Brexit: a respite from Putin

Sunday 18 March 2018  

Of all the things that the UK might want to do as an independent nation, freed from the obligation to shadow EU foreign policy, picking a fight with Russia was probably not at the top of the list. But if we are going to take on Russia, it would be best if we understand what we're taking on.

Some interesting insight into this comes in Booker's column today when he recalls his visit to the Soviet Union in 1980 to cover the Olympic Games.

Sitting in Moscow, as the capital of the largest country on earth, at a time of high Cold War tension over the invasion of Afghanistan, it became obvious that Russia saw itself ringed on all sides by enemies, all along its thousands of miles of frontier from Nato Norway in the west to China in the east. It was a country gripped by an intense sense of paranoia.

The charge sheet against Russia in recent years may be long, from Putin's ruthless suppression of dissent to saving the Assad regime in Syria. But the one disaster the West has never understood was one entirely of its own making.

On this, there is a public figure who correctly read the crisis erupting over Ukraine in 2014. That was Tony Brenton, our ambassador to Moscow from 2004 to 2008. He recognised only too clearly that the trigger for that shambles was the hubristic desire of the West to see Ukraine, the historic cradle of Russian national identity, absorbed into the EU and Nato.

The crisis was set off by the coup whereby one corrupt but pro-Russian ruler of Ukraine was replaced by another willing to sign the agreement leading to Ukraine's EU membership.

Thus, the response of the Russian-speakers of eastern Ukraine and Crimea was wholly predictable. They wished to be ruled by their fellow Russians in Moscow rather than by some mysterious, alien bureaucracy in faraway Brussels, and were prepared both to vote and to fight for it.

They were, after all, confronting the question of why people with such a fierce sense of national identity should want to become part of an empire deliberately set up to eliminate national identity. Yet, to this day, the West remains powerless to do anything about it except make indignant noises of protest at the ineluctable consequences of its own actions.

Some understanding of this psychology might have helped inform our response to the poisoning incident in Salisbury, where finger-wagging condemnations were only going to elicit one, very predictable response.

That we are now in a confrontational situation, with the wall-to-wall coverage given to President Putin, is doubly unfortunate. Says Booker, it is diverting attention from the possibility that this week may see the near-breakdown of what have been billed as "the most important international negotiations Britain has been involved in since the Second World War".

It is now four months since David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, assured MPs that all our difficulties with the EU would be happily resolved at "the 59th minute of the 11th hour". That moment has now arrived.

The European Council meets this week to consider its "draft withdrawal agreement", still without any sign of resolution to the impasse that could prevent negotiations continuing.

The key as ever is the Irish border, which, for trading purposes, the EU insists will have to move to the Irish Sea, to protect the "integrity" of its single market, but which Theresa May insists no British prime minister could possibly accept.

To narrow it down still further, as Booker explained in February last year, just after Mrs May announced that we were to leave both the single market and the European Economic Area (EEA).

Following this blog, he reported on the disaster looming over the arrangements whereby the multi-billion-pound racing industries of Ireland, Britain and France can move racehorses between their countries to race or for sale without any hindrance.

The moment we leave, as the EU again warned on 27 February of this year, these arrangements, mandated by directive 2009/156, will lapse. As with so much else facing Britain's trade with our largest export market, up will go complex (and in the case of racehorses, prohibitive) border controls.

Last week's Cheltenham Festival, the highlight of our racing calendar, could be the last but one where those all-conquering Irish horses can appear (although "transition" might allow one more in 2020).

At least in that respect people will finally see the kind of thing we are letting ourselves in for by choosing to become a "third country", not just outside the EU but also the wider EEA (where, to avoid all these difficulties, we could have chosen to remain).

But this of course is only a small part of the story. This week seems likely to mark the moment when the "irresistible force" of Brexiteer wishful thinking collides with the "immovable object" of those implacable EU rules. And, by the way we have chosen to play it, this could be the moment when any further meaningful talks with the EU are at an end.

That, at least, was the situation when Booker left it, his column going to press on the Friday. But since then, we've had further talks in Brussels at official level and there are to be face-to-face discussions between M. Barnier and David Davis on the Monday. The leaves open the possibility that there will be a last-minute compromise that will keep the show on the road.

Perversely, one factor which could work in the UK's favour is precisely the situation which has been dominating the headlines for nearly two weeks – the Salisbury poisoning. More or less obliged to show solidarity with the UK, to avoid a public rift with a Nato ally, the Europeans may be disposed to apply temporary patches to the cracks in the Brexit agreement, and kick the cannery down the road to the June European Council.

According to The Times, what may be on the cards is the device of a political declaration on the transition. This will be provisional and still dependent on full implementation of the "Irish protocol" in the draft withdrawal agreement. Sources suggest that both sides are confident that a deal will be brokered.

As it stands, if there is no closure on the withdrawal agreement there will be no transition agreement. There cannot be a transition agreement on its own. But is some sort of accommodation isn't reached, then the Brexit negotiations come screeching to a halt on Friday.

However, the "colleagues" have far too much invested in their current stance to give much away on a permanent basis. Not least, there is Mr Tusk's credibility. If they give ground on the transition period without settling the Irish question, they will seriously weaken his authority. And in the EU, such things matter.

What could get everyone off the hook, for the time being is the one being mooted in London – the possibility of extending the negotiations past the two-year period, and then adding to the transition period. This is being suggested by the Brexit select committee, to the chagrin of committee member Rees Mogg, which itself is sufficient to commend it.

Without a fundamental shift in the UK's position, though, this can only be seen as an attempt to stall. It does not solve anything in its own right. Either Mrs May's government will have to solve the problem of how to ensure Ireland has a "soft" border, or it's game over. And if that is to be the case, many would prefer it to be sooner rather than later.

But in all this, there is something we've never really factored in. If it is going to take time for the UK to prepare for Brexit – which indeed it is – the same will apply to the remaining EU Member States and the institutions. There may be less political opposition to the idea of an extension than we first thought.

That notwithstanding, to my mind it was touch and go as to whether the talks collapsed this coming Friday. It will be hugely ironic if Putin's Russia is the immediate factor which takes the heat off. But if the respite is only temporary – then it must be, then all we've managed is to stay in the frying pan, while toasting our feet in the fire.

And maybe it will be too much to expect the headlines to recognise the real reason for any delay in execution, but I will be looking for that single line on the coming Saturday which declares: "from Russia with love".

Richard North 18/03/2018 link

Brexit: a gap too great to bridge

Saturday 17 March 2018  

As he was incautious enough to say it to camera, we saw our foreign secretary on TV last night declare that it was "overwhelmingly likely" that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, personally took the decision to use a nerve agent to attempt to kill the former double agent Sergei Skripal on UK soil.

"We think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his [Putin's] decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the UK, on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the second world war. That is why we are at odds with Russia", Johnson said.

This means that a UK cabinet minister has personally accused the president of another sovereign state of attempted murder, "attempted" only in the sense that no one has yet died.

It is not in any way possible that Johnson can have any evidence to support such a claim and, should he have had it, the place to make such a charge was not in the centre of a Battle of Britain museum display, as he played with the artefacts.

This lacked the necessary gravitas and was wholly inappropriate. Should good evidence exist, then the proper place to air it would have been the despatch box in the House of Commons. A far better person to have made any charges would have been the prime minister.

In that Mrs May has not moved swiftly to disown her foreign minister's statement, we must assume she supports his action, demonstrating that, with Mr Johnson, she is not fit for office. One need not refer to the Russian response. Such an action on the part of senior officers of the Crown displays an unacceptable lack of judgement.

Yet, not only will these people remain in office – without the stinging rebukes that their action (and inaction) deserves - they are at the heart of our Brexit planning and delivery, and demonstrating the same dismal level of judgement in the execution of these tasks.

And to add to Mrs May's dereliction – which goes far beyond the normal level of incompetence to which we have become accustomed – is yet another sin of omission, this one to remain silent after yesterday's absurd statement by Chris Grayling, another of her cabinet ministers.

As we recorded yesterday, he told a BBC Question Time audience that: "We will maintain a free-flowing border at Dover, we will not impose checks at the port, it is utterly unrealistic to do so. We don't check lorries now, we're not going to be checking lorries in the future".

In a situation which is difficult enough for businesses which have to plan for Brexit, this is equivalent to smacking a ten-ton boulder into a quiet boating lake on a balmy Sunday afternoon. In its own specific area, it points to a lack of judgement of the same order of magnitude as we got from Johnson.

Unsurprisingly, Grayling's intervention has triggered a response from a number of MPs. In a letter to Mrs May, they have observed that the comments were "not a serious solution to how to manage the border post-Brexit".

In all, 29 MPs have signed the letter, including former shadow cabinet ministers Chuka Umunna, Heidi Alexander and Chris Leslie, as well as fellow Labour MPs Rushanara Ali, Stella Creasy, Tulip Siddiq and Liz Kendall. But, in so doing, they display a not much better grasp of the issues than the minister they criticise.

For instance, they declare: "It is extraordinary that a government that says it aims to ‘take back control’ now admits it is not even going to try to control the transfer of goods across our borders, in the event we leave the customs union", thereby demonstrating that they have no clear understanding of the role of a customs union, or the function of the Single Market.

The worst of it though is that the letter carried the letterhead of the Freight Transport Association (FTA), with the principal signatory deputy chief executive, James Hookham.

Rightly, he says that Grayling would have us "open up the UK's borders to potential abuse and breaches" and that the UK government would be unable to stop any new checks being imposed on the French side. He then avers that Grayling "seems to have forgotten that borders have two sides, and the UK cannot dictate what happens to freight when it reaches French customs".

But, in a subject where the devil is in the detail, he then goes on to say that: "Mr Grayling cannot speak for the French customs authorities, which will be required by EU law to undertake a percentage of physical checks on cargo such as fresh produce or medicines from a nation outside the EU, which is what the UK will become".

The correct term is "third country" and one wonders why it isn't used. And in asserting that a percentage of physical checks is required by EU law on cargo such as fresh produce or medicines, Hookham has got it wrong. He is conflating the "official controls" on animals and products of animal origin with other measures where there are no specific requirements. Generally, the frequency of inspection is decided by Member States on the basis of risk assessment.

And, of course, the official controls are not the responsibility of customs. Once again, we see a failure to distinguish between different parts of the system – crucially important in this case, as the inspection of foodstuffs will require the infrastructure of Border Inspection Posts, with a lead time of many years.

One would expect people such as Hookham, on the front line, to get such things right. But like so many in industry, as in politics, their knowledge is skin deep. Worryingly, they seem unconcerned by their own ignorance and show no willingness to remedy it.

But when we have yet to see a single journalist display anything like an adequate grasp of the issues, it is unsurprising that there is no effort to get things right. A media which is content with any old tosh will get precisely what it expects. Every time a journalist dips in to the subject, we see woolly, incomplete and superficial attempts to describe the problem, but none of them ever get near.

So we had yesterday the self-important Faisal Islam, flooding us with factoids to the extent that he ends up confusing himself and any readers incautious enough to rely on him.

The SOP for journalists – typified by the likes of Islam – is to interview a number of talking heads and aggregate their ignorance to provide a narrative which will fill the allotted space. They (the journalists) have no means of judging the veracity of that they are told because they have no knowledge of their own or understanding of the issues.

In this case, Islam relies on Christopher Snelling, also of the Freight Transport Association – the "go to" source with sufficient prestige for Channel 4's needs. Describing the "no deal" scenario, he tells us: "any goods going through will have to have checks, anything that is food or livestock or medicine will have even more checks on standards and health and all of that will be massively disruptive to businesses and consumers in Britain".

To know that this is not wholly correct, all you have to do though is read the EU law or, to make it simpler, there are now 47 Notices to Stakeholders which set out the position. And, as we have written so many times, the immediate problem won't be inspections but marketing authorisation.

As with meat and meat products (and animals), until the UK is formally approved and listed for export, there will be no movement of product at all. Any which is attempted will be returned or destroyed.

One really has to ask what it is going to take to get this through to politicians and the media. But an insider view of the government system is not at all encouraging.

The entire mandarin system, we are told, does not understand the law or ever read it. Even (or especially) senior civil servants do not understand the primacy of process in the way the EU does business - internally and with third countries - and we are being treated as a "soon-to-be third country".

Not only are these critical mistakes, with potentially dire consequences, we have a class of mandarins that do not even know what they don't know. They neither know where to look nor how the thing really works from the inside, and do not have anyone left who does. The other side is, as a consequence, shredding them.

Dominating the Whitehall tree of ignorance, is an overwhelming arrogance, imbued with an untouchable confidence that "we know best". They will not know they have been taken apart until it's too late, putting us in a bad state, politically and bureaucratically. We need some serious people. But they are in perilously short supply.

As for the media, we have a more complex dynamic. Because they've all started out on the wrong foot, they don't want to admit their errors or the paucity of their earlier reports. And if they start now flagging up BIPs as a major issue, that opens them up to questions as to why others haven't been flagging up the problem (as in the trade or select committees). No one wants to be first.

I've spoken myself to a lot of the trade people and their knowledge is distressingly limited. They have never experienced the regime pre-EEC/Single Market and have no conception of it. And they don't know the law. Everybody glibly talks about EU rules, but nobody actually reads them. Asked by journalists to describe the system, they convey not information but ignorance, And if they have sufficient prestige, the journalists lap it up uncritically.

Another problem is conceptual. The journalists (as well as the rest) equate border controls with customs controls. They simply don't get it that customs are only a tiny part of the system. But knowledge of the rest of the system is minuscule, Their ignorance is profound and the knowledge gap is too great to bridge. They will have to find out the hard way.

But, for their ignorance (and lack of judgement) – be it Russia or Brexit - it is us who will have to pay.

Richard North 17/03/2018 link

Brexit: the poison chalice

Friday 16 March 2018  

I do hope that the people who so approve of Mrs May's new brand of justice are never in front of a jury where the rules that seem to apply to Russia also apply to them.

Meanwhile, the distraction has paid off. Brexit has almost disappeared from the media, leaving a rump of disjointed stories and not a hint of a unifying theme. The low-key negotiations between officials in Brussels have scarcely been reported and the latest version of the draft withdrawal agreement has slid into the public domain with minimal comment.

This is an upgrade to the document we reviewed on 1 March – the one that had proposals on Ireland that had Mrs May declaring that no prime minister could ever accept them.

And while, apparently, there has been a little bit of give and take on the transition period, the blue touch paper issue of Ireland is essentially unchanged. It still remains for Mrs May to deliver up her alternative to the Commission or put up with a "wet" border. But, as Mr Putin has just found, our prime minister doesn't do alternatives.

Thus, on the basis that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, two weeks have achieved precisely nothing. The new draft has been issued in time for it to be circulated to the 27 Member States, so we can take it that this is the version which will go to the European Council.

But when Mrs May goes to Brussels in a week's time, in order to attend the first day of the Council, you can bet that Russia will be on top of her agenda. And, if the media take their cue from her, Brexit will barely get a look in. That will leave the Council meeting as 27 to spend the next day on the issue. They will probably spend more time on it in that one day than Mrs May has in the last month.

As well at the withdrawal agreement, though, they will have the latest set of draft guidelines on the framework for a future relationship with the UK to approve. These haven't been formally published yet, so we might get some media interest when copies are officially available. But there again, they might not.

David Davis himself is due to go over to Brussels on Monday – his first visit since Christmas – but there seems little he can do, and there is nothing specific on the table for him to approve. And his boss has already ruled out any movement on Ireland. However, there will be a press conference with Mr Barnier, so we may glean something of the situation from their comments.

This will be the same day as the meeting of the General Affairs Council. Assembling in EU27 format, it will discuss the draft guidelines. This is effectively, the formal approval, preparatory to the European Council meeting which will rubber stamp the GAC decision.

The Salisbury poisoning aside – which has given Mrs May the perfect excuse to ditch Brexit for a while – there seems to be a new tone to the mood music. The UK government as a whole is giving every indication of having lost interest in the negotiations. There is a smell of fatalism, where everybody seems to be waiting for the outcome, powerless to affect it.

On the other hand it could be that cabinet members have no idea what is waiting for them. Even last night, we had Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary, asserting that there would be no post-Brexit lorry checks at Dover. Under no circumstances, he said, would the UK create a hard border.

This was on that grave of souls, the BBC's Question Time, where he roundly declared that "We will maintain a free-flowing border at Dover, we will not impose checks in the port. We don't check lorries now, we're not going to be checking lorries in Dover in the future. Absolutely clear, it cannot happen.

Nearly two years since the referendum, it is hard to believe that a cabinet minister could be so blithely ignorant of the realities – but then Grayling is a Tory. Since Mrs May has ruled out continued participation in the Single Market, a hard border is inevitable. But if the man thinks we can get away without one, then there is no surprise that he is not concerned about the lack of progress.

We see the same litany being churned out by other ministers, and a pervasive belief that the EU will open its borders at the last minute and let the goods flow. This "eleventh hour" resolution is certainly one to which David Davis has referred, and perhaps he genuinely thinks that Mrs Merkel will come to our rescue, just to keep German cars rolling towards Britain.

Strongly bolstering that fantasy is the assertion that since the UK is already fully compliant with EU law, there should be no new barriers to trade once we leave. The nuances of EU requirements, such as the obligation in so many cases for businesses to be established in the EU, and the requirement to meld with the entire EU "ecosystem" simply passes these people by.

Likewise, Tory ministers have convinced themselves that their "frictionless" border in Ireland will be a practical proposition. Thus, whatever anyone says, there is no real expectation that there will be any problems. Everything will be alright on the night.

Currently, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is warning that Mrs May's pledge of no hard border can only be achieved if the UK "remains aligned with EU rules" for the foreseeable future. There is "no evidence", it says, of a technical solution to allow Northern Ireland to break free from the customs union and single market without the return of border posts and checks.

However, there is very little likelihood that this report will be taken seriously. Select committee reports come and go. Most are hardly worth reading. None seem to have any lasting impact.

With a strong strain of delusion, which reaches right to the top, you can see why Barnier and other EU officials are struggling to get their message though. Their warnings are dismissed as "project fear" or simply not believed. We may get another taste of that from Davis on Monday as he radiates complacency when he should be in a state of panic.

Everything, however, still hinges on the Irish border question. At the European Council, Mrs May is expecting to put the transition agreement to bed and Davis is confident that a deal will be struck. One of the key lubricants is that the EU is to drop its opposition to Britain signing trade deals during the period.

He seems to be forgetting Tusk's ultimatum though – that there can be no progress until the Irish question is settled. And it's there that the Irish Times injects a note of caution.

The paper retails that UK optimism that the Council will endorse an agreement on the transition period "may be premature". This comes from the famously anonymous "EU diplomatic sources" who are raising questions on the details and also on the broader issues of the withdrawal agreement. Crucially, the Tusk doctrine seems to be prevailing in that there is reluctance to separate out discussion of the transition deal from the withdrawal agreement.

As long as the EU insists on linkage, the UK is actually going nowhere. And while UK ministers may choose to ignore the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report, the Commission will almost certainly take note of its views that technical solutions are not feasible.

That leaves an increasingly edgy business community that is finally beginning to realise that the government may not be able to deliver on a smooth transition. Thus does Sir Charlie Mayfield warn of "Brexit inertia" within companies that is "undermining efforts to improve British business performance".

"Undoubtedly, one of the great issues with what we're facing with Brexit is that it is causing a further sense of [inertia] and causing an impact on productivity — at least on confident investment in the future", he says. "There are good reasons why businesses are hesitating".

Not very much longer, one suspects, and hesitation will be translated into action as those companies that can will bail out and look to solutions outside the United Kingdom. That in itself may force Mrs May to focus on something more than Mr Putin, and fracture the delusional state within the Tory ranks.

While there is still the "Salisbury obsession", Mrs May can play, but soon enough there will be another poison chalice waiting for her, and it will not be filled with Novichok.

Richard North 16/03/2018 link

Salisbury: alternatives galore

Thursday 15 March 2018  

With eight days to go before the make-or-break European Council, which could seal the fate of the Brexit negotiations, the issue has virtually disappeared from the media and the politicians have spiralled off into their own fantasy over the Salisbury incident.

As we try to make sense of this, we see the issue attracting its own quota of conspiracy theorists, polluting the pool of information on which we must rely.

But, it is an ironic thought that, when it comes to conspiracy theories, the most pervasive and damaging of these, perhaps of all time, was perpetrated by the UK and US governments. This was the one that had Saddam Hussein's forces equipped with WMD, and the means to deliver them outside Iraq.

Since that time, it would be a very naïve person who would uncritically believe either government on claims relating to WMD and, before sanctioning or accepting the need for any action in respect of them, one would expect to see a high standard of evidence.

In this case, however, Mrs May has not delivered anything like good evidence to support a claim that the Russian state was behind the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Furthermore, the case she has made is flawed, with demonstrable errors.

To assert this is not to "defend Russia", as some have accused me of doing. As to whether there was Russian state involvement is a question I cannot address and have not attempted to answer. But then, that is not the issue.

The key question is whether Mrs May has made in public a credible case for taking action against Russia. Clearly, she has not. Furthermore, she does not claim to rely on information that has yet to be revealed. She has stated her grounds in public and it is on these that she relies.

Latterly, her government asserts that the attack fits into a pattern of behaviour "in which Russia disregards the international rule-based order, undermines the sovereignty and security of countries worldwide and attempts to subvert and discredit Western democratic institutions and processes".

That, however, seems perilously close to a "usual suspects" doctrine, relying entirely on circumstantial evidence. This is not something that a prosecutor would rely on in a court of law. And why, one might ask, when there is so much as stake, should anything less be required of the UK government?

Thus, the most rational thing we seem to have heard yesterday was from Mr Corbyn's spokesman, who said the history of information from UK intelligence agencies was "problematic" and refused to say that the Labour leader accepted the Russian state was at fault.

The spokesman told reporters: "The government has access to information and intelligence on this matter which others don't. However, also there is a history in relation to weapons of mass destruction and intelligence which is problematic, to put it mildly. So, I think the right approach is to seek the evidence to follow international treaties, particularly in relation to prohibitive chemical weapons".

The Labour leader had been given security briefings on the incident. Asked if Mr Corbyn believed Russia was responsible for the attack, the spokesman said Mrs May continued to leave open the possibility that Russia had lost control of the nerve agent.

When it came to Mrs May's statement to the House, however, the prime minister took the view that the Russian government had provided "no credible explanation that could suggest that they lost control of their nerve agent" and "no explanation as to how this agent came to be used in the United Kingdom".

Further, she said, there was no explanation as to why Russia has an undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law. Instead, she declared, "it has treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance".

What came then was the death of logic. There is extremely good and undisputed evidence to suggest that Novochok was produced at the Uzbek plant, in an area where the Soviet Union lost control in the early 90s. It is also the case that we are dealing with a binary agent, where the precursors can survive lengthy storage.

It is an entirely tenable scenario, therefore, that tradable quantities of the agent have been on the market for decades, accessible to non-state actors without the knowledge or intervention of the Russian (or any other) state.

As an a priori hypothesis, this is just about as credible as any, allowing for any one of a number of diverse nefarious groups to acquire and use the this agent for their own purposes – and inexpertly at that. This did not have the hallmarks of a professional "hit".

Yet, for Mrs May, there was "no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter, and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey". This, she said, "represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom".

What in fact, her statement represented was either a failure of imagination or a determination to close down her options before even starting to evaluate them. And, as an intellectual exercise, if you play this game, it is inevitable that you end up with "no alternative conclusion".

Nevertheless, there are other views as to whether a Russian state attack on the Skripals was credible. From Peter Hitchins, for instance, rehearsed reasons to doubt the obvious explanation, citing Ben Macintyre of The Times.

"Various aspects of the supposed attack on Sergei Skripal are distinctly odd and refuse to fit into an accepted pattern of Russian espionage activity", Macintyre wrote, pointing out that no power has ever before killed a spy that it has swapped. To do so was dangerous, probably fatal, for future exchanges. Why would anyone do such a deal with you, if the exchanged spy was then likely to be killed?

A similar exposition can be found from Séamus Martin in the Irish Times, while Estonian MEP Yana Toom tells us that Russia obviously had no operational interest in Skripal, who was convicted in 2006 and deprived of his military rank, who was pardoned in 2010 and then exchanged. She added:
Even if we presume that the Russians have gone irreversibly crazy - which specifically is what one is attempting to convince Europeans of - and are an embodiment of irrational evil, a demonstrative poisoning with Russian poison a week before the Russian presidential election would be idiocy.
If Special Services wanted to kill someone, they would leave no trace, Toom said. "And a task like this is more than accomplishable in London - it is not the most peaceful city in the world", she noted. "Leaving so many traces was possible only when done for a specific purpose. And I can't think of any that would be beneficial for Russia".

The idea of the Russian Special services descending to that level of incompetence is perhaps beyond imagination, but clearly, it does take precisely that – imagination – to help us through the maze.

That was what was so stunning about yesterday. We saw a House of Commons, braying and bleating, with perilously few exceptions, united in its conviction of Russian guilt. It not only lacked imagination, barring Corbyn, there was hardly a sentient thought to share between the MPs. It wasn't a legislature we were watching. It was a lynch mob.

And this is the body that feels qualified to decide on Brexit. We are living in truly desperate times.

Richard North 15/03/2018 link

Brexit: the lion, the witch and the wardrobe

Wednesday 14 March 2018  

With UK tanks poised to roll over the Russian border (not), European Commission president Jean-Paul Juncker has been in Strasbourg, talking about that all-but-forgotten subject, Brexit – and future EU-UK relations.

By way of a reminder, he told us that, 349 days ago (as of yesterday), on 29 March 2017, the UK notified the European Council of its intention to leave the EU. In 381 days, on 29 March 2019 at midnight, the UK will have left the EU.

From the earliest days of these "unique and difficult negotiations", he said, "our objective has always been, and will remain, to achieve an orderly withdrawal from the United Kingdom, in its own interest and that of the European Union".

Although you would not think it from the level of media coverage in the UK, or even the activities of our politicians, Juncker went on to say that, with "every day that passes the urgency to meet all the conditions necessary for such withdrawal is greater". This urgency, he added, should inspire us all, the European Union and the United Kingdom, to act with method, pragmatism and transparency.

In a way, though, this is a rather generous appraisal. Give that David Davis hasn't visited Brussels at all this year, the greater urgency is to get the UK to act at all.

As it stands, the proposed text of the withdrawal agreement is with the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Once agreed, the final draft will be transmitted to the UK as a basis for negotiation, reflecting "the unity of the 27 Member States of the European Union and its institutions".

Said Mr Juncker, "I would have preferred that the British had not decided to quit. But those who leave the European Union must honestly say what that means. If you want to leave four decades of joint agreements and solutions behind you, you have to accept the responsibility that everything cannot stay as it is".

It was obvious, therefore, Juncker told MEPs, " that we need more clarity from the UK if we are to reach an understanding on our future relationship". With one year to go, he said, "it is now time to translate speeches into treaties; to turn commitments into agreements; broad suggestions and wishes on the future relationship to specific, workable solutions".

And then it came to Ireland. Both the UK and the EU had agreed that the Good Friday Agreement must be preserved in all its dimensions. And life for citizens on both sides of the border should be the same as it is today.

Juncker then went through the options, remarking that the "backstop" solution would only apply if the other options did not materialise.

Therefore, he said, the Draft Protocol on Ireland should not be surprised or a shock. It translates faithfully last December's agreement into a legal text. And on this, the EU, the Parliament and 27 Member States stood "firm and united when it comes to Ireland". For us, he said, "this is not an Irish issue. It is a European issue".

Echoing Mr Juncker was Monika Panayotova, the minister representing Bulgaria as holder of the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers. "Even though in the last fourteen months there has been a succession of speeches outlining the UK view on the future of our relations, we still need more concrete and more operational proposals", she told MEPs.

"At the same time", she added, "there are no indications that the UK red lines have changed since last year". To Panayotova, this explained why the draft guidelines due to be adopted by the European Council were not more detailed. But she was hopeful that the lack of detail would "provide the political space for broader dynamics in the negotiations with the United Kingdom".

As far as I recall, that's where we left it last week – or was it the week before that? In Brexitland, even though the clock is ticking, time has stood still. Revisiting what the "colleagues" have to say is like walking through the wardrobe to spell-bound Narnia, the land of perpetual winter.

The only slight glimmer of progress come from The Sun. In what it calls an "exclusive", it is telling us that Mrs May's "war committee" has agreed to climb down on its position on Britain's borders closing in 2019. It is now agreeing to extend unconditional free movement with the EU until 2021.

However, in the hard world of Brussels, the place to which David Davis never goes, it appears that nothing else has changed. The "colleagues" are refusing to make any concessions on the Irish border. There may be a quid, but no pro quo.

And just to rub it in, the Commission has published two more in its "Notice to Stakeholder" series. One relates to rules in the field of electronic communications, which currently allow providers established in at least one EU Member State the right to provide electronic communications networks and services in all other Member States without being required to have an establishment there.

They can start providing networks and services without any formal licensing process and are subject only to a "general authorisation" in each Member State where they provide networks or services. Member States may only request a simple notification, without any standstill obligation.

As of the withdrawal date, providers established in the United Kingdom will cease to benefit from the general authorisation regime. EU-27 Member States will be able to impose additional authorisation requirements on providers established in the UK.

Furthermore, with the UK becoming a third country for the purposes of EU rules on roaming, providers of roaming services will no longer benefit from the obligation of mobile network operators operating in the United Kingdom to meet all reasonable requests for providing wholesale roaming access.

The other Notice deals with rules affecting network security and information systems, which will impact on providers of digital services not established in the Union. They will be required to establish representatives in the European Union.

Slowly, inexorably, the grip of Brexit tightens. Yet, back in media land, the focus is still on Moscow, via Salisbury. Few other things are registering apart from the short-term distraction of Mr Hammond's spring statement. Journalists and their editors are determined to play out their single-issue obsessions. And in their land, Brexit isn't Brexit any more. Brexit is boring – yesterday's news that can't compete with the mystery and intrigue of Putin's Russia.

The effect of this is incalculable. Here we have the most important political event since the war and the negotiations have been sidelined by a temporary crisis, leaving the public uninformed and unprepared for what it to come.

The situation is then compounded by the Commission putting the onus on the UK government to come up with proposals for the next steps. For a short time, this hands it the publicity initiative – there is nothing new to entertain the media until the UK delivers.

This hiatus can only last for a short time – until the European Council on 22-23 March, when things have to come to a head. This gives ten days to play with Russia before reality hits. Then, Mrs May will either come up with a solution for the Irish question or, if Donald Tusk is to be believed, the talks are in crisis and Narnia comes to town.

At that point, the media is will have to deal with its single-issue obsession. If the talks are in trouble they will have to bite the reality pill. For the moment, though, it's play time. And the "sons of Adam" are still being turned to stone.

Richard North 14/03/2018 link

Salisbury: slander from May

Tuesday 13 March 2018  

According to Theresa May, speaking in the Commons yesterday, it is "highly likely" that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. It is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok.

This was, Mrs May said, a Government conclusion, based on "the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia's record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations".

The Prime Minister went on to say that there were, therefore, "only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March". It was either "a direct act by the Russian state against our country", or "the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others".

That said, I really didn't want to get stuck into the Salisbury poisoning. We've been distracted enough already from the serious business of Brexit. And while the poisoning is indeed a serious affair, nothing excuses yet another round of media incontinence, where they seem incapable of reporting in any depth more than one issue at a time.

But what makes comment appropriate is a certain similarity with Brexit – the baseless assumptions and the loose use of language to make an unsupported case.

Crucially, contrary to Mrs May's assertion, the group of military-grade nerve agents known as Novichok, were not originally developed by Russia. Rather, they were part of a programme initiated by the Soviet Union, said to be in the late 1970s to early '80s.

The particular variant said to have been used in this incident is Novichok 5. This was developed, according to a number of reports, in the earlier stage of the programme - before the break-up of the Soviet Union. Any accurate description of the product would have it attributed to the Soviet Union.

Another crucial issue is the most likely place of manufacture. As a Soviet Union Cold War weapon, it was almost certainly produced in what is now the Republic of Uzbekistan - more specifically, the site of initial production would have been the Nukus Chemical Research Institute, in Karakalpakstan province.

The point here is that it is a matter of undisputed record that after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and during the collapse of the Soviet Union, a state of anarchy existed in many of the former Soviet provinces, including Uzbekistan. For a time, control was lost of formerly secure Soviet facilities, including Nukus Institute, which seems to have been abandoned in 1992/3, after the Russian Federation came into being.

At that point, it would appear, any amount of agent could have been sold or dispersed, its destination and purchasers unknown. So desperate was the situation that the facility was, on the invitation of the Uzbek government, taken over by the United States - which, we must now assume, could have acquired samples of the agent.

Latterly, a senior defector from the Soviet chemical weapons program, Vil S Mirzayanov, who worked for more than 25 years in the Soviet chemical weapons programme, said publicly that the plant was built to produce batches of Novichock. US involvement was still being reported in 1999.

Putting this in the context of Mrs May's statement to the House yesterday, it would not appear possible for the Prime Minister reliably to ascertain that the poison used on Sergei and Yulia Skripal was produced in or by Russia. On the basis of what we know, it could just as well have been produced by the Soviet Union in Uzbekistan.

Nevertheless, there is no reason to dispute Mrs May's assertion that Russia is still capable of producing the agent. Nor could anyone sensibly deny that Russia has a record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations. Furthermore, we would not argue that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations.

When it comes to "plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March", Mrs May would seem to be lacking any good evidence that the poisoning of the Skripals was "a direct act by the Russian state against our country". We can't rule it out, but there is self-evidently no proof of that assertion.

As to the second assertion, "the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others", that opens the way to a third possibility - that the Soviets lost control of the agent over two decades ago. And, given that that is a possibility, it could since then have been in the hands any number of ill-intentioned people.

This, therefore, does not allow one to rule out the possibility that the Salisbury poisoning was the work of rogue factions within Russia, outside Putin's control and there are no doubt conspiracy theorists out there happy to asset that this was a false flag operation.

This is mentioned in a level piece by the Christian Science Monitor. Predictably, it says, some Russian analysts are claiming the attack on Mr. Skripal might have been a false flag operation by Western interests:
They suggest the aim was to worsen the crisis of East-West mistrust and prompt tough measures, such as new sanctions against the huge numbers of wealthy Russians – including both pro-and-anti-Kremlin figures – who've parked their assets in Britain in recent years, or perhaps even more sweeping steps like a Western boycott of the upcoming soccer World Cup in Russia this summer. All that, and more, is already under active discussion in Britain.
Other experts, says the CSM, seem less certain:
Contrary to widespread Western belief, Mr. Putin's Russia is not under tight one-man control. Rather than the direct result of Kremlin diktat, experts say, a good deal of lawless behaviour – from the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov three years ago to the recent cyber-shenanigans of Russia's "troll farm" – seems more plausibly explained by factions within Russia's sprawling establishment freelancing in their own interests, perhaps even aiming to please Putin.
On that basis, leaving her options open would be a sensible move for Mrs May. Not least, with Brexit negotiations coming to a head, the British government really doesn't need an another international crisis.

British retaliation, says the CSM could play into Putin's hands. Proposals to force rich Russians residing in Britain to explain the sources of their wealth, or risk having it seized, could force them to bring it back to Russia – something the Kremlin has been trying in vain to convince them to do for almost five years.

But then, leaving her options open is not something that Mrs May does. On 17 January 2017, at Lancaster House, she closed down our options on the Single Market. And now she has made another mistake.

For all we know, Putin ordered the poisoning personally. But until Mrs May has more evidence, she really needs to be careful what she says. Accusing Putin without good evidence is not such a good idea and, without good evidence, is closer to slander than any Prime Minister should ever be.

Richard North 13/03/2018 link

Brexit: late to the party

Monday 12 March 2018  

One of the most remarkable things about the Brexit debate (and there is very stiff competition) is the relative quiescence of commerce and industry, and the low-key behaviour of their representative bodies, even where vital interests are threatened and whole sectors are at risk.

Of the enterprises most at risk from Brexit, there can be few to compare with horse racing which, as we pointed out on 1 February 2017, stood to be hit rather badly from the loss of special concessions which allowed the unrestricted movement of bloodstock between the major racing centres.

The particularly troublesome issue is the lapse of the 2014 Tripartite Agreement on Racehorses, mandated by Council Directive 2009/156/EC on animal health conditions governing the movement and importation from third countries of equidae.

This is an agreement between France, Ireland and the United Kingdom, originally established in the 1970s, in order to regulate the movement of race horses between the three countries without formal veterinary inspections taking place.

Currently, it simplifies the process and reduces costs of moving horses between the three countries, allowing racehorses to be shipped without pre-movement veterinary checks and certification, and without the requirement for isolation and quarantine periods at their destinations.

Given anything short of continued EEA participation – which Mrs May had ruled out from 17 January 2017 – and these concessions would no longer apply. And since the UK would be outside the EU, to reinstate the free movement afforded will almost certainly require new legislation from the EU, made under the aegis of Commission Decision 92/260/EEC (as amended).

This requires complex procedural steps and is unlikely to be high on the priorities of either the Commission or the UK government. But the failure to reach a timely agreement on this would have a devastating effect on the industry. One would have thought, therefore, that the affected enterprises and their representative bodies would have been quick to sound the alarm and highly voluble in calling for a fix.

However, even when Booker publicised the problem in his column in the Sunday Telegraph a few days after my piece, only the Guardian followed up, with a story on 9 February. The rest of the legacy media was silent – not even Booker's paper, which had been given a scoop on a plate, did a piece. As so often, it ignored its own columnist.

As for the Guardian report,we saw something of the complacency afflicting the industry. The paper quoted Will Lambe, director of corporate affairs at the British Horseracing Authority. He said he had made representations to the government that they need to protect the industry during the coming negotiations, adding: "The tripartite agreement pre-dates the formation of the European Union and there is no reason it should not remain in place following Brexit".  

Confronted with such a low-key response (and a media unable to work the facts out for itself), it is perhaps unsurprising that it took until August before there was any more significant publicity. This was in the Irish press and even then it was fairly muted. Nonetheless, publicity there was, in a number of Irish papers, highlighting a potential disaster that had huge implications for the UK.

As before though – and in common with so many other issues – this was ignored by the UK legacy media. Clearly, it thought the fate of an industry worth annually nearly £4 billion (eight times the value of the fishing industry), employing directly and indirectly 85,000 people, was of little significance.

Bizarrely, even when the Commission issued a Notice to Stakeholders on the movement of animals, post-Brexit, nothing was reported. Yet, on 27 February 2018, the Commission declared that the "Tripartite Agreement" concluded in accordance with Article 6 of Directive 2009/156/EC between France, Ireland and the United Kingdom "no longer applies to the United Kingdom as of the withdrawal date". 

And so the silence prevailed until last Saturday, 10 March, well over a year since I reported the story. Then, in the run-up to next week's Cheltenham festival, we saw a short report in the Financial Times, retailing a call for "free movement" of racehorses after Brexit. The industry, we were told, wanted free cross-border travel for British, Irish and French thoroughbreds.

At last, in the UK legacy media (apart from Booker and the Guardian) we see it acknowledged that "restricted horse movements would have a devastating impact on the Irish breeding industry and hit the whole way UK racing is financed". But, from comments of Brian Kavanagh, chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland, there is no indication that the nature of the problem is fully understood – or that there is any clear idea of the remedy needed.

Kavanagh, for instance, refers to problems arising in the event of a "hard", evidently not appreciating that the Tripartite Agreement will lapse once Brexit takes force (after any transition period). And, if the impasse on the Irish question isn't resolved, that could be in just over a year's time, on 30 March 2019.

The Financial Times then has horseracing officials saying they want "to build on the tripartite agreement". Apparently Kavanagh, Nick Rust - chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority - and Olivier Delloye - his counterpart at France Galop, the governing body of flat and steeplechase racing in France - met senior officials representing Michel Barnier in September.

Via the FT, Mr Kavanagh says: "At that time the Commission line was Brexit is a binary thing. You're either in or out. But they also made clear they were ready to look at reasonable solutions for our industry". He then refers to the agreement on the Common Travel Area for Irish citizens (north and south) and thus believes that, "there must be some imaginative way so that can expanded to include racehorses".

Actually, this is delusional, not least as it ignores the Notice to Stakeholders. And as the procedure for dealing with third countries is already established, it will be used, to avoid charges of discrimination with other third countries. With the UK outside the EU Single Market framework, this will have to be followed before free movement of racehorses between EU Member States and the UK can be permitted.

Needless to say, the procedure cannot be initiated until the UK has left the EU which, in the absence of a transition period, could mean a period when free movement is suspended.

For the horseracing industry, therefore, this must be a nervous time and finally, in yesterday's Mail on Sunday we at last saw reference to this in a popular national newspaper. Under the headline, "British racing festivals 'face ruin from a hard Brexit'", came the news that no provision had been made for the free movement of horses once the UK leaves the EU.

In what was an obvious copy-out from the Financial Times, the same Mr Kavanagh was quoted. With considerably less detail, the only thing added was a statement from a government spokesman, who offered the anodyne and largely uninformative comment that: "We are working with Ireland and France on developing new arrangements for after we leave the EU".

For us mere mortals, this illustrates yet again how badly the legacy media are performing when it comes to the progress of Brexit. Ironically, we saw another example in the same edition of the Mail on Sunday, which covered some of the latest developments on the Legatum Institute.

Although I broke the original story in July 2017, it wasn't picked up by the Mail on Sunday until November, with a botched report that had the paper shoehorning in an irrelevant Russian dimension which confused the issue and distracted attention from the important matters of concern.

But now, updating its own story, we see the paper preening itself with the claim that it had "revealed" Legatum's "influence on the Government’s EU agenda" back in November, implying that its action had led to a Charity Commission investigation which had somehow led to Snake Oil Singham and his colleagues moving to the IEA.

Such hubris is so typical of the legacy media. Often late to the party, they will "liberate" material whenever it suits them, rarely acknowledging sources. In the style of beast, nothing exists until they have "discovered" it, whence they will claim the credit for their "revelations". We even see the papers claiming to "reveal" information when their sources are published website pages.

For all their resources and self-importance, though, they have not covered a fraction of the technical issues relating to Brexit and, even now, have almost completely lost the plot when it comes to reporting what might be an imminent breakdown in the negotiations.

When the history of this tumultuous period comes to be written, no doubt writers – many of them journalists – will be quick to criticise the politicians and campaigners. Yet, somehow, I suspect, the manifest and continued failings of the media will scarcely if at all be mentioned.

The victors, they say, write the history. And the first draft of history is often regarded as the contemporary media reports. Between the two, it is no surprise that our history is often so badly written.

Richard North 12/03/2018 link

Brexit: a model of restraint?

Sunday 11 March 2018  

Booker is on good form today (although his column has been up since yesterday morning).

He reminds us that, last Sunday, he wrote that, after a year of the two sides just talking past each other on Brexit, the moment had come when hard reality was at last breaking in on the British government's serial make-believe. This, he says, has since been even more brutally confirmed.

What has particularly struck him this week, though, is the behaviour of Chancellor Philip Hammond. There was a time, he writes, when seemed to have more grip on reality than his colleagues. But last week he blew it twice over.

Firstly, he set out his hopes that the City could continue to play a central part in European Union financial services by relying on "mutual recognition", he seemed unaware that such an arrangement would be flatly contrary to EU law.

Secondly, he stated that we would be reclaiming full control of our fishing waters, oblivious to the fact that this would be against UN law, which protects other countries' "acquired rights."

And now we have Donald Tusk warning that, unless the UK comes up with a realistic proposal on the Irish border, there can be no wider trade talks. With less than two weeks before the crucial European Council meeting to conclude the border issue satisfactorily, it seems that we are much nearer to a complete breakdown of negotiations than has yet been generally realised.

That, within the minimal space allowed to Booker these days, is as neat a summary as he can manage. As always, he is banished to the back page of the review, one of the few legacy media journalists to point out that the Brexit talks are on the brink of collapse.

Two in three people believe the European Union is attempting to “bully” the UK in the Brexit negotiations, according to a new poll.

His paper's main contribution to the debate today, however, is to ignore that salient point and instead to publicise a survey it has commissioned which "reveals" that while the split of Leave and Remain voters is largely unchanged since the referendum, 67 percent of individuals, regardless of their voting preference, agreed that "the EU is trying to bully the UK" in its approach to the talks.

The findings, from an ORB International poll of more than 2,000 people, says the paper, "appear to bear out the claims about the perception of Brussels' handling of the talks, before the two sides have begun substantive negotiations on key issues such as trade and immigration".

This "bully" meme is one especially favoured by the Telegraph, which has coined the term "Eurobullies" and most presents the talks in confrontational terms, alongside the Express, the Mail and others.

To that extent, the bulk of the survey respondents are simply playing back the same sentiments that have been fed to them. In all, only 17 percent disagree with the proposition that "the EU is trying to bully the UK in the Brexit negotiations", while even 49 percent of declared remainers agree, against 36 percent who disagree.

Sadly, however, the results do little more than confirm that the legacy media still retains some ability to influence public sentiment although, with years of hostile media coverage, it probably takes very little to convince people that the EU is ill-intentioned.

And although not specified, since the sticking point in the talks is the Irish question, one can assume that the EU has gained its current reputation for being a bully on the basis of its handling of that issue.

Yet, when this is examined rationally, there can be no dispute that, with Brexit. the Irish land border with Northern Ireland becomes the external border to the EU. Under normal circumstances, full border controls would apply but, since all parties are committed to ensuring that there is no "hard" border, an exceptional situation has been created.

However, because it could otherwise set a precedent which could be invoked by others of the EU's trading partners, demanding the same treatment, any solution which avoids a hard border must be exceptional - a "one-off" - otherwise it sets a precedent. It cannot be rolled into the solution applicable to the general trading relationship.

Furthermore, there are two extra requirements. Firstly, the EU cannot make any concessions to the UK which would prejudice the integrity of the Single Market. It cannot, therefore, change the rules on things like border inspections. These must still be carried out. And then, nothing agreed can put the UK in a more favourable position than it enjoyed as a fully-fledged EU member.

All of this has been made very clear to the UK yet, despite that, UK ministers have consistently pushed for a "have your cake and eat it" while, on the Irish issue, initially, insisted on combining the talks with the general negotiations on a free trade area – not scheduled until after we leave.

Despite the importance that the EU placed on reaching a resolution of the Irish issue before moving on to other matters, it was not until December that the UK finally conceded the point that a separate solution for the Irish border must be found.

Then, with the European Council throwing a lifeline to Mrs May, allowing us to move onto discussions on the transition arrangements before Ireland had been settled, the UK was given the option of proposing a solution as the basis for negotiation. In the event that no such solution was forthcoming, the UK agreed to adopt the "backstop" solution set out in the joint report.

To date - and with the March European Council less than two weeks away - the UK has not come up with its own solution. Therefore, in the draft Withdrawal Agreement, the EU is seeking to apply the "backstop" while still allowing for a UK proposal to be made.

One must recall that, the day after the publication of the Joint Report, David Davis was saying that the commitment had no standing in law. And since then, the UK government has not offered its own proposal, while Mrs May has rejected out of hand the "backstop" to which the UK previously agreed.

The text, if implemented, said Mrs May, would undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish sea. No UK Prime Minister could ever agree to it.

And it is against that background that the EU, in the form of Donald tusk, has now informed the UK that there can be no further substantive talks until the Irish situation is resolved.

Given the circumstances, it is very difficult to see how the outcome could have been any different. And while one could readily accuse the EU of a lack of flexibility, and even suggest that it could have been more pragmatic, the UK is the country which is leaving. It has the primary responsibility for proposing the basic terms of the withdrawal settlement.

Throughout the whole Brexit process to date, though – from the time the Article 50 notification was lodged, to date, the UK has taken a passive role and ceded the political initiative to the EU. The UK's role has been largely negative, declaring what it is not prepared to accept while continually failing to be specific about what it does want.

As a result, it is hardly surprising that the EU negotiators are running out of patience and, by the same token, it is difficult to sustain a credible argument that they are "bullying" the UK. In many respects, given the inflammatory statements from some cabinet ministers, M. Barnier and his colleagues have been a model of restraint.

Richard North 11/03/2018 link

Brexit: the road to Armageddon

Saturday 10 March 2018  

It would not be the first time that I have remarked on that arrogance of the legacy media, and especially its insistence on "owning" the news. Again and again we find that, in their eyes, nothing exists until they have "discovered" it.

Even though we or some other toiler in the vineyard may have already broken the story (and, most often done it better) – as with the Guardian's latest effort on customs checks at Calais – we're invisible.

After this week, though, I suspect that they are going to find that the system works in reverse. Just because they ignore a story (or give it such scant coverage that it might as well not exist), that doesn't mean it isn't happening or won't happen. If the media hadn't reported the invasion of Poland on 1939, this would not have stopped World War Two from breaking out.

So it is with the remarkable sequence of events which started with Mrs May's Mansion House Speech and culminated on Thursday with Donald Tusk's visit to Dublin and his ultimatum to the UK government. If the words he used have the meanings normally ascribed to them, that effectively means that Brexit negotiations are on hold and are on the verge of breakdown.

The problem here, though, is that news reporting creates its own dynamic. Generally, the most loyal and credulous consumers of the media product are politicians.

Thus, if the gibbering hacks report something which is of relevance to them, they will react to it. And since the reports so rarely bear any relation to the facts on the ground, the driver is the report rather than the event. Largely, politicians do no react to events – they react to reports of events.

However, in the case of Brexit, our domestic politicians are not in control. In Brexit they have an inconvenient partner in the shape of the EU, which is shaping events. And even if they can live in their own little universe for a while, eventually the EU will engineer a situation that even our media cannot ignore.

The point here is that if the talks do break down, as they seem likely to do, the consequences cannot be concealed. Those 30-mile queues outside Dover and Calais are just the start. We start with empty shelves in the supermarkets and serious economic disruption.

By the time it ends, we have a massive hike in unemployment, reduced tax take and a diminished government that is squeezed between increased obligations and reduced capabilities.

Yet, for the moment, for those who are not reliant on the legacy media's distorted news values, the real interest is whether the government can come up with anything credible to resolve the Irish border question, and whether the EU really is going to pull the plug if it is unable to deliver.

Back last year in the run up to the December European Council, it was being made very clear that, unless the Phase One issues could be resolved – of which the Irish question was the biggest stumbling block – there would be no Phase Two.

The concession made in December was that we could move on to discussions about the transition period, but only if there was a formal legal agreement, ready to be written into the Withdrawal Agreement, on all the Phase One issues. And, with the UK not having come up with anything bankable, that led the EU to lodge the "backstop" position – which Mrs May has unequivocally rejected.

From this, what does not seem to have registered is that the transition issue was supposed to be settled for the European Council of 22-23 March, thus clearing the way for detailed talks on the framework for the post-Brexit trading relationship.

Thus, the effect of Mr Tusk's intervention on Thursday, in putting the talks on hold until the Irish question is settled, is to block any discussion at all on the transition arrangements. This puts the UK in a position perilously close to a "no deal" scenario where we fall of the proverbial cliff.

The government can then get Snake Oil Singham, now working for the incompetents in the IEA, to write more pretty little fantasies about mutual recognition of standards, to go with all the other wet dreams to which he is prone.

Singham and his new colleagues at the IEA might even be able to convince themselves that whatever they dream up might be in the interests of both the UK and the EU. But, as Mr Tusk made clear to Mr Hammond, the EU has decided that it is going to define what's in the EU's interest.

And since the EU's primary interest is maintaining what it calls the "integrity" of the Single Market, when the trucks start rolling off the ferries and driving off the rail cars on 30 March 2019, they won't get as far as the exits.

We've done this scenario before, but it is interesting to note, that after the short spell of bad weather last week, reports came in of supermarkets up and down the land struggling to re-stock, with many examples cited of empty shelves (illustrated).

The main reason for this, it turned out, was not the bad weather in the EU, but the heavy snowfalls in Ireland, which severely disrupted supplies to the UK. With local problems adding to the shortfall, we saw a timely demonstration of the fragility of the supply chain. We need to get used to the idea that, if agreement is not reached on Brexit, this could become the norm. 

If the UK government sits on its backside, as it has been doing ever since the referendum, we can see the EU – already near the end of its patience – not even going through the motions of conducting talks. And although it cannot actually truncate the two-year Article 50 period, it can simply walk away from the table, making resumption of negotiations entirely conditional on the UK coming up credible proposals for the Irish border.

That brings us full circle. That, in effect, was precisely what Mr Tusk did last Thursday. If he sticks to his guns, there will be no further negotiations until the UK delivers. And, with the publicity being downplayed in the UK, and there having been no public political response, it does not look as if we are going to see anything soon from Mrs May's government.

In my view, such was the gravity of Mr Tusk's statement that there should have been an emergency statement in the House of Commons on Friday and, possibly, an emergency debate. But, so far, we cannot even be certain that the message has reached No. 10, much less that it has been acted upon.

Maybe the media will drag itself out of its slumber in the few days before the European Council meeting, and maybe we'll get a statement from the prime minister. All we have to go on for the moment, though, is a statement from the fool Johnson that the UK would "do very well" under WTO rules.

If this in any way represents what passes for thinking at high level in the government, then we are doomed. The March European Council will pass in a welter of recriminations, with nothing achieved, and the timetable will be set back even more. When we should we discussing framework for our new relationship, we will still be stuck on the Irish question.

That will leave us a year. The first year has already gone incredibly quickly and achieved nothing bankable – on the basis that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. The next year can pass just as fast. And as long as Mrs May fails to respond, we can see a situation where the Brexit deadline approaches with no transition arrangements in place.

All that will be left then for an impotent government to do is to seek to apportion blame to anywhere except where it belongs. Back in the day, the situation was resolvable but Mrs May killed it with her Lancaster House speech in 17 January 2017. That is the day which will go down in history as the day when our prime minister wrecked our chances of a rational Brexit.

There will be those who will be more than willing to join the government in blaming the EU for the consequences of Mrs May's decision, but it will cut no ice with the EU. And their economies will survive the perturbations. Our economy will not.

Having lived in a dream world, sustained by the make-believe fantasies of the likes of Snake Oil Singham, our government will have made no preparations for the disaster to come and will have little capability to respond once disaster strikes.

The irony is that, even now, Mrs May could easily accept the EU's Irish border solution, had she famed it as a device to keep her in the talks, and buy her two years of transition. That would give time to work up a practical solution. But she hasn't even had the sense to do that, and has left herself without options.

From the "road to Brexit", therefore, we now are now on the road to Armageddon, with the extraordinary twist that the legacy media haven't even noticed. In course, they will "discover" the crisis and take ownership of it. And they will never acknowledge that, when the countdown actually started, they weren't even there.

Richard North 10/03/2018 link

Brexit: Ireland first

Friday 9 March 2018  

We know today that the UK government rejects: "a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea" said European Council president Donald Tusk. He was speaking in Dublin after meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to discuss Ireland's concerns on several important issues ahead of the European Council in two weeks.

And it wasn't only the "wet border" that the UK rejects. That takes in the EU's Single Market and the customs union – a position Tusk says must be respected. On the other hand, the EU expects the UK to propose "a specific and realistic solution to avoid a hard border". And as long as the UK doesn't present such a solution, said Mr Tusk, "it is very difficult to imagine substantive progress in Brexit negotiations".

Then we got the bombshell: "If in London someone assumes that the negotiations will deal with other issues first, before moving to the Irish issue, my response would be: Ireland first".

If that represents the official policy of the European Union, then we have to take it that the negotiations are frozen. They will remain so until the UK comes up with a solution that will avoid a hard border in Ireland. That is how the Independent sees it, reporting that the EU "has thrown down an ultimatum to Theresa May".

Oddly enough, The Times - once the "paper of record" – hadn't picked this up at the time of writing. But the Daily Mail had managed to tear itself away from poisoned Russians long enough to notice. This paper had it that Donald Tusk had warned that all 27 EU nations "are united in their determination to secure a deal for Ireland before trade talks".

As one might expect, the BBC has also picked it up, with its website headlining: "Brexit: 'Ireland first,' says Tusk after Varadkar meeting". It also quotes Tusk elaborating the EU's position. "Since my last visit here in Dublin", Tusk said, "I have spoken to virtually every EU leader, and every one of them – without exception – declared, just like Prime Minister Bettel did yesterday, that among their priorities are: protecting the peace process, and avoiding a hard border".

He then uttered what could be taken as a battle-cry: "The EU stands by Ireland. This is a matter between the EU27 and UK, not Ireland and the UK".

This is both unequivocal and damning. And it wasn't even the full extent of what Tusk had to say, in what was actually quite a short statement. On his way to declaring solidarity with Ireland, Tusk referred to Hammond's speech from yesterday.

Then, Hammond had noted that Mrs May had set out "why it is in the interest of both the UK and the EU27 to ensure that EU businesses and citizens can continue to access the UK Financial Services hub". The Chancellor also referred to the UK and the EU acting in the "mutual interests".

In what was an unmistakable, and almost brutal snub, Tusk told his audience: "I fully respect the Chancellor's competence in defining what's in the UK's interest. I would, however, ask to allow us to define what's in the EU's interest".

He then went on to say: "Services are about common rules, common supervision and common enforcement to ensure a level playing field, to ensure the integrity of the single market and ultimately to ensure financial stability. This is why we cannot offer the same in services as we can offer in goods. It's also why FTAs don't have detailed rules for financial services". Hammond, for all his hubris, has been put firmly in his place.

As for the Telegraph, if you look hard enough you can find the story, but pride of place is given to the fool Johnson claiming that "no deal Brexit should not hold any 'terrors' for Britain because UK would 'do very well' under WTO rules".

This is the measure of a newspaper that has completely lost its way, one which no longer makes any pretence at reporting news objectively. The Johnson story was an "exclusive", arising out of an event organised by the paper at which the foreign secretary spoke. And that is given preference to Tusk telling us that the Brexit negotiations have, effectively, been shut down.

What we get from Tusk is a clear sense of irritation – part of which must surely stem from the legacy media treatment of his statement yesterday. What should have been front page news in every national was relegated to inside pages after the media chose to obsess about the poisoning of the Russian spy.

No one will argue that that incident was not important but here again we have media incontinence, displaying its inability to deal with more than one subject at a time. And even today, none of the nationals give any coverage at all to EU issues on their front pages.

It is not only the UK politicians but the media which is being fundamentally unserious on this issue. We have to go across to the Irish Times to get front-page treatment. That much is predictable but it also says a great deal about the importance with which the subject is being treated.

Taking account of the comments of the fool Johnson on the WTO option, one wonders whether the UK government is at all serious about pursing the Brexit negotiations, or whether it has secretly given up and is just going through the motions.

For what it is worth, the Express tells us that Ministers are gearing up for a walkout from Brexit talks "if Brussels continues to play hardball". Relying on one of those "senior cabinet sources", we are led to believe that plans for scenarios including "no deal" and the EU refusing to let Britain rejoin its agencies are more advanced than many people realise.

Certainly, by no stretch of the imagination can one accept that the UK government is putting maximum effort into these talks. Looking back over its performance, it has been giving the EU what one might term the "right royal run-around". Right up to the Mansion House speech, every time the EU pushes for a clear answer, Mrs May resorts to generalities and evades the issue.

Right now, it looks very much as if the "colleagues" are running out of patience. And, if the Independent is right, and Mr Tusk has just delivered an ultimatum, then things are taking a turn for the worse. The UK needs to start taking the talks far more seriously than it has done to date.

There is no way the EU is going to buy into the UK's current ideas for managing the border and, as longs as Mrs May maintains her stance that the EU's guideline proposals are unacceptable, we simply have nowhere to go. 

If, on the other hand, Mrs May is content to allow the likes of the fool Johnson free rein to peddle his stupidity, then she can hardly be surprised if the EU draws its own conclusions. And it gets worse when we see Liam Fox condemning "EU chiefs" as "acting like gang leaders", who are "throwing threats of violence around" to get what they want on Brexit.

This is not the language of diplomacy, especially when Fox criticises the argument of Donald Tusk and others that British trade access must be worse than the status quo after leaving the EU. "The idea of punishing Britain is not the language of a club, it's the language of a gang", he says.

With that, it really doesn't look as if there can be a meeting of minds any time soon. With the March European Council only two weeks away, we could be coming to the end of the line - much faster than anyone anticipated.

Richard North 09/03/2018 link

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