Brexit: the COAG speaks

27/06/2020  


Having written yesterday that everything that possibly could be said has already been said about TransEnd, it's a little bit difficult to turn round the next day and write something brand new about … TransEnd.

But, I suppose, Angela Merkel's direct intervention in the game does have a certain novelty value, even if her comment does reside deeply in the "No shit Sherlock!" range.

I mean to say, as the vernacular goes, do you really need to be Chancellor of All Germany to work out that the "UK must live with the consequences" of weaker ties with the EU? Or is it that you have to be Chancellor of All Germany to make a statement of the bleedin' obvious like that, and still get it turned into a Guardian headline?

Perhaps I need to modify yesterday's statement a little bit. How about: "everything that is worth saying has already been said about TransEnd"? You would have serious difficulty in arguing that it's worth saying that the UK will have to live with the consequences of its (or Johnson's) actions. I think we could have guessed that without any assistance from the Chancellor of All Germany.

One has to admit, though, that Frau Doktor Merkel has a tiny point when she says that: "We need to let go of the idea that it is for us to define what Britain should want". It is, she says, "for Britain to define – and we, the EU27, will respond appropriately".

There has been an element in the talks, ever since Mrs May lodged the Article 50 notification, of the tale wagging the dog (yes, I do mean tale), and it's about time that the egregious Johnson did the decent thing and spelt out exactly what it is that he wants. That, of course, means that it's never going to happen. "Johnson" and "decent" are not words that can co-exist in the same universe.

Mind you, if the COAG (Chancellor of All Germany) wants the British government "to define for itself what relationship it will have with us [the EU-27] after the country leaves", then she could be waiting for a very long time. To get the right answer, three hurdles must be surmounted, and it is by no means clear that Johnson could straddle any of them.

The first thing he has to do is work out for himself what he actually wants from the EU. And if that isn't insurmountable, he must define it in terms that the EU would be prepared (or likely) to accept. He must then buy into the sorts of conditions that the EU will demand.

Not just one, but all three numbers must click, before the lock opens, and we haven't even got past key stage one. That means, the COAG says, that we must live "with a less closely interconnected economy" – less closely interconnected with the EU-27, that is.

"If Britain does not want to have rules on the environment and the labour market or social standards that compare with those of the EU, our relations will be less close", she says. "That will mean it does not want standards to go on developing along parallel lines".

Yesterday, it was evident that the Financial Times had spun the wheel and it stopped on "optimism", which had the paper telling us that "hopes are rising that EU and UK could find compromise". So, today, the wheel stops on "pessimism" for the Guardian.

That paper has thus rearranged the paragraphs to come up with the narrative that "Negotiations between the UK and EU are in deadlock over whether Britain needs to tie itself to the EU’s developing state aid rules and common environmental, social and labour standards in return for a zero-tariff trade deal".

Woe is us … we are well and truly domed. And it gets worse.

Merkel’s ambassador in Brussels, Michael Clauss, recently said he expected Brexit to command most of the political attention in the autumn, fanning British hopes that Germany's six-month EU council presidency could push the negotiations back to the top of the political agenda before the transition period ends on 31 December.

But Frau COAG now, apparently, thinks differently. Ignoring the attention-seeking Johnson, she has vowed to devote most of her political energy during the presidency on rallying EU member states around a joint economic response to "a challenge of unprecedented dimensions" posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

One can never be sure how a sociopath such as Johnson will take to having his tantrums ignored. It is said, though – of ordinary mortals – that you're nobody until you've been ignored by a cat. By the same token, no British prime minister is up to much until he (in this case) has been ignored by a Chancellor of All Germany.

However, if the experience elevates his status, it doesn't do much for the prospects of UK PLC, which will find itself out in the post-Covid wilderness, battling to get its goods accepted on the other side of the Channel, having to beat off rampant French customs officials, veterinarians and plant technicians, before it can sell inside the Single Market from which it has so recently departed.

Then, according to Politico (there's always one), Germany is going to take control of Europe and run it as its own private fiefdom. For the average Breitbart reader, that doubtless means jackboots down the Champs-Élysées again.

However, unless we're thinking of delivering our exports in Lancaster bombers again, no amount of anti-German rhetoric is going to improve the situation. But, when push comes to shove, that's probably all Johnson has – rhetoric, which will so very easily take on a negative or nationalistic tinge as he gets stuck in the mire.

Interestingly, after the whole world has been talking about it for months, the Telegraph has just worked out that combining the worst elements of Covid-19 with "Brexit" (it actually means TransEnd) isn't a terribly good idea.

Quick off the mark as always, their resident genius thinks they might be "about to collide", sending another "conflagration" steaming down the tracks. It must be something in the water that is somehow delivering us into the hands of the bleedin' obvious. The worst of it is that you have to read a lot of drivel to get there.

Since almost everybody now expects a no-deal TransEnd, talking about the possibility of a collision is somewhat moot. The discussion might be better focused on the consequences of the perfect storm – except that there is only so much speculation one can indulge in before one begins to bore oneself.

The one novelty about the situation though, is the RTE observation that: "Those parts of the economy that have suffered least from the Covid-19 Crisis will likely be most affected by Brexit in the new year". They mean TransEnd, of course.

Where the crisis is really going to strike though, is after 31 December, when the media will be at a total loss. They will no longer know how to label their stories. By then, even the meanest of intellects (and there are a lot of they) will have realised that we have left the EU, so they should no longer be using the Brexit moniker. Perhaps "post-Brexit" might be in order.

Anyway, with post-Brexit blues, COAG throwing a wobbly and ignoring us, and then Covid (or is it post-Covid) on top, we could be in for a pretty miserable time. Maybe someone could have a word with BMW for us. They'll tell COAG what to do, and then all our problems will be solved.



Richard North 27/06/2020 link

Brexit: the effects of withdrawal

21/06/2020  


It is now part of urban history that David Cameron, when he set up the 2016 referendum refused to allow the civil service to carry out any formal contingency planning in the event of a Brexit vote, on the basis that the government's official position had been to remain in the EU.

However, what the civil service may or may not have realised is that the government had been there before, in the previous referendum. On the 14 March 1975, just short of three months before the June referendum, then Foreign Secretary, Jim Callaghan, submitted a confidential document to the Cabinet, detailing the results of a lengthy "stocktaking" his department had carried out on the EEC renegotiations that Wilson's government had just concluded.

But attached to the appraisal was a densely-typed Annex which set out the "Consequences and Implications of Withdrawal from the Community" which has just come to light, written in the name of the Foreign Secretary, presumably by one or more anonymous civil servants.

Written in the first person, Callaghan (or his civil servants) sketches out a case which is remarkably prescient and could just as easily, 40 years later, have served as a template for a report on leaving the EU after the 2016 Referendum. Cameron's civil servants could have dusted it off, and with only a few changes, resubmitted it as a fresh evaluation of the consequences of leaving.

The author (let's go with the fiction that it was Callaghan) starts off by saying that, "I cannot disguise my view that the impact of withdrawal would be much greater than if we had originally taken a decision not to enter and the consequences to the political morale of Western Europe would be extremely grave". He then goes on to sketch out the immediate effects.

Bearing in mind that this was before the Lisbon Treaty and Article 50, the stages he sets out are remarkably similar to what we have been going through and have still to come.

Following a referendum decision against membership, he writes, we should be faced with the need to: negotiate our withdrawal from the Community and the terms of our future relationship with the Community; frame new policies over a wide range of international and domestic matters; and thereafter enact legislation, both to repeal the European Communities Act and to substitute domestic legislation to give effect to the new policies, especially on such matters as agricultural support arrangements.

He then goes on to say: "All this would take time. However much contingency planning was done, there would be a protracted period of uncertainty about our future course at home and in the world". How true that has turned out to be.

As to the withdrawal negotiations (yes, there would be some), Callaghan writes that "a considerable number of complex issues would have to be settled". He adds: "The scale and difficulty of the operation could not be assessed until we could discuss the problems with the Community", noting that, "Some time would elapse before the withdrawal was completed, but we could hardly take a full part in normal Community business during that period".

With almost uncanny foresight, he then suggests that: " The Community might be reluctant to negotiate before our formal withdrawal, about permanent post-withdrawal arrangements, for example on tariffs".

"The Community's main concern", he says, would be with its own continued cohesion. There would be bound to be bitterness about our withdrawal. The withdrawal negotiation could not avoid taking on the character of a confrontation between the Community and ourselves, on different sides of the table".

One must also recall that this was written before the "completion" of the Single Market, but Callaghan notes that, "The crucial subject for the withdrawal negotiations would be the future trading relationship with the Community".

"We would badly want a free trade area", he avers, "but the necessary unanimity for this in the Community may not be forthcoming; as an industrial competitor we are in a different class from such countries as Norway".

"If the Community were to contemplate a free trade arrangement", he says. "they would probably insist on major transitional exceptions and on rules enforceable by the Community to ensure proper competition". The prudent working assumption, he suggests, "should be that agreement will not be reached on a free trade arrangement. The pre-1973 tariffs on both sides would then be restored".

"The decision to withdraw and the uncertain prospects for the future", he warns, "would give a major shock to the system". He adds:
It is a matter of judgement as to how long these effects would continue, but there is little doubt that because the business community believes that membership is greatly to our economic advantage, and because of the poor prospects for a free trade arrangement, the referendum decision would itself lead to a sharp fall in business and financial confidence. This effect would continue during the period of confusion and uncertainty about our future relationships and policies.
There could, he then suggests, "be serious short term effects on investment, depending on how long it took us to renegotiate new arrangements". Confidence effects "would also tend to depress the sterling exchange rate and make it harder to finance the UK deficit by attracting funds from abroad".

Again with some prescience, Callaghan reviews the "general consequences" of leaving, noting:
We should cease to be bound by the Treaties and by Community Secondary Legislation. Directly applicable community law would cease to have effect in this country and with the repeal of Section 2 of the European Communities Act 1972 the "Sovereignty" problem of Parliamentary control of community decisions would disappear. We should be free of the special Community arrangements, involving the Commission and the Court, for supervising and enforcing Treaty obligations.
But he says, "Our practical freedom of action would still be limited by political, military and economic realities as well as by numerous international obligations under GATT, etc affecting many areas of domestic, trade and foreign policy". And that was written more than 40 years ago. What applied then applies now in spades.

Our absence from the EEC discussions (read EU), Callaghan suggests, "could lead to a hardening of EEC positions". We should clearly not take part in political consultation among the Nine (read 27).

Our withdrawal would be regretted by the USA and by the Commonwealth, and there is no means of knowing whether we could develop our economic and political relations with either in a way which would compensate for the consequences of withdrawal. The Community (with the Germans and French in the lead) would increasingly be treated by the US and others as the spokesman for Western Europe.

Pointing directly at the pretension of the Johnson administration, he acknowledges that, "We should be free to offer preferential trade and aid, links to the Commonwealth and could seek to revitalise the political link".

But, he adds, "there is no prospect of returning to our earlier trading arrangements with the Commonwealth. Commonwealth countries, including those of the Indian sub-continent, would regret the loss of their indirect influence over Community policy which would result and the benefits to them which we have been securing. They would continue to attach major importance to the Community as a source of aid and trade benefits.

With a list of specific consequences, dealing with the Community Budget and similar matters, which could also apply today, he deals with the effects on different sectors. His take on agriculture is interesting as he observes that the consequences of withdrawal would be "particularly difficult to assess". A return to cheap world food is unlikely, he says, and if we withdrew, we should introduce our own support and import regimes.

Ironically, about the only unequivocal benefit he isolates is fishing. "It is uncertain whether we shall secure modifications of the common fisheries policy", he says, "which would compare satisfactorily with the exclusive control over home waters which we could exercise outside the Community". Plus ça change.

Overall, this remarkably prescient document should have been aired earlier. It could at least formed the basis of discussion and introduced some reality into the current debate. But, as we are finding, if we ignore our history, we are doomed to relive it.



Richard North 21/06/2020 link

Brexit: waiting for the real thing

31/01/2020  


With the focus on Wednesday's proceedings in the European Parliament, little attention has been paid to the vital and final stage of the Article 50 process. This requires a vote from the Council of the European Union, on the basis of qualified majority voting, to conclude the Withdrawal Agreement.

Anyhow, that happened yesterday with the adoption of a decision by the Council, thus allowing the Agreement to enter into force at midnight CET on 31 January 2020.

By the time I publish my next blogpost, therefore, we will have left the European Union and will be considered (by the EU) to be "a third country", a new status which the Irish Times (and doubtless many more) considers "a senseless act of self-harm".

The naysayers are, of course, entitled to their views, but I think that the "self-harm" was in joining the EEC in the first place. And, as I wrote on the eve of the 2016 referendum, leaving is a matter of correcting that historical mistake. It has to be done and it would be better if it had never had to be done.

There is, of course, a possibility that, had we never joined and remained as a member of Efta – an organisation that we founded – we would have been party to the talks on the creation of the EEA.

There is even the further possibility that we could have brokered a better deal, we might currently be an Efta/EEA member – the status that we would have preferred to take us through the Brexit process – only perhaps improved by us becoming equal partners in a European Economic Space.

Even without that, there were other opportunities for economic cooperation at a European level, not least the European Council. But had history been even slightly different, and the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) had been awarded the management of the Marshall Plan, it could have emerged as the dominant force for economic cooperation in Europe.

This would have been the closest approximation to Winston Churchill's vision, set out in his Hague Speech of 1948 (the year I was born).

Then he argued for the United Nations to be the "paramount authority" in world affairs, but with regional bodies as part of the structure. They would be "august but subordinate", becoming "the massive pillars upon which the world organisation would be founded in majesty and calm".

Effectively, a New World Order would comprise a hierarchy of three tiers – national, regional and global. In the European context, this would have included all the nations in continental Europe, organised around the central body of UNECE, based not in Brussels but in neutral Geneva.

In the nature of things, however, the victors get to write the history and while the fascinating history of UNECE (linked above) has been effectively airbrushed from the popular record, acres of print has been devoted to the hagiography of the European Union.

As a corrective, Christopher Booker and I wrote an alternative history of the European Union, in The Great Deception. And, whatever its merits, there are two important omissions to the earlier chapters: one is the development of UNECE and the other is the story of the founding of the EEA.

These issues, seemingly less important when we published in 2003, in the throes of the European Convention and its Constitution for Europe, before it was transformed into the Lisbon Treaty. But they have taken on vastly more significance with Brexit, and may point our way to the future, after the current generation of politicians have finished botching the exit process.

Given the approval of my publisher, after the launch of Booker's Groupthink (now complete and due in March), I will get the go ahead to revise The Great Deception and bring it up to date, covering the period up to the end of this year when it is expected that the transition period will end.

It was something Booker and I had discussed many times but sadly, he can no longer be a partner to the endeavour, and nor will he be able to see the fruits of our joint work which has been instrumental in taking us out of the EU.

Interestingly, this was noted recently by Owen Paterson, with whom I worked for more than a decade. Although I disagree profoundly with his current stance on Brexit, he has always been a good friend.

He tells of our "fruitful collaboration", along with Booker, "whose co-authored books The Castle of Lies and The Great Deception, he writes, "did much to influence Eurosceptic opinion".

Although I have effectively been "no platformed", as was Booker in the later stages of his life, that is indeed true and it is a reflection of the state of the former Eurosceptic "movement" that, during the celebrations of today's exit, I will be sitting at home, consuming a wee dram as the clock chimes eleven, and then getting down to writing my blog – as I have been doing for the past 16 years.

I often claim that the only breaks I took during that whole period were when I was sent to prison for refusing to pay the Police precept of my Council Tax (in protest at the uselessness of West Yorkshire's finest – who then sent 12 police officers to arrest me), and for a couple of days when I lay idle in hospital having open heart surgery.

Before even the sadly late Helen Szamuely and I had started the blog, Booker and I had been working with Paterson, when – as he writes – "we shared frustrations that increasingly damaging European regulations were being compounded by crass implementation due to the ignorance of an urban Labour government doing great harm to the countryside and a variety of businesses across the UK".

In fact, the great rush of regulation came with the run-up to the "completion" of the Single Market in 1992, coinciding with Maastricht, under the aegis of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and in the years after, up to 1997, which took in the great BSE crisis, and the ground-breaking Factortame decision on the ownership of the British fishing quota.

Our best work, I think, included that period, but Paterson nonetheless concedes that Booker's Sunday Telegraph column was "a fantastic platform" from which to highlight the depredations of the EU. "Combined with meticulous research from Richard North", he writes, "we made an effective triumvirate and won some important victories".

It saddens me, in this context, that Paterson has done a Peter Lilley who, back in August 2016, complimented me on my "original research" which, he wrote, was "thorough and well documented".

But, as with Paterson, that only applied as long as I was supporting their prejudices. Because I have called for a reasoned and measured Brexit process, we have parted ways. Both Lilley and Paterson now occupy the extreme fringe, pushing for an ultra-hard Brexit with no concessions to reality – and my research is no longer of value to them.

Tellingly, it was Lilley himself who wrote that "when politicians debate issues of which they have no experience they seize on any plausible argument which supports their case". Nothing changes.

The real battles, however, were elsewhere, with the struggle to get what we originally called the "exit and survival plan" onto the agenda. That endeavour has, so far, failed – largely due to the shortsightedness and lack of vision of the Eurosceptic Movement, and the hijack of the agenda by darker forces.

Directly and indirectly that has led to what Booker himself called " a catastrophic act of national self-harm" – not the fact of Brexit but the way the process has been botched. Pete writes of this yesterday, in somewhat pessimistic terms, then adding another piece warning that the real Brexit day is "a long way off".

Sadly, he's right, which is why I will only be having a small dram tonight. While the Grand Place in Brussels glows with Union Flag colours, we wait in hope for the real thing.



Richard North 31/01/2020 link

Brexit: the deed is [almost] done

30/01/2020  


I would have preferred our exit from the European Parliament yesterday to have been done with dignity. But Farage and his ghastly crew don't do dignity, preferring instead to break the EP rules by waving national flags in the chamber to accompany the Great Leader's final speech.

Farage had previously been warned (in an earlier session) against such demonstrations and the repeat, in this case, predictably drew a response from Mairead McGuinness, the vice-president in the chair. She switched off Farage's microphone, leaving him to mouth soundlessly to the chamber.

Rebuking Farage, she told him to "Sit down, put your flags away", adding: "you're leaving - and take them with you". This did not stop his MEPs raising a cheer for their leader – another tasteless, if somewhat raucous display.

When it came to the vote, 621 MEPs approved the motion to consent to the Withdrawal Agreement, 49 opposed and a mere 13 abstained. With 751 MEPs elected for this round, that means that 68 did not vote, either because of absence or for some other reason.

That provoked an outbreak of singing from the chamber, with a rather fractured rendition of Auld Lang Syne, some MPs waving EU-UK "half-and-half football scarves", with prominent union flags, the like of which had recently invoked McGuinness's ire. All that was left was a few public displays of emotional gushing by reluctant departees and it was done.

The General Affairs Council is now scheduled to declare that the Article 50 proceedings are concluded, as required by the Treaty. This will be conducted in writing today, presumably by the permanent representatives acting as plenipotentiaries.

Then, and only then, will all the formalities be complete, clearing the way for the UK to leave the Union at midnight, Central European Time, on Friday, ending our membership of 47 years and one month, respectively of the European Communities (which included the EEC and Euratom), the European Community and the European Union.

Should there ever be a United States of Europe, we are unlikely to be part of it. Even though some MEPs have pledged to "leave a light on" for our return, Guy Verhofstadt has made it clear his preference for a UK shorn of "opt-ins, opt-outs and [budget] rebates. These are conditions which, if applied, would present an insuperable barrier to a UK determined to rejoin.

For the moment, however, it is clear that any thought of returning to Brussels with our tails between our legs (or otherwise), is firmly off the UK political agenda, with the Labour leadership campaigners all refusing to include that commitment in their personal manifestos. It may be that a new Lib-Dem leader is prepared to burn a candle in the window, although who cares? It will do nothing more than attract moths for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Johnson has signalled to the fanboy gazette that he will be telling the EU that he is prepared to accept post-Brexit border checks rather than allowing Britain to be a rule-taker.

Johnson, of course, is not the one who personally will have to bear the delays, disruption, costs and loss of business concomitant with accepting border checks with the EU, but he is nevertheless preparing to concede this in what is being slated as a "major speech", setting out his aims for a trade deal next week.

The man, we are told, will say that sovereignty is more important than frictionless trade. Whitehall sources have told the Telegraph that, while Johnson wants to avoid tariffs and quotas on cross-Channel trade (to say nothing of trade across the Irish Sea), he will never "cave in" to demands for alignment on regulations, despite knowing "the consequences that flow from that".

Bolstering this "hard line" stance is Sir Robbie Gibb, described as Theresa May's Downing Street chief of staff, but actually her press spokesman/comms chief. He asserts that the EU has failed to grasp that the UK's political landscape has "utterly changed" as a result of Johnson's majority at the general election.

The new year, he says, is producing the same old briefings from Brussels: that the EU will set the sequence for the coming talks; that we will have to make concessions over our fishing rights for access to EU financial markets; and that EU judges should have the final say over any trade disputes with Britain.

That this man ever had anything to do with advising Mrs May, however, illustrates the lack of knowledge and understanding that pervades even the highest level of the state.

Gibb asserts that the current Irish protocol – as a "stand-alone provision" - has the effect of keeping Northern Ireland in both the EU and UK customs areas and, he says, with these arrangements, Britain is free to diverge from EU rules when it wants. This is the biggest change that the EU does not seem to grasp.

This government, he goes on to say, wants a good trading agreement with the EU but not at the expense of UK sovereignty. With that, he avers, the EU can also choose to keep friction to a minimum for the benefit of its business as well as ours.

And then, in what amounts to the "money quote", he actually suggests that the EU "can stop playing hardball and accept mutual recognition of our standards as they do for many other countries in certain sectors, such as Canada, Japan and the US".

Even after all this time, we have people such as this who fail to understand the difference between "equivalence" and "mutual recognition of standards", the latter applying exclusively to members of the Single Market – a concession given to no third countries, including Canada, Japan and the US.

The trouble with such people is that they never step outside their own little bubbles. Had Gibb done so, he might have recorded the complaints of Canadian meat producers, which I reported in March 2017.

Here we got an understanding of how "equivalence" actually works in practice. Despite implementation of CETA, we had Ron Davidson, head of international trade for the Canadian Meat Council, saying, "We do not have what we would call commercially viable access to the European market".

More than two years later, we have an article in CBC News reporting (predictably) that the Canada-EU beef trade deal was "not working as well as hoped".

European health standards, it said, were "too costly and complicated for Albertan beef exporters", stating that: "a difference in food health standards between the European Union and Canada is being blamed for beef exports falling short of expectations, despite a promising modification to a trade agreement between Canada and Europe".

Remarkably, in 2018, Canada sent just 3.1 percent of the 50,000 tonnes of meat authorised for export each year, and in 2017 the total was only 2.3 percent. That means CETA earned only $12.7 million for Canadian producers in 2018, against a theoretical potential of $600 million in any one year.

This is by no means an isolated report, with the Financial Post later publishing a headline that complained: "Beef and pork for cheese deal sours as strict EU health rules hinder Canadian exports under CETA".

Here, we see that, despite the new opportunities afforded by the deal, pork and beef exports to Europe have hardly budged, despite being "one of the most important elements for Canada in this negotiation".

Canadian exporters filled none of their frozen beef quota in 2018, and just 1.5 percent of their pork allowance. By contrast, European cheese exporters have taken almost full advantage of CETA, filling 99.2 percent of Canada's quota for fine quality cheese in 2018 and 71.1 percent of the quota for industrial cheese.

Then, in the last few days, we had France 24 asking: "Is Canada on losing end of CETA free trade agreement with EU?"

The answer, as one might expect, is yes. But that is the reality Johnson must be prepared to accept when he sets the pace for the coming negotiations. And when his stance is endorsed by the ignorance of such people as Gibb, with Farage apparently telling us that everything will come right as German car manufacturers will insist on a good deal, we haven't much to look forward to.

They can all wave their little flags, and I suppose we'll be seeing a lot of that over the next few days. But then the reckoning will start.



Richard North 30/01/2020 link

Brexit: reality on hold

21/11/2019  


In the beginning, long before Article 50 had been invoked, many of us thought that the future relationship between the UK and the EU would also be settled in the two-year negotiation period foreseen by the Article. Thus, it was anticipated that, at the end of the negotiations, we would drop out of the EU and move seamlessly into a new relationship.

That this was not to be the case only really emerged after Mrs May had invoked the Article, the consequences of which would mean that there would have to be a gap between us leaving the EU and finalising a new agreement, during which period there would be no formal trading arrangements.

Pretty obviously, this was not a happy situation (except for those who thought that the WTO scenario was desirable), opening up a requirement for a transitional period – which Mrs May insisted on calling an "implementation" period.

Had Article 50 been thought through, perhaps the arrangements for transition might have been specifically laid out in the Treaty. But, as it wasn't, the agreement to allow a period was treated by the EU as a concession to the UK, included in the draft agreement of 14 November and endorsed by the European Council on 25 November 2018.

At a time when we were supposed to leave on 29 March, the period was set to end on 31 December 2020, with a one-off provision to extend by either one or two years. This had to be agreed by the end of June 2020, with no allowance for any further extensions. At the very latest, an agreement would have to be concluded by the end of 2022.

Why such a short period was agreed is something of a mystery. EU officials have been very explicit in their warnings that a comprehensive trade deal, along the lines of the EU-Canada trade agreement (CETA), would take "many years". Even the maximum period allowable seemed hardly long enough.

Despite extensions to the Article 50 negotiating period, with us not due to leave the EU until 31 January 2020, the transition period has not been changed, which means that the first period has been whittled down to a mere eleven months and the maximum period foreseen is now less than three years.

This, though, seems to be of no concern to prime minister in office Johnson. He has repeatedly stated that he has no intention of seeking an extension of the transition period past December 2020. In the event that he forms a new government after the general election, that means he is committing the UK to concluding negotiations on a trade agreement, from a standing start, in eleven months.

Justifying his stance, Johnson argues that our current membership of the EU means that we are already in "perfect" regulatory alignment with the EU, so that any negotiations would be quick and simple, allowing a speedy conclusion within the eleven month period.

But, while we are offered this bland assurance, Johnson has not specified the type of agreement he has in mind, nor the degree of regulatory alignment that he is aiming for at the conclusion of the deal. Furthermore, he has given no indication of what flanking policies he might be prepared to accept, such as alignment on employment law, competition policies, environment, data protection and, of course, freedom of movement.

On the other hand, Johnson remains publicly committed to the doctrine established during the referendum, pledging to "take back control of our borders, our money and our laws".

On the face of it, this creates a conflict between objectives. If the UK wants a comprehensive trade deal inside eleven months, it needs to "copy out" CETA, making only those changes necessary to accommodate specific national characteristics. But if it is content with a "best in class" free trade agreement, whereby the UK would be free to set its own regulatory standards, this will entail significant renegotiation.

According to the EU's Director General for Trade, Sabine Weyand, eleven months is not long enough for that. That leaves two likely options, a thin "bare bones" deal or a hard exit from the transition period without any deal.

Given Johnson's pre-election rhetoric, we can probably rule out a no-deal resolution, but a "bare bones" agreement might amount to little more than a tariff and quota-free agreement, plus a "rules of origin" pact and perhaps limited administrative arrangements on VAT, customs cooperation and data sharing. Even a mutual recognition agreement on conformity assessment for a limited number of sectors might be attainable in the time.

Even with these add-ons, the substance of the agreement would be thin, falling far short of a comprehensive free trade agreement, which in itself would represent a significant loss of market access to the EU. Nevertheless, for Johnson, it could still qualify as a "deal" – to be paraded in front of a gullible media, its acceptance guaranteed by compliant MPs who would constitute his working majority in the Commons.

That is possibly the greatest danger that we confront. Johnson could end up believing his own propaganda and take a "bare bones" agreement as sufficient to fulfil his obligation to settle a long-term relationship with the EU.

Obsessed with the idea of forging a trade deal with Trump's United States, he could – and most likely would – argue that any downside to the EU agreement would be more than compensated for by the riches awaiting the UK on the other side of the Atlantic.

By contrast, seeking an extension to the transition period could present Johnson with major political risks. With his campaign slogan, "Get Brexit Done", he has openly committed to avoiding any further delay in the Brexit process, stating that there is "absolutely no reason" for not concluding an agreement by the end of 2020.

In respect of the withdrawal agreement and his failure to honour his "do or die" promise to leave by 31 October, he has been able to blame an intransigent parliament for the delays. But, if he returns after the election with a working majority, he only has himself to blame if he then seeks to extend the transition period – unless, of course, he aims to put the EU in the frame.

Getting the EU to take the fall, however, seems unlikely. Both Juncker and Barnier have warned that a comprehensive trade deal would take "years" and, with Weyand joining the fray, Johnson cannot say that he was unaware of what was involved. Having already decided to finish talking by the end of next December, he must be ready to accept that the only option available to him is a "bare bones" deal.

With his withdrawal agreement, though, he agreed something which many believe is far worse than Mrs May's deal. Yet he is still quite capable of talking it up, describing it as "fantastic" and arguing that there is "no better outcome". With his slender grasp of the truth, talking up a "bare bones" deal would present him with few problems. If needs must, he would describe a train wreck as "fantastic".

And such a scenario is not at all far-fetched. Through the years, Johnson has shown that he has only a very limited understanding of the technicalities of EU membership – to say nothing of international trade. He could, therefore, easily convince himself that he had negotiated the best possible deal.

Where there would be a difference is that, rarely in his career has Johnson hung around long enough to take responsibility for his actions. Usually, he leaves others to clear up his messes. But in this instance, the effects of a "bare bones" deal would swiftly become apparent.

Should these be pointed out with sufficient force in time for Johnson to apply for an extension, he could simply tough it out and stretch out talks to the end of 2022, relying on his majority to see him through.

Articles such as this from Jeremy Warner certainly help, and even Rafael Behr is pitching in via the Guardian, asserting that Johnson's "snappy, inane slogan is the prelude to inevitable lies, betrayal and duplicity".

But if anyone thinks that mere criticism is going to deflect Johnson from his path or that he will spend next year "climbing the steep learning curve towards realisation that Britain thrives on frictionless access to the single market" – as Behr suggests – is probably in for a disappointment.

There is nothing quite so impervious to reason as a man who thinks he already knows the answers, and we now stand at risk of having such a man at the head of our government for the next five years. In the eleven months that follow the election, my guess is that we will see reality put on hold and he will go for a deal by the end of next December.



Richard North 21/11/2019 link

Brexit: not in the real world

08/11/2019  


Reading the minutes of the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) and the associated policy summary isn't everybody's cup of tea. But the document issued yesterday is only 12 pages long and written in plain English with relatively little jargon. And, with its references to Brexit, it is well worth reading.

Somewhat less user-friendly is the Bank of England's monthly Monetary Policy Report for November. At 49 pages, it presents more of a challenge, although it still manages to be remarkably free of the dense jargon that might be expected in such documents.

Taken together, though, the documents have important things to say about Brexit, giving an insight into the state of play and the thinking of the Bank of England (BoE) on the issue.

Starting with a statement of the obvious, we are told that, in October, the UK and EU agreed a Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration, the UK House of Commons approved the second reading of the Bill that translates the agreement into law, and the UK and EU agreed a flexible extension of Article 50.

Thus, sterling has appreciated markedly as the perceived probability of a no-deal Brexit has reduced and, says the MPC, "These developments are also likely to remove some of the uncertainty that has been facing businesses and households".

Moving on, we are then told that the MPC's projections are now conditioned on the assumption that the UK moves to a deep free trade agreement with the EU, although it is admitted that "some uncertainty is likely to persist". This is because the details of the UK and EU's eventual relationship "are assumed to emerge only gradually over time and the smoothness of the transition to it remains to be determined".

As for the current situation, the MPC now anticipates that GDP will emerge one percent lower by the end of 2022 than was projected in August. Three quarters of the difference is accounted for by moves in asset prices and the "weaker global environment", but the remaining quarter is partly due to changes in Brexit assumptions, brought about by Johnson's deal.

Nevertheless, UK GDP is expected to pick up during 2020 "as the dampening effects from Brexit-related uncertainties begin to dissipate", boosting business investment growth. From one percent annual growth by the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2019, the MCP expects to see 1.6 percent by 2020 Q4, 1.8 percent by 2021 Q4 and 2.1 percent by 2022 Q4.

This, however, assumes an improvement in global growth and progress on Brexit - and in particular the future trading arrangements with the EU. But, as Mark Carney, BoE governor, acknowledged yesterday, "both are assumed in the MPC's latest projections; neither is assured".

In fact, says the BoE in a separate report, "some uncertainty is likely to persist". Brexit, it observes "is a process rather than a single event" and, while the agreement sets out the broad parameters of the UK and EU's future trading relationship, "the range of potential outcomes is still relatively wide".

If there were prizes for understatement, this report would surely be on the short-list, as the chances of securing a stable, long-term trading relationship with the EU in the near future seem slight. And as long as Johnson insists on concluding a deal by next year, without extending the transition period, the chances are next to nil.

On the other hand, if Corbyn takes the prize of No 10 residency, there is absolutely no knowing what will happen. On the face of it, he will try to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement, and claims he will be able to wrap up Brexit within six months. Very few people, though, would have confidence in that estimate.

Either way, therefore, with nothing really resolved, one might expect little in the way of a reduction in uncertainty. And - in the event of Johnson renewing his lease on No 10 – if by the end of June he has not extended the transition period, adding the full two years allowable, we cannot rule out a collapse in business confidence.

Then, come the end of 2020, as we are precipitated into what will amount to a no-deal scenario, the most likely outcome is a deep and prolonged recession, with predictable effects on the private sector and public finances.

With that hanging over us, therefore, it does seem rather unwise for both main parties to commit to ambitious public spending promises, fuelled by massive increases in borrowing – in what seems to be an unrestrained bidding war.

Those of us schooled in traditional economics are more used to the idea of governments building up reserves in the good times, to help cope with the demands on public finances that recessions bring, at times when tax revenues fall.

For sure, under Keynesian economics, governments are encouraged to spend during recessions, and Sajid Javid's promise of a £300 billion investment spree could be just what is needed to keep economic activity buoyant when exports collapse as a result of our failure to agree a trade deal with the EU.

However, when shadow chancellor John McDonnell promises an even larger £150 billion "social transformation fund" over the next five years, on top of £250 billion for investment in green infrastructure over 10 years, and renationalisations which are expected to cost nearly £200 billion, one begins to wonder if we are inhabiting the same planet as the politicians.

Javid, for instance, is assuming that he can keep borrowing at today's low interest rates, ignoring any future inflationary effects from a botched Brexit – such as the plummeting value of the pound and the soaring costs of imports. And that is without taking account of the fragile global economy which could slip into recession at any time.

Despite that risk, Chancellor Javid assumes that the UK GDP will continue to grow, thus allowing debt to fall as a proportion of GDP. However, he promises to cap borrowing if debt interest payments rise beyond their historic share of GDP. But, on that basis, where the economy is in recession, his spending promises would never be realised.

Since much of this new investment would be directed at infrastructure projects, there are also serious questions about the ability to deliver at short notice. For instance, with construction projects the shortage of skilled labour – made up in the recent past by immigration from EU Member States – would be a major constraint.

The worst of it all, though, is that the politicians seem to be either ignoring Brexit or assuming that it will have no harmful effects on the economy that they need to take into account. They really do seem to be occupying their own fantasy worlds, which bear very little relation to possible post-Brexit scenarios.

In fact, once again – with day two of the election campaign over – Brexit seems to have disappeared from the front pages of the print media. Personality politics have even displaced news of the spending war, with several papers featuring as their lead items, the decision by "Labour veterans" to support the Tories.

A more sanguine media would, of course, be homing in on the soft optimism of the MPC report, warning that the uncertainty incumbent in the unrealistic Brexit policies of both main parties has not improved our overall position.

Together with a deteriorating global economy – and some very worrying economic news coming out of the eurozone - there is a far stronger risk of recession than is being allowed for. The BoE's growth projections could be completely off-beam, with the real-world situation rendering ambitious spending promises so much hot air.



Richard North 08/11/2019 link

Brexit: into the darkness

28/10/2019  


The Guardian is getting terribly excited about its "exclusive", revealing the content of a draft decision on the UK's Article 50 extension, which has been "leaked" to the paper. You can't keep a good story down, though. It is now shared with the BBC, the Financial Times and even Reuters, with ample coverage on Twitter.

But, for all the excitement, we're looking at exactly the extension scenario that Johnson asked for in his original (enforced) extension request, complete with a break clause that allows the extension to be terminated early if the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified before the end of the three-month period, still scheduled to end on 31 January 2020.

Of the French objections, and the prospect of a short extension, there is no sign. It seems that Tusk – who has been talking to the parties over the weekend – has been successful in convincing Macron that a three-month extension avoids the EU being dragged into the domestic row in the UK. This is the way EU demonstrates its neutrality.

Nevertheless, the cut-off has been tweaked. It is now proposed that we can leave at the end of the month during which the agreement is ratified. Thus, we could potentially be on our way out on either 30 November, 31 December or, if we go full term, on 31 January.

As to the status of this inspired "leak", it rests for the moment with the EU ambassadors (COREPER II) who are scheduled to meet this morning, ready to pass on their recommendations to the European Council. When the EU-27 leaders will formalise the decision is not known, but it is assumed they will keep to Tuesday before their "written procedure" takes effect – as long as there is progress on the election front.

That keeps open the possibility of the EU leaders changing the text, although this does seem unlikely at this stage, unless we see some dramatic developments through the day.

As with the previous extension decision, there is a clause stating that the extension "cannot be used to reopen the withdrawal agreement nor to start negotiations on the future relationship".

This is being taken as signifying the end of the line as far as further negotiations go, even though the similar provision in the last decision made no difference when it came to negotiating the deal with Johnson. But then, the Humpty Dumpty way with words seems to define the EU's way of working.

Where there is no ambiguity, though, is a demand that the UK nominates a Commissioner to serve after 31 October. For the period up until (potentially) 31 January, the UK will remain a full member of the European Union, with all the rights and obligations that that entails. Up to press, Johnson has refused to send anyone for the new Commission, which is still in the process of being formed.

It now remains to be seen whether this leak will be sufficient to stiffen the resolve of Jeremy Corbyn and his fractured Labour Party, when it comes to today's vote on whether to give the go-ahead for a general election.

Here, the crucial issue might be whether Johnson will continue to demand that MPs pass his WAB before 6 November, something the opposition parties are reluctant to accept. Today, therefore, might be a day of fast-moving horse-trading as all sides seek to find a formula which will allow an election to proceed.

On the cards is the so-called "plan B", devised by the Lib-Dems, which involves an amendment to the FTPA, allowing an election to proceed with only a simply majority in the Commons. Although it breaks the link between voting for the election and passing the WAB, Johnson apparently now accepts that this is his only realistic chance of side-lining Labour and holding a pre-Christmas election.

For all that, the issues have been rehearsed with such frequency that even the media seems to be struggling to maintain an interest, while real people are switching off in their droves. Sometime today, something may happen, or it may not. As to the party games in parliament, the mood amongst ordinary people seems to be "wake me up when they're over".

With the clocks going back on Sunday, though, we got the first taste of the dark evenings to come, which will make for a difficult election campaign. In a way, that symbolises where we're at. We are entering a period of darkness and it will be a long time before we see the light.



Richard North 28/10/2019 link

Brexit: it's a deal, Jim…

18/10/2019  


… but not as we know it. In fact, there is no deal. There are two draft documents, one a revised text on the political declaration and the other, the all-important revised text "agreed at negotiators' level" on the "Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland included in the Withdrawal Agreement".

It is the latter that constitutes the supposed "deal" but it has only been "agreed at negotiators' level" and – as the frontispiece states – is "subject to legal revision". This can't even be taken as the definitive document.

For this revised text to take on the formal status of a binding treaty, and thus constitute a "deal", several things must happen. Firstly, it must be ratified by the Westminster parliament, which we assume will be attempted on Saturday. It must then be formally "concluded on behalf of the Union", by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, but only "after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament" (my italics).

This is what Article 50 says. I have to admit that I had to remind myself of the text – specifically Art 50(2) – but there is no equivocation or ambiguity there. The deal has to be concluded by the Council, after the European Parliament has given its consent.

On that basis, the European Council could not "conclude" the agreement yesterday, and nor can it do so today. All it can do is what it actually has done, according to the meeting conclusions. It has "endorsed" the Agreement and invited the European Parliament and the Council "to take the necessary steps to ensure that the agreement can enter into force on 1st November 2019".

The earliest the European Parliament can meet to give its consent is some time next week and, given its own procedural requirements, that may be towards the end of the week, possibly on 24 October at the last plenary session of the month. Presumably, the Council can arrange a special meeting then formally to conclude the agreement.

It would not be wise, though, to take the European Parliament for granted. Verhofstadt has said it will "take its full time to carefully examine and approve" the deal – which is more than either the Commission or the Council has done so far. And that process, he warns, could spill past 31 October.

Verhofstadt also says that MEPs will only start work once the Westminster parliament has ratified the deal. If that slips past the plenary session next week, it could well have to be picked up in the session that begins on 13 November.

When it comes to the Council's concluding the agreement, I'd always assumed that it was the European Council that did this. But Article 50 specifically refers to the "Council", which actually means the Council of the European Union (formerly Council of Ministers). One presumes that it will be the General Affairs Committee which does the honours.

The crucial point here is that, until the Council has voted, technically there is no deal. It could be pulled at any time, and we could be back where we started. However, there is another rather important issue – the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act 2019, better known as the Benn Act. On this, there has been much talk of it kicking in if the swamp-dwellers fail to approve the Agreement on Saturday, but there is an aspect of this Act which most people seem to be neglecting.

The particular issue is that – as expressed in popular terms - should Johnson fail to bring home a deal by 19 October, the Act imposes a duty on him to seek a three-month Art 50 extension, lasting until 31 January 2020.

Yet, while this approximation might suit the legacy media, the actual terms of the Act are subtly different, in a very important respect. The requirement is for the United Kingdom to have "concluded an agreement with the European Union under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union", which is far more than has been currently achieved.

As we have seen, to conclude the Agreement requires the input of the European Parliament and the Council and, since neither have fulfilled their roles, it cannot yet be said that that the UK has concluded an agreement with the EU. Neither can that happen before Saturday.

Strictly speaking, therefore, when Johnson goes before parliament on the 19th, he will not have complied with this condition of the Benn Act. Thus, he will be legally required to make a formal application to the European Council for that three-month extension – whether parliament ratifies the deal or not.

The big question, of course, is whether any of the swamp-dwellers have read or understood the finer details of the Benn Act. On current form, that seems unlikely, in which case those who so desperately want to slow down or stop Brexit will have missed an opportunity.

Oddly enough, the SNP has already decided it will not back Johnson's deal on Saturday and has tabled an amendment to the motion approving it, calling for an immediate extension to the 31 October deadline in order to give time for a general election. Would that they knew it, they already have the means to force that extension.

Presumably, the most likely outcome of an extension would be a vote of no confidence and, given the inability of the opposition parties to front a candidate for leader of a temporary government, this would lead to a general election. Johnson would still hold the office of prime minister and be able to decide on the date of the contest.

Should that be the case, the prime minister might have very little time to play with. Sir Mark Sedwill, head of the Civil Service, is reported to have warned No 10 that going to the polls after 12 December could lead to logistical difficulties.

Predictably, when you think about it, many village halls and other locations used for polling stations will already be booked for festive events like pantomimes and parties in the weeks leading up to Christmas. To avoid clashes - with a minimum of five weeks required for an election campaign - that means an election would need to be called within the next three weeks.

Add two weeks to that, if the vote of no confidence option is triggered – the period allowed for the second vote - and that would give Johnson the very narrow window of a week. If missed, it could be February before an election could be held, with all the complications that that might entail.

In terms of the potential for electoral success, there might be significant variations in the outcome for Johnson in the different campaigning scenarios. Generally, the polls seem to suggest he might do better if he went to the country after the UK has left the EU, as against a situation where he had failed to achieve a deal and was forced to fight against a background of continued EU membership.

What hasn't been tested, though – as far as I am aware - is the scenario where he has successfully negotiated a deal, but where the three-month extension is implemented anyway, again forcing him to go to the country while we are still in the EU.

There again, one might expect a difference in public sentiment where he was forced into this position by the opposition parties and where it was brought about because the agreement had not been formally concluded – arising essentially because the negotiations had been left so late.

Either way, some might anticipate that any campaign would be fought on the content of the deal. But that would be expecting too much of the legacy media – it could not cope with anything beyond the superficial and would quickly revert to personality politics, basically on a platform of "trust". It would boil down to whether the voters trusted Johnson and his "deal", or Corbyn and his commitment to renegotiation and a referendum – in which he would oppose his own deal.

My sense is that there is a growing impatience with the continued delays, so much so that even some remainers want to see the thing finished. In this context, the deal is seen as the best and fastest way of achieving that end. And such a seductive refrain could well play into Johnson's hands, as long as the focus stays on personalities and "trust". It is a contest he could well win.

If the campaign ever got down to detail, though – however unlikely that might be - a rampant Farage might score some points, with his campaigning company seriously eroding Tory votes. The net effect of the Lib-Dems could also be to damage the Tories more than Labour, possibly leaving us with a hung parliament and no further forward.

On the other hand, a clear Johnson victory would have him ratifying his deal in an instant, taking us out of the EU as fast as is humanly possible. Then the fun would start. The one thing this deal buys is a standstill transitional period (one of Mrs May's legacies from the original Withdrawal Agreement), during which we negotiate the future relationship.

But, if the view coming through is correct – and study of the Irish Protocol over the next few days will give us a better insight – Johnson has only got so far by caving in to the EU on every substantive point. To have this man, with a five-year mandate, in charge of the next round of negotiations, almost beggars belief.

Sadly, as long as Corbyn is the leader of the opposition, the alternative is no better, which perhaps gives a serious impetus to the idea of a referendum on what will set out to be a permanent treaty. On this, the peoples' decision can hardly be worse than anything our full-time politicians would come up with.



Richard North 18/10/2019 link

Brexit: still anybody's guess

15/10/2019  


If you keep them in their comfort zones and let them focus on issues they understand – like court politics – the occasional hack can sometimes make a bit of sense. Thus we have Robert Peston delivering his opinion of the Queen's Speech debate, saying it was the maddest, most pointless event anyone alive has watched.

In his view, it was all "displacement activity" with the speakers taking refuge from the only two questions that matter, namely whether the UK is leaving the EU on 31 October (and if so how) and whether there will be a general election before Christmas. As a result, wrote Peston, the debate "has all the significance and weight of an undergraduate debate on a wet autumn afternoon".

It would be comforting to think that this put yesterday's proceedings in a class of their own but Peston's assessment could apply to the majority of debates conducted in the House of Commons. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the level of public trust in the institution has plummeted, with 77 percent of a recent opinion poll unwilling to trust it to make the right decisions on Brexit.

That figure, incidentally, compares with 76 percent for Corbyn, and 60 percent for Johnson, indicating that we are undergoing an almost complete breakdown in trust in the ability of our politics to fix Brexit. Johnson may be the least worst, but even that means that twice as many people don't trust him as believe he is capable of doing the right thing.

And when it comes to guessing whether we will be leaving the EU on 31 October, at least we seem to be getting closer to an answer. Finland's Prime Minister, Antti Rinne – holder of the EU's rotating Council presidency – took time out yesterday to warn that things were not going well in Brexit land.

Speaking in Helsinki alongside Belgian prime minister Charles Michel, who is the next European Council president, he told reporters that there was no "practical or legal way" to find an agreement on Johnson's latest proposal, in time for the European Council on Thursday.

This, of course, is not in the least surprising. The parties are trying to combine thrashing out an agreement on an incomplete and poorly-thought-out UK proposal while, at the same time, attempting to carve out a detailed legal text covering the areas where there is some degree of accord.

Inevitably, this is slow, painstaking work – and that is without taking into account the need to have versions in all 24 of the Union's working languages. And, understandably, the EU is insisting that any draft which goes up to the European Council for approval must be "legally operable", requiring the production of a complete, watertight legal text.

Nor is Rinne on his own. Simon Coveney, the Irish deputy prime minister and self-confessed optimist, also suggested that talks might have to "move into next week". And although he did qualify his own pessimism (or realism) by venturing that it was "too early to say", the very fact that he was making such a downbeat appraisal tells us an awful lot about the status of the talks.

Barring a miracle, therefore, there is next to no chance of Johnson putting a new deal to MPs on Saturday, assuming he still goes ahead with the weekend sitting. Apparently, a motion approving the session must be tabled at the very latest by Wednesday for debate the following day – and even then the swamp-dwellers could reject the opportunity to spend extra time in Westminster, in favour of prolonged lie-ins in their constituency homes.

Assuming, as I think we must, that there will be no deal settled on Thursday, on the face of it thus requiring Johnson formally to apply for an Article 50 extension, it would seem that there will be nothing much to talk about on the Saturday. The one exception might be to reassure the House that talks will continue (which is by no means a given), with a view to crafting a deal later in the month.

By tomorrow, of course, Barnier may well have put the coffin into the ground when it comes to a Thursday finale. It would be entirely in order for him to declare to the General Affairs Council that there had been insufficient progress in the talks for him to commend a deal to the European Council, even with an additional day that Wednesday might bring.

However, if Barnier is prepared to take an optimistic view and suggest that there is a chance that a special Council, convened in the following week, could bring about a resolution, Johnson could still hold out hope of closing a deal in time for the UK's departure on 31 October.

The "colleagues" may or may not play ball on this, but I would be inclined to suggest the caution will prevail and they will go for the extension option, planning to use the special Council to agree an extension to the end of January 2020. On the other hand, they could string Johnson along with the promise of an early deal, only to bounce him into an extension when it becomes apparent that the talks have not delivered.

Even over the space of a week, though, the variables have multiplied to such an extent that predictions have become perilous. Nevertheless, there are definitely signs of movement, with the Telegraph in a buoyant mood, reporting that there is "cautious optimism" in Brussels. With talks on a knife-edge, we are told that Johnson has cancelled today's planned Cabinet meeting, to avoid leaks that could derail delicate talks.

All the same, I'm still reluctant to accept that the "colleagues" will go for the quick fix. Recent polling – of which they must be aware – suggests that delaying Brexit could cost Johnson a majority in the coming general election, as Farage's party siphons off Tory votes. But whether a hung parliament – with the remote possibility of Farage holding the balance of power – is something they want to risk, only they can tell.

But the main constraint, as I see it, is the prohibition in their own Decision on conducting negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement during this extension period. Holding off until after the end of the month gets them off that hook, while a general election, which would cause talks to be suspended, might buy time and fresh opportunities – and the chance of a Labour government that could deliver a referendum.

It is at this point that the perils of speculation become all too evident. The Irish Times has it – along with the rest of the media – that Johnson is still adamant that Brexit will occur on 31 October and, even if he does seem boxed in, no one is prepared to bet that he doesn't have a trick or two up his sleeve. Thus, while we can assess the odds of certain plays coming to fruition, firm predictions are for the birds.

Not least, for all the media chatter, no one has actually seen a hard copy of the UK proposal – if one actually exists. And this could mean that all the earnest speculation over what the parties are discussing could be empty hype. Furthermore, with these complex issues, there can be absolutely no dispute that the devil is in the detail and the talks could so easily founder on a technical issue that no one can find a way of circumventing.

Then, of course, even if the parties manage to agree something, there is no guarantee that the swamp-dwellers will ratify. Opposition from the DUP seems to be firming up, and behind them are Unionist-supporting Conservative MPs who will vote alongside them.

It is enough, therefore, to posit that, by the end of today, we will be slightly more certain that we are not going to be seeing a deal this week. Beyond that the outcome is, as always, still anybody's guess.



Richard North 15/10/2019 link

Brexit: a dose of reality?

14/10/2019  


Following the completely predictable (and predicted) news yesterday evening, that a Brexit deal had not materialised, the legacy media is having to scale back its euphoria and admit to the difficulties which have long been apparent to more sanguine observers.

Readers here, for instance, might recall our piece conveying the comments of Bruno Bonnell, a French MP for Emmanuel Macron's En Marche! party. Of Johnson's proposal, he complained that, "It's not a final version", describing it as "almost like a joke", saying that, "We don't even understand it".

In the wake of the weekend's "intensive technical discussions", therefore, it should hardly come as a surprise to the Financial Times that it was dealing with a dog's dinner. Nevertheless, with its most recent headline declaring: "Brussels baffled by UK’s 'complex' proposals to fix Brexit deadlock", it seems to be trying to tell us something of which we were already well aware.

Nevertheless, I suppose it is vaguely helpful to have a more detailed account of Michel Barnier's brief to EU "diplomats", other than a terse press release which is so lacking in detail as almost to amount to mockery.

The only things of substance it tells us are that, "A lot of work remains to be done" and "Discussions at technical level will continue tomorrow" (Monday). Barnier is also to brief EU-27 Ministers at the General Affairs Council (Article 50) on Tuesday.

Via the FT and the other news gatherers that were present in Brussels, we are told that British plans to keep Northern Ireland in the UK's customs territory while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland are "fiendishly complex and not yet properly worked out", which entirely accords with Bonnell's earlier observation, but demonstrates that there has been precious little progress since last Tuesday.

It hardly comes as a shock, therefore, to have one EU diplomat making a statement of the bleedin' obvious, that there was "no breakthrough yet". He adds: "If the British government wants a solution, it must move quickly now. The clock is ticking", again a statement so obvious that it scarce merits repeating.

What is less clear is why another "European official" is saying that talks on Monday would be "one last chance". That is the last chance for the two sides to bridge their differences, or they risk failing to agree a deal in time for the European Council on Thursday.

By any account, it is already too late to meet that deadline. Normally, without the GAC giving its go-ahead, the European Council could not entertain a deal. However, the BBC has suggested that the EU team seems to have "softened" its position, indicating it is prepared to keep talking until Wednesday, the eve of the European Council.

Then we see The Times elaborate on this, reporting that the EU might back Johnson's plan in principle, even if a legal text cannot be finalised in time for the European Council, provided the UK made some concessions.

This narrative has the prime minister in office returning from Brussels with a political deal that could be put to a vote in the Commons on Saturday, with a legal agreement to be finalised afterwards. That does not make sense. The Commons is not going to vote for a "deal", sight unseen. MPs will want to see the small print.

When one sees the FT talking of "an extra summit", however, this does make sense. This paper suggests 29-30 October, but there is the matter of the European Parliament ratification. The last plenary of the month is on 23 October, which sets its own limit.

But, while Downing Street apparently had hoped the negotiators would be on a "glide path to an agreement", the Guardian is scaling back on the optimism having Barnier warning that the latest talks have been "difficult".

With a dose of realism that has been distinctly lacking of late, it goes slightly against the grain of some of the other reports, observing that it is appearing "increasingly unlikely that agreement can be found" in time for the Council later this week. However, this is not inconsistent with what other media sources are saying.

Ironically, the paper speaks of Barnier holding "a restricted session due to recent leaks", but somehow the leaks continue as we learn of the chief negotiator's disappointment at the lack of progress. This leads "EU sources" to suggest that an extension is "all but certain" given the amount of ground that needs to be covered.

Not least of that is the minor problem that the UK proposal would lead to the "dismantling of the EU's customs code", leaving the Union open to widespread fraud in the absence of hard data about whether goods end up in the Single Market or not. "We've told the UK our concerns about the Single Market and they don't have any answers to it yet", says a diplomat.

According to RTE, some of the ideas advanced by the UK - specifically a proposal to have Northern Ireland be part of the UK's customs territory, but continuing to apply the EU's rules and procedures on customs and tariffs - remain "conceptually difficult".

It is felt that the British plan would create more problems than solutions, in terms of the potential for fraud, the difficulty of tracing goods and the prospect that things would not be ready in time for the end of the transition period. Some EU officials believe that the arrangements are so complex that up to three months may be needed to thrash out all the details.

Interestingly, another leaking EU diplomat effectively confirms this, saying that: "The Northern Ireland-only backstop proposed in February 2018" (by Mrs May, as rejected by Arlene Foster) "could be landed by Thursday, but not a bespoke plan". On that basis, "a technical extension looks probable".

Such a move is also mentioned in The Times piece. It would definitely have the support of Jean-Claude Juncker, who says he would back a prolongation of UK membership. "It's up to the Brits to decide if they will ask for an extension", he told the Austrian newspaper Kurier on Sunday (paywall), "but if Boris Johnson were to ask for extra time – which probably he won't – I would consider it unhistoric to refuse such a request".

The Independent, though, reports that Johnson is "desperate for an agreement" which can be signed off before Saturday, to avoid him having to ask for a further extension. Yet the EU has told him that he must move "further and faster", even though other papers are saying that the gap is unbridgeable in the time, with the likelihood that there will be a later, special European Council.

Needless to say, the EU stance has been seen in negative terms by the Telegraph, the paper headlining its report: "Fury as EU demands more Brexit concessions". The text has a Cabinet minister "hitting out" at Brussels for ignoring the need to get parliamentary backing for any deal reached. This minister says: "What the EU needs to understand is all their very clever negotiating tactics don't mean anything if you can't get it through the House of Commons".

From this, it would appear that there is an expectation that the EU should abandon its own requirements – a process called "flexibility" - simply to assist the passage of any deal through the Westminster parliament, notwithstanding that the MPs could still reject the deal presented to them, regardless of what is agreed.

Like as not, MPs are not going to get an early chance to vote on a new deal, even if Johnson had set aside the Saturday session in the House of Commons on 19 October for precisely that reason. But if there is to be a special European Council later in the month, the timing would be ideal for framing an Article 50 extension, an application for which could then be heard in time for it to take effect before the end of the month.

That, of course, could be the ultimate in anti-climaxes. With all the hype about a deal, if all Johnson is able to do is walk away with another extension, his credibility is going to take an even bigger hit.

For the moment, though, as long as there is perceived to be the slightest chance of a deal being agreed, the hype will continue. By the end of today, we should have some better idea of where we stand which, on reflection, could be a little unfortunate for Johnson.

Wrapped up in his Queen's Speech agenda, and hoping for positive coverage in Tuesday's media, the very last thing he wants is for the EU to rain on his parade by announcing that talks have been abandoned and there is no hope of a deal being agreed at the coming session of the European Council - assuming that the talks don't continue until Wednesday.

On the other hand, one wonders what Johnson (and his advisers) really expected. Can they have imagined that throwing a complex, apparently incomplete and controversial proposal at the EU, waiting for the very last minute to do so – was going to yield dividends?

Perhaps this isn't the real play. Maybe, after the show of offering a new proposal, the game is to convince the likes of Merkel and Macron that there is no prospect of a deal, and they are better off refusing an extension, allowing the UK to cut loose.

But, if Johnson wants the cooperation of EU leaders in this ploy, then he will need to get his people to tone down the rhetoric about demanding more "concessions" and thus sabotaging the talks. The balance of advantage on blame avoidance will probably be a key factor in determining the timing of Brexit, and at the moment there is no particular incentive for the "colleagues" to allow the UK to quit by the 31 October.

So far, this just seems to be another game that Johnson is losing. The smart money looks to us still being in the EU after the end of the month.



Richard North 14/10/2019 link

Brexit: a future so opaque

13/10/2019  


In the absence of firm information or official statements, it is extremely difficult to be certain of where we stand with the Brexit talks which are said to have continued through yesterday and are set for another long session today.

If there were first prizes for media hubris, though, the winner would undoubtedly be The Sunday Telegraph which talks of "Great Britain" being able "to exit the single market and the customs union, and to be able to diverge from all EU rules and regulations: a full, clean Brexit".

As far as Northern Ireland goes, there would be "a compromise solution" which would allow the province to take part in UK trade deals and be legally out of the customs union. Miraculously, it would maintain an open border with the Republic, alongside some form of ongoing democratic consent mechanism.

This, in the view of the ST, "would be far better practically, legally and philosophically for unionists and Brexiteers than a Northern Ireland-only backstop".

The result would not be "perfect" and, surprisingly enough, "the devil will be in the detail", where the onus is "on Mr Johnson not to stray from the principles of self-government and democratic control he so brilliantly expounded during the referendum".

The paper is in no doubt that, if the talks are evolving as we believe, the result looks to be "a real Brexit for Great Britain, with a settlement for Northern Ireland that genuinely hopes to satisfy all sides".

Needless to say, the devil always lies in the detail and while No 10 officials point out that none of the pundits know the full details of the proposed deal, the speculation of what it might contain is enough to have DUP deputy leader, Nigel Dodds fulminating that the proposed deal "cannot work".

The cause of his grief, apparently, is that Johnson is said to be ready to "shaft" the North (as in Northern Ireland), by reverting to the idea of a "wet" border in the Irish Sea. This means that there will be customs controls imposed on goods from Great Britain entering the province, in order to avoid checks on the Irish land border.

Dodds is insisting that the North should be fully within the UK's customs union, with his party refusing to accept any changes in the status of relations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Despite recent comments from Arlene Foster (pictured with Dodds), which appeared to support Johnson's deal, the party is consistent, it says, in demanding that the UK leaves the EU as one nation and "in so doing that no barriers to trade are erected within the UK".

Assuming that the DUP's "take" on Johnson's deal is correct – and we have no means of knowing – it is relevant to ask whether the party still has sufficient political leverage to block any deal it doesn't like.

Certainly, the party itself is in a difficult position if it endorses a deal that other Unionists can cast as a "betrayal", using this to damage their electoral standing.

But, it seems, the UK government has more to worry about than the finer sensibilities of the DUP. Johnson, we are told, is "desperate" for a deal because security chiefs have convinced him that no-deal Brexit would lead to an upsurge in terrorism by dissident republican groups.

This comes from The Sunday Times, which employs another of those wondrous anonymous sources – one "familiar with the warnings" – to tell us that there was a danger of terrorist attacks in Northern Ireland and on the mainland, as well as sectarian violence in cities such as Glasgow.

We are informed of a "recent conversation" with a senior Conservative, which covered the implications of no-deal on Northern Ireland and disruption in England, when it is claimed that Johnson said: "Any one of these risks we could cope with, but taken collectively they would be a massive challenge to the UK state and no one would choose to go down that route".

Some might argue that there is a certain shallowness in that assessment, in that a solution which angers the Unionists could, of itself, trigger sectarian violence, pulling in the Republicans and triggering a full-blown replica of the Troubles. With Northern Ireland, it is never wise to take sentiment for granted.

Nevertheless, as has been pointed out, with the devil lying in the detail and no detail available, there is only so far speculation can take us. And even this may be moot as a "senior EU source" is said to be describing the chances of a deal at the European Council as "50-50", while a British government official is said to be claiming that they were "on a knife edge".

As long as the talks in Brussels go on, however, they are buying Johnson respite from the worst his critics have to offer. But all good things must come to an end and, by 5pm this evening, Barnier is due to give "EU Ambassadors" a briefing on progress so far. Saturday saw an almost unique level of security, with not a single leak escaping the talks, but Barnier will be talking to a leaky ship, and we are bound to get some intimation of where the talks stand within a matter of hours of the briefing.

The following day (Monday) Johnson will have domestic matters to attend to, as he will be attending the Queen's Speech, but he then plans to speak to Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Claude Juncker. These contacts will take place in the next two days, when we are told that Johnson's message will be: "Let's finish this off".

He is, it is said, ready to offer EU leaders "a historic grand bargain on Brexit" - help deliver "his new deal" this week or agree a no-deal Brexit for 31 October, presumably by refusing his forced application for an Article 50 extension.

It remains to be seen whether any of these players will intervene, but the likelihood is that they will take their lead from Barnier on whether to accept the deal – assuming the European Council is disposed to accept any deal at this coming meeting. It still seems far more likely that, if they feel a deal might be in the offing, the Council will offer an extension that will take us past 31 October, so that formal negotiations can take place.

However, if the "colleagues" collectively are coming to the view that Johnson's last hurrah is going nowhere, they may be disposed to consider whether to reject an extension application.

To that extent, Johnson may have queered his own pitch, in being so strident about blaming the EU for any failure to do a deal. The Council will be conscious of the potential for bad publicity in the event that they are seen to be pulling the plug. If the UK wants the Council to cast it adrift, therefore, it will need to find a formula which allows for what is, effectively seen as a "no-fault Brexit".

Yet, for Johnson, that has its own drawbacks. Given the expected adverse consequences of a no-deal, being able to blame the EU for our troubles becomes an important part of the narrative. If we part on an ostensibly amicable "no-fault" basis – with Johnson winning a subsequent general election (which looks possible), his administration will be open to taking the full blame for the trauma that follows.

This could present the prime minister in office with an unfortunate paradox. In order to exit on the 31 October with a no-deal, he is going to have to make nice with the "colleagues", yet to escape blame for the effects he needs to be at odds with the EU, conveying the impression that his "reasonable and constructive" offer has been refused.

In any event though, Johnson is hardly in control. Although he will be attempting to focus on domestic issues after the Queen's Speech on Monday, if his "new deal" is known to be dead in the water by then, he will find it hard to keep the opposition benches focused on his agenda.

Bearing in mind that, traditionally, votes against the Queen's Speech are taken as votes of confidence, the prime minister in office could find himself facing a vote that could trigger a general election on his hands, even as he wings his way to Brussels for the European Council.

It would then remain for the "colleagues" to agree to any formal application for an extension, thereby presenting Johnson with the worst of all possible scenarios when he goes to the country without having taken us out of the EU. And even if such an election is winnable, the outcome would still be uncertain.

One way or another, there is a lot riding on this week, and rarely has our immediate political future been so opaque.



Richard North 13/10/2019 link

Brexit: Russian Roulette

12/10/2019  


When there's nothing to report, it's better to say nothing rather than indulge in excitable speculation that has been our fare from the legacy media for the last day or two.

We could somehow be close to a deal, although I very much doubt it. But it could be that Johnson is being played – led up a garden pathway that ends abruptly in a cul de sac from which there is no escape without humiliation.

On the other hand, this could be a giant hoax against the British public or even parliament. It will turn out that Barnier and the rest of our ruling elite really are shape-shifting lizards and they've had a deal stitched up for ages, ready to unroll at the last minute, just for the sheer hell of it.

What we do know of yesterday, though, is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson insisted there was a "way forward", claiming that his new blueprint - which has yet to be disclosed - would mean the "whole of the UK takes full advantage of Brexit".

On the other side of the fence, both Michel Barnier and Donald Tusk have had tweets issued in their names. The former refers to "intensifying technical discussions with UK over the coming days". These are in a "constructive spirit" (and I don't think they're talking Airfix), with the inevitable claim that the EU "will do everything it can for an agreement, fully in line with our principles".

Earlier, after a two-hour breakfast meeting with Barclay, he had described Brexit "like climbing a big mountain". For that, he said, "we need vigilance, determination and patience".

Meanwhile, a less emollient Tusk had set Johnson an ultimatum of presenting new Brexit proposals for that day or "no more chances". Later, he was talking of "promising signals" from Leo Varadkar that a deal was possible, but noted that the UK had "still not come forward with a workable, realistic proposal".

This was confirmed by two journalistic sources later in the day, one saying that the UK proposals to date had "not been the basis for a negotiation", with the other offering much the same news, that "no new UK legal text" had been submitted by the end of play.

Earlier in the day, the Commission had issued a short press release stating that "the EU's position remains the same". There must, it said, "be a legally operative solution in the Withdrawal Agreement that avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland, protects the all-island economy and the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, and safeguards the integrity of the Single Market".

There is nothing new there but it does tell us that, despite the heady optimism in some quarters following the Varadkar-Johnson meeting, there have been no fundamental changes. In formal terms, we are no further forward.

Nevertheless, what the Commission describes as "discussions" (not negotiations) will continue over the weekend (a stark contrast to last week). Initially, the Commission said it would take stock with the European Parliament and Member States again on Monday, with a view to preparing the General Affairs Council (Article 50) on Tuesday morning. For "logistical reasons" the Member State briefing has been brought forward to 5pm tomorrow (Sunday).

Coincidentally, Angela Merkel is due to hold talks with Emmanuel Macron that evening and, while they have no locus in the negotiations, this will be an opportunity for them to exchange views on Brexit, face-to-face – if they haven't more important things to talk about.

Whatever else happens, the General Affairs Council is very much set to go for Tuesday and, under normal circumstances, if a deal was to be presented to the European Council for approval, the finished draft would have to be ready for the GAC.

For that, of course, the document would have to be translated into the EU's 24 working languages (something I've mentioned before) and circulated to the Council Members before the meeting. Yesterday, therefore, was effectively the deadline for the production of a legal text and, as we now know, this hasn't happened.

I suppose, at a stretch, something could be arranged if the UK came up with a very modest draft today – something in the nature of a supplement to the Political Declaration - but in purely practical terms, it no longer looks as if a finished draft can be got to the European Council in time.

What might be an option for the European Council, though, is for it to agree to set the date for a special Council in about ten days' time, with the declared intention of approving a legal text, on the assumption that a draft will be ready by then. Somehow, the European Parliament would have to be roped into the act, but there is a plenary on 23 October, which could be fixed to take an emergency resolution and ratify an agreement.

That still leaves legal issues to be resolved, but it is possible to say that, while a "deal" is unlikely on 17-18 October, it is theoretically possible, given that the European Council is prepared to meet later in the month.

One might expect that, if the legal text of the deal does not then materialise, the Council could instead address a request for an extension. There might then be some confusion if the Benn Act requires Johnson to apply if there is no deal by 19 October. What happens if a deal is ready on 23 October? Would Johnson still have to apply for an extension?

What, incidentally, would be Westminster's position if the Council granted the UK an extension to the end of January 2020, but with a break provision which allowed it to be terminated if a deal was agreed? If that was to transpire – and everything came together – we could still be out by 31 October.

That said, there is enormous scepticism that a deal could be forced through in so short a time. If one is on the cards, it might be better to have an extension anyway, to give time for the proper procedures to be adopted.

As long as formal negotiations (as opposed to discussions) can be held after 31 October, the Council gets over its legal prohibition of conducting negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement before that date. For that reason alone, one might expect there to be a delay.  

The trouble is, though, that all of this is entirely theoretical unless Johnson delivers a scheme which is acceptable to the EU. And so far, with even what they've got, the EU is complaining that the UK has not delivered anything which is either "workable" or "realistic".

Despite that, both sides are sticking to the mantra that "a deal is possible", with neither wanting to be seen to pull the plug. Yet, without firm, bankable progress, there must eventually come a point when the parties have to concede that the talks have failed – or will fail to deliver at the forthcoming European Council.

So far, it seems that Brussels and London are playing a bizarre variation of Russian Roulette, where only Johnson has his head in the line of fire and Barnier pulls the trigger once for every day he fails to produce a "legally operative solution".



Richard North 12/10/2019 link

Brexit: a pathway to a possible deal?

11/10/2019  


"Doubtless", I wrote yesterday, "between now and the end of the European Council, we will get any number of excited reports from the legacy media heralding last-minute 'concessions' with hints of a breakthrough".

Little did I appreciate how quickly that might happen, as the legacy media rolls over to have its tummy tickled after the Johnson-Varadkar meeting in the Thornton Manor, on the Wirral, yesterday.

The pair had issued a press release after their meeting telling us that they had "a detailed and constructive discussion" and both continued "to believe that a deal is in everybody’s interest". Crucially, they agreed that "they could see a pathway to a possible deal".

Their discussion, according to the press release, had concentrated on "the challenges of customs and consent" and they had also discussed "the potential to strengthen bilateral relations, including on Northern Ireland". They also agreed "to reflect further on their discussions and that officials would continue to engage intensively on them".

Following the meeting, Varadkar was to consult with the "Taskforce 50" (Barnier's team) while Barclay was to meet Michel Barnier this morning, a meeting that was originally scheduled for yesterday.

With the Irish press enjoying a special briefing, Pat Leahy of the Irish Times heard that there had been "very significant movement from British side on the customs issue". He was not clear on the detail and not clear on what concessions were expected in return. But, he tweeted, "if what I hear is correct, it changes the picture substantially".

Gavan Reilly, political correspondent for Virgin Media News, tweets that Varadkar is "confident there can be a deal, before the end of this month, which satisfies all of the long-stated Irish red lines".

The Guardian's Lisa O'Carroll was equally buoyant. She thought that yesterday had felt like a significant day. "Consider", she tweeted, "that on Tuesday Downing St was briefing that deal was essentially impossible after call with Merkel, to have both leaders issue joint statement agreeing there is path to deal is quite something".

Thus did O'Carroll conclude, the "upshot of meeting is cautious optimism that [a] deal can be struck, suggestions concessions on both sides", adding a note of caution, that this was "obviously not the same as a deal being ratified by parliament". We won't know where we are with that, she said, until Johnson shares details with the party and, crucially, the DUP.

Despite the optimism, though, this whole episode raises more red flags than Chinese Communist anniversary celebrations in Tiananmen Square. Such negotiations as there have been to date have been handled by Michel Barnier, who is the EU's negotiator of record. As the procedure does not allow for any formal negotiations to be pursued by heads of government, for there to be any real progress, Barnier must re-take the lead.

That, to an extent, seems to be happening, with Varadkar meeting with Barnier's team today and Barclay dealing directly with Barnier. But it is then that the real world will intrude, as it must. If either the British or the Irish prime ministers have stepped outside the bounds of a settlement acceptable to the EU, they will be brought quickly back into line.

But the essential point is that there is a long way between drawing up heads of agreement – if they are to be had – and finalising a finished, legally coherent draft which Barnier is prepared to submit first to the General Affairs Council and then to the European Council for approval.

Today being Friday, there simply isn't time for him to complete the necessary procedures before the Heads of State and Government meet next Thursday. And the moment a first draft of any agreement is ready – if it ever gets that far – the Commission lawyers will be crawling all over it. It hardly seems likely that a first draft could be letter perfect, and not require further referrals.

However, Varadkar seems to be talking of a "deal" by the end of the month. But if the European Council slot is missed, a special Council meeting will be needed later in the month – after the 19 October. And then there's the small matter of approval by Westminster and ratification by the European Parliament. It is a considerable stretch to expect that an agreement could be legally in place by the 31st.

For all that, the Guardian is offering "key dates for the diary" which tell us that Johnson, "almost certainly needs the EU leaders gathering in Brussels on October 17 and 18 to sign off on an agreement in order to be able to take Britain out of the EU on October 31 with a deal". But if that much is right, we are not going to see a deal by the end of the month – not without the EU cutting every corner in the book.

This brings us back to the forest of red flags. Article 50 triggers an external agreement between the EU and the departing member, with the procedure subject to Art 218 (TFEU). In conformity with Art 218, Barnier must have a mandate from the Council and then the negotiations must be carried out by him.

Crucially, as we know, Barnier does not have a mandate. As to the second point, neither the European Council nor its individual members have any legal authority to undertake negotiations.

This is not an intergovernmental conference, where each of the members can negotiate on their own behalfs. Under this procedure, they are required to negotiate as a bloc, through an appointed negotiator – in this case Barnier. If they seek to make a deal and cut Barnier out of the loop, at several levels they are in breach of EU law, which could invalidate any agreement reached.

And then, of course, there is the killer, the European Council Decision of 11 April, which specifically excludes using the extension for any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement. Since Decisions have the force of law, for the European Council to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement and entertain amendments to it would put it in breach of EU law.

Here we have an absolutely essential point, which soars over the heads of the media. The European Council is not a summit – that implies (in fact, requires) it to be an intergovernmental meeting where each of the attendees represents their own country and can make their own decisions.

Since the Lisbon Treaty, which came into force in 2009, (and informally before that) the European Council has been an institution of the European Union. It is bound by Union law, and within the terms of the Treaty is required to promote the aims and objectives of the Union. Being a formal institution, its decisions and (some) actions are judiciable by the ECJ.

On that basis, arguably, if the European Council approves an agreement made in breach of EU law – the Council's own Decision – the agreement could be struck down by the ECJ as invalid. If there is a pathway to a possible deal, therefore, it meanders through an uncleared minefield, affording no safe passage.

And yet, Denis Staunton London Editor of the Irish Times thinks that the "deal" would involve the customs border for administrative purposes running alongside a regulatory border in the Irish Sea – the so-called wet border.

This would be about as popular with the Unionists as a bucket of cold sick, not least because it could be a major step in the direction of unification of the island of Ireland. When borders of this nature are defined, the temptation for independence to follow can be strong.

Thus, the chances are that this potential breakthrough will be dead in the water by the weekend. By Tuesday, we'll again be looking at the reality of a no-deal Brexit – until the legacy media herald yet another last-minute breakthrough.



Richard North 11/10/2019 link

Brexit: the day the deal died

09/10/2019  


For all the excitement of yesterday, the day appeared to finish on a positive note, with a 40-minute telephone conversation between Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and Irish premier Leo Varadkar. That brought the promise of a meeting later in the week, suggesting that there is still the possibility of a last-minute deal.

The Irish Times, however, is not convinced. Although it agrees that one reason could be that it is simply too early to throw in the towel on the current round of talks, it could be that neither side is willing to concede victory in the blame game. Nobody wishes to be the first to pull the plug on the talks.

One might recall, though, that it was Varadkar who warned that, if there was to be an agreement on Johnson's proposal, a "realistic deadline" for the production of a final draft was Friday 11 October, to allow it to be assessed by Member States ahead of the European Council on 17-18 October.

If Varadkar is as good as his word – bearing in mind that Macron has also set a Friday deadline – then a further meeting is hardly going to achieve anything. It will be too late for Johnson to submit another proposal and, without that, the talks are going nowhere.

We are, therefore, effectively back to the start of yesterday with the telephone call between Johnson and Angela Merkel. But any analysis of this must take account of one salient fact: there is no official account of the conversation from Merkel and everything we know of what transpired comes either from "Downing Street sources" or the issue-illiterate media.

The most complete account of the conversation is probably this, which tells us that "the call with Merkel showed that the EU has adopted a new position". The account continues:
She made clear a deal is overwhelmingly unlikely and she thinks the EU has a veto on us leaving the Customs Union. Merkel said that if Germany wanted to leave the EU they could do it no problem but the UK cannot leave without leaving Northern Ireland in a customs union and in full alignment forever. She says that Ireland is the government's special problem and Ireland must at least have a veto on Northern Ireland leaving. Merkel said that the PM should tell Northern Ireland that it must stay in full alignment forever, but that even this would not eliminate customs issues.
And thus it goes on:
It was a very useful clarifying moment in all sorts of ways. If this represents a new established position, then it means a deal is essentially impossible not just now but ever. It also made it clear that they are willing to torpedo the Good Friday Agreement.
The news broke with, amongst others, the implausible Laura Kuenssberg retailing the improbable claim that Merkel had said that there "could only be a deal if Northern Ireland stays in Customs Union", something which is legally and practically impossible.

Northern Ireland cannot stay in the EU's customs union. When the UK leaves the EU, it automatically drops out. For the province to be in a customs union with the EU after Brexit, the UK must conclude a new treaty with the EU to create a brand new EU-NI customs union.

Here, the nearest comparison is Turkey. It is not in the EU's customs union - it has concluded its own separate customs union treaty with the EU. This underlines the simple premise that it is not possible for any state to be in the EU's customs union without also being in the EU.

This type of regime allows for trade deals with other third countries. If there is a differential on external tariffs, then goods imported and then re-exported to EU states require the difference to be paid.

Despite the obvious issue-illiteracy of the reports, however, the stakes were massively raised by the terse response of European Council president Donald Tusk. Addressing Johnson directly, he declared:
What's at stake is not winning some stupid blame game. At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people. You don't want a deal, you don't want an extension, you don't want to revoke, quo vadis?
Ireland's Simon Coveney quickly chipped in, saying:
Hard to disagree - reflects the frustration across EU and the enormity of what’s at stake for us all. We remain open to finalize a fair #Brexit deal but need a UK Govt willing to work with EU to get it done.
Yet, despite Tusk's comments, the news evoked a huffy response from Commission spokesman Pablo Pérez. He said, "Under no circumstances will we accept that the EU wants to do harm to the Good Friday Agreement. The purpose of our work is to protect it in all its dimensions", then adding: "The EU position has not changed: we want a deal. We are working for a deal".

Further doubts about the authenticity of the Downing Street source's account began to emerge with an intervention from Bruno Waterfield. He noted that, "Veteran diplomats and Brexit negotiators here don't recognise the Downing account of Merkel call", recording that: "[the] view is that a very difficult call has been misinterpreted or exaggerated because [the] Johnson offer on regulatory alignment (seen as positive) has been knocked back".

And then, while Angela Merkel maintained a dignified silence, her close associate, Norbert Röttgen intervened with a blunt statement: "There is no new German position on Brexit", he tweeted. With no attempt to sugar the pill, he added: "Frankly a deal on the basis of Johnson’s proposals [by] 31 Oct has been unrealistic from the beginning and yet the EU has been willing to engage. Blaming others for the current situation is not fair play!"

The picture, though, only begins to clear when we take account of an e-mail from an unnamed Downing Street source the previous day, rumoured to be from Cummings.

Putting together the clues, the indications are that an audacious Downing Street strategy is being played out. The aim, it would seem, is to sabotage the talks while transferring the blame to the EU for the failure to reach a deal. The timing is such that marking down the prospects of a deal as "essentially impossible" early in the week relieves Johnson of the need to meet the Varadkar/Macron deadline.

With the talks generally acknowledged as "dead", the play now revolves around the willingness of the European Council to offer an Article 50 time extension.

As it stands, Johnson must apply for an extension if he cannot come up with a deal. Smart money has him leading his party into a general election, which surely must soon come. He will fight on a no-deal platform, blaming parliament and the EU – and anyone else he can think of – for the deal not materialising, and for being forced to apply for an extension.

The "not my fault, guv" ploy might just win him the election, as long as Lib-Dem and Farage Party votes do not erode his support and give the game to Labour. And, once elected for a full term, Johnson's first action will be to take us out of the EU without a deal.

That much, of course, is speculation but it is not untoward to suggest that yesterday we saw history made. Certainly, the Mail is in no doubt, describing it as "the day the Brexit deal died". And its assassin was Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.



Richard North 09/10/2019 link

Brexit: falling apart

05/10/2019  


Eighteen hours after I remarked on the speed at which Johnson's mad plan seemed to be unravelling, we have the Guardian making what amounts to a statement of the bleedin' obvious, as it reports that Johnson's Brexit plans "look to be falling apart", with the Daily Mail using the same line.

Anything more, you might say, is simply detail, but what a lot of detail there is, not least of which is the Anglophile Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte saying that the UK proposal "at best" could form a basis for further discussions. They raised "many questions" Rutte said. "We can't simply say 'yes' to them".

That is seriously bad news for Johnson as the only way he was going to come away with a deal in time for the October European Council was if the "colleagues" rolled over and gave him what he wanted. And that, clearly, ain't going to happen.

What got the Guardian excited, alongside dozens of other media titles, was the response of the Commission to a request from David Frost to conduct "intensive negotiations" over the weekend. Frost, it appears, along with a team of a dozen British officials, had failed to convince their EU counterparts that they had a mandate from Downing Street to compromise on what the EU saw as major flaws in the proposals on the table.

Frost, we are told, had been seeking to rescue Johnson's proposed deal after it had been heavily criticised from many different quarters, but the Commission wasn't having it. A spokeswoman said: "We have completed discussions with the UK for today. We gave our initial reaction to the UK's proposals and asked many questions on the legal text".

The plan is to meet again on Monday, when the UK will be given "another opportunity to present its proposals in detail". But, in line with Rutte's comment, the spokeswoman added that the proposals did not "provide a basis for concluding an agreement".

In a damning indictment of Johnson's initiative, an EU official said that the UK often asked for meetings to keep [the] process going. On the part of the EU, they agreed that no stone should be left unturned. But, he said, "there is nothing useful that could be done this weekend".

One of those ever-helpful anonymous "senior EU diplomats" then pitched in to tell us that: "If we held talks at the weekend, it would look like these were proper negotiations. The truth is we're still a long way from that. We need to work out quickly whether there is the opportunity to close that gap".

That was more or less confirmed by still more anonymous sources, their collective view being that the EU would not pretend to negotiate when there appeared to be doubt over any basis for progress.

Caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea, Johnson also had to contend with another Scottish court action, this one seeking to force him to comply with the Benn Act.

Faced with the possibility that non-compliance could be deemed a contempt of court and possible incarceration, the prime minister in office had his lawyers tell the court that, in the event of a no-deal by the 19 October, he would send a letter applying for a time extension.

Yet, within hours of that assurance being given, Johnson was back in action, denying that he would delay Brexit, doubling down on his commitment to a Brexit on 31 October, reiterating: "New deal or no deal – but no delay".

To resolve the apparent contradiction, it seems that Johnson has another trick up his sleeve, reaching out to the Hungarian government for assurances that it would veto any request for a delay.

This could possibly work. A government source says that Hungary's premier, Viktor Orbán, was the "most sympathetic [EU leader] to our cause". But there are those in Brussels who believe that Hungary would not break ranks with the other member states due to fears of reprisal.

That, as always, leaves Johnson distinctly short of options. His officials privately admit that Brussels is likely to "salami slice" the latest proposal, before pronouncing that time is too short for an agreement in time for the European Council.

It takes no brains, though, to work that one out, but the smart money in Brussels apparently expects Johnson to go for the time extension and then call an election after 31 October – assuming he can get parliament to agree. Some EU diplomats then believe a British election could lead to a second referendum and ultimately a reversal of the 2016 "leave" vote.

However, it will not be easy to predict the result of a general election – and the strategy could backfire. Faced with a rampant Farage, Johnson might need to go hard-on no-deal Brexit, in which case we could conceivably end up with a new parliament committed to the worst of all the possible "leave" options.

Despite all that, it may not get that far. The "Second" Cummings is saying that, if Brussels refuses to compromise, then the UK would leave the EU without a deal, exploiting potential loopholes in the Benn Act to circumvent the requirement to seek a time extension.

Some of this, though, may be political posturing. If Johnson does have to apply for an extension, and we remain in the EU while a general election is underway, he will want to be seen to be putting up a fight. That way he can play the victim card, and perhaps neutralise some of the political fallout that will come with him resiling from his "do or die" promise.

One way or another, we will probably see some clarity by the time the General Affairs Council meets on 15 October. Although Cummings is saying that, if we don't get anything next week, "we are gone", resting on the assumption that the EU will say "no", Barnier is far too astute to allow his side to fall prey to that Armageddon scenario.

For as long as he can – along with the Member States – Barnier will not formally reject Johnson's proposal. Instead, he will hold out the prospect of a deal just over the horizon, as long as talks continue. That will make it difficult to walk away when the glittering prize of a deal seems so close, or to blame the EU for failure to reach a resolution.

Of course, such a stance rests on the assumption that the EU is prepared to go the extra mile (or kilometre) in pursuing a deal. There must be a limit to the patience of the EU's negotiators, and the tolerance of the Member States and the EU's institutions for the continued uncertainty.

And if the UK side is capable of delivering ultimatums, so must be the EU. Already, it has taken a relatively robust line over the timetabling of the current talks, so it would not be too much stretch for the European Council to make any time extension conditional on the UK delivering a "legally operable" solution, thereby bringing the Article 50 process to an end when the UK fails to come up with the goods.

To that extent, it is not only Johnson's proposal which is falling apart. His strategy (handed down to him by Cummings) also seems fragile. The EU could end up surprising us all.



Richard North 05/10/2019 link

Brexit: a very bad sign

01/10/2019  


This would not be the first time a Tory conference has been derailed by allegations of sexual misconduct. Those of us with longer memories will recall the 1983 conference when Cecil Parkinson, then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry - a married father of three - was forced to resign after it had been revealed that his former secretary, Sara Keays, was pregnant with his child.

Now, having elected Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, a serial liar, a philanderer and sexual incontinent to the post of party leader and prime minister, we have Tories whingeing that the media is focusing on the sexual activities of a man who has enough skeletons in the cupboard to fill the Verdun ossuary, thus distracting attention from the current conference programme.

Given that Johnson has made his political fame and fortune out of personality politics, with the focus on his eccentric personality, those Tories must be remarkably thick if they believe that the media, given the gift of a nice juicy groping story – to say nothing of the festering sore of the Arcuri affair – are suddenly going to "play the ball and not the man", obligingly devoting their energies exclusively to reporting the policy agenda.

Unsurprisingly, the media is not even confining its attention to Johnson's peccadillos – especially the left-wing press which has become obsessed with the Cummings saga, treating Johnson's chief of staff as if he was a reincarnation of the devil (which he could very well be). As a result, we are doubly entertained by a tale of an "atmosphere of feuding" in No 10.

A nugget to emerge from that story is a Tory special adviser telling the Guardian that there is a feeling that Cummings is "out of control" over his pursuit of the prorogation strategy and "his insistence that Brexit could be done by 31 October, regardless of the law blocking a no-deal departure".

In fact, in private briefings with journalists, Cummings has argued there is still space for a deal and asserts that proposals will be taken to Brussels soon.

That one thing – that proposals will soon be on their way to Brussels – is hardly a secret. We are getting multiple press reports that the UK's proposals for replacement of the backstop have been finalised. However, there is a twist to this story. The Telegraph is claiming that the "final plan" will be first delivered "to EU leaders" within the next 24 hours.

This will be done "in a series of calls to EU capitals" ahead of a formal text being delivered to Brussels after Johnson's speech to the Tory conference on Wednesday.

The Independent has picked this up as well, headlining its report: "Brexit: Boris Johnson’s plan to bypass Brussels for new deal", making the intention of the prime minister in office somewhat clearer.

This is Bourbon territory (they who have learned nothing and forgotten nothing), indicating that Johnson has indeed learned nothing and still thinks he can by-pass Barnier and appeal directly to key European leaders.

Thus, we are to see an attempt at a last-ditch charm offensive in the (forlorn) hope that the leaders may be ready to show "flexibility", as opposed to Barnier, who is viewed in Downing Street as "a stickler for rules who will be hard to shift from the deal struck with Theresa May last year".

Plans were even made to fly Johnson to the funeral of ex-president Jacques Chirac for talks in the margins with sympathetic leaders. At the last minute, though, it was decided the opportunity did not justify breaking off his attendance at the conference in Manchester.

Nevertheless, any expectation that the formal procedure can be circumvented is insane. And with previous attempts having been rebuffed, you would have thought by now that Johnson would realise that any proposals must go through channels if they are to be considered.

However, with what we know of the UK proposals, it is perhaps unsurprising than an attempt is to be made to bypass Barnier, as the deal on offer would most certainly get a dusty response from the EU's chief negotiator.

There is actually very little new, and most of what is apparently being proposed has already been rejected by EU negotiators. On the table is the all-Ireland SPS zone, covering live animals, foodstuffs and products of animal origin, in the hope that the EU will accept free passage of these goods without the need for border checks.

Even if permitted – and the devil will be in the detail – there is then still the matter of customs controls, which will also apply to general manufactured goods. In the absence of a common customs area, both food and non-food goods would be subject to customs controls.

To that effect, the UK is said to be proposing a chain of customs posts in both territories, but stepped back from the border – although Johnson's "allies" are said to have dismissed the idea that this is to be proposed as "totally untrue".

Should such posts be installed, it is anticipated that there would be "real time tracking" of vehicle movements, using GPS technology, to ensure that they do not stray from approved routing. Shippers would also be required to post financial bonds as surety against default.

For the moment, the exact plan is being kept secret, although we may get some detail from Johnson in his speech to conference on Wednesday. That, at least, seems to be going ahead, as the "rebel alliance" plan of ambushing the Tories with a vote of no confidence seems to have evaporated, having foundered on the vexed question of who would lead the interim government, replacing Johnson as prime minister.

The death knell of Johnson's ambitions for a deal, however, is likely to arise from a very practical issue. Irrespective of whatever merits the plan may have, there is simply not enough time for a complex, legally watertight, bespoke agreement to be drafted and circulated to Member States for their provisional approval, before being submitted to the General Affairs Council on 15 October.

A senior European Union official has suggested that the UK will have little chance of leaving by the 31 October if the text of the deal proposed is substantially different from that agreed with Mrs May. Any new proposal would have to be negotiated with the EU, translated into legal text, win support from the House of Commons, and then get consent from the each of the EU-27's governments. "That’s difficult within 30 days even if it's not a lot different than what's currently on the table", the official says.

With indications that Johnson has in mind far more radical surgery, that would take far more time. "Starting from zero would be seen by the EU as a completely unacceptable way of going about things", the official added.

Even without these problems, though, the idea of customs posts (even set back from the border) – if actually proposed - is likely to be strongly opposed, not only by the EU but specifically by the Irish government.

Perversely, if the parties fail to agree, the result is definitely customs posts on (eventually) both sides of the border, possibly actually on the border. One way or another, it seems Ireland could be heading for at least a semi-hard (or semi-soft) border, regardless of the Brexit outcome.

The only consolation is that it would appear that we will know by the weekend whether a new deal is on the cards. If, as expected, Johnson declares the backstop "dead" in his Wednesday speech, a deal looks unlikely. According to a cabinet minister, "If the EU starts to leak and brief against us, that would be a very bad sign".

But an equally bad sign is the suggestion from The Times that Johnson is asking the EU to rule out a further Article 50 extension as part of his proposed new Brexit deal – another element of illogicality as any deal will take us past 31 October, if agreement is to be had.

All we seem to be getting, therefore, are bad signs, in which event – as Pete avers, all that's left are the consequences.



Richard North 01/10/2019 link

Brexit: a presumption of failure

27/09/2019  


In what must qualify as the understatement of the century, the Speaker observed at the beginning of business in the Commons yesterday that, "I think there is a widespread sense across the House and beyond that, yesterday, the House did itself no credit".

But, as always, the MP collective continued to prat about through the day, bunking off early after a poorly attended debate on "Principles of Democracy and the Rights of the Electorate" (pictured), then to award themselves the day off today, ready to resume "work" at 2.30pm on Monday.

The general lack of enthusiasm for parliamentary spade work was noted by Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden, who led the debate. He remembered, "the cries of outrage on Prorogation and the demands that Parliament should return because we had so much to discuss".

The opposition, he said, "were desperate to discuss these things, yet here we are, mid-afternoon on a Thursday, two days in, and I think I can count the number of Labour Members present on the fingers of one hand".

Needless to say, while parliament consigns itself to irrelevance, the action was elsewhere, with Michel Barnier briefing the EU-27 ambassadors on the latest developments (and lack of them) on Brexit. Unsurprisingly, he told them that Britain had yet to provide any "legal and operational" proposals, despite having tabled a fourth "non-paper", this one covering Irish border provisions.

A Reuters report of the briefing had the ambassadors "highly sceptical" that a deal could be had. The British proposals to replace the backstop were said to be "far from solving the border conundrum", with one diplomat saying that the UK proposal was "not operational" and would amount to the "disintegration" of EU checks on its external borders and create risks for the Single Market.

A tweet covering the same briefing confirms that the UK has not made proposals that the EU can accept but then makes it clear that Johnson's wet dream of handbagging the European Council on the 17 October isn't going to happen.

According to this source, there will be no negotiations on a legal text at the Council and Tusk has made it clear to Johnson that there will not be an all-night session to negotiate a legal text.

If there is to be an agreement it needs to be ready before the Council. And then, it's far too early to discuss what will be on the agenda for the 17th. Diplomats have been told to wait and see if anything "serious" is tabled by the UK after the Tory party conference.

Earlier in the week, after the meetings on the margin of the UN General Assembly in New York, we had the Irish Times pre-empt part of this briefing. In their meeting, Tusk and Leo Varadkar agreed that the UK must produce definitive written proposals next week – which effectively gives Johnson to the end of the Tory conference, plus a few days, to deliver.

Said Varadkar at the time of the UN meet, "The withdrawal agreement is actually an international treaty. It's not the kind of thing that can be amended or cobbled together late at night at the European Council meeting".

Thus, if the UK does have "meaningful proposals", changes that they would like to suggest to the withdrawal agreement or to the joint political declaration more particularly, Varadkar added, "we really need to see them in advance so that they can be worked through and worked up" in advance of the Council.

He continued: "It's essentially the way the European Union works. We have working methods, and I know that President Tusk and other EU heads of government would like to see British proposals in writing really in the first week of October, otherwise it is very hard to see how we could agree something at the summit in the middle of October".

None of this, however, really needed to be said. As I pointed out in my post at the beginning of this month, anyone familiar with the way the European Council works, and the treaty law relating to the Article 50 negotiations, will already know that the idea of last-minute negotiations in Brussels on the 17th is total fantasy. The Council simply doesn't work that way - it can't. The negotiation procedures are set out in the treaties, and they must be followed.

In my piece I also wrote about any negotiations lying outside the framework of Michel Barnier's mandate, which would have to be renewed before he could engage formally, and bring talks to a conclusion.

Intriguingly, this came up in a little-reported debate in the Commons yesterday. The permanent under-secretary for DexEU, James Duddridge, answering urgent questions, noted that Michel Barnier's mandate to negotiate "has not formally started". He added that this "cannot happen until the European Council, where effectively all the work will be done".

In response to Labour's Alex Sobel, he did not deny that that the government's "plan A" is to "get a withdrawal agreement agreed at the European Council", which would seem rather difficult to do if Barnier is not authorised to conclude an agreement for transmission to the Council for it to approve.

That leaves Philippe Lamberts, a member of the European Parliament's six strong Brexit Steering Group, to pitch in. According to Reuters, he spared Johnson no criticism as he arrived for the meeting with Barnier yesterday.

Speaking of Johnson, Lamberts said, "He's not seeking a solution because a solution would mean first finding a compromise with the European Union, then building compromise in Westminster (the UK parliament) to pass an agreement". He added: "So maybe his strategy is another one and I believe it has been all along ... to provoke a no-deal Brexit but in a way that would allow him to blame others - either Brussels or Westminster".

Putting this altogether, it becomes clear that any idea Johnson might have of a grand showdown in Brussels on 17 October is pure fantasy. There will not even be any negotiations.

The best that can happen from his perspective is that the Council will consider a report from Michel Barnier, and perhaps play with the text of the Political Declaration, possibly clarifying or expanding the text of the Strasbourg Agreement brokered by Mrs May in March of this year.

It is by no means clear that the text of the Withdrawal Agreement will be touched, but there could be a protocol appended (albeit unlikely), which deals with some specifics of the backstop, and the implementation of any "alternative arrangements". More likely, it would be another supplement to the Political Declaration.

But what is clear is that nothing the UK has so far submitted goes any way towards constituting a proposal which might be acceptable to the EU, while time is running out fast. Unless Johnson can come up with something by the end of next week, it would look to be game over.

Where precisely that leaves the Johnson administration is difficult to assess. But if the prime minister in office comes away with empty hands, the terms of the Benn Act – Johnson's infamous "surrender act" – would ostensibly require him to seek an Article 50 extension to the end of January 2020.

I think we must assume, on current form, that Johnson will not get a deal in Brussels next month, although he may be given a piece of paper which he can wave as he disembarks from his aircraft on his return to London. Possibly, he may be able to spin that as an "agreement" which he can tie in with the existing Withdrawal Agreement to put to parliament.

But, as it stands – and especially after this week's shenanigans – we have a better chance of seeing the Labour front bench digging their eyes out with blunt knitting needles than giving Johnson a victory, or letting him off the hook on which he is currently impaled.



Richard North 27/09/2019 link

Brexit: rancorous back-biting and point-scoring

26/09/2019  


If yesterday's proceedings in the House of Commons were an example of what we've been missing during the prorogation of parliament, then we really are better off sending the MPs back home and razing their workplace to the ground. There are those who would not even bother to send the MPs home first.

It is getting to the point where the antics of the MP collective, from top to bottom and from all parties, is beyond toleration. The decadent institution to which they belong has ceased to perform any useful purpose, providing nothing more than a forum for rancorous back-biting and point-scoring.

For the day, the tone was set by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who declared this parliament to be "a dead parliament", with "no moral right to sit on these green benches". "Twice", he said, "they have been asked to let the electorate decide whether they should continue to sit in their seats, while they block 17.4 million people's votes. This Parliament is a disgrace".

MPs, in his view, were "too cowardly" to support a confidence vote. Parliament, he said, "should have the courage to face the electorate but it won't, because so many of them are really all about preventing us from leaving the European Union at all".

This brought a response from the Labour MP for Huddersfield, Barry Sheerman (pictured), who derided Cox's "barrister’s bluster" and, in a display of ill-temper of an intensity rarely seen even in the Commons, snarled: "For a man like him, a party like his, and a leader like this prime minister to talk about morals and morality is a disgrace".

Even the relatively staid Reuters report managed to capture the final stages of the degeneration of a once proud institution that used to stand at the centre of the largest empire ever known. "British Prime Minister Boris Johnson", the report tells us, "taunted his rivals on his return to parliament on Wednesday, goading them to either bring down his government or get out of the way and allow it to deliver Brexit".

"Yelling 'come on, come on then' to a raucous House of Commons, Johnson told his opponents to bring a vote of no-confidence in the government and trigger an election to finally break the Brexit impasse. 'They have until the House rises today to table (move) a motion of no confidence in the government', he said".

Such was the disarray amongst MPs by that stage that it brought an intervention from the Speaker, who appealed to the House "to have some regard to how our proceedings are viewed by people watching them in the country at large". But if MPs cared, they gave no sign of showing it – neither then nor later, and that they don't care is one of the reasons why contempt for them grows daily.

Even then, as the language coarsened, and grew more inflammatory, Nicky Morgan was moved to caution that, "at a time of strong feelings we all need to remind ourselves of the effect of everything we say on those watching us". This had no more effect than the Speaker's intervention.

Johnson came in for his fair share of criticism, with Yvette Cooper asserting that the language he used was "designed deliberately to escalate tension, division and hatred". SNP's Joanna Cherry described Johnson's statement as, "the sort of populist rant one expects to hear from a tin-pot dictatorship".

Ed Miliband huffed that, "in my four-plus years opposing David Cameron I never saw a parliamentary performance like tonight's from Boris Johnson: deeply irresponsible, stoking division, using dangerous, inflammatory language, fanning the flames of hatred. This is not about right and left but right and wrong".

Despite that – and contrary to parliamentary convention - Johnson got a round of applause from his backbenchers. Dominic Grieve was "appalled" by this, dismissing the prime minister in office as a "pathological liar" with "no moral compass of any kind at all".

As for Johnson and his "no confidence" challenge, he cannot be that naïve – and neither, for that matter, can Geoffrey Cox. They both know full well that the opposition cannot as yet mount a credible vote of no confidence. A premature move - in the absence of the opposition's ability to field an interim government – would leave Johnson in Downing Street with parliament dissolved over the vital end of October period.

Predictably, Corbyn and the SNP's Ian Blackford – whom Johnson directly challenged - were not playing. They will not make their move until an Article 50 extension is in the bag, and the danger of a no-deal Brexit has passed. And thus does the posturing and game-playing continue. This is not real – it is not serious politics. An unruly bunch of children could do better.

Nevertheless, there is an underlying point. As MPs brayed for Johnson to resign, he accused parliament of not wanting to honour its promises to respect the referendum. "The people at home", he said, "know that this parliament will keep delaying, and it will keep sabotaging the negotiations, because members do not want a deal".

We have opposition members, he said, "who block and delay everything, running to the courts to block and delay even more measures, including legislation to improve and invest in our NHS, and to keep violent criminals in jail. I think that the people outside this House understand what is happening. They know that nothing can disguise the truth". And in this vein, he continued:
It is not just that this Parliament is gridlocked, paralysed, and refusing to deliver on the priorities of the people. It is not just unable to move forward. It is worse than that, Mr Speaker. Out of sheer political selfishness and political cowardice, Opposition Members are unwilling to move aside and give the people a say. They see MPs demanding that the people be given a say one week, and then running away from the election that would provide the people with a say. Worst of all, they see ever more elaborate legal and political manoeuvres from the Labour party, which is determined, absolutely determined, to say "We know best", and to thumb their noses at the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the European Union.
Outside the foetid embrace of the House of Commons, where its denizens are described as, "a ludicrous, howling, self-absorbed bunch of shockingly mediocre charlatans - most of whom doing whatever they can to stop democracy happening", this sentiment will have considerable traction.

There is a sense abroad that parliament is conspiring to block our departure from the EU, while "Boris" is the man trying to deliver Brexit. And while pushing for a no-deal scenario is equivalent to chopping off an arm with a meat cleaver to deal with a septic finger, those who see the prospect of Brexit draining away will take what they can get. And if no-deal is the only way of leaving, that is preferable to no Brexit.

To that extent – alongside the growing public frustration with parliament - Johnson is and will remain popular with a large segment of the electorate. Currently, he scores 41 percent in voter preferences for prime minister, compared with Swinson on 21 and Corbyn on 18 percent. By contrast, those MPs who think we can somehow abandon Brexit and things will return to normal are seriously deluding themselves. The genie is out of the bottle and politics will never be the same again.

And there lies the lesson of yesterday, would that MPs had the wit to realise it. In the main they have become so internalised and self-referential that they have lost touch with the sentiment of the country. They may believe they are safeguarding democracy, but to the public at large, they are often seen as an obstacle to it.

This alone gives Johnson the opportunity to claim that parliament is undermining him in his attempt to secure Brexit, and to characterise the coming general election as a battle between himself – the people's champion – and the anti-democratic parliament.

To pit the executive against the legislature is not a healthy development – it could have long-term effects, with no ultimate winners. But unless both sides realise the damage they are doing, mere rancour will be the least of what they have to deal with.



Richard North 26/09/2019 link

Brexit: blocked in a maze

25/09/2019  


There's a great deal that's already been said about the Supreme Court judgement, and little to be gained by rehearsing issues already done at great length. As of now, however, it takes us no closer to a Brexit resolution and, if anything, it complicates something which is already fearsomely complicated.

In particular, allowing parliament to resume does us no favours. This is an institution which is part of the problem. It has rejected the only deal that could be acceptable to the EU, it has sought to block a no-deal scenario (and may have succeeded in so doing), and is pushing Johnson to secure yet another Article 50 extension which ostensibly serves no other purpose but to delay Brexit those few months more.

In the view of the Financial Times, Johnson's political strategy for delivering Brexit now lies in disarray, pulled apart by parliament and now the courts.

But, while his team is undoubtedly considering his options, the term "boxed in" readily springs to mind. I looked at what was available yesterday and there seems to be no clear (or any) path left.

To that extent, we are dealing with a unique political situation – a problem which, when viewed from any angle, seems insoluble. At the risk of repetition, one has to observe that every avenue seems blocked.

For the rest, the situation is unreadable. Factions in parliament, one assumes, will be planning their own moves but, as this is far from a homogeneous institution, it hardly knows its own mind, and the outcome of any action it might take (if any) is unpredictable.

From what we can ascertain, Corbyn is blowing hot and cold on a general election, and thus being ambivalent about a vote of no confidence. With the same lack of enthusiasm amongst the so-called "rebel alliance" for Corbyn as a leader of an interim government, there is no certainty that this move can succeed.

If the opposition go off at half-cock, though, a vote would end up triggering a general election, leaving Johnson still in Downing Street with parliament dissolved. With the date of the election in the gift of the prime minister, this would give Johnson a free pass in devising his own path to a no-deal Brexit.

For those reasons, it looks as if it is unlikely that we will see a vote, creating a bizarre situation where an unpopular minority government is locked in office without the wherewithal to run its own agenda.

As to progress towards a deal, there simply isn't any. Johnson met Varadkar in New York, as planned. Accounts of the meeting differ. Johnson resorts to his usual mantra. He is "cautiously optimistic". Varadkar, on the other hand, said he "got into some more details" with Johnson, but stressed nothing concrete had been agreed.

Of course, the parties are "very keen" that there should be a deal, but there is no meeting of minds. The gap is as big as it has ever been.

With no developments here, this leaves us on the countdown to the European Council where the likely outcome is that the "colleagues" take note of such developments as may have occurred, but come to no conclusion. And, by the 19th, with no deal in place, we are supposed to see Johnson apply for injury time. Whether that will happen is anyone's guess.

And here there is a looming irony. Having fronted a campaign boasting the slogan "take back control", it could end up being entirely in the hands of the European Council as to whether the UK leaves the EU on 31 October. The Council can certainly make it happen, simply by not agreeing to extra time.

Conventional wisdom has it that, if asked, the Council will approve an extension, simply because it will not want to be seen to be precipitating the UK's exit. Its departure must come by its own hand.

However, if parliament has closed down Johnson's no-deal options – and it remains to be seen whether that is the case – then we have the UK's head of government applying for something he doesn't want, to a European Council that doesn't really want to give it to him.

Given that the application comes the day after the Council meeting ends, all the "colleagues" have to do is engage in constructive inactivity, allowing the clock to tick down to 31 October when the no-deal Brexit kicks in.

Somewhere in all that, there also resides the possibility of parliament trying to push Johnson to revoke the Article 50 notification, calling off Brexit. If the MPs want a low-grade civil war on their hands, that is the way to go. But in all probability, the voting numbers are not there – and there may be legal hurdles which prevent such action being taken.

Given then that Johnson is forced into what appears to be the only avenue open to him – the Article 50 time extension – and the "colleagues" hold their noses and agree to it, we could see a different scenario emerging.

At that point, parliament might regain its enthusiasm for a general election, committing us to a November contest under the worst of all possible conditions for Johnson. Not having left the EU, despite his promises, Farage's party will be rampant, siphoning off votes from the Tories and opening the way for a slender Labour victory, or even a Lib-Dem Labour coalition.

Such an outcome would not represent the happiest of events for the Brexiteers, especially if this ended up with another referendum, the terms of which are at the moment uncertain. If we are presented with a "deal versus remain" contest (and this is allowed by the Electoral Commission), it would be a brave man who could be certain of the result.

One of the great uncertainties would be the designated campaign for the "deal" proposition. One could hardly see Vote Leave reconstituted for the event, in which case there might be difficulty pulling together a coherent campaign, especially if a Labour government opposes its own deal.

For the moment, though, we have the sound and fury of the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court judgement. Johnson is returning early, and expected to make a statement in the resumed House tomorrow, which would be a daunting prospect for any prime minister. Under the circumstances, it will test Johnson's mettle to the limit.

With the FT writing the obituary for Johnson's political strategy, John Crace in the Guardian is doing the same for his credibility. In his response to the Supreme Court judgement, Crace has this to say of Johnson's performance:
The Sulk was running on empty. His eyes dead and his brain scrambled. He spoke but made little sense. Gibber, gibber, gibber. Like a murderer returning to the scene of a crime, he couldn’t help implicating himself. He respected the decision but the judges had got it wrong. He, the Incredible Sulk, knew more about the law than 11 of the country’s top judges.
The Guardian was never going to be Johnson's friend, but never in the field of British politics has a prime minister delivered so many free hits to his detractors. Even his fanboys in the Telegraph are struggling to put a brave face on it, telling us that their favourite son will try for another election vote on Thursday. It seem Johnson is determined to maintain his 100 percent record for losing Commons votes.

The Telegraph leader, though, reassures us that "Boris Johnson is merely trying to carry out the democratic will", and will be seen as "the champion of the people against an establishment determined to stop Brexit". Never mind that he was instrumental in getting us to the current impasse. When your hero is in trouble, anything goes.

Perhaps they need to recall that, in his alter ego as the Hulk, the madder he gets, the stronger he gets. With no obvious way forward, it could be that only a maddened Hulk can break out into the open. The mere mortal is in a maze, blocked at every turn.



Richard North 25/09/2019 link

Brexit: agendas galore

14/09/2019  


Throughout the years of our troubled relationship with the European Union, there has been no shortage of narratives describing the many negotiations in which we've been engaged, from the first accession talks to the high-octane intergovernmental conferences that led to the Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon treaties.

If you know where to look for them, there are also details to be had of the conduct of the various WTO rounds, and of the accession talks which brought new members into the EU.

With our accumulated knowledge, it is possible to get sense of how the Union conducts itself in negotiations. And, while it is fair to say that Article 50 negotiations have unique elements, they are still bound by Treaty law – specifically Article 218 (TFEU) which dictates how they must work.

Putting all that together, one can be pretty certain Brexit is not going to be settled over a "working lunch" on Monday in Luxembourg between the johnson and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, with Michel Barnier in attendance. This is simply not the way the EU does business.

Essentially, if the principals meet – as with the johnson and Juncker – it is always to cement the final details of a deal that have already been settled by the "sherpas". It is never the case that the principals sit down to thrash out a deal de nuevo. They are there to seal the deal.

Certainly, Juncker does not seem to be expecting much, having indicated that he is "pessimistic" about the chances of finding an alternative to the Irish backstop. He also warns the johnson that a no-deal would cause "chaos", describing Brexit as the "climax of a continental tragedy".

Neither is Leo Varadkar in any way convinced that the EU and the UK are on the verge of a breakthrough, the Irish premier observing that the gap between the two sides was "very wide".

In the context where numerous EU sources have been saying that there have been no credible proposals from the UK, it is unsurprising to find Varadkar affirming the EU's willingness to explore alternative arrangements, but suggesting that what the EU is seeing "falls very far short of what we need".

Thus, as Deutsche Welle rightly remarks, these doubts put a dampener on the johnson's latest comments that it is "cautiously optimistic" about reaching a deal.

The prime minister in office elaborates, to say, "We are working incredibly hard to get a deal", adding that, "there is the rough shape of a deal to be done". He maintains that he will not be deterred by "shenanigans" at Westminster, and is still intent on taking the UK out of the EU by the 31 October deadline.

Once again, though, this just looks to be the usual bluster from a man who is losing credibility by the day – not that he had much to start with. Perhaps wisely, therefore, even the johnson's own office failed to support him, with Number 10 sources playing down hopes of an imminent breakthrough, saying there was still a "long way to go".

Doubtless, that must have reflected the DUP's response to yesterday's report in The Times where the paper claimed that the DUP might be willing to allow Northern Ireland to sign up to all EU food and agricultural rules and agree to update them in line with new regulations.

This scheme looks more than a little fraught, as its current iteration seems to provide for the devolved legislature having a veto on future EU rules applying in the region. According to Simon Coveney, the Irish deputy prime minister, this would give Northern Ireland a veto over how the single market operates, which is unlikely to be accepted by Brussels.

In the final analysis, though, the argument looks largely academic. Putting it to bed was DUP leader Arlene Foster, who rejected any idea of an arrangement which involved creating a "wet" border in the Irish Sea. She insisted that the UK must leave the EU "as one nation", dismissing the report in a tweet saying: "anonymous sources lead to nonsense stories".

DUP Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme that the story "goes against all of what has been said in recent days" and dismissed it as "bad journalism".

Speaking of anonymous sources, the Guardian was keen to quote the tweet of a Telegraph journalist, quoting one of those fabulous, anonymous "EU diplomats", this one saying that "Unless Boris Johnson has a magic rabbit in his hat, I have no idea what they will talk about. His problem is he can't show his fellow leaders a majority for whatever he is going to ask".

In like vein, the anonymous source continued: "We don't know what he is going to offer us. If we are serious about getting this done, this is our last play. Is the EU willing to waste its last play on a half assed plan?"

Less anonymous are comments by David Cameron about former colleagues Johnson and Michael Gove, whom he accused of "leaving the truth at home" during Brexit and of behaving "appallingly" during the EU referendum campaign.

In a publicity interview to promote his memoirs due out next week, he is particularly sour about Gove, whom he calls "mendacious" and even refers to him as a "wanker". As for the johnson, he breaks from the convention that former prime ministers do not criticise their successors, saying that he lied during the referendum campaign, refusing to say he trusts him as premier.

This is all par for the course, and adds to the general sourness over Brexit which ostensibly seems to be going nowhere.

The one sign of movement is perhaps not one the johnson might want to see, coming from newly appointed trade commissioner Phil Hogan. He predicts that the EU will give Britain a Brexit extension next month if London requests it, claiming Britain may soon have a prime minister who will scrap Britain's plans to leave.

Here, there is a hint of where the "colleagues" eventually see their salvation – given substance by Matthew Parris in his Saturday column, where he calls for "moderate" leavers and remainers to coalesce around another referendum.

That would certainly bring all the recent strains together, where we have seen a straightforward withdrawal blocked, now leading to an enforced extension with the promise of a general election following which the victor commits to a new referendum, presumably giving remain the victory it so much desires.

If this represents the writing on the wall, then one can see in the johnson strategy – such that it is – a determination to frustrate these blocking moves, signalling an ideological fight to the death. This has gone beyond normal politics, with the two sides deeply entrenched over an issue of immediate practical importance, where neither side can afford to give way.

The reality, though, is that there are not so much two sides but three. In the UK, we have the warring "remain" and "leave" tribes, but the "Brussels tribe" must be regarded separately, with its own distinct agenda. Hogan aside, it might be Brussels – under the influence of the EU Members States – which eventually pulls the plug.

Given the sentiment in Germany, the eventual motivation could simply be a desire to move on. There must be a limit to the amount of time and attention the Europeans can give to Brexit and if, as we might see, the French are comfortable with the management of the practical aspects of a no-deal Brexit (pictured), there is nothing to stop the EU casting the UK adrift.

When the johnson goes to Luxembourg on Monday, therefore, it may find it is dealing with an agenda it doesn't control and, while it may eventually deliver an outcome which it seeks, the overall consequences may not be to its liking. It may also ensure that its tenure in the office as prime minister ends abruptly at the next election.

But then, one might observe that, greater love has no man…



Richard North 14/09/2019 link
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