Brexit: meaty benefits

02/10/2021  


It really is quite instructive to see the intensity of feeling about the HGV driver issue and the determination of some to believe that Brexit is the cause of the shortage in the UK. This is despite copious evidence that driver shortages are not only a European issue but, according to the IRU, a global problem that has been building for substantially more than a decade.

One would not disagree that Brexit has had an influence on the timing and the intensity of the crisis in the UK – but then so has Covid, and the relative contributions of the two influences are hard to unravel. But this was a crisis that was going to emerge anyway, with or without Brexit or Covid, and for very much the same reasons it is affecting many countries in the world.

Those who so desperately want Brexit in the frame, though, are undoubtedly those who are insisting on a similar provenance for the crises affecting pig production, slaughterhouses and meat processing plants.

One of the leaders in reporting on the pig production crisis has been the BBC which tells of a Yorkshire farmer who has killed hundreds of piglets because labour shortages in "local abattoirs" have meant that adult pigs are not being killed fast enough. According to the National Pig Association (NPA), this may well not be the only case of farmers killing healthy livestock, as mature pigs have continued to "back up" on farms. And, says the BBC, the labour shortages are being blamed on Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

The location of the farm is not disclosed but the report refers to "two major processing centres in Hull" where, prior to Brexit and Covid, some 80 percent of staff came from Eastern Europe.

Nick Allen, from the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), says that the workforce "in large abattoirs" would normally be 10-15 percent above average ahead of Christmas, but instead it is 15 percent down. Because centres are unable to process pigs at the usual rate, live animals were mounting up on farms and some farmers were "quietly starting to cull", he said.

Typically, Allen argues that the main barrier is labour, the shortage arising from the change in immigration policy after Brexit. "We are struggling to get butchers in particular", he says, "and it limits how fast you can run the plant".

The Guardian takes the story further, telling us that up to 120,000 pigs in UK face culling due to lack of abattoir workers. Rob Mutimer, of the National Pig Association (NPA), talks of Britain facing an "acute welfare disaster" within a matter of weeks.

And Mutimer, like the BBC, has no doubts as to the cause. He complains of a combination of post-Brexit immigration rules and an exodus of foreign workers amid constantly shifting pandemic restrictions on travel. These two factors, he says, have left the industry at crisis point.

No one seems willing, however, to estimate the relative effects of Brexit and Covid, and there is no evidence offered to suggest that Brexit was the major factor. And we know from elsewhere that the Covid lockdowns have had a significant effect on foreign labour retention in this country.

Nevertheless, if we allow that Brexit has had an influence on the industry, which claims to be short of about 15,000 workers, then this is not the whole of the story. The state and structure of the slaughtering sector is part of the story.

Here, we know that a decade before we joined the EEC, the number of slaughterhouses in England and Wales stood at 3,326. Forty years later, under the regulatory onslaught of EEC and the EU law, the number was down to less than 200.

Twenty years later, in 2020, there were recorded a mere 156 slaughterhouses, of which only 93 were licensed to slaughter pigs, killing just over nine million in the year. Of these, a mere 12 were specialist pig slaughterhouses, of which three had an average throughput of 17,567, while the remaining nine slaughtered between them nearly seven million pigs.

What we have seen, therefore, is a colossal concentration of the industry and, although some of that was inevitable, from long, direct experience in the industry, I will aver that much of this was due to the onslaught of EU regulation, and in particular, the imposition of veterinary inspection fees, which had a disproportionate and highly damaging effect on the medium-sized sector.

But what we then see, via a recent post from Pete, are two articles from the Guardian, one entitled, "Revealed: exploitation of meat plant workers rife across UK and Europe", and the other: "'The whole system is rotten': life inside Europe’s meat industry".

I had earlier written a piece about unsavoury goings-on in a Dutch meat processing plant, with indications that the government food safety system was suffering some structural problems and, of course, we have the earlier horsemeat scandal to illustrate that the European regulatory system is capable of systemic failure.

But the Guardian reports are absolutely damning, telling us that meat companies across Europe have been hiring thousands of workers through subcontractors, agencies and bogus co-operatives on inferior pay and conditions.

Workers, officials and labour experts, the paper tells us, have described how Europe's £190 billion meat industry has become a global hotspot for outsourced labour, with a floating cohort of workers, many of whom are migrants, with some earning 40-50 percent less than directly employed staff in the same factories.

There is evidence of a two-tier employment system with workers subjected to sub-standard pay and conditions to fulfil the meat industry's need for a replenishable source of low-paid, hyper-flexible workers.

This is the system which the UK has bought into, where some of the malpractices are just as prevalent here as on the continent, and which the industry, with its demands for extending the visa system, wants to perpetuate.

If, therefore, the Brexit process has at least partly responsible for breaking up this system, it has done us a favour. The pressure of EU regulation, the free movement of labour and Single Market provision, has encouraged and facilitated an unsustainable production model which relies on the exploitation, in an industry which treats its workers worse than the livestock they kill.

It is interesting, therefore, that papers such as the Guardian don't join up the dots. Less than a week after telling us that "the whole system is rotten", it is bemoaning the fact that workers have gone home to their families leaving the system in tatters, showing more concern about empty shelves in the shops. One might almost sense that it is more offended by the perceived depredations of Brexit than it is the exploitation of workers.

Of course, one has a certain sympathy with the farmers who are now in an invidious position, but only so much. There is an amount of naivety in the expectation that this unsustainable system could survive forever, and a dangerous lethargy in the NFU in not speaking out against the destruction of the UK's slaughtering system.

As far as I am concerned, the problems being experienced in this grotesque and unsustainable industry represent a Brexit benefit – insofar as Brexit is responsible. The only downside is that this dismal government is too willing to kowtow to industry in its quest to maintain the status quo, and is failing to grasp the opportunity to restructure the meat industry.

In the unlikely event that this government could get its act together, we could emerge with a more sustainable and humane industry, whence it will have been worth the disruption we are experiencing. Sadly, though, with Johnson at the helm, we are more likely to suffer the worst of all possible worlds.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 02/10/2021 link

Brexit: empty shelves or full coffins?

13/09/2021  


In my piece on port health inspections last week, with border checks of SPS products entering the country from the EU due to start on 1 October, I speculated briefly on the effects of a delay in introducing these checks.

The issue here is that local authority port health services, up and down the country – which actually carry out these checks – have invested a considerable amount in expanding and training their inspection teams.

And, while local authorities have had some financial help from central government, especially in covering the capital costs of building or enlarging border control posts, ongoing operational costs have to be met from fees charged to the importers of goods.

It follows, I wrote last week, that if the government doesn't go ahead on 1 October with the border inspections, it will dump unrecoverable costs on local authorities; they will still have to bear the employment and other operational costs or running the services, but will have no fee income to cover them.

Unless the government agreed to cover these costs, port health authorities might find themselves having to shed staff, making large numbers of newly-appointed inspectors redundant. Then, by the time the regime is reintroduced, there may be no authorities available to run it, as it would be extremely difficult to recruit new staff.

Now, it transpires, the government is seriously considering suspending the checks (with the Telegraph insisting on calling them "customs checks", which they are not).

Amid concerns that the checks "will fuel further disruption to goods flowing across the Channel and hammer consumers with higher prices", we are told that senior UK officials have confirmed that a decision to delay the checks is now "highly likely".

One suitably anonymous "senior source" states that an announcement is expected imminently, with a range of options being considered. One of those is a delay of six months or more.

There appear to be, though, splits within government over the mooted postponement. Some officials are said to be convinced that another extension will merely prolong the uncertainty for businesses and prevent them from adjusting to the reality of post-Brexit trade.

However, it seems that concerns over the impact on the supply chain may prevail. To that affect, the Telegraph offers a "comfort quote" from Adam Marshall, former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce. He obligingly tells us that: "From a whole economy perspective, given the supply chain crisis and the inflation pressures, delaying friction on imports means no additional transport costs, no additional price pressures from that".

Another senior business figure is called in aid to add: "I wouldn't be surprised if they delayed, given the pressure it is going to put on supply chains coming into the country".

Meanwhile, a third says: "I don't believe we're going to be ready for the disruption to the supply chain. We’re still going to want to eat salami next year. There's so many things that will be disrupted if we do it straight away". He adds: "It would probably be in the interests of the consumers of the UK if the SPS controls were delayed into 2022".

Nevertheless, the Telegraph does note that delaying the new checks is likely to provoke a backlash from UK exporters. They have been forced to comply with the full suite of SPS checks when sending goods into the EU.

Many have been worried about the competitive disadvantage between British exporters and their EU competitors. One business figure complains: "It is an unfair and asymmetrical situation and it's not right. It's not a position that can stay in place indefinitely".

Nothing is said, though, about the adverse impact on local authorities – possibly because the Telegraph doesn't even realise that the checks are carried out by council port health services. But collectively, even if the checks are delayed only for a further six months, they stand to be out of pocket to the tune of several million pounds – the shortfall having to come from the same budgets which fund social care.

But, in terms of "backlash", this may be the least of it. It can surely be only a matter of time before people start realising that we are importing foods and other goods from EU member states, which are produced to standards over which the UK has no control, and sometimes very little information – as we are now excluded from the EU's surveillance systems.

And while the assumption is that the food sent here is produced to rigorous EU standards, monitored by European Commission officials, this has not always been the case, and we have no means directly of ascertaining whether standards are being enforced.

This is illustrated by reports in Dutch newspapers at the beginning of this month, about the conduct of the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) over the standards maintained by the Belgian-owned meat products company, Ter Beke, operating under the Offerman banner, from a factory in Aalsmeer, 13 km to the south-west of Amsterdam, close to the famous flower market.

Although the plant has since closed, in 2019 it was implicated in a serious Listeria outbreak from which 35 people became seriously ill, six people died and two pregnant women had miscarriages. Although the outbreak was notified by the European Food Safety Authority, it didn't name the companies involved, even though they supplied the Aldi supermarket chain, which trades in the UK.

But, from de Volkskrant and other Dutch media, that prior to the outbreak, it emerges that the NVWA had repeatedly told Offerman to cease applying over-long shelf life code to their products – a significant issue in listeriosis control, where the bacteria can grow slowly under refrigerated conditions.

In 2016 and 2017, the NVWA had rejected several shelf life studies from the meat company. Offerman, for instance, stated that its luncheon meat could be stored for 31 days without properly substantiating the claim. The NVWA maintained a shelf life of 21 days was more appropriate.

With the problem unresolved, though, after 2017, the NVWA responded by temporarily ceasing routine checks. Subsequently, it claimed insufficient capacity, that it was "too busy"' to carry out re-inspections and needed to concentrate on "other priorities".

Only in September 2019, just before listeria outbreak became public, did the NVWA resume checks, when the company was still applying use-by dates that were too long. It was fined for multiple offences and, the same year, listeria bacteria was found on cutting machines, in drains and on the walls of the company's premises. Salami, roast beef and chicken breast that had been processed in the Aalsmeer factory were found to be consistently contaminated with the listeria bacteria. Millions of product packs were recalled, including ham and chicken fillets.

Offerman was again fined but the company still considered renovating its affected cutting rooms. Then, it was found that listeria was lodged in the walls and the cost of cleaning and decontaminating them turned out to be too high – saying a great deal for the standards approved by veterinary inspectors. The factory has now been permanently closed, with the loss of sixty jobs.

Adding to the detail, the regional newspaper, de Limburger (no link) pointed out that staffing in the NVWA had been cut considerably under former CDA ministers Veerman and Bleker. In addition, the regulator had been transferred from the Ministry of Health to Economic Affairs in 2003, as a result of which inspectors often had to deal with conflicting interests between food safety and the economy.

Since then, the functioning of the NVWA has often been criticised. In the past two years alone, multiple damning reports have been published: in slaughterhouses, NVWA vets have been allowing improper practices without intervention, complaining of intimidation. Supervision of pig exports has been sub-standard, with vets allowing the transport of sick and lame animals.

Last year, Deloitte was asked to investigate the regulator and concluded that the NVWA cannot cope with its workload and is failing in two thirds of its tasks, risking both food safety and animal welfare. In addition, the organisation is ridden with internal struggles.

In this country, through 1988 to 1990, we had our own Listeria "scare", which had a massive and long-lasting effect on the conduct of food safety controls, including the transfer of responsibility of policy-making from the Ministry of Agriculture to an "independent" food safety agency.

Since the turn of the century, the UK had been increasingly reliant on the EU for its food safety policy, with veterinary inspectors and their fabled coloured crayons. But the Offerman outbreak is by no means the only food scandal to affect EU-produced food, with memories of the 2013 horsemeat scandal still fresh.

Now that we have left the EU, if Brexit is to mean anything, the UK should be insisting on border inspections to protect us from unsound EU-produced food, and systems which seem incapable of maintaining basic standards. When it comes to disrupting the food chain, sooner, one might say, empty shelves than full coffins.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 13/09/2021 link

Brexit: red tape follies

11/02/2021  


Scottish Television is waxing lyrical (or spluttering with indignation, if you prefer) about shipments from the UK to Europe have been held up for hours because of the type of ink used in a stamp.

This is what MSPs have been told, with Ian McWatt of Food Standards Scotland (FSS) complaining about the "inconsistency" with which EU rules were being applied, with huge differences in how consignments were treated at border control posts in the Netherlands and France.

Said McWatt, some loads "sailed through on day one and they were held up for six hours the following day because the ink that was used on the stamp didn't meet the importing officer's requirement".

The frustration – little short of anguish – that this sort of experience is causing comes through clearly in the evidence given by Andrew Charles to Holyrood's Rural Economy Committee.

Owner of the Aberdeen company J Charles Sustainable Seafood, Charles complained that the paperwork needed for firms to sell goods to customers in Europe was "incredibly complicated and open to interpretation".

He added: "The whole thing, whoever sat down and considered this to be a reasonable, free export system has really got to question what is going on here. What has been created is a system to destroy exporting. There is absolutely nothing easy about what industry is being asked to do".

One can have enormous sympathy for individual business owners who have been caught up in this maelstrom of "red tape" but, as always, there is more to this than meets the eye.

When it comes to the complaint about loads being delayed or rejected because of the wrong colour ink used in the stamps, this refers to the export health certificates (EHCs) which, in the main, have to be signed (and stamped) by government designated "official veterinarians".

For these individuals - often practice vets signed up by the government in an attempt to make up for the massive shortage of such officials – Brexit is proving to be a financial bonanza.

For rapacious veterinary contract firms such as Eville & Jones - known for hiring cheap, newly qualified foreign vets and hiring them out at top rates – providing a "complete service" for EHCs is a license to print money.

Typically, hard-pressed companies desperately needing have incomprehensible EHCs for their consignments, are having to pay anything from £150-250 a time for each certificate.

Unsurprisingly, the vets themselves are being very coy about their charges, but we do know that the government is footing the bill for certifying food products destined for Northern Ireland, to the tune of £150 a pop, each time a certificate is needed.

Thus, when it comes to the spluttering about "red tape" and the different coloured ink used for the stamps, there is an interesting twist to this. The people responsible for signing and stamping the EHCs are these highly-paid official veterinarians, who are, in effect, signing declarations to the effect that they have read the forms they are signing.

And there, immediately above the signature block, where these gifted individuals must append their marks, is a line of text – simple enough even for a vet to understand – which instructs: "The colour of the stamp and signature must be different to that of the other particulars in the certificate" (pictured).

Why this should be isn't explained – it may be a basic security precaution, working on the premise that the plebs who actually fill in the details on the forms can't afford coloured pens. This hardly explains the colour requirement for the stamp though – but then we are dealing with the European Union.

The point though is that, if loads are being delayed or rejected for "the wrong kind of colour", this is down to the official veterinarians, who apparently can't even get that bit of the job right – like picking the right colour pen and having a coloured ink pad for their official stamps.

As for the rest of the form, the declaration is a farce. In the example I've chosen, the vet has to attest to being "aware" of the relevant provisions of a formidable list of legislation, listed in a densely-printed paragraph that runs to 17 lines.

The certificate relates to LBM (there's a surprise), and this paragraph is just the entré. The vet must also attest that the goods were produced in accordance with a further ten, specific points.

First on that list is something that attests to the fatuity of the whole exercise. This vet is asked to confirm that the goods come from an establishment "implementing a programme based on the HACCP principles in accordance with Article 5 of Regulation (EC) No 852/2004.

Now, this is very much my territory – it's my specialist field. I've carried out verification exercises, and seen them done by officials. For a moderate-sized operation, a skilled auditor usually needs about eight hours, as long as there are no complications. I've seen officials take 2-3 days.

Of course, your hapless vets – many of them more used to sticking thermometers up cats' bums (for about £80 a time) – are most unlikely to have the skills to do an audit. They wouldn't begin to know what they were looking for. But they nevertheless are signing, not that the operation has a HACCP programme, but is actually implementing it.

Here, there is an interesting issue – one that has never been satisfactorily resolved. The process of auditing a programme requires going through reams of paperwork (it is a paper-based system) and then checking that all the components are there.

But all that tells you is that the operation has a programme in place. It doesn't tell you whether it is being implemented. Mostly, when the auditor leaves, the papers go back into the filing cabinet. Implementation checks, therefore, are far more complex and can be extremely time-consuming.

Just as an aside, I once inspected a big-brand frozen cream gateaux manufacturer and, as one point I was standing in the cream room, having a bevy of managers explain to me their rigorous glass exclusion policy, and how no glass, ever, was allowed in or near the room.

I said nothing, but looked down and shuffled my feet. In the embarrassed silence, the mangers followed my gaze down to my feet, where they saw that I was shuffling several large fragments of broken glass. That's what implementation checks are about. What the EU wants is a useless tick-box exercise which serves no purpose other than to fill the wallets of useless vets.

This is further reinforced by the next item on this fabled list, which demands that the vet attests that the products have been "harvested, where necessary relayed and transported in accordance with Section VII, Chapters I and II of Annex II to Regulation (EC) No 853/2004.

The "ask" is, of course, impossible. Unless the vet has followed the process through – assuming even that they know what they are looking for – it might take several inspections over days or weeks before an honest declaration could be made.

Talking of cream on the cake, the penultimate attestation that vets must now make is beyond surreal. They must confirm that the products:
have satisfactorily undergone the official controls laid down in Articles 51 to 66 of Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/627 of 15 March 2019 laying down uniform practical arrangements for the performance of official controls on products of animal origin intended for human consumption in accordance with Regulation (EU) 2017/625 of the European Parliament and of the Council and amending Commission Regulation (EC) No 2074/2005 as regards official controls (OJ L 131, 17.5.2019, p. 51) and Article 11 of Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2019/624 of 8 February 2019 concerning specific rules for the performance of official controls on the production of meat and for production and relaying areas of live bivalve molluscs in accordance with Regulation (EU) 2017/625 of the European Parliament and of the Council.
But then, this is nothing compared with the hapless producers who must actually carry out all these processes, in order that the attestation can be made in the first place.

No one will disagree that realistic controls are necessary. But this is bullshit. The Commission has completely lost sight of what they are trying to achieve. All it takes is a bent vet to sign off the form and take the money, to make a mockery of the system. It is then up to the brave vets at the BCPs to carry out the hazardous process of checking the colour of the ink used for the stamps. That is just about within the capability of an official veterinarian, and will have us all sleeping easier in our beds.

Interestingly, people now ask for Brexit "benefits". Well, what Brexit has done is expose us to the full force of a shitty system that we've been instrumental in supporting for the past 50 years (since before we joined). Inside the "walls" of the Single Market, we have been shielded from the realisation of quite how bad it really is.

Not least of the effects is that it makes it very difficult for developing countries to sell produce to us, yet does nothing to stop the torrent of counterfeit goods coming out of China, or horsemeat from Eastern Europe.

But now we're exposed to the full horror of it, it might motivate us to do something about it. Inside the system, we were merely complicit in making it worse. Outside, we have a chance of making changes. And that most definitely could be a Brexit benefit.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 11/02/2021 link

Brexit: the party's over

28/01/2021  


The Oxford/AstraZeneca dispute is ideal media-fodder. The facts are difficult to establish, none of those involved are likely to sue and the subject plays to the prejudices of the different factions. This one will run and run.

But while that is absorbing the attention of the media, alongside the tyranny of numbers that is Covid-19, there seems to be little energy left to retail more tales of woe in what has become the leaden routine of the post-Brexit environment.

With a certain sameness to the reports, the lorry-watchers seem to have taken the day off, while the queues build up unreported at the Eurostar terminal and hauliers' troubles multiply throughout Europe.

The sameness certainly infests the Financial Times which picks up on the woes of the pig industry, calling in aid a familiar cast of characters headed by Richard Lister, chairman of the National Pig Association.

Lister's association has written to George Eustice, asking him to convene an urgent meeting with processors and retailers in the face of "higher costs, falling prices and a shrinking market", with the industry facing an influx of cheap European meat and more than 100,000 surplus pigs backed up on farms around the country.

Their exporting woes have been well-catalogued but there are other factors at play which are combining to pile on the misery. In mainland Europe, Covid-19 outbreaks have slowed meat processing, and cheap German pork has flooded the European market after African swine fever in wild boars in the Federal Republic led to a ban on its exports to China.

With the UK phasing in border controls for EU imports over six months, that has led to produce finding its way over here, while UK producers are having a struggle getting their product into Europe. Lister thus concludes: "The overall picture is now one of enormous disruption to our export supply chain but of minimal problems and relative ease for EU imports into the UK",

Roughly the same report is recycled in Politico, illustrating the paucity of original material and the lack of new tales to feed the endless appetite of the 24-hour media cycle.

But, although the woes of the pig farmers have been given a good airing, the farmers themselves seem to be having trouble adjusting to the new reality. The FT enlists Rob Mutimer, a Norfolk pig farmer, who inadvertently illustrates the point.

His operation, Swannington Farm to Fork, is another of those producers who sends "older sows" to Germany, where there are used for processing into salami and other pork products for which the Germans are famed.

With border delays making his deliveries uncertain, Mutimer observes: "If we don’t get this trade flow issue sorted out then we'll lose these markets that have been around all my lifetime. If UK suppliers are not reliable, then German factories will go elsewhere".

What the likes of Mutimer clearly haven't realised is the nature of the regulatory shitstorm that that are confronting since the end of the transition period, occasioned by Mrs May's rash decision to pull the UK out of the Single Market – later implemented by Johnson when he took over the reins.

Specifically, those sending products of animal origin to the EU will be confronting Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/2129 "establishing rules for the uniform application of frequency rates for identity checks and physical checks on certain consignments of animals and goods entering the Union".

Annex I provides the detail, requiring a 100 percent frequency for identity checks for such products as minced meat, and meat preparations, egg products, and "fishery products from aquaculture and bivalve molluscs for human consumption".

In practice, this means that every truck carrying any of these products must be routed to a border control post and laboriously unloaded so that the contents can be checked against the details of export health certificates, the originals of which must be presented to the inspecting officials.

In particular, the officials will seek to reconcile the unique "establishment numbers" – which identify the premises from which the products originated – with the labelling on the packaging, all of which much bear visible establishment numbers in the approved formats.

If labels are scuffed and no longer fully visible, misapplied or missing, or the details are not entered correctly on the health certificates, then the whole load can be rejected, or the authorities might ask for new certificates to be provided with the correct details. These documents have to be generated at the point of departure of the load, and then have to be couriered to the border control post – a process that can take days.

Following the identity checks, the regulation then requires a 30 percent physical inspection frequency for this category of products, where packages have to be opened and the contents physically examined. A variety of tests may be carried out, which can range to simple checks to confirm the animals species (whether beef or horsemeat, for instance), to complex, time consuming checks for pesticide or veterinary medicine residues.

Life is a little easier for carcase meat, either boxed or on the hook, whence the physical inspection rate drops to 15 percent (down from 20 percent in previous regulations), although the identity check frequency remains at 100 percent. The physical inspection rates, however, are minimum rates. If problems are found, the frequency can be increased by increments, to 30 and then 50 percent.

The point, therefore, is that this complex, onerous system is not a bug, but a feature. It might work for shipments of Brazilian beef, where the whole ship-load is a consignment, and where the package is a shipping container. But the UK sending driver-accompanied loads in single trucks is a whole new ball game.

Thus, Mutimer's plea to "get this trade flow issue sorted out" is wholly misplaced. The trade flow has been sorted out. This is the new normal and it isn't going to change.

In fact, what UK shippers are experiencing in the main is the easy bit. Held in reserve is Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/1873, the like of which should strike terror into any shipper's heart.

This sets out "the procedures at border control posts for a coordinated performance by competent authorities of intensified official controls on products of animal origin, germinal products, animal by-products and composite products", the word "intensified" giving the clue as to the content.

This applies in the case of suspected fraudulent or deceptive practices by an operator or where serious or repeated infringements of the rules are identified. All subsequent consignments from that operator are then subject to intensified controls. The action is coordinated so that the regime will be applied, regardless of port of entry.

If three consignments from the same establishment are found to be deficient, the officials can demand an inspection of the premises by the "competent authority" before further consignments are allowed.

These, of course, are only a fraction of the regulatory burden which makes up the totality of the "official controls". Mr Lister and his friend Rob Mutimer could while away their idle hours by reading the Commission website and then, for their further entertainment, look at this list of 33 separate regulatory instruments which go to make up the totality of the "official controls".

When they have scanned enough of the documents, they may well come to the conclusion that the party's over. Unfortunately, Useless Eustice is still talking about "a familiarization cost", declaring that "once people get used to it, I think it will work fine".

The word, however, has reached as far as Efta/EEA member Iceland, where Icelandic exporters, who have traditionally shipped produce via Immingham docks, for processing in Grimsby, are now diverting their produce to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, to escape the inevitable delays.

While UK commentators indulge in increasingly jingoistic displays (pictured), the economic "hit" intensifies, as the effects of our own government's incompetence takes effect. Despite its familiarity with them, only this government could make it almost impossible to export pigs' ears.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 28/01/2021 link

Brexit: fantastic moments

11/11/2020  


Following on from yesterday's piece, which mentioned the problems affecting food supplies to Northern supermarkets once the Northern Ireland Protocol takes effect, it seems this one is going to run and run.

Having seen the story in RTE, we're now getting it in the Guardian, which is running a headline which has Arlene Foster is telling the EU that there is no need for border checks on Northern Ireland supermarket food. Imports from big chains in Great Britain, she says, can be trusted post-Brexit.

This follows warnings from J Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer, which the paper ran earlier. These firms, we are reminded, are concerned that certain lines of meat, fish and dairy products may be restricted because of the checks that will be imposed on food and animals entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain from 1 January.

Repeating the elements of the RTE story, the DUP leader and Michelle O’Neill, the deputy first minster, said they have "urgently asked the EU to consider the serious implications and impact on our essential food and produce supply chains".

They argue that it is "simply not credible" to impose health checks at ports on "goods [that] are sterling packaged by well established companies", which pose "zero risk that they would use a backdoor" into Ireland and thereby the Single Market.

What makes this story especially interesting, however, is that the protests fly in the face of the Irish Protocol, which specifically applies the "official controls" to Northern Ireland, which makes such checks mandatory when shipped from the rest of the UK.

Now, it's almost as if Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill haven't actually read the Protocol, or understood the implications. Furthermore, they clearly have a very limited understanding of the nature of the EU's official controls if they believe that there can be any exemption.

But the ignorance seems to extend to well beyond the politicians, with Sainsbury's chief executive, Simon Roberts, saying that the trade needed something akin to a "trusted trader status" to help the free flow of goods.

This is the sort of BS one expects from Singham and his idiot cohorts, which I examined back in 2018 when the idea of the "Smart Border 2.0" was being touted. It was precisely then that a certain "customs expert", Dr Lars Karlsson, was suggesting that: "Checks under sanitary rules, a key regulatory area for agricultural trade, could be covered under the trusted trader arrangements".

As I remarked at the time, though, the man clearly had no knowledge of non-customs systems. The AEO "trusted trader" certification to which he referred was (and is) a customs system and has no bearing on sanitary or phytosanitary issues.

Crucially, the EU does not operate a preferential access system to BIPs (now BCPs) and under WTO rules, they are required to give access on the same terms, in a non-discriminatory manner, to all third country users.

This is the point that any number of the gilded commentariat seem to have problems understanding. The EU must treat all third countries the same. Once they start granting preferential access to individual countries, they will be obliged to grant the same concessions to all other countries – thereby prejudicing the integrity of the Single Market as a whole.

The nearest the EU gets to special treatment is in the New Zealand Agreement but, as I explain here, there are very special circumstances that apply (as well as to Canada).

But, what would not help Northern Ireland is that, while the agreements with New Zealand and Canada reduce the frequency of inspections, they do not eliminate them entirely nor remove the requirement for consignments to be presented to a Border Control Post for documentation checks and such physical checks as are required.

Currently, "official control" regulations for products of animal origin specify 100 percent documentation checks while fresh meat, fish products, whole eggs and certain other products require a 20 percent physical inspection rate.

For poultry meat and poultry meat products, milk and milk products, egg products and certain other products – including, for some strange reason, honey (or perhaps not) – the inspection rate increases to 50 percent. One out of every two consignments must be inspected.

It should be appreciated that the documentary checks include "identity checks", which means physically reconciling container or vehicle contents with the manifest. This can even require the opening of packaging and carrying out tests to confirm the products are as described - detecting horsemeat labelled as beef, for instance.

Nevertheless, the concessions made to New Zealand are substantial. Although 100 percent checks are still required, in most cases the physical inspection rate drops to two percent, and in some cases it is down to one.

However, this is no free pass. In fact, the "high purity" regimes adopted in New Zealand abattoirs are so stringent that no more than a handful of UK abattoirs (if that many) could meet the standard. It would certainly not apply to a mixed range of products of diverse origins.

Thus, Foster and her partner in crime are whistling in the wind, as is Mr chief executive Simon Roberts. The best they can get is a reduced inspection rate, although even that is going to be problematical as the BCP designated for Larne will not be completed for 1 January.

From the Guardian, we learn that the exact nature of these checks is still being discussed at the EU-UK joint committee tasked with implementing Brexit. This is chaired by Michael Gove and Maroš Šefcovic, a vice-president of the European Commission.

We are also told that a confidential update on talks suggests Gove and Šefcovic have yet to agree on the frequency of the checks and the requirement that every product coming in from Great Britain has a health certificate.

That much is unsurprising as the types of consignments, representing mixed loads with products from many different sources must present an administrative nightmare. As the products will be packed for retail sale, just the task of furnishing producer health certificates could prove extremely difficult – and expensive.

But what Foster and O’Neill simply can't get away from is that the regime they are confronting is written into the Protocol, which Johnson championed and the UK parliament approved. And, one might recall, when he signed it on 24 January this year, he described it as a "fantastic moment" for the country.

This was the document that would end years of "argument and division" and was a positive change for the UK. Said Johnson at the signing, "We can now move forward as one country – with a government focused upon delivering better public services, greater opportunity and unleashing the potential of every corner of our brilliant United Kingdom, while building a strong new relationship with the EU as friends and sovereign equals".

Now we see the practical implications of this "fantastic moment", the United Kingdom isn't looking so "brilliant", when Mr Sainsbury can't even send a truck-load of goods to his shops in Northern Ireland.

And come 1 January, if not before, I suspect there will be a lot more surprises, but very few of Johnson's "fantastic moments".

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 11/11/2020 link

Brexit: shooting the fox

29/09/2020  


Faced with the posturing and tantrums of the British, manoeuvring to position them at fault if trade talks fail, it seems that the EU has developed a strategy to deal with them.

Despite the provocation of the UK's Internal Market Bill, and Gove's insistence that it goes through unchanged, the "colleagues" are not going to walk away from the talks, leaving the high ground to the UK.

Instead, Maroš Šefcovic, Gove's counterpart on the Joint Committee administering the Withdrawal Agreement, has announced that Brussels will not walk away from the talks due to start today.

"I think it's very important to say, to underline that it could never be the EU which would cause the end of the negotiation of the future partnership between the EU and UK", he said yesterday. "We are going to proceed with the negotiations. We are going to use every single minute".

Currently, this is being presented as something of a "climbdown" by the EU, with reports that Šefcovic "distanced himself" from an earlier demand for the Bill to be withdrawn (or amended) "before the end of the month" in order for negotiations on a free trade agreement to continue.

To my certain recollection though, von der Leyen has consistently said that trade talks should continue, adding that: "It is better not to have this distraction questioning an existing international agreement that we have, but to focus on getting this deal done, this agreement done - and time is short".

As regards a response to the Bill, we had "EU diplomats" saying that the EU would be considering legal action, but would not take decisions on whether to initiate it until after the round of talks that are due to start today.

In many ways, this shoots Johnson's fox, as he has quite evidently failed to provoke a walk-out - if indeed that was his intention. This leaves his man Frost to keep battering away in the hope of extracting concessions until the clock runs down and he is out of time.

In the meantime, one presumes, the EU can maintain a façade of sweet reasonableness, happily proclaiming its willingness to cooperate with the Brits, assuring them that they are ready to give them anything they ask for, as long as they don't ask for anything that the EU is not prepared to give them.

Meanwhile, Gove – after insisting that the Bill elements which override the requirements written into the Irish protocol would not be amended – says that they are intended to enter into force in the event that there is no deal during trade talks.

"We want to make sure that the withdrawal agreement is implemented in full but those clauses are there, they're in legislation, supported by the House of Commons, as a safety net, if need be", he says.

This leaves Šefcovic – somewhat wearily, it seems – to repeat von der Leyen's warning that the EU is considering invoking the dispute settlement procedure. "I underscored that the EU will not be shy in using it", he told journalists. "When we will do it, how we will do it. Proceed, you will have to give us a little bit of time and we will inform you in due course", he added.

With that, the Internal Market Bill is well and truly neutralised from the perspective of the talks, which will continue with the current agenda, unaffected by this "distraction". Nothing can be read into it being sidelined, other than the determination of the EU not to allow the UK the opportunity to grandstand over the other side walking out.

Furthermore, despite predictions to the effect that Barnier himself was going to be sidelined, with EU Member State leaders wheeled in to break the logjam, it is pretty clear that this isn't going to happen. Nor was there any realistic prospect of this happening.

This was more or less confirmed by a diplomatic text circulated to EU Member State governments yesterday, informing them that the European Council – due to meet on 15-16 October – "will take stock of the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, and review the state of the negotiations on the future partnership".

That signals the lack of any intent to intervene, the likelihood being that it will listen to a report from Michel Barnier, with probably only a perfunctory debate. The main agenda item, according to the diplomatic text, is a discussion "on preparedness for all scenarios after 1 January 2021".

From this, it would appear that expectations are not particularly high. But then, if an agreement has been brokered, it is up to the General Affairs Council to conclude the negotiations, but then only after the European Parliament has voted on it.

As it stands, there have been references to a 650-page agreement draft, but for the Council to be considering that at its meeting, negotiations will most certainly have to be finalised by the end of this week, ready for the General Affairs Council to look at it when it meets on 13 October. So far, all it is listing on its agenda is a "state of play" report.

Not too much should be read into the length either. The EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) – often cited as a model for this agreement – is 1,598 pages, with several hundred pages devoted to the treatment of tariffs and quotas. A mere 650 pages is likely to be pretty thin stuff, especially if there is to be any detail on fishing.

Apart from that, there is little else to add to my piece yesterday. Earlier yesterday, The Times was headlining, "Brexit officials raise hopes of breakthrough deal on state aid", with the legend that "Britain is increasingly optimistic that there will be a breakthrough in Brexit talks this week…".

As time has passed, however, it seems more and more certain that the optimism is "spin" originating from Downing Street, artfully leaked to gullible hacks, most likely intended to wrong-foot EU negotiators.

The latest from ITN News, though, reiterates the caveats that have been in most reports on the talks, that "significant gaps" still remain, while we also get the mantra from the prime minister's official spokesman, that the EU "still needs to adopt more realistic policy positions".

Meanwhile, Charles Michel, European Council president, is upping the ante, speaking of the UK facing the EU's "quiet strength" over the four years of talks.

Michel claims that "the British face a dilemma" over whether to move away from European standards. "What model of society do they want?", he asks. "Do they prefer to maintain high quality standards – health, food, environmental – or, on the contrary, do they want lower standards, [to] subject their farmers and their competitors to unfair and unjust competition from other regions of the world?"

Noticeably, Michel didn't mention anything about horsemeat, and neither did the bullshit celebrity campaign, demanding assurances that "lower-standard" meat will not be sold in British shops.

That apart, nothing much seems to have changed, and we're not going to get much clarity until the end of the week – if then. One might assume that if the talks do not go into the famed "tunnel" after this week, then the chances of presenting a final draft to the General Affairs Committee on 13 October will be remote.

Even an element of realism seems to be creeping in to the UK side. Government sources are now describing their own earlier reports as "on the enthusiastic side". The prime minister's spokesman says: "Although the last two weeks of informal talks have been relatively positive, there remains much to be done. The fundamentals of our position have not changed from the start of this process".

As we know from experience, though, things can change very rapidly, and EU deadlines can be infinitely flexible – to a point – although there seems to be little enthusiasm for playing brinkmanship with Johnson.

Yet, sooner or later, these games must end. For good or bad, businesses desperately need to know what they will have to confront from 1 January 2021, and continued uncertainty will be highly damaging.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 29/09/2020 link

Brexit: listing time

14/09/2020  


Responding to the claims of Johnson et al, Michel Barnier has responded on Twitter to say that the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland "is not a threat to the integrity of the UK".

We agreed this delicate compromise with Boris Johnson and his government, he writes, "in order to protect peace & stability on island of Ireland. We could not have been clearer about the consequences of Brexit".

Responding to Johnson's specific charge that the EU "might actually stop the transport of food products from GB to NI", Barnier retorts that "sticking to facts is also essential". A case in point, he says, the EU is not refusing to list Great Britain as a third country for food imports (SPS). To be listed, we need to know in full what a country's rules are, including for imports, he says. The same objective process applies to all listed countries.

Nevertheless, it would appear that the EU has not yet listed Great Britain, which has David Frost answering in his capacity as the PM's negotiator in the current and last autumn's talks.

On the Protocol, he says, we indeed negotiated a careful balance in order to preserve peace and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. It is precisely to ensure this balance can be preserved in all circumstances that the Govt needs powers in reserve to avoid it being disrupted.

As to third country listings, he goes on to say that the EU knows perfectly well all the details of our food standards rules because we are operating EU rules. The situation on 1 January 2021 is accordingly perfectly clear. We have discussed this frequently with the EU including last week.

Any changes in future, he says, would be notified to the WTO and EU in the usual way with plenty of lead time. The EU lists dozens of countries globally on precisely this basis, without any sort of commitment about the future.

Yet it has been made clear to us in the current talks, Frost then complains, that there is no guarantee of listing us. He adds: "I am afraid it has also been said to us explicitly in these talks that if we are not listed we will not be able to move food to Northern Ireland".

The EU's position, Frost asserts, is that listing is needed for Great Britain only, not Northern Ireland. So if GB were not listed, it would be automatically illegal for NI to import food products from GB.

Thus, he concludes, "I hope the EU will yet think better of this. It obviously makes it no easier to negotiate a good free trade agreement and the solid future relationship which we all want".

And yet, as I remarked on Saturday, we raised this listing problem four years ago and we should not now be in a position, with only months to go, where it is still unresolved.

Nevertheless, it does seem to me that Frost is being rather presumptuous in expecting third country listing merely on the basis of track record (i.e., that we currently meet the requirements).

The EU's listing process is by no means automatic. It is a lengthy technical and administrative process, the top tier of a three-tier system comprising: (1) listing; (2) approval of establishments; (3) process controls and inspection at points of origin and subsequent processing. It is through this system that the EU ensures that exporting countries meet the standards for foods of animal origin set out in EU law.

The listing itself is conditional, and the listing process is intended to ascertain whether the "competent authority" in the applicant country has the systems in place which will enable conformity with EU food law. Furthermore, it implies that the country will make its best endeavours to ensure that conformity with the conditions of listing will be maintained.

The point at issue is that (2) & (3) are carried out by the competent authority of the exporting state. In listing a state, therefore, the EU has to assure itself that the competent authority has the ability, the resources and the commitment to enforce EU standards. Even if the first two apply, if the state lacks the commitment, then the EU would not be happy with listing it.

In this context, though, it seems the specific reservation is with import controls and the standards applied to imported foodstuffs. Clearly, if imported goods do not meet EU standards (for instance in terms of permitted pesticides and maximum residue levels), and they are used as ingredients in UK processing – or even just repackaged and re-exported – then UK export standards might be compromised.

Nothing of this is academic. Obviously, food entering EU Member States from third countries is inspected in Border Control Points (BCPs), but any modern food control system does not rely simply on single point inspections. It requires what the EU terms a holistic "farm to fork" approach, with controls at every stage of the process.

And although the system does occasionally fail (as with the horsemeat scandal), we are not really in a position to complain. The original system was devised by the UK, primarily to regulate meat imports from countries such as Argentina, enhanced in the wake of the Aberdeen Typhoid Outbreak and copied by the EU.

Where UK politicians are glibly talking about "deregulation", about adopting their own standards, and about making trade deals with the likes of the US, which do not conform with EU standards, then we really cannot be surprised if the EU is cautious about listing the UK. It is perfectly in order for the EU to seek bankable assurances that standards will be met, which are often secured by way of Free Trade Agreements.

Barnier makes the point that, when it comes to listing, "the same objective process applies to all listed countries", and that must be the case. WTO rules will not allow otherwise. But this applies both ways. If the EU can't be more severe in assessing the UK than it is with other countries, it cannot be more relaxed either. Otherwise, those other countries will demand the same treatment.

But this now gets interesting with Northern Ireland. Frost confirms that the listing applies to Great Britain but not Northern Ireland. Under the Protocol, as we know, the Province remains in the Single Market, applying EU law. Thus, it can only import foods of animal origin from EU Member States and listed third countries.

It follows, therefore, that if Great Britain has not been listed by 1 January 2021, no foods of animal origin can be exported to Northern Ireland. On the other hand, Northern Ireland can still import from the Republic of Ireland, from any other EU Member State, and from any other listed third country (such as Canada).

In anticipation of such a possibility, there is a huge amount of outrage, with Ambrose Evans-Pritchard talking of the UK's need "to defend itself against predatory diplomacy".

But the outrage is vastly overcooked. Listing is a technical process and either the UK meets the requirements or it doesn't. This isn't even for Barnier to decide. It is decided by the EU's Health and Food Audits and Analysis Office, located in Grange, Ireland, and the decision to list is made by the Commission in accordance with the criteria set out in Regulation (EC) No 854/2004.

Specifically (with certain exceptions), third countries can appear on the lists only if their competent authorities "provide appropriate guarantees as regards compliance or equivalence with Community feed and food law and animal health rules". If the UK can't provide those guarantees, no amount of special pleading will get it listed.

Furthermore, this listing process has to be carried out irrespective of any free trade agreements. The process is entirely independent of such deals, and applies to all third countries.

One wonders, though, whether Barnier has picked up the implications of Clause 2 of the UK Internal Market Bill, on mutual recognition. This includes Northern Ireland (see Clause 53), which would seem to indicate that the listing requirements of EU law have been by-passed.

If this is the case, then the current argument is moot. The UK government will be ignoring EU law and allowing produce to move from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, irrespective of whether third country listing has been secured.

It will be interesting to see whether this is raised in the Commons debate today or whether, like so many things, it goes by default because MPs haven't the wit to do their jobs.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 14/09/2020 link

Brexit: taking back control

30/08/2020  


The work on The Great Deception revision/update continues – and it doesn't get easier. I've now reached 2013 and, if 2012 was a complex year, this is shaping up to be even more so. It was the year Cameron gave his famous Bloomberg speech, promising us an in/out referendum, which set the nation on the path to Brexit.

When he gave his speech, on Wednesday 23 January at the London headquarters of the Bloomberg group, it was interesting to note that he complained about "excessive regulation". This, he argued, "is not some external plague that's been visited on our businesses". People, he said, "resent the interference in our national life by what they see as unnecessary rules and regulation".

Already in train, though, was another of those occasional crises which stemmed in part from such "interference", the nature of which should have had special relevance. The previous year, Cameron had launched the "balance of competence" review, an audit of what the EU did and how it affected the UK, intended to guide the prime minister when he came to demand from the EU the repatriation of some powers.

Yet, by the time the crisis was over, few people were any the wiser as to the reasons why it had happened – including politicians, regulators and many so-called experts.

In the nature of things, when dealing with criminal enterprise, no-one can be sure when exactly the sequence leading to the "great horsemeat scandal" actually started. The adulteration of (mainly) processed beef products with cheaper horsemeat may have been, and most probably had been going on for some time. albeit on a relatively small scale.

On 15 January 2013, however, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland announced that its testing programme had detected equine DNA in 37 percent of products examined, mainly frozen beef burgers. One sample, was approximately 29 percent horse meat. Products were being supplied to Tesco and other supermarkets by Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak, in Hambleton in Yorkshire, all subsidiaries of the Irish-based ABP Food Group.

The story remained relatively low-key until early February, by which time there had been multiple reports of adulteration involving man household brands, escalating the issue into a full-blown food scare – even though (despite attempts to show otherwise) there were no health implications.

What characterised this "scare" in the early stages was the inability of the media to recognise or understand that food safety regulation – stemming from Commission President Romano Prodi's intervention in 1999 – was an exclusive EU competence, coupled with a profound ignorance of how the actual regulatory system worked.

Comprehension was not assisted by the intervention of Mary Creagh, for the Labour opposition, blaming the government and retailers for "rolling back regulation that protects our food", and demanding to know why the problem had not been detected by British food authorities.

Creagh was to return to the "deregulation" charge at the Labour Party conference in September, telling delegates what she had "learned" from the horsemeat scandal. "David Cameron's drive to deregulate the food industry", she asserted, "coupled with his cost of living crisis created the perfect conditions for the horsemeat scandal".

Warming to her theme, she declared: "Deregulation, fewer trading standards officers and the end of food sampling meant it was open season. Horse meat was dripped into our food for 2 or 3 years by criminals who knew their chances of getting caught here were small. Deregulation gave us horse meat in our burgers". Thus, she proclaimed: "I think it's time we had a bit more regulation of our food".

Back in February, some of the horsemeat had been traced to abattoirs in Romania. But there, it had been correctly labelled before being sent to a Cyprus-registered company, Draap Trading Ltd, a company run from the Antwerp area of Belgium, and owned by an offshore vehicle based in the British Virgin Islands, with a Dutch director.

The meat was then delivered to the French company Spanghero. In turn, it had supplied other French companies, and a firm called Comigel with a processing factory in Luxembourg. Some minor players were also picked up.

Those responsible for selling adulterated meat to the APB group were never found. Through DNA testing, the source was tracked to Poland.

A partial explanation as to why the trail was so hard to follow was provided later, describing how a batch of beef adulterated with horsemeat had "criss-crossed international frontiers and passed through the border areas of Northern Ireland and the Republic made notorious in a previous era by paramilitaries and smugglers".

In 2017, however, 66 people were arrested in a co-ordinated operation organised by Europol, in which eight EU Member States were involved. Two years later, a Paris court found four men guilty of falsely labelling horsemeat as beef. Other prosecutions were also mounted elsewhere.

Throughout the whole affair, though, there seemed to be a remarkable lack of curiosity as to why the system had become so vulnerable to fraud.

The European Commission, just as it had with the volcanic ash debacle, denied responsibility. The appropriately-named Commissioner Tonio Borg, in charge of food safety, dumped the blame on "food business operators", then declaring that the Member States were responsible for enforcement of EU rules.

In comments to the media, he warned: "Let no one use this incident in order to undermine one of the greatest achievements of the European Union, the free movement of goods, including meat products throughout the European Union".

The Irish Times was not buying it. "The impression was of an institution more concerned with protecting the single market than getting to the bottom of what now appears to be widespread fraud in the European food chain", it wrote.

As the ultimate responsibility lay with the food industry, however, one might have expected an inquiry as to why major firms, many of them highly reputable such as Findus, Nestlé and Tesco, had been so easily caught out, risking massive reputational damage, costly product recalls and prosecution.

After all, as a Romanian meat trade spokesman had told the French media when his country's abattoirs had been implicated, it should have been obvious to the firms that it was horsemeat. "It looks different and it smells different. If you are in the trade, you have to know the difference".

The clue came in a French newspaper report, retailing the defence offered by the French company Comigel, explaining why it had not detected horsemeat in beef supplied by Spanghero. The meat had been delivered frozen, company president Erick Lehagre said, making it impossible "to detect deception" by its colour or its smell. And it bore "the French health stamp affixed by Spanghero".

The reference to the frozen state is crucial and more than adequate evidence exists that the bulk (if not all) of the horsemeat supplied came in frozen blocks. In that state, it would be impossible to tell the difference between beef and horsemeat.

In normal practice, these blocks were added to bulk chilled meats during processing of products such as burgers and pie fillings, in order to keep the mixes cool. As they fed frozen blocks into the machines, operators would have next to no chance of detecting horsemeat substitution.

Nevertheless, the fraud could have been picked up by subjecting pre-production, samples to a simple "boiling test", to bring up the characteristic smell. However, such direct testing had been dropped in favour of paper audits using a system known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), written into EU law. Thus, it had become entirely normal to base controls on paper records, as did Comigel in its reference to "the French health stamp affixed by Spanghero".

As Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for the Environment, put it in a Commons debate, "the system is very much paper-based and too much is taken on trust". Under the regime as it then stood, the likes of Comigel were entitled to rely on the policing of health stamps by national officials who, in turn, had their systems evaluated by the Commission's own inspectors from its Food and Veterinary Office (FVO).

However, there had been a double-whammy. Firstly, the Single Market, with its abolition of border controls, had not only freed up trade but also created massive opportunities for cross-border crime. Then, the replacement of conventional food controls by a document-based system had created a perfect storm.

There was no "deregulation" and nor was the food regulation "excessive", in the sense that Cameron meant. Simply, it was the wrong tool for a job that had not been properly anticipated. But few politicians or their advisors understood the lesson they had been given. In many cases, they did not even appreciate that there was a lesson to learn, calling – as did Mary Creagh – for more regulation.

Creagh, however, was not alone. In a stern editorial, the Observer intoned that, "If the horsemeat scandal tells us anything it is that we need more government regulation, not less". It's all well and good, it said, "to tell the supermarkets that they have 'ultimate responsibility'. But if they will not voluntarily police themselves with genuine rigour, then the state will have to do the job for them".

Tellingly, the paper offered this diagnosis without knowing the background to the scandal, much less recognising that food law was an EU competence. But as much to the point, the EU had made a fundamental error in taking the HACCP system, which was devised as a food safety management tool, and turning it into an enforcement tool – for which purpose it was entirely unsuited.

If ever there was a case for the review of the balance of competences, therefore, this was it. But when the relevant report was published in July, there was no mention of it, even though the horsemeat incident had reduced confidence in the EU.

Thus, when it came to Cameron demanding a return of powers, he didn't even know where to start. So complex was the regulatory relationship between the UK and the EU that our own politicians could not even begin to unravel it.

And there, possibly, lies a lesson for our present day politicians. They talk so glibly about taking back control, but in terms of detail they don't have the first idea of where to start.

Also published on Turbulent Times.



Richard North 30/08/2020 link

Brexit: choose your fantasies

30/05/2018  


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: no room to deregulate

20/02/2018  


From an historical perspective, the news of meat suppliers Russell Hume going into liquidation is of some interest, not least because one of the more prominent reports of the event is carried by the Guardian.

It was this newspaper which, back in the late 1980s, led the campaign for the uniform application of the supposedly more rigorous "European" meat hygiene standards. This was at a time when, before the advent of the Single Market, only operations which exported to EC countries were required to meet European standards.

Eventually, the Guardian was to get its way, following the promulgation of Council Directive 91/497/EEC. The effect on the meat industry was devastating, with the loss of over 1,400 small/medium slaughterhouses and cutting premises.

The introduction of European law, however, meant more than just a change of ownership of the legal code. It forced the replacement of the traditional UK system of food safety monitoring and enforcement. This stretched back to 1848, based on local government Medical Officers of Health and their field assistants, then called sanitary inspectors – the forerunners of today's environmental health officers.

Instead, we got slaughterhouses supervised by full-time "official veterinarians", leading to a centralised enforcement operation called the Meat Hygiene Services (MHS). This was established in 1995 and finally absorbed into the Food Standards Agency in 2010 as a fully national operation.

In accordance with EU law, the vastly more expensive system of veterinary supervision had to be paid-for by the meat industry and, with veterinary fees costing individual slaughterhouses tens of thousands of pounds a year, the pressure was on to reduce costs.

Enterprising contractors, supplying the MHS with vets, started to recruit cut-price vets, initially from Spain. Mostly, they were newly qualified, with limited English language skills and no enforcement experience in British slaughterhouses. The system was, and is, a travesty. Not least, detached from the local authority enforcement infrastructure, it lost vital local intelligence on how the trade was functioning, where the cheats were and who was cutting corners.

To some, in the wake of the BSE crisis, this was the price worth paying. And, as the law transmuted into Regulation (EC) No 853/2004, we were supposed to be entering a European nirvana where consumer protection was elevated to an all-time high, leaving all our food safety troubles behind us.

Yet, it was this same legislation and European system of hygiene control which gave us the horsemeat scandal, when the lid was lifted on food fraud as a major and largely unchecked element in the food industry.

Now we have this latest blemish on our story of European perfection. The system that the Guardian so much wanted as the antidote to food scares has now brought us Russell Hume, the closure and liquidation of a major meat supplier, allegedly for instances of serious non-compliance with food hygiene regulations.

How this was supposed to happen when the premises are approved by official veterinarians and under constant supervision is not explained. Clearly, the system – which is supposed to pre-empt problems – is not working.

Altogether, "Europe" has been a disaster for the UK meat sector and if anyone should be celebrating Brexit, it is the thousands of people robbed of a living by EU rules which, after all the trauma, have not delivered on their promise.

Despite that, we now see the Efra committee complaining that "non-British EU veterinary surgeons are critical to the UK veterinary workforce". This is our friend Mr Neil Parish who, when I first met him in as an MEP in Brussels, was one of those Conservative politicians who was eager to condemn European interference in our food control system.

Clearly having forgotten those days, his committee now calls for the government to "set out how it intends to ensure working rights for non-British EU vets currently working in the UK and to support the veterinary workforce going forward to ensure that it can meet the needs of the UK’s food industry in the future".

The original system of local authority control under the aegis of environmental health officers is now so far in the past, it seems, that very few people even realise that the current system is wholly an EEC import. Certainly, no one is calling for the restoration of the previous system.

The trouble is that what is left of the industry has been so heavily restructured that it is entirely dependent on the Single Market, freely importing and exporting product to meet demand, so much so that the entire industry has become Europeanised. That much became evident in the horsemeat crisis, where the international nature of the trade became highly visible.

In short, there is no going back – not in the short-term. We are committed to a European system of food control (which itself has transformed itself since the Sixties), just as the industry is now reliant on free access to the European market. Sudden change would be devastating.

And, for better or worse, no one sensible will dispute that such controls are necessary, imperfect though they are. A small indicator of the need for them comes in a report picked up from New Zealand by the BBC.

It tells us of how he discovery of hundreds of brown marmorated "stink bugs" aboard cargo ships bringing some 12,000 cars from Japan to New Zealand mean that the car carriers are being turned away to be fumigated. Apparently, there is no facility in New Zealand which can deal with the pest, so at least three of the ships are "floating aimlessly in the Pacific".

According to the BBC report, the stink bug, which is native to areas of East Asia but can also be found in Europe and the Americas, is a problem for fruit farmers around the world. The beetle voraciously sucks the liquid out of fruits and its toxins cause the plants to die. They have the potential to cause major damage to New Zealand's entire fruit and vegetable industry.

The agricultural sector is a crucial part of New Zealand's economy, worth £20 billion in the year ending June 2017. Strict biosecurity laws implemented by the Ministry of Primary Industries exist to prevent any kind of pest from entering the country, as pests introduced by man are one of its major threats.

Here, there is an added complication that the fumigant often used against the stink bug - methyl bromide - damages car upholstery to the point that they are unsalable. An alternative, sulfuryl fluoride, is not approved in New Zealand, but the Ministry is now considering its use.

This is a classic example of the need for border controls to prevent disease and the spread of pests (with the two often closely related). Like it or not, as we're seeing with the meat industry, we will have to keep these controls in place, known as sanitary and phytosanitary controls – even after Brexit.

Not only do we need them to protect our indigenous industries, our ability to export to Europe and worldwide depends on us keeping them in place. There is no scope for deregulation and, if we adopt US standards, that will automatically exclude us from the European market and those countries which adopt or shadow EU standards.

The ironic thing for me personally is that it was the imposition of the European system of food control which brought me into the fray as a fully-fledged Eurosceptic. I maintained then, back in the late 60s, that it was a substandard system, and my view hasn't changed – even with the so-called improvements.

Sadly, international trade depends not only on the application of standards, but on the acceptance of systems that were acceptable to all parties. The UK system, although better in my view, was almost unique (only a few countries in the world adopting it), to the extent that we were out of step with the global as well as the European system.

As long as we were a net importer of meat, with very little exported, that didn't matter very much, but globalisation has forced the change. We now export meat products to Europe and all over the world. With global trade comes global standards – largely based on the European model (even in the US, which also uses vets to inspect meat).

On the other hand, the extraordinary situation where some 700 branches of Kentucky Fried Chicken have had to close because of a failure in the distribution system illustrates the fragility of modern supply chains. Very little disruption can have a dramatic effect.

This puts the "deregulators" and the "free trade" purists in a fantasy world of their own making. There is no way we can dismantle the food safety controls that are in place, or start messing with them and not expect serious consequences.

Furthermore, with the trend towards global harmonisation of standards, mutual recognition isn't on the agenda. Experience tells us that dual standards are not a realistic proposition. So if you want to export, and the price is regulatory conformity, that must also extend to domestic production.

A little of this seems to have percolated into the collective brain of the UK government - but only a little. In his "Road to Brexit" speech to be delivered in Vienna, David Davis is to ask the EU to trust Britain not to turn into a "Mad Max-style world" of no rules after Brexit. Foolishly, though, Davis is expecting a regime of mutual recognition to apply, which isn't going to happen – on which subject I will have to return.

In the meantime, though, it looks as if we are to continue to see useless vets in our slaughterhouses for some time to come. Even though we won the war, this is a battle we have lost.



Richard North 20/02/2018 link

Brexit: will business pull the plug?

14/11/2017  


Yesterday was a watershed, possibly. It may not be obvious. It may even be counter-intuitive. But, with David Davis promising MPs that they could have a vote on the final Brexit agreement was, in my mind, Parliament's redundancy notice. As far as Brexit goes, MPs have written themselves out of the script.

As it stands, the Brexit talks are poised on the edge of collapse. Within two weeks, we are looking at a failure to progress beyond phase one, which effectively means that the chances of an agreement are looking remoter by the day.

Yes, the MPs seem to be concerned about is whether they're going to get a vote on a deal sometime next year, a deal that may not – and most likely will not – happen at all. And if it does, they won't be able to vote against it or we end up with no deal, exactly the outcome that looks like it's going to happen anyway.

Basically, therefore, what MPs say and do between now and Brexit is largely irrelevant, which is just as well. Barring a vanishingly small number who are beginning to get to grips with the issues, they are so far behind the curve, or so besotted with their own agendas, that they have nothing useful to offer.

Far more important then was yesterday's meeting between Mrs May and a group of business leaders. Reported by Reuters, this was supposedly an occasion when a number of CEOs told the Prime Minister that she needed to speed up Brexit negotiations, "amid concern Britain will crash out the world’s biggest trading bloc without a deal".

In fact, the real value of the meeting was, most probably, in the opportunity it gave for the leaders of 15 business groups from Britain and continental Europe (pictured) to meet somebody who knew even less about Brexit than they did. With luck, they've been shocked into the realisation that they are on their own. No salvation is going to come from No 10.

And, after drawing attention to the lack of awareness in the business community, yesterday we got another example – not of total ignorance but a distorted view of what might transpire.

This came from Gabriel D'Arcy, the chief executive of LacPatrick in Strabane in Northern Ireland, one of the UK’s largest dairy producers, courtesy of The Guardian, who warns that food prices "would soar" after no-deal Brexit.

The thesis is not unfamiliar to blog readers, with D'Arcy predicting that a badly handled Brexit could lead to price hikes for food, and scarcity in the shops from April 2019, with dairy and meat products particularly hit. Something which the Downing Street Fifteen would also have found, he also complained that "ministers were too focused on financial services" and were putting the country's food security and food standards at risk.

"The impression in the industry", says D'Arcy, "is we are not relevant or sufficiently relevant to get a strong hearing in the negotiations". He then adds something that is certainly bothering the fishing industry as he says, "The risk is we are a chip that will be traded".

That, the man avers, "might be fine for England and Wales but not here in Northern Ireland", accusing Whitehall of being "fixated" with financial services and "not that bothered about food".

D'Arcy nevertheless professes to be happy for Britain to leave the customs union and single market, but not until someone in government "articulates the vision in detail and with examples, and explains, with concrete examples, why it is better than the current regime". He will have a long wait.

What then gets a little dubious is D'Arcy's claims that leaving the customs union in a "hard Brexit" scenario could lead to the price of meat doubling and the price of dairy, half of which is imported, rising by up to 50 percent.

A block of cheddar imported from Ireland that currently costs £1, he says, will cost £1.41 under WTO rules. With Ireland being a major producer of cheddar, he argues that this would prompt "a vicious economic cycle" and a period of "runaway" food price hikes.

Actually, reference to the current EU tariff rate puts Cheddar at €171.70 per 100kg. And, with the average price of the cheese at £733 per 100kg, £1-worth of cheese (not a large amount) would actually cost around £1.17 (depending on the exchange rate).

Nonetheless, this is a significant increase, although some other products attract no tariffs at all, while others are higher. Then, as regards Cheddar, although the Irish Republic would have problems, the UK would benefit from substantially lower tariffs arising from New Zealand and Australian quotas – the bulk of which the UK would keep.

In other words, there is an amount of special pleading going on here. The actual increased cost to the UK consumer will average out at a relatively low figure – even assuming that we do not go for the unilateral tariff-free option.

As regards milk sales, D'Arcy says that, with production plants on both sides of the border he can segregate his business in a Brexit apartheid, with northern non-EU milk staying north of the border and milk from across the border staying in the Republic of Ireland. However, he worries about the livelihoods of the 1,000 farmers he supports in Northern Ireland as "87 percent of their income presently comes from the EU".

Even that, though, is not that drastic when the current tariff for whole milk is €21.80 per 100kg - although that would be enough to make the liquid product uncompetitive, adding 21p to a litre. Even that, though, is not necessarily significant. Retail prices for whole milk range from a 65p/litre to over £1, so the cost of duty could be absorbed. Furthermore, skimmed milk costs more although duty is less, based on fat content.

With the picture very different from what D'Arcy is telling us, he still claims that, "Tariffs for food are going to be at prohibitive levels so that's going to drive the price of food up, and then it will probably give rise to another government intervention to dampen down food price inflation, which obviously will be very destabilising and that's not what the British voted for when they voted for Brexit".

Tellingly, though, D'Arcy does not mention non-tariff barriers. He does not mention that products of animal origin must be presented to Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) when they are imported into the EU (with similar provisions likely when food is exported from the EU to the UK after Brexit).

He says nothing about the fact that the UK cannot even export food to the EU until it gets country clearance – which could take months – or that the BIPs could take years to provide.

These, in fact, will be the real barriers to trade, and they will exist with or without a deal. Even if we manage to negotiate a tariff-free trade agreement with the EU, we will still be a "third country" and food products will still be subject of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks. On Brexit, these barriers will be so formidable that it is hard to imagine that there can be any trade at all.

With somewhat more validity, though, D'Arcy raises the issue of opening up the UK market to US imports to keep prices down if EU tariffs rose. "That would certainly give rise to a massive incentive to open the market to American hormone-impregnated beef and chlorinated chicken and food from the cheapest parts of the world", he says. "That will be the way to avoid food price inflation but that will be at some cost".

The deal here, though, will be the relatively low production cost – although these do fluctuate, and US advantage is not always as high as is imagined. However, D'Arcy warns that if the gates were opened to the cheapest suppliers in the world, the country would open the door to disease, fraud along the lines of the horsemeat scandal and threats to the country's food security.

It's a bit rich pinning the horsemeat scandal on cheap food, when that was very much of EU origin, affecting high-priced prepared meals. The more relevant point is that, if food from the US was admitted to the UK, the EU would either refuse to accept UK exports or impose such stringent border checks that it would make trade impossible. The price of "cheap" food from the US, therefore, would be the loss of our EU export trade (if we ever got it back), currently worth about £20 billion annually.

What is coming from D'Arcy, therefore, is wide of the mark. He has a point, but his focus is misplaced and he misses the real threats. Nonetheless, even if for the wrong reasons, there is merit in his claims when he says: "We are putting the domestic food industry at risk, we are putting food standards and safety at risk, and putting a massive amount of jobs and the viability of the rural economy at risk".

D'Arcy, who is being somewhat more forthright than many in the industry, says he felt compelled to speak out because he felt so angry at "this the eleventh hour" that there is no government in Northern Ireland to give farming a voice and no one in Westminster with a vision of Brexit.

"No one is banging the desks in Whitehall" to explain the dangers of a hard Brexit, not just to the farmer but to the consumer, he says. "The impression is in the [food] industry we are not relevant or sufficiently relevant to get a strong hearing in the negotiations".

And on that, not only is he right – he is massively under-stating the problems. But then, he is also under-stating the problems of a negotiated settlement. He, like most of the business community, has yet to come to terms with the consequences of the UK leaving the Single Market and acquiring "third country" status.

The level of ignorance here is bizarre, where even the worst case scenarios from industry don't actually approach reality. And when the politicians are further discounting the problems, we end up in cloud-cuckoo land – where we currently reside.

Then, that is without looking at the broader issues arising from a "hard border" with Ireland, where the pressure from Dublin is quite capable of collapsing the Brexit talks.

That brings us back full circle. While the MPs in Westminster obsess about their final vote, as each day passes, a deal looks more and more remote. By the time our politician wake up to this peril, it will be far too late, and many will never have seen it coming.

And there, business is truly on its own. If that was the message they took from Downing Street, it cannot be long before they draw their own conclusions and take the necessary measures, further reinforcing the irrelevance of Westminster. It may be business, rather than politics, that pulls the plug on Mrs May's version of Brexit.



Richard North 14/11/2017 link

Brexit: still failing to catch up

30/10/2017  


It is difficult to find the exact point at which I started pointing out the problems that might arise after Brexit as a result of inadequate customs facilities on the other side of the Channel.

However, it is certainly the case that I was in full flow September 2016 - over a year ago. Then, I was writing that France "as we know" has limited infrastructure to deal with the extra customs requirements arising out of Brexit. And European officials, I said, "admit they are only just beginning to understand the scale of the Brexit challenge".

Earlier this week, we then had Sir Ivan Rogers warn that the crucial issue in post-Brexit trade with the EU was, in his words, " What's the other side of the Channel going to do?" Now, trailing our wake comes the Financial Times, self-importantly telling us that it has carried out "an analysis", telling us that "Britain's EU trade partners are lagging behind on preparing for a possible hard Brexit".

Under the headline, "Customs teams in EU27 unprepared for hard Brexit", we are informed that some member states are likely to have no extra customs inspectors in place for at least a year after Brexit. Finally recognising the point we've been making for so long, the paper is at last reporting that "Britain’s preparations rely on the EU27 also being ready", and that "there are few signs that some leading trading partners are implementing contingency plans".

In some continental administrations, such as Germany, it actually takes three years to train customs officials, so it is already too late to meet increased demand by the end of March 2019, and even France's two-year programme means that those who applied in this year’s recruitment round for the next course in 2018 will not start to enter service until mid-2020.

So far, the intentions of cross-Channel authorities on increasing staff levels have not been declared, leading the FT to hazard a guess that one reason for any delays is "uncertainty over the final shape of Brexit amid fractious negotiations between London and Brussels".

It cites a spokesman for the FNV, the Dutch trade union federation, who says the government "know they may need more people, but they don't know how many until the final deal is clear". A Swedish official said: "I think we will first have to wait and see what the Brexit negotiations lead to".

What the Financial Times and the continental authorities don't seem to have realised, though, is that commercial shipping staff do the brunt of the work in customs processing. They too will need to recruit and train extra staff, with the appropriate facilities provided. This may well be as big a problem as that confronting the private sector.

And then, there is the minor issue that the staffing problem arises regardless of whether we have a deal or not. The moment Mrs May decided that the UK was going to leave the Single Market and become a third country, there were going to be border checks, and such remains the case to this day.

Some relief could come with an agreement on interim measures, where the application of the EU acquis is extended past 2019. But that will only delay the inevitable for two years or so, which would seem to suggest that action must still be taken more or less immediately for some countries.

The situation gets worse, of course, when one takes into account the "official controls" which require products of animal origin to be submitted to Border Inspection Posts (BIP), and most other foods to Designated Points of Entry (DPE) – a provision also applying to live plants, some materials of plant origin, plus timber and some wood products.

While it may take up to three years to recruit and train customs officials, it might take five years or more to provide BIP and DPE facilities, which are in addition to the customs requirement. And it will take as long to recruit and train the necessary professional staff.

By coincidence, a report produced by the European Parliament this month brings up the critical shortfall in infrastructure, observing that "there is very limited capacity to handle all of the additional inspections that would be required if trade between the UK and the EU27 also had to be inspected". For example, it says, "neither Calais nor Coquelles, the two main points of entry into France, has a Border Inspection Post for animal products".

The report is written by Alan Matthews, Professor Emeritus of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. Yet, it would seem, these strong academic credentials do not prevent Matthews repeating an error perpetrated by Legatum and others, to the effect that official controls can under certain circumstances be waived. They can't.

In this case, Matthews seems to be relying on the precedent set by the EU concluding "equivalence" agreements with New Zealand and Canada, where food imports from these countries are subject to a lower frequency of physical checks. It is assumed that, because UK and EU sanitary and phytosanitary are currently aligned, regulatory checks at borders could avoided, thereby facilitating the trade in goods and removing the need for inspection posts and their specialist staff.

However, it should be noted that, while the agreements with New Zealand and Canada reduce the frequency of inspections, they do not eliminate them entirely nor remove the requirement for consignments to be presented to BIP/DPE for documentation checks and such physical checks as are required.

Currently, the official requirements specify 100 percent documentation checks while fresh meat, fish products, whole eggs and certain other products require a 20 percent physical inspection rate. For poultry meat and poultry meat products, milk and milk products, egg products and certain other products – including, for some strange reason, honey (or perhaps not) – the inspection rate increases to 50 percent. One out of every two consignments must be inspected.

It should be appreciated that the documentary checks include "identity checks", which means physically reconciling container or vehicle contents with the manifest. This can even require the opening of packaging and carrying out tests to confirm the products are as described - detecting horsemeat labelled as beef, for instance. 

Nevertheless, the concessions made to New Zealand are substantial. Although 100 percent checks are still required, in most cases the physical inspection rate drops to two percent, and in some cases it is down to one. However, as can be seen from the copious documentation (here, here, here and here), this is no free pass. In fact, the "high purity" regimes adopted in the country's abattoirs are so stringent that no more than a handful of UK abattoirs (if that many) could meet the standard.

In these circumstances, probably the best that could be achieved would be an equivalence along lines similar to that of Canada, where inspection rates drop to between 10 and 15 percent for most products. And that is on the basis of conformity with a 62-page technical agreement plus amendments.

So detailed are the technical requirements that – as the Matthews report correctly points out – it affords little policy or regulatory autonomy to the UK. Dreams of deregulation will be precisely that. To all intents and purposes, the UK food industry will have to maintain full EU regulatory requirements, just to achieve the marginal concessions to the level afforded to Canada.

This, of course, will be the best-case scenario assuming a negotiated settlement and recognition of the UK as an approved exporter. Oddly, in the worst case scenario where there is "no deal", after the immediate chaos has died down there will be nothing for officials to do. UK export of animals and foods of animal origin to the EU (including Ireland) will not be permitted.

And what this points to is that the newspapers and even the so-called experts – to say nothing of the politicians – are still failing to catch up.

In fact, so far behind the curve is much of the media that we get stories such as this from Sky News, with presenter Niall Peterson writing that: "The Port of Dover is something of a gift for lazy journalists looking to do a report on the progress towards Brexit (or lack thereof)", and then proceeds to demonstrate his almost total lack of grip of the subject.

But it is perhaps unfair to single out the media. None of these groups are beginning to come to terms with the implications of Brexit and, in particular, of the consequences of leaving the Single Market. The whole debate is so driven by ignorance that reality is going to come as a huge shock.

It is becoming clear that Davis and his crew are convinced that "equivalence" is a free pass, allowing UK produce to be exempted from border controls. They think this will be conceded to the UK as part of the "deep and special partnership" simply on the basis that we currently comply with the EU regime.

They do not understand that, in the Single Market, the EU (Commission and ECJ) have direct jurisdiction over enforcement and can intervene directly to direct enforcement activity in the event of default. It is that process, in addition to regulatory conformity, which gives Member States their free passes at the borders.

But when we leave the Regulatory Union (aka Single Market), all that gets kicked into touch. Thus, there is no way the EU is going to allow access to its markets without border inspection, otherwise the UK would be exporting to the EU under less stringent conditions than intra-Union trade undertaken by Member States.

Right from the earliest days of Brexit, though, the Union has made it abundantly clear that the UK cannot have a better deal outside the EU than in. Concessions on border inspection, are not on the agenda. The doctrine of "equal misery" will prevail, where UK exporters will have to to additional controls to make up for those they relinquish when the UK leaves the EU.

This simple principle seems constantly to evade Davis and his advisers, to the extent that they are blundering in the dark - the media and the "experts" with them. In the next few years, there are going to be some very expensive lessons learned about how the European Union really works.



Richard North 30/10/2017 link

Brexit: horsing around

01/02/2017  


One likes to think that somewhere, even if buried deep in the bowels of a Commission building in Brussels, there is some who understands fully how the EU's trade system for animals and products of animal origins actually works.

I have a horrible feeling though that such a person does not exist. The sort of thing one finds is rigid specialisation and compartmentalisation – where no one person in the system has any knowledge of how the other parts work.

This is very much Kafka territory, illustrated when I once spent four hours on a train from Brussels to Strasbourg in the company of a Commission official. An Englishmen by birth, he had graduated in Madrid with a degree in medieval Spanish literature.

Finding employment opportunities in his calling somewhat limited, he had been attracted by the idea of working for the European Commission and, having to his surprise passed the entry examinations, found himself working for DG Sanco.

What I asked him what he did for a living, he told me: "the beef labelling regulations". Unwittingly, he had perhaps found the one man in Europe who could look him in the eye and say: "that's interesting", and actually mean it. But I then said: "what else do you do?", to which he replied: "the beef labelling regulations". That was all he did.

We see a similar degree of specialisation in the British Civil Service, certainly within the technical levels. In the administrative grades, however – where a first class honours degree in the arts from Oxford is the gateway to success - they specialise in ignorance, which is actively cultivated and honed to perfection.

This is mirrored in our politico-media class, who regard the holders of detailed knowledge with something akin to horror, giving rise to what Lost Leonardo describes as the "arrogance of ignorance". A perfect example of that comes with an article in the Spectator last July, a month after the referendum, when writer Robin Oakley was asked to pronounce on the effect of Brexit on horseracing.

The inconsequential fluff produced was an embarrassment, showing a worrying lack of appreciation of what could happen to what is an important industry worth £3.45 billion to the UK economy, employing (directly and indirectly) 85,000 people and underpinning a £12.6 billion gambling market.

As so often, it was left to a commenter to give some indication of what could await the industry, in this case Dan McCracken who asked whether the Cheltenham Festival would survive without the Irish horses, and whether they would have restrictions on their movement to a non-EU country. Losing the Irish, he wrote, "would decimate that racecourse into a non event".

This, in fact, very much hit the nail on the head. Horse racing has developed into a truly international industry and is reliant on the rapid movement of racehorses throughout the world, by road throughout Europe, and by air to more exotic locations, attracting the interest even of the popular media. The UK industry is particularly dependent on the free movement of animals between the mainland and Ireland.

It will comes as no surprise to our readers, though, to learn that this business is heavily regulated – from the ownership of horses, their movement and, in particular, their (temporary) export and return so that they can take part in foreign races.

Right up front, the crucial element of law is one which requires each horse to be furnished with its own individual passport. I recall Booker and myself making hay - to coin a phrase – with this provision and its bureaucratic absurdities. But, as the system has matured, it is widely supported by owners and industry generally, especially as by 2019, compulsory chipping will be introduced.

Currently, the requirement for horse "passports" is embodied in Commission Regulation (EC) No 504/2008, "implementing Council Directives 90/426/EEC and 90/427/EEC as regards methods for the identification of equidae", which is the latest version of the regulation, providing the foundation for much of the additional EU law.

Although, as a regulation, it takes direct effect, the UK government has chosen to give them an enforcement framework in the Horse Passport Regulations 2009, cross referring to Regulation 504/2008, which remains the executive instrument.

Undoubtedly, the UK Government will want to keep a similar system in place once we leave the EU, not least because it is a mandatory requirement for horses sold for human consumption (for which there is a substantial export trade with EU Member States), and to enable horses easily to be moved around the continent so that they can attend events, races and the like.

If, however, the Government is to rely on the Great Repeal Bill (once it has Royal Assent) to re-enact Regulation 504/2008, expecting – as Mrs May promises us – that: "The same rules and laws will apply on the day after Brexit as they did before", they are going to be a little disappointed.

What they will find is that Article 1 of the Regulation, which sets out its scope, states that it applies to horses (and other equidae) born in the Community or released for free circulation in the Community – i.e., imported in to the EU.

Here again, in a situation that is becoming wearily familiar, the UK can impose regulations on its own citizens, but it has no jurisdiction over the EU. Passports in the UK are issued by Passport Issuing Organisations (PIOs) but they rely for their authority of Council Directive 90/427/EEC on the zootechnical and genealogical conditions governing intra-Community trade in equidae. Repatriating the law will reimpose the system in the UK but passports issued here will no longer be recognised in the European Union. 

Nevertheless, it is not wrong to argue that repatriation of law – which served the Irish, the Indian and even the Polish nations once they regained independence – is a valid tool for the UK in managing Brexit. What this demonstrates, though, is that the process has its limitations.

The difficulty comes, as in this case, when the legislation is setting up a Community system. Here, we see the EU not just legislating for horses but laying down part of its Community Animal Health Policy. When the UK starts to re-establishing its own systems, therefore, it stands to reason that it must make its own laws to do that. It cannot simply download EU law and adopt it unchanged.

However, the crucial additional point in this particular instance is that the UK will need the EU to recognise its passports. No doubt this will be done on a mutual basis where we will also continue to recognise passports issued in the territories of EU Member States.

This, under ordinary circumstances, should not be difficult to achieve, given that we retain regulatory convergence on relevant animal health measures linked to the issue of passports. But it won't happen automatically. It is another item for the weary Article 50 negotiating team to add to its growing list, all to be agreed within a two year period.

Needless to say, Madam May in walkabout mode won't cut it. If the UK walks away without a deal, then the racing industry – and horse owners generally – will find it difficult to move their horses into the EU (or EEA). Horsemeat exports (and the export of live horses for slaughter) will no longer be possible.

But passports, of course, are only one hurdle. We are dealing with the EU here, so continuity is never going to be achieved by sorting out just one law. There are many more hurdles.

The next thing the racing industry is going to have to address is the 2014 Tripartite Agreement on Racehorses mandated by Council Directive 2009/156/EC on animal health conditions governing the movement and importation from third countries of equidae. This is an agreement between France, Ireland and the United Kingdom, originally established in the 1970s, in order to regulate the movement of race horses between the three countries without formal veterinary inspection taking place. It simplifies the process and reduces costs of moving horses between the three countries.

The problem here is that such an agreement can only be made between EU Member States derogating from EU law. On Brexit, this would fall unless a separate agreement was made within the Article 50 framework – yet another thing for the hard-worked negotiators to consider.

The greater problem then is that the UK, by leaving the EU, has assumed the "third country" status. Under EU law, this means an automatic ban on the export of horses. That is the EU's default position. For the UK to resume exports, it must satisfy the conditions set out in Council Directive 90 /426 /EEC on animal health conditions governing the movement and import from third countries of equidae. It must be approved by the Commission and then formally included on the list established by Commission Decision 2004/211/EC.

This is rather similar to the problems with the export of meat. Until the UK is on the list, all exports (including the temporary export of racehorses) will cease. As far as the European Commission is concerned, Brexit day is year zero.

Once again, the UK will be in a position of having to make a specific application to the Commission in order to be assessed for its suitability as an export country. It should not be too hard to get approval as we already comply with the relevant law. But we must be prepared to give assurances that the current level of regulatory convergence will be maintained and that we will not deviate from it. How long the Commission then takes to process our application is up to it. We are in no position to make demands.

Regulatory conformity, incidentally, is not simply a question of applying rules only to those enterprises which export to the EU. It requires the adoption of nation-wide health measures and the maintenance of disease-free conditions in accordance with EU rules, right across the board. This should not be too bitter a pill to swallow, though, as the provisions set are in accordance with the global rules recommended by the OIE.

It is an issue we cannot afford to ignore. Apart from the racing activities, there are fears that the lucrative bloodstock sales might be affected if stock cannot be brought in easily and then re-exported to Community destinations.

As always, though, all these issues are negotiable – and will need to be negotiated, although they would cease to be a problem if we remained in the EEA. But the roof will only fall in if Mrs May decides to walk without a deal. Fortunately, the public are signalling that they do not favour this option, with 51 percent against it. Only 34 percent of respondents said they wanted too leave the EU with no deal.

It seems, therefore, that the public have more sense than the politico-media nexus. Bluntly, though, as the problems multiply, the idea of leaving without a deal is insane.



Richard North 01/02/2017 link

UK politics: euro-blindness

20/06/2014  

Anne McIntosh is at it again. As chairman of the EFRA Committee, she managed to get through the entire horsemeat crisis without mentioning the EU. 

Now, her committee has produced a report on the winter floods, covering amongst other things the flooding of the Somerset Levels. And, despite the central role of EU law and policies, it should come as no surprise that two words are completely missing from the report: European Union.

It is hard to believe that this can be an accident. More likely, it is a morbid clinical condition – the total inability of MPs to recognise their own impotence. As a result, they have developed chronic euro-blindness, an illness that renders the presence of the European Union and all its works completely invisible.

Mostly, the affliction affects MPs, but it also affects working members of the media and other groups. The illness is probably incurable but, unfortunately, is not fatal. We do feel, however, that it should be a capital offence.

FORUM THREAD


Richard North 20/06/2014 link

UKIP: the direction of travel

12/03/2014  

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Despite the EU role in the Somerset flooding, the debacle over Ukraine, the corporate tax avoidance arising from EU's "free movement of capital and payments" provisions, the horsemeat scandal, the silicone breast implants scandal, and sundry other EU-inspired disasters, the latest poll on leaving the EU gives the "outers" 39 percent and the "inners" 41 percent.

With a two percent lead to those who want to stay in the European Union, you might ask what it takes actually to get people to want to leave the evil empire.

But then, most people haven't been told about the EU role in the Somerset flooding, Ukraine, tax avoidance, horsemeat, breast implants, etc., etc. In the main, all they get from the media is the low drone of assorted FUD, with very little counterbalancing intelligence on how the UK could remain in the Single Market once it had left the EU.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the majority support the status quo, staying in the European Union. But there is more to it than that. Alongside the FUD, we've also been getting a steady drip-drip of publicity hostile to UKIP, in the Times and then the latest offering from the Daily Mail. This projects the party's London HQ as a bizarre freakshow. It paints a picture that would have most normal people crossing the road to avoid contact with the party, driving out any thought of voting for Mr Farage.

That certainly seems to be the case with at least 80 percent of the population, as the latest ICM poll on European election voting intentions indicates (below). This has 20 percent opting for UKIP, 35 percent for Labour, 25 percent for the Tories and the Lib-Dems on 9 percent. 

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Against historical performances, 20 percent is an encouraging figure, although it now puts UKIP in third place, and a very long way from the "political earthquake" promised by Mr Farage. If all he is able to deliver is third place, his credibility is on the line. But so is the credibility of the entire anti-EU movement, especially as Mr Farage wants the euro elections to be a referendum on the EU.

Furthermore, on general voting intentions, the news is even glummer. Labour stands at 38 percent, and the Conservatives creep in with 35 percent. But UKIP drops back to just nine percent in fourth place, while the Lib-Dems claw back third position with 12 percent of the poll. 

This is against a background of UKIP flatlining in the polls. Ever since the May "surge", the UKIP vote has been on the decline. Now, YouGov has the party oscillating between 11-14 percent, with very little movement out of that range for more than six months.

In a real life parliamentary by-elections, however, we are seeing much the same thing. At Wythenshaw, the party attracted only 5.7 percent of the electorate, with an overall turnout of 28 percent. In South Shields, it took a 9.4 percent share of the electorate. It took 14.8 percent share at Eastleigh, and 7.3 percent of the available vote at Rotherham.

With the one exception of Eastleigh, therefore, the party has been unable to mobilise more than ten percent of the electorate. It shows no evidence of having re-energised electoral politics, as turnouts remain poor. And, against the baseline of Eastleigh, the party's electoral support is going down. That is roughly what the polls are showing: gradually declining popular support and no sign of an electoral breakthrough.

All of that renders rather irrelevant the message of booksellers Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin. As some time political analysts, they are trying to sell the message that UKIP has greater potential than its poll results indicate. In theory, that may be true, but it also illustrates that they are out of their depth.  

In terms of "potential", a political party dedicated to leaving the EU (supposedly) should be able to pull in the bulk of the 39 percent who say they want to leave the EU. Such people should, potentially at least, be UKIP supporters. But, as we saw last year, the party also invites some pretty sharp reaction, with 43 percent of voters declaring the would never vote for it under any circumstances. More recently, we saw UKIP as the least liked and most disliked party.

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As stories abound of bizarre happenings in the party, only so much can be put down to "smears". To be asked why he is paying both his wife and his former mistress from his official secretarial allowance (note Barroso watching in the background) is not something which can easily be ignored, especially as the legacy media have been exceptionally quick to pick up the story.

Under such circumstances, a British MP would find it hard to keep his seat - a leader of a serious political party more so, especially when he is attracting critical comment of an extremely damaging nature.

Such low-grade revelations will continue, though, because, at its heart, UKIP is not a serious political party. And the percentage of "never" voters can only increase. But, even if hostile stories are dismissed as "smears", there is something which Ford and Goodwin clearly do not understand about the party. And that "something" explains what is happening. It explains the poll results.

Essentially, UKIP is not only fundamentally unserious. It is an empty vessel, devoid of any substance. The party has been strident on the subject of immigration, openly courting the BNP vote - as Mr Farage has been happy to acknowledge - but when it comes to leadership on issues such as the Somerset flooding, Ukraine, tax avoidance, horsemeat, breast implants, etc., etc., its voice has been uncertain, weak and often contradictory.   

If it had substance, a solid core, it could ride the smears and still make converts. But the closer people get to the party and the more exposure it gets, the more apparent the emptiness becomes. Unable to counter the FUD, and lacking ability to put the EU on the spot, it seems to be losing us the wider battle, as well as its own battle for votes. It may be a "eurosceptic" party, but by no measure can it be said to be leading a coherent, much less growing, anti-EU movement.

Inertia may get it some sort of electoral victory in the euros, but the chances of it "winning" the contest outright are now receding. And, on current results, the chances of us winning an "in-out" referendum are nil. That much we do know, now we know the direction of travel. The paths of UKIP, the political party, and the anti-EU movement are diverging. The one is no longer the other.



Richard North 12/03/2014 link

Media: bent bananas and a diet of trivia

10/03/2014  

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Two episodes recently have highlighted the malign role of the European Union, the flooding of the Somerset Levels, and the meddling in the Ukraine. In neither instance, however, has the legacy media been able to handle the EU involvement, or explain its importance.

Yet, in the Sunday Express yesterday, we get a trivial little story, complete with an editorial, headed "Garden meddling EU must finally be cut down to size".

And that is the measure of our media. When the great debate erupted over corporate tax avoidance, the media was silent on the role of the EU and the "free movement of capital and payments" provisions of the treaties. Over the horsemeat scandal, it was similarly silent about the failure of EU regulation, which created the conditions for the wholesale fraud. Likewise, we saw next to no criticism of the EU in the silicone breast implants scandal, despite the egregious failure of the CE system.

The only way, it seems, that the media can deal with the EU is in terms that it can understand, To do so, it reduces the complexity of the EU into something it can cope with, turning it into a  "red-tape" machine, and then spends its time chasing after "bent banana" stories and the like. 

This type of story the hacks can deal with at a comic-book level, keeping them within their comfort zone. But, when it comes to looking at the EU as a serious force, engaged in serious policy issues, the hacks simply cannot cope. This does not fit their narrative. The EU is allowed to be a "threat" to our gardens, but not to world peace.

Interestingly, the issue at hand we dealt with in September last when the Daily Mail made a hash of the story. Far from being and "EU red tape" story, these rules actually originate with the OECD.  We saw the same dynamic with the jam story.  When the media pins the blame on the EU, any other agency is invisible.

The system of global governance, of course, is so way beyond the comprehension of the average hack that they are not even close to being able to report the details. It is simply beyond their capability. Whole areas of policy are closed off, beyond the scope of media reportage.

And this is where, increasingly, we are going to have to fall back on our own resources. The legacy media is no longer part of the game. More part of the entertainment industry, its sates itself on a diet of trivia and superficiality. If we want detail and intelligent reporting, we will have to provide it ourselves.

Fortunately for the media, enough people are sufficiently happy with what they get. Their businesses are mostly safe. But we should no longer confuse them with news providers or analysts. We are on our own.



Richard North 10/03/2014 link

EU integration: a shaggy horse story

31/08/2013  

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I've been running Syria stories for three days running now, each of them being highly critical of the Conservative leader, Mr Cameron. And the strange thing is that I haven't had a single e-mail telling me I'm overdoing the criticism and should leave the man alone.

Nevertheless, just to be on the safe side, I've changed the tempo, picking up on a "new crisis" on horsemeat that has supposedly has hit northern Europe. What's more, the French Farmers Union says the Belgian Mafia is behind it.

It involves riding horses, which may have been treated with drugs so rendering them unfit for human consumption, which were sold from a stable to a man who promised to give them a retirement home.

Horror of horrors, though, they were not given slippers, cups of warm cocoa and places by the fireside. Instead, they were trucked to Belgium, their health passports were changed and they were then returned to France to be slaughtered for human consumption.

After the abattoir became suspicious about the horses documents, the proprietor complained to the authorities and investigators are now targeting a jockey based in the Ardennes region of eastern France.

The owner of the stables where the animals came, Arnaux Ravaux, also had doubts: "We realized that the explanations were the same every time. Once the horses had left, we had no more news from this man, and when we did manage to get hold of him, the animals were always either dead or victims of heart attacks".

But the real gem of this story comes with the punchline from euronews which tells us that in countries where eating horse is common, "this case underlines the need for a Pan European system of health controls".

So there we have it. When a jockey working for the Belgian Mafia buys up retired horses and forges new passports for them. Then, instead of feeding them hot cocoa, he flogs them off to French abattoirs to make horse meat. And that means we need more European political integration.  I bet you thought we really needed it to stop the Germans invading France – or vice versa.

In the meantime, it seems, City of London plod have admitted that, back in May, they actually arrested two men on the horsemeat scandal, and held them on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud. They interviewed another two men under caution. And, we are reliably, informed, there wasn't a ring of stars in sight. 

A pan European system of health controls, it appears, wasn't even mentioned.



Richard North 31/08/2013 link

EU politics: Whitehall likes EU shock!

23/07/2013  

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At least the Daily Mail has got it roughly right. James Landale of the BBC notes that the first six out of 32 non-committal reports have been published deliberately without fanfare on a quiet Monday in July while MPs are not sitting with all eyes elsewhere.

There is lots of meat for eurosceptics and europhiles alike, he says. Each can choose what they wish to further their arguments. But that is all. The debate may be more informed but it has not changed. 

The problem is, reviewing these reports is like paddling in a septic tank. The next one I've been looking at Animal Health and Welfare and Food Safety Report, which covers areas in which EU policy density is particularly high. It is turgid beyond extreme. 

Mercifully, the report is "only" 69 pages. With this and the energy stuff, I've looked at over 300 pages of officialese in one slug over the lest 24-hours. No one can really absorb this – and they don't. You dip in, fillet it and move on. But this is no way to run a railroad. 

One interesting bit we pull out is in the introduction of this current report, from which we e learn that consumer survey data suggests that UK consumers are largely unaware of the role the EU plays in making food law. Only 11 percent preferred food law to be made by the EU, although this figure rose to 23 percent when people were given some information about EU legislation. 

And there you go: in Europe and run by Europe, but most people don't actually realise. Yet, we sort of knew that from the horsemeat fraud. But if people don't even recognise an EU failure when it happens, it is difficult to get informed comment.

In fact, that one thing – horsemeat fraud – illustrates the fatuity of this entire review. We could write (and effectively have written) hundreds of pages on evaluating just this one aspect of EU law. Thus, for all the length, 69 pages in this report can only glide of the issues. It cannot and does not do justice to them. 

This we see especially in page 50, headed "International issues". Half a page is devoted to Codex, and the other half to OIE, and then another page looks at these organisations and the WTO. Look at how many pages on this blog we've devoted to Codex, and you immediately realise just how thin this report really is. 

In six short paragraphs, the issue of "Global standards rather than EU competence" is rehearsed. Some respondents such as attendees at the Brussels Workshop, we are told, questioned whether or not being locked into an EU position at Codex served the UK's national interest. The Agricultural Industries Confederation was also concerned that UK interests were diluted by EU representation at Codex. 

And then respondents such as Dundee City Council argued that the EU has a more powerful voice than the UK as it speaks as one united bloc of 28 different Member States. Similarly, Cefas argued that the EU was highly influential when negotiating within the OIE. 

Look at three pieces we have done, herehere and here, and there is far more argument and relevant detail than you will find in the entire report, much less these trivial little snatches. 

What emerges is that the civil service, with the backing of the FCO, is reporting what it wants to find. According to the Financial Times, a senior government official says: "In none of these areas did the balance of evidence suggest the balance of competences was not broadly appropriate". Another one said, "We are happy with the overall balance of evidence. The exercise is not to reach definitive Government judgments in these things". The review had not been "designed to produce recommendations or make EU policy".

The exercise is actually a complete waste of time and effort. By the time the EU referendum debate gets under way – if it ever does – this exercise will be gone and forgotten. The two reports we have so far looked at have settled nothing, and the others are unlikely to deliver anything of significance. 

COMMENT: "REVIEW OF COMPETENCES" THREAD



Richard North 23/07/2013 link

Horsemeat fraud: Europe-wide investigations stall

11/05/2013  

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The agri-food industry is the second largest economic sector in the European Union, employing over 48 million people and is worth some €750 billion a year. Of that, one of the most valuable sectors is the meat industry, marketing high value products which form the basis of massive, secondary food processing industries.

The horsemeat fraud affair shone a bright light into the more unsavoury corners of these industries, and it is now unsurprising that the major players are not too keen on even further scrutiny, especially by a properly structured official inquiry, staffed by people who know what they are looking for, and have some understanding of the industry.

It is a measure of how far the issue has slipped down the political agenda, though, that only the loss-making Guardian is reporting on how the inquiry process seems to have stalled – in part due to the intransigence of the Irish (where there are major criminal elements in the meat industry), and partly due to high-level political interference in the setting up of the inquiries.

Add to this the incompetence of the House of Commons EFRA committee, chaired by former euro-luvvie Anne McIntosh, and you have an issue which is sliding into obscurity, with many of the problems that gave rise to the horsemeat affair entirely unrecognised and unresolved.

Bizarrely, even though the necessary scrutiny has not yet taken place, the European Commission is already acting, coming up with proposals to make financial penalties directly related to profits from "fraud", and mandatory spot-check testing.

Neither of these proposals will have any effect on food fraud in general, an industry in its own account, which has become a vast, multi-billion criminal enterprise with a global reach. And it was of this that we were catching a glimpse during the height of the horsemeat scandal.

So far, though, with at least 4,000 samples of meat have been tested, and millions of pounds-worth of food having been taken off sale – much of it destroyed – only three people have been arrested, and there are no major prosecutions in the offing.

To that extent, the Guardian's concern is merited – expect that, like the rest of the British media, it has not thought to comment on, or even report, the Commission initiative. It really is quite stunning that what amounts to a major legislative programme, affecting the entire agri-food matrix, is being entirely ignored by the media.

In a way, though, this is understandable. Since food regulation (and food policy in general) is dictated by Brussels, there is little British involvement in the legislative process. And nor can inquiries hope to do very much without factoring-in the European (and global) dimension, over which they have no jurisdiction or reach.

Thus it is that the involvement of Brussels has sucked the life from an area of policy which once had the capacity to galvanise the nation and bring down governments. Now it is simply the minority interest of a loss-making newspaper which sees the potential for making mischief around the edges, as long as it doesn't dig too deeply.

COMMENT THREAD



Richard North 11/05/2013 link

UK politics: they still don't get it

08/05/2013  

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Only a few days ago, the media were wibbling about "lazy" MPs being given an extra twelve days "holiday" because there were not enough new laws to debate.

But one thing missing from the discourse was any mention of that king-sized elephant in the room, the EU. No one thought to mention that the reason our MPs have so little to do is because most of our law-making is outsourced to Brussels and beyond.

And now, on the day of the Queen's speech, we again get what passes for analysis but, once again, the "limited package" is again seen entirely through the filter of domestic politics.

Labour's Chris Bryant claims the speech is so thin it is "practically translucent" (a bit like his underpants). But, its "limited nature”, writes James Kirkup, "reflects the simple fact that we are now less than two years from the next general election. More than anything else, that timetable defines and dictates the Government's agenda".

Most of the Coalition's big decisions were made long ago, says Kirkup, and the biggest, on economic policy, was never a matter of legislation. Whatever legislation was needed for major domestic reforms – welfare, schools, the NHS reorganisation – has already been passed.

All that remains, he says, is delivery, "actually trying to make those changes work, and make them work in a manner that voters see and appreciate".

Yet, as we wrote those few days ago, the European Parliament has rarely been busier, listing on its database 1,301 "legislative acts" so far, for its 2009-2014 session. That is where the action is, we wrote, demonstrating how far the power has drained from Westminster.

And just by coincidence, in Brussels on Monday, where the eurocrats were not on holiday, the Commission launched a major new initiative under the working title of "Smarter rules for safer food", a "landmark package to modernise, simplify and strengthen the agri-food chain in Europe".

Not least of the measures proposed are those to deal with the fall-out from the horsemeat fraud, but there is a huge range of issues being dealt with, from animal health to the marketing of seeds.

Says the Commission, "the current body of EU legislation covering the food chain consists of almost 70 pieces of legislation. Today's package of reform will cut this down to five pieces of legislation and will also reduce the red-tape on processes and procedures for farmers, breeders and food business operators (producers, processors and distributors) to make it easier for them to carry out their profession".

But, for the Queen's speech, the nearest we get to dealing with livestock is the announcement of a provision which will lead to an amendment to the Dangerous Dogs Act. The real thing is an EU competence, so this need not concern our media. Despite the massive scale of the EU initiative, it has not been reported in the UK by the national newspapers.

Therein lies yet more evidence that the legacy media is writing itself out of the script. It no longer has any pretensions of reporting the news in any responsible way, while its analytical skills have atrophied to the extent that they are producing little that is actually worth reading.

COMMENT THREAD



Richard North 08/05/2013 link
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