Brexit: a paucity of logic


The propaganda war on "fwee twade" continues in a desultory fashion in the Sunday media, in between the obligatory coronavirus news and the never-ending royal soap opera, with the BBC very much in the frame.

Somewhere in all that is also the Middle East cease-fire and the emergence of overt anti-Semitism in street demonstrations in London and elsewhere – to say nothing of the re-emergence of the dreaded Cummings. This means that Brexit news is at a premium and even the Australian trade deal is struggling to gain attention.

That we have seen a degree of sharp controversy though was hardly unexpected. Post-Brexit food costs, in relation to agricultural policy, were always going to be an issue, and I found myself addressing the issues several times on this blog over the years. And, from the way the subject was being treated, it was evident that the propaganda quotient from the "fwee twaders" would be high.

This article here, for instance, tracked the efforts by the Conservative think-tank, Policy Exchange, to bend the truth, painting a picture of sunlit uplands that were never going to be. At the time – this was August 2017 – I remarked that we were not going to get anything sensible from the Tory right on agriculture. And so it is turning out to be.

Earlier that year, there had been a determined effort to make a case that Brexit was going to cut food bills, with Owen Paterson claiming in the Sunday Telegraph that: "Brexit will cut shopping bills by £300 a year". Once Britain was "free of the dead hand of the EU" people would benefit from "cheaper food" and a "genuine green revolution".

Four years later, as we see prices in the shops inexorably rising, we do not see this claim repeated, although the ability of the UK to secure free trade deals with the rest of the world was held out as offering "a better deal for British families when they are shopping for food and drink, clothes, cars, electrical goods".

Very little seems to have been said over the period about the benefits of these free trade deals to UK exporters, to the net sale pitch essentially relied on cheaper imports undercutting domestic prices, without being too specific about the consequences.

What we saw though, then as now, is the claim that price competition would root out "inefficient methods of production", something which the Policy Exchange four years ago, and Ryan Bourne, formerly of the Institute of Economic Affairs, had in common.

Yet – as I wrote in my book Death of British Agriculture and again on this blog - it is the more inefficient methods which produce the most spectacular scenery, which underwrites a £12 billion rural tourism industry. It keeps the countryside populated and provides much-needed jobs.

Never mentioned by the "fwee twade" zealots is the singular fact that scenery has an economic value and that the beauty of much of the British countryside is a tangible by-product of farming, created by farmers, for which they receive no direct compensation.

It is, therefore, entirely legitimate for the state to pay farmers for the upkeep and development of this asset, and it would be wrong to call it a subsidy. If anything, it is the tourist industry which is being subsidised, as it does not pay for the asset on which it relies.

This is but one of the issue which should have been confronted before deals with major Agricultural producers such as Australia were even considered. But the fact that we are seeing commentators burbling about the effect of imports on "inefficient production" demonstrates that the ramifications of tariff and quota-free imports are not being taken seriously.

Only now, do we learn that Scott Walker, chief executive of NFU Scotland, is "reaching out" for formal discussions with Liz Truss, after complaining that her Australian trade deal of this sort would have "a huge detrimental impact on Scotland’s economy".

This late hour, when the decision to go ahead with the deal seems already to have been made, is hardly the time for impact discussions – formal or otherwise. Policy should have been clearly set out long before Truss started negotiations, and she should have had a very clear idea of what was acceptable, without springing nasty surprises on UK businesses.

But the only thing which seems to have percolated Truss's rather limited brain is the idea that a deal with Australia, along with the recently agreed UK-Japan deal, opens that way to membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). This would give UK exporters tariff-free access to eleven countries, which are claimed to account for around 13 percent of global trade (in goods) – as opposed to the EU's 15 percent.

The theory is, as enunciated by the Express that the growing middle class in the Asia-Pacific region is expected to drive a nearly 1.5 percent annual increase per capita consumption of meat in the next decade. And UK producers will be able to benefit from this bonanza.

That UK producers will then be in direct competition with Australian and New Zealand exporters, who are closer to the markets, doesn't seem to have been factored in, and there is also the problem of increased tensions with China, which are having significant repercussions on trade.

On the broader pitch, the Observer cites a Labour MP saying that: "The worry is that Liz Truss, in her desperation to keep the Brexit flame burning and the trade narrative on track, will rush to sign a deal with Australia that gives away all the UK's leverage in future deals with other, much more important, nations".

Needless to say, the certified cretin is in full flow. This is Hannan who, like his fellow zealots, is seeking to turn the controversy into a binary issue between "Europhiles" and the rest. This "handful of remainers", he says, cannot let go and, like Jacobites, cling to what they know to be a lost cause because it is part of their identity.

Appealing to his own fanbase is a cheap and easy way of avoiding the issues, but it is also something of a nerve to complain that "Europhiles" are fighting on when the Eurosceptics continued the battle after the 1975 referendum and, for the most part, would have continued the battle had we lost the 2016 referendum.

Taking a swipe at the NFU, he argues that it "has an important job to do". It is absolutely right, he says, to champion our upland farms. No one wants to see our loveliest countryside degraded. Thus, says Hannan, "a wiser NFU leadership would be working on ensuring that our systems of direct grants and subsidies go where they are needed". That would "genuinely ensure a viable rural economy, in a way that trade protectionism simply won't".

And there we have what amounts to a strategy of blaming the victims. Agricultural and rural policy should have been settled before embarking on a programme of free trade deals. Ensuring that our systems of direct grants and subsidies go where they are needed, is government's job, and one which quite evidently hasn't been done.

As for Hannan's obsession with Britain's farmers getting their share of the world's fastest-growing markets, namely those in Asia, I fail to see the logic of our enterprises exporting their produce halfway round the world, while our shops are filled with goods from even further afield, imported to make up the shortfall.

This seems even less logical when we are going out of our way to neglect the far larger market on our doorstep.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 23/05/2021 link

Brexit: where sheep can't safely graze


It is almost a given that when the Tories are in power and the official (i.e., Labour) opposition is in disarray, rebel Tory MPs tend to fill the vacuum. They then serve as an unofficial opposition.

That was very much the case in the early 90s, when Labour was going through the familiar pattern of internal strife and the Tories under Major were tearing themselves apart over Maastricht.

Now, it seems, we are seeing something of the same dynamic as multiple legacy media sources report "ferocious" splits in the cabinet, spilling over into the rest of the party. And, with delicious irony, the proximate cause of this round of Tory infighting is post-Brexit trade policy.

Flying the flag for "fwee twade" is the egregious Liz Truss – with the support of the recently ennobled David Frost and business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng. Collectively, they are pushing for a tariff-free trade deal with Australia which will open up the UK market to cheap antipodean steaks and burgers, and cut-price lamb.

Concluding a deal with Australia - the first of a new batch that go beyond "rollovers" of legacy EU deals – is seen as a "symbolic moment" for Brexiters arguing for the benefits of free trade.

Opposing them in the "protectionist" corner is Defra secretary George Eustice. He is taking some serious grief from NFU president Minette Batters, who finally seems to have realised that cosying up to the Johnson administration is doing her members no favours.

Adopting a rare critical stance, Batters is condemning the Truss initiative. "I cannot state the damage that I feel it would do", she squeaks, describing beef, lamb – and sugar – as "sensitive areas of trade".

And while the flow of such goods from Australia might be relatively modest, and roughly in balance - in 2020, the UK imported £384 million-worth of Australian food and drink while exporting £425 million - outraged farmers declare that so-called "open access" to UK markets would set a dangerous precedent for future trade deals with other countries.

Weighing in to support Batters is Phil Stocker, chief executive of the National Sheep Association. Predictably, he opposes the very idea of additional lamb imports. These, he complains, could "lead to a price war and price reductions".

That, of course, is precisely the intention of the "fwee twaders", amongst them Daniel Hannan, the certified cretin who was appointed last September to the UK board of trade as an adviser, alongside the former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott. He argues vociferously for the deal.

In Hannan's book, NFU officials, the "Defra blob" and a handful of Tory backwoodsmen are trying to preserve the status quo, thus failing to embrace the free trade "opportunities" of Brexit, which included exports to Asia where meat prices (currently) are higher than in Europe. "If we can’t do a proper trade deal even with our kinsmen Down Under, we might as well throw in the towel", he bleats.

What the likes of Hannan fail to appreciate though is that Australia (and New Zealand for that matter, to say nothing of Brazil, which could also be in the queue for a deal) have farms the size of Wales, each run by one man and a dog, where the animals roam free with minimal human intervention.

These enterprises, therefore, enjoy productivity advantages and lower overheads of which British farmers could only dream, especially the smallholders which are particularly reliant on the livestock sector.

Furthermore, the Hannan's of this world also fail to understand that UK farmers – and especially livestock farmers – also contribute significantly to the rural landscape which, in itself underpins a substantial part of the tourist industry. In some regions, this "amenity value" is higher than the income derived from animal sales.

Thus, for the short-term advantage of cheaper meat products (the prices of which can vary on the global market), the UK could lose one of its most treasured assets – its rural landscape – as farmers are forced out of business by cheap imports and the derelict land reverts to scrub.

Interestingly, lined up with Eustice in the "backwoodsmen" corner is Michael Gove, who is warning of the political fallout from a no-tariff deal. He wants a 15-year phase-in of any deal, and even then argues for retaining some tariffs.

As a one-time Defra secretary, when in office Gove pledged that UK farmers would be protected by tariffs in the event of a no-deal Brexit, demonstrating a sensitivity to impact free trade might have on UK farmers.

His intervention, though, has brought supporters of the Truss faction out of the woodwork, to accuse Gove and Eustice of being "more Waitrose than Red Wall", claiming that their stance will keep prices high for consumers. One anonymous detractor complains: "I really don’t know why George Eustice even voted for Brexit if he does not want to take advantage of actually leaving the EU".

Kwarteng, on the other hand, has no qualms about arguing the case out in the open. Looking to the wider opportunities, he told the BBC that: "If we can't do a trade deal with Australia, two countries with a shared culture, I think any other deals are looking very challenging".“ This is mirrored by Truss, who argues that, "if you can't get a good trade deal with Australia, who can you get one with?"

Such is their lack of any grasp of the impact of such deals on British farming, that Kwarteng thinks that "a good deal", could be bolstered by a transition of around a decade to give British farmers "plenty of time to adjust" – as if Welsh and Cumbrian farmers could produce anything other than sheep, or Scottish farmers could find an alternative to their world-famous beef.

Currently, the pressure is on for a conclusion as the Johnson administration announced in April that it is looking to "sprint" to finish line by June, to clear the way for the G7 summit in Cornwall, to which Australian prime minister Scott Morrison has been invited.

The final resolution will be down to Johnson and, as it stands, none of the warring parties have the first idea as to which way he will jump. With a reputation for disliking confrontation and making tough decision, he could go either way.

A complicating factor is the response of the devolved governments, where Scottish and Welsh (and even Northern Irish) famers are likely to bear the brunt of any deal – condemned to a slow death so that Truss can score a quick political point and a 0.01-0.02 percent of GDP over 15 years.

This is putting a serious political edge to the issue as SNP MP Jim Fairlie speaks of tariff-free access to farming produce representing a "complete betrayal" of the promises made about agriculture. It would, says Fairlie, "prove that Boris Johnson is willing to sacrifice the interests of Scotland's farmers and producers to satisfy his Brexiter cabinet".

The stakes, though, could not be higher. As the London-based Sun puts it, the claim that imports will harm our farmers is "rubbish".

Displaying the profound ignorance that only a London paper could manage, it sneers at British farmers, saying that: " Not only will they have a decade before it is fully implemented — but can they really not compete with Aussie rivals who operate to similarly exacting standards and have to ship their meat 10,000 miles?"

We must sign this deal, says the paper, and one with New Zealand too. Both will mean cheaper grub for millions. Leaving the EU was about taking back control of our laws, money and borders while opening Britain up to the world for trade. The "full fat" Brexit we did handed us total freedom to do so.

Thus it concludes: "What a catastrophic signal it will send if 'global Britain' rejects its first brand-new trade deal and pulls up the drawbridge". And, if that is the sort of rhetoric that appeals to Johnson, Minette Batters' troops may be needing to emulate their French counterparts.

How ironic would it be if another "benefit" of Brexit was farmers blockading Whitehall with their tractors and burning tyres in Parliament Square.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 19/05/2021 link

Brexit: a forlorn endeavour


As provisions of the TCA begin to bite, with potentially catastrophic effects on Britain's exports, the question inevitably arises as to whether prime minister Johnson actually read the treaty he signed or, if he did, whether he understood any of it.

That question takes on additional force with the publication in The Sunday Telegraph of an article headed: "'Operation Bleach' to scrub EU from the statute book" which reports on how officials "have been tasked with leafing through regulations and statutory instruments covering the UK's 40 year membership of the EU".

The idea of officials "leafing" through the statute book strikes one as being a tad casual, not really conveying the thrust of article which tells us that Johnson "has secretly ordered civil servants to strip references to the European Union from tens of thousands of laws".

The intention is to stop Labour reversing Brexit after the next general election in a plan known by some in Whitehall as "Operation Bleach", ensuring that Brexit is cemented in UK law and cannot be easily unwound by a future government.

With this, if there was any doubt about Johnson's degree of comprehension of what he has signed, I think we can be reasonably confident that he really doesn't have the first idea of what he has put his name to.

One only has to explore the inner reaches of the TCA to find, as I did, that the Agreement locks the UK into conformity with a wide range of international standards, shared by the European Union.

Thus, although we will no longer be adopting EU regulation by name, these international agreements will keep us in lockstep with the EU, to the extent that the bulk of our laws will continue to mirror the EU's acquis.

On this basis, it hardly makes sense to expend the resource excising the EU's name from our law books, if the content essentially remains the same, with very little discretion afforded to us, as to the substantive changes we can make.

And yet, there still remains within the realms of the Brexiteer orthodoxy that the end of the transition period, TCA notwithstanding, now gives the UK a licence to forge our own, independent statute book, all on the premise on "taking back control".

Prominent in promoting this fallacy is Daniel Hannan, who recently graced the site Conservative Home with the idea that the government could "stimulate growth" by reducing regulatory barriers, a process achieved in part by disapplying EU laws.

One of the instruments he singled out for destruction was the EU's Alternative Investment Fund Managers Directive (AIFMD), introduced in the wake of the 2009 financial crisis in the form of Directive 2011/61/EU on 8 June 2011.

When we look in detail at this Directive though, we see that it originated from the April 2009 G20 summit in London, where national leaders agreed that the "wild west" of hedge funds should be regulated, with fund managers registered and required to disclose appropriate information on an ongoing basis to supervisors or regulators.

This was reaffirmed in June 2010 at the G20 summit in Toronto when the national leaders committed to accelerate the implementation of strong measures to improve transparency and regulatory oversight of hedge funds "in an internationally consistent and non-discriminatory way".

The basis of the regulatory scheme was provided in June 2009 in a report by the International Organization of Securities Commissions (OICU-IOSCO). Based in Madrid, Spain and founded in 1983, this is the international body that brings together the world's securities regulators and is recognised as the global standard setter for the securities sector.

Working to a Memorandum of Understanding produced in May 2002, it brings together the regulatory authorities of its 129 members, including the UK's Financial Conduct Authority. The European Commission is an associate member, although its European Securities and Markets Authority is a member of the IOSCO Board, as is the UK's FCA.

It has to be said, therefore, that the AIFMD is the product of an international endeavour, incorporated into UK law as the Alternative Investment Fund Managers Regulations 2013, implementing Directive 2011/61/EU, and Regulation (EU) No 231/2013 supplementing AIFMD, as well as other EU Regulations.

Post-Brexit, the law has been given the status of "Retained Law", amended to bring it into conformity with UK independence by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, to emerge with a modified title as: The Alternative Investment Fund Managers (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019.

The new format keeps the essence of the original laws, but enables it to operate effectively in the new regulatory environment "arising from the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union", removing the requirement of the FCA to report to the European Securities and Markets Authority.

With that, there is absolutely no question of the law being removed from the statute book. But, since the revised Regulations make the EU links very clear, one presumes that these – together with other financial regulations – will be candidates for Johnson's "Operation Bleach".

However, no amount of cosmetic manipulation will change the fact that this law is a permanent feature of the UK's statute book and, doubtless, it will be updated in accordance with IOSCO recommendations, to keep the UK in line with international norms – alongside the EU which will be doing the same thing.

What the likes of Hannan clearly don't realise is that, with or without the EU, we would have adopted a version of this law anyway. As the House of Lords European Union Committee reported in February 2015:
… it is likely that the UK would have implemented the vast bulk of the financial sector regulatory framework had it acted unilaterally, not least because it was closely engaged in the development of the international standards from which much EU legislation derives.
It maybe the case, though, that there is the case for divergences on other laws. Hannan also mentions the Temporary Workers’ Directive, the REACH Directive, the End of Life Vehicles Directive, the droit de suite rules and other regulations that hurt London’s fine arts market, chunks of MiFID II, GDPR, and the bans on GM.

Financial regulation apart, which is here to stay, the UK has already committed to a "UK REACH", which is likely to cause serious damage to the UK's chemical industry, requiring it to adopt parallel regulatory regimes so that it can continue its lucrative exports to the EU.

There may be a case for changes to the Temporary Workers’ Directive, although that might get us into trouble with the EU's LPF requirements, but it is unlikely that the End of Life Vehicles Directive will be significantly changed. The latter remains on the statute book.

Interestingly, the Artists Resale Right regulations of 2006, implementing the EU's droit de suite rules, also remain, and the indications are that they will not be changed, as they implement (in part) the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, as amended in 1979.

Ironically, under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (the TRIPS Agreement), even those not party to the Berne Convention must comply with its substantive law provisions, so the "double coffin lid" lives to haunt the British government.

One way or the other, we are a long way from seeing the last of EU legal influences. Airbrushing the label out of existence is something of a forlorn endeavour.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 10/01/2021 link

Brexit: no significant progress


There's progress, and there's significant progress. According to Barnier, there had been "some progress" on the three remaining areas of disagreement – the same areas of disagreement that we've been looking at for nearly a year – although he doesn't specify in which direction.

However, the pathway to agreement remains "very narrow" and, while a deal could be sealed "as early as this week", there are still "major gaps", and talks on fishing "have gone backwards", raising the risk they could run deep into December.

Perm any three from five and you have an identikit report on the current talks, which will be much the same as yesterday and the day before and, until the process is brought to a halt, may be very similar tomorrow and the day after.

Gone are the days when we had published drafts to work to, with the parties giving detailed press statements before and after each round of talks. Now we're in a sort of X-files territory of leaks and innuendo, where the land is populated by anonymous sources and terse official spokespersons.

Largely, hacks are filling space and time, with nothing very much to report. They're going back and forth over the same material and, in the absence of official material, bring very little new to the table. The best they seem to have on offer is that the "architecture" of a deal is in place. Let's hope the architect isn't Le Corbusier.

Such is the state of the talks that even the commentariat haven't very much to say for themselves, with even less new or of interest to offer than the hacks. This piece, for instance, which suggests that the effects of a no-deal will be a "slow burn", is hardly new. I've written several pieces on the same theme, including this one and this.

Many commentators, such as the FT's Gideon Rachman, seem to think we will do a deal, mainly on EU terms, with Johnson caving at the last minute, while talking it up as a victory. That, of course, assumes we're dealing with a rational being, which cannot be taken for granted.

The logic of Rachman's argument is that, while the UK and the EU may be "sovereign equals", as long as the EU maintains its unity, they are not equals in terms of power. And that is what has mattered in these negotiations.

That actually makes a neat distinction between sovereignty and power, although it is hard to concede that the EU is a sovereign power. It has a sort of "pseudo sovereignty", with the same sort of relationship that a prisoner out on licence has to freedom. The very fact that each are conditional means that neither is the real thing.

For once, Polly Toynbee might be closer to the truth, asserting that Johnson will cave simply because it is in his own personal interest to do so, and he always puts self-interest first.

Agree or disagree, this seems to me to be a saner appraisal than that on offer from William Hague who is writing – in apparent seriousness – of the "convincing performance" of the prime minister, in demonstrating to the EU his readiness to walk away from an unsatisfactory deal.

This stance has all the sophistication of a bartering session in a Turkish souk over the price of a carpet, where each side knows full well that the other can walk away. But, since there are no circumstances where the UK can manage its affairs without a stable relationship with its closest neighbours, the threat of walking away from the "future relationship" talks is merely empty posturing.

Even if the UK does have the misfortune to end the transition period without a deal, this can only be a short-term expedient. It simply defers the moment when a deal must be made – leaving it to a more responsible successor.

That said, there is now some suggestion that the UK might have to tolerate a short "no-deal" period if the talks drag on much longer, as it simply won't be possible to complete the formalities in time for 31 December. We could even see strategic "blind eyes" being turned at Calais, as undocumented truck drivers brave the wrath of les douanes - that is, if the fishermen don't get there first.

European fisher-persons are warning that they are prepared to blockade Calais and other ports if a "no-deal" Trans-End excludes them from exploiting UK waters. And they have the means to do so, stopping ferries sailing and potentially bringing the Channel port operations to a halt.

At least the French would be more coherent than Daniel Hannan. The egregious columnist is attempting to create an alternative history by having Johnson apply for the European Free Trade Association (Efta) as an interim solution – a transition – for Brexit.

But it is quite clear from his article that he is advancing only Efta membership, rather than the Efta/EEA option. To this day, he still has not understood that Efta, per se, does not have a relationship with the EU. The separate states have each made their own treaties with the EU, three of them under the EEA banner and the Swiss with its own group of bilaterals.

Hannan seems unable to comprehend that, having joined Efta without the EEA, the UK would still have to negotiate a comprehensive free trade agreement separately with the EU. Efta, in itself, is not any kind of solution, much less an interim or off-the-peg solution.

Thus, while we might rightly complain about the Vote Leave tendency having gone into bat without an exit plan, it has to be conceded that there is a constituency out there which, even if given a thousand years, still couldn't come up with a coherent plan.

And therein, perhaps, lies our more fundamental problem. Where we lack rationality and coherence, sensible solutions struggle for a hearing and the paths to Whitehall are stalked by poseurs and snake-oil salesmen.

When, at the pinnacle, we have a man who seems to think it acceptable to run the trade talks into the third week of December – with no end date set – then we have descended into an alternate universe.

It is there, however, that big business resides, with Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faury telling a conference that "It would really be a pity that after so many years of preparation there is no deal at the end" [of the transition period]. "I think it would be much better for the EU and the UK to have an orderly Brexit", he adds, apparently unaware that Brexit happened on 31 January.

Nevertheless, while Airbus is preparing for some "logistical issues", Faury doesn’t think they are going to be "unmanageable", although he doesn't say what his firm will do if there is no reciprocation on the part of the UK over commercial access to airspace.

But since nobody seems to live in the real world any more, Faury could ask Santa Claus to make the deliveries, which would be more sensible than asking Johnson to come to his aid.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 15/12/2020 link

Brexit: a cart and horse


There is no question that the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is complicated – fiendishly so.

And I would wager a year's wages (if I was actually paid any) that Johnson didn't read it before he signed it, or since. He will be totally reliant on Janet & John summaries written by his officials and spads. That is the way he works and, only armed with profound ignorance could he be so confident in blazing his trail of misinformation.

However, the controversy that arose last November when the prime minister assured worried exporters they would not have to fill in customs declarations when they sent goods across the Irish Sea needs some clarification.

At the time, Johnson was questioned by an exporter about whether his business would have to complete extra forms, when he said: "You will absolutely not". But he went on to clarify this in terms of goods going to Northern Ireland and those coming from the province to Great Britain.

Johnson did, in the video clip published, make it clear that there would not be checks and tariffs on goods going from Northern Ireland to (as he says) the United Kingdom. We would have, he said, "unfettered access".

That was true and remains the case, although there is a third element. Johnson was less clear about paperwork, recommending that if any business was asked to fill in any paperwork, they should telephone the prime minister "and I will direct them to throw that form in the bin".

It was here that Johnson seems to have been wrong, in that under the EU customs code (elements of which will apply to Northern Ireland) traders will be required to make 'exit declarations' when goods leave the province, even when going to the rest of the UK.

There was, though, some dispute about whether the EU would grant a waiver as the provision, it was argued, was incompatible with the commitment to unfettered access.

From what I can ascertain, though – as of last July, the government had not secured a waiver, and businesses were in the dark about precisely what would be required of them. Johnson, at the very least, had jumped the gun.

As to goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, Johnson has never disputed that some checks will be required and tariffs will be levied where there is considered to be a risk of them subsequently being moved into the Union. Setting the criteria for applying tariffs is allocated to the Joint Committee.

Up to press, we have had no information on those criteria and now Johnson is asserting that the EU is about to impose those tariffs. But I can find no provision in the Protocol for that to happen. Setting the criteria seems to be a power reserved exclusively to the Joint Committee.

I do readily concede though that the Protocol in complicated, so it would be easy to miss what might be termed a fallback provision. But I can't see that awarding default powers to the EU would have been acceptable. The situation is covered by the dispute settlement procedure where, if the Joint Committee fails to deliver, either party can seek a ruling from an arbitration panel.

On the face of it, therefore, the prime minister is wrong in claiming that the EU is about to impose tariffs. But where this gets seriously bizarre is that he now seems to be asserting that "any such tariffs … would be completely contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement".

The situation is further confused by Hannan who is now claiming that the Withdrawal Agreement was passed on the basis that a trade deal would be not only agreed in 2020 but fully implemented.

Such a deal, he asserts, would ensure that Northern Ireland faced no tariffs, either vis-à-vis Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland, since there would be no tariffs between the UK and the EU.

And then notwithstanding the fiction that he then offers as to the progress of the talks, nowhere can he cite an actual provision in the Withdrawal Agreement that in any way makes its implementation (or not) conditional on securing a trade deal.

Hannan – as does Johnson – also seems to be under the misapprehension that the EU is set to impose checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. But, as I explained yesterday, these checks are not imposed de novo. They automatically apply the moment the UK moves out of the Single Market.

What the Protocol does is move those checks (and the application of tariffs) from the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, to the entry points in Northern Ireland. With or without a trade deal, most of the checks would still apply.

But now we have Hannan claiming that the legislation placed before Parliament this week (the UK Internal Market Bill) "is, though you wouldn't guess it from the coverage, narrowly and specifically designed to prevent such barriers, which might be applied maliciously".

This, however, cannot be found in Clause 42 of the Bill, which gives the Secretary of State power to disapply or modify export declarations and other exit procedures" and then only "to goods, or a description of goods, when moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain".

This is absolutely nothing to do with tariffs or checks and it does not impact on goods being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. What it seems to be about is removing any requirement for exit summary declarations in the event that the UK does not secure a waiver, thus allowing Johnson to honour his promise that NI traders sending goods to Great Britain will not have to complete any paperwork.

To that extent, any breach in international law is "very specific and limited" and, presumably, would only kick in if the EU did not allow a waiver. As to the state aid provisions, they are rather more serious, but that is also another story.

On the face of it, it is hard to see how such a minor provision could be considered to be "undermining the Union of our country", or in any way seriously endangering peace and stability in Northern Ireland.

The rhetoric, though, is remarkable. Says Johnson, "we cannot leave the theoretical power to carve up our country – to divide it – in the hands of an international organisation". Thus, he says, "We have to protect the UK from that disaster, and that is why we have devised a legal safety net – in the UK Internal Market Bill – to clarify the position and to sort out the inconsistencies".

At first sight, this appears nothing short of delusional, as if it is writing into the Bill powers which don't seem to be there there, to deal with things which were agreed and embedded into an international treaty and cannot be removed without a major beach of international law.

But when Johnson wants to prevent barriers to trade between the nations and regions, he actually means it. He wants anything approved for sale in Scotland or Wales to be good for sale in England or Northern Ireland, and vice-versa.

And its there that the focus has been too tight. So far, I've been looking at Clauses 42-43. But if we look at Clause 2, we see 'the mutual recognition principle for goods – a requirement that goods which have been produced in, or imported into, one part of the United Kingdom ("the originating part") … should be able to be sold in any other part of the United Kingdom, free from any relevant requirements that would otherwise apply to the sale.

But that's not what he signed up to. Under most circumstances, goods shipped to Northern Ireland from Great Britain must comply with EU standards. His Bill seeks to change that, and constitutes a major break of the Protocol. It drives a cart and horse through the agreement.

This is not at all "very specific and limited". If this Bill goes through, the Protocol is a dead letter. And the EU cannot let that pass by.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 13/09/2020 link

Coronavirus: apportioning blame


Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS providers, is not happy with the criticism meted out by the Lancet over the handling of the Covid-19 epidemic. In his view, "We need to ignore the siren voices seeking to divert attention from the task at hand. The time for debate about what could have been done better and why is for later, not now".

In this, Hopson has the support of David Nabarro, described as "a special envoy of the WHO director general". He says that this is not the time for blame, arguing that we need to get ahead of the pandemic. In this rapidly evolving situation, he adds, we must think ahead and react fast. It is far too early to judge what has worked and what has not.

That plea, however, is less impressive when one learns that Nabarro has his feet under the table at Imperial College, London, home of the Covid modellers whose dark arts have done so much to shape the government's response to this epidemic.

Yet, as the epidemic reaches 19,522 cases and 1,228 dead, there is by no means a consensus about shelving any criticism for the time being. Former Defra chief scientific advisor, Ian Boyd, observes that, "The middle of a crisis may not be the best time to suggest why we should learn lessons". But, he says, "many people are more likely to listen now. Certainly, nothing should distract us from getting ahead of Covid-19. My concern is that we should come out of this much wiser".

He is not wrong there. Although Michael Gove asserts that, "once this dreadful epidemic is over there will be an opportunity for all of us to look back and to learn appropriate lessons in order to make sure that our public health system is as resilient as possible", there are endless examples of government inquiries, ranging from BSE to Foot & Mouth, turning out to be useless whitewashes.

Certainly, in addition to this blog, there are others who are not holding back their criticism, not least Peter Hitchens. However, rather than tackling the inadequacy of the government's actions, Hitchens is one of those who is calling into question the whole basis of the crisis, joining what might be called the "Hannan tendency" (pictured).

Referring to the response to the epidemic as the "Great Panic", Hitchens seems to rely on the views of Sucharit Bhakdi, a Germany-based medical microbiologist, who dismisses what he calls the "extreme preventive measures" as "grotesque, absurd and very dangerous".

Strangely, this man – while recognising the epidemic in Italy - attributes the high death rate to "exceptional external factors" such as air pollution, compounded by the multi-generational nature of many Italian families. He thus posits that "scenarios like those in Italy or Spain" are not "realistic" in Germany – an exception which Hitchens takes to apply to the UK.

Hitchens is anxious to talk up the credentials, referring to the professor "as one of the most highly cited medical research scientists in Germany", who was "head of the Institute for Medical Microbiology at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, one of Germany's most distinguished seats of learning".

This is a classic resort to prestige, amounting to an appeal to authority, but one should note that Bhakdi has no record of any work in the field of epidemiology, and it is very much the case that "medical microbiology" is not a qualification in that very different field.

A balanced view might take account of the doubts about Bhakdi's assertions but, armed with his "expert" Hitchens evidently feels equipped to challenge the entire global medical and scientific establishment.

I have a lot of time for Hitchens and recognise his position, having been there with Salmonella and eggs, the non-existent listeria epidemic, and the furore over BSE. When it comes to the projected figures for UK deaths in this epidemic, it is easy to make the case that some of the estimates are overblown.

Even the famous Foot & Mouth modeller, Neil Ferguson, who recently warned that around 510,000 people in Britain would die if no action was taken to control Covid-19, also predicted that up to 150,000 people could die from CJD transmitted from cattle. To date there have been fewer than 200 deaths and vCJD has all but disappeared.

Nevertheless, I am strongly inclined to the view that the Covid-19 epidemic is real, and serious – even if the peak illness and the mortality rates for the UK are as yet unknown.

On the basis of the facts known about this newly emergent disease and its increasing incidence in the UK, no responsible government could have refused to take action, bearing in mind that epidemics are public events and the response is as much political as it is medical.

If there are valid criticisms to be made – and I believe there are – I would put three specific issues at the top of the agenda.

The first is the deterioration of the epidemiological field service in the UK, which has clearly meant that the early stage "test and trace" response was abandoned – almost certainly prematurely. Richard Horton may be voluble about the failure to act over that last few months, but here we are looking at structural issues which go back decades.

Secondly, one must question the lack of preparedness, even though it was known, after an exercise in October 2016, that the capacity to deal with a major epidemic was wholly inadequate.

Thirdly, I would question the reliance of the NHS on its established "surge" programme, expanding capacity in existing hospitals to deal with the illness generated by the epidemic.

In a situation where the service is dealing with a highly infectious viral disease, for which there is no cure and for which there is no vaccine, it seems to me a higher form of madness to bring affected patients into buildings already populated by the sick and vulnerable.

One could argue that the planners have succumbed to a form of arrogance, amounting to hubris, in assuming that they could manage a rampant infection within existing facilities, when our forefathers – without the benefit of modern medicines and techniques – kept infection away from the general hospitals, in fever hospitals, sanitoriums and the like.

Here, one must also express concern that the conversion of the NHS into a National Covid-19 Service, abandoning patients with other conditions, is not the wisest use of resources.

It is a pity, therefore, that Hitchens (and many of like mind) have launched off in what appears to be the wrong direction, when there are serious issues to confront and where, in the fullness of time, blame must be apportioned. The failures should not be treated solely as "learning opportunities" from which those responsible can walk away with promotions and higher salaries.

Richard Horton argues that something has gone badly wrong in the way the UK has handled Covid-19. Somehow, he says, there was a collective failure among politicians and perhaps even government experts to recognise the signals that Chinese and Italian scientists were sending.

We had, he says, the opportunity and the time to learn from the experience of other countries. For reasons that are not entirely clear, the UK missed those signals. We missed those opportunities and, in due time, there must be a reckoning.

But here, I am with Ian Boyd. Unless the issues are identified in the here and now, and kept alive in the public consciousness, when it comes to the ex post facto evaluations, inconvenient facts will be quietly buried and forgotten.

And even if it turns out that the response to Covid-19 has been overblown and we weather this epidemic, like the proverbial No.9 bus, there is always another one behind. We are paying for this epidemic in blood and treasure. As well as sanctioning the guilty, it would be a tragedy if we did not learn the lessons it gives us.

Richard North 30/03/2020 link

Brexit: a champion brought down


I don't do posh and even the best of suits sits on me like a sack. And when animated, my North London accent still shows through, the antithesis of poshness that betrays my lower-middle class origins that I've never bothered to conceal.

Booker's funeral, therefore, was always going to be a trial. Primarily, it was an event for family, close friends and villagers and at that level it worked superbly well as a moving ceremony with the Order of Service crafted by Booker himself. But, at another entirely different level, it was a gathering of posh people - outsiders -  to send off their man, the "above-the-line" Booker. 

That's the man these people came to bury yesterday – their Booker, the man who lived with toffs and who could talk with them, and be them. This wasn't the Booker I worked with for 27 years – a third of his life and thousands of hours of conversation, deep into every night as we shared our experiences and perceptions of life.

Helen Szamuely, sadly deceased, put her finger on it. She likened Booker to Hudson, the butler of Upstairs, Downstairs, able to talk freely with the nobs but equally at home with the lower orders. He spanned the divide and, as his career developed, that's what made him different.

For me, Booker was a revelation. I'd started out my first career with a short-service commission in the RAF, leaning how to fly. That is all I had wanted to do since I was four, when I'd seen a Westland Dragonfly helicopter fly over our flats, asked my mum what it was. At that age, the shape remembered to this day, I learned that it was a machine that men flew, and resolved that one day I would be the man to take charge of this wondrous creation.

Sadly, it was not to be. The RAF could never make up its mind whether I was more dangerous to myself or the public at large, but one of the more correct decisions they ever made in the post-war period was to deny me the opportunity of wreaking mayhem in one of their precious machines.

That the decision totally shattered me is not an understatement and I sought solace by spending nearly a year on an Israeli kibbutz, with my wife to be – met in the Air Force. We both worked in the fields, myself alongside an Israeli parachute colonel, who had fought in the Six-Day war. Over the period, we were bombed, grenaded, shot-at and Katyusha'd, but it was great fun and an experience not to be missed.

By the time we got back to England, I was ready to start out with a new career – and it was a career I was after, not just a job. But we had returned with only ten pence between us and with no qualifications, a new start was hard to come by. Yet, oddly, it was the Job Centre which came up with the idea of my becoming a public health inspector, for which local authorities were prepared to offer salaried positions for the three years' training required.

From steely-eyed killer to sanitary man was something of a leap, but I took to my new role with the enthusiasm of a convert and found in the work challenge, enjoyment and a degree of self-respect that enabled me to re-start my broken life.

A core part of the training syllabus was the history of public health in England, which really took off in the early nineteenth century, establishing a home in local authorities where two key figures, the Medical Officer of Health (MoH) and the public health inspector (later to become Environmental Health Officers) ran the service.

This strong medical base made the UK system almost unique and entirely different from continental practice, where different traditions led to a veterinary-based, largely centralised service – especially in food control and related matters.

By this time, however, we had joined the EEC and, with the continental system established in EEC law, we were obliged progressively to abandon our way of doing things and adopt the veterinary system that had been adopted by the EU.

There are many ignorant people in this game, who aver that the EEC (and then the EU) don't threaten our culture and traditions but here, right from the start, we found we were having to abandon long-established public health traditions to accommodate the EEC's ways.

Furthermore, it wasn't just a question of differences – I felt (and still do) – that the EEC system was inferior and less flexible, while at the same time being more bureaucratic, intrusive and expensive. And, from a personal point of view, my hard-won qualification was not recognised by the EEC and I was required to become a subordinate "veterinary assistant", to people with a fraction of my knowledge and skills.

This is where Booker came in. The onslaught of the vets had turned me into a dedicated anti-EU campaigner and in our "Mr Hudson" we found a man who was not only interested in the story – he actually cared. And it was together we mounted a spirited campaign highlighting the way public health was being damaged by the EU influence, with the meat inspection service all but destroyed.

I know of no other journalist who could have taken on this task, who could have got to grips with the arcane details and then, week after week, turned events into a fascinating narrative that put EU law on the agenda in a way that it had never been before or since.

By contrast, the pathetic make-believe inventions of the Telegraph's Brussels correspondent – the infamous Boris Johnson – were an embarrassment. They missed the point and interfered with our carefully structured pieces which showed how the EU was changing the very nature of how we were governed.

What Booker had done for me, therefore, was to give me a voice. The lowly sanitary inspector found himself able to address ministers and senior civil servants. And, if they didn't listen, there was always another Booker column which could take them apart.

But what Booker did for me, he did for hundreds of others. People who had been directly affected by all manner of bureaucratic imposts found in him a man prepared to listen and master the detail, and then to craft a story in that unique way of his, which made the dull interesting and the complex simple. He gave them voices as well, and access to the legacy media which had hitherto been denied to them.

Those of us who were below the line knew exactly what a treasure we had, but the "above-the-liners" never did. They saw his popularity in the paper, but never really understood the appeal. They pretended to endorse his work, but often didn't even bother to read it – still less take the trouble to understand what he was trying to do.

Then you had the smarmy pseuds such as Daniel Hannan, who tried to emulate the Booker style, and would rip-off our work and call it his own. In the latter days, the pretenders gathered like vultures to take his crown, yet never managing to produce anything of interest, and never anything close to the depth.

Latterly, some of that story is emerging, ironically in a Europhile tract, where Booker's concerns about the Telegraph are aired.

A year after the referendum, Booker was writing private e-mails to friends, in despair at the way his paper was treating him. In November 2017, he was thus writing that, four times in the past three weeks, he had been told that "the editor" (with whom he was never allowed to have contact of any kind), had ruled that items he had suggested or written for his column could not be allowed. 

That week, as he was preparing yet another comment, he found that one "entirely suitable item" had been prohibited in advance. A second in his column as submitted was also vetoed.

Yet, he complained, the reasons why he had to keep off these subjects had never been explained. But he was to surmise that he was being blocked from writing about anything to do with social workers, the family courts and children being removed from their parents – an issue he had almost made his own.

The other "veto trigger", he discovered, was anything to do with the increasing madness of any form of "political correctness". He'd had worrying noises when he'd touched on this before, but now it was apparently wholly verboten.

Interestingly, Booker observed, he was still allowed to write about the EU, on which as an "ultra-Brexiteer", the editor held views very different from his own. But this was the reason, he suspected, why he had been so severely downgraded in his column in the summer. To have included the EU in the list of subjects ruled off-limits, he surmised, might have been a bit too obvious, and prompted questions from readers.

With the column a fraction of its former size, an insider gave a clue as to the thinking behind his demotion. "The feeling on the paper was it would be too awkward to sack such a big name", he said, "so at first we tried to persuade him to give up writing about politics and try doing a countryside column". When that didn't work, "we pushed him as far out of sight as possible. The editor couldn't face doing it himself, so it was all done by minions".

To add insult to injury, his old slot was given to Daniel Hannan, for whom he had utter contempt – a man who would touch him up for free copies of The Great Deception to auction for party funds, but who neither spoke favourably of the book in his column, nor ever reviewed it.

In short, for as long as our "Mr Hudson" was a champion of us "below-the-liners", he was tolerated by the toffs because of that popularity – but never really accepted. And when they could, they did their best to bring him down.

Now he is safely in the ground, they're moving in to repossess their favourite son. "Booker never minced his words", writes Delingpole, applauding his "safe" efforts on climate change. But with the rest of his ugly pack, he was unrestrained in bitterly criticising and belittling Booker's stance on Brexit, regretting "his decline from former soundness into senescence".

Yet, this man, like the rest of the pack, knows nine-tenths of fuck-all about the EU (and even less about international trade), not that it stops him parading his ignorance. But the most astounding thing about these people is their total lack of self-awareness. Delingpole writes of Booker:
Booker wasn’t happy that he got ill — he felt that he still had much work to do. But he did feel a measure of relief that he'd no longer have to put up with a world where everyone gets their lessons on global warming from a 16-year-old kid in pigtails who can see 'carbon' in the air and a doddery old Malthusian whose TV crews drive walruses off cliffs and then blame it on climate change, all courtesy of a propaganda institution so shamelessly left-biased it makes Central Television of the USSR look like Fox News.
But I'd had that same conversation with Booker, only we included the ineffable, lightweight fools such as Delingpole, for whom Booker had an amused, if affectionate contempt – a man who was so comprehensively wrong about Brexit that he strove each time he wrote to prove himself even more ignorant than in his earlier attempts.  

Delingpole was at the funeral, together with Rees-Mogg and others like him. Maybe they should not have been there, but then it was their Booker they were seeing off, not ours. Having lost our champion, we don't get closure. We'll not see it this side of Brexit, if at all. Yesterday, the nobs re-asserted their authority and sought to reclaim their son.

Richard North 12/07/2019 link

Brexit: shambles time


It was in July 2017 that Liam Fox triumphantly pronounced that the EU trade deal after Brexit should be the "easiest in history" to get.

At the same time, Fox also denied that the government was making contingency plans for the UK crashing out of the EU without a trade deal. "We don't want to have no deal. It is much better that we have a deal than no deal", he told the BBC, adding: "We can of course survive with no deal. And we have to go into a negotiation with those on the other side knowing that’s what we think".

Demonstrating that there was no limit to the stupidity of the man, he also ruled out the UK continuing to be a member of the Single Market or customs union, claiming this was legally impossible if the UK left the EU. This was despite the example of Norway which is not in the EU or customs union but is in the Single Market.

"You cannot leave the European Union and be in the single market or the customs union, they are EU legal entities", he said. "That's the legal definition – if you are out of the European Union, you are not in the Single Market or the customs union".

Now, over thirty months later, he has clearly learned nothing. Despite the UK having recently celebrated a continuity deal with the US over conformity assessment, covering up to £12.8 billion-worth of trade, this idiot was talking to Andrew Mar yesterday about our US trade "being done on WTO terms".

Not for nothing did Sir Ivan Rogers complain of British politicians and the "endemic problem" of their "lack of understanding" of EU issues. But here, we also have a secretary of state for international trade who understands little of international trade.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we saw Booker writing in his weekend column under the headline, "I knew Brexit would be a shambles, but I never could have predicted this mess".

Once people such as Liam Fox were on the team, I suppose we should have known that we were in for a torrid time, but it was two years ago when Booker first began warning in his column that Brexit was likely to end in a shambles. But it's fair to say even those few of us who have been trying to explain the unrecognised realities of our situation since long before the referendum could not have predicted quite what a catastrophic mess we would end up with.

Although it was greeted with euphoria in some quarters, the fateful turning point was Theresa May's notorious Lancaster House speech on 17 January 2017. Then contrary to any indication she had given previously, she announced that she wanted to remove us completely not just from the the EU but the Single Market as well.

That we were to become in EU terms a "third country" made a whole lot of consequences inevitable. But, by ripping us out of the incredibly complex system that had so tightly integrated our economy with the rest of the EU, we were not only putting at risk a large part of our currently "frictionless" export trade with the EU itself, which provides an eighth of our national income.

By taking Mrs May's stance, we were also risking much of our trade with other countries across the world, which is currently conducted under trade deals negotiated between those countries and the EU. We were choosing among much else to make inevitable a "hard border" in Ireland and potentially to disrupt the vital "Channel Link" between Dover and the continent.

To the full implications of all this, until recently our politicians have remained almost wholly oblivious. Initially, they were beguiled by predictions that striking a deal with the EU would take no longer than "five minutes", that other countries would be rushing to sign deals to make up any income lost from our trade with the EU and that we could confidently survive a no-deal exit by somehow relying just on those mythical WTO rules.

Only at the last minute have we begun to wake up to some of these harsh realities, with our entire political class rushing around like headless chickens – presumably chlorine-free.

Now, says Booker, we are faced with a choice between Mrs May's "bad deal", which would leave us much worse off than now, or a "no deal” that would be the ultimate catastrophe. He concludes that the real tragedy is that, through our failure to recognise the reality of what we were up against, we have brought this entirely and quite unnecessarily on ourselves.

One could hardly believe, therefore, that he was writing in the same newspaper as Daniel Hannan who argues that Mrs May's deal "represents a devastating failure of British statecraft".

But, while I would not disagree with his premise, what Hannan does is urge MPs to vote against it, even though – as part of the noisy claque of Eurosceptics – he has never been able to come up with a credible alternative.

Having swallowed the ERG Kool Aid on the consequences of a no-deal exit, he turns the English language on its head calling it a "no-deal settlement", with "contours" that include "stand-still agreements or other technical arrangements on aviation, financial services, the Irish energy grid, road haulage and so on".

This is very much the standard ERG response, making out that a series of unilateral contingency measures taken by the European Commission, entirely to protect its own interests and those of its Member States, somehow constitutes a "settlement".

Hannan then somewhat contradicts himself by asserting that a no-deal constitutes "leaving without the EU's permission". Parliament, he says, is having a nervous breakdown and its "terror" has never looked more misplaced.

We are in a position, therefore, where the Brexit debate is not only distorted by the staggering ignorance of its main players, but also by a continuous thread of dishonesty, in particular as certaibn players attempt to downplay the consequences of a no-deal in order to justify blocking the Withdrawal Agreement ratification.

Not content with that, there is that other strand of dishonesty – bordering on delusion, where MPs still believe (or expect) that the EU is somehow going to reopen negotiations on the backstop, despite being told endless times that this isn't going to happen.

Yet, even that deceit is running aground as Mrs May's representative on earth, attorney general Geoffrey Cox, has finally abandoned the fruitless attempts to negotiate a time-limit and a unilateral exit clause for the backstop.

Cox is now said to be focusing on what is termed an "enhanced arbitration mechanism" that supposedly allows the UK or the EU to provide formal notice that the backstop should come to an end, employing an arbitration panel which operates outside the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

Even if the EU was to accept this – which seems highly unlikely – his new stance means that the UK government has abandoned any attempt to modify the backstop in accordance with the ERG's demands. If their "three point plan" is to be taken seriously, Mrs May has effectively decided that she can no longer go through even the motions of enlisting their support.

The prime minister's latest ploy is to dosh out £1.6 billion of taxpayers' money to the "Stronger Towns Fund", mainly helping areas with strong "leaver" support in Labour-held areas. This has immediately been seen as a "bribe" to Labour MPs, in the hope that they will make up for the opposition of the ERG members.

It has always been a possibility that Mrs May would have to rely on cross-party support to get her deal through parliament, and this now looks to be a key part of her strategy. Clearly, there is no pleasing the ERG members so the only thing left to her is to call their bluff – and make up their numbers from the ranks of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

For the next week, though, we can expect nothing more than a continuation of the current shambles, as the media rings the changes between devious plots to get the Withdrawal Agreement approved, and speculation on the nature and extent of any delay. One cannot repeat too often how much relief will come when this is all over.

Richard North 04/03/2019 link

Brexit: playing to the gallery?


Following the vote of confidence on Mrs May's leadership, and in anticipation of the European Council, held over yesterday and the day before, the "colleagues" had been consistent in asserting that the Withdrawal Agreement was not open to renegotiation.

In recent times, we have had enough experience to realise that, when EU actors make such statements, they tend to mean what they say. No one, therefore, can have been under any illusions that, when Mrs May left the Council, she was going to come away with a renegotiation.

Sure enough, when it comes to the outcome, we see in the European Council (Art. 50) conclusions, the simple and entirely expected paragraph:
The European Council reconfirms its conclusions of 25 November 2018, in which it endorsed the Withdrawal Agreement and approved the Political Declaration. The Union stands by this agreement and intends to proceed with its ratification. It is not open for renegotiation.
So why did we see as the lead item on the BBC's main evening news that Mrs May had been rebuffed by the EU? There was never any possibility that the conclusions were going to be any different. How can the Guardian justify the headline: "Theresa May's Brexit strategy left brutally exposed by Brussels failure"?

In actuality, Mrs May got from the Council with the only thing she could reasonably have expected – a reaffirmation that the EU leaders were committed to working speedily on a post-Brexit agreement so that the backstop would not have to be triggered.

The European Council further underlined that, if the backstop had to be triggered, it would apply temporarily, until superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided. In that event, the Union would use its "best endeavours" to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop. It would expect the same commitment from the UK, so that the backstop would only be in place for as long as strictly necessary.

With that, the media should have come away from Brussels with no story, nothing having changed. But that, of course, is not the way our media works. It had invested heavily in the Brexit soap opera, and carried the expense of sending the "stars" to Brussels. There must be a story worthy of their endeavours.

On this blog, we have many times questioned the competence of Mrs May and even remarked on the stupidity of some of her decisions. But it would be hard to sustain an argument that our prime minister was expecting anything from the "colleagues", other than what she got. Even she cannot be so stupid that she expected the EU to roll over and re-open the negotiations.

Thus, one can make a fairly safe guess that - with her staff able to predict with some degree of confidence how the media was going to react – Mrs May was playing to the gallery.

She has been to enough Councils to know that she would be in the goldfish bowl of media scrutiny, where every gesture and every encounter would be analysed to death by ranks of bored hacks, under enormous pressure from their home offices to deliver the headlines written before their stars had even booked their flights for Brussels.

Currently, Mrs May is insisting that, as formal conclusions, the Council statements "have legal status" and therefore should be welcomed. She has also told the hacks that "further clarification" was possible, thereby providing a taster for the next round of the soap opera.

Furthermore, the outcome is "nebulous" enough – the word of the moment – for it to tempt Labour into considering a direct confrontation in parliament before the Christmas break, on the basis that they now believe Mrs May's deal is dead – a view supposedly shared by most of the cabinet.

To the delight of the Westminster hacks, who must be feeling that Christmas has come early, Corbyn has been urged by Sir Keir Starmer and Tom Watson to table a vote of no confidence in the government before Christmas, with Tuesday being the preferred date.

That would be a cruel thing to do to all those over-stressed MPs who are planning to bunk off early, and have already booked their places in the sun. But the opposition is running under the impression that Mrs May's deal is "dead in the water", after the premier has supposedly come back from Brussels empty-handed.

However, even if the chances of getting something up and running two days before the break are probably close to nil, the excited anticipation can keep the hyper-ventilating hacks busy over the weekend – enjoying their equivalent of a visit to Santa's grotto.

If the hacks were looking for rebuffs, though, they might have lifted their gaze from the Article 50 conclusions, and looked at the main document. There, they will have seen a substantial heading on the "Single Market", reminding those who are about to depart that it is "one of the great achievements of the Union which has delivered major benefits to Europeans".

Crucially, the Council is focusing on removing "remaining unjustified barriers, in particular in the field of services", and stressing the need fully to embrace the digital transformation, including Artificial Intelligence, the rise of the data and service economy.

The Council is calling on the Commission to continue its analysis and work in this respect, putting down a marker for its planned "in-depth discussion" next spring, when the development of the Single Market and European digital policy will be examined "in preparation for the next Strategic Agenda".

This rather demonstrates that the world is not going to be standing still just because the UK is going through an orgy of navel-gazing as it trudges laboriously through the Brexit process. My guess is the "colleagues" will not be averse to rubbing a few UK noses is their own rhetoric.

Meanwhile, behind the curve as he so often is these days, Nigel Farage was addressing a "Leave Means Leave" rally in London, telling supporters that they needed to prepare for the possibility of another referendum.

This comes at a time where, in retrospect, we may well be marking the week just gone as the turning point, when Mrs May broke the back of organised resistance. If I am reading this right, she could be about to confound her critics by getting parliamentary approval for her deal in the New Year.

In that case, not since the 2016 referendum has it been less likely that we will be seeing a second referendum, which is just as well as the Eurosceptic movement is even less prepared to fight a contest than it was last time. With no Brexit vision to sustain him (or his diminishing band of followers), Farage is the old war horse, revisiting scenes of victories past in the hope of revitalising dreams of better days.

Speaking of which, I have been watching the media closely for any further references to Mr Hannan's escapades. Despite the inherent newsworthiness of his alleged misbehaviour, however, none of the other national newspapers nor the broadcast media have seen fit to repeat the Guardian's story, or add to it.

It comes to a pretty pass when a high-profile campaigner on "EU corruption" is accused of defrauding taxpayers of around half-a-million pounds through misuse of European Parliament funds, and only one national newspaper reports it, while the BBC and other broadcasters are also silent.

The one paper from which we can virtually guarantee silence is The Sunday Tielegraph which, in common with its daily sister, now has a thief for its star columnist, who gets a free pass from the establishment.

I was talking to Booker the other day – the man whose slot in the ST was taken by Hannan. He has a far longer political memory than mine, and I asked him whether this deterioration in public morals was new, or whether it had always been thus. There is often a tendency to think that the current troughs are the worst of the worst.

In Booker's view, this is new to political memory. Prestige figures – and those favoured by the political establishments – enjoy an extraordinary immunity from any consequences of deeds, the nature of which even in the recent past would have seen them shamed and driven from public life.

When the degraded media has merged with the entertainment industry, to become indistinguishable from it – with politics not far behind – one can only retreat to the boundaries and watch in sadness as decadence increasingly becomes the norm.

Richard North 15/12/2018 link

Brexit: beyond mortal help


A busy day following up Brexit-related issues yesterday had me suddenly stop short around eight in the evening, with the realisation that I hadn't looked at any of the day's legacy media headlines, or followed any of my media news feeds for the whole of day. 

That is undoubtedly a reflection of poor value on offer, the extremely slender contribution to the sum of human knowledge, and the general irrelevance of media coverage. The BBC's main interest of the day, for instance, was to discover when Mrs May would step down as prime minister.

That actually typifies the media here. At licence-payer expense, Laura Kuenssberg – Lord of All She Surveys – goes to Brussels to attend the European Council and, from the front rank of the pig pen, doorsteps Mrs May to ask her to confirm that she's standing down as prime minister before the next general election. The answer then becomes the lead item on the main evening bulletin.

Another illustration of the venality of the breed is BBC Politics which chose to feature an exchange between Liam Halligan and Polly Toynbee, where the former is aggressively demanding that he should no longer be called "insane".

There highlighted is another very good reason why it is pointless following the Brexit "debate" on television. The main interest of the producers is "biff-bam" confrontational politics that create heat and no light. It is the confrontation that is regarded as "good television", rather than the rare occasion when the programme manages to convey useful information.

That is, of course, not to say that the media doesn't have its uses, but if it was doing its job properly this blog could stand down and I could enjoy an entirely undeserved retirement. As it is, it has taken me nearly two weeks to build a model of a C15TA and I'm nowhere near finished.

But from even such a fascinating enterprise, it is worth breaking off to read this piece from the Guardian which informs us that Daniel Hannan's European Parliament group has been told to repay €535,000 in EU funds, wrongly spent on non-qualifying activities.

The Group is the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists in Europe (ACRE), formed in 2009 after the Conservatives left the European People's Party. Until December 2017, Hannan was the secretary-general and, under his tutelage, the group spent €250,000 on a three-day event at a luxury beach resort in Miami and €90,000 on a trade "summit" at a five-star hotel on the shores of Lake Victoria in Kampala - neither of which events qualified for EU funding.

British Conservatives have sought to distance themselves from ACRE, which has been described by some party insiders as "Daniel Hannan's travel agency", while the European Parliament authorities suggest that Hannan used EU funds for ACRE to support other pet projects, such as his free-trade think tank, the Initiative for Free Trade (IFT), as well as Conservatives International.

The European Parliament also objected to €108,985 spent on polling British black and Asian voters ahead of the 2017 general elections. Under EU law, EU funds cannot be used to finance national campaigns. For similar reasons, €122,295 spent on a "UK Trade Partnerships" conference in March 2017 was judged ineligible, because the event was deemed to be promoting the UK's economic interests.

Needless to say, Hannan denies the misuse of funds but his defence was rejected in a closed-door meeting last Monday. The Group now has the option of appealing to the ECJ, although no hearing has been called for.

Interestingly, the Guardian is the only newspaper (so far) to have covered the news. On the face of it, it is an damning indictment of a leading Eurosceptic who played a prominent part in the referendum campaign and himself has been outspoken in exposing "corrupt" MEPs. Recently, he was also warning that "establishment elites" were poised to "steal" Brexit.

There is something of an irony here. Hannan has been around long enough to know the rules and how they operate, which puts him in the major league when it comes to defrauding the EU, upping the ante on his usual form. Yet, in polite company, reference to his peccadillos is regarded as "insulting". One is supposed to keep one's own counsel and not sully the name of the great man.

Arguably, this is yet another example of how the political discourse is being distorted. Thieves prosper and their critics are ostracised – or marginalised.

At another level, Sir Ivan Rogers was speaking again yesterday, this time in Liverpool, offering nine lessons we need to learn from the last few years of Brexit. But what struck me most was his references to the debate in terms of "dishonesty" and "fantasy". Not necessarily in equal measure, these are the two of the main drivers of the Brexit "debate" combined with an extraordinary degree of self-delusion.

Sir Ivan draws attention to the "no deal +" fantasy. This is the one where we refuse to sign the Withdrawal Agreement with the backstop in it, and withhold a good half of the money the Prime Minister promised. In response, the "colleagues" would suddenly realise we were serious and come running for a series of mini deals. These would assure full trading continuity in all key sectors on basically unchanged Single Market and Customs Union terms.

Such is the nature of this delusion that it has Sir Ivan observing: "I don't know what tablets these people are taking, but I must confess I wish I were on them". It will be said of them as it was said of the Bourbons, I think: "they have learned nothing and they have forgotten nothing".

The reality, he tells us, is that if the deal on the table falls apart because we have said "no", there will not be some smooth rapid suite of mini side-deals – from aviation to fisheries, from road haulage to data, from derivatives to customs and veterinary checks, from medicines to financial services, as the EU affably sits down with this Prime Minister or another one.

As to the "people's voters", Sir Ivan agrees a case can be made for a second referendum, given the dismal place we have now ended up, and given possible Parliamentary paralysis. But, he says, they must surely understand the huge further alienation that would engender amongst those who will think that, yet again, their views are being ignored until they conform.

He doesn't mention the ECJ judgement on unilateral revocation but his overall message is clear. The only sensible option we have is the Withdrawal Agreement - there is no other endgame.

That leaves us, as a nation, in the same boat as our prime minister and, from reports coming back from Brussels, she appears to be no further forward in her attempts to put a time limit of the "backstop". That leaves her with a strategy designed to "change the perception" of the backstop so that we stop looking at it "as a trap".

If that is all Mrs May has in her toolkit, she may well have a little difficulty carrying the day when it comes to the vote in parliament. Her only real chance of convincing MPs to accept her deal is if they understand that a "no deal" scenario is to be avoided at all costs.

This itself is a reversal of her own position, where it became an article of faith that no deal would be better than a bad deal. But there is that insidious group which includes Liam Halligan and the likes of John Mills who argue that the impact of a "no deal" would be "completely manageable" and that concerns have been "exaggerated".

This brings us back full circle as I recall that one of the greatest failings of the media is its inability sensibly to address the consequences of a "no deal" Brexit. And that was back in October, when Sir Ivan Rogers had just made a speech in Cambridge.

Nothing much, if anything, has changed, with the issues just as badly aired as ever they were, while the noise level from domestic politics has all but drowned out even the semblance of a debate. Small wonder, businesses are in despair, and are diverting "hundreds of millions of pounds in investment" out of the UK as contingency plans are being triggered.

Yet no one, not even government, seems to be prepared to take on the responsibility of setting out to the public, in unequivocal terms, the consequences of a "no deal" Brexit. We've done our best on this blog but our reach is limited and we are unable to change the direction of the debate.

What we can do, though, is point out the failings of the system, putting it on the record before the event – then to revisit after disaster strikes. The guilty ones cannot then pretend that no one knew what the problems were. They did – we did.

Even then, where we have a self-absorbed claque which is more interested in papering over the cracks than in dealing with straight talk, it's going to be hard getting a hearing. And if people prefer their delusions to reality, and insist on shutting out uncomfortable truths, then they are beyond any help that mere mortals can bring.

Richard North 14/12/2018 link

Brexit: rewriting history


Potential gridlock at the Channel ports was back in the news yesterday, the suspiciously convenient timing presumably aimed at convincing wavering MPs that the "no deal" scenario is not a terribly good idea.

One really cannot avoid the observation that, if Mrs May had stressed this point in January 2017, when she delivered her Lancaster House speech, we might be writing a different version of history right now. After all, it took very little imagination, even back then, to work out that there were going to be problems on the Dover-Calais route. That makes it doubly tedious that we should be having to rehearse the same issues not far short of two years later.

Nevertheless, while I was raising the spectre of empty supermarket shelves in February 2017, by June of this year I was suggesting the queues at the ports could be avoided. All it needed was for the authorities to operate a system where the loading of ferries at UK ports was restricted, matching the rate at which consignments are cleared at their destination ports.

Very quickly, this became a permit system where, without prior authorisation, UK vehicles would not be permitted to travel to the ports. In order to keep the goods flowing, this could mean sending transports to the continent either empty, or laden only with empty vehicles returning after delivering goods to the UK.

Interestingly, this concept has been raised by Kent County Council with government as part of a national contingency plan. Lorries would be kept in depots up and down the country until they get the call to move south to the disused Manston airport near Dover, whence they would be held for final release to Dover.

Given a failure to reach a deal, the EU will not allow the import of some categories of goods from the UK, so there will be no point in dispatching them to the ports. Thus, with the reduction in traffic on top of movement controls, there will be no headline-grabbing queues of lorries waiting to cross the Channel, even in a worst-case scenario.

One could imagine, though, that it suits Mrs May to have pictures of lorries queueing covering the newspaper front pages, complete with dire warnings of drug shortages and even unburied bodies. The BBC has already obliged, running the lorry story as its main item on the main evening news yesterday. While its news website proclaims: "No-deal Brexit: Disruption at Dover 'could last six months'".

Unsurprisingly, the "Ultra" Muppets are still refusing to touch base with reality, with Brexiteer Andrew Bridgen dismissing the reports as "Project Fear on steroids". The intellectually challenged Simon Richards, CEO of the Freedom Association, tells his Twitter followers: "We've had more time to prepare for this than we had to plan D-Day, the biggest seaborne invasion in history. Please retweet if you've had enough of Project Fear".

The bizarre thing is that, if effective contingency plans are put in place, there will be no lorry queues. But a lot of people in the UK will be unhappy with the price we have to pay, as our export earnings drop through the floor.

Alongside "Project Fear", though, we are also seeing a number of pieces driving down expectations on the so-called "Norway Plus" option. Although it is so transparently awful that even Hannan can see the pitfalls, while some regard the Boles plan as sabotage, the Guardian recruits a Norwegian MP to labour the downside of Efta/EEA membership.

This is Heidi Nordby Lunde, whom the Guardian styles as a Conservative MP in Norway. Somehow, the newspaper omits to tell us that Ms Lunde is also president of the European Movement in Norway, dedicated to taking her country into the European Union.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, she does not believe it is in Norway’s interest to invite the UK into the Efta bloc. It would, she says. "certainly upset the balance within Efta – and thus our relationship with the EU. Further, the EEA agreement presupposes a consensus between the countries to harmonise with the same EU laws and regulations the UK wants to veto".

Not without good cause, she also slams Boles's first version of the Norway option, remarking that the UK seems to be considering joining the Efta family as a temporary solution – Norway for now – until it gets a better deal.

It really surprises me, says Lunde, "that anyone would think Norwegians would find that appealing. It would be like inviting the rowdy uncle to a Christmas party, spiking the drinks and hoping that things go well. They would not".

As for her general comments, these illustrate that some Norwegian politicians are just as clueless about the functioning of the EEA Agreement as their UK counterparts. Being Norwegian doesn't automatically confer greater wisdom or clarity on their politicians. They are just as capable of getting it wrong.

It cannot be a coincidence, though, that her remarks appear at the same time as the publication by the People's Vote campaign of a report on "Why 'Norway Plus' Won't Work".

Predictably negative in its view, it trots out the same dire mantras that can be heard anywhere from the hard of learning. "It would", says the report, "leave the UK following EU rules without a voice, vote or veto, whilst paying large sums of money without a say over how it is spent, and blindly following the EU's policies on immigration, agriculture, fisheries and trade". Far from "taking back control", it concludes, a "Norway Plus" Brexit would be "a historic abdication of power and influence".

But even without that low-grade propaganda, the report nonetheless gives some credence to the view that Boles is a saboteur. He has left so many holes in his "plan" that all People's Vote has to do is stroll through it, picking them up with consummate ease.

Not least, the authors remark of Norway Plus that we would not simply be negotiating off-the-shelf Efta or EEA membership. There would be exemptions needed in the Efta convention and then we would have to separately negotiate add-ons for agriculture and fisheries.

Actually, we would need many more add-ons, as well as the additional bilateral agreements on such things as aviation and VAT. Neither the agreements nor the issues are mentioned, indicative of a lightweight, derivative production which relies extensively on secondary sources. Good quality research this isn't but it's good enough to leave Norway Plus sunk without trace.

As an aside, it is a sad reflection of modern politics that so much published work, like this production, is so shoddy. If I could be bothered to do a detailed demolition job on Norway Plus, I would have done a far better job than this tawdry little effort.

Unfortunately, the media continues to demonstrate its almost total incompetence when it comes to describing the Efta/EEA option, typified by the latest contribution from cretin Ciaran Jenkins who tells his Channel 4 viewers that the Norwegians "pay into EU coffers and have no say in shaping its rules".

This child-like dogma is matched by an equally inane contribution from the great guru Matthew Goodwin who tells us that Norway "is not a meaningful reply to the two drivers of the Brexit vote: reform of free movement and restoration of sovereignty".

Even Stephen Kinnock, the Labour advocate for Norway-plus, managed to balls it up in an appearance on the Today programme, asserting that the Efta treaty (sic) allowed for "an emergency brake on migration in exceptional circumstances".

With that level of advocacy, we don't actually need "attack dogs" to bring down the Efta/EEA option. All we need is the commentariat to explain what it is. By the time they have finished butchering it, it would be hard to find anything less appealing. Heaven knows what they would say if they wanted to discourage people from considering it.

In one sliver of good cheer, though, we've had Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg say that Norway may lend support for a potential bid by Britain to rejoin the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) if so wished by London.

But that was last Wednesday, a whole world away and another world from Tuesday when, if we are to believe the hype, Mrs May's world will start to collapse in on itself. But never fear, Simon Jenkins is on the case. Of Norway, he says, "It's increasingly clear there is only one deal that can be done. It may not be ideal, but it is workable".

If that had been said with conviction in 2016 by a lot more people - before the concept had become so polluted - then we could also have been rewriting history. But, with the noise level so high, even Jenkins is just another voice trying to be heard above the tempest.

More so is Amber Rudd who becomes the first cabinet minister to break the taboo of discussing a "Plan B". She says that a "Norway-style" Brexit, which would keep Britain tied to large parts of European law, "seems plausible not just in terms of the country but in terms of where the MPs are".

We thus descend into the twilight zone, where Mrs May's plan is set to be rejected, but only in favour of a fantasy plan that would be worse than May's, but for the fact that it is not deliverable. And this is seen by some as progress.

Richard North 08/12/2018 link

Brexit: new possibilities beckon


We started off this campaign more years ago than I care to remember with three basic options. There was the WTO Option, which was never a starter. Then there was the Swiss Option, favourite of the likes of Dan Hannan, and then there was the so-called Norway Option.

The Norway Option became our preferred option not by a process of selection but by one of elimination. Having ruled out the WTO option for very obvious reasons, the reservations applying to the Swiss Option were so great that this too was ruled out. This left only one standing.

Since that time, and with increasing intensity after the referendum, we find ourselves rehearsing the same arguments, plus having to take on sundry other variations invented by attention-seeking clever-dicks.

But basically, options remain the same, whatever names you give them. There is the unilateral option – aka WTO option or "no deal" scenario. Then there is the bilateral option. You can call it the Swiss Option, or a CETA variant, or anything else you like. But they all amount to the same thing – a bespoke agreement between the UK and the EU.

Then there is the multilateral option – joining an arrangement settled by other countries and already in operation. The only working example of this is the Efta/EEA option, still called the "Norway Option" by many.

Currently, we're having to struggle with the extended stupidity of the "Ultras" embracing the "WTO Option", while there is some renewed interest in the Efta/EEA Option, the effect of which is to shunt the Swiss Option into the background, where it lingers in relative obscurity – occasionally promoted by its original advocates such as Hannan.

However, while we are preoccupied with Brexit, life goes on. And it may come as a surprise that we're not the only ones negotiating a treaty with the EU. Switzerland has been back in the fray, discussing new arrangements to update their existing treaty arrangements.

The plan was to tidy up the messy group of a hundred or so separate treaties, talks on which have been going on for some considerable time. And, at the end of June, the Swiss government was deciding whether there had been enough progress to settle a political deal that would lead to a brand new treaty.

The intention that it should be signed in 2019, the same year that the UK was due to leave the EU with its own withdrawal agreement. Any deal would then be put to a binding referendum, allowing the Swiss people to decide their own future.

Amongst the key issues on the table is conflict resolution, with the EU finally losing patience the separate arrangements and wanting the ECJ to act as the main arbitrator in settling legal disputes. The use of "foreign judges", however, was likely to be a no-go area for the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), giving them a political edge in the 2019 federal elections.

This had caused Juncker to come up with a different proposal for independent arbitration panels which had gone some way to defusing Swiss concerns. But another contentious area was the provision by the Swiss government of state aid, which the EU wanted stopped.

The most contentious issue though was the Swiss system of "flanking measures" – steps adopted in 2004 to prevent foreign workers on temporary assignments in Switzerland (the so-called posted workers) to undercut local wages and conditions. To date, the Swiss government has declared this a no-go area for the talks.

It has come as no great surprise, therefore, to see a report that talks have broken down and that a new EU-Swiss treaty is as "dead as [a] doornail".

The "killer" has been an alliance between the normally pro-EU centre-left Social Democrats (SP) and the SVP, united behind Swiss labour unions in saying that the deal would undermine wages and working conditions. Officially talks are on hold, with a new round of negotiations planned after the summer break, but no one is optimistic that progress is likely.

There are now fears that the failure of the talks will precipitate a a new diplomatic ice age, prompting the EU to take punitive steps against the Swiss. The Commission, for instance, has indicated that it may not renew Swiss equity traders access to the EU Member State markets beyond 2018.

Where this gets really interesting is in the observation that Brexit has made it more difficult for the EU to make concessions. But it puts the Swiss government in a confrontational position, potentially making it an ally of the UK. There must certainly be a commonality of interest sufficient to allow tentative discussions between the UK and Swiss governments.

Given the recent history or relations between the EU and Swiss, where immigration has become a serious bone of contention, it is arguable that one of the biggest mistakes the Swiss people made was in rejecting membership of the EEA. After all, the initial use of Art 112 of the EEA Agreement was a joint affair by Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

Had Switzerland remained in the EEA, it too could have sought a sectoral agreement with the EEA which would have given it a permanent right to control immigration. And if the posted workers issue became a problem, the Swiss government could just as easily invoke safeguard measures.

On that basis, rather than even considering the Swiss Option as a way of settling Brexit, the UK might be better advised to seek an alliance with the Swiss, bringing it back into the EEA fold, and supporting UK entry into Efta, with a commitment to jointly resolving immigration issues through the medium of the EEA Agreement.

With the UK on its own, negotiations were always going to be difficult so the possibility of securing a like-minded ally is something the UK should take very seriously indeed.

And this is where there is a considerable lack of imagination on the part of Mrs May and her government. The UK is by no means alone in having reservations on the application of freedom of movement. And concerns about the brain drain from Eastern Europe gives us common cause with Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the Slovak Republic.

Another issue here are financial payments made by Efta/EEA states, particularly those made by Norway in the form of Norway/EEA grants. Wrongly treated as contributions to the EU budget by some pundits, payments are made directly by the donor countries to the recipients, on projects which they themselves approve.

There is some suggestion that the UK within the Efta/EEA nexus could allocate funds from the aid budget and, in retaining control over their disbursement, is in a position to use grants as leverage, to secure political advantage.

In short, the UK has significant opportunities to pursue migration policies which are more to its liking, bearing in mind that it is unlikely that we will be seeking major reductions in workers coming from EU/EEA members. The essential point is that the UK government should be seen to be in control.

The central problem here, therefore, is not so much the lack of opportunity but the refusal of Mrs May to step outside her own, self-imposed limitations. If she could break her obsession with the discredited Chequers/White Paper plan and look at the issues in the round, new possibilities beckon.

Similarly – but possibily even less likely – if the media could break away from its love affair with trivia and look seriously at the alternatives, we could perhaps start having a debate about real possibilities instead of their hothouse fantasies.

For the moment, though, the national media have been virtually silent on the Swiss situation and constantly misrepresent the Efta/EEA option. Almost without exception, any reference to our continued participation in the EEA Agreement includes the claim that we would still have to accept freedom of movement.

Nothing, it seems, can survive the venality of a media determined to get it wrong and where their disinformation reinforces the ignorance of the politicians there can be little hope of any progress. Possibilities there may be – but they remain invisible.

Richard North 11/08/2018 link

Brexit: a scorpion's work


Having regard to Theresa May's response to Nigel Dodds concerning the Irish "backstop", which I mentioned in yesterday's piece, there can be little doubt that, on this point alone, there can be no Withdrawal Agreement.

If that wasn't enough, though, a gimlet-eyed reader also noted another important intervention last Monday, this one by the DUP's Sammy Wilson. Addressing the prime minister, he noted that it had been argued that the policy agreed at Chequers "was necessary to protect the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, because it would avoid the need to implement the backstop arrangement with the Irish Republic".

Thus, Wilson asked: "Is it part of the agreement that the Government will sign a legally binding protocol with the EU that would treat Northern Ireland differently? If not, why is it necessary to have a divisive future trade arrangement that is designed to protect the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom if that was never in jeopardy?

The prime minister's response to this was, to say the very least, instructive. "We have rejected the European Union's proposal in relation to the protocol", she said, then adding:
The expectation is that there will be a protocol in the withdrawal agreement, but we have always made clear our belief that the best resolution of the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland will come within the overall trading relationship that we develop between the United Kingdom and the EU, and that is exactly what this plan delivers.
Again, we see another interesting use of the indefinite article – experienced in the Brexit debate when discussing the customs union as against a customs union.

Here, we see the distinction between the protocol and a protocol. Explicitly, Mrs May is saying that the current text has been rejected, but she keeps open the proposition of another text being agreed. Implicitly, this has to be different to the original text. It could hardly be the same, otherwise Mrs May would be agreeing the protocol.

If we go back to December's Joint Report and the infamous paragraph 49, we recall the statement that: "The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements".

It was intended at the time (and remains the intention) that these objectives would be achieved through the overall EU-UK relationship. But, if this was not be possible, the United Kingdom would "propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland".

Then, in the absence of agreed solutions, the UK would "maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement".

With respect to the commitment to maintain "full alignment" with the rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union, this did not pre-suppose that Northern Ireland would remain in either the Internal Market or the Customs Union – merely that the relevant rules should continue to apply.

Clearly, the "overall EU-UK relationship" as set out in the White Paper is not sufficient to avoid a hard border, whence there must be "specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland", failing which there was the so-called "backstop", which was set out in the protocol to the draft agreement.

With that protocol now firmly and unequivocally rejected, there is no "backstop" in place. Before there can be any further progress on the Withdrawal Agreement, a new protocol text must be produced and agreed.

Given that the "backstop" was supposed to have been settled in June and that there are no new proposals on the table, it does not seem possible that a new draft could be prepared and agreed by the time of the next European Council in October, even if the EU was prepared to discuss the issue.

And it must be remembered that, if any proposal from the UK lies outside the EU's current negotiating guidelines, M. Barnier must go back to the European Council for a new mandate. His first opportunity to do that would be in October, which necessarily precludes an agreement by that Council of a protocol which differed substantially from the original.

However, even with that hurdle out of the way, we still have the overall relationship to address. And that gives Booker his theme for this week's column (no link yet).

Ever since 17.4 million of us voted to leave the European Union, he says, we have been confronted with one question overriding all others: how could we free ourselves completely from the political structures of the EU without doing irreparable damage to our economy?

Through more than 40 years of European integration, the UK economy has become so enmeshed with those of the rest of the EU, that a vast tranche of our economic activity is only legally authorised by a thicket of EU laws.

Was it possible, he asks, that we could extricate ourselves entirely from the EU, while holding on to that economic relationship which, in exports alone, provides 14 percent of our national income, also yielding a hefty slice of Government tax income?

Even before the referendum, he reminds his readers that some of us were urging that there was only one practical way we could get pretty well all we wanted: to become a fully independent country, freeing ourselves from three quarters of the EU’s laws, while continuing to enjoy "frictionless" trade, and also free to sign trade deals across the world, and even to exercise some control over EU immigration.

This was to remain in the wider European Economic Area (EEA) by re-joining Norway in the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Membership could have solved virtually all the problems which have proved so intractable, including the Irish border, But Theresa May chose instead to leave the EU's economic system altogether, to become a "third country".

Thus have we wasted 17 months discussing entirely fanciful proposals, each of which contradicted the "core principle" which the EU made clear even before we triggered Article 50: that “it will not be possible to cherry-pick and be a participant in parts of the Single Market", to enjoy a uniquely privileged status not open to any “third country” outside the EEA.

Yet, Booker declares, what is Mrs May’s latest proposal, which has provoked such uproar, but again exactly that. It is so detached from reality that it can only end next March in the ultimate disaster, where we crash out without an agreement. Few people in Britain yet have any idea of the chaos which will ensue, as we are shut out of our largest export market and much besides.

Whole industries will go into meltdown. It would be the gravest economic crisis in our history. And we shall have brought it entirely on ourselves, because those in charge of our affairs have never begun to understand the technical realities of what we were up against.

That sums up the Booker view, but it is clearly not one shared by his own newspaper. The Telegraph view is that Brexit needs to be "urgently renegotiated" and, if the EU refuses, the Government has other options at its disposal.

One of the few positives to emerge from the Chequers meeting, the paper says, was a commitment to step up plans for "no deal". These, it says, must be accelerated massively. The Government should be publicly preparing to inject billions into the economy to mitigate any short-term economic uncertainty.

Then, according to the Telegraph, the government should make it clear that "bizarre threats" to, for example, "cut off electricity supplies to Northern Ireland or prevent British planes from landing in European airports are insulting and unacceptable, and will receive a resolute response".

And this is as far as it gets although, symbolically, the clown Hannan would vote for Mrs May's Brexit plan – not that he would get a chance, being a lowly MEP.

Taking on the Telegraph's response to the "bizarre threats", though, it should be aware that there are laws made by the EU, with the active participation of the UK, which prohibit the sale of electricity to third countries via an interconnector, unless there are specific agreements in place to manage the transfer. Equally, no third country airliner may land at an EU/EEA airport unless it conforms with the Third Country Operator safety checks, as administered by EASA.

These are laws which, to date, the UK has been entirely content to have applied. Yet it appears that, when those same laws apply to the UK as a third country, they become "insulting and unacceptable".

Nevertheless, the chances are that the UK will not get a chance to decide whether it wants to be "insulted" by "unacceptable" laws. Mrs May has to resolve the "backstop" and, if it is anything close to being acceptable to the EU, the DUP will most certainly reject it.

There are those who say that, for the DUP to stand its ground would bring down the Conservatives and thus, also, deprive the DUP of its influence. But we are not looking at rational behaviour here. The DUP is the scorpion to Mrs May's frog. It will sting her to death midstream, and drown itself – because "that's what it does".

Richard North 15/07/2018 link

Brexit: lost souls


When I used to work with Owen Paterson as his confidential political advisor – which I did for well over a decade, until just after the EU referendum – part of my job was to talk him down from some of the more stupid positions he would occasionally adopt.

Sometimes I had to get quite stroppy, as when we were preparing this speech on his "optimistic vision of a post-EU United Kingdom", which he delivered to Business for Britain on 24 November 2014.

After I'd written the first draft. Owen – unbeknown to me – gave it to Dan Hannan to "improve". He produced a draft so riddled with factual errors that I refused to have anything to do with it, threatening to resign if he went ahead with it. Only later did I find out that Hannan had been responsible for the new draft but, at the time, I warned Owen that his reputation would suffer irreparable damage if he went ahead with it.

That time round, Owen relented and almost all of Hannan's input was removed. As a result, I think we produced a pretty good speech, one which advanced the idea that we should "grasp the opportunity" to leave the EU and its "current political arrangements". But this we would do, "while keeping our vital position in the single market".

In all, Owen mentioned Norway 13 times in the speech, and the EEA 14 times, telling us that membership of the EEA allowed "full participation in the Single Market without being in the EU, as enjoyed by Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein". To "those such as the CBI, who confuse the memberships of the Single Market and the EU", Owen's message was simple and direct. They were "making a basic error and misleading the British people".

It was thus Owen's view that we could "leave the political project and enter into a truly economic project with Europe via the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the EEA". We would, he said, "still enjoy the trading benefits of the EU, without the huge cost of the political baggage".

Needless to say, the speech was panned by the Guardian's John Crace, which is as good an endorsement as one could hope to get at the time.

What none of those reporting the speech bothered with, though, was Owen's comments on the "all-important car industry". Showing a remarkable level of knowledge for a British politician, he took on board the claim that "Norway's position is abusively dismissed as simply submitting to EU law by fax machine", and referred to the range of international standards which were shaping the Single Market acquis. This, he said, was "staggering".

In the car industry, he said, the regulatory focus had moved from Brussels to Geneva. There, he told us, the EU's Single Market standards start as "UN Regulations" produced by the World Forum for the Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations. Known as WP.29, it is hosted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE). Then, Owen declared:
European vehicle production is extraordinarily integrated; the UK produces 1.6 million cars but produces 2.6 million engines. Most of these engines are exported to Europe. As we move to world standards of vehicle production we would be at a massive advantage if we were directly represented, on the body influencing standards, in our industry's interest.
Those particular nuggets of information Owen would have done well to recall when yesterday he went on to BBC Radio 4's Today programme. His task then was to set the world to right about Jaguar Land Rover's (JLR) fears on the impact of a "hard" Brexit, the company having claimed that the combined effect of tariffs and non-tariff barriers could cost it more than £1.2 billion.

However, it was a very different Owen who stepped up to the mike, telling the world that leaving the customs union, the Single Market and European Court of Justice (ECJ) would put JLR in a "wonderful position to compete world-wide because they would be able to buy components cheaper around the world".

This harps back to a piece Owen had done the previous day in the "ultra central" Telegraph, reasserting his new-found belief that we should go for the WTO option and use our "new freedom" to remove all tariffs. Producers, he wrote, would benefit because removing tariffs would "reduce the cost of raw materials". Furthermore, he asserted, "We can free them from over-burdensome regulation and allow them to embrace the innovations they need to compete".

This, at least, had the merit of allowing the Independent to observe that the BBC had been able to come up with "someone other than loopy economics prof Patrick Minford to go on the Today programme".

With his enthusiasm for removing tariffs, though, Paterson might have reminded himself that, while we are free to do this unilaterally (as long as we remove them from all nations and not just the EU Members), the EU will doubtless apply tariffs to UK goods, which indeed it must once we become a third country without a trade agreement.

Therefore, while we might (for the sake of argument) benefit from cheaper components from the rest of the world, our exports to the EU will suddenly become considerably less competitive.

But reverting to his 2014 speech, Owen would also know that automotive parts are heavily regulated – the origins, as he told us, in Geneva though UNECE. And while the UK industry might be able to source cheaper components from the rest of the world (as if it didn't already), there will be a limited suppliers who can produce the volume that also conforms with UNECE WP.29 standards.

Without the type approvals that require conformity with these standards, companies such as JLR will not be able to sell their products to the EU at any price. Removing this "over-burdensome regulation" will ensure that car manufacturers will be unable to trade in huge areas of the international market, as those countries which rely on EU standards will also refuse UK goods.

This transformation of Owen Paterson from sensible, considered commentator to rabid, "ultra" zealot thus has to be one of the stranger phenomena to tarnish this Brexit debate. But one can see why this born-again "ultra" felt the need to intervene, given a sudden upsurge in business interventions over the last weeks.

Nicole Sykes, CBI Head of EU Negotiations, agrees that it's "undeniable" that there's been a big shift in businesses coming out to warn against the dangers of a "no deal" or "hard" Brexit. The reason why businesses are speaking out now, she explains, is because firms are now at the point where it is necessary to implement their contingency plans. Having made their "no regrets" decisions, they are now having to make expensive "regretful" decisions, spending money on things like warehouses and customs staff.

Furthermore, Brexit is no longer just pausing pre-referendum investment decisions but putting off new ones. And, since both sides of the political divide have failed to guarantee sensible transition in case of a "no deal", there is no longer any trust that the interests of businesses will be secured.

As to why firms didn't speak before, Sykes says that they are wary of the concerns of investors, employers, suppliers and customers. "It's a big decision to be political", she says. "It's not a world CEOs are comfortable with. There are hundreds of firms not speaking out for these reasons".

The trouble is, as I have remarked before, when business does intervene, it tends to do so badly - as in the car industry calling for the UK to remain in the customs union with a deal that "maintains the benefits of the single market".

This is exactly the sort of "cakeism" of which we accuse the politicians, but when push comes to shove, business is no better at defining realistic outcomes. Tariff-free trading would come with our continued participation in the EEA, so the customs union is an irrelevance. And there is no possibility of enjoying the benefits of the Single Market outside the EU without being in the EEA.

Thus, while we have lost souls like Owen Paterson, who is making a complete fool of himself, businesses are failing to step up to the mark with sensible alternatives. To deal with his particular brand of stupidity, they need to be much more focused.

CEOs need to be where Paterson was in 2014, not just playing catch-up with all the derivative wonks who are finally beginning to get to grips with the scale of the problems we confront. They get the big bucks – it's time they earned their money and stepped outside their comfort zones. We don't need more lost souls, struggling to find their voice.

And if they think Mrs May's pyjama party is going to deliver any useful results, they need to think again. If the outcome includes proposals for a Single Market in goods, it will be rejected by Brussels and we will be headed for the chaos of a "no deal" Brexit.

Richard North 06/07/2018 link

Brexit: the wind blows chill


Of the eight Brexit-related links to reports currently posted on the Guardian/Observer website, only one of those – with a dateline of Friday afternoon – has any direct relevance to the talks in Brussels.

This would not be so bad if the media had explored fully the events of that Friday, but that never happened. And while, traditionally, the Sunday papers review the main events of the week, that isn't happening either. The lead in the Observer is given over to another exposé on Arron Banks, and the Sunday Times carries on the same theme.

Its online lead story, late on Saturday evening was an "exclusive", telling us: "Emails reveal Russian links of millionaire Brexit backer Arron Banks". This then became another "exclusive", with the headline: "Revealed: Brexit backer Arron Banks’s golden Kremlin connection", followed by the Independent publishing: "Brexit donor Arron Banks 'met with Russian officials in months leading up to EU referendum'".

With coprophagia high up on the menu, we have the Sunday politics shows nicely set up for an orgy of irrelevance, allowing commentators to indulge themselves in lurid conspiracy theories about how the Russians stitched up the referendum. Still, it makes an interesting contrast with the 1975 referendum, when the CIA was funding the European Movement, pushing hard to keep the UK in the EEC.

I suppose there is room for a sort of deal here – if we accept that the 2016 referendum result was flawed, will the Europhile concede that the 1975 result was similarly flawed? Can we then also accept that the UK should never have joined the EEC without a referendum, and no further treaty should have been adopted without an additional referendum?

And if we do all that, where does it leave us? We are where we are and the crucial need is to manage the Brexit process – something the government doesn't exactly seem to have in hand. Mrs May, however, isn't getting a great deal of help from the well-meaning but ineffably ignorant Daniel Hannan who, after all these years, still doesn't seem to understand the relationship between Efta and the EU.

This absurd little man - entertainingly dissected in The New European - is arguing from his squat in the Telegraph that "we should join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA)", even if only as a transitional measure. "Then", he says, "we wouldn’t need to worry about a separate transition deal".

Instead, the man burbles, "We could take our time to negotiate a new European settlement that would work in everyone’s interests, creating a broad pan-European free trade area within which our more federally inclined allies could pursue their closer union surrounded by a ring of friends".

Elsewhere, he says: "During the campaign, I suggested that Britain should seek a Swiss-type arrangement with the EU, inside the common market but outside the political institutions", adding that he repeated that call after polling day.

This would seem clear enough – a suggestion that he wants us to go for the Swiss option. Nowhere in his piece does he actually mention the EEA or the Norway option. But he goes on to say that, in Efta, "we'd be clearly outside the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Polices, we'd pay a significantly reduced budget contribution and we'd be untouched by some 85 percent of EU legal acts. We’d also have our own trade deals".

But this sound more like being in the EEA (even if he gets the figure wrong on "legal acts"). This is Hannan to a tee. He wafts in conveying a degree of supercilious self-confidence that would seem to imply knowledge, but this is a front that conceals a bizarre confusion about even the most basic structures of the EU and its associated bodies.

It is a matter of record that Efta does not, as such, have a relationship with the EU. There is no Efta-EEA agreement. Efta members do not, by virtue of their membership, pay anything to the EU budget, and they do not adopt EU law – directly of indirectly.

To enter a relationship with the EU, there are two options. Hannan can have us go for the EEA Agreement - a multilateral accord between the members of the EU and the three Efta states, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Or he can go for the Swiss option – a series of bilateral agreements with the EU, which owe nothing to membership of Efta. It is worth noting, incidentally, that the current round of EU-Swiss talks started in 1994 and took 16 years to complete.

In effect, Hannan is confusing the two arrangements, without really understanding which it is he wants. In truth, he's never really understood what he wants. There is a hazy zone in his brain which is somehow linked to Brexit, but what he comes out with is jumbled garbage.

At least, though, no one could accuse Gisela Stuart of being confused about "possible alternatives to the EU".

"Vote Leave", she says, "was clear - none of these models would work". The Norway model, with the UK staying in the Single Market, she tells us, "would mean continued free movement of people, paying billions into the EU budget and having to accept EU rules without getting any say over them".

Leaving the EU, according to Stuart, "was about taking back control of our laws, borders, money and trade. These are the red lines set by the public in the referendum and these red lines are crossed if we do not leave both the Single Market and the Customs Union. That's one thing both sides agreed the referendum vote entailed. Indeed, Remainers repeated it over and over again as a threat. Leaving the EU would mean leaving the Single Market and Customs Union".

How it is possible for any sentient being, supposedly at the heart of politics, to be so locked into these myths is beyond comprehension. Great merriment has been gained from the stupidity emerging from Love Island programme but, in reality, Stuart is little different from the thickest of its "stars".

As to membership of the Single Market, here Booker pitches in, using his truncated column to challenge "one of the more deceitful myths built up around Brexit is that what the British voted for in 2016 was that we should get out of the single market".

In fact, he says, this issue was never discussed in the referendum campaign. It only surfaced in January 2017, when Theresa May for the first time announced that this was her intention".

Until then she had repeatedly stated that we would remain "within" the market and that she wanted us to continue enjoying "frictionless" access to it. This was in accord with a campaign poll which showed 52 percent of voters putting our continued ability to trade with the EU at the top of their agenda. Immigration scored only 24 percent.

Booker argues – and it is certainly my belief – that if it had been openly argued during the campaign that we should cut ourselves off from "frictionless" access to our largest single export market, it might have been rather harder to get a majority in favour of leaving. We then might not be looking at the catastrophic shambles which confronts us today.

Looking at my first version of Flexcit - a mere 97 pages which I published in April 2014, I wrote that, having regard to the character of the debate on Britain's EU membership, we see the Single Market, and the related issue of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), having assumed a totemic status.

It is thus inconceivable, I suggested, that the "out" campaign could have succeeded without it having made firm, unbreakable assurances that current trading relations will continue.

The truth of the matter is that figures such Johnson, Paterson and Hannan all made very public noises about retaining "access" to the Single Market. Here is the weasel Hannan in May 2016 – a month before the referendum. Citing Michael Gove, he wrote:
Britain would find itself in the same position as every other non-EU state in Europe – that is, part of a European free trade area by dint of an intergovernmental treaty. Andorra, Bosnia, the Faroes, Iceland, Jersey, Macedonia, Monaco, Montenegro, Serbia, Switzerland, Turkey – all trade freely with the EU while making their own laws.
Astute readers will quickly pick up the inconsistencies, where Hannan put Iceland, Switzerland and Turkey all on the same plane. But the "killer" passage cites George Osborne claiming after Gove had spoken that: "We have had the Leave campaign admit this morning that Britain would leave the single market…".

Says Hannan, "the Chancellor must have known that Michael Gove was not saying anything of the kind. The only geographically European states that don't have unhindered access to EU markets are Belarus and Russia. No one seriously thinks that that would be Britain's future".

You can make of this gibberish what you will, but Hannan is clearly at pains to convey the impression that we would continue trading with the Single Market, more or less on current terms.

We can go round and round in circles from there, but Booker in my view accurately conveys the sentiment that prevailed during the referendum. No one in their right mind expected that Brexit would amount to terminating trading relations with the EU. There was no mandate for it then, and no mandate for it now.

The great tragedy, of course, is that so many of the Muppets believed we could have "access" to the Single Market without being part of it. But we can't. We are either in it, or we're not. And outside, as a third country, the wind blows chill.

Richard North 10/06/2018 link

Brexit: the onset of madness


If there is a limit to the depths to which Rees Mogg will sink in pursuit of his version of Brexit, it seems we haven't reached it yet. Tied to his new-found allies in the Express, he is doing a Hannan, asserting that the way to resolve the Northern Ireland border issue is "to model the province's post-Brexit boundary on Switzerland’s frictionless frontier".

And, typical of the coprophagic UK media, we have The Sun and the Mail follow uncritically in its wake, peddling the line that Switzerland has "extremely effective" borders with a series of EU countries while being outside the single market and customs union.

He is backed by cretins from the Express who have been to Switzerland to see "at first hand how the Swiss manage to avoid a hard border by using technology and assessing risk". Surrounded by EU member states, the paper says, "its borders with Germany, France, Italy and Austria run smoothly despite it remaining resolutely outside the customs union".

To Rees Mogg, this then becomes "a prime example" of how the EU is capable of resolving complex border issues when it wants to, from which the man regales us with the idea that: "The Swiss model is an example of what can be achieved if the political will is there".

Needless to say, the Express hacks mislead themselves and their Parliamentary sponsor, by focusing on transit traffic – for which there are special arrangements – then claiming that "hold-ups are a rarity for both domestic and heavy good vehicles".

Clearly, though, they have not been reading the Corierre Della Sera (Milan edition) which has been writing of a "customs war between Como and Switzerland".

The photograph above illustrates the result, the traffic scene the week before last in the Italian border city of Como, where – according to ETG News - over the Pentecost public holiday, the Swiss authorities had closed the border post. When the customs reopened, the backlog led to queues seven kilometres long on the main A9 highway, forcing local traffic into the city centre, causing massive delays.

This is not an uncommon event in Swiss border-land, where, unlike the UK where the subject is so often the weather, the papers write about the border delays which occur every public holiday when the customs posts are closed, turning the crossing into a "nightmare" over several consecutive days.

There is, in fact, an ongoing dispute between the Italian and Swiss authorities over arbitrary customs posts closures, the nature of which goes to illustrate that the border is very far from being frictionless.

A romp through the foreign media amply reinforces this point, destroying any illusions that the Swiss frontier is anything other than a real border, with active policing and an extensive range of controls covering many sectors.

The latest excursion comes on the French side, following the massive charges on domestic refuse imposed on their citizens by the Swiss authorities.

Frugal Swiss citizens have taken personally to exporting their rubbish to France. French customs have retaliated by searching the cars of local as they cross the border for their periodic shopping trips, fining them €150 for every bag of rubbish seized. In 2017, the customs services in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté intercepted nearly 10 tons of waste from Switzerland. In an indication that efforts aren't entirely successful, French residents in border areas are said to be padlocking their waste bins.

Shopping trips, it seems, are a major driver of cross-border activity but the sheer weight of traffic is causing concern. Swissinfo gives us a taste of the problems, telling us that. in the village of Koblenz, you'll see cars and ten-wheeler trucks backed up waiting to enter or exit Germany, blocking the idyllic view of the Rhine River.

Koblenz, it says, is one of many Swiss border towns struggling to cope with growing traffic: a combination of transport trucks, commuting workers from abroad and Swiss shopping tourists is creating headaches for the authorities, not to mention citizens, in these towns.

At the Koblenz-Waldshut border, some 13,000 cars and 1,000 trucks cross the border each day, leading to daily traffic jams in both Germany and Switzerland. Authorities are currently altering the routing of the traffic and erecting a new customs post at that border in an attempt to reduce the impact of the traffic problem.

There has been a steady rise in customs income at the Koblenz border, which climbed to CHF304 million ($348 million) in 2012 from CHF97 million in 2001, much of it linked to commercial traffic. Yet, while Koblenz has to deal with the fallout from the traffic chaos, it does not receive a share of the customs' revenue.

Cross border shopping is adding to the traffic congestion everywhere along the German border, where towns such as Konstanz feel under siege from Swiss shoppers. Traffic jams at the border are claimed to be an everyday occurrence.

Until recently, the weaker euro has made this option more appealing in recent years. In 2013, Swiss customs collected CHF39.2 million from Swiss shopping across the border. A recent survey found that Swiss shoppers spent nearly CHF10 billion abroad in 2013, including in online shops. It is estimated that the Swiss drove 1.16 billion kilometres last year to go shopping abroad.

In Basel, Switzerland and Germany have shared the CHF3.3 million costs of a newly-rebuilt customs post, to accommodate a new tram system. But still cross-border workers and Swiss shoppers give rise to endless cross-border traffic jams. This is not the only border post to be rebuilt.

Although collecting VAT from shoppers both sides of the border is a major function on the Swiss side where the 300 Swiss Francs (€275) allowance is exceeded, rooting out "VAT cheaters" is becoming a major task. The extent of fraud has required the instigation of additional offences. Administrative costs are significant and losses are estimated to run to millions.

The situation is becoming unsustainable. To deal with it, some believe that 200 to 300 new customs officials would have to be hired. In addition, new facilities will have to be built on the border, more parking spaces have to be made available and the storage areas have to be expanded so that business is not hindered.

As well as this growing problem, customs posts continue to carry out traditional functions, picking up drug smugglers, small-time cigarette smugglers and drivers who were drug-positive or driving without a license.

Recently, the Italian national football team was stopped for taking too much gear with it on a friendly fixture – past not-so-friendly customs officials. Last year, alert German customs officials intercepted two Lithuanian travellers trying to smuggle two valuable watches across the border at the Rheinfelden-Autobahn crossing.

Customs officials also find imports of radioactive jewellery, billionaires illegally importing works of art and politicians smuggling cash across the border. In Switzerland, there is no free movement of capital and sums over €5,000 must be declared. Sometimes, big money is involved.

If stopped, a hapless traveller can expect checks taking as long as four hours, depending on what officials are looking for. And while tourists from "safe" countries might get a relatively easy passage, at the main crossing point from France near Geneva, queues of lorries can extend 300 metres or more.

Nothing of this routine is conveyed by the Express, however, which claims its hacks were given exclusive access to customs controls on the Basel-Weil am Rhein autobahn straddling Switzerland and Germany. The paper's reporting team thus claimed it "crossed the busy border into Germany and back again without any delay".

Like everything else we are told, though, this is only a fraction of the true picture. The facility, with its 35 hectares, is the largest in Switzerland and the largest land tax system in Germany. Last year, more than 1,400 trucks passed through daily in the direction of Switzerland and around 1.900 in the direction of Germany.

The facility, which opened in 1980, was only intended for 600 lorries per day and has now been partially rebuilt. By the time the project is complete, it will have cost €26 million, the costs being shared between Germany and Switzerland.

Around 140 Swiss customs employees and 145 German customs officials work at the facility, and they are raking in the money. The German customs collect nearly one billion euros a year; Swiss Customs around 620 million francs.

But what is particularly interesting about the facility that it is notorious for its "kilometre-long" congestion. But, once the redevelopment is complete, it is hoped that morning traffic jams, after the overnight truck ban, can be reduced to two hours. For sure, the Express "reporting team" may have had an easy passage during a normal working day, but in the mornings and after holiday periods, it is an altogether different matter.

What the Express is offering, therefore, is a completely distorted picture. But even then, the very fact that it is showing border posts goes against the whole idea of an "invisible" border. But, with over 100 manned border posts, and such an active range of checks, the Swiss frontier has to be regarded as a "hard" border.

For Mr Mogg to pretend otherwise is unconscionable. But if he really does believe the Swiss border is a model for Northern Ireland, he has travelled beyond mere stupidity. We are seeing the onset of madness.

Richard North 01/06/2018 link

Brexit: choose your fantasies


The pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), has announced it is reviewing its operations at its Barnard Castle site in County Durham. The local newspaper reports that up to 200 jobs are at risk.

The news has come as a surprise as, only last July, GSK announced it was investing £39 million into the site to expand the production of drugs to treat HIV and asthma. And, although no reason has been given for the sudden turnaround, Brexit is a front-runner in the speculation stakes.

This is by no means the first time that job losses (actual or potential) have been associated with Brexit but, if we get the "no deal" Brexit which some seem to want, there will be a torrent of news of this nature, with unemployment leaping by hundreds of thousands.

In fact, if the Treasury forecast of an eight percent loss in GDP from a "no deal" Brexit is anywhere near correct, the relationship between GDP and employment suggests that job losses might top a million. But, assuming a chaotic fall-out, total losses could run into many millions out of the 32 million workforce.

Some experts already argue that Brexit is already an economic disaster, with the economy having failed to bounce back after the "beast from the east". But if the pundits can't offer certainty either way, it is also true to say that, given the political uncertainty, no one can predict a happy outcome from the path we are currently pursuing.

It ill-behoves the likes of well-padded commenters such as Daniel Hannan with his fanciful nostrums about trade liberalisation, but if there is one thing the Brexit referendum has done is open the floodgates to any number of snake-oil salesmen peddling their favoured remedies.

Of the many things I'm sick of hearing about are the perpetual wibbling about how the city states of Hong Kong and Singapore offer an example for us all, free-trade nirvanas which, if followed, will lead us to an eternal economic paradise.

It was good to see Hannan taken down in his own comments, with just one commenter making a more than adequate case against this illusion. Hong Kong and Singapore, he observes, are not viable economic development models. Hong Kong is a unique historical anomaly; it's not an independent nation, its eminent position is the result of Chinese State containment of a colonial power.

Singapore is an authoritarian single party state, in effect, that exercises hundred percent state ownership of land and eighty percent of property. Both Hong Kong and Singapore are served by armies of immigrant labour.

That last observation alone should give cause for warning as the studies have been done which show that there is a darker side to the Singapore "economic miracle", with the bulk of the population paying a price that none of us here would be prepared to pay.

However, it is also the case that Singapore has a higher per capita number of billionaires than any other country in the world. To be mega-rich in that land is an exquisite experience denied to the vast bulk of the people living there, suffering a population density of well over 7,000 per square kilometre.

It is always instructive, therefore, to have the well-heeled defining for us certain economic models, the consequences of which their wealth enables them to avoid.

As we ourselves have observed before, though, people such as Hannan are entirely immune to criticisms. Mostly, they insulate themselves from them so that they scarcely realise they exist – like the poverty that their policies would create. That allows them to trot out the same old nostrums, again and again, without having to change their messages.

That said, in the space of six years, Hannan's views seem to have undergone quite a radical transformation. In September 2012, he was stressing to his readers that "no one – no one – is suggesting that Britain should disengage from European trade". He went on to tell us that "withdrawal from the EU does not imply withdrawal from the European market". Indeed, he said, "under Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, the EU is obligated to negotiate a commercial accord with any state that leaves".

Six years later, in the new version of the Hannan reality, he would have us merely "aim to have as deep and comprehensive a trade deal with the EU as possible". But, he says, if we can't get one, "we can secure most of the benefits simply by continuing to accept EU exports without restriction".

That's fine and dandy, and what we would almost certainly have to do – just to keep the population fed - notwithstanding that we would have to apply the same terms to the rest of the world in order to stay WTO compliant.

It is quite staggering, however, how casually Hannan writes off EU exports, valued at £276 billion in 2017 – representing a 14 percent hit to the GDP if we lost the lot of it – plus the additional losses arising from the massive disruption to our economy.

Unfortunately, Hannan is not alone with his fantasies. Another one who has created his own form of reality is my former friend and colleague, Owen Paterson, who is now dismissing the Irish Border question as "a hugely exaggerated non-problem". The border, he says. is not a tax control point, adding: "Nothing happens at the border itself, everything happens at the point of shipment and the point of landing".

You have to give Paterson one thing. In a remarkably few, deft sentences, he has totally demolished the entire concept of the single market which the EU holds so dear. The essence of that is an area of free circulation of goods, protected by an external border to which entry is prohibited to goods from third countries except under the most rigorous of conditions – including extensive border controls.

In a few words, therefore, Paterson has abolished the whole gamut of EU controls and would have us ship goods freely across the border, a freedom afforded to no other third country on earth, and a concession which the EU will apparently grant us simply because we want it this way and can't bear to accept the consequences of our leaving the EU.

It does not matter to the likes of Paterson that the EU has consistently rejected his "non-solution" to what it considers is a very real problem. The fantasy world of the former Northern Ireland secretary must prevail. The Irish border it is a non-problem, purely because he stands up in front of a most audience and says so.

Creating personal fantasy worlds, however, does not seem confined merely to the rabid end of the Brexiteer spectrum. The Guardian, this time with the help of its friends in the Local Government Association. is quite capable of creating its own.

Raising the alarm on food safety when we leave, it says that regular alerts are sent by the EU for things such as pesticides residue, mercury, salmonella and E coli "in order to avoid a repeat of controversies such as the horsemeat scandal".

The point is fair enough in general, as we do rely on RASFF - Food and Feed Safety Alerts from the EU. But to suggest that this system would prevent another horsemeat scandal - when it was failures in the EU food safety regulatory system which allowed the first episode – is something of a stretch.

It is also the case that we need food safety data from a much wider area than just the EU (or EEA) and it would be much more preferable to have the World Health Organisation (WHO) coordinating intelligence – something we could promote once we have left the EU.

Rejecting that reality, the Guardian has its own. Brexit, therefore, does not look as if it is going to open us up to the real world. Merely, it provides the opportunity for the opposing sides to chose their own disparate fantasies, to which the public are invited to subscribe.

Meanwhile, of course, the clock ticks away the time to 29 March.

Richard North 30/05/2018 link

Brexit: the state of play


It may have been a bank holiday and therefore a slow news day, but one really does wonder when the story of yesterday was the chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee saying that the ghastly Johnson should be given greater control over Brexit.

It is true, of course, that some of the FCO's duties have been passed to Liam Fox's department. And, traditionally, responsibilities for dealing with the EU also went to the FCO but, with David Davis handling that end, that leaves the Johnson's department somewhat lightly engaged.

However, given his history and his current form, I would have thought that the very last person on this planet we need to take a greater hand in Brexit is the current post-holder. But then, the very last thing we need is the current post-holder having anything to do with government – ours or anyone else's.

Meanwhile, that great repository of information, The Sun is demanding that "Britain must start planning for a 'no deal' Brexit". In the opinion of the intellectual giants that write its editorials, we need to do so or "we're only setting ourselves up for failure in negotiations".

Thus we are served up with the opinion that, "Theresa May must guarantee that we are absolutely prepared to go it alone or Brussels will be sure to serve us up the most awful deal possible" – a cretinous observation that could just as easily have been delivered by our foreign secretary. Yet Tom Tugendhat proposes that Johnson be given "strategic control" over leaving the EU.

And that basically sums up the state of play with Brexit at the moment – unless you want to get excited at a Guardian piece on geographical indications. According to the newspaper, after a Commission position paper last September, this is going to be the next "flashpoint" in the Brexit talks.

All that does, though, is underline the weird no-man's land that has taken possession of the issue, where nothing is real and no-one wants to be the first to tell the nation that we're sliding gently down the pan in a journey to oblivion.

Instead, there is much attention on the situation in Italy, and some suggestions that the instability there might in some way strengthen the UK's position. But then, any suggestion of political stresses in the EU Empire is invariably seized upon by some as evidence of imminent collapse.

Pete describes it as kippery in overdrive. In terms of Brexit, it don't mean nuffink. Things are too far gone for political developments on the continent to be of any use to us here. But, with Italian politics to keep us entertained, the Barnier speech from Saturday is already history, even if M. Barnier was kind enough yesterday to tweet a link to the English language version. But he needn't have bothered – the dogs have barked and the caravan has moved on.

Speaking of Twitter, my one useful, if modest contribution for the day was to update the data on EEA legislation. Using the EUR-lex database, we see that there are currently 21,178 EU laws in force of all types. Reference to EEA-lex gives us 5,779 EU laws incorporated into the EEA Agreement and in force. From that, we are able to calculate the proportion of EEA law to EU law. As of 28 May 2018, it stands at 27 percent.

We should need to keep posting this information, other than as an update for information purposes. But there is still an endless flow of Muppets who insist that adopting the Efta/EEA option means tasking on board the entire EU acquis.

One of the latest in this long line is Darren Grimes, deputy editor of Brexit Central, who argues that "to be in the EEA means retaining all EU regulations and policies, barring reform and new trade". There really are people that stupid inhabiting the face of this earth.

What is depressing is that people like this feel it necessary to make stuff up in order to argue their points. All you have to do, as I did, is look up EEA-lex and EUR-lex. Count the laws in both, express one as a percentage of the other and you get the current state of play. But, to Brexit Central, fiction is preferable to fact.

The greater tragedy is that, by all accounts, many in government share that preference – starkly illustrated by a report from Reuters. It is previewing comments to be made today by EEF Chief Executive Stephen Phipson.

The head of the manufacturer's federation will tell us today that the government should abandon the so-called "max fac" option, much favoured by the "Ultra" tendency as being "unrealistic and a waste of money". Phipson concedes that "It may have some long-term benefits" but, as a solution to our immediate problems, "is a non-starter".

This is where inconvenient things like the truth come to the fore. Phipson points to the most advanced application of the "max fac" technology, on the US-Canada border, and notes that most goods were still subject to normal checks.

He says that after a decade of substantial investment, only 100 Canadian companies can use a fast-track system into the United States, reinforcing his view that pursuing "max fac" as a border option for the current impasse on the Irish border, was wasting time and money.

"I hope that the Government now recognizes that one of these options is simply not credible", he says. "We need to put all of our resources into developing a workable solution, and quickly". This was rather what I was writing yesterday, albeit somewhat more stridently. 

In terms of the emphasis needed, what I wrote was more appropriate. We are at crisis point, and unless industry – and just about everybody else – starts ringing alarm bells, we are going to go under. Industry, in particular, is far too relaxed about the government's endeavours, while agriculture has been on another planet. Even if industry is beginning to wake up, we're in danger of seeing too little, too late.

Yet, for some, controlling the message is far more important than the message itself, something of which is leaking out into the public domain, as the attitude of the Telegraph becomes more widely known.

That makes today's picture particularly apposite, contributed by Mrs EUReferendum. Mainly, we get the Coventry treatment and it is only when – as Pete has been successful in demonstrating – that we go out of our way to be offensive, do the "Brexit aristocracy" take any notice.

Meanwhile, the High Priests can churn out endless tosh that wouldn't pass muster in any honest debate, while the wider debate degenerates into farce. Yet, surely, we should not seriously be expecting, after all this time, that a "no deal" scenario is a tenable proposition. Nevertheless, where The Sun leads, the Mail follows, bolstered by the usual quota of idiot MPs and the mindless prattle from the government.

The doors of the lunatic asylums have been thrown open and madness stalks the land.

Richard North 29/05/2018 link

Brexit: up the creek


There is a certain amount of wibble going on about Emma Barnett's interview with Barry Gardiner yesterday on the Marr Show, with Barnett standing in for the witless hack who is apparently indisposed.

Gardiner, of course, is Labour's shadow international trade secretary, and he was charged by Barnett to explain Labour's policy on the single market. All she managed to do, though, was conform something we already knew- that Labour's policy is so far lacking in coherence that it gives incoherence a bad name.

Perversely, on the list of transcripts, the date given for the interview is 13 May – last week. This is when Nick Robinson stood in for Andrew Marr, the list thus making it appear as if Barnett and Robinson were co-hosting the show.

I missed the Robinson spectacular last week, which is perhaps just as well. The only thing consistent about him is that every time he opens his mouth, he confirms himself to be a vacuous fool.

Thus, when it was his turn to stand in for Andrew Marr, he interviewed Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney. But there was no intellect at play, We simply had an automaton mouthing questions at an Irish politician, only to demonstrate that he was almost incapable of understanding the answers.

In the early stages of the interview, Coveney reminded the egregious Robinson that Mrs May had agreed there would be no border infrastructure of any kind on the island of Ireland, no related checks or controls.

"That means", said Coveney, "we're not talking about cameras and scanning system and drones here. It means we're talking about a political solution that allows for regulatory alignment in a way that prevents the need for border infrastructure".

One was almost sense the rusty cogs, creaking and whirring in the Robinson brain – a masterpiece of microscopic engineering. The mere utterance of "regulatory alignment" triggers a semi-automatic diatribe, straight out of the BBC Today playbook.

"That", burbles Robinson, "would sound to many people like you're merely restating the hope. Hope one we hope the UK doesn't leave at all. Hope two we hope they stay in the single market. Hope three we hope they stay in the customs union. But the government are not doing any of those things".

One wonders how long the script advisors worked on that one, and how long Robinson had to rehearse the precise wording, but however long it took, the BBC collective spent exactly no time at all on devising anything sensible.

This is, in fact, the first and only mention of the single market in the entire interview, and a clear aberration. But it is only one of three mentions of the term "customs union".

The second comes later in the interview when Robinson accuses Coveney of a lack of flexibility, telling the Irish foreign minister that he sounds "awfully like a man who's saying let's hope the British parliament votes for the customs union which we've always wanted".

However, when Coveney returns to repeat that he wants "the outcome of there being no physical infrastructure on the island of Ireland and no related checks or controls, Robinson leaps on this to imply that he would be happy if parliament voted for a customs union.

At this, Coveney gives up, telling the fool that he's said from the start that we believe if we had a shared customs space or shared customs territory, which would need to be negotiated, that would help to solve a lot of the issues that are stalling these negotiations right now".

And that's enough for Robinson. He's got precisely nothing out of Coveney that we didn't already know, and reinforced in less-educated viewers' minds that the customs union is the issue of consequence.

Now, with a week gone by since Robinson put his oar in, we're no further forward. In fact, we're steadily regressing as the imbecile collective that masquerades as the British media has steady converted the Irish question into one of the UK adopting the customs union.

This culminates in a fatuous piece in the Guardian which has the vile Johnson blathering about he and "his fellow Brexiters" still expect Mrs May to deliver a deal that avoids triggering the "backstop" that would keep Britain aligned to the customs union beyond 2020.

From an issue about "regulatory alignment", which the media never understood – and was far too complicated for their little brains – the "backstop" has now become in the words of Johnson, the "customs backstop" – putting it firmly in the comfort zone of the zombie media.

As copy writers dig themselves in deeper, not understanding the basics, they produce endless gibberish that harbours so many contradictions and infelicities that it can only be a meaningless jumble of words. It is very difficult for the hacks to explain things clearly if they themselves have little understanding of the things about which they write.

Someone who should know different – but doesn't – is Daniel Hannan, now usurping Booker's spot in The Sunday Telegraph, to deliver his own brand of gibberish.

Totally lacking in self-awareness, he complains of Tribal MPs, accusing them of "doing the EU's dirty work". This is an odd charge, given Hannan's attachment to the "Ultras" who are doing more than any other group (apart from the government) to prevent the UK reaching a sensible Brexit settlement.

Never having been slow to parade his ignorance, Hannan generously offers his "take" on what he calls "the preposterous row" about the Irish frontier.

A confident British government, with a united Parliament behind it, he says, could have been both firm and friendly, saying to the EU: "We won't put any hard infrastructure on our side of the line, and we will work with you on any reasonable proposal that will allow you to do the same on your side".

You would have thought that someone who has been an MEP as long as he has might know something about the EU and the way it works. As long as I've known him, though,. he has only ever swanned into Brussels to stay in the most expensive hotel in town, then to have dinner with his Tory chums and collect his expenses, ready to return with his mind as clear of any troubling detail as it has ever been.

This idiot's idea of a "reasonable proposal" is a "comprehensive UK-EU trade deal based on the mutual recognition of standards", something which he takes straight out of the Legatum/IEA playbook. He doesn't have the wit to understand that mutual recognition – in the sense that he describes it – works in the EU only within the framework of the Single Market. This is the very thing he would now have us leave.

The sheer arrogance of this is underwritten by Hannan's closing remarks, where he transfers the blame to parliament for the UK not seeking to implement something that even Mrs May knows is a non-starter. And, having rather taken a shine to the word "preposterous", he uses it again (a sure sign of a sloppy writer), to assert that we have "ended up in the preposterous position of making what happens on the Irish side of the line our responsibility".

At least in this piece, Hannan is not blathering on about "trusted traders" – which is perhaps just as well. The Irish Independent has hired Carol Lynch, a partner in BDO Customs and International Trade, to tell us about the difficulties in acquiring that status.

It is, she says, "a very comprehensive and time-consuming process", taking "six months to prepare an application and put in place the required procedures". Following the application, she says, "it can take another six months to actually obtain authorisation. Due to this you would need to start this process a year before you require authorisation".

This is addressed to Irish readers but, for the UK there is the added fun of trying to get mutual recognition of any UK AEO scheme. This is where the term "mutual recognition" really does bite. For the UK scheme to work in respect of exports to EU Member States, the EU must accept our systems, all of which depend on the exchange of electronic data.

For that to happen, the UK must gain the status of "data adequacy", under the EU's General Data Protection Regulation, something which is by no means automatic and is far from being assured.

In other words, we are still up the creek without a paddle, yet all we get is the prattle of our zombie media, and the inane mouthings of our ignorant politicians. And, to cap it all, a Tory donor is asking us to believe that Mrs May's "incompetence" is deliberate.

I could almost wish that was true.

Richard North 21/05/2018 link

Brexit: acting in the national interest


Stephen Hammond is Conservative MP for Wimbledon. And, for a Tory MP, he's doing a slightly unusual thing – writing in the Guardian.

Furthermore, Mr Hammond is setting himself up as something of a hero, telling us that Brexit is a "national crisis". We need "a compromise solution", he says, presenting us with the view that protecting Britain’s economy is vital – "joining Efta and remaining in the EEA is the best way to reach a consensus".

Mr Hammond hasn't always felt this way. In February 2016, prior to the referendum, he had seen the terms of David Cameron's "renegotiation" and the uncertainty of leaving the European Union weighed heavily on his mind. "We have no idea what out would look like", he said, "and different leave campaigners have wildly different views on what it should look like".

His concern, was to retain good access to the European Union's market but didn't like the idea of membership of the EEA like Norway. We would, he said, be subject to most European Union regulations anyway with very little influence over them".

Rather, he thought that we should stay in the "reformed EU which gives us access to the single market, stops ever closer union and political integration out of irritation and pique". Leaving, was a move that he did not think was "in our national interest".

Now, however, he seems to have undergone a change of heart. "Everyone agrees that Brexit must not harm our economy", he now says. "Everyone also agrees that we will need a customs arrangement that allows frictionless trade coupled with the ability to access the single market without barriers, if not be a member of it".

The problem, though – in Hammond's view – "is that a consensus has not yet emerged as to how this can be achieved. However, there is now a growing acceptance that compromise must be achieved and a dawning reality that the slogans need to be ditched". He adds:
The House of Lords has passed amendments to the EU withdrawal bill to the effect that a customs union and access to the single market are necessary. This has concentrated the minds of many pragmatic politicians to seek practical solutions that are achievable within the ever-shortening timeframe.
Unfortunately, he then goes slightly adrift, asserting that real evidence of this willingness to build a consensus "came on Thursday when Daniel Hannan MEP, an arch leaver, backed joining the European Free Trade Association (Efta)".

In fact, for most of his career, Hannan has advocated Efta membership, but exercising what he calls the "Swiss option". But Hammond now wants to go further, joining Efta alongside retaining our membership of the EEA.

This, he says, "would remove the need to check regulatory compliance and allow goods and services to continue to be traded freely". But he' s changed his mind about having very little influence over the law. "The UK would be consulted on all new regulations, which is when the real decisions are made", says the born-again Hammond.

But he's not quite there. "The UK could also restrict the free movement of people, as EU citizenship would not apply", he says. No Article 112 for this man. And we would be out of the common fisheries and agricultural policies, he tells us – as if this was necessarily a good thing in the immediate future.

Nor can the man be said to be on top of his brief – whatever that was. "We will need a customs union or partnership-type solution as well to avoid damage to our economy", he says, because: "this is essential to avoid tariffs and costly rules of origin requirements that would create a physical barrier to trade across Ireland, but also to prevent the need for increases of infrastructure at ports in England, Scotland and Wales".

Clearly unaware of what the Single Market does, he declared that "the assertion that technology renders a customs union unnecessary to avoid a hard border in Ireland does not survive scrutiny", citing the Commons' Northern Ireland affairs committee as its source.

Not for Mr Hammond is the idea that the Single Market, plus technology could give us a near-invisible border. The Conservative MP for Wimbledon wants to go the whole hog, then arguing that new free trade agreements could still be possible, in a customs union or partnership with the EU.

For example, financial services are not covered by customs rules or arrangements so would be the best starting point for any new deal. But we should also be clear on the real economic benefits the UK could gain from new free trade agreements once we leave the EU. There is little evidence that these would compensate for the loss of EU trade and offer anything above the EU’s existing free trade agreements – which is true, after a fashion.

In something of an understatement, Hammond then observes that it is abundantly clear that no model will satisfy everyone. But, he says, "there is a recognition that 'no deal' is potentially catastrophic for our economy and our living standards".

Thus, he asserts: "joining Efta and remaining in the EEA with frictionless trade and customs arrangements would be sensible and command majority support in the House of Commons".

If we took out the nonsense about "customs union" and substituted "customs cooperation", then we are nearly there. And if Hammond is right that Efta/EEA would command a majority in the House, then there is at last a glimmer of hope for us all. And Mrs May's Brexit strategy is in serious trouble.

Hammond concludes by saying that, "in a national crisis – and this is a national crisis – the British political class has always had the ability to put aside ideology, reach a national consensus and act in the national interest". He therefore says that: "We must build that national consensus and achieve the best outcome for Britain".

Better late than never, we might observe – Brexit should always have been a matter for national unity rather than party politics. But this is closer than we've ever been to our Efta/EEA target.

Sadly, though, just as we could be seeing real progress, Corbyn has formally dismissed calls to back EEA membership.

Speaking during a visit to Scotland on yesterday, Corbyn displayed his profound ignorance of the issues, stating that "We've made it very clear our whole strategy is that we recognise the result of the referendum, that we obtain a tariff-free trade relationship with Europe and that we develop a customs union to go alongside that".

"The EEA of itself", he says, "does not offer that because the EEA would not offer us any power to negotiate, we would merely be rule-takers not rule-makers in that".

With even the likes of Hammond now knowing this to be false (even though he doesn't have the complete picture), we have backbenchers who are ahead of the game, in what could have the makings of a grass-roots revolution.

But, for this to prevail, MPs from both sides of the House must rebel against their leaders in sufficient numbers to make it happen – and that's going to be difficult. Nevertheless, we are led to believe that there are enough from Labour and the Conservatives who, together with the Lib-Dems and the SNP, could carry the day.

This most likely explains what Mrs May is delaying bringing back the Withdrawal Bill to the Commons until after the Whitsun break. In the meantime, the whips will be busy and party strategists will be working to get the rebels back into the fold.

However, there is a thought here. Since Corbyn is also failing to back the Lords amendment, this issue is taking on a cross-party dimension. It will be very difficult, therefore, for the prime minister to turn a defeat into a vote of confidence issue. And, in the event that a vote was held and lost, Corbyn would have forfeited any claim to be the natural successor.

And while the Commons has a never-ending capacity to disappoint, it would be hugely ironic if Brexit was to precipitate a successful cross-party back-bencher rebellion – with the rebels acting in the national interest.

We might then even begin to think that we have not lived in vain.

Richard North 12/05/2018 link

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