Coronavirus: buying time


The daily figures for Covid-19 cases and deaths have been getting later each day but yesterday Public Health England excelled itself. It was well past nine in the evening before they finally appeared and then with the caveat, "these figures do not cover a full 24 hour period".

Nevertheless, the 1,542 increase in the cases was impressive enough, bringing the total to 9,529. But the 463 dead reported – up only ten percent from 422 the previous day – is significantly less than might have been expected.

Conveniently, the lateness of the hour and the fact that they are incomplete have kept the figures out of the headlines, leaving the media all over the place. Some newspapers have Johnson's "volunteer army" for their front pages while some pick on the promised availability of a virus test. Almost all feature Prince Charles as a mild coronavirus sufferer.

But yesterday was also a day when, it seems, there was an intent to inject a note of optimism into the proceedings, with Foot & Mouth modeller Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London telling us that the crisis could be over by Easter. Furthermore, Ferguson is "confident" that the NHS can remain "within capacity" and cope with the surge of cases.

Ferguson is a member of the government's scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), and has produced a report suggesting no more than 20,000 people might die from coronavirus. And in his optimism for an early peak for the epidemic, he has the support of deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries who also believes the worst might be over by Easter.

Strangely, though, even the fanboy gazette is casting doubt on the magical predictions of the modellers, noting the absence of reliable data and urging caution in its interpretation.

It quotes Rosalind Smyth, director and professor of child health, at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, warning that Britain simply has no idea how many cases it has because of a lack of testing. "On conservative estimates", she says, "the true figure is likely to be five to ten times higher".

These are the sort of issues I was addressing a week ago in my post on "number crunchers", and now, even the Guardian is getting in on the act with a piece headed: "The UK's coronavirus policy may sound scientific. It isn't".

This is a commentary by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is distinguished professor of risk engineering at New York University's Tandon School of Engineering and author of The Black Swan, together with Yaneer Bar-Yam, president of the New England Complex System Institute, and they have some interesting observations to make.

Firstly, the pair rather put the modelling fantasy into perspective, telling us that their work did not use any complicated model with a vast number of variables. It was no more necessary that "someone watching an avalanche heading in their direction calls for complicated statistical models to see if they need to get out of the way".

The trouble I find, though, is that these modellers, with their graphs and charts and the faux certainties offered by complex computer calculations, based on mysterious formulae and algorithms, have a strange allure for hard-pressed politicians in crisis situations, seemingly giving the comfort of certainties that simply do not exist.

Taleb and Bar-Yam actually point out that the error in the UK, in managing this epidemic is on two levels: modelling and policy-making.

Firstly, at the modelling level, they say that the government relied at all stages on epidemiological models that were designed to show us roughly what happens when a preselected set of actions are made, and not what we should make happen, and how.

As such, the modellers use hypotheses/assumptions, which they then feed into models, and use to draw conclusions and make policy recommendations. But the assumptions are untested and lack robustness. They are fine as academic models but, say Taleb and Bar-Yam, "if we base our pandemic response plans on flawed academic models, people die. And they will".

This was the case, they say, with the disastrous "herd immunity" thesis which, in fact, was nothing more than a dressed-up version of a "just do nothing" approach which never had the slightest chance of working – as indeed I pointed out at the time.

But the second, and more grave error, is the policymaking. No 10, we are told, appears to be enamoured with "scientism" – things that have the cosmetic attributes of science but without its rigour, this making it so attractive to politicians (and their advisors) who have a limited grasp of science.

This, say Taleb and Bar-Yam, manifests itself in the nudge group that engages in experimenting with UK citizens or applying methods from behavioural economics that fail to work outside the university – yet patronise citizens as an insult to their ancestral wisdom and risk-perception apparatus.

Social science, they say, is in a "replication crisis", where less than half the results replicate (under exact same conditions), less than a tenth can be taken seriously, and less than a hundredth translate into the real world.

So what is called "evidence-based" methods have a dire track record and are pretty much evidence-free. This scientism also manifests itself in Cummings's love of complexity and complex systems - which he appears to apply incorrectly. And letting a segment of the population die for the sake of the economy is a false dichotomy – aside from the moral repugnance of the idea.

The view of Taleb and Bar-Yam is that, when dealing with deep uncertainty, both governance and precaution require us to hedge for the worst. While risk-taking is a business that is left to individuals, collective safety and systemic risk are the business of the state. Failing that mandate of prudence by gambling with the lives of citizens is a professional wrongdoing that extends beyond academic mistake; it is a violation of the ethics of governing.

The obvious policy left now, they say, is a lockdown, with overactive testing and contact tracing: follow the evidence from China and South Korea rather than thousands of error-prone computer codes. Thus, "we have wasted weeks, and ones that matter with a multiplicative threat".

Yet, for all that, they have said nothing that hasn't already been said on this blog, and elsewhere. There only place where there is no sense of control is No.10, where Johnson continued to wing it, buoyed by extremely dubious modelling from the same team that brought us death and destruction in the Foot & Mouth epidemic.

As yet, though, the Johnson administration doesn't have a plan B, but you have to admire its skills in creating the superb distraction of the "volunteer army", which has the media taking its eye off the ball. But, with both Italy and now Spain, leading the way in emergency treatment (pictured), indicating our direction of travel, this can surely only be short-lived.

One gets a sense though that, deep down, Johnson still thinks this is a problem that will go away of its own accord, and that all he needs to do is hold his nerve until the crisis abates. And if that is the case, the likes of Neil Ferguson are playing to his weakness, bolstering his fantasies.

For the moment also, this is buying time, as is the promise of home testing kits, which may or may not be available in the near future. But while, as I recently warned, you can't bullshit a virus, fudging the figures will only give you so much respite before reality comes crowding in.

And, as Pete illustrates, there are complications to this epidemic that go way beyond Johnson's limited competence to deal with. Having failed even to grasp the domestic dimensions, his dire tenure as foreign secretary make it unlikely that he will be able to deal with the broader international issues.

However, if it was buying time that Johnson was after, it looks as if he has partially succeeded. An astute politician, though, buys time to seek solutions. Johnson seems just to be deferring the crisis in the hope that it will go away. It won't.

Richard North 26/03/2020 link

Coronavirus: not theoretically impossible


In what has been described as a somewhat rambling performance yesterday, Johnson has excelled even himself in contradicting his own message to the plebs at large.

This was in his daily press conference where he opened the proceedings by declaring that everything was in hand with the Covid-19 epidemic, despite it having so far delivered 3,269 confirmed cases in the UK, up 603 from the day previously, with the body count now at 144.

"We can turn the tide in the next 12 weeks", he announced to his audience of journalists, "and I'm absolutely confident that we can send the coronavirus packing in this country".

This was the Johnson his fanboys know and love, the man who will cut through the doom and gloom, the man who in the best tradition of the Beano will grab this virus by the short and curlies and send it packing. Oh to be in England now that Johnson's here.

There was, of course, one minor snag. This was only going to happen if "we take the steps, we all take the steps that we have outlined and behind them when what we are asking everyone to do is so crucial for saving literally thousands of lives by defeating this virus".

I suppose he knew what he meant to say, but one can understand why his performance was described as "rambling". But that did not stop one of the journos present noting that the Dennis the Menace of politics was suggesting to the public that, if they follow the rules, he the great Johnson could "turn the tide on this disease".

"Are you telling people", the hack continued, seeking confirmation of this startling claim, that by the summer they might, they just might be able to go back to normal life, that they might even "be able to go on their summer holidays?"

At this stage, the prime minister was still in his can-do mode, borrowing from his Brexit rhetoric. "I'm very confident we'll get this thing done", he said, and without even having to promise to die in a ditch. There were plenty of other people about to do that for him now that, after his wasted weeks, patients were being turned away from a London hospital, following in the wake of Italy.

"I'm very confident that we'll beat coronavirus", Johnson repeated, heedless of the growing crisis. "I think we can turn the tide within the next 12 weeks", he said. But, he was quick to remind us, "it depends on collective, resolute action".

There was no stopping this wave of optimism. The great man was encouraged to find that "the more disciplined" we could be in doing that, "the greater the chances that the scientific community will be able soon to come up with the fantastic results on testing, to say nothing of the other medical treatments".

This is from a man who can't even discipline his own hair, but at least he was able to tell the hackery that "testing" was "crucial to our success in defeating this virus". Now he tells us.

But it took a hack from his own fanboy gazette to tease any more out of him, and even under this gentle probing, his coherence fell apart. "What I want to do is to get on top of it", he roundly declared, notwithstanding his earlier determination that so many should die in order to achieve the nirvana of "herd immunity".

The only trouble is, he mused, "at the moment the disease is proceeding in a way that does not seem yet to be responding to our interventions". No shit Sherlock, one might have said, although no-one in the room articulated this out loud.

Nevertheless, this virus was going to be sent packing … wasn't it? Johnson certainly believed, or so he said, that "a combination of the measures that we're asking the public to take and better testing, scientific progress, will enable us to get on top of it within the next 12 weeks and turn the tide".

But then it all crumbled away to dust. "Now, I cannot stand here and tell you we will have by the end of June, er that we will be on the downward slope", he added, "It's possible", he tentatively advanced, "but I simply can't say that that's for certain. Of course, not".

And then came the admission: "We don't know where we are and we don't know how long this thing will go on for". But never fear. What the prime minister could say was that the epidemic was "going to be finite". As to turning the tide, well that's what tides do, so it was going to turn. Yet, all he could really offer was the promise that he could "see how to do it within the next 12 weeks".

So there we all are, saved at last. Weeks into the Covid-19 epidemic, Johnson has climbed up the learning curve and has now mastered the black art of sending this virus packing – as long as we all do what we're asked.

Across the Channel, though, there was another Great Leader – who was a tad less bombastic, none other than French president Emmanuel Macron. Visiting the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where researchers came up with a test for coronavirus and are working to develop treatments and a vaccine, he sombrely declared that no one knows how long the coronavirus crisis will last.

Also warning that defeating the virus "would likely require an overhaul of how Western economies function", he declared that no one was able to say "how long we'll have to keep this reduction of social contacts", or do we know "how many waves we're going to have and how the virus is going to behave and how we will absorb it".

But we didn't have to go across the Channel to find someone so downbeat. Earlier in the day, the two stooges – Whitty and Vallance - had given their own press conference, marked by the CMO admitting that a coronavirus "exit strategy"' might rely on a vaccine becoming available.

Whitty, however, stuck to his original script, confirming that his short-term aim was to delay and reduce the peak of the epidemic, then planning to reduce the "overshoot". This amounts to attempting to reduce the number of people who catch the illness.

For the long-term, a vaccine was "one way out of this", but a vaccine would not happen very quickly. Largely, he was still trying to finesse the case rate "to the point where we minimise the probability that at any point the whole system is overwhelmed by this". Then, globally, science would come to the rescue, helping us over time "to get to an optimal position".

Not one mention of 12 weeks was made, with Whitty conceding that it was "improbable" to think a vaccine would be available within six months, and nor was it realistic to expect to be able to get rid of the virus completely – so much for "sending it packing".

Thus did he say: "It is our judgement, and it is my judgement certainly, if you look around the world, the idea that we are going to put this virus back to going away completely, whilst not theoretically impossible, seems so improbable that basing scientific evidence on the theory that that is something we are trying to do seems to be a mistake". It is good to know, therefore, that Johnson's ambition is "not theoretically impossible", which is all this charlatan needs for an opening.

In the meantime, his diligent civil servants have been toiling away to produce a 329-page Coronavirus Bill which gives the government far more power than the Civil Contingencies Act, for longer, without the parliamentary scrutiny – for what that's worth.

In the name of sending this virus "packing", parliament is ceding power to the executive which far transcends anything to which Brussels could ever aspire. Johnson might not be getting coronavirus "done", but he's certainly dispensing with even the pretence of democracy for a while.

This is perhaps just as well for, while the government has nearly half of Britons supporting its policy, Johnson has effectively given himself 12 weeks to deliver a miracle. If he fails, his default end-of-the-pier-show act could turn into the end-of-Boris act. And that would come not a moment too soon.

Richard North 20/03/2020 link

Brexit: power to the people


In a different world, it might be of some interest that the House of Lords has approved the Withdrawal Bill, having added five amendments.

But since it is likely that these amendments will be voted down by compliant Tory MPs, this will simply trigger what is known as a "ping-pong" period between the two chambers, eventually ending up in some sort of fudged compromise.

Under normal circumstances, the Lords do have some leverage because Johnson needs to get this Bill into law before the end of the month, and the Lords can run it right to the wire if they hold their nerve.

But these are not normal times, so predictions are unwise. We will just have to wait to see what happens – idle spectators witnessing the wreckage of a system that once had some pretensions of becoming a democracy.

Oddly enough, the stresses are beginning to show, as Gordon Brown pops up with some comments on how to fix our ailing political system, proposing a "forum of the regions and nations and a council of the north" as well as a council for the Midlands.

These, he argues, should gain their funds in the same way as Wales and Scotland do, labelling this extremely modest proposal "a sort of constitutional revolution". We have been a unitary state for too long, he says. "Once we bring in nations and regions you have a very different kind of UK and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would feel more comfortable".

There is something of this in The Harrogate Agenda, only we go much further in suggesting local income tax and the approval of annual budgets through the medium of local referendums. What we cannot tolerate is another layer of politicians sucking at the tit of the public purse, demanding money with menaces and telling us what to do.

This is why the most recent regionalisation movement, pushed by John Prescott, failed. We simply do not want more politicians, redistributing power between them. If there is to be a "constitutional revolution", it must involve a real transfer of power to the people.

In this sense, it really is quite wearying to see yet another politician perceive that there are flaws in our system of governance, only to come up with yet another raft of proposals which do not address the core failings. None so far have put the finger on the main defect, the failure to recognise that the essence of democracy is empowering people.

Coincidentally, we get a long whinge in the Guardian with Alberto Alemanno complaining "that the EU won't fix its democratic deficit with another top-down 'conference'".

This is a reference to Ursula von der Leyen honouring a promise she made after her appointment last year, to launch a two-year "deliberative process" tasked with overhauling how the EU works and listening to the voices of its citizens.

Alemanno's concern is that the conference is supposed to be "a bottom-up exercise where European citizens are listened to and their voices contribute to the debates on the future of Europe". What he evidently doesn't appreciate is that all the "listening" in the world will be to no avail if those listening are not required to act on what they hear.

But then, Alemanno, whose day job is working as professor of EU law at the HEC in Paris, is also the founder of an outfit called The Good Lobby, which aims to foster "collaborations between civil society and professionals (lawyers, consultants, academics)" willing to share their time and talents, "training civil society on the different ways in which we can make a change".

One of these days, one hopes, the chatterati might begin to realise that there is very little to be achieved by creating endless talking shops. Meaningful change will only be delivered when people have the power to make it happen. The trick is to enable that process without having to resort to violent revolution.

If there is an unlikely place to start looking for solutions, it might be the OECD, which at least is trying to get to grips with the way regulation works and how to make it better.

Explained in outline here, the OECD has been carrying out an assessment across all EU countries and the European Union of the use of stakeholder engagement, regulatory impact assessment (RIA), and ex post evaluation to improve the quality of laws and regulations.

With more detail provided by the OECD, we see the observation that "better regulation agendas" need "constant attention". The "set and forget", model of regulation does not work, says the OECD, just as it does not work for laws themselves.

This homes in on a particular interest of mine for, while the OECD argues for full "stakeholder" engagement before laws are made, it places special emphasis on systematic ex post evaluation of laws, leading to a review of existing regulations to determine whether regulatory goals have been achieved. This then allows for the introduction of improvements and the removal of obsolete or ineffective laws.

The issue here is that pre-legislative consultation is of limited value. Even those who will be directly affected often have difficulty visualising how new laws will work, and very often it is not until a law is in force that its faults are revealed.

In practical terms, the ability to change a faulty law is an important test of any democratic system. And it is here that not only the EU fails, but where we see a lack of flexibility in dealing with globalisation and the laws which emerge from global or regional bodies.

What we find is that, when standards and agreements are presented to national legislatures for codification as national law, texts cannot be changed and, once installed, the laws are almost impossible to change. Thus, what the OECD doesn't do, with its emphasis on ex post evaluation, is empower ordinary people.

For the next iteration of The Harrogate Agenda, however, we think we have at least a partial solution, which lies in the wider use of waivers and safeguards in international agreements, the nature of which is discussed here.

In short, our government should be constitutionally prohibited from agreeing to any treaty which did not encompass either waivers or safeguard provisions (of the nature of Art 112 of the EEA Agreement) which will permit any party to disapply specific provisions, without having to denounce entire agreements.

Where we then find that we are bound by an inappropriate or damaging law, which stems from an international agreement, the electorate should have the power to hold a referendum to demand a waiver or suspension of the relevant provisions, so that the law may be repealed or amended.

While one finds that some people manage to get extraordinarily worked up about such provisions, it is the case that both waivers and safeguards are common in international agreements, and provide vital safety valves where, otherwise, parties might feel the need to withdraw from them.

What is different here is that the people themselves are empowered to demand action, without having to go cap-in hand to the government in the hope that it might listen to their problems.

And there does lie the answer to many of our political woes. Politicians need to be aware that democracy comprises two parts, the people and power. Translated literally, democracy means people power, and without that power being thus devolved, no state can be considered to be a true democracy.

And, in the nature of things, if power is not given, it is taken. The latter is something that could be very messy.

Richard North 22/01/2020 link

Brexit: when the bells were silent


I can't imagine why Johnson ever thought he could "bury" Brexit, especially when he seems to be in some disarray about how he will celebrate the end of the first phase on 31 January.

But the main reason why he is unlikely to get away with it lies in his own hands or, to be more blunt, his failure to turn the next phase into a boring routine, so tedious that the media won't bother to follow it.

Having been adamant throughout the election campaign that the UK would secure a "fantastic" deal, telling everybody that the chance of no-deal was "absolutely zero", he has now admitted to BBC Breakfast television that there is a "slim chance" that the UK won't make it before his self-imposed December 2020 deadline.

Needless to say, he is keen to say that it was "epically likely" it would happen, which is about as convincing as a surgeon telling you "it won't hurt", just as he is about to saw off a limb without anaesthetic – having drunk all the whiskey to steady his nerves for the operation.

What Johnson has done therefore is inject just the necessary amount of "will he, won't he?" uncertainty to give it legs as a media story, allowing endless speculation as to the outcome of the coming talks.

It also sets the scene for a nail-biting drama in December, as the talks go to the wire, giving him a platform to announce another famous victory, artfully avoiding questions about the content.

You can see the dynamic at play when the Financial Times reports this development as "likely to cause concern in the business community", which supposedly "fears that if no deal is in place then Britain will have to start trading with the EU on WTO terms in January 2021, with tariffs, paperwork and delays at ports".

This, of course, nicely distracts attention from what should be the real concern – that Johnson, as he himself avers, is likely to get a deal, but a very poor one which will cause no end of problems in the longer term. To that extent, it is the fact that there will be a deal which should really be worrying business, given that it is most likely going to be a slow-motion train crash.

But you can also sense where Johnson is going with this, having told BBC Breakfast that, although there was it was "very, very, very likely" a deal would be done, he accepted that "you always have to budget for a complete failure of common sense". Without having to read between the lines very much, it is fairly evident that he holds himself as the reservoir of "common sense", and thus any failure will be down to the intransigence of the European Union.

That remark, however, will not have gone unnoticed in Brussels, especially as stage Irishman Phil Hogan is sounding off yet again, with another of those statements of the bleedin' obvious. This time, to an audience in the United States, he is accusing Johnson of "brinkmanship" complaining that the UK's approach to negotiations was creating "uncertainty" for business.

Once again, this rather misses the point as the problem for business is not so much the uncertainty – even if there is plenty of that – but the certainty. The entire business community can be pretty well assured that they will be something delivered on their plates, but it will most likely be a steaming pile of crap.

Undeterred, Hogan is warning that the short timeframe "puts enormous pressure on the UK system, and then of course on the EU system" to meet the deadline, and adds that it would be legally very difficult for Britain to change its mind and request an extension later on, after the 1 July extension deadline expires, even if it became clear to both sides that more time was needed.

Given the propensity of the EU to break its own rules, there must be few people seriously ruling out the possibility of a fudge. Doubtless, the best minds in Brussels are already working on a formula which might buy more time, possibly involving the creative use of vocabulary, where we get an extension by any other name which produces a "non-transition" to cover the period of the no-extension.

Nevertheless, Hogan is adamant that "We need to wake up to this reality that gamesmanship and brinkmanship is not going to work on this occasion", referring to the brinkmanship that worked last time round, if only for the EU. And if it worked once, then the EU will hardly be adverse to trying it again, right up to the point when it ceases to deny that it is possible.

The bigger problem that the EU has – even it hasn't fully realised it yet – is that Johnson probably doesn't want an extension, at any price. Worse still, he shows every sign of being entirely indifferent to the shape of an EU-UK agreement, beyond the vague aspiration of seeking an abolition of tariffs and quotas.

Thus, the only response we've had from UK officials is that Hogan's warnings, and the rest of the "noise" from Brussels, is a negotiating tactic intended to lure the UK into requesting an extension. And since that would require the UK to make extra contributions to the EU budget and to continue applying all European law for an extended period, the answer is set to remain, no thank you very much.

As this ritual dance progresses, though, the legacy media never fails to disappoint, keeping up its reputation for embracing the lowest common denominator, focusing its attention on the so-called "battle of the bongs", as Johnson sparks a surge of fruitless donations in an attempt to get Big Ben chiming on 31 January.

For so many of us who have worked decades on campaigning to leave the EU, it was always on the cards that we should look to some sort of celebration to mark our formal passage from the "evil empire".

I would have thought that a chain of beacons, from one end of the nation to the other, might have been the appropriate activity, each bonfire attended by copious consumption of alcoholic beverages, pork pies and mushy peas. Only Farage could think that a party in Parliament Square was an adequate substitute.

Once again, though – and rather ironically – the leaden blanket of uncertainty has cast its dire effect. With no way of telling until the last moment that we were really going to leave, after so many false starts it has not been possible to organise a genuine community response from the heart of England.

But, given the botched process so far, with little prospect of anything better, for most of us – including Eurosceptic die-hards - 11pm on 31 January will be a sombre moment of reflection. We may take such comfort as we can from the fact that we have achieved a lifetime's ambition of actually leaving the EU. 

But it is perhaps just as well that the bells of Big Ben will not be chiming. Otherwise, we might be reminded of the words of Sir Robert Walpole. When the bells were rung in London on the declaration of war against Spain in 1739, of which Walpole disapproved but which was compelled by popular clamour to support, he was heard to say, "They may ring their bells now, before long they will be wringing their hands".

This was the same man who, when his son offered to read history to him, remarked, "Oh, don't read history! That I know must be false". These days, politicians tend to write the histories, rather than read them, which is why we know they must be false, but who then will be there to write the history of this event, when the bells themselves were silent? 

At least Quasimodo can have no complaints, not that Notre Dame is in a position to take up the slack. Perhaps we should give him a job.

Richard North 17/01/2020 link

Brexit: taking shape


In the grand scheme of things, Corbyn is an irrelevance – an unpleasant little man who was never able to rise to the demands of his position or assume his place in history. But, at the moment, he is also an unwelcome distraction – dragging attention away from more important matters that will determine the fate of this nation.

However, since there is little chance that the Labour leader will get near the reins of power, the focus on his inability (or unwillingness) to control the antisemitism in his party will simply have the effect of reinforcing his undesirability and add to the reasons why he will never become prime minister. It will not change anything.

His greatest contribution to history, therefore, will have been to preside over a wholly ineffective opposition which has thus failed to have any material impact on the career of a Tory politician who, in all senses, is unfit for any office more important than a road-sweeper yet is set to lead his party to victory in December.

Meanwhile, great events continue to take shape, not least the progress of the United Kingdom towards Brexit and, in particular, the nature of the future relationship which must be negotiated once the UK has left the EU.

And here, at least – in the wake of yesterday's lecture from Sir Ivan Rogers – there has been a development in the form of a closed-door (but widely leaked) briefing to MEPs in Strasbourg by Michel Barnier, appraising them of his priorities in the coming negotiations.

Of some considerable significance, although he warns of the difficulties incumbent in concluding negotiations in the short timeframe that prime minister Johnson is expected to set, he does not rule out reaching an agreement in the time. There is no talk of a no-deal from this quarter.

From the Financial Times, which seems to have one of the most comprehensive reports, we learn that Barnier conceded that the eleven months from the UK's planned exit on 31 January until the end of the transition period would normally be far too short to negotiate a trade agreement. But, despite that, Brussels would strive to have a deal in place for the end of 2020.

For that to happen, though, the talks would have to focus initially on core trading arrangements, such as plans for duty-free, quota-free trade in goods. These matters lie within the exclusive competence of the Commission and can be agreed without requiring ratification from Member States.

In terms of priorities, Barnier also stressed that he would be seeking to ensure continued strong co-operation with the UK on security and defence. No detail has been given on how this is to be secured, but there are mechanisms which range from the informal "understanding", to the political declaration and the full-blown treaty.

In practical terms, a political declaration would avoid the need for ratification and, while not legally binding, would stake out mutual commitments and obligations which could subsequently be elevated to treaty status.

Other issues also beyond the scope of the Commission to agree are matters such as road haulage and aircraft take-off and landing rights. Barnier says that sorting these could take longer than the eleven months so the plan seems to be for the EU to rely on the unilateral contingency measures crafted by Brussels to deal with the no-deal scenario.

What seems to be taking shape, therefore, is a fudge based on a "quick and dirty" treaty which will only accommodate the basics, while the wheels of commerce will be in the hands of the Commission until firm arrangements can be made.

This differs from the no-deal scenario where the Commission has been adamant that there would be no mini-deals to keep the wheels turning. Here, the initial treaty would effectively act as a framework agreement which would be added to by way of protocols, negotiated without time constraints – possibly over a period of years.

Overall, this would very much be to the advantage of the EU. Not only would it be the beneficiary of a "bare bones" treaty, it could then set the timetable for further talks and call the shots, as the dominant trading partner.

In the longer term, much will depend on the UK's willingness to adopt the EU's so-called flanking policies, on such matters as social and environmental standards, with market access held as a carrot to incentivise the UK's agreement.

Such things, for instance, as a comprehensive mutual recognition agreement on conformity assessment could be high on the list for post-transition talks. That agreement could be a stand-alone treaty as it is between the United States and some other countries, or it could be tacked on to the "framework" agreement as a protocol – with exactly the same status.

All being well, if the UK does leave the EU on 31 January, as Johnson intends, Barnier plans to present national governments, via the General Affairs Council, with a draft mandate for trade talks in February, in the hope that it could be approved in time for negotiations to begin on 1 March. This might need a special European Council, as the first meeting for 2020 is not scheduled until 26 March.

This phased approach, which Barnier seems to concede is the way forward, might be a neat way to overcome Johnson's insistence on ending the transition by December 2020. Although the UK will take a substantial economic hit, the most obvious effects will not be immediately visible and those that follow can be disguised in government statistics for some time.

From the point of view of the new Johnson government – if the Tories win the election – they can claim their "victory" in achieving a trade agreement without resorting to an extension, and thereby claim to have honoured the manifesto commitment. In reality, they will have concluded only a partial treaty and talks will likely continue for some years – if not decades.

In many respects, this does begin to look very similar to the way Norway-EEC relations were handled in the aftermath of the Norwegian rejection of membership in 1972. This relied on a very short, basic treaty, negotiated in little more than six months, which was then expanded over a number of years with the addition of protocols.

A different way of doing things would be to negotiate a series of stand-alone treaties, more in line with the Swiss model, although the EU has never been particularly keen on this mechanism and even now is looking to revamp the whole system,

Of course, the combined experience of Norway, Switzerland and others eventually led to the EEA Agreement in 1994 and, even now, after a period of a decade or more, we would perhaps see an EEA v.2, with the UK joining forces with Efta states to forge a joint cooperation treaty with the EU. Maybe this is what it will take.

As soon as the immediate Brexit talks are out of the way, though, the EU has other fish to fry. It must attend to a long-delayed treaty of its own, which has been on hold ever since the UK's EU referendum.

Touched upon by the Telegraph, a fuller report can be found on the CNA website. It tells us that France and Germany are looking to the EU to convene another "Conference on the Future of Europe", which they believe is necessary to make the EU "more united and sovereign" across a range of challenges.

This, of course, is entirely expected and one of the many reasons why so many in the UK campaigned to leave the EU. There is never a status quo as, no sooner is one treaty laid down, there is another in the planning stage – and then another one after that, in a never-ending process of integration.

Ironically, had the UK not had its referendum and decided to leave the EU, our government would be gearing up for another intergovernmental conference, and new treaty talks. The big difference would then be that the UK would have to hold a referendum to ratify the treaty. By this means, we could still have been looking at Brexit, albeit delayed by a few years.

As it is, even with the disgusting Corbyn unable to craft a coherent Brexit policy, we are finally looking at an exit on 31 January. But, of one thing we can be absolutely certain. That is not the day when Brexit will be "done". We will have to wait a decade or more for that to happen.

Richard North 27/11/2019 link

Brexit: vapid and inane


So, the first of the great non-debates is over. The first half was dedicated (sort of) to Brexit and told us nothing we didn't know already. But, under the frenetic moderation of Julie Etchingham, the format merely allowed Corbyn and Johnson to state their positions. There was nothing in depth that would allow us to get to the bottom of the issues.

Following the break, we moved on to the NHS – yawnsville. Once again we heard much that we've heard before, but learnt nothing new. Punctuated by intrusive clapping, the formulaic nature of the engineered confrontation simply failed to deliver.

A fascinating fifty minutes of debate, said Etchingham, before allowing the leaders to sum up. I must have missed something. I certainly didn't recognise The Sun headline which talked of a "bruising TV debate". All I saw in this was an hour of my life lost, never to be regained.

Michael Deacon of the Telegraph seems to agree. "This debate between Johnson and Corbyn never got going – because Julie Etchingham wouldn't let it", his headline reads.

The most memorable answers were for the most inane question, he writes. Right at the end, a young man in the audience asked Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn what present they would give each other for Christmas. Corbyn said he would give the prime minister a copy of A Christmas Carol by Dickens: "So you can see how nasty Scrooge was". Johnson said that he would give Mr Corbyn "a good read" too: "a copy of my brilliant Brexit deal".

"If that seems vapid and inane", Deacon added, "it was at least in keeping with the rest of the broadcast – because, although it was meant to be the first big debate of this election campaign, it didn’t really feel like a debate at all. It simply never got going".

And for once, the Telegraph and the Guardian were of a single mind. John Crace dismissed the whole debate with the headline: "Bluster from smirking Johnson; fudge from freshly trimmed Corbyn", telling us: "Tory and Labour leaders manage an insincere handshake in an S&M dungeon – but little else".

"All pretence that the debate was a serious contribution to the election campaign had been abandoned when the lights went up on a set that looked like a cross between a 1970s afternoon gameshow and an S&M dungeon", he added.

I suppose it was inevitable that this should have been the case. Even without Etchingham's leaden moderation, both leaders had far too much to lose so neither was going to take any risks. And then the policy set by ITV of embracing a wide range of issues meant the debate was never going to run deep. Crace actually had it, writing: "the whole purpose of the format is to be as uninformative as possible, with both party leaders sticking to set lines".

What the media make of it generally depends on their political stance. Predictably, the Telegraph took a pro-Johnson stance, reporting that Corbyn had been "jeered over Labour's Brexit confusion".

The Mail took a similar line, proclaiming: "Boris Johnson wins leaders' debate... just: Voters back PM by 51% to 49% after Brexit-shy Jeremy Corbyn was jeered for refusing to say NINE times in bruising ITV face-off if he backs Leave or Remain".

Here, we see the same obsession that gripped Andrew Marr on Sunday, the Westminster bubble preoccupation with what Corbyn actually believes. The Independent, on the other hand, had Johnson "challenged" over selling off the NHS, with the Guardian offering similar fare, telling us that: "Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn clash in ITV election debate over 'NHS for sale' claim".

The Mirror got more personal, reporting that the audience had burst out laughing when Johnson, in response to Etchingham's questioning, claimed that "truth matters" in politics. "The Tory leader who's been sacked twice for lying didn't quite get this one past the audience or ITV host Julie Etchingham", the paper added.

Nevertheless, that was probably the high point, with the nearest thing to a gaffe coming from Johnson when he responded to a question on the royal family, declaring that it was "beyond reproach". Corbyn went for the more cautious, "needs improvement".

Predictably, for such a lacklustre affair, the YouGov snap poll puts the result close to a draw: 51 percent to Johnson and 49 percent to Corbyn. In opinion poll terms, the statistical error does allow for a draw. But even if Johnson did narrowly squeak ahead, it was a margin that can hardly give him any comfort. Oddly, the Financial Times headlined, "Johnson survives hazardous duel with Corbyn".

As to the detail of the YouGov poll, 58 percent of viewers came away feeling frustrated. But some 40 percent thought that Johnson came across as more trustworthy, putting Corbyn in the lead with 45 percent.

When it came to being "in touch with ordinary people", Corbyn was streets ahead with 59 percent, leaving Johnson on 25 percent. Johnson made up ground, though, on who came across as more prime ministerial. He made 54 percent as opposed to Corbyn who only scored 29 percent. And that could be the impression that matters.

Speaking for YouGov, Chris Curtis, the organisation's political research manager, remarked that their poll showed that the public was "divided on who won the debate". As with the media split, respondents took a partisan view. Most Labour voters thought Jeremy Corbyn had won while Conservative voters thought Boris Johnson was the winner. Very few people changed their minds.

However, said Curtis, "given the Conservatives went into this debate in the lead, they will hope the lack of a knockout blow means they can maintain this until voting day".

Certainly, the polls would tend to support that hope, although with the most recent YouGov Westminster voting intention, only just. It has the Tories losing three points since 15 November, dropping to 42 percent. With Labour gaining two points, creeping up to 30 percent, the gap closes to 12 percent.

By complete contrast, KantarTNS – carrying out its polling over 14-18 November - has the Tories grabbing eight points to rise to 45 percent, with Labour level-pegging on 27 percent. That gives the Tories a virtually unassailable 18-point lead.

In both polls, the Lib-Dem vote share is virtually static, at 15-16 percent, but KantarTNS has Farage's limited company plummeting seven points to end up with a miserable two percent, with YouGov recording a static four percent. Either way, it seems that the party is over for Farage.

Following a break for "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here", ITV actually gave Farage and the others an hour of airtime with a series of one-to-one interviews. But it looks as if ITV got it right (with the support of the High Court), focusing on the two main players. Despite the earlier indications that we were looking at a multi-party contest, this is shaping up to be an old-fashioned Lab-Con slugging match.

Mind you, the Guardian is pushing the boat out with Suzanne Moore writing under the headline, "Why vote? You’re just clinging to a wrecked system". Her sub-heading reads: "The looming general election offers fake binary choices – Corbyn or Johnson, leave or remain. Taking part is to bolster brokenness".

"Voting", she says, "now feels like clinging to the wreckage of a system we should dismantle. All the issues that really matter require cooperation, not silly, point-scoring conflict. That’s what this election feels like: a proxy war in which we are unwilling conscripts with little actual choice".

There was something of that in yesterday's "great debate". Not a few pundits remarked that there was definitely an anti-politics mood abroad. That is one to watch in this election. Given also poor weather and the dark nights, we could be looking at reduced turnout casting an unpredictable shadow over the whole election.

Richard North 20/11/2019 link

Brexit: for whom the bell polls


Considering for how long we've been told that the polls are notoriously unreliable, there are an awful lot of them about this weekend – and all but one pointing in the direction of a Tory victory.

Particularly chipper is the Sunday Telegraph which is parading the headline: "General election poll: Conservatives at highest level since 2017, survey shows".

This is a SavantaComRes poll and it puts the Tories on 41 percent (up one percent), with Labour taking 33 percent, albeit up three points. For the record, the Lib-Dems take 14 percent (down two), the Greens two (down one) while Farage's limited company reaches a new low with a paltry five percent, losing two points since 12 November.

But if the ST really wanted to crow, it should have gone for the Opinium poll, published yesterday. While SavantaComRes gives the Johnson a mere eight-point lead, he gets 16-points from Opinium, with the Tories standing at 44 percent, up three compared with last week, as against Labour on 28 percent, down one point.

Interestingly, this poll also has the Lib-Dems dropping one point, standing at 14 percent, with Farage's party level-pegging on six percent.

Even better would be The Sunday Times, which relies on YouGov for its polling. This puts the Tories on 45 percent (up three) and Labour static on 28 percent, the same as it was on 12 November. That gives the Tories a healthy 17-point lead.

On this poll too, the Lib-Dems haven't moved, showing 15 percent, and neither has Farage's limited company. For the moment, it has bottomed out at four percent. It just has to lose one more point to reach a milestone in its decline. That's when it will have dropped to ten percent of its European Election showing.

Returning to the Sunday Telegraph poll, which gives the Tories an eight percent lead, that paper's headline makes an interesting contrast with the Independent, which uses BMG poll data to back a headline declaring: "Labour cuts Conservatives’ poll lead to eight points".

This survey has the Tories on 37 percent, against 29 percent for Labour, allowing the paper to assert that Jeremy Corbyn's party has gained ground. It tells us that a series of big policy announcements helped Mr Corbyn’s party to dominate the agenda, while the Tories were forced onto the defensive over new figures revealing that A&E waiting times are the worst in almost a decade.

Nevertheless, Johnson appears to have the advantage in uniting "leave" voters behind him after Farage's vote has fallen away. Some 61 percent of leavers now say they will back the Tories, significantly up from the 48 percent showing last month. And this could increase: BMG has not yet accounted for Farage's party standing in less than half the seats.

Even now though, the Tories are doing better than Labour, Corbyn is also picking up more "remainers", currently collecting 40 percent of that vote. However, 28 percent go to the Lib-Dems, indicating that Corbyn has been unable to unite the anti-Brexit movement. For all that, there is some progress, as last month's figures were, respectively, 37 and 32 percent.

But, if that is the Independent "take", the Mail on Sunday puts itself firmly in the Tory camp, having Johnson "surge" ahead of Jeremy Corbyn. It also suggests that the Tories are tightening their grip on working-class voters, with 45 percent supporting them, against the 30 percent who would vote for Labour, as politics realigns on "leave" and remain" lines.

Here, we are dealing with a Deltapoll survey. This gives the Conservatives a 15-point lead, up from 12 points last week, giving them 45 percent of the vote, as against 30 percent for Labour. Deltapoll also claims to have picked up a slump in Lib-Dem support – down five to 11 percent.

As to the fate of Farage's limited company, the paper suggests that the "revolt" of the candidates – many of whom pulled out of contests rather than risk splitting the Tory vote in key marginals – has left the party marooned on six percent. Interestingly, the poll suggests most voters think Farage's political career is nearing its end: a total of 45 percent say his most successful days are behind him, and just 11 percent think they lie ahead of him.

Not so, Johnson, it would appear. Although the MoS is wary about making predictions, given the complexity of the planned voting patterns, it says that a uniform national swing in line with its poll figures could give Johnson a majority of 108. Stepping back from the bigger picture, though, the Observer has chosen to concentrate on three London marginals held by the Conservatives: Kensington, Finchley and Golders Green, and Wimbledon.

The paper claims that local polling in these constituencies shows a surge to the Lib- Dems. All three voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum. In all three, it says, the Lib-Dems have been boosted by their stance on Brexit – but mainly at Labour's expense. Finchley and Golders Green has seen the biggest shift, with a 25 percent swing from Labour to the Lib-Dems – although the candidate still trails the Tories by 14 points.

Tory leads in the other two seats are far narrower: three points in Kensington and just two points in Wimbledon, largely as a result of Johnson's Brexit policy having gone down badly with many pro-EU Tories. Around half of the party's Remain voters have deserted it, most having gone to the Lib-Dems.

Mirroring the national picture, the Conservatives are currently leading in these strongly "remain seats" because the opposition is divided between Labour and the Lib-Dems. If Labour was out of the picture, most of the Labour votes would transfer to the Lib-Dems. But if the Lib-Dem candidate quit, the Tory majority would probably increase.

This sort of polling, also carried out by Deltapoll, certainly provides an illustration of the complexity of voting patterns, and opens the way for some shock results when the votes are counted. But, for all the reservations about opinion polls, they do seem to be stabilising relatively early and – with one exception in the weekend's batch, are presenting a relatively consistent picture.

What seems to be turning sentiment is the simplicity and clarity of the Tory message: "get Brexit done". Although this hides a subtle lie – as there is no chance that Brexit will be "done" for many years - it is far more attractive a message than the fudge and confusion that is coming from Labour on Brexit.

Arguably, the Lib-Dems are delivering simplicity and clarity in equal measure, but voters also appear to remain conscious of the purpose of a general election – to choose a government. Despite the many loathsome attributes of Johnson, no one in their right mind could imagine "shrieking Jo" as a prime minister.

The one great unknown, though, is turnout – variations of which probably have a far greater effect than many pundits realise. And whatever else this election isn't, it most certainly is – as Nick Cohen describes, a tawdry affair.

There will be many voters who are prepared to rebel against a political class which treats them with such contempt, presenting second-rate place-men (and women) as candidates, anticipating that we will turn out to vote for one or other of them.

More likely though, if the polls are to be believed, enough people will hold their noses to ward off the stench coming from Westminster and deliver a result. But politicians should not delude themselves that this election is a vote of confidence in them. Voting for the "least worst" is not a choice any of us would prefer.

Richard North 17/11/2019 link

Brexit: a Mad Hatter's tea party


As I write, the situation is about as transparent as a radiographer's apron, with the media reports to date about as coherent as the Mad Hatter's tea party.

The big news yesterday was Michel Barnier setting an ultimatum for the end of the day for agreement on a legal text to be finalised. This was in order for it to be presented to EU leaders at the European Council on Thursday. But, with the midnight deadline past, there is no news of whether an agreement has been reached.

One possible explanation might be that, as a surrogate for GAC approval, the "EU Ambassadors" (Coreper) are meeting at 1pm today to take a briefing from Barnier, and the draft will not have to be ready until then. This, apparently, gives the UK team and the EU's Brexit taskforce a few extra hours to complete their tasks.

According to the Telegraph, they are prepared to work through the night to complete the draft, ready for the Barnier briefing, prior to it being passed to the European Council.

This assumes, of course, that the parties are anywhere near reaching an agreement and, through yesterday, we were getting any number of negative signals, suggesting that it was as elusive as ever, even though there was a continuous stream of reports saying that the talks were close to a conclusion.

By mid-afternoon, though, we had The Times conveying a message from "British sources" who urged caution over reports that a deal could be ready by the end of the day. They suggested that the bout of optimism was a negotiating ploy to pressure London into making more compromises.

We also had the Guardian which had a "senior French official", speaking in Paris, who advised "extreme prudence" about the chances of a deal being struck that would satisfy the EU's capitals. "It's not the Irish who will make the deal", he said. "Yes, there are better atmospherics, but what matters is the content, and we have seen nothing yet. Whatever it is, we will want to look at it in very serious detail".

That latter comment from the French official tells its own story. By all accounts, any agreement reached is going to be a long, complex piece of text, a view supported by Angela Merkel who compared the Brexit talks to "squaring the circle", saying "It's very, very complicated".

Given that, I simply don't buy into the idea that a few Coreper officials will be able to fillet the document and give it the go-ahead, without the lawyers first having trawled through it. Even then, senior politicians and officials from all the Member States will want to give the "deal" the once over, before the European Council commits to anything.

On that basis, a rainy afternoon in Brussels will hardly give sufficient an opportunity to prepare for Thursday's European Council, even if Johnson is prepared to fly to Brussels today, in an attempt to cement the deal. There will barely be time to get the deal translated into the Union's 24 working languages, much less circulated to 27 capitals for comment.

Despite its chequered reputation for fabricating rather dubious stories, therefore, The Times this time seems to have a point with today's (online) headline which declares, "Boris Johnson hit by prospect of no Brexit until 2020", with the sub-heading telling us: "EU warns deal may need two months to finalise".

What seems to be coming through is that the parties have only come to an agreement in principle, and that is what will then be conveyed to the European Council with the promise of detail to follow. The paper then quotes a "senior German official", who says a political agreement on a deal would not be enough "to resolve technical issues", thus requiring Brexit to be postponed for a third time for "some two months".

Also called in aid is a "senior EU diplomatic source", who says in Delphic terms that, "Without a deal this week, Britain will need an extension. With a deal this week, Britain will need an extension". Thus does Johnson face being pushed into a delay even if the outline of a deal is done.

As to whether the European Council will even countenance a delay, though, is said to depend on whether Johnson can prove he has sufficient support amongst the swamp-dwellers for a deal to be ratified, once it is presented. That means that, after the European Council, attention will turn to the House of Commons, with special attention paid to the proceedings on Saturday, if that session materialises.

However, after two consecutive days of talks with Johnson, resolve in the DUP is stiffening, with strong indications that the party will oppose the deal. Arlene Foster is now saying that the DUP would support only "a deal that respects the constitutional and economic place of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom". She adds that there has to be consent which is in accordance with the Belfast agreement, in other words "there has to be consent from the nationalist community and the unionist community".

After expressions of support for the deal, some of the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party are also having second thoughts, leading to what is being called a "major split among Tory hardliners". Owen Paterson, for instance, has branded the deal "absurd" and "unacceptable", while Iain Duncan-Smith is said to have "exploded" at No 10 officials.

It is now even being suggested that some Brexiteers might even prefer a delay, giving time to negotiate a better deal, rather than accept a fudge that will please no-one. But that assumes that any more time will necessarily open the way for a more acceptable resolution.

With no more sense to be had, one can only hope that some better news emerges through the day, allowing in a little more light, bringing with it – one hopes – some much-needed clarity. For the moment though, we are in a strange twilight world, where we may or may not have a deal, without actually knowing any of the detail and thereby lacking the wherewithal to determine whether it is even worth having.

I am not even prepared to speculate on what that detail might be, although it is interesting to note the comment of the Independent which admits that "details from the secretive talks are scarce", and then goes on to say that, "the latest sketchy reports from in the room suggest that the UK has agreed in principle to a customs border down the Irish Sea – which was originally rejected by Theresa May as something 'no British prime minister' could accept".

Mrs May's comment is a useful reminder of where we were at back in December 2017, and I looked up my own comments at the time. The big issue then was that Mrs May had more or less come to an agreement with Brussels, but had neglected to pass it by the DUP.

The story goes that the DUP intervened publicly, rejecting the Whitehall/Dublin deal. This led Mrs May to break off her meeting with Juncker to take a 'phone call from Arlene Foster, the outcome of which, it is said, was that attempts to conclude the deal with Brussels on the day were abandoned.

Now we seem to have history repeating itself except that, if anything, the deal is even more convoluted, leaving some to wonder whether, even if it is agreed, the administrative capacity exists to implement it.

Perhaps, though, it was never meant to be. The BBC is reporting that it has obtained Conservative party leaflets which suggest the party is preparing for a delay to Brexit. The text of one leaflet says: "Without a strong majority government, we can't deliver Brexit", indicating that the party is expecting the UK still to be in the EU by the time a general election is held.

One way or another, I have the sense that, over the past week or so, we have been played. All the to-ing and fro-ing of the past week or so is simply theatre to distract us from the reality that we are nowhere near a deal. In its own way, the Mad Hatter's tea party probably had more coherence.

Richard North 16/10/2019 link

Brexit: a totally mad day


What is fascinating is the speed at which Johnson's mad plan seems to be unravelling. Yesterday morning, he delivered a statement to a thinly-attended House of Commons, telling MPs that he welcomed "the constructive calls" he had received over the past 24 hours, "including with President Juncker, Chancellor Merkel and Taoiseach Varadkar, and the statement from President Juncker that the Commission will now examine the legal text objectively".

But it wasn't long before The Times put the boot in with a story headlined: "Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal unworkable, says EU". Interestingly, in just under 850 words of text, the word "unworkable" wasn't mentioned once. It was actually coined by Corbyn rather than the EU, in his response to Johnson's statement, but his comment doesn't feature in this report.

Nevertheless, even if Corbyn is the author, that's about as good a description as you'll get, although very many different ones have been applied. And, apart from a few sycophantic Tory MPs and the fanboys in the Telegraph, none of them have been good.

Simon Coveney, for instance, decided that the proposal had "a number of fundamental problems". If, as had been trailed by No 10, this was the final offer, there would be no deal. His boss, Leo Varadkar, said he did not fully understand how the British proposals might work, adding that Dublin could not sign up to a treaty "that did not safeguard an open Irish-British border".

Racking up the pressure, Jean-Claude Juncker has called on the British government to publish the proposal in full, while the EU has set David Frost, Johnson's chief negotiator, a deadline of one week to offer fresh solutions on the key sticking points.

The ever-emollient Donald Tusk tweeted to say that he had had two phone calls on Brexit, first with Dublin and then with London. We (the EU), he had said to Varadkar, "stand fully behind Ireland". For Johnson, he had a less encouraging message: "We remain open but still unconvinced".

Barnier took a different tack. He didn't directly criticise Johnson's proposal. Instead, he tweeted that the EU wanted a Withdrawal Agreement with "workable and effective solutions that create legal and practical certainty now". By implication, he was saying that that was precisely what Johnson was not offering.

Guy Verhofstadt went one better. After declaring that Johnson's proposal was merely a "repackaging of bad ideas that have already been floated" and "nearly impossible" to implement, he had "an exchange of views" with Barnier and then got his Brexit Steering Group (BSG) to issue a statement. The BSG, it said:
… does not find these last minute proposals of the UK government of 2 October, in their current form, represent a basis for an agreement to which the European Parliament could give consent. The proposals do not address the real issues that need to be resolved, namely the all - island economy, the full respect of the Good Friday Agreement and the integrity of the Single Market.
It went on to say that: "While we remain open to workable, legally operable and serious solutions, the UK's proposals fall short and represent a significant movement away from joint commitments and objectives".

Verhofstadt doesn't always speak for the European Parliament, often voicing his own personal opinions. But the BSG, with support from all the major parliamentary groups, can be considered representative of a majority opinion. Bearing in mind that the EP must ratify any deal, its rejection of Johnson's proposal, as it stands, is terminal.

Ambassadors attached to the Council of Ministers are not taking quite such a robust view. We are told that they "want to take time to seriously evaluate the proposal" and also question Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay to assess "whether this is a serious starting point negotiation or a tactical document in function of an election".

The reaction of ambassadors is said to highlight "the deep level of mistrust that now characterises the talks between London and Brussels", with the diplomats "keeping up their guard" against the possibility that Johnson is simply "manoeuvring to blame Brussels for a no-deal scenario, which some fear is his true goal".

And no reaction could be complete without input from those fabled, anonymous EU officials. In what must be a synthesis of several views, Reuters has them saying that they were "extremely cool" about the proposal. "It can only be a starting point to more talks", we were told.

A "senior EU official" broke cover to say that, "It does not contain any decent solution for customs. And it erects a hard border on the island of Ireland", opining that the plan "can't fly" as it stands. An EU diplomat confirmed this, saying the plan "would need to be fundamentally reworked to become acceptable".

What this person also said was that "time is short" before EU leaders meet in Brussels, something that I was keen to emphasise in my previous piece, when I suggested that there simply wasn't time to agree a deal for the European Council to consider.

In another twist, from Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee (and a close ally of Merkel), we see an interesting variation on this theme. In a tweet, he writes: "One thing is clear: Johnson's Brexit plan can't be negotiated until Oct 31".

He doesn't expand on this, and this may be a peculiarity of German phrasing, but he could be referring to the European Council Decision of 11 April which specifically excluded using the extension to 31 October for "any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement".

There is no ambiguity in Johnson's proposal. He wants to scrap the 74-page Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol and replace it with 44 pages of his own. Since that protocol is an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement, it would seem that there cannot be any negotiations until 31 October – which is what Röttgen seems to be saying, adding that: "If UK is serious about this, it must seek extension".

So far this issue has been fudged, with "talks" and "conversations" rather than formal negotiations being conducted in Brussels. But, if the proposal is to be taken seriously, the EU must entertain formal negotiations. This it cannot do without breaching the European Council Decision, an instrument which has the status of EU law and is binding on those to whom it is addressed.

To fail to reach a conclusion on Johnson's proposal by the 15 October (the effective deadline for completion of talks, when a finished draft must be submitted to the General Affairs Council), and then to invite Johnson to apply for an Art 50 extension – allowing formal negotiations to take place after 31 October – could get the EU off the hook.

Röttgen, however, rather doubts the proposal can even be negotiated. Northern Ireland, he says, "can't simultaneously be inside and outside EU". But received wisdom also tells us that the EU cannot be seen to close down the prospect of continued negotiations, thereby precipitating a no-deal exit by the UK.

Yet it would be perfectly natural for Barnier to claim "insufficient time" to agree a deal, thus having Tusk inviting Johnson to apply for extra time. That would put the ball firmly in the UK's court and relieve the EU of the responsibility for bringing talks to a halt.

Politically, this might present Johnson with a dilemma. Rather than being forced to apply for an extension by the Westminster parliament, this would be between him and the EU, where refusal to apply would mean that he personally had closed down the talks.

Where this then puts the Benn Act is not entirely clear, adding more uncertainty to an already critically uncertain position. But then, it seems, uncertainty is the new normal. Not anybody on this planet can truthfully say that they know what is going on.

In the meantime, though, having failed to learn from experience, Johnson is said to be planning a whistle-stop tour of EU capitals to explain his proposal. Strangely, both Merkel and Macron are unable to meet him due to "scheduling problems". One of these days, possibly, this stupid man might get the message. But, for the moment, one totally mad day is enough.

Richard North 04/10/2019 link

Brexit: a victory of ignorance over rationality


Preceding the speeches of Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier at the European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday – but by not very much – was a piece in the Financial Times purporting to give an insider's view of Monday's Luxembourg meeting between the pair and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

Headed, "EU fears Brexit reality has dawned too late for Boris Johnson", with the sub-title, "Officials have become increasingly pessimistic about the prospects of a deal with the UK's prime minister", it tells us that: "Boris Johnson's nightmare in Luxembourg was more than just a public embarrassment delivered at the hands of the Grand Duchy's Xavier Bettel".

It was that PR disaster which took the headlines on the day, rather overshadowing the far more important Juncker-Barnier lunch which, according to the FT was something of a "chastening encounter", described as a "penny dropping" moment for the prime minister in office over what it really means to replace the Irish backstop.

The FT's account of the meeting has Johnson being told by his EU counterparts "in no uncertain terms" that the UK's plan to replace the backstop by allowing Northern Ireland to stick to common SPS rules was not enough to prevent customs checks on the vast majority of goods that cross the Irish border.

At that point, we are told, a "befuddled Mr Johnson" turned to David Frost and Stephen Barclay – also present at the lunch - and said: "So you're telling me the SPS plan doesn't solve the customs problem?" This, it appears, was part of an abrupt "learning curve" for Johnson in his first face-to-face meeting with Barnier and Juncker since he took office.

An official records Johnson gradually "slumping" in his chair as the reality of the UK's negotiating position and the limited time left to strike an agreement began to dawn. "He wasn't used to hearing it", added the official. But it doesn't stop there. We also get Juncker telling his commissioners in Strasbourg on Tuesday that the Luxembourg lunch was the first time that "Boris Johnson understood the meaning of the Single Market".

Needless to say, a Number 10 official rejected descriptions of the lunch as "nonsense", but then that is precisely what one would expect. What gives the account the ring of truth, though, is our own experience of Johnson whenever he has spoken on the detail of any matters relating to the Single Market.

Two episodes in particular spring to mind, the first being his facile intervention on banana regulation during the referendum campaign and the second his more recent comments on kippers, delivered during his leadership campaign.

In both instances, Johnson demonstrated his profound ignorance of the regulation of which he was complaining but, on a broader front, he also managed to convey a total lack of appreciation of the role of regulation in the facilitation of trade, and therefore its role in the Single Market which is, after all, a regulatory union.

As regards his complaint about a kipper producer having to despatch mail-order consignments in insulated containers with ice-packs, Johnson dismissed this as "pointless, expensive, environmentally damaging, 'elf and safety", despite the measure being introduced to deal with the emerging threat of the low-temperature pathogen, Listeria monocytogenes, about which Johnson knows precisely nothing.

Crucially, the producer in question was conforming to Isle of Man hygiene rules which, in turn, were a copy-out of EU rules. But the key point here is that their adoption allowed direct mail-order sales to the UK mainland without the consignments having to be routed via Border Inspection Posts. In effect, the producer only had a business because the Isle of Man had implemented what Johnson so cavalierly dismissed as "pointless, expensive, environmentally damaging, 'elf and safety".

But if this is the measure of this facile creature, it is also the measure of a supposed leader who, weeks away from a no-deal Brexit, is only just now coming to terms with the nature of the Single Market.

While some readers take me to task about my critical stance on Johnson, can anyone in this kingdom honestly attest that we are being well-served by having this ignorant buffoon at the helm? Can one have anything other than contempt for a politician who lacks even the most basic understanding of his business?

And that brings us to the Juncker and Barnier speeches in Strasbourg yesterday. What was remarkable about both was that, at this late stage, we saw an almost Janet & John-level explanation of the Irish backstop – making it easy to accept that this was the text that the pair delivered to Johnson on Monday.

Going through the motions, Juncker told the European Parliament that he still believed an agreement to be desirable and possible "but it needed the British Prime Minister to make concrete, operational and written proposals on alternative ways to achieve the goals of the backstop". "As long as such proposals are not forthcoming", he said, "I cannot tell you, by looking straight into your eyes, that real progress has been made".

If possible, Barnier was more forthright, referring to the Luxembourg meeting, noting that "the new government of the United Kingdom" had explained the provisions of the backstop it did not like. But, said Barnier:
It's not enough to explain to us why we should remove the backstop. We need legally-enforceable solutions in the withdrawal agreement, to address exactly each problem, to prevent each of the risks that Brexit creates. And it was on these goals that we agreed with Theresa May's government.
He then went on to explain:
Just a concrete example: any living animal, any food that enters Northern Ireland from Great Britain enters not only in Ireland but also on the Polish, Luxembourgish, German or Danish market, mechanically, immediately, and we must exercise a control to protect consumers, preserve food safety, prevent any risk of animal disease. And this is also the interest of the citizens and consumers of Northern Ireland, as well as consumers of the rest of the UK.
At this stage in the game, it should not be necessary for the EU's chief negotiator to be spelling out the basics, but after his exposure to Johnson, one can see why he felt the need to do so. In closing his speech, he also felt the need to reiterate that Brexit issues would not disappear if the UK crashed out without a deal. "We will have to settle them in any event, prior to a future partnership with the United Kingdom", he said.

The "considerable" consequences of Brexit, Barnier concluded, are not theoretical. "They are human and social, financial and budgetary, legal and technical". And, by way of a final barb, he added: "More than three years after the British referendum, it is certainly not about pretending to negotiate".

However, his last words were to break with the press release of the Monday when he talked about "this extraordinary and complex negotiation". The man needs to get his story straight – there is no "negotiation". Even the EU's chief negotiator can't always get it right. But, in his own words, the UK is merely "pretending".

The one thing where there is no pretence, though, is in the extent of Johnson's ignorance. The Independent picks this up, having Labour's Ian Murray observe that: "Reports that Johnson doesn't understand even the basics about cross-border trade and customs are shocking and deeply worrying", adding: "Out-of-his-depth does not even come close to describing how apparently clueless he is".

Yet, typically of the media, the paper is retailing a Johnny-come-lately comment, way behind the curve. It was already clear that Johnson's grasp of reality was slender, right from his "banana" comments in the referendum campaign. But then, the media often has no better idea of the issues than the politicians on which it reports, as we saw when the BBC tried to tackle the subject of regulation.

More seriously, this level of ignorance reflects a rich vein pervading the entire fabric of the Tory party. This is a party where the rejection of knowledge is almost a rite of passage and the mythology of "fwee twade" is nurtured to the exclusion of any understanding of how the EU actually works.

In this context, it is unsurprising that Johnson displays the level of ignorance he does. The Conservative Party is an institution which places little value on technical knowledge, treating those who display any understanding of things such as the European Union with the gravest of suspicion. Its policies are built on layers of "founding myths", support for which demands a conformity of belief, with an intolerance of dissent that has become a classic example of groupthink.

The myth of "restrictive regulation" is so heavily embedded in the Tory psyche that Johnson is actually articulating and reinforcing the party belief system. Acknowledging reality – even if he could get to grips with it - would not win him any friends.

And there I think is one of the great fault lines in British society. We have a political party built on a foundation of snobbery and prestige, the outcome of which is the election of an ignorant buffoon for a leader. The party nurtures and applauds ignorance, rewarding conformity and erecting barriers to prevent the acquisition of knowledge.

The great tragedy of Brexit is that it is confronting a continental system, where there is still at least some residual respect for scholarship. And where the two systems collide, the inevitable consequence is an impasse.

The knowledgeable will not ditch their learning to embrace the myths of the ignorant, while the ignorant lack the intellectual framework to understand what they are told and react to it. In this dialogue of the deaf, we are headed for a no-deal Brexit, the ultimate victory of ignorance over rationality. Its name will be Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

And yet, with officials in Brussels concerned that Johnson is wasting their time and playing out talks for as long as possible without presenting proposals – possibly with an eye on an upcoming election - EU leaders have given him an ultimatum: he has until the end of the month to come up with a solid alternative to the backstop or he will get his no-deal whether he likes it or not.

How ironic would that be? Just as Johnson really does decide he wants a deal, the prize eludes him – not least because he lacks the wherewithal to deliver.

Richard North 19/09/2019 link

Brexit: a period of silence


If I ever had any marginal reservations about the wisdom of proroguing parliament, they were entirely dispelled by the loutish behaviour of the MPs yesterday morning as Black Rod arrived to initiate the prorogation ceremony.

And even if it was a minority of the MPs misbehaving, the House of Commons these days has the remarkable ability to embrace the lowest common denominator, living down to our worst expectations. That we are rid of it for five weeks is no loss – the only regret is that it could not be longer.

But Mrs May's resignation honours list brought in by the prorogation has also served as another nail in the coffin for our respect for the political classes. This is "them" taking the piss, with Mrs May awarding CBEs to former joint chiefs of staff Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – the classic example of failure and ignorance being rewarded. It is hardly surprising that our politics are so dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, the Brexit rumour-mill churns on, generating endless noise and very little in the way of coherent information. The latest we were dealing with was the trial balloon on the possibility of a Northern Ireland-only backstop – an idea no sooner floated than denied by Downing Street.

Not content with the ritual denial, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP's chief whip also put the boot in, telling the BBC's World at One that the idea was "simply a non-runner", and in any event "it would contravene the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement, the Belfast Agreement". It's a bit rich the DUP calling in aid the GFA, but there you go – any port in a storm.

However, after talks with the DUP in Downing Street, the Telegraph resuscitates the theme, claiming that Johnson is indeed considering plans for a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. He wants an all-Ireland zone for checks on most goods crossing between the north and south of the island as part of a deal that would, in theory, remove the need for a Northern Irish backstop.

It seems also that Phil Hogan, Ireland's newly-appointed EU commissioner, taking over the trade portfolio, is on the case. He's been talking to RTE, claiming that there is "movement" happening on both sides of the Brexit negotiations.

One wonders whether he's received the memo excluding the use of the extension for any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement, because he too is talking of a return to the Northern Ireland-only backstop.

In Hogan's playbook: "There are constitutional issues that are already in the Withdrawal Agreement that might have to be improved upon" if a request is for this. "Of course", he says, "we can look at it", even if the Withdrawal Agreement would not be changed in "a major way".

Of course "we" - as in the EU negotiators – can't look into it, and nor can the Withdrawal Agreement be changed in any way at all, major or minor, unless the European Council is prepared to agree to a change in Michel Barnier's mandate and then lifts its own prohibition on renewing the negotiations.

To be (slightly) fair to Hogan, though, he does say that that the EU "has said all along that it's prepared to look at additional text and additional ideas in the political declaration, but also have been very strongly saying that the Withdrawal Agreement that has been agreed remains as it is".

But he then spoils it by referring to the "caveat" of wanting to go back to the Northern Ireland-only backstop…
… which gives security to the island of Ireland, [provides for] the protection of the Good Friday Agreement, gives frictionless trade and no hard border, equally it would give Mr Johnson… an independent trade opportunity to do trade deals around the world.
No such caveat exists in the European Council decision, which rather puts Hogan out on a limb, albeit that it seems more than a little redundant anyway. Clarifying the issue somewhat, the UK government with the support of the DUP is actually rejecting the idea of a Northern Ireland-only backstop. The arrangements under discussion seem only to apply to the movements of livestock, adding to the checks already carried out when animals enter the province from Great Britain.

For all that, something seems to be afoot, with Barnier reported to be staying on in his role as the EU's chief Brexit negotiator. Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming Commission President commends him for "an outstanding job" and says she would hold talks with him on prolonging his current position beyond 31 October.

That might just suggest that the Commission is anticipating an extension, and is preparing for a new round of talks once the block is lifted and, one presumes, on the assumption that a general election will pave the way for a meeting of minds. Overall, von der Leyen is quite helpful, saying that "Brexit, should it happen, is not the end of something but it is the beginning of the future relationship". Someone, at least, has got the plot.

Returning to Hogan, he too has had his penn'orth, warning that if there is a hard Brexit at the end of October, it would not be the same as a "clean break Brexit". "The UK political system seems to be under the misplaced notion that actually if you crash out of the European Union you have dealt with all the issues", he says, stating that: "In fact the work only starts again, like… citizen's rights, in relation to payments to the EU, in relation to the GFA and the island of Ireland issues. The issues remain".

Hogan also warns that, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, it could take up to eight months before negotiations on a future trading relationship could begin. "We [would] have to get a mandate then as a Commission from the member states of the European Union to negotiate a Free Trade Agreement", he says. "That could take some time. It could take six to eight months before all member states have come to a conclusion about the mandate".

One still hopes that there is a slender chance that this can be avoided, more so since a cross-party group of MPs, including Stephen Kinnock, has formally launched a campaign to win support in the Commons for Brexit via a managed deal.

Kinnock rejects the idea of reproducing a carbon copy of May's three times-rejected plan. Instead, he wants to model a deal on the results of failed cross-party talks between May’s government and Labour, but with a consensual focus, aiming to bring a deal Johnson could negotiate with the EU and then get through the Commons.

Whether this initiative can succeed is very much open to doubt, especially as Labour continue to fudge their Brexit plans. The latest instalment has Corbyn pledging a referendum at the general election, offering a credible leave and remain option.

As is the way of things Labour, this was more or less immediately contradicted by Labour deputy Tom Watson, who wants a referendum before his party agrees to a general election. It really is remarkable how Labour are able to make such a mess of this.

With fluff on the left, and fluff on the "right" from Johnson, maybe it isn't just a period of silence we want from parliament. We could do with one of those American football things where they call "time out" and everybody stops for tea – or something.

Certainly, after weeks of the most intensive media coverage on any one political issue in living memory (apart from, maybe, the Cuban missile crisis), we are none the wiser, either as to where we are going, or what the intentions are of the two main political parties. A period of silence would not make us more informed, but at least it might give us some rest.

Richard North 11/09/2019 link

Brexit: two peas in a pod


To replace the Irish backstop, Jeremy Hunt tells us in last night's televised scrap, there are "three elements" to his plan. These, he says are "based on a 202-page 'excellent' piece of work by a group of MPs led by my friend Greg Hands". It involves: "first of all, mobile checks for food products, secondly a trusted trader scheme and thirdly use of technology, not new technology but technology that already exists".

A blustering Johnson went for the same, confirming that there was "no difference between us on this point" when it came to the backstop. He too wanted checks "away from the border" although he argued that if a new deal was not ready by 31 October, "then we do it in the implementation period".

And there, naked in tooth and claw was illustrated the utter fatuity of the contemporary political "debate" – two clueless candidates for the Tory leadership mouthing meaningless nostrums which, even that very day, had been rejected by four prominent Northern Ireland business groups.

Of course, if Julie Etchingham, the half-witted woman interviewing the two candidates, had an ounce of sense or political acumen, she would have seized on the response of these groups and, even with the material presented, could have demolished this gormless pair.

But this isn't how they do things in legacy media land. They whiffle around the edges, missing the killer points, coming up with a fudged morass of verbiage which fails completely to enlighten, and merely adds to the noise.

The purpose of this "debate" might have been to tease out differences in positions between the two candidates but, in this area, all it served to do was demonstrate once again that there is nothing of substance between them – two peas in a gormless pod, neither with an idea between them of how to resolve the Brexit impasse.

As for Hunt, he cannot even bring himself correctly to identify the origins of his own stupidity, attributing Shanker Singham's Alternative Arrangements Commission (AAC) fantasy report to "a group of MPs" – who had next to no input in the formulation or writing of the work.

It might have helped proceedings if yesterday's rebuttals had been given more prominence by the legacy media but one saw the BBC and others fall into the old trap of treating the backstop as local (Northern Irish) news, failing as always to look at or understand the bigger picture.

However, despite having to fight the national battle on a local front – with local resources – the four groups involved, the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce, Manufacturing NI, the NI Retail Consortium and the Freight Transport Association did tolerably well (although the NI Retail Consortium not so much).

And if one was to look for a reasonable summary of their endeavours, the Irish Times is as good a place as any to start. It forwarded the view of Manufacturing NI, which argued that the "Singham special" would "kill firms, damage consumers and inflict a level of surveillance on to Border communities which doesn't have their consent". It would, it said, "re-establish barriers" and "fundamentally disrupt the all-island economy".

In more detail in its online report, it noted that the AAC had offered "inadequate or no solutions offered for VAT, State Aid nor providing market access". Crucially, it added, many of its proposals "would require not only exemption or derogations, but changes to EU Law and Treaties which would require approval in the EU27 including through referenda".

When it came to the crunch, Manufacturing NI thought that the proposals "would ask businesses and individuals to trust in the delivery of a mass, complex mixture of derogations, simplifications and the rest". This is despite there already existing a solution which delivers frictionless trade on the island of Ireland which is supported by the overwhelming preponderance of business, farmers and civil society.

In this, the group took the view that it was "not clear that border communities in particular would give their consent to an increased level of enforcement, greater intrusion of HMRC and others, when it has been committed until now that there will be none".

This, presumably, was a reference to an earlier response to the AAC's work, where one of Singham's gofers had been told that full police support would be needed for officials if they tried to go into nationalist areas in Northern Ireland to do Brexit checks.

Adding detail, Manufacturing NI noted that many of the suggestions made on SPS "stretch the rules (exemptions, derogations etc.) a significant distance beyond what is provided for in EU law". For instance, it said, "the suggestions that inspections could take place at locations which are not Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) but there does not appear to be provision for this in EU law".

And, in a direct challenge to the competence of the report authors, it pointed out that "SPS is not customs". Given the impact SPS will have on creating a Border, it said, "it is perhaps advisable that the AAC Technical Panel would include a greater level of technical understanding in this area to guide its work in the next stage and before publishing its final report".

As regards mobile border inspection posts, the group acknowledged that there were "some flexibilities in the Union Customs Code" but none of those, it said, "removes the need for checks". Furthermore, it said, "Regulations on Border Inspections Posts are not covered by the UCC. So, again, there would be a requirement for significant Treaty amendment and approval from the EU-27".

Where the group really failed to score was in omitting reference to Singham's own claim than his Commission had "intentionally restricted our work to existing legal frameworks, administrative processes, software and systems solutions and existing technology devices to ensure that the ideas in this report could be agreed, implemented and tested within three years".

Yet here we have the trade association remarking that the core proposals in the AAC report have "no provision" in EU law, and that there would be "a requirement for significant Treaty amendment and approval from the EU-27".

Actually, we're looking at law changes rather than treaty change, but the point is valid. And since the EU has only just revised the whole corpus of law on official controls – which do not take effect until 14 December – it is very unlikely that it could be prevailed upon to change the law yet again. The fact is that Singham is working outside the current legal framework, inventing provisions that do not exist. This must undermine his own claim that his report "could be agreed, implemented and tested within three years".

Startlingly, one of his inventions has now reached the very top, with Hunt last night arguing for "mobile checks for food products". If only he could have been told, there and then, that the only thing the EU permits is the "mobile official control team", providing staff for dispersed BCPs performing controls on consignments of "unprocessed logs and sawn and chipped wood".

It is on such things, therefore, that detail matters, but where the NI groups acquitted themselves with less than full honours. The NI Retail Consortium, for instance, limited itself to observing that, "we know of no border where mobile SPS infrastructure operates effectively at the moment".

This, bluntly, is as weak as ditchwater. Indeed, there is no border where mobile SPS infrastructure operates effectively at the moment, but the reason for that is that mobile units – even if practicable (which they are not) – are not permitted by EU law.

Thus it is that a candidate for the office of prime minister gets away with uttering complete tosh on prime time television, and no one has to the wit to call him out, while the very organisations which could have hung him out to dry, drop the pass.

Therefore, it is not only the prattle of empty-headed media commentators which lets us down. Players right down the food chain need to up their games if we are to make a dent on the intellectual vacuum at the top of politics. As long as vacuity survives unchallenged, that's all we can expect from our politicians.

Richard North 10/07/2019 link

Brexit: anything can happen


The debate in which we've all been engaged would be a lot less tedious if we weren't constantly having to recycle the same limited set of factoids, while rehearsing the same banal assumptions that are never going to fly.

For instance, since virtually forever, the "colleagues" have been making it clear that the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation. Yet here we are with both of the remaining candidates for the Tory leadership asserting that the first thing on their respective agendas is renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Predictably, the "colleagues" are getting a tad fed up with this constant recycling, hence the intervention of Donald Tusk yesterday at the conclusion of the European Council.

Having in April warned Britain to use the latest extension wisely, he was asked by the BBC whether his advice had been ignored. And the response could hardly have been any different. Tusk took the opportunity to accuse the UK of wasting the time it had been given.

For Jeremy Hunt, though, this is only one of two rebuffs he got yesterday. This man has been asserting that EU leaders, including Angela Merkel, are willing to consider amending the Withdrawal Agreement, with specific reference to the backstop.

Yet, the news from this quarter is far from promising. Reiterating the obvious, Mrs Merkel has now said that, while the EU was "willing to work cooperatively" with a new British prime minister, leaders had stressed that this withdrawal agreement was closed and could not be renegotiated.

"We are open for talks when it comes to the Declaration on the future UK-EU relations if the position of the United Kingdom were to evolve", she said, "but the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation".

Just to even things out, the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has closed down on Johnson's latest fantasy, pointing out that his claim to a tariff-free world using Article XXIV of GATT was unwarranted. "We should be clear", he said, "that not having an agreement with the EU means there are tariffs automatically", adding: "Because the EU have to apply the same rules to us as they apply to everyone else".

The thing is, though, that there is nothing new here – nothing that hasn't been said many times before, and nothing that hasn't been rehearsed on this blog and yet, here we are, days short of the third anniversary of the EU referendum and we're churning over these self-same issues.

One doesn't have to be at all expert or especially knowledgeable to pick up these issues. The real question is why they haven't been resolved, and why they continue to be raised by people who should know better.

But what is not being properly addressed are the consequences of this. Effectively, both candidates for the Tory leadership are offering false prospectuses on the flagship policy of Brexit. And, worse than that, they are putting forward scenarios that anyone with the slightest bit of knowledge should know is false.

That suggests one of three things. Either the candidates are so thick that they don't realise what they are offering simply won't fly, or they think we're so stupid that we won't notice that we're being lied to – or that we simply don't care.

Certainly, the legacy media doesn't care – or doesn't care enough. The big story on Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson in the papers today, making the front-page headline in The Times, is how police were called yesterday to the flat of his paramour, Carrie Symonds, after complaints of a heated argument.

First run in the Guardian, part of its report is based on a recording of the altercation where Symonds is heard saying Johnson had ruined a sofa with red wine. "You just don't care for anything because you're spoilt. You have no care for money or anything", she complains.

This is being raised as additional grounds for questioning Johnson's fitness for office. But, if it does raise doubts, it also misses the point. Yesterday, we heard serious arguments from the highest possible sources that the leadership candidates' policies on Brexit are junk – that they cannot possibly be implemented.

One almost has to do a double-take to recall that Mrs May was forced to resign because she was unable to resolve the Brexit impasse yet here we have her potential replacements in exactly the same position, unable to come up with any credible offerings which will take us forward.

By any measure, this puts us at the seat of a major political crisis, yet it would seem that the media are so inured to fantasy politics that they've cease to notice. The hollowness of the candidates' pitches have already been relegated to down-page slots, treated almost as technical oddities.

However, picking up on the theme from my post yesterday, The Times is suggesting that Johnson is indeed drawing up early plans for a general election.

Noting that Johnson is supported by 74 percent of Tory members, against Jeremy Hunt's 26 percent, according to a YouGov poll, the paper goes on to say that preparations for the Oaf going to No 10 "include putting the Tory party on an election footing in the event that parliament refuses to accept a 31 October Brexit".

This, the paper suggests, might involve an electoral pact with Farage's party, where the two parties agreed not to run candidates against one another. Yet this actually seems an unlikely scenario. An early election scenario would make much more sense if Johnson had already taken us out of the EU, thus neutralising Farage's USP.

And since, bearing in mind the comments of Tusk and Angela Merkel, the only realistic way an early withdrawal can be engineered is to go for a no-deal Brexit, that it what we must expect from a Johnson premiership.

Since this is virtually the only possible outcome from a Johnson victory, and indeed the only outcome if he intends to honour his 31 October pledge, we really need the media to be focusing on the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, and how the candidates plan to manage the consequences.

Most likely, all we can expect is for the details to be fudged, with Johnson evading the issue while the media devotes most of its energies to personality politics. Mentally and physically, the nation will be wholly unprepared to the economic and political turmoil that is about to engulf us.

Nor can we rely on electoral caution to deliver us from the worst effects. There has always been a general expectation that a Tory government might seek to avoid a no-deal because the consequences would be so dire that they would face annihilation in the 2022 general election.

An early general election, before the effects of a no-deal exit had been felt, would change that calculus while we have in Johnson a man stupid enough to believe the ERG propaganda, and work on the premise that the longer-term effects of a no-deal would be beneficial.

On that basis, all he needs to do is believe he can weather the short-term perturbations on our journey to the sunlit uplands. On the normal electoral cycle, a November election would make the next one due in 2024, by which time Johnson might have hoped to have signed an advantageous trade deal with the EU, and the economy might have stabilised after the no-deal dip.

Such is the capacity of the political classes for self-delusion – and Johnson in particular – that, to them, an obviously insane course of action could look to be the most rational option. And, given that Johnson seems currently to be trying to delude himself that renegotiation is an option, just about anything is possible.

Richard North 22/06/2019 link

Brexit: an honest debate?


There is one thing you can guarantee about our wonderful British media. Whatever subject it addresses, it will always go for the lowest common denominator.

And so, when the "turd-giver" comes up with an insane scheme for re-opening Brexit negotiations with the EU, the media ignores the detail and picks up on the headline-grabber, his threat to withhold the so-called "divorce bill" – when they can drag themselves away from speculating about who took what drugs.

The fact that Johnson's overall plan is insane, one which would bring our relations with the EU to the point of collapse, goes without comment. This is a catastrophe in the making yet it is so far under the media horizon that you'd have to dig down to Australia to find it.

It's quite helpful, therefore, to have the Financial Times publish a piece headed, "The Tories badly need an honest debate on Brexit", adding that party members "should press leadership candidates on their strategy".

Actually, it's not just (or even) party members who should be pressing the candidates – the media should be playing its role. In fact, if the party members are to make any progress, they need the media using its resources to expose the different agendas.

Oddly enough, the FT piece opens by saying that "the definition of insanity, Einstein reputedly said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result". I was thinking of using the same (reputed) quote but thought it too much of a cliché. Nevertheless, the point is made.

Says the FT, as the Conservative party leadership contest kicks off this week, several leading candidates' Brexit strategy boils down to a more robust version of the failed approach that cut short Theresa May's unhappy premiership. Thus, it says, the 120,000 Tory party members who will choose the next prime minister should beware of falling for phoney promises. They risk propelling not just their party but the country towards an even deeper crisis.

The Brexit approach of hardliners such as Johnson, Dominic Raab and Andrea Leadsom, the paper notes, recalls the fabled Briton abroad who believes if only he shouts loudly enough, the foreigners will eventually understand.

Through sheer force of personality - or simply not being Mrs May - and putting the no-deal Brexit threat firmly "on the table", we are told, they will be able to renegotiate the outgoing prime minister's flawed withdrawal deal. Should that prove impossible, they will walk Britain off the plank on 31 October.

But we don't need the FT to tell us that neither outcome is achievable. We know full well that there is no time to renegotiate, even if there was a willingness to restart the process. At best, the new prime minister will arrive in Downing Street only in late July. And that will coincide neatly with MPs and Eurocrats hitting the beach.

Then, after the holidays, we have the party conference season in the UK, which lasts into early October. In Brussels, the European Commission will be in its final weeks before changing leadership.

But this is all theoretical. As we all know – and the FT reminds us - the EU-27 has repeatedly declined to reopen the withdrawal agreement and its Irish backstop. Yet Tories consistently underestimate Brussels' determination to ensure Brexit does not reimpose a hard border in Ireland.

There is no reason any new prime minister would be granted concessions that Mrs May could not extract from the system. It is said that EU leaders are readying a tough statement making this clear at a summit this month.

This, of course, will ensure that any of the mad plans from the likes of Johnson - or Raab, for that matter – will be stillborn. For all their blathering and inane posturing, they are wasting their time and our time. They are leading us up a path from which there is no return.

On top of this, we have the House of Commons which, if it has made up its mind on anything, it is that it doesn't want a no-deal Brexit. Again in remind-mode, the FT tells us that speaker John Bercow is insisting no prime minister will be permitted to force through such a departure against parliament's will.

Some believe that an attempt to take us out without a deal would trigger a grave constitutional crisis. That may or may not be the case, but the MP collective has been notoriously slow to understand that no-deal is the default setting. Without positive intervention from the new prime minister, this will happen anyway, regardless of what parliament wants.

But we have seen Dominic Raab talk of suspending or proroguing parliament so that it cannot intervene if he, as prime minister, wants to play the no-deal card. However, even the likes of Bercow need to realise that, even within this woolly constitution of ours, there are limits to the power of parliament. There is still the residual power of Crown prerogative and its roll-out in this instance cannot be ignored.

In the view of the FT, though, a conflict with parliament would force a new prime minister to call an election. Either that, one assumes, or a vote of confidence will achieve the same thing. Either way, a forced election is the last thing the Tories need. It is also the very last thing the nation needs, especially if the outcome is Corbyn taking over.

None of that gets us any further with Brexit. Rather than go for the no-deal scenario, the new prime minister could try for another extension, although we know that some EU leaders might be reluctant to allow this. We hear suggestions that delay would only be allowed if a general election or a referendum was planned.

There is also the possibility that a new prime minister could put Mrs May's red lines back in the pot and seek to renegotiate the political declaration, brokering a few cosmetic changes to the backstop to go with it.

With Johnson in place, though, this seems hardly plausible. On the face of it, the man is committed to taking us out on 31 October. But since his insane plan cannot possibly work, and won't get past the front desk of the European Commission, he could end up switching horses. There are many people who would believe anything of him, including keeping us in the EU.

Thus, as far as this debate goes, we are back where we have always been, with most of the same scenarios that we've been confronting for some time. If we rule out parliament ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement and cast the net as wide as we can, we have four possibilities.

The first and most obvious is that we leave without a deal on 31 October. From there, there is the mitigation strategy, which is essentially what Johnson and others are talking about, whereby the UK expects the EU to come to the table to handle the post-Brexit situation. The third scenario is to revert to another referendum and the fourth a revocation, both of these with or without a general election.

But where the utter dishonesty is creeping in is the pretence that a no-deal scenario is a plausible option. We even have John Mills at it again, where his line – in common with the rest – is somehow to have us believe that no-deal doesn't actually mean no deal. It simply means a different form of deal with the EU, on the assumption that it will be keen to talk to us to avoid the harmful effects of a no-deal Brexit.

Crucially, the golden thread that runs through this fantasy scenario is that, immediately following a no-deal exit, the EU would be back at the table entertaining talks on a free trade deal, despite us having refused to conclude a financial settlement.

Insofar as it is never possible with absolute certainty to predict the future, we cannot say that the EU will not negotiate with the UK after a no-deal departure, but it is a racing certainty that the "colleagues" will not be in any hurry. One can also be fairly well assured that there will be preconditions to any formal talks – not least, the payment in full of the financial settlement.

If following our departure, there is no agreement on tariffs, the EU has a big enough trading base to be able to source goods and services from countries other than the UK. We cannot assume that the EU Member States will continue to buy from us.

On the other hand, in the short term, many of the goods we obtain from the EU will not easily be replaced from other sources – especially foodstuffs. With or without tariffs, we will still have to buy from them. There is no immediate need for the EU to sign a trade deal with the UK for trade to continue.

This is where all these fantasy scenarios fall down. There is this entirely unproven and unsupported assumption that the EU will be anxious to do a deal with the UK on almost any terms. But it is just as likely that the EU will be entirely indifferent to the idea of sitting down to talks with the UK, forcing us to trade on the terms set by the bloc.

Equally, there is the blithe assumption that the UK will somehow be unaffected by the raft of non-tariff barriers, and that the border controls will have no material effects on the flow of trade, and the cost of exporting. So, before we go any further, we could have that honest debate. The trouble is that the fantasists don't do "honest". They either fudge the issues, gloss over the complications or, failing that, they simply lie. Then, a media wedded to trivia doesn't do serious news any more: they are capable of neither honesty nor debate.

Richard North 10/06/2019 link

Brexit: unknown unknowns


According to the Guardian, what it calls the "emerging Labour-Tory compromise" is a mirage.

The argument raised is that even if there was a real prospect of Labour bailing out the government, the apparent landing zone takes the political debate no further on from where it started. We are still left with the task of negotiating the real deal – the future relationship with the European Union.

But, if we get the full two-year extension, that brings us to the end of 2022, while the next general election is scheduled to be held on 5 May of the same year. That means that the final deal will not be agreed by this government.

Assuming that Labour has a chance of winning, the next government could be led by Mr Corbyn and it could be him that sets the final terms. Thus, if Mrs May is genuinely offering to leave the question of the customs union to whoever is in office at the time, the game is on.

In that scenario, everything rests on a general election success, and the very last thing Corbyn will want is interference from the emerging populist parties, building on platforms established during the European elections.

This would suggest that there is, at last, a real incentive for MPs to settle the withdrawal agreement in parliament, and as soon as possible. If Farage has ever done anything useful in his life, it will have been to bring to fruition the very thing he is apparently striving to prevent – the acceptance of Mrs May's deal.

Nor is there really any mileage in a "confirmatory referendum" as that still gives Farage opportunities to strut his stuff and increase his already considerable public profile. Establishment politicians have everything to gain by depriving him of a platform and keeping as much of the game as they can to themselves.

Whether this has dawned on individual MPs yet is difficult to establish. Many of them will be coming back from their constituencies after that short Mayday break, having absorbed the shock of the local elections and had a chance to talk to their constituency executives. They may by now better understand the threats to their own seats, and come back in a more realistic frame of mind.

It is nevertheless, something of a stretch to expect the MP collective to start behaving rationally and, if they continue on their path of self-immolation rather than taking the longer view, then all bets are off. The chaos in parliament will continue as the clock ticks down to a no-deal departure at the end of October.

If MPs are able to take the longer view, then the gamble for Mr Corbyn is that Labour must win the general election. That is anything but predictable, but it will be more predictable without populist interference. With the EU negotiations in full swing, he will then have to fight on a platform of a "better deal", which will leave the Tories with the initiative, having already set out their stall in Brussels.

Presumably, the Tory offer will exclude any possibility of a customs union, and since both parties will be going for regulatory alignment and safeguarding workers' rights, the customs deal could be the touchstone issue on which the entire general election campaign could turn.

What could bring this whole fantasy scenario crumbling down, though, is the onset of reality. Once the Withdrawal Agreement is out of the way and we are formally out of the European Union and into the transition period, attention will turn to the political declaration and the practical implications of the final deal.

This has been almost completely missing from the frenzied coverage of Brexit, and it may well be beyond the capabilities of the media and their tame pundits to work out the consequences of various scenarios. Unless something close to a miracle is concocted, the realisation might begin to dawn that, whatever is on offer, it won't get close to satisfying UK needs for "frictionless" trade with the EU, and nor will it prevent the backstop kicking in.

More prosaically, since the timescale is unrealistically short, we may find ourselves in a situation analogous to where we have been, where there is insufficient time to conclude a deal - any deal, and we are looking at a new version of a cliff-departure with no working agreements in place. The difference is that there will be no last-minute time extension.

What the electoral consequences of this might be are perhaps easier to predict than a more stable scenario. We can assume that, in this case, the Tories will be hammered for their failure to bring a deal to fruition.

The downside is that Labour won't be able to offer anything better, leaving both parties facing a potential train wreck. Mr Corbyn's customs union won't do anything to improve matters, and will finally be seen – one hopes – for the vacuous device that it really is.

The cold, hard facts of this situation are that there is no possible scenario on the books that could give the UK the frictionless trade it needs to be able to function. The Norway option, as such, has only ever been a partial answer. It is the raft of additional bilateral agreements, on top of customising the EEA Agreement, which will be needed to make for a functional arrangement.

In terms of VAT, data sharing, security cooperation and participation in EU agencies, any such agreements would take the UK into unknown territory, where it would be asking for a degree of integration and functional rights that under current conditions apply only to fully-fledged EU members.

Not only is there no incentive for the EU to go that far, there is every reason for it to hold back, having said many times that it cannot allow a departing state to enjoy the same benefits as its members.

On that basis, the UK is at some time going to have to bite the bullet, with the realisation that there will be substantial and unavoidable barriers to trade with the EU. It is inescapable that this will put UK firms at a commercial disadvantage, and slow down the physical process of moving goods to the continent.

This may provoke a rebellious mood in the electorate at large – if the predicament is properly understood – which may inject a further element of unpredictability into the electoral equation. On the other hand, the parties may indulge in their classic strategies of misdirection, focusing on domestic and non-EU issues, to take attention away from the impending predicament.

Here, they may have the willing cooperation of the legacy media which has shown itself in the past to be easily distracted, and then to misinform the public. We cannot rely on there being any clarity, or that the public will be focused on the EU to the exclusion of all else. Muddied waters may also add another level of unpredictability.

Any party strategist currently working on the best path to take may, therefore, find the imponderables and known variables are such that there is no clear way through the minefield. Random choices may have as much chance of success as careful planning.

If we throw into this mix the certainty that Mrs May will not be leading her party into the next election and we thus have different personal dynamics at play. The level of unknowns takes on stratospheric proportions and in terms of predicting outcomes, you might just as well hurl a handful of coins in the air and bet on the spread of heads and tails.

Coming back down to earth, the one thing that could change all this is for either of the main parties to step out from the circle of self-delusion that currently defines government policies, and come up with a clear, long-term vision for the future – warts and all. But, given the inherent negativity of the nation, any such attempt would be akin to the authors painting bullseyes on their backs – targets for every naysayer in the land and a certain recipe for disaster.

Politicians, therefore, have every incentive to perpetuate the fudge, as they have been doing for so long that there is no folk memory of any different way of doing politics. We expect our politicians to lie to us, and are happy with the fairy stories we are told. Anyone who tried to tell the truth would almost certainly be doomed to oblivion. Clarity is not an asset in politics.

And with all that resting on the outcome of the manoeuvrings of the two main parties over this week and the next, we could find ourselves having to brace for a journey into the unknown, with not even any idea of which particular branch of the unknown we are heading for.

Not surprisingly, people are either opting out of politics or falling prey to the soothing tones of the passing demagogue. Even with a withdrawal deal settled, we are no wiser as to our eventual fate than if we tumble off the edge of the world with no deal. All we are choosing is which branch of the unknown we are to confront, and perhaps delaying the inevitable.

Richard North 07/05/2019 link

Brexit: deals within deals


Rather nicely on cue, after yesterday's piece on the historic preference of the EU for multilateralism in its approach to global trade, now switching to the pursuit of bilateral agreements, we see a press release on the opening of negotiations between the EU and the US, on two separate trade agreements.

This new initiative follows on from the failure of TTIP, the talks on which collapsed in 2016. After 14 rounds of talks, neither party had agreed on a single common chapter out of the 27 being deliberated.

What is particularly striking about the new talks, though – after the vast sweep of TTIP – is their drastically limited scope. There are only two heads, the first on the elimination of tariffs for industrial goods and the second on conformity assessment, the latter extending the existing MRA covering telecommunications equipment, electromagnetic compatibility, electrical safety, recreational craft, pharmaceutical GMP and medical devices, plus marine equipment.

As to the elimination of tariffs, it is interesting to note that the scope is being confined to industrial goods – excluding automobiles - thus avoiding the contentious agricultural chapter which brought the Doha Round to a premature halt.

It is also interesting to note that these talks stem from a meeting between Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Trump in the White House last June. In their joint statement, they pledged to work towards zero tariffs, zero non-tariff barriers, and zero subsidies on non-auto industrial goods.

They also pledged to work to reduce barriers and increase trade in services, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, medical products, as well as soybeans. These areas, however, do not seem to have been included in the current talks.

The delay of nearly a year between announcing an intent to negotiate, and the next procedural step – in this case, the approval of the Commission's negotiating mandate – is indicative of the general tempo of international trade talks. But in fact, talks on tariffs have been going on "forever", with EEC-USA relations taking up a considerable part of the Tokyo Round of the GATT talks in 1979, especially in the chemicals sector.

Forty years later, we see many of the same items on the agenda, the difference being that this time we are looking at bilateral talks, as opposed to the multilateral trade negotiations under the aegis of GATT.

But, while tariffs is one part of the talks, extending the Mutual Recognition Agreements on Conformity Assessment is the other, underlining the importance of such agreements in facilitating the flow of trade between the parties. Yet, even though these MRAs are clearly trade agreements, there is still a wide constituency in the UK which argues that trade between the US and the EU (of which the UK is part), has been undertaken only under WTO rules.

Yet, as I reported almost exactly three years ago, before the EU referendum, there were something like 38 EU-US "trade deals", of which at least 20 were bilateral.

Some limited recognition of this came in February this year, when Liam Fox announced a continuity deal with the US, where the parties agreed to continue the existing MRAs negotiated by the EU. At last there was some media coverage of deals in existence, gainsaying the WTO argument.

Now, there is almost a sense of triumphalism in the EU as it has been able to announce that it is going further than the UK in trade deals with the US – an unspoken reproach to those in the leave constituency who thought the UK could do better outside the EU.

Adding fat to the fire, we have Nancy Pelosi, the US House of Representatives speaker, on a visit to London, warning that there would be "no chance whatsoever" of a US-UK trade deal if the Northern Ireland peace agreement was weakened by Brexit.

Although any trade deal would in the first instance be negotiated with the US executive and approved by the president, in the US system trade deals have to be ratified by Congress. And it is because of that, the Democrat Pelosi asserts that any deal would be "a non-starter". 

She says she has told Theresa May, her de facto deputy David Lidington, Conservative pro-Brexit hardliners and Jeremy Corbyn during their meetings and conversations while in London that there would be no trade deal if Brexit undermined the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. "To all of them, we made it clear: don't even think about that", she said.

This is another dimension of the impasse over the Irish backstop, where Ireland is beginning to mobilise support in the United States, which has a strong historical affinity with Ireland. A hard border in Ireland which put the peace process at risk might, therefore, invoke active hostility from the United States, which could have considerable political implications.

Little of this, however, seems to be getting through to the UK legacy media, in a situation where both the newspapers and the broadcasters continue to obsess about possible leadership changes, and the prospects for the European elections, and even a general election. At the time of writing, coverage of the EU announcement on US trade had been sparse, and there had also been minimal references to the Pelosi intervention. Parochialism and displacement activity rule supreme.

Thus, yesterday, when I reintroduced the theme of IRC, it was unsurprising that there was so little recognition of it. People prefer to talk about the things of which they know something about and in trade terms, free trade deals represent the limit of general knowledge.

In this context, not only does IRC have the handicap of being virtually unknown, it also falls between the Europhiles, who dislike it because it provides a partial solution to the UK's need for an independent trade policy, and the Eurosceptics with their obsession with "fwee twade" and their hatred of anything that they didn't actually invent.

Then you have the Muppet tendency in the think tanks, represented most recently by the IfG, with the publication of a 48-page report. This takes us down the well-worn path of negotiating a future relationship with the EU, dwelling on the minutiae of administrative details, without in any way discussing the range of deals, and the different types of arrangements that we might consider.

The one thing it does do is point out that we will be extremely pressed for time, something we were stressing in Flexcit, nearly five years ago. Even with an extension to the transitional period, the UK will be hard-pushed to conclude the necessary agreements before we cut the ties.

Yet, on Sunday, I remarked that I had estimated that the Brexit process might take twenty years, pointing out how little we have achieved in three years. Where the EU and US now have talks spanning forty years just on the issue of reducing tariffs, a mere twenty years looks remarkably compact.

Thus, we come back to the same issue. Given the paucity of knowledge amongst our political classes, the venality and triviality of the media, and an almost total lack of vision coming from the think tanks and trade wonks, there is no way we are going to conclude anything usable within a decade – or two.

It is absolutely pointless embarking on a journey when we have no idea of the destination, the route to be taken or even the means of transportation. Until we have had that debate, we cannot take a first step with any confidence. But before we even have any debate, we must learn anew what it takes to conduct a serious public discussion, avoiding the grandstanding, the polemics and the hyperbole.

Until then, the best we can hope for is some glorious fudge, and the result isn't going to be pretty.

Richard North 16/04/2019 link

Brexit: in the line of fire


You will doubtless be pleased to know that the objective of the "withdrawal agreement", the draft of which was published yesterday, is "to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Union and Euratom". Additional link here.

To achieve that vital task, it has used the letter "a" 37,207 times, "k" a mere 2,229 times and "t" 49,159 times in the 585-page draft. I just thought you ought to know that.

By similar token, in all of the 585 pages, the term "customs union" is used exactly twice. This is an area of particular concern and, given such a long and complex document, has to be the main focus of this blogpost.

The first reference to "customs union" is in relation to the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, where it is agreed in the recital that the protocol should be based on maintaining full alignment with those rules of the Union's internal market and the customs union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement (the GFA).

These rules are to apply unless and until an alternative arrangement implementing another scenario is agreed. The second reference, also in the recital to the Protocol, notes that the rights and obligations of Ireland under the rules of the Union's internal market and customs union must be fully respected.

One can more or less disregard the second reference and take it that the first requires Northern Ireland to conform with the rules of the EU's Single Market and Customs Union, until "an alternative arrangement" is agreed.

On the face of it, that would seem to be creating a separate administrative zone for Northern Ireland but, of course, that is not the case. In what is a complex sleight of hand, worthy of any senior member of The Magic Circle, multiple separate provisions have to be tied together. When they are, they transform the situation.

The first is Article 6 to the Protocol which states that, until the future relationship becomes applicable, a single customs territory between the Union and the United Kingdom shall be established. Thus, as before we supposedly left the EU, the UK is part of a "single customs territory". Furthermore, Northern Ireland is in the same customs territory as Great Britain.

Now, that alone does not tell the whole story – not by any means. If there is to be a "single customs territory", rules must apply to it. But these rules are not to be found in the Article. It refers you to Annex 2 to the Protocol, which apply in respect of all trade in goods between the territories.

Referring then to Annex 2, we find an interesting omission – it does not bear any title. It is only as you go through all six articles do you realise what it is. This sets out in clear concise language the provisions of a customs union, thereby abolishing tariffs and like measures through the territory, and setting what amounts to a common external tariff.

For the duration – i.e., until alternative arrangements apply – the UK is told that "under no circumstances" can it apply to its customs territory "a customs tariff which is lower than the Common Customs Tariff for any good or import from any third country".

Not indeed does it stop there, as the Annex also requires the UK to "harmonise the commercial policy applicable to its customs territory with the common commercial policy of the Union". For the duration, we are thus in lock-step with the Union.

As to the "detailed rules relating to trade in goods" between the two parts of the single customs territory, we are in effect than bound by yet another provision. This is Annex 3 which imposes a raft of detailed requirements (formalities) relating to the production of movement certificates and the validation of the status of the goods.

From a study of the text here, the bureaucratic style of which does not make comprehension easy, we see also that customs authorities which issue certificates have to take "any steps necessary to verify the status of the products and the fulfilment of the other requirements of the Protocol and of this Annex". This, as far as I can see, requires checks to be carried out, some of which will doubtless involve cross border checks.

To pull the whole picture together, one then has to cross-read with Annex 4, which requires "cooperation" on taxation, extending to a commitment to continue to apply substantial provisions of Union law, "as applicable at the end of the transition period".

The UK must also commit to "non-regression in the level of environmental protection", whereby the United Kingdom "shall ensure that the level of environmental protection provided by law, regulations and practices is not reduced below the level provided by the common standards applicable within the Union and the United Kingdom at the end of the transition period".

It its own environmental legislation, the UK is required to "respect" key EU principles , which include: the precautionary principle; the principle that preventive action should be taken; the principle that environmental damage should as a priority be rectified at source; and the "polluter pays" principle.

We are also required to take the necessary measures to meet our commitments to international agreements to address climate change, including those which implement the United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change, such as the Paris Agreement of 2015.

Additionally, we have to implement a system of carbon pricing of at least the same effectiveness and scope as that provided by Directive 2003/87/EC. Provisions relating to the monitoring and enforcement related to environmental protection must also be maintained.

Non-regression must also apply to labour and social standards. With the aim of ensuring the proper functioning of the single customs territory, the UK has to ensure that the level of protection provided for by law, regulations and practices is not reduced below the level provided by the common standards applicable within the Union and the United Kingdom at the end of the transition period.

And not content with that, "with a view to preserving a robust and comprehensive framework for State aid control that prevents undue distortions of trade and competition", the Union State aid law provisions listed in yet another Annex – this one Annex 8 - must apply to the UK. Furthermore, competition provisions set out in Union law still apply.

Throughout the protocol, there is a constantly repeating phrase, where provisions of Union law apply "to and in the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland". The meaning of this, no doubt, is clear to its authors but to my mind holds a level of ambiguity. Does the law apply to the UK as a whole, or just Northern Ireland?

Ostensibly in an attempt to clarify issues, there is a technical explanatory note and the Commission has published some additional fact sheets, with one on the protocol. These seem to confirm (unless I am very much mistaken) that the protocol reaches past the transition period and stays unless in force until it is superseded, in whole or in part, by a subsequent agreement.

This, effectively, is the "backstop", and the fact sheet makes it clear that the single EU-UK customs territory is established "from the end of the transition period until the future relationship becomes applicable". That effectively means the whole of the UK is locked into a customs union, after the end of the transition period, until a permanent solution to the border problem is agreed.

Yet, getting rid of these provisions is not going to be easy. The way it works, apparently, is that at any time after the transition period, the EU or the UK may consider that the Protocol, in whole or in part, is no longer necessary.

That party must then notify the other, setting out its reasons. This kicks in a "Joint Committee" - established in Article 164 of the Withdrawal Agreement – which considers the notification and may seek an opinion from institutions created by the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement 1998.

Following discussions in the Joint Committee, the EU and the UK may decide jointly that the Protocol, in whole or in part, is no longer necessary to achieve its objectives.

The way this Joint Committee is set up, it is required to adopt its decisions and make its recommendations "by mutual consent", which means that the EU has a veto on when (or if) the UK can drop out of the customs union, with a final appeal to an arbitration panel. On matters of Union law, however, the ECJ has jurisdiction to make rulings, which are binding on the arbitration panel.

Any which way you look at it, this accumulation of issues raises many important questions. It is hard to see that the UK has secured the ability unilaterally to remove the "backstop" and, as the agreement stands, it is possible to see a scenario where the UK is locked in perpetuity into a customs union with the EU.

The issues relating to the single market, and regulatory checks is by no means clear and, it seems, are still not fully resolved, leaving areas for future dispute.

But, just from what we have seen, there is ample material to support an assertion that this is Brexit in Name Only (BRINO). If the ERG and the DUP buy into this, their credibility will be shot to Hell. This is exactly the fudge that should never have been accepted by Mrs May. She is now in the line of fire.

Richard North 15/11/2018 link

Brexit: the invisible deal


I suppose one could get excited about the wondrous "breakthrough" on Brexit, news of which is dominating the media. There are however, a few small problems which could serve to dampen spirits just a little.

The first of these little problems concerning which is described as a "technical agreement" between the negotiators, is that no one in the UK - outside the very limited band of officials and cabinet ministers – has actually seen a copy. Nobody currently commenting in public on it, including (or especially) the media, has any certain idea of what's in it.

Secondly, considering that this is supposed to be an agreement between two parties, there is that very odd silence from Brussels, where we have yet to see an official statement. And we are seeing nothing like the situation of December last when the joint statement was published simultaneously on both the Commission and the UK Government's websites.

One can speculate on all sorts of reasons as to why this should be the case, and why this apparent deal is being handled in such an odd way, but the most obvious thing is that Mrs May wants to have the backing of (what's left of) her cabinet before going public, to give her a head start in the publicity stakes.

As with all these things though, the devil is in the detail and, as it stands, there isn't a lot of (reliable) detail to be going on with. We seem to have gravitated from a "no deal" scenario to an invisible deal, redolent of those secret treaties the great powers of old used to sign.

On reflection, I'm surprised Mrs May hasn't thought of this before. If she could keep the withdrawal agreement secret, then there can be no argument over the details and the MPs could cast their votes on what they think the deal means – which is probably what they're going to do anyway.

It stands to reason, though, that the sticking point(s) must have been resolved – or fudged in such a way as to pass muster. And from what we understand, the "backstop" is now "fixed" in such a way that a joint arbitration panel can rule on when it is no longer necessary, although the details are frustratingly vague – which is undoubtedly the intention.

Nevertheless, that which we do know (or don't) has been sufficient for the "usual suspects" to erupt in condemnation, branding the deal a betrayal.

This rather suggests that even if Mrs May gets her invisible deal past the cabinet, she is still going to meet considerable opposition from within her own party – to say nothing of the DUP which, as yet, has not been shown the agreed text.

With the general public – and us mere plebs – in exactly the same position, there is nothing left but, for those who feel so inclined, to await the crumbs from the media table, in the wake of an emergency cabinet meeting scheduled for today. One then presumes that, if Mrs May still has a functioning government, the EU will be prepared to set up its November European Council after all.

Oddly enough (or perhaps not), the Irish cabinet is also meeting today, actually at 9.30, beating the slothful Brits to the punch. They are not due to meet until the afternoon.

Until we all see the detail, though, there is not a great deal of point in adding more noise to the cacophony. If the deal actually goes to parliament, the legacy media will be in its seventh heaven, as it can play the Westminster votes game to its heart's content.

Meanwhile, of a more substantive nature, the Commission has published COM(2018) 880 final. It sets out the "Contingency Action Plan" as part of preparing for the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. This has to be read in conjunction with COM(2018) 556 final/2, the update of which was published on 28 August 2018.

The document reminds us that, regardless of the nature of any withdrawal agreement, the UK will still become a third country when it leaves the EU and there will be considerable disruption, adding to the earlier document.  In that, Member States and private parties were being called upon to step up preparations for Brexit, following up a request by the European Council to intensify preparedness at all levels and for all outcomes. 

Of special interest to this blog – in view of the amount of coverage we've given the issue – the earlier COM notes that when the UK becomes a third country, and in the absence of an agreement providing otherwise, the strict EU rules in relation to sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) conditions and controls on animals, plants and their products, will apply to the UK as any other third country.

It then states that trade can take place [only] once the sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) conditions for the relevant agri-food products and the corresponding certification and control requirements are established.

Physical infrastructures, it says. will have to be put in place to allow all movements of live animals and animal products (including food of animal origin), and certain plants and plant products, to go through Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) at seaports, at airports or at land, as required by EU rules. The capacity of existing posts may need to be increased while new posts will also be necessary.

This only confirms what we've been saying for better than two years, but I am still not sure this message has percolated fully into the collective brains of government, parliament or the media. It is certainly the case that the implications haven't been fully understood. Such issues need to be given far greater emphasis then they are currently getting, as it is most unlikely that there will be a waiver on any of the provisions, which will apply even in the event of a free trade agreement being negotiated.

To an extent, the emphasis on Northern Ireland and the border has been a distraction. Border controls will have real impact on people's lives, and severely handicap our trade arrangements, yet very little planning seems to be in place to deal with the consequences.

In some respects, however, the situation is not going to be as bad as has been feared, and there is some provision for bilateral agreements between the UK and EU Member States. There is reference to this in the Commission's current COM, but the possibilities were highlighted in a recent report to the French Senate, translated by Guardian journalist Kim Wilshire.

The French government, it appears, would be prepared to continue arrangements for the mutual recognition of qualifications, and for agreements "to ensure the continuity of the flows of road transport of goods or persons".

Specifically, the intention of the Government is "to unilaterally recognise in France for a temporary period, on condition of reciprocity, the validity of the certificates and authorisations enjoyed by companies established in the United Kingdom, as well as the professional titles issued in the United Kingdom".

The stated purpose of this is to enable the carrying out of road transport operations of goods and persons by British carriers. This would be done by prolonging at least temporarily the conditions under which these companies operate on the French territory, in order to avoid any sudden interruption of flows to France or in transit on the territory of France.

The Senate report is careful to note that such provisions would only be taken in the absence of measures at Union level, which in many ways would be preferable. Should the UK have to rely on bilateral agreements, everything will have to be multiplied times 27, to give the same coverage that we currently enjoy.

In the French case, either an agreement with the European Union, or failing that, a bilateral agreement with France, would be necessary to ensure that European Union carriers, and in particular French carriers operating in the United Kingdom, enjoy the same advantages as France, those granted in the territory of the Union to British carriers.

Notably though, in COM(2018) 880, the Commission asks Member States to refrain from bilateral discussions and agreements with the UK, "which would undermine EU unity". The caveat, of course, is quite important, but it is also interesting to see that the French Government in some areas is acting unilaterally, while expecting reciprocity. These are not bilateral agreements as such, but coordinated unilateralism.

Such detail has been largely obscured by the "high politics" of the withdrawal agreement, and if we are getting to the point where this is to be resolved, then it would be a welcome relief, allowing us to start concentrating on the many practical issues that need to be settled before the essence of normality can be restored in our post-Brexit relations.

This unusual streak of optimism, though, should not conceal the fact that our earlier analyses have drawn the conclusion that there is no form of words in the withdrawal agreement that can simultaneously satisfy the UK government, the Westminster Parliament, the DUP and the EU.

For all the media hyperventilation, therefore, we are actually no further forward today than we were at the beginning of yesterday, and it remains to be seen whether Mrs May's deal is just a flash in the pan. But as long as it remains the "invisible deal" we can live in hope. It's a pity in a way that it has to be spoiled by such boring things as details.

Richard North 14/11/2018 link

Brexit: ferries across the Channel


The only thing remarkable about the asinine comments from Brexit secretary Dominic Raab about the importance of the Dover-Calais route to UK trade is that anyone should have been surprised. 
On this blog, we've long been reconciled to the fact that ignorance compounded by stupidity is a common accompaniment to senior ministerial rank, going right to the very top.

Brexit, if nothing else, has disabused us of the myth that ministers are on top of their briefs, while the internet has given us access to material which enables us mere mortals to stay abreast of developments. That put us on a par with politicians who previously had privileged access to information and could thus always claim they were privy to details which were denied to us.

It is also the case that the media – or many of its journalists – display the same levels of ignorance as their political contemporaries whom they feed, which means that we have something of the dynamic where the blind are leading the blind.

Both parties, however – and their fellow travellers – seem to react to the emergence of information-rich plebs by retreating into their bubbles and ignoring them, almost completely. Instead, they doggedly reinforce and repeat their error-strewn dogmas, in the hope that their prestige and privileged access to the many organs of distribution can carry the day.

The result is that information-rich individuals and groups acquire the character of an underclass, distributing their knowledge though minority channels such as blogs, watched by a small and relatively stable group of followers who profit from this new source of information, but who are rarely able to do much with it.

However, the situation is not quite as clear-cut as this. Some of the legacy media commentators are occasionally able to deliver product of value, while many of the information underclass are just as capable of producing dross as the legacy media. And sometimes error is so subtle, or so pervasive, that even the discerning reader will have difficulty in deciding where to place their trust.

Muddying the waters still further, we find that the deterioration of academic rigour over the last decades has produced a generation of academics who can't think, and insist on a form of expression characterised by its prolixity and lack of clarity.

When my own PhD studies took me into research written up in the 1950s, I not infrequently found long-forgotten scientific material that answered some of the questions we confront today. But what marked out so many of the papers was that they were written in lucid, economic style, in plain English which was a pleasure to read and a huge aid to comprehension.

We could make similar observations of the growing ranks of think-tanks which, without even doffing their caps to academic discipline, are churning out endless dross which serves only to fill space for the media which is unwilling or unable to invest in its own research and analysis.

Therefore, when we had Mr Raab admitting that he had failed to understand the full extent of how much our trade relied on the Dover-Calais route, no one should have been surprised. His failing is simply part of the continuum of ignorance that pervades the upper echelons of our society.

This is the same disease which prevents both media and politicians understanding the differences between a (or the) customs union and the Single Market, and keeps them in almost complete ignorance of the Efta/EEA option, to the extent that they still trot out the same errors that they were hawking around two or three years ago.

That, of course, is another classic characteristic of the ignorati. Not only do they bask in the glow of their own inadequacies, they have lost the ability to learn – even from their own mistakes.

Some, like Nick Boles, who famously remarked that he would sooner cut off his arm than learn about the intricacies of the Single Market, revel in their own ignorance and wear it as a badge of honour. Any sense of shame or embarrassment has long disappeared.

Now, however, the failings of our political masters (and their media cheerleaders) are beginning to catch up with us. According to the Financial Times (itself no mean purveyor of ignorance), the "dawning realisation" in the cabinet that a no-deal exit could block Britain's vital trade artery in the Strait of Dover "has changed the political equation as Mrs May prepares to present her ministers with a final Brexit deal".

The prime minister's allies, we are told, "say that since a no-deal exit would be too grim to countenance, the cabinet must act in the national interest and sign up to an agreement aimed at preserving free trade with the EU".

Yet this is something that was quite evident in January 2017 when Mrs May made her infamously stupid declaration that "no deal" was better than a bad deal. It should have been evident to the prime minister and her advisers, to the extent that it should already have been a firm element of public policy, that a "no deal" scenario had to be avoided at all costs.

Instead, up to press, all the instruments of state seem to have been dedicated to downplaying the consequences of a "no deal", and keeping it on the table as a tenable option – a line still being perpetrated by David Davis. The fool dismissed fears about shortages of food and medical supplies and queues at the channel ports as "proven nonsense" and "scare stories".

We have also seen Mrs May repeating her mantra at every opportunity – with an incompetent media entirely unable to discern the dangerous fatuity of her position.

Now, almost at the eleventh hour, we get this glimmering of understanding which, if allowed to mature, should bring even the prime minister to the understanding that one of her central policy planks is so suicidally stupid that she should be looking to leave the country under a false name.

Sadly, not only is this unlikely, it is hardly able to influence the course of the Brexit negotiations. In being so insistent that a "no deal" was better than a bad deal – and overly influenced by the need to control freedom of movement (without understanding the role of Article 112) – she has trapped herself (and us) in an exit scenario that is unattainable.

Had the cabinet team, at the beginning, had at least the basic understanding of how the Single Market worked, and a clear idea of the consequences of dropping out of it, then things might have been different.

But we now have to come to terms with the fact that one of the most important policy decisions of this century – if not the most important – has not been made on the basis of a calculated consideration of the facts, but in a fog of ignorance where basic information was either unknown or misunderstood.

In terms of the broader sweep of politics, this presents us with an entirely new paradigm – one where a significant part of the population is better informed than the government, and where senior ministers are so badly advised – and so determinedly ignorant – that they are not only making the wrong decisions, but ones which are obviously wrong to a large number of people.

As long as the governing classes could rely on monopoly access to information and perpetrate the myth that they were all-knowing, bolstered by a media that actually knew what it was talking about, then high-level ignorance was a sustainable basis for policy-making. Nobody knew enough to call out the government for its stupidity. That role was left to the historians, by which time it was too late.

Now, though, we are experiencing – and recognising – stupidity in real time, without waiting to have it explained to us years after the event. And in such circumstances, it is very hard to regard our politicians with anything other than the most profound contempt – a sentiment which easily stretches to the opposition which is no better than the government it aspires to be.

Where this leaves us is hard to say, but it is probably true to say that this change has been brought about by Brexit, which has forced the government to make difficult choices in the goldfish bowl of the Article 50 negotiations, where the final outcome had to be accepted by Brussels and could not be fudged.

In this sense, although people are constantly dismissing the idea that there are any gains to be had from Brexit, this is one of the benefits that is already in place. The incompetence of our government did not suddenly develop. It has been with us for a long time. But the unique stresses incumbent on Brexit have served to expose it in a way that hasn't happened with other policies.

Whatever else one might say of Brexit, therefore, it can be fairly confidently asserted that things will never be the same again. I will never again be able to look at those ferries across the Channel in the same light. Whether we will even see the ferries again, after Brexit, is a matter for conjecture.

Richard North 09/11/2018 link

Brexit: marching up to the top of the hill…


It must be pretty clear by now that The Sunday Times claim that Mrs May had secured a "breakthrough" deal on Brexit simply wasn't true – further underscoring the unreliability of the media on this issue.

One cannot say that the paper was lying as such but, it over-interpreted very thin, secondary source material to come up with a speculative conclusion which it then presented as a done deal. As such, we're looking at the sort of shoddy work which typifies the legacy media and has characterised the entire Brexit debate.

Now, in the manner of the grand old Duke of York, having been marched up to the top of the hill of speculation, the rest of the media is now marching us back down again, as it rushes to present us with the accumulation of denials and other events which make it clear that there isn't and never was a deal in the offing.

Even in supporting the denials, however, there is not much in the way of coherence from the media, with much chatter still focused on the UK being tied to a "customs union" as the outcome of some putative future deal.

This is the line taken by the Guardian, which re-affirms the unchanging Irish position that a "backstop" must be permanent and, therefore, cannot be called off unilaterally by the UK.

Somehow, though, this gets translated into a scenario where the UK is locked in a customs union in order to avoid a hard border, heedless of the fact that a customs union is not sufficient to give us frictionless trade and, in these days of beyond border checks of such things as rules of origin, isn't even necessary.

For all that, there is no mention of regulatory alignment in the Guardian story and even to get a mention of "regulatory checks", one has to go to The Times.

Here, we learn that European diplomats have made clear that there has been no breakthrough on the key issue of regulatory checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. And this is one of two issues that remain sticking points, the other being the longevity of the backstop.

Elsewhere, we are getting the legend that the longevity of the backstop is the only outstanding issue, yet The Times puts us back in regulatory territory and the need to avoid a "wet border" between Northern Ireland and the UK – exactly back where we started.

Thus, for all the torrent of speculation, when you drill back down into the issues, we see that there really hasn't been any progress. The UK is confronted with the same-old, same-old dilemma: there must either be regulatory alignment between the EU and Northern Ireland and a "wet border" with the rest of the UK, or there must be an all-UK solution where EU-UK alignment is secured.

The point where we must emphasise once again is the "regulatory alignment" begets conformity with Single Market legislation, and with the "regulatory ecosystem" which must include the four freedoms.

I have lost count of the number of times Mrs May has rejected this option yet the media still cannot cope with it. In the Sky News website, for instance, we get Theresa May stating "repeatedly" she will not accept any formulation of the insurance policy to maintain an invisible Irish border if it means Northern Ireland alone remaining in the EU's customs union.

So here we go again. The issue is actually about Northern Ireland remaining in the Single Market (or certain parts of it). Yet this has been translated unequivocally into "the EU's customs union".

Even that is incoherent, as it is difficult (if not impossible) to see how Northern Ireland can remain in the customs union. Amongst other things, this would mean the Northern Ireland administration having to collect tariffs on goods imported from the rest of the UK (and from the rest of the world), and remitting 80 percent of the proceeds to Brussels.

Therein lies an illustration of what happens when you start messing about with terminology – something which completely bypasses the media as it pours out its babble.

The confusion even infects the Irish broadcaster RTÉ which is returning to well-worn phrasing that we've seen before. "London", it says, "is pushing for a single UK-wide customs arrangement, with additional measures for Northern Ireland to cover regulatory controls, as the single entity that will avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland".

Again, this does not compute – any more than the first time we saw it. In the first instance, a "customs arrangement", taken to be a UK-wide customs union (if that is what is planned), plus limited "additional measures" for Northern Ireland, does not seems to be an adequate formula to secure frictionless trade across the border with the Irish Republic. But as importantly, with the UK apparently avoiding regulatory alignment, it cannot escape checks on mainland goods sent to Northern Ireland.

Nevertheless, RTÉ is telling us that – according to "several sources" - the EU has conceded that there can be a "bare bones" customs union outline that would be inserted into the Irish Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement, or divorce treaty.

This, it says, would be a UK-wide arrangement, meaning there would be no differentiation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK when it came to customs controls. But then comes the "killer" line: "A customs union alone", it adds, "will not remove the need for all checks and controls".

There we have the point confirmed, leaving the situation completely unresolved. We really are back where we started – yet the background chatter is completely obscuring the reality. There is no sense of the crisis that should be attending such a lack of progress.

Instead, having come down to earth with a bump, we are set to be marched up another hill, with a story in The Times which asserts that "Brussels [is] to offer compromise in Brexit boost for Theresa May". From the same source which had Mrs May making a breakthrough at Salzburg, this seems contrary to everything we've been reading over the last 24 hours. 

Central to this is that Dublin and Brussels are at one. Simon Coveney has stated that the Irish position remains consistent and "very clear" that a "time-limited backstop" or a backstop that could be ended by UK unilaterally would never be agreed to by Ireland or the EU – a position endorsed by Barnier's deputy, Sabine Weyand.

Nevertheless, The Times is convinced that Brussels is preparing to back a compromise proposal to resolve what it calls the "last big sticking point" in the Brexit negotiations. As so often, it comes from anonymous "senior EU figures" and in this case they have "indicated" that the EU is prepared to offer Mrs May an "independent mechanism" by which Britain could end a temporary customs arrangement with the EU.

The Times further asserts that Leo Varadkar had told Mrs May he was "open" to the idea of a review mechanism for the backstop, in a telephone call between the two leaders. What the paper did not say though was that the openness was conditional. Any such review "could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop". The Irish prime minister had also "recalled" the prior commitments made that the backstop must apply "unless and until" alternative arrangements are agreed.

There is no possible doubt that we are looking at conflicting statements here, although the attempt to square the circle comes with a fudge on the wording. "The essence of a backstop is that it is not time-limited", an EU source is cited as saying. "If the idea was a review mechanism, then that would imply mutual decision-making on the future. In that case it is a revision clause, not a termination clause", he adds.

As we get to the top of that hill, though, we anticipate that by some time today – or perhaps tomorrow – we will be marching down it again. And between now and 29 March, there will be a lot more hills to climb.

Richard North 06/11/2018 link

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