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Brexit: reality at arm's length

2018-11-01 08:21:30

When I submitted my PhD thesis, 40 percent of the marks went to the introduction, the main part of which was the literature review in which I had to summarise all the previous work in my field that was relevant to the study.

The purpose was to set the base line for the study, thus substantiating the claim to be producing original work and not simply reinventing the wheel. This is a discipline which applies to the publication of most original research and one I've never forgotten.

Arguably, one would not necessarily expect it to apply to the practice of politics but it nevertheless makes good sense to do a level of investigation of what has been and what is, before embarking on anything substantially new.

Had that applied to Nick Boles, before he had launched his abortive "Norway Now" stratagem, he might have better understood what he was attempting to do, and the political limitations of his own ideas. But, as it was, he tried to reinvent the wheel, coming up with his own version of the "Norway option", with very little idea of what he was dealing with.

In retrospect, it looks as if he was talking to an audience of Tory MPs within his own bubble, rather than the broader community. He had not even troubled to ascertain whether the existing members of Efta would welcome the idea of the UK using them as a temporary parking spot.

Now that his ill-considered idea has been exposed to the real world, it has fallen at the fence, as it was always going to. There is no recovering it. It is dead. It cannot survive the outright rejection of the Norwegian government.

The hope is that Boles has not done irreparable damage, but I fear he has. The rejection is being spun as a general rejection of the Norway option, which means there isn't now enough time to get a new initiative up and running. In many respects, this was our last shot at the Efta/EEA option. Boles has blown it.

We seem almost certainly now to be headed for a "no deal". If, post-Brexit, there is a further attempt to rejoin Efta, this will be seen as a distress purchase. We will be in a terribly weak position and one where the Efta states probably will not want to know.

On that basis, the damage the man has done is probably permanent. Where there is life, there is hope, but Boles has sown the seeds of mistrust, and it is very hard to see how the Efta states could ever entertain an application from the UK to rejoin, without suspecting an ulterior motive.

But, if the Efta/EEA option has been shelved (permanently or otherwise), that has not brought us any closer to any other form of Brexit deal.

There was a brief flurry yesterday, when a letter from Dominic Raab to EU exit committee chairman Hilary Benn was over-interpreted by an excitable media which took it to mean that a deal was expected by 21 November.

It took only hours for a correction to be issued by Raab's own department, which stressed that the date referred on to the secretary of state's availability to give evidence to the committee. This had the media turning on a sixpence as it sought to explain why so many of its gifted hacks had jumped the gun.

Back in Brussels meantime, EU ambassadors for the 27 member states were being told that "nothing new" had emerged from recent contacts with Olly Robbins and Barnier's officials.

Sabine Weyand, Barnier's deputy, repeated the obvious, that we were in the "final stretch on the backstop talks" and then confirmed what we had already guessed. "Nothing has changed, there are no new ideas", she said.

Nothing special is planned either, with contacts continuing only on a technical level. There are no plans for Mrs May to go dashing off to another exotic European city to deliver a speech which will miraculously bring the talks back on track. However, I understand that St Mark's Square in Venice is fairly quiet at the moment.

Short of that, one wonders whether for the next 149 days I'm going to be reporting "no progress" and we count down to Brexit day and what looks like the inevitable "no deal". At least the uncertainty has provoked an untypical degree of candour in Jonathan Portes, who tweets: "Experts say: at this point, we're just as clueless as everybody else". Plus ça change, one might say.

Also unchanging is the pomposity of the Farmers Weekly which sternly enjoins that "an abiding quality of rational, intelligent people is the ability, when faced with the vicissitudes of life, to calmly and confidently change one's mind without appearing foolish or losing the respect of one's peers".

This is a prelude to instructing its readers to abandon the "increasingly self-evident folly" of Brexit, unaware that the term is an absolute: something is either "self-evident" or it isn't.

For a magazine which has consistently failed to acquaint its readers with the realities of Brexit from the very get-go, it has now taken fright and decided that "any thoughts of a bonfire of regulation at home is vanishing as quickly as the proverbial politician’s promise".

"If, in the light of what we know now", it tells us, "the genuine will of the UK electorate is still to leave, then advocates of Brexit have nothing to fear from a second referendum". If it isn’t, the magazine says, "denying us the opportunity to change our minds while we still can is a denial of the very democratic process they so ardently espouse".

One does so marvel at those who call in aid the "democratic" process in an attempt to return us to a fundamentally anti-democratic construct, to say nothing of those who deny the legitimacy of the last referendum yet are so keen to see another one, as if its conduct could be any better than the last.

However, there is no such equivocation in Brussels where the "colleagues" at least understand that there is no turning back and are stepping up planning for a "no deal" Brexit.

A committee of EU ambassadors has agreed to organise a series of seminars to work out details of the EU's response to a "no-deal". Sessions will deal with such issues as civil aviation between the UK and EU, the protection of citizens' rights, the operation of border controls, and matters of detail such as whether the Eurostar and freight trains could still use the Channel tunnel.

Personally, I am not at all convinced that it will be entirely possible to plan for a "no deal" Brexit, and certainly not within less than 150 days. Just developing the infrastructure at the major Channel ports to deal with the necessary border controls would take some years.

Furthermore, all of the pundits are consistently underestimating the complexity of brokering aviation deals which will keep aircraft flying, not only between the EU and the UK, but between the UK and the United States and all the other countries where agreements have been made under the aegis of the EU.

The length and complexity of a typical bilateral agreement on aviation safety (BASA) is such that, even with the best will in the world, settling a draft would take many months – with as many more for formal agreement and ratification. And so specific are the details that a "cut-n-paste" from other agreements is not a practical proposition.

Still, though, we get the likes of Owen Paterson, who should know better, bleating about the merits of a "clean Brexit". As intellectually vacuous as those who would sweep away Brexit and return seamlessly to the bosom of "Mother Europe", what the likes of Paterson can never bring themselves to do is spell out what happens on day one of their sudden break.

With even Grayling admitting that there could be problems with commercial aviation, how does Owen think that air services would survive a "no deal" Brexit? Does he really think that there would be no disruption at the ports, that UK drivers' licences would still be valid on the roads of EU Member States, that we could freely export our chemicals, our medicines and our farm products?

And when trade between the EU and the UK collapses, just how much does he think that would cost the UK economy, and what the level of lost tax to the exchequer might be?

If nothing else, Brexit is exposing the irrationality of British politics, where fantasies are given free rein and reality is held at arm's length.