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Brexit: silence may be preferable

2020-01-23 06:07:23

Columnist Martin Kettle, in a headline in the Guardian has the nerve to tell us that Brexit is not "done", so "we" have to start talking about it again.

Of course, we haven't stopped talking about Brexit and, with some constancy, have been at pains to point out that the claim of Brexit being "done" is something akin to fraud.

But then, Kettle isn't talking about us. The "we" to which he refers is the legacy media, an institution which has just spent the best part of a month bloviating about the royal soap opera, to the exclusion of just about everything else, including Brexit.

And that rather adds to the bulk of evidence demonstrating that the media really does live in a world of its own. Nothing exists outside their foetid bubble and because they have gone silent on something, that automatically translates into the generalisation that "nobody" is talking about that particular issue.

But, before we embrace the idea of the media pouring out a torrent of news about the most important domestic political issue this century, we might also call for a significant upgrade in the quality of reporting and analysis. As much of what we actually get is hardly worth reading, more volume isn't necessarily to be welcomed.

A good example of this is one of the most recent propaganda offerings from the fanboy gazette which parades the "shock-horror" headline: "EU preparing to give UK worse trade deal terms than Canada or Japan", augmented yesterday by one of those fatuous "explainers", which serves to illustrate how little its author actually knows.

In the original piece, we have Peter Foster using that irritating formula, telling us that the Telegraph has "learned" that the European Union "is preparing to offer the UK a trade deal on tougher terms than its deals with Canada, Japan and a host of other leading trade partners".

As a statement of the bleedin' obvious, this really does take some beating. Even with the paucity of media coverage, you would need to have lived on a remote desert island for a couple of months not to be aware that this was the EU's intention. How many times does a Commission spokesman have to repeat this before it's no longer news that the Telegraph deems fit to print?

But the self-important Foster hasn't finished with just this stunning "revelation". He goes on to pronounce that, "in what will be seen by industry as an unusually harsh move", the European Commission has warned EU member states that it would be a mistake to allow some UK industry bodies to be allowed to certify that goods conform to EU standards.

Confusing his terms somewhat, he makes it known that he is referring to "so-called Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs)", when in fact he actually means Mutual Recognition Agreements on conformity assessment an important distinction which is necessary to avoid confusion with MRAs on standards, or even professional qualifications, all of which are very different things.

According to Foster, MRAs (on conformity assessment) "are granted to other key EU trade partners to facilitate the smooth movement of goods in key sectors". But, he says, such an agreement "could be withheld from the UK if it only seeks a basic trade deal".

Actually, that latter assertion is a matter of certainty. It almost goes without saying, as one usually finds such agreements embedded only in the most comprehensive of free trade agreements, and then with clear-set conditions.

For instance, in CETA (the EU-Canada trade deal), there are 178 references to conformity assessment, including the central declaration (Art 4.3) that the parties "shall strengthen their cooperation in the areas of conformity assessment procedures in order to facilitate trade between the Parties".

But this is immediately followed (in Art 4.4) by the further declaration that: "the Parties undertake to cooperate to the extent possible, to ensure that their technical regulations are compatible with one another". This is then heavily reinforced by Chapter 21 of the Treaty, on "regulatory cooperation", where we get this statement:
The Parties recognise the value of regulatory cooperation with their relevant trading partners both bilaterally and multilaterally. The Parties will, whenever practicable and mutually beneficial, approach regulatory cooperation in a way that is open to participation by other international trading partners.
When it comes to stand-alone MRAs on conformity assessment, these are in fact contrary to the impression given by Foster quite rare birds. Outside the framework of a single, comprehensive FTA, the EU has only agreed seven of them in its entire history. These are with Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan (now superseded by the new FTA), New Zealand, Switzerland and the USA.

Yet, apart from the Swiss agreement, these are actually pretty thin stuff, only covering a fraction of goods traded, with one exception Switzerland. And here in the "Blue Guide" (download EN version), we find the reason why.

"The MRA concluded with Switzerland which entered into force on 1 June 2002", the Commission tells us, "is a comprehensive agreement based on the equivalence of the legislation of the EU and Switzerland".

Then making the point that "the case of Switzerland remains quite unique", it points out that the provisions of the Agreement and the harmonisation of Swiss technical regulations with those of the EU "ensure seamless market access for EU products to the Swiss market, and vice versa".

This was only possible, the Commission says, because, on the one hand, "Switzerland has an existing technical infrastructure (e.g. the public or private institutions dealing with standards, accreditation, conformity assessment, market surveillance and consumer protection) which is equally developed and deemed equivalent to the one existing in the EU".

That much could apply to the UK but, on the other hand, "Switzerland has chosen to modify its legislation in the sectors covered by the agreement, in order to align it with that of the Union. Furthermore, it has committed to maintain its legislation aligned whenever amendments to it are introduced by the Union to the applicable EU legal framework".

And there's the rub. As long as the UK is determined to make a meal out of regulatory autonomy, asserting at every possible opportunity that it intends to diverge from EU regulation, it is not going to get the EU to open its doors and offer it things such as MRAs on conformity assessment.

Never missing the opportunity to reinforce its own failures, though, the Telegraph gives the job of explaining the detail to Victoria Hewson - the IEA's Head of Regulatory Affairs and Research Associate - which she lamentably fails to do.

Even the headline is wrong, proclaiming: "In rejecting mutual recognition, the inflexible EU would violate the spirit of WTO rules", a mad assertion that suggests a complete misunderstanding of the role of MRAs on conformity assessment.

The "Blue Guide" itself points out that, where conformity assessment is required in regulations, national authorities of EU Member States may refuse to accept attestations of conformity issued under accreditation by non-European accreditation bodies not complying with the EU requirements.

However, it says, this refusal cannot be based on the sole argument of the non-fulfilment of the EU requirements by the third country accreditation body. The conformance to the EU requirements by the third country accreditation body is not a condition for acceptance of conformity assessment results.

In practice, the EU adheres to the principles of the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, and will accept third country conformity assessment on a case-by-case basis. What a formal MRA on conformity assessment does, therefore, is give certainty to exporters. There is no discrimination involved.

Where government-to-government agreements are in place, the Commission says, "national authorities of EU Member States will accept the test reports and certificates issued by bodies that the foreign party has designated under the MRA in the categories of products or sectors covered by the MRA".

Hewson, incidentally, asserts that China has an MRA on conformity assessment with the EU which it doesn't. But, this being the Telegraph, there is no need to be concerned with mere facts. Thus, back where we started, by all means let the media start talking about Brexit again but let it first have something worth saying. Otherwise, a period of silence may be preferable.