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Brexit: as good as it gets

2019-06-25 08:09:55

Asked, in effect, during an interview by the BBC's Laura Kuenssberg why the EU would renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, despite having unequivocally declared it would not, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, had this to say:
First of all, don't forget, that as I say they got the Brexit MEPs they don't particularly want. They want us out, they've got the incentive of the money. They've also got to understand, Laura, is what has changed and what will be so different is that the intellectual capital that had been invested in the whole backstop had really come from the UK side. We were committed to it. We actually helped to invent it. We were the authors of our own incarceration. Take that away. Change the approach of the UK negotiators and you have a very different outcome.
Taken on its own, this is gibberish. It lacks coherence and meaning. In order to understand what the man is saying one has to delve into other parts of the interview, and reconstruct his statements, assembling the bits in an attempt to work out what the man actually means. But, before we go there, Kuenssberg asks what happens if that isn't enough. Johnson replies:
… the other tool of negotiation that you should use, not only the incentives of getting this thing done, moving it over the line, getting the money across and all the rest, but you have the extra incentive of course that the UK will be ready to come out as you know on WTO terms.
This is the best the man can offer, in a soft-focus interview where he is in control and has every opportunity to state his case on Brexit. And still he can't make himself clear. But if – as we are forced to do – we dip into the rest of the interview, we can perhaps distil some of the clarity that we need, that Johnson is unable to deliver.

At least the first point is relatively clear. The European Parliament elections have sent them 29 "Brexit MEPs" that they don't [particularly] want. This, supposedly, provides an incentive for the EU to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement – presumably because it gets the UK "out", notwithstanding that a no-deal Brexit on 31 October achieves the same effect, without the EU having to do anything.

On that basis, I think we can safely dismiss this as a credible argument for a renegotiation. If we wanted to be kind, we could assume that this is just a make-weight, on which Johnson places no great reliance. But this brings us to the second point.

Re-ordering this somewhat, it would seem that the key to Johnson's argument is that the UK will be changing its approach to the backstop. For what he has in mind, though, we have to go elsewhere in the interview.

To recap separately, by way of background, the current joint EU/UK approach to avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is to keep both in a common customs area – with Northern Ireland obeying the rules of the customs union – while also maintaining cross-border regulatory conformity.

Johnson, however, wants to take a different approach. And for details of that, we must rely on what he calls "a very good report just today by Shanker Singham and many others looking at the modalities of how to do this".

This is something, Johnson tells Kuenssberg, "that had been worked on extensively for the last three years". There are, he says, "plenty of checks that you can do away from the border if you had to do them without any kind of hard infrastructure at the Northern Ireland frontier".

If we then look at this report (which Kuenssberg probably has not read), we see that Singham et al set out their stall in such a way as to preserve the right to regulatory divergence in the future, relying either on "deemed equivalence" or mutual recognition to allow "as near as possible frictionless trade between the UK (including NI) and the rest of the EU including IE".

This is absolutely classic Singham moonshine, but clothed in dense verbiage which conceals what would otherwise be a very obvious lack of understanding of how the EU Single Market works.

Recognising that, despite all their best efforts, some border checks would be necessary, the Singham "team" postulate that "mobile inspection units with associated technology" could be provided "to manage and perform inspections of goods and customs documentation at locations away from the border". And this would be supported by "intelligence-led market surveillance through the use of advanced analytics".

To all intents and purposes, this is MaxFac in taffeta, a scheme which – even if the EU could be prevailed upon to accept – could not, according to a leaked Home Office memo, be in place before 2030.

Contrary to this received wisdom, however, Singham et al believe what they are now calling "Alternative Arrangements" (in capitals) "should be up and running within three years". Relying on this absurd assertion, Johnson burbles:
Let me tell you, there are abundant, abundant technical fixes that can be introduced to make sure that you don't have to have checks at the border. That's the crucial thing. And everybody accepts that there are ways you can check for the rules of origin, there are ways you can check for compliance with EU goods and standards, of our goods standards.
It would thus be fair for us to deduce that the central point of Johnson's case for a renegotiation is the Singham et al report, which he expects the EU to entertain and accept, thereby dropping the backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement.

Resiling from the commitment to the financial settlement, he thinks "creative ambiguity about when and how that gets paid over" will bring the EU to the table whence, on the premise that the Singham et al report is a credible option, a new implementation (aka transition) period will be granted by the EU so that all the outstanding issues can be "tackled on the other side of 31 October", after we have left the EU.

And all this becomes possible because Mr Johnson is prepared to take the UK out of the EU "on WTO terms", this being the decisive point which will have the "colleagues" abandoning their commitment to the Withdrawal Agreement, and reopening negotiations. And these renegotiations, affording us the luxury of a backstop-free transition period, will be concluded (and ratified) by 31 October.

Perhaps the single thing that is most damning about this approach is that the EU has already made specific concessions on "alternative arrangements", as part of the Strasbourg Agreement of 11 March 2019, from which this joint statement emerged. In this, it was agreed that the UK and the EU would work to agree by 31 December 2020 that "alternative arrangements" could render the backstop unnecessary.

In that event, it was further agreed that a "specific negotiating track" would be established as part of the overall negotiations on the UK/EU future relationship, to "lead the analysis and development of these alternative arrangements", with "a view to assessing their potential to replace, in whole or in part, the backstop solution".

This is about as far as the EU is prepared to go, and for that to be implemented, the UK must first ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. It is not within the realm of practical politics that the EU can now be expected to prejudge the outcome of agreed joint deliberations and accept unreservedly the views of the Singham "team", on the basis of assurances by a new prime minister, thereby abandoning the backstop.

But that, in a nutshell – when one cuts through the burble about "positive energy" - is what Mr Johnson is proposing. And in best blackmailing style, it is backed up by a threat of withholding the financial settlement , plus a commitment to leaving under WTO rules if his demand is not met.

It does not take a genius, political or otherwise, to realise that this will not fly. So obvious is this that even the Financial Times understands it, citing a tweet from David Lidington at the weekend, stating: "Erm, the Implementation Period is actually part of the Withdrawal Agreement. It's in Part 4 of the Agreement, articles 126 to 132. No Deal exit = no Withdrawal Agreement = no Implementation Period".

Against his pledge to "come out of the EU at Halloween on 31 October", that can only mean one thing: under a Johnson premiership, we must face up to a no-deal Brexit.

Whether, of course, Johnson honours his pledge, when faced with the realities of an EU which stands by its oft-stated policy, is anyone's guess. This is a man on whose word no one can rely, pointed out by Max Hastings who cites an observation made in 1750 by a contemporary savant, Bishop Berkeley: "It is impossible that a man who is false to his friends and neighbours should be true to the public".

So, despite another fruit salad of verbiage from Johnson, we are no further forward. A better-prepared and more skilled interviewer might have brought this out, but then it is the BBC we're dealing with.

Even then, to get the full flavour of the interview, we had to rely on the transcript. Those who watched only the edited broadcast would have even greater difficulty following the thrust of the argument. But, in what passes for political debate, this is as good as it gets.