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Brexit: the blame game

2018-08-06 08:05:20

The Telegraph and its allies are getting madder and madder. Currently, they are enlisting anonymous "senior Whitehall sources" to invoke Article 8 (TEU).

This is barrack room lawyer stuff where they point out that that the Article states that the Union is required to "develop a special relationship with neighbouring countries, aiming to establish an area of prosperity and good neighbourliness, founded on the values of the Union and characterised by close and peaceful relations based on cooperation".

Needless to say, they don't quote the whole of the Article. But paragraph 2, far from being mandatory, it is permissive. It declares that the Union "may conclude specific agreements with the countries concerned", and those agreements "may contain reciprocal rights and obligations as well as the possibility of undertaking activities jointly".

But such is the febrile atmosphere in London that the EU is deemed to be "stalling", thereby bringing the prospect of "no deal" ever closer. If it refuses to "compromise" on Brexit, unnamed ministers are warning that Brussels will be breaking its own laws.

According to our "senior Whitehall source", the situation is simplicity itself. He says: "We have made an offer that some people think is on the generous side and the EU has to know we are not kidding. If they don't like our offer they need to come back and say what the alternative is, but they can't just keep stalling".

This source has it that Brussels needs to accept "that we've done nothing wrong. We left under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty, which says they have obligations to help us. The way they are behaving is making things difficult and if we end up with no deal we will make it clear whose fault it was".

Thus, as the sheer incompetence of the May administration drives us inexorably towards a "no deal" scenario, the "blame Brussels" narrative is being dusted off and polished. By the time we come to dropping out, London will have acquired the girdle of innocence and the failure of the talks will be entirely the fault of the EU's "bully boys".

At least, that is the theory but, as we've seen, Barnier has long anticipated that stratagem and will have none of it. The EU will not be "impressed" by such claims, the stress being on the UK which is leaving the EU. "It cannot, on leaving, ask us to change who we are and how we operate", Barnier says.

But, if blame is becoming an open topic of discussion, it says little for the prospects of a successful resolution to the talks, especially as the "ultras" have been moving into high gear to talk down the consequences of a "no deal".

Latest in the long line of false witnesses is Matt Ridley, brother-in-law of Owen Paterson – showing the same level of judgement he displayed in his chairmanship of Northern Rock. He is using his column in The Times to churn out the same mantras, under the far-from-original headline: "We've nothing to fear from a world-trade Brexit".

You have to give it to these people: they are both predictable and consistent – and always wrong. Any measures Brussels could take "to strangle our economy in retaliation" (for our leaving) would, according to this great sage, "be illegal under the World Trade Organisation rules".

Claims that there could be customs delays and non-tariff standards barriers against British food exports or imports fly in the face of what we actually know, he says, asserting that the WTO's Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, its Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement and its Trade Facilitation Agreement "all now forbid discrimination against a WTO member".

Just simple logic should warn this man that there might be a little hole is his argument on the SPS Agreement. This agreement came into force on 1 January 1995 – 23 years ago. For all that period, controls of the import of foodstuffs into the EU have been developing and, after nearly a quarter of a century, they stand intact within the framework of the WTO, unchallenged.

It stands to reason that, after all this time, the EU's third country regime must be considered WTO compliant. And, as far as discrimination goes, the only way the EU would fall foul of WTO rules would be if it didn't apply these rules to the UK once it had become a third country. It would have all those countries which are currently subject to the regime complaining that the UK was being treated as a special case.

However, like his follow travellers, Ridley is extremely selective in what he quotes, relying on an extremely dishonest piece from Michael Burrage, who argues that over the 22 years from 1993 to 2015 the leading countries that export to the European Union "on WTO terms" grew their trade with the EU almost twice as fast as countries within the EU grew their trade with each other.

Not withstanding that there are no substantial economies trading with the EU on WTO terms, the point that emerges here is simply that developing countries grow their trade – from relatively low bases – faster in percentage terms than mature economies with longstanding trade relations. In the context of the Internal Market, the primary aim is to reduce the cost of cross-border trade and to speed up its flow.

But then, Burrage has form when it comes to the manipulation of data, having produced several reports, such as this and this, which badly misrepresent the situation.

Ridley's choice of source, therefore, says more about him than the validity of his arguments, more so when he uses an extremely tendentious quote attributed to Roberto Azevędo, director-general of the WTO.

This was in a piece written by another false witness, Liam Halligan, where Azevędo is claimed to have said: "About half of the UK's trade is already on WTO terms with the US, China and several large emerging nations where the EU doesn't have trade agreements. So it's not the end of the world if the UK trades under WTO rules with the EU".

The accuracy of that claim is extremely dubious, given that Azevędo had never said anything like it before (or since) and, a few days later he all but contradicted Halligan's "spin".

At that point, Azevędo said, "Whatever happens, this is not going to be a situation where all trade stops, and there is a collapse in terms of the economy as a whole - that for me would be the end of the world". 

He went on to say: "But it's not going to be a walk in the park. It's not like nothing happened, there will be an impact. It will be a very bumpy road, and maybe long as well". It is the first quote not the second that Ridley uses, the former fitting his narrative. This is a man with a mission to deceive – an out-and-out fraud who will do whatever it takes to make his case.

Of course, The Times is just as much at fault in allowing this rubbish to be printed. Freedom of speech is not a license to distort and, in return for the many privileges afforded them, newspapers have a duty to their readers to avoid misleading them. Editor John Witherow needs to get a grip. 

When it comes to the blame game, therefore, one must look at this in the round, where it is reasonable to assume that a properly informed public, aware of the consequences of a "no deal", would not tolerate a government which allowed it to happen.

Where newspapers allow the likes of Ridley falsely to downplay the consequences, they too must share some of the blame if the outcome goes in the direction of "no deal". The media must be more accountable for its actions and less tolerant of false witnesses in its ranks.

There are no circumstances where the WTO option could be anything other than disastrous. We have got to the stage where, in a mature debate, any claim to the contrary, and in particular assertions that there is "nothing to fear", is demonstrably false. Those who have not explored the issues have no business pronouncing on them.

Pete would have it that those who say we can rely on WTO rules as a basis for our post-Brexit trade relations are professional liars. I find it hard to disagree.