry car park and asks why there is no truly sustainable solution. Why "hasn't the government purchased or rented vast amounts of land in the proper place, and used emergency rules to bypass planning red tape? There are powers available on the statute book for the government to act during times of emergency.

And so the fantasy develops: "why hasn't it recruited 1000 vets from abroad, to make sure that checks on meat and other foodstuffs can be made at the border - paying them massive bonuses if need be? Why hasn't it worked out what to do at Dover, supposedly the key port health authority? Why hasn't it earmarked £5bn or £10bn in emergency funding, with massive cash prizes for contractors that work 24 hours a day to deliver what must be done?

But here, it gets truly surreal. Why, asks Heath, can't the government negotiate a bridging mini-deal with France to ensure than none of this is necessary? Why isn’t that the sole purpose of Theresa May’s trip to see Emmanuel Macron?

Why, he adds, can't the Prime Minister calmly point out to Mr Macron and the rest of the EU how the UK would respond to a one-sided imposition of full third-country customs checks on UK exports? And ditto any decision by the Irish to attempt to cut off Northern Ireland's electricity supply? Will this government ever be firm, or can it only beg?

And therein lie the core misunderstandings of the man. Does he not realise that France is a Member State of the European Union? Does he not understand that the country is not a free agent and that, in particular, the customs union and the common commercial policy are exclusive competences of the Union. Even if it was willing to do so, France can't negotiate a "bridging mini-deal" with the UK.

Then there is the canard of the "one-sided imposition of full third-country customs checks on UK exports". Heath and his fellow travellers just cannot seem to cope with the concept that no-one is imposing third country checks on the UK. These checks are already in place and apply to all third countries, with any modifications that might arise from bilateral trade agreements.

In this context - as Michel Barnier has so often observed – it is the UK which is leaving the EU and, by that action, is according itself the status of third country. The third country checks are not being imposed on the UK – the UK has elected to change its status where they automatically apply.

The point is simple enough. I have used the analogy of a medieval walled city, inside which the traders happily do business – with the public and between themselves – secure within the fortifications. When a trader (unhappy with the rules and regulations) decides to move his stall outside the walls, he cannot then complain that he is no longer able to trade freely with the people still inside.

It is Mr Heath's complete inability to understand this point that leads him astray. As long as he believes that the controls, the checks, the restrictions and everything else are things the EU is doing to us, he can allow himself to believe that change is possible and can be negotiated.

This is a man, incidentally, who favours "WTO rules", but in another lapse of understanding, does not seem to realise that, under WTO non-discrimination rules, the EU cannot make exceptions for the UK on the application of its third country rules, unless it applies them to all other third countries. And, to do so, would effectively demolish the EU's external policy. This it simply cannot do.

On this basis, if the UK exits without a deal, third country checks will automatically apply to its exports to the EU. There is absolutely nothing Mrs May can do about this. Her government may employ 1000 vets from abroad to check foods coming into the country, but what matters (when we are finally allowed to export) is how many vets the governments of EU Member States are prepared to hire, in order to check foods of UK origin coming into their countries.

Here, also, there is another major conceptual failure, shared widely by politicians and media alike. It is not the checks in the UK which will cause the delays. The UK government can indeed exercise emergency powers to make sure that goods flow freely once they reach our borders. And there is no problem with the WTO. The UK can always apply a national security waiver.

What matters are the checks made at the Member State borders. One would not think that we would have to spell this out but the point is that – if we take the Dover-Calais route - there are only so many ferries and only so many berths and, at Calais, there is only so much space in the port area.

What will happen is that, as checks are applied at Calais, there will be a backlog of vehicles awaiting clearance, causing increasing port congestion. As spaces fill up, newly arrived ferries will not be able to unload, and will have to sit idle awaiting their turn. This means that no more ferries can enter the port, and no more vehicles can be loaded or transported to the UK.

This is why I'm suggesting that, if delays are to be avoided, the number of vehicles that are sent to the EU Member State ports must be restricted to a level where their authorities can process them. And if that means having ferries going to France empty – or with just returning empty vehicles – that will be the price we have to pay to keep food and other vital imports rolling in.

Yet Mr Heath's mad idea is that the UK Government would be telling us that it would keep the border entirely open with France for an extended period, allowing all goods, food and medicines to come in freely. In his distorted, uncomprehending view, this would make shortages impossible and keep supply chains going.

Mrs May's Government would "also be explaining the legal basis for such an approach, whether any new legislation would be needed and how any objections from the WTO would be ignored until the proper infrastructure is constructed" – not that any of this would matter in the least.

The real madness, then, is in Heath's expectation that the Europeans would reciprocate. But, of course, they can't and won't.

This madman's answer to that is that our government could promise to indemnify all agricultural exporters, and perhaps others too, or help them in some other way, in the short run, in full knowledge of the legal issues.

It could encourage retailers to source far more of their goods and produce from outside the EU, and to shift supply chains as soon as possible, inflicting immediate pain on EU producers. It could cut VAT and other taxes to cushion any disruption.

So, according to Mr Heath, we turn our backs on £270 billion-worth of trade with the EU and, at the drop of a hat, arrange alterative suppliers for, amongst other things, 40 percent of our food supplies. Good luck with that.

The real madness then is in the Telegraph Group giving this man a platform and the power – as editor of The Sunday Telegraph - to spread his ignorance. The cartoon shows Mrs May at the controls of the bomber, but the real Kamikaze pilots are the likes of Mr Heath and the target is the UK.