Brexit: misdirection

18/06/2018  


Quite what we are supposed to make of Mrs May's claims of financing additional spending on the NHS from the "Brexit dividend" I don't honestly know.

On the face of it, it is an expression of extraordinary political cynicism by a prime minister who has ceased to have any concern for the truth, but it could just as easily be the act of a deluded woman who has lost touch with any semblance of reality. Either way, this a worrying development – this is not a politician in whom we can have any faith.

My best guess is that we're on the receiving end of a "look squirrel" ploy. Faced with the intractable problems thrown up by Brexit and growing disillusionment with her handling of the process, Mrs May has decided to employ the classic magician's trick of misdirection, diverting attention to the NHS. She then goes further, seeking to create positive linkage between the issues.

That the figure on offer is better than the headline claim on the side of the infamous red bus is also no coincidence. The effect (or the intention) is to restore positive vibes to Brexit, trying to overcome the loss of confidence that has been building up over the months.

It took not more than a few minutes, however, for commentators to deny that there is a Brexit dividend. Even the most optimistic of forecasts suggest that leaving the EU will come at a net overall cost and, if we fail to get a deal from the EU, losses to the economy could run to hundreds of billions of pounds.

By 2023/4, therefore, when Mrs May reckons to be pumping over £20 billion extra a year in real terms to the NHS, the Treasury will be running on air, just trying to finance existing expenditure commitments. Any increased funding will have to come from taxation or borrowing.

If what we are seeing is Mrs May abandoning any attempt to keep her claims in line with anything approximating the truth, then her action would be entirely in keeping with the way the entire Brexit debate is going. Protagonists no longer seem to feel obliged to stick to the fact, and are indulging in crude propaganda in order to make their points.

Another example of this is my one-time friend and colleague Owen Paterson, known famously for declaring that "only a madman would leave the market". Now, in a complete volte face, he is asserting that: "Unless the EU changes its tune substantially any EU trade deal on offer looks as if it will be thoroughly inferior to the WTO Free Trade Option".

Declaring that "it is time that Parliament understood this", he calls in aid a tawdry article in Brexit Central written by none other than Patrick Minford, who in turn refers us to a staggeringly dishonest polemic published by his group, the Economists for Free Trade (EFT), under the heading: "Why a world trade deal exit from the EU will be best for the EU".

What is so difficult for us, though, is that the document relies so many half-truths, errors and outright lies that, properly to dissect it would take multiples of the 14 pages devoted to the original.

Focusing very tightly on one small part of the argument, we have EFT telling us that, when it comes to the UK and EU's trade relations after Brexit, "WTO law is very clear". There can be no discrimination in standards laid down by the EU or the UK. Thus, once a "domestic" standard has been imposed it must be generalised to all foreign countries’ exporters, without discrimination between them.

After Brexit, we are told, companies which want to export to the EU will have to match EU standards and, when they do match these EU standards, "they cannot be discriminated against" – all of which sounds eminently reasonable.

Some standards", the EFT continues, "concern 'behind the border' actions, like the testing of product quality". But this is airily dismissed with the comment that, "if a company wants to export its products to the EU and the EU insists on some such testing or other internal procedures, then the company must follow them in order to sell to the EU market".

What might not be obvious to some, though, is that there is a lie embedded in these statements. Given a "no deal" arrangement, much of this testing is not "behind the border" but at the border. And this is precisely why the WTO option is potentially so damaging. Thousands of consignments daily, which hitherto would have crossed unhindered into the territories of the EU Member States will, post-Brexit, have to be checked.

In some cases, this may only amount to documentation checks but even these alone are enough to cause substantial hold-ups. But, in other instances, detailed inspections and testing will have to be carried out, routinely taking hours and, in respect of some of the testing, days or even weeks.

To get the flavour of how the EFT seeks to deceive, though, we have to dart around the publication, where we happen upon the claim that, where it comes to border checks, "the median developed country lets 98 percent of border traffic go through unchecked … and the remaining two percent checked is cleared within a day".

This, we have already been led to believe, is a situation that pertains globally, on WTO terms, where the EFT relies on spin from a Telegraph journalist on the basis of a comment said to have come from Roberto Azevedo, Director General of the WTO.

The essence of this is that we are supposed to believe that "about half of the UK's trade is already on WTO terms with the US, China and several large emerging nations where the EU doesn't have trade agreements". This, it was asserted that, "it's not the end of the world if the UK trades under WTO rules with the EU".

What was quite deliberately excluded here (and subsequently conceded) is that countries such as the US and China (and many others) do have trade agreements with the EU. What they lack are formal Free Trade Agreements. But where the likes of the US (and China for that matter) have multiple sectorial agreements in areas of mutual concern, the cumulative effect is to serve the same function as FTAs.

In the instance where the UK seeks to trade with the rest of the world, where its relations are bound only by the provisions of WTO rules, we would lack all-important Mutual Recognition Agreements on conformity assessment. Which enables huge amounts of trade in manufactured goods to pass without checks at the borders.

Here, though, we find embedded the ultimate dishonesty. According to the EFF, "leaving without a trade deal does not imply 'walking away' from the Brussels negotiations". There will, they say, "be many other aspects of the new EU-UK relationship that will need to be agreed – eg, airline landing rights".

So, we have a situation here where "no deal" doesn't mean "no deal". Instead, the EU is supposed to allow us to cherry-pick sectorial deals, to cover all those areas where we need agreements in order to facilitate trade – such as MRAs on conformity assessment, cooperation on aviation safety, type approvals of vehicles, and much else.

In the meantime, the UK has resiled on its commitment on budgetary contributions, has abandoned any attempt to maintain regulatory alignment and is insisting on "maximum facilitation" to avoid a hard border with Ireland. there is "no need to negotiate a trade deal with the EU and, hence, the onerous 'backstop'’ requirement falls away".

An assertion that, under these conditions, the EU is going to roll over and agree anything with the UK, simply stretches credulity to breaking point. Yet, only a handful of people are going to penetrate the layers of the EFT arguments and expose them for what they are – specious nonsense.

That, sadly, will not be enough to stop the likes of Owen Paterson – who really should know better – from making absurd statements, and no amount of analysis will turn the tide and dissuade charlatans such as Minford making thoroughly dishonest arguments.

To that extent, the rot starts at the top. There is no credible case to be made that, over the next decade or more, there will be a Brexit dividend. This is not merely a matter of opinion. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence supports the argument that Brexit will impose substantial cost burdens.

For Mrs May then to make claims on the basis of this non-existent "dividend" is more than just an example of episodic dishonesty. By her action, she is legitimising overt political lying at the very highest level. And, if it is acceptable for the prime minister to lie in such fashion, political discourse has sunk to a level where anything goes.

In days gone by, politicians at least made the effort to pretend they believed their own lies. But when such blatant distortion becomes the norm, politics as we know them have ceased to function. The expediency that drives Mrs May to rely on misdirection becomes a wholly destructive force, from which there is no recovery.



Richard North 18/06/2018 link

Brexit: going round in circles

11/06/2018  


So we prepare for the tedium of wasted days in Parliament as MPs gather to debate and vote on a series of amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill. The waste is evident as, whatever the outcome(s), they will have no impact whatsoever on the Brexit talks.

Pride of place – if that's the right term – is a fatuous amendment tabled by Labour, under the aegis of Kier Starmer, which seeks to add to the Bill the following:
It shall be a negotiating objective of Her Majesty's Government to ensure the United Kingdom has full access to the internal market of the European Union, underpinned by shared institutions and regulations, with no new impediments to trade and common rights, standards and protections as a minimum.
We've been through this, of course. You can't have access, full or otherwise, to the internal market – aka Single Market. As a regulatory union, you can either be in it, participating fully, or you're out. There is nothing in the middle.

This is why terminology, and its precise use, is important – presupposing that there is a basic understanding of the underlying concepts which give rise to the terminology.

It would have helped if the European Union itself had avoided the term "internal market" and used the more graphic "regulatory union". That would have avoided a lot of confusion and, perhaps, allowed us to avoid a few of the more obvious conceptual pitfalls.

Nevertheless, the concept is not that hard to understand. The "regulatory union" means that its members adopt common rules, common administrative, surveillance and enforcement systems, and common dispute resolution. They must also accept the jurisdiction of a governing body which has to power to monitor and enforce compliance with the rules and systems which bind its members.

But then, just supposing the Starmer amendment was passed, and adopted by the government. Mr Davis would toddle off to Brussels and knock on M. Barnier's door and ask him if we could have "full access to the Single Market".

The Commission is just as capable of imprecise language as the best of us but, if Michel was on the ball, he would say, "Mais oui Monsieur, you can 'aff access to the markets of our members. But, he will tell us, that means you must stay in the regulatory union, with all that that entails – including the four freedoms, most notably freedom of movement.

But, it's there, via the very mouth of Keir Starmer, that we find ourselves entering a whole new world of Alice in Wonderland.

Marr does suggest the EEA as an option but this is dismissed by Starmer. Not too well up on his history, he tells Marr that the EEA was the agreement hatched out in 1992 by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. In fact, there were seven Efta countries originally party to the Final Act: Austria, Finland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

It may be a minor point but it goes to the man's concern for accuracy and his powers of observation. In the EEA, Starmer goes on to say, you are not in a customs union with the EU. To test that proposition, he went to Norway and then to the Norway-Sweden border to see for himself what an EEA border looked like.

All he learns from the experience, though, is that "there is infrastructure there, there are checks there, you have to hand in your papers". On that basis, he asserts, "it is totally incompatible with a solemn commitment to no hard border in Northern Ireland".

One has to say that if Starmer was really committed to a solution, he would have dug a little deeper. The border between Norway and Sweden is as "hard" as the two countries want it to be, or will tolerate. Within the framework of the EEA, cross-border checks are limited but the countries have come to an acceptable solution. Given the political will, the investment in more sophisticated system would follow and the hard elements of the border would disappear.

Outwith the EEA, however, he falls back on his amendment, declaring that we should "step back" and "accept the challenge about the single market" - set out "in a way that makes sense for the 21st century for the UK".

This, he recognises, means that "there are going to have to be shared regulations and shared institutions". In Northern Ireland, he says, "you can't have standards one side of the border with different standards the other side of the border. Everybody, I think, knows and understands that".

But, on the "indivisible" question of freedom of movement, he says, "that's going to have to be part of the negotiations". He reminds Marr that, in the Labour manifesto , it was made clear that freedom of movement would end when we leave the EU.

Marr, not unsurprisingly, observes that Labour wants "all the advantages" plus "no freedom of movement", to which Starmer asserts that the obligations of the single market are that "you share regulations, you have common standards and that you have shared institutions".

For once, Marr sticks to his guns and insists that this means "you're part of the four freedoms, which includes freedom of movement", leaving Starmer to tell us that "we're facing up to that". If you talk to the EU 27, he says, "there is lots of shared concern about what the future of freedom of movement is. That's the debate that ought to be going on. That's the debate that ought to have happened over the last 18 months".

"We would", Starmer adds, "have to negotiate on the four freedoms, freedom of movement. We need to set out what we want, because this conversation is in a vacuum at the moment".

OK. So, despite Barnier having said again and again that the four freedoms are "indivisible", making it perfectly plain any variation is non-negotiable, Starmer wants to send the UK government back to Brussels to, er … negotiate away freedom of movement.

But it doesn't stop there. In Starmer's brave new Europe, we would also have a customs union with the EU. "We're going to have to have a new agreement", he says, declaring:
We need a single market deal. At the moment both the customs union arrangements and the single market arrangements are hardwired into the membership agreement. We’re leaving that, we need to recreate the right agreement for the UK, which will be a new agreement. And that really is – that should've been the focus of what we're discussing.
What Starmer is proposing, though, is utter moonshine. It is so crass that one can scarcely believe that he could propose it with a straight face. Yet, in so doing, he rejects the one option – supported by MPs in his own party, which could deliver a solution.

As I observed yesterday, within the context of the EEA Agreement, the four freedoms are not "indivisible". But, rather than a possibility, he goes for an Alice in Wonderland fantasy that has not the slightest chance of being accepted by the EU – and none of getting through the Commons.

However, it seems that the real drama is being reserved for the demand for a "meaningful vote", which is said to be a "deciding factor" in Mrs May's future, allowing parliament to reject the any withdrawal agreement that the government finally settles with Brussels.

Yet this is another fatuous exercise. If the agreement was rejected, there is no provision for the negotiations to be re-opened and there is no time anyway. The outcome would, inevitably mean that we ended up with no deal.

But the real issue is that we're headed for a "no deal" scenario. The logjam over Ireland has not been resolved and there are no indications that it will be. And, on that basis, it might be more appropriate for parliament to be pressing for the government to secure an agreement, rather than indulging in party games that makes its job even harder.

That said, given the government's current form, it really doesn't matter one way or the other. If the government can't reach an equitable exit agreement with the EU, the Withdrawal Bill is of secondary importance. A "no deal" exit will precipitate economic disaster.

Sadly though, the media (and the politicians) are in their comfort zone. This is "biff-bam" personality politics centred on Westminster, where the "lobby" can play to its heart's content. But when the action is over and the noise abates, we will be no further forward than we are now.

Having done nothing but go round in circles, we'll be a little bit more bored and perhaps even more disillusioned, but no further forward.



Richard North 11/06/2018 link

Brexit: crisis means crisis

09/06/2018  


With the world's press rushing to Brussels to hear Michel Barnier's latest statement – not (picture), the UK media is doing its level best to trivialise what is becoming an existential crisis for our nation, focusing on the ghastly Johnson and his extrusions.

It's not even a question of them not being able to help themselves. By and large, the media doesn't even realise it is doing anything wrong in framing the current Brexit developments in terms of the "tensions" between the prime minister and her loathsome foreign secretary.

The day before yesterday we saw that publication of HMG's proposals for the "backstop" to deal with the Irish border crisis – attempting to break the logjam that could otherwise bring the negotiations to a halt. Yesterday came the response of the EU's chief negotiator – so well-attended by the press.

Diplomatically, Barnier refused to dismiss Mrs May's "customs paper" out of hand but, in observing that it had failed to address regulatory alignment, effectively marked it down as failing to deliver "a workable solution to avoid a hard border". He then expressed serious reservations on the other two criteria by which he was assessing the paper.

Whether stated explicitly or not, that means that the attempt (half-hearted, to say the very least) to break the logjam has not succeeded. That is could never have succeeded – as was evident in yesterday's post – is neither here nor there. The fact is that, after the end of another round of Brexit negotiations, we have made no further progress.

With less than three weeks to go before the June European Council, when a legal text on the "backstop" was supposed to have been finalised and agreed, this means that we are fast running out of time. And, given the official response from No 10, there does not seem to be any likelihood of a meeting of minds in the near future.

A UK government spokesperson, we are told, has reiterated the prime minister's view that she will "never accept a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK". She is "also committed to maintaining the integrity of our own internal market. That position will not change".

According to this source: "The Commission's proposals did not achieve this, which is why we have put forward our own backstop solutions for customs. All parties must recall their commitment in the Joint Report to protect the Belfast Agreement in all its parts".

The media in general seems to have got itself obsessed with the "single customs area", which is what appears to have been proposed by Mrs May's "customs paper". But the issue at large is regulatory alignment. HMG has rejected the idea of common (EU) regulations in the whole of the UK, and it is this that prevents there being a common customs area.

We are, therefore, back full-circle. To avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, there have always been only a limited number of options. Either the UK as a whole must maintain regulatory alignment with the EU (as a basic minimum) or the alignment can be limited to Northern Ireland, with the proviso that the hard border is moved to the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Come what may, if the UK choses a path outside the Single Market, there will have to be a border somewhere. It cannot be said often enough that, when the UK leaves the EU and becomes a third country, the land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland becomes part of the EU's external border.

Even to this day, the UK Government does not seem to have come to terms with the reality of this. The EU is not creating the border – the external border has always existed for as long as there has been a European Union, and the EC and EEC before it. In leaving the EU, the UK has caused that border to move.

Further, if there are to be special concessions in order to avoid this becoming a hard border in Ireland, then the EU must apply a regime which is specific to the circumstances. This also cannot be said enough. In order to maintain the integrity of its entire external border, the EU cannot afford to create a precedent which will allow its other trading partners to claim similar concessions.

We can rail about the iniquity of this for all we are worth, but these are the unalterable facts. Since 1994, we have been shielded behind the EU's external border which has defined the Single Market, "enjoying" the privileges while being bound by the rules. If we are determined to throw off the "yoke" of Brussels and abandon those rules, then we lose the privileges as well. It really is that simple.

That Mr Barnier isn't making life particularly easy for us right now, is also not really the point. The EU collective is now the other side of the table. We cannot look to its institutions and members to look after our interests. That is down to our own politicians and negotiators.

And if they are moving to shaft us, tant pis. That's what they did when we joined the EEC and one of the many reasons why we wanted to leave. Did anyone really expect we were going to get an easy ride? But, difficult though Brexit may be, it is being made even more difficult by the catastrophic inability of our political masters to deal with its realities.

As it stands, Barnier drones on about the indivisibility of the four freedoms within the European Union. And he is right to do so within the constraints of EU law. But it was always open to the UK to opt for Efta/EEA membership, ditching the EU treaties and becoming fully paid-up (to coin a phrase) parties to the EEA Agreement.

What seems to escape Barnier (not that he's actually addressed it directly), is that the EEA Agreement is not an EU treaty. Efta/EEA members do not adopt EU law. They take EU law and convert it into EEA law, which they then adopt.

Within the framework of EEA Agreement, the four freedoms are not indivisible – there are the safeguard measures which permit - as an absolute right under treaty law – conditional modification of the treaty provisions. Even to this day, the Icelandic government imposes restraints on the free movement of capital, invoking Art 112 which puts into effect the safeguard measures.

For some - of extremely limited intellect – there is a belief that safeguard measures are somehow a "loophole", that they are in effect "cheating" and should only be used in exceptional circumstances, or in an emergency. But missing entirely from the provisions are the words "exceptional" and "emergency". The circumstances which give rise to their use must be "serious", but then who could possible argue that there should be flippancy in their invocation?

The point is that safeguard measures - and their handmaidens, the "waivers" – are an established part of the corpus of treaty law. The EU treaties are the exception rather than the rule in not making good use of them.

That said, we get the dismal litany about the various conditions appertaining to and the potential consequences of using Art 112, usually accompanied by a complete failure to understand that Liechtenstein – which has successfully constrained FoM law – does not rely on Art 112. It has negotiated a permanent amendment to the EEA Agreement (permanent in the sense that it cannot be changed without Liechtenstein's agreement) – an option that would be open to the UK as an Efta state, if not now then sometime in the future.

Such matters, though, are not for Barnier to consider – his mandate does not cover the EEA. These are for UK politicians, looking after UK interests, to address. And so far, they have made a complete pig's ear of their responsibilities, displaying an almost criminal negligence in their inability to confront what is probably the only reasonable option we have for Brexit.

Day after day, week after week, stretching into months and now years, we see the same dismal arguments being rehearsed, spilling over into the blog comments, where we get endless, tedious churning around the same failed arguments. Invariably, they are expressed by people who lack either the imagination, the intellect or the will to understand that there is a way out, if we choose to take it. Of some of those, there is a proportion that would wish to see us fail.

But, between the blathering of the media, the crass, criminal stupidity of our politicians, and the venal self-indulgence of a population which can't even bring its own representatives to task, we are now facing a crisis the like of which we have not seen since the war.

The consequences of that, potentially, are devastating. It is not acceptable, therefore, that the malign, disgusting foreign secretary should glibly talk of us not panicking while wishing on us the "chaos" that President Trump might bring. If Brexit means Brexit, crisis mean crisis. This is a territory none of us want to visit.

We have but weeks now before we slide inexorably into that crisis, passing the event horizon to a point of no return. It is unconscionable that we should be dragged into it by the dereliction and stupidity of a gang of loud-mouthed Westminster ignoramuses.

If the Brexit settlement cannot be resolved sensibly, we will live to regret it. But there would then be people upon whom I would wish to see visited a wrath, the like of which only a nation betrayed can deliver. "Last chance saloon" doesn't even begin to capture the gravity of the situation, but the meaning is clear enough. Those who will be the focus of our wrath are drinking at the bar.



Richard North 09/06/2018 link

Brexit: beyond their ken

07/06/2018  


"It's warming up nicely. And the fun's only just begun. In the months and years ahead, we’ve got so much to look forward to. Resignations, accusations, splits, sackings, coups, tears, punch-ups, meltdowns… I can't wait".

So writes Michael Deacon, parliamentary sketchwriter for the increasingly dreadful Telegraph, commenting on the latest Brexit-related dramas in Westminster.

This supports his general theme that "Brexit is actually about to get interesting", to which he asserts: "I know. I can't believe it either. I'm pinching myself, just to check I'm not dreaming".

"For month upon gruelling month", he writes, "we've had to wade, bored and exhausted, through a tarpit of tedium. Speeches that said nothing. Negotiations that went nowhere. Questions unanswered, fights ducked, decisions deferred. In both the Government and the Opposition, political paralysis. Nothing moving, except the hands of the clock".

But now, he chirps, the waiting is almost at an end, adding: "Next week there's going to be a knife-edge vote in the Commons – and anything could happen. Will the Government be defeated? Will the Prime Minister be deposed? Will an enraged Jacob Rees-Mogg streak through the Palace of Westminster, whirling the ceremonial mace about his head and shrieking 'Down with Remoaners' in Latin?"

Would that this was the isolated viewpoint of a vapid Telegraph hack but, to judge from the demented leer on the face of Laura Kuenssberg when I mistakenly walked into the room while the TV news was on, this exactly reflects the consensus of the Westminster bubble, from the zombie media hackery to the dismal collection of brain-dead politicians.

Not one of them has made the slightest attempt to get to grips with the issues facing the nation, and in the list so gleefully trotted out by Deacon, there is not a single mention of the brooding presence of Brussels, where the crucial decisions will be taken.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph's idea of adding to the sum of human knowledge on the Irish border question is to publish an authored piece from Owen Paterson repeating that which he has said many times before, reiterating the same errors and half-truths that he has churned out before.

A "hard border" between the UK and Ireland, says Paterson, "is a practical impossibility". He adds that, "A border already exists between the two countries in currency, VAT, excise duties and security, and it is a tax point, not an inspection point", and then goes on to tell us: The Government's ambition to avoid a hard border is perfectly achievable with its favoured solution of "maximum facilitation". An expanded Authorised Economic Operator scheme can allow daily trade to continue seamlessly. GPS technology eliminates the need for any physical infrastructure, including cameras or number-plate recognition. Yet, all you have to do, Owen, is take on board that, after Brexit, the UK becomes in the eyes of the EU a "third country". The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic becomes part of the external border of the European Union. It really isn't that difficult to understand – even for you.

As such, there will have to be a "hard border". This will apply automatically – and for the very simple reason that, if the Irish don't apply border checks and goods enter part of the Single Market area, as is the Irish Republic, then it will not only be in breach of EU law – the rest of the EU will start imposing checks on Irish exports as they enter the rest of the EU.

The only way this can be changed is in "exceptional circumstance", where an accommodation unique to northern Ireland is agreed – "unique" so as not to create a precedent that the EU's other trading partners. And "maximum facilitation" simply doesn't cut it.

Notwithstanding that sanitary and phytosanitary controls require a border presence, industry has already given up on the idea, acknowledging that, even if it was possible (which it isn't outside the framework of the Single Market), the technology would take many years to develop and install.

But, if the Telegraph thinks that constant repetition is what makes for a useful contribution, the BBC's idea of Brexit journalism is to send a team out into the countryside. There, they find people who clearly don't have the first idea of what they are talking about, whom they interview and then bring back the work product to edit into a completely meaningless film which takes us no further forward.

Thus do we see James Williams, BBC Wales Brexit correspondent, deliver a piece headed "From farm to fork: The future of Welsh lamb post-Brexit". In the Ceiriog Valley, in Wrexham, he trills, Caryl Hughes is the fifth generation of her family to farm the land and its thousands of sheep. "'I'm pretty optimistic', the 27 year-old tells me as we follow more than 3,000 sheep to the fields", Williams's vapid narrative runs (cue pic of gambolling lamb).

And, amid the blather on tariffs, there is not a single mention of Notices to Stakeholders, to Border Inspection Posts or the need for veterinary inspection. Nothing is said of the small fact that the UK will be de-listed for the purposes of exporting goods of animal origin and, for a time after Brexit (in the event of no agreed transition period), export of Welsh lamb to the continent will be forbidden.

All we get is that it would be "catastrophic" for sheep farmers, according to John Richards of the Meat Marketing Board, Hybu Cig Cymru (HCC) if Welsh farmers faced tariffs. But this same fool sees Theresa May's plan of reaching a tariff-free free trade agreement with the EU, outside the single market and customs union as "very positive".

Ironically, the reference to the meat trade tells us that some of the bigger players in Wales have hundreds of workers on their books and rely heavily on hiring people from other EU countries – 63 percent of abattoir staff and 90 percent of slaughterhouse vets are EU nationals, we are told.

Lost in history is the story of how the imposition of foreign vets by EU law was the direct cause of the closure of hundreds of small abattoirs, gravely damaging the meat industry and curtailing consumer choice. The potential removal of these vets (for which we fought so hard in the 90s) is now treated as a downside of Brexit.

With that, the piece drones on to a closure, with Helen Davies of the National Sheep Association telling us that "we will survive". She adds: "We all might have to work just a little bit harder to survive to start off with but I think once we've got over that initial sort of coming out of Brexit, I think there will be a positive future for us".

"It's difficult on the Brexit front-line", the BBC enfant savant concludes, "but one thing is for sure - the Welsh lamb industry is up for the fight".

In reality, the Welsh lamb industry doesn't seem to have the first idea of the shit-storm that is about to blow it away. What is confronting it is so potentially devastating that, unless urgent action is taken, within ten years you'll have to go to a zoo to find a sheep in Wales.

Going back to the idiot Deacon, if the journos had the first idea of what Brexit entailed, and had even the basic skills needed to do their jobs, they would have no end of "interesting" stories – starting off with the impending collapse of the Welsh lamb industry and all the economic and social trauma that that will bring. Their next port of call might be COM(2018) 397 final proposing a Regulation "complementing EU type-approval legislation with regard to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the Union".

The intended result is the instrument by which the Commission aims to liberate the UK car industry from its current regulatory base so that, in preparation for Brexit, manufacturers can transfer type approvals to EU regulators, thus enabling them to keep trading.

This is particularly useful for operations such as Skoda, which had elected to seek approval from UK regulators – as it was entitled to do under EU law. Unlike market authorisations for medicines, there has been no provision to transfer type approvals. This exposed car manufacturers who had UK approvals to the cost and delays of seeking new approvals, potentially having to shut down production until new approvals were granted.

Together with COM(2018) 447 final on the European space programme, this is tangible evidence of the EU distancing itself from the UK, breaking the administrative and regulatory bonds that have tied us all together for so long.

Such activity makes a mockery of any expectations that the EU would entertain revocation of the Article 50 notification. We have heard from many sources that, psychologically, the "colleagues" have already written off the UK. Now they are making it a reality. There is no going back.

Any halfway good journalist should be able to find enough "interest" in that to make a decent news story. But we don't have even halfway good journalists any more. Between shrieking girlies and zombies addicted to the "biff-bam" of personality politics, it is unsurprising that Brexit gets such a bad press. Reporting it adequately is totally beyond their ken.



Richard North 07/06/2018 link

Brexit: losing patience

06/06/2018  


I listened in to yesterday's oral evidence sessions in the Treasury select committee, with its galaxy of witnesses.

In the first session, we had Benoit Rochet, Deputy CEO of the Port of Calais, Joachim Coens, CEO of the Port of Zeebrugge and John Keefe, Director of Public Affairs, Getlink (formerly Groupe Eurotunnel). They were followed by Jon Thompson, Chief Executive and Permanent Secretary, and Jim Harra, Deputy Chief Executive and Second Permanent Secretary, and Karen Wheeler, Director General Cross Government Border Delivery Group, all three from HM Revenue and Customs.

Some useful points came out but, as always, the MPs failed to develop their lines of questioning and, to judge from some of their responses (and lack of them), not all of them understood the significance of the answers they were being given.

However, from the post trio, it is firmly lodged that "sanitary" inspection are an issue and that Border Inspection Posts will be needed. Nevertheless, the impact of the deficiencies in the system was not fully explored.

Had the MPs read the blog, of course, their line of questioning might have been different. The could actually have read any one of three possible sources – this blog, last week's Booker column, or the European Commission's notices to stakeholders.

But they're far too grand to come prepared to these taxpayer-funded sessions and therefore are quite content to waste everybody's time and money on questions of no relevance directed at witnesses who couldn't give them the answers they needed even if they were asked the right questions.

The point, of course, is that there aren't going to be any queues of trucks going into the inspection facilities on the EU side – where all foods of animal origin must be presented to non-existent (at Calais) Border Inspection Posts (BIPs). Until the UK has been able to get itself re-listed on the EU database as a permitted exporter – across the whole range of products handled – consignments will be rejected and either destroyed or sent back to their ports of origin.

I don't know what it is going to take to drive this point home but, clearly, addressing a gaggle of MPs intent on sharing their own ignorance, is not proving very successful.

And nor has this same gaggle cottoned on to the fact that all the manufactured goods which require third party approval and have relied on UK certification are going to have similar problems. Vehicle and their components, aircraft and their components, medicines, medical devices, and the vast range of goods which require third party testing for their CE marks, are all going to be turned away at the border – or in some cases held for expensive and time-consuming re-testing.

In short, although the select committee is beginning to address some points of concern – years after they had been raised on this blog (I first wrote about BIPs in January 2013and have referred to them since in over 50 blogposts) – the MPs are so far behind the curve that B-day will have come and gone before they begin to realise what's in store for us.

It's also beginning to look likely that we won't see Mrs May's White Paper on future relationships with the EU until after B-day (if at all). Originally promised in good time for the European Council on June 28-29, we are now told that Mrs May has abandoned her self-imposed timetable – without offering a new date.

David Davis is said to be "disappointed", as are other politicians. But they are by no means alone in expressing frustration. According to the Financial Times - which has a line into the court gossip on such things – business executives are also losing faith.

Last Monday, Mrs May held one of her regular meetings with leaders of thirteen large British concerns, whence one of the number conveyed that the mood of the collective had "decayed considerably", largely in parallel with the way decision-making in Whitehall has stalled over the last few months.

This source – joining the ever-growing ranks of the anonymous – spoke of the group having repeatedly raised the same issues - such as the need for frictionless trade once we leave the EU. This one in particular, the source complains, "is now a Gordian knot that we can't help untie". When sources come, though, they come not single spies, but in battalions. Another "leading business figure" said executives were "starting to disengage" after months of regularly making the same case to the government.

A vast cloud of pessimism seems to be descending on the group as the leaders question what impact they could have on negotiations. "It's not only 'What's the point?', it is 'What can you actually do?'", says one. "When you keep circling round and it keeps coming back to Ireland, and you know the solutions being proposed are not acceptable to the EU, you get in this desperate spiral of: 'What the hell can we do?'"

One company that is answering that question is the US pharmaceutical giant Merck & Co. We are told that it is planning for the possibility of a temporary supply blackout after Brexit and is looking to stockpile as much as six months-worth of goods in the UK.

The contingency plans include factoring in as much as two extra days of travel on routes between UK and EU destinations to allow for delays caused by document checks. The company is also planning to add about 30 employees at its Haarlem, Netherlands, facility to cope with regulatory demands.

Less able to respond is the UK's leading logistics trade body - the Freight Transport Association (FTA). With three weeks to go until the June Council, James Hookham, the organisation's Deputy Chief Executive, says that its confidence in Government's ability to deliver a "frictionless" Brexit is fast collapsing.

"Of the eight demands made in FTA's list of essentials to 'Keep Britain Trading' issued at the beginning of the year, not a single one has been progressed," Hookham says. "Details of whether or not the country will have a Transition/Implementation Period are still unclear, there is still no decision on what Customs arrangements we will have from March 2019 onwards" he adds.

Expanding on his litany of complaint, he goes on to say: "We keep getting told that all food and agricultural exports to the Continent and Ireland will be checked at EU ports - but there is nowhere to check them, and the system to check them does not exist".

Then, he says: "We still don't know if we will be able to employ the 43,000 truck drivers in the UK that are nationals from another member state – that's 13 percent of our driver workforce!". And, "there is no clarification on whether UK drivers' qualifications are to be recognised, so they could well be barred from driving their own vehicles on the Continent".

For the rest, Hookham seems to be getting a little confused. He refers to the "real show stopper", stating that, "under European law, unless an agreement is reached, there will only be 103 international haulage Permits to cover the 300,000 journeys made by British trucks to Europe each year".

"The logistics industry", he says, "is being asked to decide who would get a Permit to Drive if there are not enough to go around – in effect, being asked to destroy the businesses of its international haulage members".

But I'm not sure he's right here. According to the relevant Notice to Stakeholders, outside the EU we drop into the multilateral quota system managed by the International Transport Forum (ITF). Currently, we have no general allocation of annual licenses (as opposed to Turkey with 6,100) and 105 country-specific licenses – all of which run out at the end of 2018.

What he's picked up though is that the UK transport industry, in its Europe-wide operations, will be subject to quota limitations, which will have to be negotiated on a year by year basis. And, outside the 43-member ITF countries, bilateral permits will have to be negotiated.

Details aside, the transport industry is in for a torrid time, come Brexit. currently, with less than 300 days to the UK's scheduled departure from the European Union, and no progress made on trade talks, the lack of clarity over key issues is eroding the country's invaluable trading relationships with businesses overseas, and foreign businesses based in Britain.

"All these potential barriers were thrown up by the Government's decision to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market", says Hookham. "In return we were promised that 'frictionless' trade would continue through special agreements reached with the EU". But, he complains, "Trade talks haven't even started".

In the event of a No Deal Brexit it will be the logistics industry, which operates 24/7 365 days a year, that will have to pick up the pieces of the failure of politicians to agree. No doubt we will face the unwarranted ire of consumers and businesses if goods cannot be delivered on time.

"The industry’s frustration with the lack of progress is building daily. Logistics businesses simply cannot answer their customers’ questions about how they will move goods after Brexit. Manufacturers and retailers are losing faith and fear that post-Brexit Britain is at real risk of becoming nothing more than a series of road blocks at our ports and airports". Thus, Hookham avers, the logistics industry is being "hung out to dry".

And yet, the message isn't getting through to the "Ultras". Says one member of the Treasury committee, Charlie Elphicke has responded to the "Armageddon" concerns, declaring, "Usual suspects again saying we can't really leave the EU".

His "considered view is that, if we make the investment that's needed to ensure we are ready on day one, "we can continue to trade seamlessly whatever happens". This, he says, is because "It's just as much in the EU's interest as ours that we do so".

As for the pic – I'm getting bored with queues of lorries, so here's a picture of a cuddly kitten instead.



Richard North 06/06/2018 link

Brexit: a stinking well of ignorance

05/06/2018  


There are actually times when we need to be quite pleased that the government has shut down and is no longer listening to anyone on the Brexit front. That most definitely needs to be the case with the latest dip into fantasy by Open Europe, which has just produced a report entitled "Striking a Balance".

Boasting a team of four, led by Stephen Booth, bearing the grand title of "Director of Policy and Research", the document is edited by Henry Newman, director of the think tank and, as the Telegraph helpfully tells us, is a former aide to Mr Gove (he who was so "sick of experts"). And through this collective effort, it becomes their "blueprint for the future UK-EU economic partnership".

One wonders, in producing it, the authors sought to be different for the sake of being different. But it has always been the case that Open Europe has eschewed the Norway option and has plumped for a "middle way".

That was the case in July 2012, when former director, Mats Persson was on the case, arguing that "Britain should pick-and-mix over Europe instead of apeing (sic) Norway". Britain, according to Persson, could not simply "become like Norway" and leave the EU. It was "too big a player" for that.

However. six years down the line, even under new management, Open Europe is peddling the same mantra. "The UK", it says, "should not seek to remain part of the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement, which would provide ongoing membership of the Single Market". And nor should the UK seek to form a new customs union with the EU.

Instead, the UK and the EU should agree to "managed alignment" over goods standards and regulations, in return for the UK's Swiss-style participation in the Single Market for goods.

And to make this "managed alignment" work, Open Europe has planted its very own magic beans and come up with something quite extraordinary and wondrous by the name of a "broad-spectrum enhanced mutual recognition agreement".

This magical device would mean most goods manufactured by one party would be considered pre-authorised for sale across others. Only in highly-regulated sectors would the UK possibly need to agree to continue to follow EU regulations.

Even then, this process would not be automatic. It would, according to the Open Europe team, be open to the UK Parliament to diverge from the EU's regulatory framework, but if this divergence could not be resolved via negotiation or legal means, market access to the EU could be affected.

At least, though, they've got the message that customs checks represent only a fraction of procedures that take place at a border, acknowledging that the majority of these are regulatory controls on goods. But, under the Open Europe magical model - where the UK agrees to accept and apply EU rules on goods in domestic law - there is high potential for mutual recognition of regulations to avoid the need for border checks.

All you need to do then is combine this magic with a comprehensive customs facilitation agreement that moves customs procedures away from the border, the team says, and you have "a strong basis for maintaining an open border on the island of Ireland".

I suppose it is just possible that the Open Europe team haven't realised it, but what is remarkable about this, and the huge emphasis on mutual recognition (which is mentioned 66 times in the 110-page report), is how similar the scheme is to the that proposed by the Legatum Institute.

This emphasis is something I picked up in my own evaluation of the Legatum work – an issue I had dealt with a year previously. And it was then that I pointed out that, in the context of the EU, mutual recognition of standards was largely confined to Member States working within the framework of the Single Market.

With only very rare exceptions – which amount in any case to the harmonisation of standards – the EU simply does not afford mutual recognition of standards to any third country. The EU cannot allow a widening of the principle to the UK after Brexit as it would allow us to dictate our own standards yet have full access to the markets of EU Member States on grounds more favourable than those states enjoy.

You can see why, of course, that Legatum and Open Europe must ignore my work (and that from Pete). It is not a matter of us being "nasty" about them, as some would aver. In actuality, we are raining on their parade, demonstrating that they have made the most fundamental of errors in their calculations of what would be a workable post-Brexit plan.

The point is that, once you strip out mutual recognition of standards from these proposals, there is very little there of substance. And where both Legatum and Open Europe go out of their way to exclude continued participation in the EEA, they can only sustain this by claiming special mutual recognition privileges – which is simply not on the table.

In part, they get away with this by what one can only assume is a deliberate sloppiness in the use of terminology. Not for nothing do I refer to the Single Market as a "regulatory union" – phrasing also used by Sir Ivan Rogers. Thus defined, you have to be part of the Single Market in order to gain the benefits from it. You do not have "access" to it – you are either part of it, or you are not.

By talking in terms of access though, the likes of Open Europe can play word games, referring to "very high levels of access" to the Single Market, as if there was a graduated entry which could be negotiated in terms to suit the UK. This falsely presents an "all or nothing" situation as if there is room for bargaining.

Furthermore, there is a tendency to imply that "access" affords frictionless trade. But the fact that Switzerland and "the Ukraine" (sic) are said by Open Europe to have very high levels of access to the Single Market (in goods), this can be taken to mean ease of access as well.

Clearly, this is of general importance but especially so in terms of the Irish border, when it will also serve as part of the external border to the European Union. But access to the markets of EU member states, under any other terms than of participation in the Single Market, does not confer the advantages of an open border.

We are all too familiar with the situation Switzerland and it is instructive to see that the "deep and comprehensive" trade agreement with Ukraine does not in any way facilitate the free flow of goods or people at the EU Member State borders.

Pictured above is the scene at a Ukrainian-Polish border post, the queue of cars symbolising the delays experienced routinely at the border, with commercial vehicles suffering considerable delays as well. Delays of 36 hours have been reported. Yet, far from the situation improving, the EU recently pulled out of a project to develop more than ten checkpoints on the western borders of Ukraine – withholding a promised €27 million.

The charlatans in this debate are quick to point to other EU agreements when it suits them, enabling them to demonstrate (to their own satisfaction) that there are workable schemes to be had. But I see no-one pointing to the evident problems in Ukraine, which could so easily be a harbinger for the treatment meted out to the UK.

Interestingly, the Telegraph has Lord Lamont, "a eurosceptic peer and former Tory Chancellor", giving his backing to the Open Europe report. But this is the same Lord Lamont who recently argued that Switzerland was a country outside the EU "that has minimal border infrastructure", thereby adding his personal ignorance to the continuum.

This stinking well of ignorance is what is sustaining the "ultra" case for a hard Brexit – of which this latest Open Europe report must be considered an example. The lies, inexactitudes and distortions only survive because the proponents are able to manage the debate, excluding those voices which point to their many departures from the truth.

But when they need the protection of such feline guardians, it should be pretty obvious that the case doesn't stand up.



Richard North 05/06/2018 link

Brexit: notices to stakeholders

03/06/2018  


Evidence that the Sunday Telegraph subs don't actually read (or understand) the Booker column comes with the photograph accompanying today's column or – to be precise – the caption.

The picture shows the Antares, a Lerwick-based pelagic trawler, but the caption reads, "Fishermen will be unable to export their catch to the Continent while it is still fresh", thereby completely missing the point of the article.

Come Brexit day on 29 March, unless we have a cast-iron transition agreement (which looks increasingly unlikely), it won't be just a question of getting their catch to the Continent "while is still fresh". For while at least, fishermen will be unable to export at all.

The point that Booker is making in his column is one which is familiar to readers of this blog. This is simply that the EU has not sought to hide how it will treat us outside the single market, having published its "Notice to Stakeholders" series, published by the European Commission.

Says Booker, nothing could better expose the hollow unreality of our Brexit debate than this series of documents which, he suspects, few British politicians have ever read (and even fewer journalists).

Acquainting those who are not familiar with the series, he tells us that there are 63 documents (now 64), which clearly set out the legal consequences of our decision to leave not just the EU itself but also the wider European Economic Area (EEA).

There is a standard format to each document. They open with a paragraph explaining that Brexit will legally make us what the EU terms a "third country" – not a "third world country", which some people get confused with.

In assuming this status, we are choosing voluntarily to step completely outside the vastly complex framework of laws that currently authorise us to operate freely within the single market: even down to those that allow us to drive on the continent or legally authorise our aircraft to fly.

What is particularly striking about this is that, last Tuesday, there was a BBC Radio Four Today programme in which a number of fishermen were interviewed. They had in common businesses which depend wholly on being able to export langoustines and mussels to the Continent, a trade which demands that their live catches have to be trucked to their customers without any delays via the Channel ports.

According to the programme, these fishermen have now awoken to what one called the "existential" threat of time-consuming new border controls, which will make this impossible. As one Scotsman said, "you can actually taste the fear, see the fear in their eyes" as the fishermen realise that this will put them out of business.

The thing is, though, neither they nor the BBC knew the half of it. Had they read the Notice to Stakeholders on "food law ", they would see that exports to the EU of any "food of animal origin" from a "third country" are "prohibited unless certain requirements are met".

Under what are known as the "official controls" (in Regulation (EC) No 882/2004) – which also apply to fish, fishery products, bivalve molluscs, etc. – there are specific rules of considerable complexity.

Would that the fishermen knew it, these don't just include those fatally time-consuming border inspections (which include the goods having to be presented for inspection at Border Inspection Posts). The first condition is that a "third country" must be "listed" by the EU as eligible, via a laborious procedure which can last six months or longer, which cannot even be initiated until after we have left the EU.

In the case of fish and fishery products, unless the exporting "third country" is included in the list established under Commission Decision 2006/766/EC, they will – as the Notice to Stakeholders so succinctly puts it - the importation from the United Kingdom into the EU-27 "is prohibited".

For some fishermen, however, there is what might be considered a loophole, applicable to fish landed at EU Member State ports directly from the boats which caught them. To these, the "official controls" do not apply.

However, by reference to another Notice to Stakeholders, which deals specifically with EU rules on fisheries and aquiculture, we see that they are still caught in a raft of other laws.

These, I examined in April of this year, whence the effect of Brexit is severely to disrupt fishing in UK waters, preventing either boats flagged under EU Member States, or UK-flagged boats, from landing catches directly in ports in EU Member State territories.

Specifically, catches in UK waters (and, indeed, exports from the UK) are caught by Article 20 of Regulation (EC) No 1005/2008, which sets out requirements which must be satisfied before fish can be landed in EU ports or exported to EU Member States.

These requirements cannot be met without detailed agreements between the Commission and the UK. What this amounts to is that, before we are able to sell our fish to the Continent, we will have to agree a fisheries management plan with the Commission.

Within this context, certification of all catches in accordance with Article 20 is required. The means that the fisheries must be formally validated by the United Kingdom "competent authority" and must also conform with a certification scheme which must be agreed between the Commission and the UK government.

But this is by no means the full extent of the problems which the Scottish exporters face. As set out in another Notice to Stakeholders - this one on EU rules in the field of road transport – we see how our entire transport licensing system now depends on EU law.

The moment we leave, UK drivers will only be able to take their cars, trucks and coaches into the EU with an International Driving Permit (and for truck and coach drivers much else besides).

There is no way, writes Booker, that a mountain of such technical problems can be resolved by March, and this would still be virtually impossible within a further 21-month "transition period". But even for this to be available, as the EU repeatedly emphasises, is conditional on an agreed way to preserve a "frictionless" border in Ireland.

With both British suggestions for this proving equally unworkable, the latest fashionable idea is that we should go for a "Swiss option", based on the fantasy that the Swiss-EU border is "frictionless". In fact it has more than 100 border posts, with queues at one recently stretching four miles.

We could only possibly retain "frictionless" access to the single market, as Michel Barnier himself explained last week, if Britain went for what he called "the Norway- plus option".

By joining Norway in the European Free Trade Association to remain in the EEA, we would thus be wholly outside the EU and 73 percent of its 21,178 laws, subject only to the 27 percent that would allow us to trade much as we do now. Instead we are putting at risk much of that trade with our largest export market, worth 14 per cent of our GDP.

Booker thus concludes that the Notices to Stakeholders convey a sombre message. Without some dramatic change in thinking, he says, we risk inflicting on ourselves a far greater disaster than most people have yet begun to realise.

And this really is the crunch. After all this time, and despite the open publication of these Notices, perilously few politicians – and even the industries most directly affected – seem aware of the shit-storm that will hit them in the event of us leaving the EU without a cast iron deal.

It really is quite remarkable – to say nothing of dangerous – how pervasive the ignorance is – right down to Booker's own newspaper, which cannot even come to terms with what he is writing.



Richard North 03/06/2018 link

Brexit: the Irish game plays out

02/06/2018  


It is a good day if I can go to bed knowing what I'm going to write about on the next. So murky and uninspiring have been some of the more recent non-developments that it's been past midnight on occasions before I've settled on the subject of my daily blogpost. Far too often, I'm getting to see the pale light of dawn before I retire.

By that reckoning, what is now the day before yesterday was a good day. I went to bed aware of this - an "exclusive" from Tom Newton Dunn, political editor of The Sun, together with Harry Cole.

David Davis, we were told, had devised a ten-mile-wide trade buffer zone along Northern Ireland border, in a bid to break the deadlock in the Brexit talks. And, in a "radical blueprint", the province would operate a double hatted regime of European and British regulations at the same time, so it could trade freely with both.

Into yesterday morning, the coprophagic media was beginning to feast on the story. Dutifully, the gullible Telegraph ran with it early in the morning, illustrating the muddle with the headline: "Northern Ireland 'could have dual UK-EU status under plans to break Brexit deadlock'".

Northern Ireland, we were informed, could be granted dual UK-EU regulatory status after Brexit "under proposals being considered by David Davis" in a bid to secure Cabinet agreement on a "Mac Fac 2" (sic). This was a claimed attributed to The Sun, acknowledging that the proposal would "model the two-tier regulatory system in Lichtenstein". Northern Ireland would thus operate under EU and UK regulations, "eliminating the need for a hard border with the Republic".

This, clearly, is not so much a "Max Fac" as a "Mad Max" idea, not least because the absence of border checks would allow free passage of non-conforming goods into the Republic, affording them free circulation within the Single Market as a whole – precisely what the EU is keen to prevent.

With that, however, we had the Guardian pick up the story just before midday, running the headline: "Brexit: Davis considers joint EU and UK status for Northern Ireland". The sub-heading told us that his department "says it is refining trade plans amid reports of border 'buffer zone' solution".

By then, I was already crafting my own personal "line" for today's blogpost. As there was only one source for the story - The Sun - and Davis's department was declining to comment directly, I was going to advise caution.

Newton Dunn, its principal author, has been known to bend the facts when he has needed to make a point. In my view, he is one of the least reliable political journalists on the block – and that is from a very bad bunch. Therefore, anything he writes should be taken with a very large pinch of salt – especially in the absence of any corroboration, official or otherwise.

As it happened, I need not have worried. Mr Dunn's red meat was too raw even for our media carnivores, and the cracks were not slow in appearing. The Independent was one of the papers that led the way, its headline telling us that the collective wasn't going to bite. Although the core of the story survived, its thrust was "David Davis mocked for 'fantastical' plans for Northern Ireland 'buffer zone'".

This was matched by a press release from the DUP's Sammy Wilson. He remarked that the status of the "latest leaked proposals" is "unclear". None of these proposals, he said, "have been discussed with the DUP and at first examination they appear to be at best contradictory".

Then, with all the gravitas and attention to detail that we've come to expect, the BBC pitched in with the website headline: "A border 'buffer zone' dismissed as 'bonkers'". Downgraded to an "alleged" proposal, the idea was now being condemned by John McGrane of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce. It was he who described the plans as "bonkers", adding for good measure that they had "no substance".

The death knell finally came in the late afternoon when the Guardian ran a headline: "No 10 denies idea of joint EU and UK status for Northern Ireland".

David Davis had now only "reportedly" devised idea as a workaround for "max fac" customs scheme and Downing Street was putting the boot in, saying it could not accept plans that treated the region differently from the rest of the UK. Newton Dunn's "exclusive" had lasted a mere 18 hours.

Where the idea came from in the first place is anyone's guess, but a clue came buried in Dunn's original text when he wrote that Brexit Ministry officials had taken "inspiration" for the double hatted model from the tiny European state of Liechtenstein, which the EU (supposedly) allows to operate both the Swiss and EEA regimes at the same time.

Reading on, one then sees: "The border buffer zone was first suggested by controversial Brexit thinker Shanker Singham, of the Institute of Economic Affairs, who is close to several Leave backing Cabinet ministers".

This may guide us to the source. It certainly has all the hallmarks of classic Singham stupidity. Effectively, we are being asked to believe that, because Switzerland and Liechtenstein share some regimes and have a common external customs border (as befits their customs union), this solves the problem of the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Whoever dreamed this one up, though, clearly hasn't understood that the common regimes eliminate the customs border between the Swiss and Liechtenstein administrations. But there are jointly manned customs posts on the border with Austria (one pictured), making the border with Liechtenstein as hard as they come.

The equivalent would be Northern Ireland and the Republic agreeing their own customs union and declaring a common administrative border. Together, their authorities would jointly man customs posts at Irish ports on the external border, to intercept goods coming onto the island from Great Britain. A snowball might have a better chance at the centre of our sun, but it would be a close-run thing.

By midnight, bringing us into today, The Times was on the case. It was announcing it was "Back to the drawing board as David Davis admits Irish border plan won't work".

This report had David Davis conceding that surveillance technology cannot be used to police the Northern Ireland border "in a major climbdown that leaves Brexiteers' favoured customs plan in disarray".

According to this paper – keeping faith with its sister publication - the news of Mr Davis's climbdown "was first reported in The Sun". That's not exactly as I read it - but then, I may have missed something. That, presumably, is what "breaking the deadlock" meant.

Anyhow, The Times has it that its sister paper had also suggested that the Brexit secretary had already come up with an alternative idea to allow the EU to protect the integrity of its single market after Brexit that does not rely on technology. But The Times now concedes that No 10 and several sources confirmed that this plan would not work. It would create a special status for Northern Ireland, with rules distinct from the rest of the UK — a red line for the Democratic Unionist Party.

To conclude, the paper quietly observes that, "In a sign of the pain the ideas caused, some officials even disputed that the ideas attributed to David Davis in yesterday's Sun ought to be labelled as a 'plan'". The reason, it says, is clear: "it simply won't work, as it breaches an astonishing number of red lines".

This brings the Mail into the fray, publishing only minutes after The Times. It declares that the government's favoured Irish option, the customs partnership, has died a death, and has been "quietly dropped" as a viable option.

That, apparently, leaves "Max Fac" as the only game in town, which effectively means there is no game at all. In a somewhat low-key fashion, the Mail thus concludes that the lack of an Irish solution "appears to have scuppered ministers' hopes to have agreed customs arrangements with the EU this month".

This, of course, should have been the front-page headline. We have just taken another lurch towards a "no deal" outcome, thrust into the cold at midnight 29 March next year, without even a whiff of a transition period.

Returning to The Times, we read that Theresa May is about to hit a brick wall. "It is increasingly clear", the paper says, "that she cannot both please the Brexiteers and protect Northern Ireland". It then spoils the analysis with dribble about staying inside the customs union.

But even idiot journalists can't conceal the key message: the game is almost played out and we're domed.



Richard North 02/06/2018 link

Brexit: the onset of madness

01/06/2018  


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Richard North 01/06/2018 link

Brexit: Norway plus

31/05/2018  


With a rather good sense of timing, the Norwegian government has published a report called "Norway in Europe" - its "strategy for cooperation with the EU 2018-2021". It was actually released on 9 May – Europe Day - but has received no publicity from the zombie media in the UK, despite the fact that it has considerable relevance to the Brexit debate.

Cynically, one might say that this almost automatically disqualifies it from being publicised, although it was not helped by the absence of an English translation on the day of publication.

As to its relevance, in the Norwegian publication News in English, published a few days after the report's release, we saw the views of Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide recorded. "Even though Norway is not a member of the EU",” she said, "we will be active participants rather than passive observers", in trying to influence EU policy.

And that is what comes over in the report, helpfully set out on Twitter by James Strachan, deputy editor of The Medicine Maker. He has produced a short "explainer" which covers most of the salient points in a 19-point thread.

An important part of the report is devoted to the role of the Norwegian government in influencing the making of EU legislation. This is nothing new to readers of this blog, but it very emphatically puts to bed the "no say" meme that the ignorati have spread about.

Even then, as James Strachan points out, it does not discuss the role Norway plays in shaping legislation at the global level – such as its role on the Codex fisheries committee which I wrote nearly five years ago, after an interview with Bjorn Knudtsen, Chairman of the Fish and Fisheries Product Committee.

Back in 2013, we also had that illuminating interview with Norwegian state secretary for the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development, Anne Tvinnereim, which I posted after talking to her in her Oslo office on a swelteringly hot August afternoon.

She had emphatically disputed the claim that Norway had no influence over EU law. "It is true that we are not there when they vote", she told me, "but we do get to influence the position". Explaining the simple facts of international relations, she said: "Most of the politics is done long before it [a new law] gets to the voting stage".

That this stuff was on the record well before the EU referendum makes it all the more irritating that the "no say" meme has survived for so long. And even now, with the Norwegian government publication getting such little publicity, there is still plenty of mileage left in the misinformation stakes.

That much is evident from the News in English report to which I've referred. Although it concedes that the EEA participation "gives Norway full access to the EU's inner market", it trots out the very meme which the report debunks. "Norway", it says, "has also agreed to abide by most all EU rules and regulations, even though it has no vote and can't sit around the EU’s negotiating tables in Brussels".

It is not only the UK media that needs educating, it would seem. The Norwegian press and politicians (Anne Tvinnereim excepted) also need to be brought up to speed. But it isn't only the Norwegian politicians who need the treatment. Alarmingly, it would appear, Michel Barnier needs to be set straight on a few vital issues.

This came over from an interview published on YouTube with M. Barnier and with Dave Keating at the Euranet Plus summit, where they talked about the latest developments in Brexit negotiations and, in particular, the prospect of the UK joining the EEA with Norway.

On the video, what was useful was that Barnier did not rule out the Efta/EEA option. In fact, he volunteered (approximately seven minutes in) that the only "frictionless model" for future trade relations between the EU Member States and the UK "would be Norway plus". This, on the face of it, was extremely encouraging, but he then went on to explain that the "Norway" component was the single market while the "plus" was membership of a customs union.

This is very far from being helpful. Barnier must surely know – he should know – that membership of a customs union with the EU would be incompatible with Efta membership. We cannot be part of that trade agreement and separately entertain membership of another trade agreement (a customs union) which puts us in conflict with it.

Wrongly, with reference to the Irish border, Barnier goes on to suggest that agreeing a customs union is the only way to avoid a hard border, with Northern Ireland and Ireland is to keep Northern Ireland "inside our customs union".

Earlier, Barnier had specifically cited in a list of controls the rules of origin (ROO) – and that is undoubtedly influencing his thinking. He seems to have swallowed the mantra from the trade wonks that ROO is a significant issue. What he doesn't seem to realise is that this is a very minor problem that is accommodated in the EEA Agreement, and does not necessitate controls at the border.

As we know, the EEA Agreement also includes no-tariff arrangements, provisions for customs cooperation, and bespoke ROO. As long as we agree to maintain parity with our external tariffs (which will happen automatically when we adopt the EU's WTO tariff schedules) and settle a continuity agreement on the EU's third country trade agreements, there is no need for a customs union. To suggest otherwise does not make progress any easier.

Interestingly, a much bigger problem – not mentioned by Barnier – is VAT. Once the UK leaves the EU, goods movements are treated either as exports or imports, depending on the direction of flow. When goods leave either administration, traders are entitled to recover VAT already paid, while full VAT will have to be paid by the importer when goods enter the new territory.

This was actually highlighted in a Notice to Stakeholders on 30 January of this year but it has now been flagged up in a long article in the Financial Times. Special attention is drawn to the problem of levying VAT on parcels which come from the EU, the sheer volume being enough to defeat the current system which only has to deal with third country goods.

Not untypically, though the FT piece rather over-eggs the problem. For third country parcels, there is a de minimis relief on duty and VAT for imports valued at £15 or less. Through Amazon or ebay, I quite often buy goods directly from China and they come to me, regardless of actual price, with a customs declaration label of £12 or so - even with stuff worth £100+. There is no way the post office can check anything but a tiny sample of the stuff coming through, so most of what I buy is VAT and duty-free.

This, in itself, has huge implications for the UK high street. As long as buyers are prepared to wait a week or so, they can buy an enormous range of goods more cheaply from China by buying direct, than they can get from the local shops - or even online from UK websites. It is no wonder that so many high street retailers (which also have to pay business rates) are going out of business.

But when it comes to Brexit, one can imagine the same de minimis rule will apply to EU goods. And if there is a similar level of under-declaration, the majority of goods will come through duty free and VAT free. Since there is hardly time to organise cross-border tax arrangements, that will probably have to suffice, which means that the UK government will suffer a substantial revenue loss – another unplanned Brexit cost.

Even more importantly, though, is an issue that the FT does mention. Once we leave, we will no longer be part of the EU's VAT territory, and there will no longer a flow of information between the UK and other Member State tax authorities. This, the FT observes, opens up massive opportunities for fraud.

In terms of border controls, this might be more significant than all the other issues put together. It would be unwise not to expect organised crime to exploit the confusion that will inevitably follow Brexit, and it may be necessary physically to inspect a high proportion of goods crossing borders into EU Member States (and coming from them), simply to prevent fraud – the cost of which could run into billions, as it has done in the past.

Nevertheless, the good news is that – in theory at least – it is possible to have frictionless trade with EU Member States, once we are outside the EU. M. Barnier has confirmed that. All we have to do is straighten him out on the details and we are back in the game.

Sadly, I suspect Barnier may be the least of our problems. Straightening out our own government may be the bigger deal, and prove to be beyond the wit of man.



Richard North 31/05/2018 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: Lisbon calling

27/05/2018  


The XXVIIIth Congress of the International Federation for European Law must be a very grand place to be. Certainly, Michel Barnier thought so, enough for him to go to Lisbon on a Saturday to tell it about current Brexit developments.

Structured quite well, his speech started with the classic tour de horizon, rehearsing the "progress" made to date: the rights of citizens; the financial regulation; and the agreement on a 21-month transition period.

We have agreement, said Barnier, on about 75 percent of the Withdrawal Agreement text but, he said, to remove the uncertainty created by the UK's decision to leave the EU, we are not at the end of the road. "We need to agree in particular on the governance of this withdrawal agreement", he said.

Then there was the eternal question of "a specific solution for the unique situation of Ireland and Northern Ireland". The UK had accepted the principle of a backstop to avoid the return of a physical border and to respect the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions. We need, said the EU's chief negotiator, "to operationalise this backstop in the withdrawal agreement".

Finally, he said, "alongside the Treaty itself, we must agree on the framework of our future relationship - other treaties, on other legal bases, probably mixed treaties".

Yet time is short and if we are to achieve this, says Barnier, "we must accelerate". His side is ready, ready to intensify negotiations at the technical, legal and political levels. "We are open!", he says: "There is no ideology or dogmatism on our part - we simply ask for clarity".

This leads to the gospel according to Barnier: "to negotiate effectively, you must know what the other party wants", he says, leading to the line which most of the UK zombie media chooses to reproduce: "A negotiation cannot be a part of hide and seek", he says.

The BBC for instance runs: "UK is playing hide and seek in talks, says EU negotiator". The Independent personalises it with: "May playing 'hide and seek' in Brexit talks, Barnier says", while the Financial Times goes for: "Barnier warns Britain to stop playing hide and seek".

It's funny how great minds think alike, or perhaps it's our old friend coprophagia – a single idea shared amongst the many, by the traditional media route.

The FT is so often the brand leader on these things. No one ever got fired for specifying IBM, they used to say. And no hack every got fired plagiarising the Financial Times. The loathsome Johnson – the unthinking Tory's plagiariser – even made a virtue of it.

A lengthy and thoughtful speech, therefore, gets distilled down to a few soundbites for the delectation of the English press. One wonders whether Barnier writes his soundbites first and then fills in the gaps in order to make a speech, like most UK politicians seem to do. I guess not.

But, according to the FT in Barnier's soundbite land, he is calling on Britain (never the UK, even though Northern Ireland is such an important part of the equation) to stop playing "hide and seek". It must, we are told, "decide on a realistic exit policy" – all this occurring while "the two sides traded barbs over the blame for stalled talks".

Actually, even though the media waste acres of space on crap of all kinds, when it comes to the really important stuff, they always seem to insist on brevity. But here – as so often – the full quote, in its proper context, is far more interesting.

"There is urgency", says Barnier. He repeats that we have "probably" made a lot of progress on the substance of the withdrawal agreement, but his main theme is one of "effective governance". That's what he talks about at Lisbon – an issue the media barely mention.

Without effective governance, Barnier says, "these gains will be of limited value". Without agreement on it, "and without an agreement on Ireland and Northern Ireland, there will be no withdrawal agreement, and therefore no transition period".

This seems to be upping the ante. We've had for some time the mantra about no Irish agreement, but now he's throwing "governance" in the pot. "The United Kingdom is well aware that our citizens and businesses, on both sides of the Channel, need legal certainty", he says.

While "we also want an ambitious partnership with the United Kingdom in the long term", he adds, "to achieve this, we need realistic proposals from the UK". These must be proposals "that respect the institutional architecture and the integrity of the European Union".

And at this precise point, the rapier comes out: "I can see the temptation of the blame game to bring the negative consequences of Brexit on the European Union", he says. "But we will not be impressed. I will not be impressed". Twisting the blade and extracting it, to leave the blood to flow freely on the floor, he concludes: "It is the United Kingdom which is leaving the European Union. It cannot, on leaving, ask us to change who we are and how we operate".

No wonder the FT refers to "blunt remarks", but it only the expends the effort to tell us the whole purpose of the speech – that it was "focused on dispute settlement arrangements for the exit treaty". This, we are allowed to know – as if we didn't already – is "a highly sensitive issue for Brexiters since it relates to the future influence of the European Court of Justice in Britain".

One might better describe it as a huge unexploded bomb – big enough to bring the traffic to a stop within a mile radius (that's 1.60934 kill-o-meters for the hard of thinking and foreigners).

What Barnier tells us at some length is well worth repeating. Governance, he says, must "include a jurisdictional system for the settlement of disputes". Replacing the jurisdictional review of the rules of law with a simple political settlement, which the UK side is arguing for, "is unacceptable". He goes on, in point one of three:
By creating or joining the European Union, member states have agreed to pool certain aspects of their sovereignty to create a body of law applicable to themselves and their nationals . It is this community of law based on mutual trust that the UK is about to leave.

And the agreement we are negotiating aims to organize this withdrawal in an orderly manner, which involves "unravelling" relationships established for decades between member states, but also between private actors.

Therefore, in contrast to a conventional international agreement, the withdrawal agreement will not be limited to creating rights and obligations between two Sovereign Parties . It will create rights directly invokable by litigants.

In the event of political disagreement in the Joint Committee, and this can never be ruled out, questions will remain unanswered, with very concrete consequences for citizens and businesses on both sides of the Channel. We cannot and do not want to move from a community of law built on the control of the Court of Justice to a simple political dialogue.

For us, on the side of the Union, it is imperative to settle disputes in a jurisdictional or arbitration framework. It is a matter of efficiency and legal certainty.
To put it bluntly – and there really isn't any other way of doing it – that well and truly stuffs Mrs May, and puts two very large fingers up to Mogg, the "plastic patriot" (I do like that phrase. It really fits him). Both and all their allies are going to be seriously put out by this. Barnier is putting the ECJ back in the frame, trampling on the red lines, grinding them into the dust to leave little more than the hint of a pink smear. You wouldn't even recover any DNA out of this one.

The subtext is made clear in the second point. "The autonomy of Union law must be preserved", Barnier says. Thirdly, he eschews the rapier and puts the boot in, effectively telling us that disputes over the withdrawal agreement will have to come under the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

This, of course, should have been the headline across the board, except that the zombie media don't do information any more. All you get is "biff-bam" personality politics. It is enough that Barnier is making "blunt remarks". What they're about is far less important.

Nevertheless, Barnier gives an example of how the general regulation on data protection would work. The UK wants its supervisor to remain on the European Data Protection Council set up by the GDPR, believing that to be "in the interest of EU companies".

Out comes the rapier again – this time plunged into the recumbent body: "Let's be clear", Barnier says, borrowing from the May book of handy phrases (only one page long): "Brexit is not and will never be in the interest of EU companies".

It "would be contrary to the interests of our companies to give up our autonomy of decision . This autonomy allows us to set standards for the whole of the EU but also often to see these standards taken over the world". This, he adds, twisting the rapier blade vigorously, "is the normative power of the Union or what is often called 'the Brussels effect.". Ouch!

We cannot, says Barnier, and will not "be able to share this decisional autonomy with a third country, undoubtedly a former Member State but which no longer wants to be in the same legal ecosystem as us".

There is a limit to how deep the blade can go, but it must now be in all the way to the hilt. "The UK has decided to leave our harmonised system of decision making and enforcement", he says. It must respect the fact that the European Union will continue to operate on the basis of this system , which has enabled us to build a single market, and which will enable us to deepen this unique market in response to new challenges".

In sort, he says, "with regard to personal data, he must understand that the only possibility for the Union, as indicated in the guidelines of the European Council, will be to ensure their protection through adequacy decisions". And, for the killer line, he says: "It's one thing to be inside the Union, it's another thing to be outside".

That must be the politest "get stuffed" message on the books – and done charmingly in French – to a Portuguese audience. Mr Barnier is not going to accept the weakening of "this community of law and destiny" just because "one of our member states has decided to leave it".

This, he concludes, "must be well understood". Only then will it be possible "to build a new ambitious and long-term partnership with the United Kingdom".

Unfortunately, there is no way of telling whether London is listening. It used to be "London calling", but now the shoe is on the other foot. But it's a long way from Lisbon to London. I'm not sure sound carries that far.



Richard North 27/05/2018 link

Brexit: a license to print rubbish

26/05/2018  


There is perhaps one thing more stupid than a Daily Mail journalist in general, and that is a Daily Mail journalist writing about Brexit and customs procedures for imported goods. Such a person is Robert Hardman, who recently spent a little time at Felixtowe Port looking at the systems there, demonstrating that a little knowledge is a very dangerous thing.

His experience, he tells us is "proof" that the "Remainer row over EU Customs Union is claptrap". His headline declares: "There's barely a customs officer in sight at Felixstowe which handles £80bn of goods a year... so why all the hysteria about the Irish border with its £3bn trade?"

As Harman gets stuck into his story, he asserts that, "ten months from now, according to the doom-mongers, we could be back on rations for the first time since the Fifties. With lines of lorries backing up more than 30 miles from the Channel ports, Britain will face gridlock and food shortages".

Going on in similar vein, he writes: "For a hellish mess of endless paperwork and bureaucracy lies in wait if we leave the European customs union and the frictionless trade which comes with it", while "things will be even worse on the island of Ireland as the terrorists disinter their hidden stashes of Kalashnikovs and Semtex to wage war on any British attempts to reimpose a post Brexit border between North and South".

You can read the rest for yourself, if you so wish, but the thrust of his story is that a huge number of containers come through the post from places such as Indonesia and Hong Kong. Of those non-EU goods, Hardman says, 98 percent will pass through here as easily as EU goods, "for the simple reason that most have cleared customs before they even touch British soil".

They do so, he says, using a tried-and-tested digital cargo-tracking system developed in Felixstowe, known as Destin8. It has worked so well for more than a decade that it now processes most of the non-EU maritime trade coming into this country.

Never mind that Southampton might argue with that, handling as much volume as Felixstowe, or the London ports, which handle significantly more. What Mr Hardman wants to know is: how difficult would it be to adapt this acclaimed system if Britain left the customs union, so that it also had to include all the EU trade coming in to Felixstowe?

The rhetorical question gets the answer, "a minute or so", involving "a few extra keystrokes", according to Alan Long, chief executive of MCP, the company behind Destin8.

However, what Mr Hardman doesn't tell us is that, from destinations in Indonesia, goods may have to notified to the authorities up to nine days before they are shipped, in order to clear all the formalities.

Then, before the goods even move away from the quayside, the details have been notified electronically to the customs authorities in the UK, who have at least 20 days to make a decision as to whether they need to be inspected.

Compare and contrast the Ro-Ro traffic from Calais to Dover, where the cargoes and destinations are not declared until the trucks actually arrive at their departure ports, and can then be rolling off the ramp two hours later – or less than an hour if travelling via the Eurotunnel. That is how much time Customs have to process information, hours as opposed to the weeks that containers take to arrive.

Then, in terms of volume, UK major ports handle over 100 million tonnes of Ro-Ro traffic, compared with 65 million tonnes in containers. And, of that Ro-Ro traffic, some 17 thousand arriving vessels are handled by Dover Port alone, accounting for 27 percent of all UK Ro-Ro arrivals. Total value handled through the port is roughly £120 billion a year, 50 percent more than Felixstowe.

Hardman acknowledges that, even at Felixstowe, two percent of shipments are checked, which in the context of Dover would, on the face of it, equate to 200 lorries on average each day, with the loads being physically inspected, in a port where there are no facilities at all for inspection of cargoes.

Actually, he admits, every year, 80,000 of the four million containers passing through Felixstowe are cracked open and checked for any number of infringements. But none of these consignments are time-sensitive fresh foods or "just in time" automotive components that must be at their final destinations within minutes of their appointed time.

We've also had evidence that three-quarters of the border interventions at Felixstowe are by Suffolk Coastal District Council, on port health issues. Their officers opened the majority of containers.

Currently, Dover shippers will doubtless be pleased to know, the Port of Felixstowe and the Council have been working together to bring down clearance times.

There is, they says, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the port and the Council and they meet daily to plan the examinations for the following day. The Port of Felixstowe, we are told, has set out a target time for examinations of two days after landing with a maximum of three days.

Even that situation would be disastrous at Dover or Calais but there is not even that promise. Unlike Felixstowe, there are no Border Inspection Posts (BIP) and little spare capacity in Northern France. UK goods might have to go to Zeebrugge in order to be inspected, and even there the capacity is limited. In the UK there is simply no capacity at all.

But on top of the cargo inspections, all vehicles carrying food must stop for a compulsory document check, either at the BIP or a designated point of entry (for plant-based materials). Again no facilities exist for this. There is another issue here. While container cargoes tend in the main to be single consignments, anything up to thirty percent of cross Channel truck-loads may be groupage (mixed loads), averaging out at about 20 consignments per load.

The enormity of this, I wrote in March 2017, has not even begun to register. You may be looking at 12,000 trucks a day through Dover and the tunnel, but that could equates to 100,000 consignments or so, which is what matters for the purposes of customs and veterinary checks. The paperwork alone will be crippling, and the food inspection system would be looking at thousands of consignments a day.

Nevertheless that, according to Robert Hardman, is the Project Fear vision of Britain in March 2019. The 98 percent of non-EU goods that pass through Felixstowe do so "as easily as EU goods", for the simple reason that "most have cleared customs before they even touch British soil".

No content with that, he tells us that most of the containers, once unloaded, "will be on a rail wagon or lorry to somewhere in Britain within hours". Just unloading the vessel, though, may take 20 hours.

For a container to be collected, the haulier must be given a time slot, which can vary from between 30 minutes and three hours. But the lorry can only collect a container once three conditions are met: the container is in the stack, duties are accounted for and customs have released the cargo.

With the introduction of the Vehicle Booking System (VBS) it is feasible for a lorry to spend just 35-45 minutes within the port gates, but this doesn't include waiting outside the port gates for the three conditions to be met. Hauliers report that the average time to collect a container, including waiting outside the port, is 1.5 hours. Consequently, the hauliers generally allow 1 – 1.5 hours in their planning for the delivery and collection of a container at any of the major ports.

Getting reliable information on how long it actually takes from berthing of the ship to collection of an individual container is notoriously difficult, not least because it is commercially sensitive information in a highly competitive environment.

I saw one forum suggesting a period of 1-3 working days, if all the paperwork is in order. Later documentation suggests an average of six hours wait after clearance, while another suggests that it can take four hours after clearance to collect the load, for non-account holders.

It can take "significantly longer" overall if customs hold the shipment. but it is important to understand that, only once the shipment cleared is a collection slot allocated, Even now, with automated clearance, the whole process, from quayside to gate can take 1-2 days – and that applies to goods from the EU as well. Thus, even with containerised EU goods, the customs authorities would have far more time than is allowed for Ro-Ro traffic.

And even then, in Felixstowe, that is as long as the winds do not exceed operational limits, otherwise the port is closed. There are also backlogs and delays during such times, and also during public holidays.

Contrary to Hardman's assertions, therefore, Felixstowe cannot provide a model for how the Channel ports will operate. The time taken just to unload and process a container is many multiples of the time it takes to get a Ro-Ro vehicle across the Channel.

Despite this, on the basis of his flawed example, Hardman would have us believe that, after going through a customs clearance procedure that is not required for EU goods, Channel ports handling Ro-Ro traffic should have no problems after Brexit, even though Customs officials have only a fraction of the time they have available to process containers.

In Hardman's estimation, therefore, the millions of customs documents which will now accompany goods destined to travel through the Channel ports can be processed in hours rather than weeks, despite no systems existing to process them. Similarly, the tens of thousands of inspections – where before there were none – can be performed flawlessly in non-existent facilities by non-existent personnel.

The only acknowledgement that there might possibly be problems comes from Harman's champion, Alan Long. With shorter transit times, a different system will be needed to handle a similar lorryload between Calais and Dover or Fishguard and Dublin, he says, but he has "no doubt a solution will be found".

"The logistics industry always finds a way to do these things", Long assures Hardman. "It will just be a hybrid system". But says Hardman, Long "can't be more specific for now as his company is in the midst of designing the answer".

That is the level of debate we're getting in this country, on top of which Hardman discounts any problems at the Irish border. Those peddling "alarmist nonsense" should take a trip to the end of the A14 (where Felixstowe resides), and then apologise.

The worst of it is that there will be thousands of gullible little Muppets who today read this tosh in their Daily Mail and believe every word. One can see this already from the online comments. "Some desperate remainers trying to downplay what they know to be true, Brexit would be easy but for remainers wanting to remain and the EU not wanting other COUNTRIES to leave", says one.

To proffer such nonsense in such a politically-charged atmosphere is the equivalent of shouting "fire" in a crowded auditorium. It is plain irresponsible and people are going to get hurt as a result. But hey! We have a "free" press in this country – a license to print rubbish.



Richard North 26/05/2018 link

Brexit: the war of the unknown officials

25/05/2018  


No sooner has Ivan Rogers done with his "blathering Brexiteers" than another player enters the field – the famous "anonymous EU official" – to whom they must some day erect a statue in the Place du Luxembourg outside the European Parliament in Brussels.

Standing in for what in earlier times might have been the "unknown soldier", this intrepid official yesterday briefed a group of UK journalists, all of whom presumably knew exactly who he (or she) was, but are willing to preserve anonymity for the sake of a juicy story. One assumes from the circumstances, though, that the official speaks for and with the full authority of the European Commission.

Covering the Guardian version of the encounter, the paper chooses the headline: "UK 'chasing a fantasy' in Brexit talks, top EU official warns", with the sub-heading, "Senior official involved in talks says EU will not negotiate under threat, after a fraught week in Brussels".

In the manner of modern journalism, the paper thus writes the story in the heading, which it goes on to repeat in summary in the opening paragraphs, before elaborating on the story in the main section and then summarising again in the conclusion. We thus get told the story four times in the space of less than a thousand words – even if the broadcast media do it better, offering as many as six versions of a story in the same bulletin (then repeated hourly thereafter).

Anyhow, through the marvels of repetitive journalism (begetter of repetitive strain injury), one gets to learn that it is indeed "the EU" which has accused the British government of "chasing a fantasy". Furthermore, it has warned that it will not negotiate under threat, "after a fraught week of Brexit talks in Brussels that have raised serious concerns about the future of the negotiations".

You do love the add on. To mere invisible mortals like myself, who have been warning for ages that the talks are under threat, it now suits the London zombie media narrative to tell us the same thing in order to add gravitas to their story.

A lot of this seems centred on "bad discussions" about the role of the UK in the Galileo satellite positioning system, after the government had suggested it would seek to recover more than €1 billion of contributions to the project unless the European commission lifted a block on British firms being involved.

This, we are told, has triggered "a particularly strident response", with an implicit threat that such posturing could unravel the discussions. Says our intrepid EU official (anonymous and bar): "The EU doesn’t negotiate under threat", adding: "Such a request for reimbursement would be backsliding and unacceptable".

One wonders whether this theatre is being engineered for our entertainment, or what purpose it serves describing talks as "bad-tempered", but one can certainly understand the comment that "frustration is mounting". Join the club.

The grief of the EU negotiators - shared by one and all - is that almost two years after the referendum the British government has not come to terms with Brexit. The intrepid one says: "I have to say on the basis of this week’s discussions, I am a bit concerned because the pre-condition for fruitful discussions has to be that the UK accepts the consequences of its own choices".

He adds: "I am concerned that if the current debate continues, in three months’ time it will be the EU that will be made responsible for the Brexit decision. We need the UK to accept the consequences of its own decisions", then coming up with this entertaining line: "To paraphrase The Leopard by Tommaso di Lampedusa, I have the impression that the UK thinks everything has to change on the EU's side so that everything can stay the same for the UK".

This is not a lot different from what Barnier has been saying and, only yesterday Ivan Rogers was saying that there will need to be new legal agreements negotiated … "which will not be at all the same – cannot be the same – as the one pre-exit". It seems the lesson still hasn't sunk in.

It can't have helped Whitehall blood pressure when the EU official treated the assembled journalists to a "forthright point-by-point deconstruction of the UK's negotiating positions". Amongst the highlights, he stated that the EU would not allow the UK the access it wants post-Brexit to the Galileo satellite programme. This, he said, would give Downing Street the ability to "switch off the signal for the EU".

He also ruled out the UK retaining use of the European arrest warrant, as it could put in jeopardy "the lives and liberty of citizens". And then, responding to UK complaints that the EU's proposed free-trade deal was "insufficient", he pointed out that the UK was asking for a more trusted position than that enjoyed by the Member States, which are held accountable by the ECJ and the EU institutions. This, the official described as "a big ask" and "not where the European council is at".

Funnily enough, we had Ivan Rogers ask yesterday why members, who have painfully agreed an extremely detailed constraining single rule book, should "allow a non-member greater latitude than they have themselves to achieve so-called comparable regulatory outcomes – and agree a non-ECJ unique resolution mechanism to decide whether they are comparable?" If there is a thing called a "pre-echo", it came from Sir Ivan when he said: "This is not going to happen in a month of Sundays".

That left the EU official to pour cold water on the UK's suggestion that it could try to change the EU's rules from inside before it leaves to gain access to its programmes post-Brexit. The official sniffed that the commission's negotiators would report back to the member states on the development.

To all this, it may come as no surprise that the UK's response hasn't been a particularly happy one, at least according to the BBC. It has its own unknown official to step into the breach to describe his counterpart's remarks as "laughable", warning the EU against "trying to insult us". He gets his statue, in due course, on the empty plinth in Trafalgar square.

Nevertheless, in this battle between titans, I would have thought that "chasing a fantasy" is as close as you are going to get to a diplomatic insult, which suggests that the EU is not so much trying as succeeding.

But then, this can hardly be a surprise when the issue of the Irish border in stasis. This has our EU official complaining that "we are running out of time" after informing us that there had been no agreement in three days of talks this week. To add to the last lot of talks, that means that the "crunch items" of customs and regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are no closer to being solved than they have ever been.

Thus does the EU official observe that progress on the Irish border – "let alone substantive progress" is proving "elusive". But where, as always, the UK wants to roll the issue into the general EU-UK trade talks, the EU official is adamant: "We need to have the recognition that the backstop has to be Northern Ireland specific", he says. "We have to do away with the fantasy that there is an all-UK solution to that".

Never one to be outclassed, this is countered by the UK unknown official, who dismissed the remarks. They are simply the EU's "public negotiating position". We are thus informed that the UK "presented seven papers this week, in the interests of resolving difficult issues in the interests of both sides, so the claim we aren't providing enough detail is laughable".

He adds: "The risk is that, if they follow down this track, putting conditions on our unconditional offers and trying to insult us, the EU will end up with a relationship with its third biggest economy and largest security partner that lets down millions of citizens in the EU and UK".

That has to be a new one, but you can't blame the man for trying: "a relationship … that lets down millions of citizens in the EU and UK". I'm not sure what Brussels will make of that, especially when the egregious David Davis beefs it up with a tweet asserting that the EU's attitude "would lead to a substantial and avoidable reduction in our shared security capability". He added: "Our citizens depend on this, let's not let them down".

So, it seems, the big objective is not to let down our citizens – as, of course, defined by the UK negotiating team.

We have not recently had any figures on suicides for EU officials, or the numbers referred to specialist units for treatment of mental health issues, but one warrants that, amongst Commission veterans, PTSD is going to be a major factor – we may even need a tomb for the unknown official.

That, presumably, will be in or near the graveyard of fond hopes, as more and more of the UK's positions are demolished. What started off so bright and cheerful, with knockabout press conferences between Barnier and Davis has now degenerated into a battle between unknown officials.

When it's all over, the very least we can do is raise statues to them.



Richard North 25/05/2018 link

Brexit: churning

23/05/2018  


In November 2016, I was writing about the lack of vision in the Brexit plans, observing that this would not go away.

The referendum, I wrote, was only a means to an end and the exit campaign, which started in the 1970s, will not be over until we are fully out of the EU. We want more than a fudged exit, leaving us enmeshed in the Union with no clear direction for the future.

Eighteen months later, we are treated to a report from Tony Blair's Institute of Global Change, under the title "Customs and Exiting the European Union".

This is an evaluation carried out by Blair's team on the various options which supposedly present us in leaving the European Union. The report, we are told, makes clear that the options available to the UK for its future trading relationship with the EU all come with compromises.

On the one hand, it says, remaining in the single market and customs union would minimise friction, minimise the impact to the UK economy and avoid a hard border in Ireland. On the other hand, it would mean the UK could not strike its own trade deals.

The report then concludes that: "All the other options come with varying levels of friction and implications for the UK's ability to make trade agreements with other countries". What characterises the report in its detail though, is that there isn't a single idea in the entire tome which, we are advised, is a one hour three minute read. 

It is a turgid reiteration of a litany of establishment voices and reports, even down to churning out the same Mini crankshaft mythology that I rebutted in February.

This small example typifies the way the Brexit "debate" has been played, with the word "churning" serving as the motif. We are bogged down in minutia, assessing a succession of narrow options for withdrawal, none of which can possibly deliver the "sunlit uplands" that was the initial promise of the leave campaign.

Even the best of the best is a "least worst" option while the rabid, "Ultra" Brexiteers can only offer a tired vision of third country trade deals that cannot begin to replace what we have already, much less lead to an economic renaissance.

Brexit has become a tired, tedious, repetitious restatement of positions that is going nowhere and, if we let the likes of Mr Blair set the agenda, it will never deliver anything that anybody wants. But then, that is the purpose – to show that there is nothing to gain from Brexit, so we might just as well slide back into the EU.

We would, of course, not expect the "remainers" – former or current – to construct a vision of a post-Brexit UK. That is something for the leavers to do – something the official leave campaign should have done but didn't, beyond the manic, Minfordian vision of unrestricted free trade.

And when we see the EU showboating with the announcement of trade talks with Australia and New Zealand – that could give it better terms than we could achieve – we have to recognise that the free-trade ambitions of the "Brexiteers" are as empty as their rhetoric.

At least, in Flexcit, the Leave Alliance had a coherent vision. But, as we've seen again and again, the establishment is determined to monopolise the debate (and thereby exclude any non-conformist opinion. As I have remarked before, we are the "invisible man" of Brexit. We simply do not exist.

As long as you are in the loop, you can produce the most unutterable tosh, with scant attention to reality and without needing to get your facts right. And the zombie media will uncritically publish it, oblivious to its errors and not making the slightest attempt to correct them.

Accuracy, attention to detail, imagination and all the other attributes which are necessary for good policy, are no longer valued in this closed society, which puts its own interests before the health and wealth of the nation. It would see Brexit descend into disaster before it will open itself to outsiders and their heresies.

Thus, day after day, characters from the same limited cast of actors, their activities peppered with the language of conflict, as they "slam" each other, or "skewer" each other's arguments, against a background of "anger", where one side "infuriates" another, leading to the inevitable "backlash" and even the occasional "rebellion", all of which leads absolutely nowhere.

The protagonist stay firmly locked in their respective bubbles, talking mainly to each other, united only in rejecting outsiders with new or different ideas. They know nothing of the detail and contribute nothing, yet demand constant attention from an equally unknowing zombie media.

This is broken politics – a system which has failed to rise to the challenge of determining a new future for the UK outside the European Union. And lacking any ideas or the ability to develop them, we see an increase in the number of people retreating to their comfort zone, refighting the referendum campaign – and making as bad a job of it the second time around.

That leaves us wondering what to do next. When you have a dog-in-the manger political system which is incapable of doing its job, yet refuses to let any one in, the only short-term option tends to be one of damage limitation – at a personal level and, if possible, on a national scale.

It is said that politicians are more amenable to change when confronted with a crisis. That was the essence of Jean Monnet's technique, preparing his solutions and then waiting for the "beneficial crisis" when he could get them accepted.

Possibly, to undo the effects of our membership of the EU and to come up with a new paradigm for the future, we too need a crisis. Maybe we need Brexit to go badly wrong before the politicians start to listen and act in a sensible way. The English psyche needs its "Dunkirk", before it will concentrate on winning.

Meanwhile, there is only so much blathering any normal person can tolerate, and only so much churning of the same-old, same-old set of factoids before one is driven quietly mad.

The only consolation is that the UK's negotiating counterparts in Brussels must be feeling much the same. Their latest contribution shows how limited an effect the customs union has in securing a frictionless border, an input which is likely to be ignored as much as their previous contributions in the Notice to Stakeholders series.

I wish it could be said that we are suffering from information fatigue, where everyone is switching off because they can't cope with the overload. But, if anything, the nation is suffering from "underload" – if that is a word – as the necessary information with which to judge our options is quite deliberately withheld from the public.

If we need a crisis to change this – and that is the only thing that can do it – then all we can say is "bring it on". At some point, the churning has to stop and new ideas have to be allowed into the debate. For us, of course, they will not be new – the ideas in Flexcit go back to 2014 - but there is nothing so "new" as something the zombie media has discovered all for itself.

In an unusual burst of optimism, Pete at least concedes: "We may there yet". It would be nice, though, to know where "there" actually is.



Richard North 23/05/2018 link

Brexit: invisible borders still exist

22/05/2018  


Predictably – and not just because there is very little else to write about on Brexit – the Irish question is still prominent in the media coverage on matters related to our withdrawal from the European Union.

One of the stranger contributions, though, comes in the Telegraph carrying yesterday's date, written jointly by Owen Paterson as a former Northern Ireland Secretary, and Sammy Wilson, the DUP's Brexit spokesman.

Ostensibly, the pair are seeking to demythologise the Irish border, with the assertion that there is still a border: it hasn’t gone away. It is, the pair say, "a tax, immigration, currency, political, international, excise and security border".

To a very great extent, though, this is a straw man argument. No one sensible (that I know of) is arguing that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland doesn't exists.

The issue is that, for the purposes of free movement of people and goods, it is an invisible border. There are no border controls located on the border, and there is no requirement to submit to checks at the border in order to gain passage from one jurisdiction to another. No law is broken if any person crosses the border at any point, with or without goods which they may or may not intend to sell.

That, however, does not mean that there are no border checks. Unintentionally (for this is not his purpose), a Unionist Councillor, Henry Reilly, is demonstrating this in a series of Twitter posts.

Recently, he has posted two pictures (reproduced above), one showing a mobile checkpoint just across the border from Co Fermanagh, looking for cheap red diesel used (illegally) in private cars and the other a car-load of cigarettes and spirits seized by Irish customs.

Reilly also points out that 1,000 litres of heating oil cost £460 in Northern Ireland while the same quantity costs €710 (or £621.43) in the Republic. An Irish householder bringing in oil from the North would therefore, save £160 but, says Reilly, if Irish customs catch you, "it's big trouble".

The Unionist Councillor uses this to argue that, contrary (he asserts) to the claims that there is no border from of Barnier, Coveney and Varadkar et al, there is in fact a border.

Interestingly, if you go to the former border city of Strasbourg you can see remnants of the border post but in accordance with Union law, there are no longer and borders check between Germany and France – on the border. But one can hardly miss the profusion of cars, almost identical to police cars, but with the substitution of the title Douane.

These are often seen out and about in the interior, their crews setting up mobile check points in lay-bys and motorway service stations, inspecting lorries, mobile homes and the like for contraband. As between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, there is a "soft" (i.e., invisible) border between France and Germany but there are also checks carried out in the interior.

That is the situation as it currently stands, and it is how all the parties want it to remain. And even where there are visible checks at the borders – as between France and Germany – there is still a lot going on behind the scenes. A great deal is achieved by cross-border cooperation between enforcement systems – something that doesn't, incidentally, require direct EU participation. Swiss-French cooperation, we are told, is "an envied tool throughout Europe".

Back with Paterson and Wilson, they make the point that the Irish border is "not one of Europe’s weightier ones". Sixty-five percent of Ulster's trade, they say, is internal to the province, 20 percent goes to the rest of the UK, and merely percent goes to the Republic. A miserly 1.6 percent of the Republic's exports go north, and only 1.6 percent of its imports come from Northern Ireland.

On this basis, they argue, "vintage border posts from a Tintin illustration aren't needed", asserting that there are "no insurmountable technological problems, only, thus far, political ones". They add: "Not one new, untried technology is required to make this work".

But, as always, they miss the point. Upon Brexit, the Irish land border with Northern Ireland becomes part of the EU's external border. A huge body of EU law, including the Union Customs Code (UCC) and the "official controls" on the movement of animals and products of animal origin, automatically apply.

However, it is not just EU law that is the issue here. As a member of the WTO (along with its Member States), the EU is obliged to apply its border controls equally to all third countries, otherwise it falls foul of the "no-discrimination" rule. And, should it make concessions to the UK – as it is under pressure to in order to maintain an invisible border – it will come under huge press to grant similar concessions to its other trading partners.

It is this point that consistently escapes the understanding of British politicians. Any solution found for the Irish borders must be unique to Ireland, in such a way that it cannot be used as a precedent by the EU's other trading partners. It cannot be rolled into the general trading agreement with the UK or it becomes leverage for all the other countries which would like to see EU border controls reduced.

And here we see, at last, an intervention from the Freight Trade Association in Northern Ireland. During a hastily arranged visit to Northern Ireland by Brexit secretary David Davis, they have told him that the high tech "max-fac" proposal, which would include the use of tracking devices on lorries crossing the Irish border, would be "pointless".

Knowing when a lorry crossed the border would serve no purpose. "A haulier could lift a full trailer in Birmingham but it could contain 40 different consignments from 40 different producers. Then it comes to Northern Ireland and is broken down with mixed loads on different trucks going to different places, so a tracking device telling you the original truck had crossed a border doesn't tell you anything", says Seamus Lehany, head of the Freight Trade Association in Northern Ireland.

He also told Davis that "customs was only the tip of the iceberg and the biggest problem was sanitary and phytosanitary checks on agrifood. Twenty percent of meat has to be checked and 50 percent of chicken". In fact, every vehicle carrying foods of animal origin has to be presented to a Border Inspection Post for a documentation check, and the level of inspection of cargoes could be increased if suggested by a risk assessment.

Intriguingly, the FTA also pointed out that an invisible border raised the prospect of Northern Ireland becoming a smuggler's paradise for goods that were cheaper in the UK – exactly the reason for the checks to which Councillor, Henry Reilly drew our attention.

"If TVs are cheaper in the UK, for example, they can come over to Northern Ireland [and] next thing they are in Dublin and in no time at all in France. The EU won't tolerate that", says Lehany.

Preventing smuggling can be achieved by beyond the border measures, as we see currently, but that requires a high level of police and customs cooperation. But if the Swiss feel the need to use fixed customs posts at their borders, augmented by mobile patrols, the Irish on both sides of the land border will need to make an extremely robust case if the EU is to accept that the border can remain invisible.

And this leaves Paterson and Wilson in the land of the fayries. They invoke the Good Friday Agreement, asserting that its point "was to respect the border, and leave the choice about its future solely, democratically and peacefully to the people of Northern Ireland".

That can only apply as long as the line was an internal border between EU Member States. But once the UK leaves and it becomes part of the EU's external border, the full EU regime must apply unless the UK is prepared to accept that a "special status" must apply to Northern Ireland.

How the UK handles that is its business but the EU's stance does not in any way, as the pair assert, disrespect the Good Friday Agreement. Rather, as Alex Massie, in The Times writes, "Brexiteers are treating Ireland with contempt".

There is a perception widely felt in Ireland that there is a whiff of "Know your place, Paddy" to these complaints about the Irish, he says. "Forelocks are there for the tugging since the Irish are only a tiny people, after all, and a country as important as the United Kingdom cannot reasonably be expected to truckle to Dublin. On the contrary, it should be the other way round".

That Ireland, with the support of the EU, is calling the shots, and the UK is having to tailor its own plans to this reality, is not something with which the likes of Paterson and his ERG colleagues have come to terms.

Instead, we get the utterly moronic John Longworth arguing for the crash and burn WTO option, then suggesting that "we would leave the border in Ireland as it is now, soft and sensible".

He adds: "If the Republic of Ireland is fool enough to put a hard border on its side, that is its choice and it bears the consequences. Under WTO, Irish beef will have to compete at world prices. The Irish economy would be the loser, sadly and totally unnecessarily".

The Longworth view is that if the UK takes such a robust stance, "the chances are that the EU would come running for a quick Canada-style trade deal". And even if it didn't, he says, "it would still constitute a better outcome than the one we are currently heading for. There would be some short-term disruption but after that there would be a massive gain".

So, on the gamble that the EU would "come running" and that the disruption would only be limited, and "short-term", he would have us desert the negotiations and trust that things work out.

If this goes on, it would seem that trying for an invisible border will be the least of our problems.



Richard North 22/05/2018 link

Brexit: up the creek

21/05/2018  


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could almost wish that was true.



Richard North 21/05/2018 link

Brexit: betting the farm

20/05/2018  


It is instructive to see Tony Connelly revisit last December's Joint Report, produced by the UK and EU Commission negotiators.

In particular, he asserts, the text of Paragraph 49 is coming back to haunt us, the wording apparently committing the UK to maintaining "full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South Cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement".

Connelly has it that UK negotiators are now taking the text as meaning that the whole of the UK would align with the rules of the single market and customs union, precisely so that there would be no difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. And, as this sits on the table for the next round of talks, he argues that the implications are enormous.

The big problem with that, however, is that the text is inherently contradictory and, at the time, was never intended as a basis for serious negotiations. The report was merely a device to keep the EU-UK talks moving when, without some form of agreement, they would have collapsed.

Through roundabout reports sometime later, we got the backstory. Essentially, the "colleagues" were concerned that a breakdown would fatally weaken an already weak Mrs May, and perhaps precipitate a change of government, putting Corbyn in the hot seat. On the basis of preferring to work with "the devil you know", Mrs May was given a much-needed "victory" to keep her in office a little while longer.

With the ink not even dry on the Joint Report, we got from an official in the Department of Brexit – via the Irish Times - a savage qualification of what was being termed the "full alignment" Brexit pledge.

The commitment, we were told, applied only to the six areas of North-South economic co-operation identified in the Belfast Agreement. These are transport, agriculture, education, health, environment and tourism.

As opposed to 142 cross-border policy areas identified by Barnier's task force. The official claimed that these were merely subsets of the original six, and insisted that the commitment did not undermine Britain's declaration that it would leave the single market and the customs union.

"It's the six areas. The 142 are a deeper dive across those six areas. The ambition at the moment clearly is to get cross-border trading arrangements to maintain the status quo as much as we can", the official said, adding: "There are a very unique set of circumstances that apply to Ireland that don't apply to anywhere else in the UK. But in terms of customs union and single market membership, the UK as a whole will be leaving".

Nevertheless, the Joint Report paved the way for the Draft Agreement and the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

This offered a legal text which would give form to the Northern Ireland "backstop" which would come into force in the absence of a suitable proposal from the UK government. But, since Mrs May never had intention of adopting this solution, it had her rushing to the barricades declaring that "no British prime minister could ever agree" to it.

With the cabinet unable to agree an alternative, however, and with the proposal discussed already having been rejected by the Commission, this has created a fantasy island situation where the idea of staying in the customs union has been seriously discussed as part of a "third way" solution – even though it cannot make any practical contribution to the Irish border question.

Now, in an attempt to break the logjam and end the attendant uncertainty, later today during its annual dinner, CBI president Paul Drechsler is weighing in with what is styled as a "major speech", declaring that "the current Brexit impasse is a handbrake on our economy that can and must be released".

But so fixated with the non-solution is even the CBI that Drechsler is to "call on both sides" to focus on "a pragmatic decision for the UK to remain in a customs union, unless and until an alternative is ready and workable".

Firmly embedded in the fantasy island alongside the government, the CBI wants any solution to meet four customs tests. It should: maintain friction-free trade at the UK-EU border; ensure no extra burdens are incurred behind the border; guarantee there are no border barriers for Northern Ireland and; boost export growth with countries both inside and outside the EU.

However, doffing his cap in the approximate direction of reality, Drechsler will argue that even sorting out customs will only solve 40 percent of the problem. The other 60 percent, he states, "depends on securing a deep relationship with the single market with urgent attention needed to find a solution for services, which makes up 80 percent of our economy".

Where this 40-60 split comes from isn't disclosed and the idea of having a "deep relationship" with the single market harps back to the days of having our cake and eating it, where the May government was talking glibly of enjoying the benefits of the Single Market without being part of it – something Mr Corbyn is still doing.

At least, though, we're getting some sense that there is more to Brexit than just customs arrangements, something which Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar has been keen to emphasise. This refers back to last week's meeting with Mrs May in Bulgaria. We now learn that Mrs May offered a "verbal, conceptual" proposal on the UK staying within Europe's customs structure, but "no clear shape of how that would operate was presented". And. as always, Varadkar is saying: "We need details in black and white".

What the Irish prime minister also says is that, crucially, consideration for the Single Market that deals with standards and regulations, was missing from Mrs May's proposal. Varadkar was particularly concerned about the "large quantities of animal produce that criss-cross between the two jurisdictions every day".

"Any move on customs would be welcome", he says, "but I think I need to be very clear - that avoiding a hard Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is about more than customs".

This, he adds, he emphasised to Mrs May, giving her the same message, that resolving the issue of avoiding a hard Border requires more than customs. As to a customs deal, he states that, "if the UK is going to make a move in that space then it's something we're willing to examine, but we haven't seen anything yet, nothing in writing".

Despite that, he was unwilling to disclose exactly what the British prime minister had proposed, but he made clear it fell short of Irish objectives on the Border and would not work in a place of the "backstop".

The reluctance of Mrs May to offer any detail, though, has typified her whole approach to the negotiations. Long on rhetoric and generalities, she has never set out in detail what the UK expects of its negotiating partners – although we are now told to expect a White Paper in June, before the European Council.

For all that, one cannot avoid observing that, behind Mrs May's silence is a strong element of deliberation. She has had plenty of opportunities to set out the detail of what she wants, but has never taken advantage of them – other than to talk of the aspiration of a "deep and comprehensive" trading agreement with the EU after Brexit.

One wonders if her real strategy is to run the talks to the wire in the hope (or expectation) that the EU will cave in and give UK traders unrestricted access to Member State markets, with no political strings attached.

To say that this would be a high risk strategy is no exaggeration but, in the absence of anything else from Mrs May, it seems more and more likely that this is the game she is playing – relying on the oft' repeated Tory mantra that "they need us more then we need them".

Yet, even now we have run out of time when it comes to providing the infrastructure required to make a hard border work. Thus, if Mrs May is gambling on an EU cave-in, she is taking a huge risk because there is no fall back on which she can usefully rely.

Here, Mrs May might be wise to take note of the old adage about gambling: never stake more than you can afford to lose. Betting the farm on one wild spin of the wheel doesn't seem the brightest thing she can do.



Richard North 20/05/2018 link

Brexit: shaping up for the fight?

18/05/2018  


I've got to the stage now where I'm drastically limiting my access to UK media websites. I've completely stopped watching television news and current affairs output and I can't remember when I last listened to the radio. Even in the car, I prefer silence.

The atmosphere is akin to the leaden stillness just before a thunderstorm, when the heaviness of the air is stifling. Everything is on hold, waiting for the absurd political charade to end and the Brexit crisis to break.

And crisis there must be. We cannot continue like this, with the cabinet indulging in endless arguments about fantasy solutions to problems ministers scarcely seem to understand, against a backdrop of idiot politicians who's only contribution to the debate is to share their ignorance and add to the confusion, all egged on by the clamour of white noise from a media which has long demonstrated its almost total inability to report Brexit coherently.

Interestingly, I'm far from alone in deserting the media. Newspaper circulation figures just released present a picture of unremitting gloom, with all but one of the national titles showing a year-on-year decline.

Particularly prominent in the list is the Telegraph. For technical reasons it is showing a drop of 19 percent – nearly a fifth of its entire readership – bringing its average daily circulation to 377,159. This is a newspaper which, as recently as 2002, topped a million copies a day.

Its sister paper, The Sunday Telegraph, which in 1980 topped a million copies for each day sold, crawls in under the wire with a current average of 298,720, down nearly 18 percent on the year. And, although online figures are not published, even these are said to be declining.

It is a truism in the industry, however, that when the political temperature rises (as during general election campaigns), daily sales also rise. With Brexit verging on crisis, the temperature could hardly be higher. But, if people want information on the issue, they are not turning to the legacy media for it. And, if my attitude is any guide, a goodly number who visit their websites are only there to mock, or to remind themselves of how ghastly the coverage is.

That is not to say that the media are entirely useless, but mainly they act as a noticeboard, warning us of developments that need investigation. With stories showing up on a heavily customised Google News, the displayed links, augmented by Twitter and with the invaluable help of readers on this blog's comment facility, we are able to keep track of the ongoing saga, with a modicum of efficiency.

One thing is for certain, we would not have been able to perform as well without access to the Irish media which, despite its limitations, is streets ahead of its UK counterparts. Thus we have the Irish Times from yesterday warning us that patience is running out on the other side of the Irish Sea, with foreign minister Simon Coveney telling his fellow politicians that it would be far better to have a crisis next month, at the June European Council, rather than leave it to October for the big bust-up which, we all know, must come sooner or later.

Coveney, though, is actually striking an optimistic note, arguing that it would be better to address the issues of contention now, which would "give time for any damage to be repaired". On the face of that, it would seem that he still believes that the situation is reparable – something about which I would not be so sure.

That comment came ahead of a meeting between Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar and Theresa May at the margins of an EU western Balkans summit in Sofia, Bulgaria. The meeting, though, does not seem to have produced much for public consumption, other than a picture of stilted figures smiling for the camera (above).

The exact "take" on the meeting, however, rather depends on the media source from which you care to take your opinions. The Irish Post, for instance, offers the line that Leo Varadkar is warning that there is a "serious" chance that the UK will crash out of the EU without a Brexit deal.

This is the man being quoted before the meeting took place though. After the meeting, we have the village idiots' journal, the Express, wibbling about Mrs May giving Varadkar "fresh insight" into what it dignified with the title of "Britain's Brexit strategy".

Varadkar was treated to "new thinking" from British negotiators and the suggestion that they could even offer "new customs proposals" within the next two weeks. This allowed the paper to headline: "Varadkar hints May is ready to accept FULL ALIGNMENT to EU on customs".

A day before this fluff hit the web, we had Denis Staunton, London editor of the Irish Times offer his analysis, telling us that the internal debate (in Whitehall) over customs "bears little relation to existing negotiations with EU".

Much of his piece though attends to the sort of court gossip that journalists seem to find so fascinating, but which bores the average reader witless, contributing exactly nothing to our understanding of the issues.

For all that, Staunton does manage to point out the simple truth that seems to be evading the bulk of UK commenters – that "remaining in the customs union but leaving the single market will not allow for frictionless trade because border checks would still be required to deal with issues such as phytosanitary standards".

Here we have an interesting test. Very often, when a journalist is halfway there (beyond the stage of calling Spitfires "jet" fighters), but hasn't really mastered the subject, he will refer to "phytosanitary standards", not realising that the full group embraces the rather more clumsy "sanitary and phytosanitary standards", the one applying to animals and products of animal origin, the other to plants and products of plant origin.

For this, though, though Mr Staunton has an "elegant solution". He would have us extend the proposed backstop - which would allow Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union and parts of the single market after Brexit - to the whole of the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, we are told, Brussels "will resist such a move", on the basis that Northern Ireland is only being allowed to cherry-pick the single market because of its special circumstances. The UK as a whole would be expected to adopt the whole of the Single Market, or nothing.

All this depends, of course, on which bits of the Single Market is being considered, but even Staunton fails to understand that there is far more to the Single Market than simply regulatory alignment. But then, anyone who suggests that suggests, as he does, that the EU enjoys "seamless trade" with Switzerland, really hasn't got a grip. Denis has been in London too long. He needs to come home.

Despite that, if we stay in London (spiritually), one can hardly avoid bumping into the Guardian, which has Mrs May denying the claims made in yesterday's Telegraph that she is preparing for Britain to remain in the customs union after 2021. We are not climbing down, she says. The UK will be leaving the customs union, we are leaving the EU. Of course, she adds, "we will be negotiating future customs arrangements with the European Union".

But what really keeps the paper hard in the fray is a trenchant editorial. Like Varadkar – and so many of us – it is losing patience, remarking that there was a time, perhaps, when the government's ineptitude over Brexit was almost funny. But, it observes, there is nothing funny about it now. It continues:
For 15 months Theresa May has groped her way towards an approach that could reconcile her party's Europe-loathers with her party's Europe-pragmatists. All too predictably, none of her efforts have succeeded. Mrs May now has a month before the June European council at which the UK and the EU are due to review progress. She has five months before some kind of deal is struck. Progress? Deal? These words have lost all meaning. Getting two pandas to mate in captivity turns out to be a cinch compared with getting the Conservative party to agree what it wants.
Lefty rhetoric aside, the tone of this piece is getting perilously close to real journalism – not at all what we expect from the legacy media. But then, if one ignores the entire Guardian commentariat, we might have to concede that, occasionally, the paper stumbles on old-fashioned journalistic values, even if it is only as a last resort.

It's current offering is enough to underscore what has been blindingly obvious for some long time – that Brexit has become so much of a plaything between warring Tory tribes, that the protagonists have completely lost their (always slender) grip on reality, and have launched into stratospheric fantasy. Having exceeded escape velocity, there is no certainty that they can ever get back down to earth.

The same, however, goes for the media. Shorn of the high-flown headline rhetoric, The Times report of the Varadkar-May meeting differs little in substance to that of the Express. Supposedly, a "breakthough" is in the air.

Giving the game away, though, Varadkar says of May's "new thinking", "We haven't been able to get any detail". Clearly, May is no Thatcher, a prime minister who was always conscious of the fact that the devil was in the detail. And it is the detail in Brexit that we have always lacked.

Without this detail, we have nowhere to go. There is nothing yet to relieve that leaden feeling of an overcharged atmosphere. But when the fight finally comes, it will be a relief.



Richard North 18/05/2018 link

Brexit: not even at the starting gate

17/05/2018  


The purpose of the current Brexit talks being conducted within the Cabinet are, we are told, mainly concerned with how the UK is to avoid a "hard" border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

So far, the entirely fruitless discussions have been focused on two options, the so-called "customs partnership" and the "maximum facilitation" plan, neither of which would secure free movement of goods across the border, or be acceptable to Brussels.

But, in her desperation to avoid the "backstop", which would inevitably involve a "wet" border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, it seems Mrs May has come up with a stunning "third way" alternative.

In order to keep the goods flowing, the prime minister - we are told - is ready to tell Brussels that the UK is prepared to stay in the customs union beyond 2021.

By such means, the UK will stay aligned to the customs union, to allow the "highly complex technology needed to operate borders after Brexit" to be procured and installed, processes which are said to take until 2023 to complete.

What is absolutely staggering here – if the report is correct – is the belief that continued membership of the customs union will in any way facilitate the free movement of goods across the Irish border and thereby avoid the need to set up a "hard" border.

This appears to rest on the continued perpetration of error of confusing the "customs union" with "customs cooperation ", two entirely separate concepts which rest for their authority on distinct parts of the Treaty of the European Union (Chapters 1 & 2, respectively, of Title II).

Confirmation that this error is at the heart of this initiative would seem to rest with Telegraph claiming that remaining in a customs union would keep the whole of the UK within the EU "customs territory" for a temporary period, avoiding Northern Ireland being under a separate regime.

This in itself is a mistake. For a start, the European Union itself is based upon a customs union. That much is written into the treaty, so the only way the UK can remain in the customs union is to stay in the EU. In fact, the UK will leave the EU on 29 March 2019 and, in so doing, will leave the customs union.

Thus, what is actually meant is that the UK will adopt all the regulations pertaining to the customs union, but without actually being in it. But this is largely what the UK has said it intended to do through what was originally known as the Great Repeal Bill.

As to the "customs territory", this is not defined by the customs union, per se. Rather, this is defined by Regulation (EU) No 952/2013 (Article 4) - the Union Customs Code Regulation. As a formally defined area, this embraces much more than just the customs union – it also takes in the internal market.

As such, the "customs territory" does not define the customs union, any more than the customs union defines the customs territory. It actually defines the area to which the Union Customs Code (UCC) applies. That is the common administrative code which defines customs procedures applicable to the Union as a whole, administering the application of the customs union and the import and export of goods to and from the internal market.

Thus, for the UK to remain within the customs territory, the EU would have to amend or extend the application of Regulation 952/2013 (and all the related regulations) to ensure continuity of application. But, the UK would no longer be in the EU and therefore outside its jurisdiction. One can only imagine therefore, that the provisions would be carried through in the formal Withdrawal Agreement.

If this looks complicated, that's because it is. One has to recall that no country has ever left the EU under the Article 50 process so everything is being tried out for the first time. And there will be plenty of work here for the lawyers to define the precise legal structures. Even then, that will not necessarily guarantee that they will withstand scrutiny if the ECJ comes calling.

The upshot of all this though is that the best we can get from the application of customs union rules, and the relevant parts of the UCC, is that we will have a tariff-free border, with no rules of origin (ROO). But that in no way ensures free movement of goods. As we know, that only comes with full participation in the Single Market, requiring regulatory alignment and much else.

In other words, conformity with customs union rules do not solve the "hard" border problem. We need much, much more.

Right up front is our old friend, conformity assessment. When we drop out of the EU, none of our Notified Bodies will be recognised and any goods requiring third party testing will no longer have valid certification.

Unless by the time we leave, there are Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRA) on conformity assessment in place, any goods requiring third party certification will require re-testing before they are permitted to circulate freely within the Single Market.

There is no point in asserting that this testing can be done "beyond the border". In the immediate aftermath of Brexit day, Union customs officials will need to be in their guard for a torrent of goods which previously was entitled to free passage and will then be prohibited access until complex formalities have been complied with.

Not only will this include the general range of manufactured goods, but also chemicals, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, vehicles and their components, aircraft and their components, and much else. Even waste which we export to some EU countries for treatment or recycling will be caught in the net.

This will necessarily mean an enhanced level of document scrutiny, a massive rise in load inspections and huge quantities of goods detained for testing and certification. All of this is untouched by customs union provisions, as are the sanitary and phytosanitary checks, which must be carried out in approved facilities which, at present, do not exist.

Where Mrs May thinks she is going with this, therefore, is beyond understanding. Nothing on the table, now or previously, addresses the "hard" border issue.

Yet, perversely, if Mrs May took the time out to look at the EEA Agreement, she would see that Article 10 makes provision for the prohibition of "customs duties on imports and exports, and any charges having equivalent effect" – exactly what be achieved through application of customs union rules.

With the adoption of the EU's WTO schedules of tariffs, and continuity arrangements on third country trade agreements, that has the effect of maintaining the common external tariff, while we are only limited on making deals with other countries of we adopt the common commercial policy (which is not part of the customs union.

If ROO issues arise, there is provision for dealing with these in the 34-page Protocol 4 of the EEA Agreement, which could be amended to suit specific UK requirements.

Customs cooperation is arranged through Protocol 10 and Protocol 11 of the EEA Agreement, and conformity assessment is dealt with in Protocol 12.

Together with the Annexes, and especially Annex I on veterinary and phytosanitary matters, there is in the EEA Agreement much of what is needed to ensure free movement of goods. Add to that your "maximum facilitation" and you have the makings of a plan which would give us an invisible border.

And in all that, the customs union is a complete irrelevance. If Mrs May genuinely thinks that adopting customs union rules is going to get her out of the hole she has dug for herself, then she has reached the nadir of comprehension. In all her period in office, she has learned nothing and knows nothing.

We are not even at the starting gate.



Richard North 17/05/2018 link
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