Brexit: uncommon ground


The one thing Mrs May has managed to do with her speech – with not a milkshake in sight – is to demonstrate beyond peradventure the irrelevance of the Euro-elections.

Initially, I thought she would hold off until the election results had been declared, presenting her agenda by way of damage limitation. The current timing, however, puts the Withdrawal Agreement back on the agenda with a vengeance and reminds us of what is really important.

That said, the speech doesn't seem to have done Mrs May an awful lot of good. To judge from the general reaction, MPs aren't buying it. And that means she's no further forward with her plans to get parliamentary approval for the Withdrawal Agreement.

One major sticking point seems to be what appears to be a commitment to a "second" referendum by including in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) a requirement to vote on whether to hold one. As the Bill will stand, the vote must take place before the Withdrawal Agreement can be ratified.

Here, it then gets a little bit confusing. As I understood it, the vote on the WAB was being used as a proxy for ratification of the withdrawal deal. But Mrs May goes on to say that those MPs who want a second referendum to confirm the deal "need a deal and therefore a Withdrawal Agreement Bill to make it happen".

On this basis, Mrs May then asks these MPs to let the Bill have its Second Reading. Then, she says, "make your case to Parliament".

There is something there, though, that doesn't quite make sense. Reading it literally, Mrs May seems to be saying to MPs that if you want a referendum to ratify the deal, you must first ratify the deal – and then you get a chance to argue in parliament for a referendum.

Questioning after the speech didn't seem to clarify matters much. Asked whether she was making a "commitment" to a referendum, Mrs May managed to evade the question altogether. We were none the wiser.

At least, though, there is to be a statement in parliament today, and the WAB is to be published in the next few days. By then, one hopes, the mystery will be cleared up – or not. When Mrs May starts talking with the words "let me be clear", just about anything can happen.

Anyway, pending clarification, much of the legacy media is taking it that Mrs May is offering a "confirmatory referendum". This, according to the Telegraph has "provoked fury", and calls for her to resign "immediately" in what is being branded a "sellout" attempt to save her Brexit deal.

Tory Eurosceptics are describing the offer as "outrageous" and more than 50 are said to be prepared to vote against it. Among them were at least twenty who had previously backed the deal, including the Oaf and Dominic Raab, potential leadership candidates.

Brexiteer cabinet ministers are expected to urge Mrs May to abandon what they describe as a "doomed and irresponsible" last throw of the dice. They want, or so it is claimed, the prime minister to allow her successor to find a way through the impasse.

Such responses are enough to have many of the pundits declaring that Mrs May's bold "new deal" is already dead in the water, before even her ten points are put formally to parliament. But, in fact, if it wasn't the referendum, opposition to many of the others could be enough to torpedo the package.

For a start, Mrs May in her summary of the points, is dwelling in unicorn territory, pledging that the government will "seek to conclude" Alternative Arrangements to replace the infamous Irish backstop by December 2020, so that it never needs to be used.

But, as her second point, she asserts that, should the backstop come into force, the Government will ensure that Great Britain will stay aligned with Northern Ireland – effectively meaning that we stay aligned to the customs union and the Single Market.

Third, she says that the negotiating objectives and final treaties for our future relationship with the EU will have to be approved by MPs, the latter being a statutory requirement anyway, so it is hardly a concession.

As a sop to Labour MPs, her fourth point covers a new Workers' Rights Bill that guarantees rights no less favourable than those workers enjoy in the EU. Five has it that there will be no change in the level of environmental protection when we leave the EU- which presumably also includes commitments on climate change.

Her sixth point is undoubtedly contentious as she pledges that the UK "will seek as close to frictionless trade in goods with the EU as possible" while outside the Single Market and ending free movement. This can be roughly translated as doing everything possible to ensure frictionless trade, short of doing anything that will actually secure frictionless trade – with nothing said about the upkeep of the regulatory ecosystem.

There is a hint of this, though, in point seven , where Mrs May says we will "keep up to date with EU rules for goods and agri-food products that are relevant to checks at border", thus "protecting the thousands of jobs that depend on just-in-time supply chains".

For her eighth point, we learn that the government will bring forward a customs compromise for MPs to decide on to break the deadlock. This will be at the next election – precisely the compromise that Mr Corbyn has already rejected.

Ninth in her summary confirms that there will be a vote for MPs on whether the deal should be subject to a referendum and, to finish up, there will be a legal duty to secure changes to the political declaration to reflect her new deal. By this means, a declaration that is binding on neither party under international law, becomes binding on one party – the UK – before the negotiations start. This hardly seems the best way of proceeding.

Whether good or bad, by whatever measure you care to choose, the "new deal" clearly isn't a game changer. Says the Guardian, MPs across the House of Commons were unpersuaded by the proposals and, by yesterday evening not a single MP who opposed the deal last time had come out to support it.

Corbyn then put the boot in, saying: " We won't back a repackaged version of the same old deal – and it's clear that this weak and disintegrating government is unable deliver on its own commitments".

Nevertheless, Mrs May didn't come entirely unprepared for rejection. Inside that smooth, soft glove was a rather rusty old cast-iron fist, as she warned MPs of the consequences of voting against the Second Reading of the WAB. They would be voting to stop Brexit, she declared.

And although some suggest leaving without a deal, Mrs May noted that parliament "has been clear it will do all it can to stop it", herself stopping short of conceding that parliament can actually stop it – which it can't. But, if there is no deal, says Mrs May, "then it would have to be a general election or a second referendum that could lead to revocation – and no Brexit at all".

That rather begs the question of what will happen if there is a no-deal Brexit. Would we go without a general election, especially as the prime minister believes it would not be in the national interest? We would certainly have no referendum and a revocation could hardly be possible.

Despite all this, MPs are hardly in a mood to listen. David Jones, former Brexit minister has told the Telegraph, "I have been an MP for 14 years and I have never seen such anger among colleagues. She is desperate, she is deluded and she is doomed". Those "three Ds" now grace the front page of the comic.

What none of those airing their indignation may have realised though was that yesterday's speech was only partially addressed to MPs. She concluded it by saying to "every MP of every party", "I have compromised. Now I ask you to compromise too", but the next sentences were directed at the electorate.

"We have been given a clear instruction by the people we are supposed to represent", she said, adding: "So help me find a way to honour that instruction, move our country and our politics forward, and build the better future that all of us want to see". 

The barb "supposed" is interesting, and marks out the tenor of her comments. She is attempting to position herself on the side of the people, putting parliament in the frame for any failure to deliver Brexit. This will probably not work – completely. But it could do damage. Mrs May is certainly going down, but it looks as if she is intent on taking parliament with her.

Richard North 22/05/2019 link

Brexit: big and bold


Just to keep us on our toes, the prime minister has promised a "new bold offer" in a bid to persuade MPs to back her deal. This, she says, will be an "improved", washes whiter "package of measures", which she believes can win new support in parliament.

Mrs May's initiative is something of a contrast to her lacklustre launch of the Tory Euro-election campaign – a speech without an audience attended by a single pool journalist (pictured).

We will now see some "sweeteners" included in the forthcoming Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB), with the aim of securing cross-party support. These, if we are to believe what we are told, will include the bones of the May/Corbyn deal, including new measures on protecting worker rights.

There may also be provisions for a future "customs arrangement" with the EU and on Northern Ireland – whatever that means. Supposedly, this will include the use of technology, although this will fall short of removing the backstop. Nothing immediate is proposed but its inclusion is supposed to give confidence that the "alternative arrangements" will be deployed in due course.

At the moment, the promise is accompanied only by a series of anodyne statements from the prime minister, who says: "I still believe there is a majority in parliament to be won for leaving with a deal". She adds: "When the Withdrawal Agreement Bill comes before MPs, it will represent a new, bold offer to MPs across the House of Commons, with an improved package of measures that I believe can win new support".

Whatever the outcome of any votes, she says, "I will not be simply asking MPs to think again. Instead I will ask them to look at a new and improved deal with fresh pairs of eyes - and to give it their support". We will get more of this from the prime minister in a major speech before the end of the month, presumably as part of the damage limitation after the Euro-election results are in.

Once again, therefore, one has to give Mrs May full marks for persistence. Against all the odds, she is still trying to get this deal sorted, giving he something to barter when she meets Graham Brady to agree a timetable to elect her successor as party leader and prime minister.

As to the actual odds, one gets a sense of the hurdles facing Mrs May from what must qualify as quote of the week. This comes from Nigel Evans, executive secretary of the 1922 Committee, who says: "You can watch the movie Titanic a hundred times, but I'm afraid the ship sinks every time". He thinks that an increasing number of Tory MPs – even those who voted for it a second or third time – are saying "enough is enough". And if this was not enough, shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, is also doubtful that a fresh attempt would succeed.

Before we get there, of course, there is that minor detail of the Euro-elections. And if developments are not bad enough, we also have to suffer the Tory grandees coming out of the woodwork to lecture anyone within hailing distance.

As always, these are the usual suspects, John Major and Lord Heseltine. They are to demand an end to the "virus of extremism", calling for a "return to the centre ground".

It says something of these people that they actually believe that their intervention will have any effect on the event of the Thursday to come, even with Heseltine "revealing" that for the first time in an election he will not vote Conservative.

Instead, this former Tory minister and arch Europhile is to vote for the Lib-Dems, custodians of the "Bollocks to Brexit" message that has done so much to improve the standard of political discourse.

Not exactly a fan of Brexit, he dismisses his own party as "myopically focused on forcing through the biggest act of economic self-harm ever undertaken by a democratic government". According to Heseltine, the Conservative Party is infected by a virus and risks descending "deeper into darkness".

Major's input is just about as vacuous, stressing that the need for an inclusive Tory party is "greater than ever". He warns that: "the middle ground of politics is empty". His "One Nation Conservatism" gave him a home in politics and "made it possible for me to move from rented rooms in Brixton to a life which, as a boy, I could have only ever imagined".

If that's the best the grandees have to offer, they might just as well have kept their own counsel. The march of the Farage party continues unchecked, maintaining its lead in the polls, with the Tories languishing in fourth place. But the most significant development here is the Lib-Dems creeping up on Labour, having overtaken the Tories.

Some small compensation nevertheless comes with a survey by Gallup International, which finds that 43 percent of UK citizens believe Brexit is "a good thing" for the country, compared to 40 percent who think the opposite.

Looking at the run of polls, this may be an outlier, and it is not having any effect on a 60-strong group of Tories calling themselves the "One Nation Caucus". Led by Amber Rudd and Damian Green, and backed by eight pro-EU Cabinet ministers, they are launching a bid to block leadership candidates backing a no-deal Brexit.

Adopting rhetoric not dissimilar to the Tory grandees, they are urging MPs to reject "narrow nationalism" and the "comfort blanket of populism". Tomorrow, they are preparing to issue a "declaration of values" before going on to hold hustings to interrogate would-be successors to Theresa May.

Seriously on the ball, the document they are producing is designed as a draft manifesto for the next Conservative leader. It will state that the "climate change emergency" should be given a comparable level of attention and urgency as counter-terrorism, to help draw support from younger voters.

Taking on the Oaf and second-runner, Dominic Raab, this group is aiming to "stop any leadership candidate who endorses a 'Nigel Farage no-deal Brexit'". However grandiose their language, there is a possibility there that they will be able to massage the voting to prevent either candidate's name being put in front of the wider membership.

But, while the immediate agenda will be dominated by the forthcoming Euro-elections, we can look forward to a small dose of reality from Chancellor Philip Hammond, who is to address the CBI this week. A preview of his speech tells us that he will warn of the "ideology of easy answers that is spreading" and criticise potential leadership candidates for making promises of spending and tax cuts that they cannot keep.

"Easy answers", of course, are just what the feeble minds are looking for, and nothing Hammond or anyone else says will make a difference, with so much of the nation in thrall of what amounts to a psychic epidemic. That very much takes in the enthusiasm in some quarters for a "no deal" outcome.

For all that though, things aren't so very different from the Euro-elections of 2014. While Farage is currently polling around 34 percent, back then a poll in early May recorded him on 29 percent.

The big difference between then and now is the collapse of the vote for the two main parties. In 2014, Labour recorded 26 percent, as opposed to its current showing of 15 percent, while the Tories got 23 percent against the nine percent they are polling at the moment. By contrast, the Lib-Dems got ten percent while they are currently polling 17 percent.

Then, as probably now, the YouGov poll suggested that while Tory and Labour supporters were backing Farage for the Euros, "they would switch back at the general election next year". Potentially, with three years to go for the next general election, the rhetoric about Farage sweeping all before him is somewhat overheated. A lot can happen in that period.

Yet, no one can possibly predict the degree to which the party system will continue to deteriorate. That is the new factor in the mix, where the public are losing faith in traditional politics to a degree that does not seem to have any obvious historical parallels in the UK.

It'll take something much more than Mrs May's "big and bold" initiative to restore the equilibrium, and it is doubtful whether a new prime minister will make much difference. For the record, in 2014, 34 percent believed Cameron to be best suited to be prime minister, 19 points ahead of Miliband on 15 percent with Farage on five percent and Nick Clegg on three.

But this was a time when Cameron had made his commitment to a referendum on Europe, declaring that the British people deserved "one last go" to get a Europe that suited them. He had dismissed Ukip's "throw in the towel" approach, instead insisting that he would be able to renegotiate a better deal with Brussels before putting it to a public vote before the end of 2017.

From "better deal" to "no deal", how bold can you get?

Richard North 19/05/2019 link

Brexit: baggage of the past


Those who watched the "clash" between Iain Duncan Smith and Pascal Lamy on the BBC's Politics Live show yesterday may have been suitably entertained by the dramatics. But those of us who cannot bear to expend their life energy on such mind-numbing activities, there was always the media report to give us the gist of what happened.

In a nutshell, Duncan Smith made his usual facile comments about "alternative arrangements" for the Irish border, while Lamy attacked them as "pie in the sky". But, to emphasise the point, the former director general of the WTO indulged in eye-rolling and other "extravagant" gestures, to the delight of the pundits, turning just another boring encounter into a small piece of theatre.

Gone are the days when anyone is seriously attempting to argue the issues. Each side has its fixed positions, superglued into place with no more chance of movement than an "Extinction Rebellion" protester when asked nicely by a Metropolitan Police constable.

The outcome is that there were those who applauded Duncan Smith and those who applauded Lamy. Even if anyone changed their minds as a result of the encounter, it wouldn't have made any difference. Brexit now relies for its immediate resolution on some Faustian deal between the Tories and Labour, while rationality takes a back seat.

Meanwhile, I was intrigued to see a blogpost from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), written by Dalibor Rohac, a researcher and writer on European politics, and a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs. He has also been associated with the Legatum Institute.

Rohac's current thesis is that it is "time to call Brexit off", a conclusion at which he purportedly arrives from the "sheer dysfunction" into which the result of the 2016 referendum has thrown British politics. The current delay until the end of October, he writes, is an opportunity for the British political class to take a deep breath and call Brexit off.

This might be more convincing if the thesis represented a Damascene conversion on the part of the man, but Rohac is a long-time supporter of UK membership of the EU. In May 2016, he had published a book entitled, "Towards an Imperfect Union: A Conservative Case for the EU". This, we were told, represented "the first systematic attempt to justify the European project from a free-market, conservative viewpoint".

Instead of advocating for the end of the EU, Rohac argued that (British) conservatives must come to the rescue of the integration project by helping to reduce the EU's democratic deficit and turning it into an engine of economic dynamism and prosperity.

At £49.95 a pop, this has not exactly been a best-seller and it is "temporarily out of stock" on Amazon, so one wonders why Rohac should now be popping up with his talk of abandoning Brexit.

With the Republican-supporting AEI having previously entertained a succession of pro-Brexit Tories from the UK, and been part of a group plotting a new trade deal between the US and the UK, it is not clear whether he is an outlier or a straw in the wind.

It is interesting, though, to see Rohac arguing that, if the promise of a "Global Britain" sounded vaguely plausible in the spring of 2016, it is much less so today.

Instead of a generally benign international environment where the UK could perhaps find a degree of goodwill to strike free-trade agreements with countries around the globe, he asserts, the UK would now find itself in the midst of a series of trade wars.

Notwithstanding his promise of a US-UK trade deal, Rohac maintains that Donald Trump has displayed little patience with the niceties of the WTO-run trading system based on the principle of non-discrimination. Not only the oft-invoked "WTO option" tends to be misunderstood and misrepresented by Leavers, it may well be dead by the time the UK leaves the EU.

On such grounds, Rodac asserts that this is not the time for the UK to erect new trade barriers with its closest trading partners, friends, and allies. In his view, it is precisely because the global centre of gravity, both in terms of wealth and power, is shifting away from the European continent that Europeans need to stick together.

Doubtless, the American political establishment – which has never really understood EU politics, and still less the UK Eurosceptic movement – is as puzzled as the rest of us as to why the Brexit process has so comprehensively unravelled.

But if this represents a rethink on the American right – especially in the context of Rodac's comments on trade - then we could be in for some interesting times. It is, after all, the AEI which was one of the main supporters of a new deal between the UK and the US.

If there is a wind of change, it might not even be too far-fetched to assert that the Americans could be taking fright at one of Nigel Farage's new friends. Certainly, the recruitment of the "former Communist" Claire Fox must have raised some eyebrows – especially as there is a school of thought which would question the "former" appellation: once a Communist, always a Communist.

David Aaronovitch, in The Times recently drew some of the threads together, writing of "The shadowy past of Farage's motley crew", reminding us of Fox's affiliation with the militant Trotskyist organisation called the International Socialists (IS), with Frank Furedi and the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP).

When the RCP was formally disbanded, there emerged the magazine Living Marxism which, after it was closed following a libel suit, Furedi followers founded two main ventures, the Institute of Ideas, of which Claire Fox is the main public figure, and the internet comment site, Spiked Online, of which Brendan O'Neill is the editor.

Says Aaronovitch, "the important thing to know here is that the main people at Spiked and the Institute operate in political synchrony. They are, in effect, a political party led by Professor Furedi, but one without formal structures. So when Ms Fox declared as a candidate for the Brexit Party, Spiked Online and all its acolytes took to their various outlets to back the party".

The support of O'Neill and Spiked Online for Irish Republicanism has been well documented, as is their refusal to condemn terrorist activity and their opposition to the Good Friday Agreement.

Now, moving on from the Irish Freedom Movement (IFM), "a British-based solidarity campaign in support of Irish unity and against the low-intensity war that the British state was then waging in Northern Ireland", to becoming enthusiastic supporters of a no-deal Brexit, Spiked and its editor have enjoyed extensive media coverage, finding common cause with Farage without in any way distancing themselves from their Communist past and their connections with Irish Republicanism.

Spiked Online, incidentally, is the publication that, in 2009, carried a retrospective on the Brighton bombing which had taken place 25 years earlier. It described the attack as a "forceful and audacious protest about the Thatcher government's ruthless treatment of the republican hunger-strikers".

The author, Mick Hume – editor-at-large of Spiked at the time - after having lamented the lack of passion in the Blair era, concluded the piece with this heartfelt call: "Twenty-five years after that bomb blew the sleepy Tories out of their hotel in Brighton, where are the explosive politics that could blow our society out of its sloth?"

These are the people whom Farage is now pleased to stand alongside, arguing at the launch of his Brexit Party that it was time to "put the fear of God" into MPs. And, while one could always make a case for keeping MPs in a state of unease, it is perhaps indicative that one of the most enthusiastic defenders of this controversial comment was Spiked Online, the piece written by Brendan O'Neill.

Farage might thus find that while it is possible to take the politician of out the Ukip, it is not as easy taking the Ukip out of the politician. Having strutted his stuff on Clacton pier, revisiting past glories, he might reflect that Communists also come with an amount of baggage.

Richard North 30/04/2019 link

Brexit: of elephants and straws


One of the moves of great genius perpetrated by the European Union is the adoption of Value Added Tax (VAT), a system so flawed that it has proved an absolute boon to criminals, costing the economies of EU Member States, over time, hundreds of billions of euros.

VAT fraud is so prevalent that it is estimated that over €150 billion is lost annually, with €50 billion attributable to cross-border fraud – an occupation so lucrative that it has spawned its own vocabulary.

The variant at the top of the current top-ten list is known as Missing Trader Intra-Community (MTIC) fraud. Last year, helpfully, Jari Liukku - a Europol official - told us that, "MTIC Fraud remains one of the most significant transnational frauds targeting all Member States".

Liukku went on to tell us that "staggering sums of money are being taken directly from the citizens of the European Union by organised crime groups", with the inevitable consequence that they are "depriving us all of essential services and infrastructure such as security, health, education or justice".

This is real money that is stolen: MTIC fraud is not a victimless crime. And, to deal with what is by definition an international cross-border offence, requires a coordinated approach between Member State police services, customs administrations and tax authorities. Nevertheless, says Liukku, "despite the various efforts made, the threat of MTIC fraud remains significant".

And of all the groups anticipating Brexit – and especially a no-deal Brexit - there are probably none more enthusiastic than VAT fraudsters, who stand to benefit by the breakdown of cross-border cooperation, to the tune of billions, to add to riches already acquired. Nor, by any means is this just a problem for the EU. The UK is likely to be particularly vulnerable, with the Irish border playing a star role.

Imagine if you will, a UK trading company in this brave new, post-Brexit world, at the start of an interesting adventure. It decides to import into the UK from the Far-East a container-load of consumer goods, with a landed value (known as the cost, insurance, and freight (CIF) price) of – for the purposes of this example - £200,000.

Let us assume (for convenience's sake) that there are no tariffs to pay. On entry to the country, though, there will still be a VAT liability, at 20 percent. At some time, therefore, the trading company will have to pay £40,000 – which it can then recover from its own customers.

This goes all the way down the line with the final customers copping the bill. And, if with profit margins and other add-ons, the final price of the consignment has risen to £400,000 (net of VAT), the tax man is going to get a neat £80,000.

In this case, though, the trading company has decided to re-export these goods to the Republic of Ireland. Assuming there are transit agreements in place, that means the sealed container can pass through the British port without the goods attracting any VAT liability. That liability will only be incurred by the Irish importer, once the goods have crossed the border into the Republic.

However, when it comes to this particular consignment, the truck carrying the goods makes an "unscheduled" stop in a discreet location, where the contents are removed. These may later be re-exported, having acquired a different identity, or sold on VAT-free on the UK market, through multiple outlets in the black and grey economies, so defrauding the revenue.

In this example, the container will be left empty and the truck will continue its journey, arriving in Northern Ireland via the Belfast ferry. It will then cross the land border into the Republic and, for the purposes of this adventure, "disappear".

Given that the UK decides to honour its GFA obligations and allow free passage across its border without checks, fraudsters will be able to rely on their trucks crossing into the Republic unmolested. They may be picked up by cameras as they travel south, and will be seen – as expected – crossing the border, out of UK jurisdiction.

Should such events have occurred before Brexit, the Irish tax authorities would have been notified of the transit of these goods, from the British port to the Republic. At some point, they will be expected to appear on the Irish system, attracting a VAT liability, data which will be forwarded to the UK authorities.

If, as in this case, goods haven't been physically transported to Ireland and remain in England, the missing consignment will raise red flags in the system. The authorities will start investigations which, in the fullness of time, might lead to fraud being detected.

Even then, the system is under extraordinary stress, and the UK has a patchy record for detecting fraud. In March 2017, a major fraud was highlighted by the EU's anti-fraud office, Olaf, where HMRC had displayed what was claimed to be "continuous negligence" in the handling of Chinese textile and shoe imports. The UK may end up having to pay €2.7 billion back to the EU, to compensate for loss of revenue.

And if this happened while we were in the EU, the system will be even more stretched in a post-Brexit world. Here, the UK will no longer be part of the EU's VAT system, and neither will it be a full participant in the EU's data-sharing networks. In the Irish situation, once consignments cross the border into the Republic, they will be "lost" to the UK authorities, and no further information as to their treatment can be expected as of right.

Yet, the scenario discussed in this article is only the most basic type of fraud, illustrating only the most general of dynamics. More usually, there are multiple layers of complexity. Then, opportunities multiply exponentially once you start factoring in the cross-border VAT rebate system. Perpetrators are highly sophisticated: they  work through networks of shell companies, across several borders, with the proceeds laundered in many different ways so as to avoid attention and evade the normal safeguards. 

After Brexit, for the UK even to begin to deal with this sort of crime, one of two things has to happen. The most effective and least obtrusive will be a comprehensive agreement with the EU – of which the Republic of Ireland will remain part – on VAT and data sharing. The aim will be to ensure that the cross-border VAT system runs much as it does today.

At this point, one has to observe that the EU has not entered into this type of agreement with any other third country – not even the Efta States. Nor will it as long as they lie outside the direct jurisdiction of the Commission and the ECJ. And that is why – in part – there are still checks on the border between Norway and Sweden, and on the Swiss border with EU Member States.

There lies the crucial issue. It is all very well talking about technological systems for monitoring traffic across the Irish (or any) border but, for these systems to work, there has to be perfect cooperation between the authorities on each side of the border, with harmonised systems and free sharing of data. And all this ceases to happen after Brexit, unless there are very serious, unprecedented cooperation agreements – which are unlikely ever to be agreed (at least in the short- to medium-term).

That, inevitably, will require us to adopt the second option: "Plan B". To detect and deter fraud, a high level of physical intervention will be essential. There is absolutely no getting around this - a requirement for a hard border, with trucks being stopped, paperwork checked and loads examined.

The theory that this can all be dealt with by remote monitoring and paperwork audits – the basis of "Max Fac" - is absurd. These sort of systems work on the assumption that traders are honest, and that there is a high level of cross-border cooperation.

But there will not be seamless cooperation and a proportion of traders are devious, and highly skilled criminals. With the riches at stake, they have become an extraordinarily sophisticated element within organised crime – an industry with the highest growth rate in the world. Without intensive border checks, the UK doesn't have a chance.

The same will also go for the EU Member States. Once the UK drops out of the EU's formal VAT system, it potentially becomes a back-door into the Union, with endless opportunities for sophisticated fraud. It would be naïve, therefore, to expect EU Member States to operate soft borders with the UK. Even if they tried, the European Commission would quickly step in and require the imposition of controls.

Largely, though, the entire VAT issue has become something of an "elephant in the room" in the Brexit debate. One only sees sporadic articles in the legacy media, and a smattering in the specialist press. The government has been suspiciously quiet, and largely uninformative, while the "ultra" MPs of the ERG remain firmly embedded in la-la land.

One has to remember, though, that the borders with the EU are multi-faceted. They are customs borders, they are borders between regulatory areas, and they are also tax borders. Even if we come to an agreement on tariffs with the EU, that does not in any way assure frictionless trade if we have a hard tax border, with the issue of VAT unresolved.

The single ray of hope in all this is that the EU has much to lose from the UK dropping out of the VAT system, so it may well be disposed to discussing cooperative arrangements. But, with the best will in the world, the very complexity means that negotiations will take time, and may well require uncomfortable concessions from the UK.

The degree to which the EU will accept continued UK participation in the system may also depend on the nature of the broader relationship. An Efta/EEA member will doubtless be afforded more concessions than if the UK was simply seeking a free trade agreement. But, to make things work, we need to go further than any Efta State has managed.

From an elephant in the room, VAT could be transformed into a straw that breaks a camel's back.

Richard North 20/04/2019 link

Brexit: deals within deals


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard North 16/04/2019 link

Brexit: abandoning ship?


Any hope that the political-media nexus will take advantage of the six-month reprieve and actually focus of the technical issues of Brexit is fast dissipating. Media attention, evidently with the enthusiastic support of the politicians, is focused almost entirely on elections and leadership challenges, while the public seems to be retreating from the issue at warp speed.

The public response hardly seems surprising. The term "groundhog day" seems too weak a description for what is happening in a debate where we seem to be going round in circles. No issue ever seems to be settled and no claim is so crass that its advocates cannot repeat it, ad nauseum at every opportunity, no matter how many times it has been rebutted.

A classic example of this "cracked record" phenomenon came in Saturday's Telegraph, effectively pushing Sajid Javid's plan for a "digital border", which is said to be able to dispense with the Irish backstop.

In the narrative offered by the newspaper, the doughty home secretary commissioned his Border Force officials to work up a plan using Swiss-style technology to manage trade and tariffs and so avoid a hard border in Ireland. But, when the work was submitted to HMRC, allies of Mr Javid claimed, officials were "incredibly dismissive of it and were not interested".

It turns out that this is another resuscitation of the failed "Max Fac" idea, the so-called "zombie plan" – reflecting the number of times it has been put down, yet still rises from the dead. That it has been rejected by the grown-ups is hardly surprising. No other country in the world has managed to develop a technological solution to its border management, which avoids the need for checks at the border.

However, no one should be under any illusions that this is a serious or even genuine plan. With Matthew Elliott, former chief executive of Vote Leave, backing him, this is an opening shot for the as-yet undeclared Tory leadership campaign which is now the main concern of the parliamentary party. Brexit is now far down the list of priorities, as the battle to take over No. 10 gets under way.

On the other hand, the May/Corbyn talks seem to be going nowhere – although they are not officially dead yet. But, since the only substantive thing to come out of them seems to be a customs union – which solves nothing – we can no more look to them for our salvation than we can expect Mr Javid to ride to our rescue.

With that, and the substantial number of leavers committed to a no-deal Brexit, there seems to be no workable Brexit scenario on the horizon which has major backers in the political system. Effectively, at the heart of the Brexit debate is a huge vacuum, with nothing to grab the imagination of the public. We either have Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement, served cold, or nothing very much at all.

Under such circumstances, it is easy to get caught up in the speculation about a new Tory leader, the possibility of a general election or the line-up for the European elections – which still might not happen. Few people have studied the Withdrawal Agreement (all 585 pages of it), so there is next to no informed debate about how to fashion our future relationship with the EU, so as to avoid the backstop kicking in.

To all intents and purposes, with parliament having closed down for the holidays, Brexit has been abandoned, now serving only as a backdrop to our domestic politics. Even the European elections, if they happen, will be seen more as an opinion poll on the state of the parties, rather than any expression of choice as to who we want to represent us in Brussels.

On that basis, not only has Mrs May failed to deliver Brexit, she has sucked all the energy and life out of it, leaving us tired, dispirited and enervated. There is no enthusiasm for Brexit, not least because none of us knows what the final outcome is likely to be or where it will take us.

Whatever else, when I voted to leave the European Union, I certainly did not vote for a scenario that would have us bound to the Union by membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union.

Continuation of the EEA Agreement would, of course, have been perfectly acceptable, as this agreement was devised as an alternative to membership of the EU, for Efta states which wanted a close trading relationship with the EU but wanted to avoid political integration.

Not the least of the attractions of the EEA Agreement is that membership can be ended, with little formality, with one year's notice. It was always my intention that we should then work towards improving the agreement, turning it into a genuine trade partnership rather than the current, subordinate relationship, where the EU holds the high ground in framing new laws (even if they are of international origin).

Personally, I think that the arguments for this arrangement have been so badly handled, most recently by the advocates of the Common Market 2.0 plan, that there is very little chance of us being able to adopt the Efta/EEA option.

Even to this day, advocates fail to understand that there is no single EEA Agreement which covers all Efta States, but a series of adaptations to suit each Efta member – adaptations which have grown over the years. Nor have they understood that the Agreement covers limited ground and would leave many gaps in our relationship with the EU, which would either have to be filled by sectoral adaptations or bilateral treaties, or both.

If only we had some grown-ups in the political system, and the media, that could point up the complexity of such a task, and the obvious inference that it would take many years to conclude a comprehensive, workable agreement with the EU.

As my own understanding of this has grown, I have also concluded that the arrangement we would be looking for would be so advanced – in relation to anything the EU had agreed with any other third country - that we could not assume that the EU would even consider such an arrangement.

Three potential sticking points, of immediate concern, would be the need for a deep and comprehensive treaty on VAT, a comprehensive data protection agreement, and a level of participation in the EU's agencies which goes far beyond anything granted to an existing third country.

It is my view, therefore, that before we could even begin to get down to detailed negotiations with the EU, we would need a series of scoping meetings, with periods for reflection and debate. That process alone might take years.

Currently, with the debate totally stalled, unable to progress beyond the Withdrawal Agreement, the lack of forward-looking discussion gives rise to immense pessimism. It has taken us nearly three years to get to the stage of not finalising a withdrawal agreement. How much longer might it take to reach a national consensus on our future relationship?

There are those, as a result, who would see in this an argument for revoking the Article 50 notification and calling the whole thing off. But since the EU is already thinking about launching a new treaty process, this would solve nothing. It would only be a matter of time before we would be confronting another referendum, this one to ratify the new treaty. And if the nation refused to allow it, where would this place the UK?

By far the better solution is to recognise that the genie is out of the bottle, and then to acknowledge that we are totally unprepared for leaving. In the absence of the Efta/EEA option, all we can do is ask for an extended transitional period, to take the pressure off those who are looking for an acceptable resolution.

Right at the beginning, I was estimating that the Brexit process might take twenty years. Given how little we have achieved in three years, who is to say that that is wrong, or in any way exaggerated? To accept that we were in this for the long-haul would do much to re-frame the debate.

As it is, with the politicians and media taking every opportunity to avoid an adult debate, Brexit looks increasingly like a stricken ship whose captain has given the order to abandon ship. Unless Brexit is then to assume the status of a new age Flying Dutchman, doomed forever to sail the oceans of political discontent, we need to do something pretty radical. Manning the lifeboats is not a solution.

Richard North 14/04/2019 link

Brexit: confusion reigns


And so it came to pass that Mrs May delivered her statement to the House of Commons on her adventure in Brussels.

But her statement and the subsequent debate did nothing to shed any light on our predicament as a nation. If anything, it further muddied the waters, providing testimony – to those who are capable of understanding it (which did not seem to include many in the House) - of their ignorance.

If we cut to the chase, the crucial issue was the customs union, making 23 guest appearances in the debate, with "customs" in further combinations adding nine more mentions of the word.

Oddly enough, the customs union first popped out, not from the lips of Mrs May but from the man with ambitions to replace her – Jeremy Corbyn. In his response to Mrs May's statement, he expressed his "disappointment" in reading Liam Fox's letter which he had penned earlier in the week, ruling out a customs union as the "worst of all possible worlds".

When Corbyn then averred that this seemed to be an attempt to scupper meaningful talks by all but ruling out Labour's customs union proposal, he positioned the customs union at the centre of the talks on which Mrs May was relying to get her Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons.

Mrs May did not answer this point directly, so it took Kenneth Clarke to suggest to her that, in order to reach a settlement with the "principal Opposition party" would require at the minimum the, "sort of customs arrangement and sufficient regulatory alignment at least to keep our trade as open and free as it has been across the channel and in the Republic of Ireland".

This time, the prime minister took the bait, responding that she was looking at the customs arrangement that "would be in place in that future relationship". This, she said, was reflected in the political declaration, that we want to retain the benefits of a customs union - no tariffs, no quotas and no rules of origin checks.

For Yvette Cooper (the very same), that wasn't good enough, so she goaded Mrs May by asking whether she was now willing to consider a common external tariff with the EU - which is a key part of any customs union – or did she still rule that out?

Yet it was the response to this that really started to get us somewhere. The different language used, the prime minister implied, tended to conceal that there was more agreement on the customs union than is often given credit for. We have been clear, she said, that we want to obtain the benefits of a customs union, while being able to operate our own independent trade policy.

The Labour party wanted a say in trade policy, she said, so the question was, "how we can provide for this country to be in charge of its trade policy in the future".

Moments later, she was to repeat this in a response to Conservative MP Andrew Murrison – the issue was about having the benefits of a customs union and an independent trade policy, "the freedom to make those trade deals around the rest of the world that we want to make as an independent country".

There we have it, except that the prime minister is setting up a horribly flawed paradigm in asserting that there is any immediate difference between her position and Labour's. For sure, she can have the benefits of a customs union – and specifically no rules of origin – without a customs union. All she needs is a no-tariff free trade agreement, and then unilaterally to adopt the EU's WTO tariff schedules.

Where the problem comes is with the independent trade policy. In terms of substance, if Mrs May wants to keep a tariff-free arrangement with the EU, and without rules of origin, then she must keep in place the EU's WTO schedules, which have the effect of a common external tariff. But that places no more – and no less – restrictions on formulating trade policy with other third countries.

Unless she is thinking of the common commercial policy – which would be the wrong thing to do - the fact of a customs union or its equivalent places no restrictions on formulating trade policies with other countries other than in limiting the scope to conclude tariff agreements.

But, since tariffs these days are only a very small part of what are now called comprehensive free trade agreements, the limitation is hardly of any significance. On that basis, there are no grounds to go to war with Labour, or refuse an agreement with it. If the freedom to make trade agreements is the only issue, there is nothing to argue about.

Sadly, the real issue is something else – the fact that, when it comes to securing frictionless trade, the customs union is  an irrelevance. We have the political equivalent of two bald men fighting over a comb.

Stephen Kinnock raised this after a fashion. "A stand-alone customs union simply does not cut it", he said, adding: "In the options that will be presented to us if the talks do not work, can she guarantee that full membership of the Single Market through the European Economic Area will be on offer?"

Unfortunately, as he so often does, he confused the issue, by asserting that "full membership of the single market is the only way we can guarantee workers' rights and the integrity of the Union and do something for the services sector".

This gave Mrs May her "get out of jail free" card, as she pointed out that full membership of the single market was not necessary to deal with the City of London and its financial services, nor was it needed to ensure workers' rights.

You can see what Kinnock has done here. He has oversold CM2 to Labour in order to get his party's support, but in so doing opened himself to being slapped down by the prime minister. If only he had said that the EEA was a vital step towards securing frictionless trade, this little bit of history might have been different.

Looking at it another way, if all we wanted in life was no tariffs, no rules of origin checks and no quotas, then all Mrs May has to do is offer is a free trade agreement with the WTO schedules, and we are home and dry. In this sense, the two parties are as bad as each other.

But, for all that, we don't want a customs union because that does impose unnecessary restrictions on our long-term flexibility. This is the difference between the rigidity of a treaty and a unilateral commitment which can be altered in the future, with considerably less formality.

Yet, even then, this is down the line. As both Mrs May and Donald Tusk point out, there is already plenty of scope to deal with such matters in the political declaration. But since this doesn't kick in until the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified, there is nothing to gain by arguing the toss right now.

What happened in the Commons yesterday, therefore, was a complete waste of time, taking us no further forward. If we want to tie up frictionless trade, to the extent that we can dispense with the Irish backstop, then the way forward is to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement.

Then – undoubtedly with the aid of an extended transitional period – we need a comprehensive deal on the lines of a much-amended EEA Agreement, complete with its institutional architecture, and a bundle of bilateral agreements which take in such things as climate change, VAT, data protection, civil aviation, agriculture and fisheries, scientific cooperation – and much more besides.

Even with six months to go before we are due to face the cliff-edge again, we haven't got time to play these vacuous games, inside or outside of parliament. We need to get our priorities right.

And in this, we are not helped by the idiot pair, Nick Boles and Lucy Powell, writing in the Evening Standard that "it is not currently possible to maintain frictionless trade and avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland without the UK being in the same customs territory as the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU".

That claim is so manifestly untrue that one wonders how the same pair can, with straight faces, also promote their CM2 plan which would have us take up the Efta/EEA option – but without the vital provision of the multiple bilateral agreements that are also needed to secure frictionless trade.

Largely though, confusion reigns throughout. For Open Democracy, we have Ruth Bergan and Laura Bannister - another pair of self-appointed pundits – writing on customs unions. They seek to convince us that a customs union would still allow the UK to negotiate new trade deals covering large chunks of the economy.

This much they get right, but then spoil it all by asserting that the customs union "doesn't necessarily cover regulations and standards" – when it doesn't ever cover either.

They then compound the error by grandly declaring that the benefit of a customs union for the UK "would be to retain at least some degree of frictionless trade which goes some way to resolving issues at the Northern Ireland border" – when it would have no impact at all on securing frictionless trade. All you need to prove that is to go to the Turkish border and watch the lorry queues.

The sort of moronic interventions that we are getting here are entirely typical of this debate, constantly dragging us away from the essential priorities, and muddling the issues.

At this rate, six months down the line will have done nothing for us. Our politicians and pundits will still be prattling about the wrong things, with no end in sight. As the MPs disperse to the constituencies for their Easter break, they might as well stay there and not bother coming back.

Richard North 12/04/2019 link

Brexit: no resolution in sight


It is perhaps symbolic that it was the press gallery that took the brunt of the leak that affected the Commons chamber yesterday, forcing the sitting to be suspended. Early rumours suggested the leak was sewage, which would have been even more appropriate.

But, with the MP collective taking time out from Westminster today, the harassed maintenance staff have until Monday to deliver a quick fix. If they succeed, perhaps they could be asked to turn their attention to Brexit.

It is inconceivable that they could do a worse job than the "mentally and physically exhausted" darlings who normally inhabit the chamber. It might also save the £3.5 billion needed to restore this gothic wreck, especially if it is bulldozed into the Thames and the site repurposed for something useful.

Over in "the other place" – the term used for the House of Lords – their noble Lords gave up on the arduous process of debating the fatuous Cooper Bill at about 10.40 in the evening, despite the original plan to carry on past midnight. And since they too are not sitting today, proceedings are to resume on Monday, extending the original timetable and, incidentally, allowing time out for reflection.

Meanwhile, the May/Corbyn talks seem to be progressing but, without cabinet ministers present to text the details to their "mates" in the media, there is not an awful lot coming out of the conclave. Frankly, that which is leaking is about the same quality as that which was rumoured to be leaking into the Commons.

The Financial Times, though, is seriously downbeat, suggesting that hopes of a deal with Labour were "fading" as the talks broke up without agreement and "opposition to the initiative hardened".

Talks, we are told, are continuing today, proving that there is still some sign of life in the political capital, but there seems nothing of the sense of urgency one might expect. One would scarcely believe that the "colleagues" are set to hold their European Council on Wednesday, whence they will deliberate on whether to approve an Article 50 extension.

If the Commons, on the one hand, are to consider the May/Corbyn proposals and then, for an encore, have another stab (to use an unfortunate phrase) at approving the Withdrawal Agreement, then they are running desperately short of time.

As yet, it seems that cabinet ministers are divided as to the period which should be requested by the prime minister, and yet another plot – so beloved of the media - seems to be brewing to prevent Mrs May opting for a long extension.

With a possible hiatus in the May/Corbyn talks looming, attorney-general Geoffrey Cox has told the BBC that if the talks failed the prime minister could be forced by EU leaders to accept a "long" delay to Brexit - longer than just a few weeks or months.

Nothing has been decided, although the prime minister is expected to send a letter to Donald Tusk "in the next few days". Whether she intends to consult the cabinet before the letter is sent is not known.

Despite that, the politicians have decided to work a four-day week – now enforced on MPs whether they like it or not. This creates something of a risk that Mrs May will turn up empty-handed in Brussels, not knowing how long she wants, or requesting a period for which she has absolutely no backing.

Crucially, she will have absolutely nothing to offer in terms of a "way forward", and no Withdrawal Agreement. This will give the European Council very little to work on, and without a brief from the General Affairs Council. Given the earlier pronouncements from Barnier and Juncker, it could end up failing to grant an extension simply because no acceptable case has been made for one.

It seems hard to believe that Brexit (or the first stage, at any rate) could be set to end with a whimper rather than a bang, but the fact is that our membership ends at midnight in a week's time, unless something pretty dramatic happens to stave it off. And if there is nothing for the "colleagues" to work on, it seems hardly likely that they are going to entertain a request for more time to process a request for more time. That could go on forever.

However, as would appear from the intervention of Angela Merkel in Ireland, where it appears that the Irish are not ready to police a hard border, the "colleagues" are keen to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

They may, therefore, be planning an ambush by presenting Mrs May with a take-it-or-leave-it proposal for a lengthy extension. This could dramatically change the character of the domestic debate. Acceptance of a lengthy delay to Brexit could trigger an implosion in the parliamentary Conservative Party, and mass resignations in the cabinet.

From there, with her party and government in tatters, the talk is of Mrs May being forced to call a general election. This would be by whatever devious procedure is available, including the possibly of a vote of no confidence in which cabinet members might vote against their own government. In a bid to enliven these otherwise rather dull politics, though, we have a by-election in Newport West to entertain us. Site of the Chartist rising in 1839, Newport gets its election as a result of the death of Paul Flynn.

The result brought a victory for Labour's Ruth Jones in what is a traditional Labour stronghold. A low turnout delivered a reduced voting share, down 12.7 percent. The Conservative vote was also down, by eight percent, while there was a strong showing from Ukip which increased its share by six percent to give it eight percent of the vote, putting the party in third place. The throbbing vibrancy of the campaign can be seen from the picture (top).

The Labour victory gives Mr Corbyn's party one extra vote, but it would be rather ironic if one of Ruth Jones's first actions is a vote which led to the dissolution of parliament and a general election.

At least she might then be returned, as the received wisdom is that the Tories face electoral annihilation in the event of an (even more) bodged Brexit, despite the latest Westminster poll putting the Conservatives in the lead with 36.6 percent, as against Labour on 34 percent – both parties down seven percent on the Britain Elects poll tracker. In a possible harbinger, Ukip is up five percent, despite the leadership of the loathsome Batten.

For the here and now though, the scenario we would could be facing is that the May/Corbyn talks end without a conclusion – with or without a dramatic walk-out by Mr Corbyn. We then see the cabinet failing to agree on a period for the Article 50 extension, with Mrs May going to Brussels to face a demand for a politically toxic long extension.

Assuming the Cooper Bill has not received Royal Assent, Mrs May then returns to the House to face the music. If she has refused the European Council "offer", we will be out of the European Union by next Friday. If she accepts it, she is out of office.

As always, though, there is another "get out of jail free" card hovering in the wings. Mrs May could take a long extension with the option of an early termination, contingent on parliament ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement. This is being labelled a flexible extension or "flextension".

By such means, the prime minister could place the responsibility for ending our EU membership squarely on the MP collective, leaving them to decide whether (or when) we depart. The quantum thus becomes "my deal or no Brexit for the foreseeable future".

The capacity for MPs to bottle it, though, is endless. One scenario sees the Cooper Bill in force, whence Parliament attempts to send Mrs May back to Brussels to demand a new date – an effort that must surely fail – or even a retreat from reality, where parliament changes tack and opts for  a "confirmatory referendum", leaving it for the people to decide on whether to accept the deal.

Should this become an option, the debate will doubtless shift to the nature of the questions to be put, and whether voters are given the choice of deal or no deal, deal or remain, or a three-cornered referendum which offers all three options. How that latter variation would work is not clear. Nor is it even clear that a multi-choice referendum would be allowed by the Electoral Commission.

In that context alone, the idea of another referendum could prove as contentious as the main Brexit debate, and that is without addressing the practicalities of which groups would be the official campaigning bodies, and how they would be funded – given the possibility of criminal proceedings on certain aspects of the last campaign.

There is then the possibility that, with the highly contentious role of social media advertising still unresolved, the outcome could end up being just as strongly disputed as the 2016 result. And then, there is the ongoing uncertainty which continues to be highly damaging to business confidence and operations.

Nevertheless, of one thing we can be absolutely certain. In the first week after we should have left the EU, we are still part of the "evil empire". And while we have a provisional date for leaving, there is no certainty that this will be Brexit day – or even that there will eventually be a Brexit. We are no closer to a resolution than ever we were.

Richard North 05/04/2019 link

Brexit: a laboured retreat


It's almost as if there is a three-year delay programme on the Brexit process. What should have been one of the very first things that Mrs May contemplated was a government of national unity – or, at the very least, a cross-party cabinet committee.

Sadly, it's almost certainly a case of too little, too late for the prime minister to experience a Damascene conversion, even if that's what we saw yesterday evening when she addressed the nation from Downing Street in what was a remarkably short speech.

She had, she said, just come from chairing seven hours of Cabinet meetings where, if we are to believe what we are told, acrimonious ministers were split between wanting a no-deal Brexit and opting for a customs union, with the no-dealers holding the majority.

The very fact that these are not polar equivalents tells you something of the disarray in government, but it led to Mrs May admitting in her speech that there were some who were "so fed up with delay and endless arguments that they would like to leave with [a] no-deal next week".

As fast as she raised the prospect, though, she rejected it, instead opting for a further extension of Article 50, "one that is as short as possible and which ends when we pass a deal". In so doing, said the BBC, she was choosing a deal over party unity.

Recognising that the European Council had imposed conditions and that the Commons had not come up with an answer, she was "taking action to break the logjam", by offering to sit down with the Leader of the Opposition to try to agree a plan.

Both would have to stick to this plan, which would include the current Withdrawal Agreement, on top of which the leaders would "agree an approach on a Future Relationship that delivers on the result of the Referendum", which Mrs May could put to the MP collective for approval before taking it to next week's European Council.

If we cannot agree on a single unified approach, Mrs May said, "we would instead agree a number of options for the Future Relationship that we could put to the House in a series of votes to determine which course to pursue", the outcome of which the government would take as binding, along with the opposition.

With that, Mrs May would plan to bring forward the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to ensure it was passed before 22nd May so that the UK would not have to take part in European Elections – effectively dropping us out of the EU by that date.

Interestingly, Jeremy Corbyn took little time to respond, saying that he would be very happy to meet the prime minister. This may even happen today.

Acknowledging that Mrs May had "made a move", he recognised his responsibility "to represent the people who supported Labour in the last election and the people who didn't support Labour but nevertheless want certainty and security for their own future". And that's the basis on which he will meet her and have discussions.

"Labour has put forward our proposals to ensure there is a customs union with the EU, access to vital markets and protections of our standards of consumer, environmental and workers' rights", he said. "And we'll ensure that those are on the table. We're also very clear that there has to be an absolute guarantee that the Good Friday Agreement is maintained for peace in Northern Ireland".

Despite that, Corbyn complained that the prime minister had not shown much sign of compromise but, he said, "I'm pleased that today she's indicated she'll accept the view of parliament and is prepared to reach out and have that discussion".

If this plan has any chance of working, it has to be done swiftly. Although the European Council is on the 10th – next Wednesday – when any decision will be made as to whether to extend the Article 50 period, the General Affairs Council is the day before. Since it is there that the preparatory work is done, at the UK end, whatever is to happen must be done and dusted by the end of business on Monday, in order to get the result to the General Affairs Council.

Presumably, when it comes to the offer to the Westminster parliament, Mrs May will want to stick to the existing text of the political declaration, expecting Mr Corbyn to gamble on parliament voting to include a specific reference to a customs union. Whatever is agreed will then have to be bundled into a final motion which allows the Withdrawal Agreement to be ratified, this time with the support of Labour – by Monday at the latest.

There are considerable odds of it not getting as far as the vote though. Although Mr Corbyn has agreed to talks, he could walk out at any time – having stage-managed his departure to ensure that Mrs May takes her share of the blame. The temptation for him to do this will be strong, as he will be looking to an opportunity to pursue a general election. Coming to the prime minister's rescue has never been on his agenda.

Corbyn must also be cheered by the Guardian editorial, which his aides will doubtless be studying. It sees a prime minister "shrunken by defeat", embarking on this stratagem only because she has run out of road.

If the initiative gets as far as a vote, both leaders are at risk. They must rely on their MPs obeying their respective party whips. The danger, of course, is that a majority will refuse to be railroaded and will still vote down the Withdrawal Agreement, irrespective of what is tacked on to the Political Declaration. Others, who might have been supportive of the Withdrawal Agreement, might vote down the attempt to bring in a customs union, if that survives the cut.

Nevertheless, as a last throw of the dice from Mrs May, it is at least inventive, and it is too early to dismiss it as doomed to failure. We may have to wait until tomorrow to do that, although it may be the Monday before we are absolutely certain that it has crashed and burned.

If it succeeds, we are back where we were before 29 March with the possibility of leaving on 22 May, if the European Council agrees to an extension. Yet, with the smart money predicting failure of Mrs May's latest initiative, this could see us dumped unceremoniously out of the EU without a deal on 12 April.

There is, however, an alternative scenario where the May/Corbyn duo are still talking by 9 April, with no decision reached the following day either. That would leave Mrs May with empty hands but offering a promise of something more substantial than she has had to date.

This would leave the European Council in an awkward position. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that it would wish to avoid an early no-deal, but it has boxed itself in by insisting that the UK comes armed with proposals for a way forward.

It could give its assent to a 22 May cut-off but, unless Mrs May also committed to holding European elections, that would be the end. In any event, Michel Barnier warns that any further extension would carry significant risks for the EU. A strong justification would be needed, and that does not look to be forthcoming.

Given that the prime minister is in any case ruling out participation in the elections – which would preclude a further extension on those grounds alone - she seems to be excluding the possibility of further extensions, beyond 22 May. The whole of her initiative, therefore, is to buy time on the one hand, and to secure an orderly exit – holding the future to ransom if she is forced to concede a customs union. But she really does seem to want that extra time.

What Mrs May has already succeeded in doing, though, is in dominating the media headlines. With her speech timed for just after 6pm – and kept short - the main broadcast bulletins carried it live, and were able to stay with the whole speech. Print media have followed, sweeping most of today's Brexit coverage from the front pages.

Thus we see the Letwin/Cooper plan disappear from the media. This was aimed at bringing in a Bill to force the prime minister to seek an Article 50 extension rather than opt for a no-deal, with a paving Bill due today to commandeer parliament for rest of week in order to get it through.

Now, I suspect MPs will not want to take any action that could block the May initiative, which may mean that we've seen the last of this for the moment.

Even if it was allowed to run, it would most probably have impinged on Crown prerogative powers, in which case Mrs May could have asked the Queen to refuse Royal Assent. And even then, an extension does not lie within the gift of the UK government, when it requires unanimous approval from the EU-27. One wonders if Yvette Cooper, the primary sponsor of the Bill, has even a glimmer of understanding of what she's up against.

Nevertheless, it gives us a good idea of what we're up against – a parliament which is as much at sea as the government, with nobody having any real idea of what to do next. After three years, it is as if there had never been a debate, for all the progress that has been made.

Richard North 03/04/2019 link

Brexit: the 12 days of Brexit (not)


I'm not the first and will not be the last to note that parliament confronts another round of voting on Brexit options on 1 April – April Fools' Day – in what may well set the seal on our exit, ensuring that we leave without a deal on 12 April. That I suppose, in another parallel, gives us the 12 days of Brexit (not).

With eight options on the table from which the speaker can choose for today's entertainment, we have roughly the same menu we had last time, although the Common Market 2.0 option is modified, getting madder with every successive iteration.

Still embedded in the option is the unnecessary encumbrance of a customs union – heavily disguised as a customs "arrangement" - which is included as an inducement to bring Labour MPs into the fold. This is a rather pathetic attempt to forge a cross-party "consensus", the Holy Grail which somehow transcends reality.

Additionally, the sponsors of CM2 seek to direct the government to do something which is outside the powers of parliament, directing the government to renegotiate the framework for the future relationship, as well as acceding to Efta, "having negotiated a derogation from Article 56(3) of the Efta Agreement", and then to enter the Efta pillar of the EEA.

With only relatively minor exceptions, the initiation of international agreements (treaties) is subject to Crown prerogative, and is not something that MPs can order. After the Miller judgement, parliament can under certain circumstances withhold approval for some actions, such as giving notice under Article 50, but it cannot instruct the government to enter into international negotiations, much less direct the course of those negotiations.

Furthermore, as regards accession to Efta and entry to the Efta pillar of the EEA, these actions are not even within the gift of government, requiring as they do the unanimous assent of the other parties.

Such niceties, however, are unlikely to influence the hon. members today. Without the Speaker or someone of like authority to hold their hand, they are unlikely to understand the significance of what they are doing – which doesn't much matter anyway as any motions agreed (and none so far have been) will not be binding on the government.

But the real point of today's exercise is somehow for parliament to indicate to the European Council (who are the only people who matter at this stage) that they support a coherent plan which could form the basis of a Brexit settlement, sufficient to warrant a further (prolonged) Article 50 extension.

As Mrs May has pointed out though, any such settlement must include a firm proposal for ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement, yet this is not even on today's agenda. Thus, even if a miracle happened, and the MPs managed to agree on a specific plan, it is still not enough to qualify as a "way forward" which will trigger an extension.

However, that gap may be filled by a fourth attempt to put the Withdrawal Agreement in front of the House, although how that is supposed to happen (or when) has not yet been specified. And even if by some procedural device, a fourth vote could be arranged, there is nothing at all to suggest that parliament is in a mood to approve it. We could just see yet another defeat for the government.

There is a remote possibility that this vote could be held as early as tomorrow (Tuesday) but, whether or not that happens, Wednesday could see a third round of indicative votes, with the numbers pared down to a few "favourites" in the hope that the elusive consensus can be reached and parliament will put its weight behind a single plan.

The trouble is here that MPs are still very much voting on tribal lines, with a rough split between Labour voting for a "soft" Brexit and the extreme Tories pushing for the harder options. If the tribal divide is maintained (and it's hard to see that it will not, given that the sides are squaring up for a general election), then there will be few hard-line Tory votes for a CM2 which includes a customs union.

This makes it all the less certain that the plan will prevail, especially as Kenneth Clarke's proposal for a "permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union" is still on the order paper. With that likely to take the lion's share of the Labour vote, the CM2 advocates feel that, if they dump the customs union, they will lose Tory support.

The intelligent way forward, of course, would have been to point out that rejoining the EEA and extending Article 10 of the Agreement to cover all goods (including agricultural produce), and then maintaining the commitment to adopting the EU's WTO tariff schedules, would have the effect of a customs union. It would remove the need for the UK to hold itself to ransom with a formal customs union agreement.

Unfortunately, the advocates have also misread the Irish protocol - the backstop - and have run away with the idea that, to secure a soft border for Ireland, the EU is specifying that there should be a customs union in place (for Northern Ireland, at the very least).

Within the protocol, though, there is only the requirement that the UK "respect the rules" of the customs union, which is emphatically not the same as creating a new EU-UK customs union on the lines of Turkey. The EEA agreement, with its tariff-free trade and the WTO schedules would easily conform with the requirements of the protocol, and thus remove the need for the backstop to kick in.

Yet, when it comes to George Eustice's straight Efta/EEA option, this is also on the order paper – carried over from last week. Interestingly, Eustice is backing two horses, having signed up to CM2 as well but, since he has failed to make the pitch about customs union equivalence, he is unlikely to get any Labour support for his plan.

Between the two groups, therefore, proponents of what started off as the "Norway option" have made a pig's ear of their respective pitches, splitting the vote and offering plans which, in themselves, lack the depth to convince the MP collective that they are worth backing.

But then, when we have a substantial number of MPs prepared to vote solely for a customs union as a solution to the UK's post-Brexit needs, we are clearly not dealing with the sharpest knives in the drawer.

Putting it somewhat more bluntly, you are struggling to match the IQ of an amoeba if you believe that a customs union is an answer to Brexit – into which category, it appears, hundreds of Labour MPs fall. It also makes you wonder what game Kenneth Clarke is playing and rules out any expectation that enough MPs have the brainpower to understand the Efta/EEA option, however well it is presented.

In a saner world, of course, the media would be taking a hand, explaining the options and bringing clarity to the debate. But I have yet to see a single newspaper or broadcaster make a credible fist out of explaining the "Norway option". As always, most continue to be obsessed with personality politics and court gossip, with talk of ministerial resignations, general elections and leadership challenges.

Small wonder, the EU is losing patience. In fact, Jean-Claude Juncker has confided with Italian state TV with something more than that, declaring that "patience runs out", after complaining that, "So far, we know what the British parliament says no to, but we don't know what it might say yes to".

We will see later today whether parliament is capable of saying yes to anything, and whether what it chooses is worth the bother, or turns out to be as meaningless as most of their activities. But, since the Withdrawal Agreement is still up in the air, any activity may turn out to be a waste of time and effort.

Financial Times commentator Wolfgang Münchau seems to believe that, when it comes to 10 April, the EU will have "little appetite to grant another Brexit extension", demonstrating once again that the legacy media gets there eventually.

Münchau makes the obvious points that the EU is wary about being dragged deeper and deeper into the maw of UK politics, but you can also see the frustration building from a speech by Barnier to the College of Europe last Friday, entitled "Europe after Brexit", before the third vote on the Withdrawal Agreement.

Referring to the UK vote , he stated: "Let me be frank: without a positive choice, the default option will be a no deal, which has become more likely. It was never our scenario, but the EU27 is now prepared". He then added: "It is the responsibility of each and every member of the House of Commons to tell us today what they want".

Not last week were, nor – it would appear - this week are, MPs prepared to make their wishes clear, some doubtless because they are quite incapable of so doing. And if the condition for a further extension to the Article 50 period is for the UK to propose a political way forward, as Wolfgang Münchau would have it, then there are rational and strategic arguments to be made against offering the UK more time.

Today then, the house of fools may deliver us something it believed it had ruled out – a no-deal Brexit. It will do so quite simply because it is unable to agree a way forward, leaving Mrs May with empty hands when she goes to Brussels on 10 April, probably for the last time as a head of government of an EU Member State.

Richard North 01/04/2019 link

Brexit: end of the line


Basically, it's down to the MP collective on Tuesday. If they vote for the Withdrawal Agreement, that then frees Mrs May to go to Brussels and ask for a short extension to give time to get all the necessary legislation in place.

Some former refusnik MPs are said to be changing their minds. Others, such as Owen Paterson, are not. To judge from Paterson's issue-illiterate screed in the Telegraph, though, he hasn't thought it through, and still labours under the belief that no-deal is a credible option.

It's what happens if the collective rejects the Withdrawal Agreement for the third time – which seems most likely – that's got everybody guessing. Scenarios vary wildly, ranging from Mrs May stepping down and being replaced by a hard-liner, to the European Council agreeing to a two-year standstill to allow the UK government to rethink its strategy.

Should Mrs May be looking for a short extension after approval of the Withdrawal Agreement, the smart money is on the European Council agreeing with little difficulty, shunting Brexit day to as late as 1 July, whence we enter the transitional period and a no-change scenario until the period has ended (with or without further extensions).

However, in anticipation of another rejection, it seems that sentiment in Brussels is hardening, with the "colleagues" more likely to treat the UK as a "disruptive child", possibly refusing to grant any extension, precipitating us into a no-deal Brexit on 29 March - in a mere 12 days.

Personally, I think pragmatism will prevail and we'll get a short extension, at the very least – purely on the basis that the EU Member States need more time to prepare for a no-deal. But what looks increasingly unlikely is the "colleagues" agreeing to the long option.

That isn't stopping Mrs May using the threat of a long delay to Brexit as pressure to induce her MPs to vote in her favour, arguing that any delay past 1 July will require the UK to take part in the European Parliament elections – which is probably the case.

The dates for elections have already been set and the requirement to hold elections is set out in EU law, most recently Council Decision 2018/994. If the UK is to remain in the EU via an extension to the Article 50 period, then it is obliged to implement EU law. And while this could be waived for a Member which is on its way out in a matter of weeks, this is less tenable if the delay is prolonged.

Despite that, it is unlikely that default would automatically precipitate the UK's departure, even if the UK was in breach of treaty provisions as well as breaking EU law. After all, the treaties afford every citizen of the Union "the right to vote and to stand as a candidate at elections to the European Parliament in the Member State in which he or she resides" (Article 39, TFEU).

The normal procedure to deal with a breach would be for the Commission to commence infringement proceedings, while there are a number of temporary fixes that could be arranged to keep the European Parliament functioning in the absence of elected UK members, requiring no more than a Council Decision to implement them.

The long delay, therefore, is probably less of a threat than Mrs May (or the media) imagines. The most likely outcome is a short delay scenario, followed by a no-deal exit on 1 July. Happening just as we move into the holiday period, the timing could not be more conducive to maximising cross-Channel disruption, as tourists get caught up with commercial traffic.

Nevertheless, this puts the no-deal scenario at the top of the list, confounding those many MPs who have deluded themselves that they have voted it off the table. All it needs is a frustrated or impatient European Council to sit on its hands and do nothing and the default date of 29 March automatically kicks in, leaving Mrs May only one option to stop Brexigeddon: revoking the Article 50 notification.

Arguably, that makes the choice on Tuesday as between a no-deal exit on 29 March, a short delay and then a no-deal on 1 July (or a little earlier), or no Brexit at all - in effect, no deal or no Brexit, with no certainty as to which way we go – notwithstanding that to stay in the EU would require the repeal of all the Brexit-related legislation.

Here, there is an interesting possibility that has scarcely, if at all, been rehearsed. Currently, under the doctrine of Crown prerogative, Mrs May does not need parliament's permission to revoke the notification. In a fit of pique, even, she could e-mail the letter to Donald Tusk at the eleventh hour and fifty-ninth minute – even letting the seconds run down before hitting the send button.

That alone, though, would not end the exit process. Parliament would then have to cooperate in rescinding all the Brexit legislation, otherwise Brexit day stands and the European Communities Act would be repealed. That would deprive the government of its power to implement EU law.

Recently, we've been hearing much about the Vienna Convention on the law of treaties, and in particular Article 62 on "fundamental change in circumstances" in relation to the backstop.

Although some are warning against attempts to use this Article – it being marked down as an "utterly hopeless" endeavour – in the absence of parliamentary authority to implement the EU treaties, arising from refusal to repeal Brexit legislation, a different scenario could apply.

In this case, we could see Article 61 apply: "Supervening impossibility of performance". This states that a party may invoke the impossibility of performing a treaty as a ground for terminating or withdrawing from it, if the impossibility results from the permanent disappearance or destruction of an object indispensable for the execution of the treaty.

Whether lack of parliamentary approval qualifies as "permanent disappearance or destruction of an object indispensable for the execution of the treaty" is one for the lawyers to argue, but on the face of it, Mrs May doesn't necessarily get a free ride if she wants to call the whole thing off.

One person who is getting a free ride, though – at least from the media – is Nigel Farage. He has re-emerged from the woodwork to front a protest march from Sunderland to London, walking the first leg only, before disappearing.

Having done nothing since the referendum (or before) to promote an orderly exit, focusing instead on personal enrichment, he now gets sympathetic headlines from the likes of Sky News about being "betrayed" over Brexit. Yet, if anyone has betrayed the Eurosceptic movement – in not pursuing a coherent exit strategy – it is Nigel Farage.

But while Farage postures, Mrs May is back in print, telling Sunday Telegraph readers from behind the paywall that, "the patriotic thing for MPs to do is vote for my deal".

Observing that "voting against no deal does not of itself change the legal reality that, as things stand, a failure to agree a deal ultimately means we leave without one", Mrs May will probably not reach the last of the refusniks, who have convinced themselves that there is nothing to fear from a no-deal.

Since it is unlikely that many Labour MPs are going to read the Telegraph, she is probably speaking to the wrong audience. Thus, although she talks of Brexit as "a prize well-worth striving for", claiming that it is "well-within our reach", we seem as far away as ever.

This is more so as The Sunday Times has an entirely different take, having Mrs May tell us: "Back my Brexit or UK will never leave". She is to tell Brexiteers they have until Thursday to support her or risk a "collective political failure" in the form of a "Hotel California Brexit" where "you can check out but you can never leave".

One thing the paper has right, though, is its editorial which declares that: "The time for playing games is almost over". Tory MPs, the paper says, "have it in their hands to prevent outcomes that would be much worse, for them, than accepting Mrs May's withdrawal agreement". They should, it concludes, "face up to their responsibilities". The games can be left to the likes of Farage.

Richard North 17/03/2019 link

Brexit: facing up to consequences


For Liam Fox, parliament yesterday was engaged "in the most important democratic debate in this country's history". The British people had given our parliament a clear instruction. It was, he said, time for us to determine who is the boss.

And they blew it. A fractious House of Commons listening to Mrs May's response to the vote sounded significantly less dignified than feeding time at the zoo. But, while they could compete on noise with the animals they were emulating, they would have struggled to match collective IQs, having just voted for the Spelman/Dromey amendment, seeking to rule out for all time a no-deal Brexit.

This had been disowned by its original sponsors but had been taken over by Labour's Yvette Cooper, allowing the House their fantasy motion to resolve that: "That this House rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship".

The House managed to support this by 312 votes to 308, but then it came back as part of the government's amended motion, whence 321 MPs then supported the "no-deal forever" fantasy, despite government whipping, with 278 against. That brought the final majority to 43.

It was then left to the prime minister to respond to her second defeat in two days, addressing the House by way of a point of order. With no let-up in the background volume, she noted that the House had "provided a clear majority against leaving without a deal", then starting to repeat what she had said before.

This she was forced to do to a background of raucous cheers, so loud that it required the speaker to intervene. When she was finally able to continue speaking, she told the House that the votes were "about the choices this House faces". "The legal default", she said, having to repeat herself to be heard above the din," in UK and EU law, remains that the UK will leave the EU without a deal unless something else is agreed".

Now with the air of an exasperated headmistress, Mrs May spelt out that the onus was "now on every one of us in this House to find out what that is". But giving the MPs a dressing down didn't go well. "The options before us", she said, "are the same as they always have been", going on to say:
We could leave with the deal which this government has negotiated over the past two years, we could leave with the deal we have negotiated subject to a second referendum, but that would risk no Brexit at all, damaging the fragile trust between the British public and the members of this House. We could seek to negotiate a different deal. However, the EU has been clear that the deal on the table is indeed the only deal available.
This took us to the meat, where Mrs May spoke of having confirmed that if the House declined to approve leaving with a deal on the 29th March 2019, the government would bring forward a motion on whether the House supports seeking to agree an extension to Article 50 with the EU.

That motion, she declared, will set out the fundamental choice facing this House. If the House finds a way in the coming days to support a deal, it would allow the government to seek a short, limited, technical extension to Article 50 to provide time to pass the necessary legislation and ratify the agreement we have reached with the EU.

And there was the rub. Such a short, technical extension would only be likely to be on offer if we had a deal in place. Therefore, Mrs May said, "the House has to understand and accept that if it is not willing to support the deal in the coming days, and as it is not willing to support leaving without a deal on the 29th March, then it is suggesting that there will need to be a much longer extension to Article 50".

"Such an extension", she continued, "would undoubtedly require the United Kingdom to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019". And then came the denouement: "I do not think that would be the right outcome, but the House needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken".

Yet, facing up to consequences is clearly something the MP collective is not prepared to do. It is willing on the one hand to reject decisively the Withdrawal Agreement but when the necessary consequence of that is a no deal Brexit, it shies away from dealing with it.

More or less going into denial, Angela Eagle followed a little later, grandly declaring that: "The House has spoken, and the will of the House is clear". But, of Mrs May's response, she described that as "rather churlish". The prime minister's message had had no impact whatsoever.

I suppose we could take some small comfort from the fact that the "no deal forever" amendment hadn't been the only mad event of the day. There had also been the so-called Malthouse amendment, sponsored by Damian Green.

This sought a set of "mutual standstill agreements" with the EU and Member States for an agreed period ending no later than 30 December 2021, during which period the UK would pay an agreed sum equivalent to its net EU contributions.

It comes to something that the House was prepared even to consider what had already been described by Michel Barnier as a "dangerous illusion", the idea that the EU would agree to transition without the backstop.

Latterly, Sabine Weyand is said to have told EU ambassadors that the decision to vote on the motion, already rejected by Brussels umpteen times, showed that parliament was "divorced from reality".

Fortunately, only 164 MPs voted for the motion, as against 374 noes, but that marks down 164 of them who have definitely lost the plot – including Jacob Rees-Mong - more so than could possibility have been imagined at the start of the Brexit process.

But that leaves Mrs May with her motion for today which is being hailed as a prelude to yet another vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, to be put to the House next week.

This is revealed by the text of the motion, which states that, if the House has passed a resolution approving the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship by 20 March, then the government will seek from the EU a one-off Article 50 extension, ending on 30 June of this year.

My understanding is that a motion already submitted to the House and rejected cannot be resubmitted in the same session, so there will have to be some creative framing to get this in the House again. But what seems to be the case is that Mrs May has turned the tables on her tormentors.

Initially, as the sequence goes, MPs rejected the Withdrawal Agreement, which then led to a vote on the no-deal, which was to lead to a vote on an Article 50 extension as a means of avoiding (pro temp) the no deal. Now, Mrs May seems to be making the extension conditional on MPs accepting the Withdrawal Agreement.

This is set against the proposition that, should a longer extension be sought, "it is highly likely that the European Council at its meeting the following day would require a clear purpose for any extension, not least to determine its length, and any extension beyond 30 June 2019 would require the United Kingdom to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019".

The inference is clear, and the consequences are stacking up. First, it was Mrs May who had painted herself into a corner with her Lancaster House speech, but now parliament has followed suit, rejecting the deal on offer – the only deal on offer – while then contradicting itself by refusing to accept the necessary consequence of a no-deal Brexit.

Behind this, we are told, lies "secret compromise" talks with the DUP and the Brexiteeers of the ERG, based in part on further clarification of Geoffrey Cox's legal advice, which makes it clear that there are circumstances under international law when the UK could walk away from the backstop.

But, of course, nothing of this solves the Irish border problem, with the government yesterday announcing that it was prepared in the event of a no-deal Brexit to allow free passage over the border into Northern Ireland, creating potentially a smugglers' paradise in the province.

From this side of the fence, all we see is yet another example of the shambles to which Brexit policy has deteriorated, on top of the meltdown in Westminster, and the prime minister's loss of control. Never have the Tories been so divided, never has Labour been so inept, and never has parliament as an institution so completely lost its way.

The media, of course, is loving it, but the journalists in their own way are as bad as the politicians, with both print and broadcast news becoming excruciatingly tedious, neither readable nor watchable. But, while chaos reigns, the nation watches in despair.

Consequences there will be plenty, with Pete warning that the politicians are close to parting with democracy for good.

Richard North 14/03/2019 link

Wrexit: they had one job


Whatever you make of Brexit and of last night's vote, there is one unarguable point to make. Since June 2016, the prime minister and her government, alongside the houses of parliament, have had only one [main] job – arranging our formal withdrawal from the European Union.

Parliament's second rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement, by 391 votes to 242, represents a failure of these bodies to deliver. It can be dressed up any which way but the fact is that these bodies were charged with the task of getting us out. And, with sixteen days to go before we are due to leave, they still haven't sorted it. That is a failure by any measure.

As far as parliament is concerned, we see a consistent and almost obstinate refusal of the many to get to grips with the simple reality of what is involved, the choices involved: to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement as a precursor to what the prime minister calls an "orderly Brexit"; or to leave without a deal.

This refusal was well-evident in the debate before the vote, where we see multiple references to diverse alternatives. But, poking through was what amounted to a refusal of the entire body to take responsibility for the Brexit decision. This, as much as anything, explains the popularity of the second referendum and the "peoples' choice". If the people choose, the MPs don't have to.

Understandably, in her response to the vote, Mrs May was direct and to the point. "I profoundly regret the decision that this House has taken tonight", she said, expressing her continued belief "that by far the best outcome is that the United Kingdom leaves the European Union in an orderly fashion with a deal".

One might take issue with her then claiming that the deal we have negotiated "is the best". It is a very bad deal and a little candour from the prime minister wouldn't hurt. We are in this situation because Mrs May put us there, largely through her inability to understand what she was dealing with.

How different the debate might have been if she had approached it from that perspective. "Look people", she might have said, "I've completely messed up this whole Brexit thing. I've manoeuvred us into a cul-de-sac and there is no way out other than the Withdrawal Agreement: it's shit or bust".

But such clarity is not given to our government's leader, even if she wasn't wrong when she told the House that the mess she had stitched up was the only deal available. That much has been made clear time and again, not least by just about everybody who is somebody in the European Union.

Now we're in this mess though, we need a plan and, in this respect at least, Mrs May is the last grown-up standing. Two weeks ago, she said, she had made a series of commitments from the very Dispatch Box at which she was currently standing, "regarding the steps we would take in the event that this House rejected the deal on offer".

In order to stand by those commitments, Mrs May was to table a motion for debate which is to be held today to test whether the House supports leaving the EU without a deal on 29 March. The motion, though, was not something the children could be happy with. It reads:
That this House declines to approve leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework on the Future Relationship on 29 March 2019; and notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement.
No sooner tabled then the kiddies took over, with the Spelman-Dromey duo offering an amendment which seeks to strike out the "no deal as default" clause. They want parliament simply to reject leaving without the withdrawal agreement and the framework declaration.

If this or Mrs May's motion gets the approval of the children, Mummy will then tell her government to implement that "decision" – not that it actually can directly. What she then plans is another vote, this one on Thursday, when the House will be asked whether it wants to seek an extension to Article 50.

If the House votes for Shangri La, then the government "will seek to agree that extension with the EU and bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date, commensurate with that extension".

And there lies the devil – tucked away in the detail. We're getting plenty of vibes from the colleagues on this, typified by Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who declares that should the UK hand in a reasoned request for an extension, "I expect a credible and convincing justification".

In actuality, the odds look to be in the UK's favour, if that is the right word. Pat Leahy of the Irish Times reminds us that it will have to be agreed unanimously by the EU-27, most likely at next week's European Council.

Says Leahy, though, once requested by the UK, there seems little doubt that it would be granted. Nobody, outside of a small group of hard line Brexiteers in the House of Commons, wants to prompt a crash-out for which nobody (including the Irish Government) is prepared. So there will almost certainly be an extension.

There lies my view, for the only reason the "colleagues" might agree to an extension is to allow them better to prepare for a no-deal. But, as Mummy May makes "clear", "voting against leaving without a deal and for an extension does not solve the problems that we face".

The EU, she says, will want to know what use we mean to make of such an extension, and this House will have to answer that question. Does it wish to revoke Article 50? Does it want to hold a second referendum? Or does it want to leave with a deal, but not this deal?

Says our prime minister, "these are unenviable choices, but thanks to the decision that the House has made this evening, they are choices that must now be faced".

They are also false choices. Even now, the idea of parliament seeking to revoke Article 50 seems unthinkable and, over the weeks and months, it is painfully obvious that there is appetite neither in the House nor the country for a second referendum. As for another deal, this is simply not on the table. The EU will refuse on any grounds to entertain more negotiations.

Needless to say, nothing of this penetrates the thick skulls of the Muppet tendency, including Steve Baker, Nigel Dodds and Nicky Morgan. They want a "managed no-deal" which would entail Brexit being delayed until 22 May, whence the government would "offer to pay Brussels to strike standstill agreements with the EU lasting until no later than the end of 2021".

This one has been tried before – a very transparent way of sneaking a transitional period under the barrier without the backstop. Yet, already, Michel Barnier has referred to the "dangerous illusion" that the UK can benefit from a transition in the absence of the Withdrawal Agreement. "Let me be clear", he says, "the only legal basis for a transition is the Withdrawal Agreement. No withdrawal agreement means no transition".

So, we're back in fantasy land, a place some MPs have never left, and where they will be later today. Demanding that the UK government rejects a no-deal is akin to Canute's courtiers demanding that he turns back the tide. As Mrs May's motion notes, "leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement".

Yet, for as long as the children refuse to address this simple truth, it seems we are doomed to their stupid games, in the House where they bray like donkeys and leave their brains at the door.

We could have stood the prime minister making a mess of Brexit, but when MPs follow suit, we have a real problem on our hands. Much more of this and people will seriously be asking what parliament is for.

Richard North 13/03/2019 link

Brexit: time to move on


Mrs May told us that she would bring us a legally binding document on the Irish backstop. And that's what she's done, travelling all the way to Strasbourg to get it. Anyway, the famous cathedral city is somewhat better than a storeroom in Grimsby, even if Jean-Claude Juncker was there.

It's just as well she's coming back with a document and not a tee-shirt, as it would be quite difficult fitting the title on the front, no less than an: "Instrument relating to the agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union and the European Atomic Energy Community".

This, however, only sounds grand because the names are spelled out in full. In short-form, the document title reads: "an Instrument relating to the agreement on the withdrawal of the UK from the EU", which isn't half as impressive. As a title, it's also meaningless. But then, so is the document.

The thing is, this doesn't matter at all. "Never mind the quality - feel the width", the saying goes. The MP collective wanted a legally binding document and it got one. And we know it's legally binding because it says so, right there on the very first page. It says:
… this instrument provides, in the sense of Article 31 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, a clear and unambiguous statement by both parties to the Withdrawal Agreement of what they agreed in a number of provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland/ Northern Ireland. Therefore, it constitutes a document of reference that will have to be made use of if any issue arises in the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement. To this effect, it has legal force and a binding character.
So there you go. Those MPs who want to go into the debate today and argue that Mrs May has delivered on her promise can do so. It could not be clearer. This is a document of "legal force" with a "binding character" and it relates to the Withdrawal Agreement. What more could anybody want?

The big question, some might then feel, is whether this is enough to swing MPs behind the Withdrawal Agreement, and ratify it with their votes today. But that's the wrong question. What we need to ask is whether there will be enough MPs in the House when the division is called who are prepared to delude themselves that this meaningless document is in fact meaningful.

Considering that so many MPs so easily delude themselves on so many things – to the extent that most MPs are delusional about something or other most of the time – this shouldn't be too much of a problem. It's a matter of willpower – not the "will of the people", but the will of the collective. A sprinkling of unicorn dust and the delusional can become sane.

To help the collective on its way, the prime minister has helpfully produced a press statement. Pointedly, she refers to the "improved Brexit deal" and having "secured legal changes", with a joint instrument of "comparable legal weight" to the Withdrawal Agreement.

This, says Mrs May, "will guarantee that the EU cannot act with the intent of applying the backstop indefinitely". If the nasty EU hatches up a dastardly plot to trap the poor, feeble UK in the backstop, then an ingenious solution kicks in. Under the dispute settlement mechanism, already agreed, a ruling by the arbitration panel that one of the parties is acting with the objective of applying the Protocol indefinitely would be binding on the Union and the United Kingdom.

Then, persistent failure by a party to comply with a ruling, and thus persistent failure by that party to return to compliance with its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement, may result in temporary remedies.

Ultimately, the aggrieved party would have the right to enact a "unilateral, proportionate suspension" of its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement (other than Part Two), including the Protocol. Such a suspension may remain in place unless and until the offending party has taken the necessary measures to comply with the ruling of the arbitration panel.

It doesn't take much to spot a few snags in this arrangement, but then it's how it plays to the collective that matters. Mrs May has already got her narrative lined up. The EU can't deliberately trap us in the backstop, so there!

And there is more to this. By way of a "legal commitment", the UK and the EU will begin work immediately to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by the end of December 2020. And, to that effect, there will be a "specific negotiating track" on alternative arrangements from the very start of the next phase of negotiations, a wondrous thing that will consider "facilitations and technologies" – both those currently ready and emerging.

And yet, there is even more. The United Kingdom Government will make a Unilateral Declaration. This is not your common and garden declaration, because it has a capital "U" and a capital "D". It says that if the backstop actually comes into effect, and discussions on our future relationship with the EU break down to such an extent that there is no prospect of subsequent agreement, "it is the position of the United Kingdom that there would be nothing to prevent the UK instigating measures that would ultimately dis-apply the backstop".

That, of course, would mean that a hard border would immediately apply between the Republic and Northern Ireland, as it would apply if there was no deal. But Mrs May doesn't mention that. We have a new, "washes whiter" improved deal, that banishes all stains from our relationship with the EU.

And today, the prime minister will speak in more detail about these wondrous things when she opens the debate in the Commons. But already, she is convinced that now is the time for the MP collective to come together, to back her new deal and "to deliver on the instruction of the British people".

Just to make sure that the MPs are listening, Mrs May is saying that this is the last time they will be asked to vote. There will be no further negotiations, so they should not expect another "washes even whiter" deal to come rolling along to replace this one. This is it – this is the one.

The same message is being delivered by Juncker, who has roundly declared that there will be "no third chance". It is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all, he says.

Whatever else, I suppose the prime minister must be given ten out of ten for trying. Although she stopped short of holding a press conference at the foot of the steps as she disembarked from her RAF transport, and thus resisted the temptation to wave a piece of paper declaring "peace in our time", she has done just about everything else possible short of actually negotiating a new deal.

As it stands, the existing Withdrawal Agreement stays in place, its text unchanged, and the backstop is still there, lurking in the background ready to kick in the moment the transitional period is over.

And if she or the MPs think there is anything to be gained from kicking the can further down the road, there is a sharp reminder in a letter from Juncker to Donald Tusk, that if the UK has not left the EU by 23-26 May, it will be legally obliged to hold elections for the European Parliament.

The framing is such that the very clear intent of the "colleagues" is to draw a line under the withdrawal process. It is "time to move on" writes Juncker, "as swiftly as possible".

Most of the nation would echo those sentiments, but it remains to be seen whether the MPs can rise to the occasion. They have the attention of the media at the moment, and are luxuriating in the limelight. Rarely have they had so much airtime, and they are bound to want to make the most of today's drama.

But, if at the end of the day, we don't have the Withdrawal Agreement in the bag, then it is hard to see whether there can be any alternative to a no-deal Brexit. The MPs may keep on playing their games, but with 17 days to go, they are about to learn the meaning of the word "default".

Not unreasonably, a number of prominent figures are saying that if the vote goes the wrong way today, the country will be plunged into crisis. Even if the agreement is ratified, though, it may only be crisis deferred, but as long as there is progress there is hope.

And that is what is at stake today. And it is not just Mrs May under scrutiny. More so than in living memory, parliament is in the firing line. And if demands are high, expectations are low. But if the MPs fail to step up to the plate, there will be a price to pay.

Richard North 12/03/2019 link

Brexit: one small step


You might have thought that former foreign secretary Johnson might have learned something about the EU in his long journey from Telegraph hack to backbench MP and Telegraph columnist. In his latest column, though, we see a parade of the most extraordinary ignorance about the nature of the Withdrawal Agreement and the embedded backstop.

Clearly, Mr Johnson simply does not understand some key facts that lie at the heart of our post-Brexit relationship with the EU. Both rehearsed many time on this blog, the first is that, once we leave the EU, we become a third country. The second is that the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland becomes part of the external border of the European Union.

Since it is an undisputed shared objective of the EU and the UK that this border should be "frictionless", this creates a unique situation where a back door via the Irish Republic is opened into the EU's Single Market, potentially compromising its integrity to such an extent that it puts the whole concept at risk.

To avoid this, the European Union has no option but to insist as part of our withdrawal agreement on a series of measures which will secure the integrity of the Single Market. And it is from this that stems the so-called backstop – the protocol on Ireland attached to the formal Withdrawal Agreement.

The backstop, of course, is not intended to take effect, leaving the period afforded by the transitional period for the UK to negotiate a long-term agreement which would secure a "soft" border while maintaining the integrity of the Single Market. Only if this agreement is not concluded does the backstop kick in.

Although this was initially agreed by the UK government, the MP collective has rejected it and now Mr Johnson tells us that our negotiators "have done their best to explain UK democratic and constitutional objections to the Irish backstop". But, he adds: "They might as well have been talking to the wall".

Therein is the essential problem. No more can the EU back down from its stance than, if Mr Johnson has it correct, the UK can retreat from its. This leaves us with an insoluble impasse. The EU cannot give in and, if the parliament will not back whatever is presented to it on Tuesday, there will be no deal. It is as simple and complicated as that.

There is simply no point in churning out the tiresome rant which forms Mr Johnson's column today, and if it was only his personal opinion he was projecting, we could ignore it completely. Sadly, that luxury is not given to us as his lamentable views seem to be shared by the entire ERG sect and many other Conservative MPs.

But even then there is no point in arguing with the man, or in dealing with his many technical errors and misperceptions. Come Tuesday, the MP collective has to decide whether to go for the Withdrawal Agreement (complete with backstop), or prat around with ideas of their own, the net effect of which will be a no-deal Brexit – with or without a delay.

At this time, most of the ordinary public – if there is such a thing - have ceased caring, a situation which has been with us long since. It has even got to a state where people such as myself can't even be bothered to address, yet again, the arguments put by the likes of Johnson. It is time to put up or shut up. And if the choice is no-deal, by act or default, then Johnson and his mates will be responsible for the consequences.

Should the collective elect for the Withdrawal Agreement, it isn't the end of the world. Johnson and his band of intellectual pygmies are vastly overstating their case. To ward off the backstop, we need to adopt either the Efta/EEA option or, failing that, what I've described as the "shadow" EEA option. This replicates the substance of the Efta/EEA option without rejoining Efta.

From there, I don't think anybody in their right mind would take this as the final cover. And nor is the traditional free trade agreement an answer. This would be going backwards, not forwards.

But it is here that there is an extraordinary lack of vision which melds into a distressing timidity, where so few people seem prepared to think outside the box. Yet, in fact, in terms of broad principles, there are only three possible options: unilateral action, bilateral agreements, and multilateral action.

Within the latter category, though, we have the ability to broker sector-specific deals, either within the WTO framework – such as the agreement on trade in large civil aircraft – or under the aegis of the UN or allied bodies, such as the globally harmonised system (GHS) of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals.

For all the blather about free trade agreements, the greatest potential for advancement lies in multilateral, sector-specific agreements, which have the great advantage of releasing parties from the curse of conditionality, where non-trade related clauses are attached to trade agreements.

As with the WP.29 system, on the global harmonisation of vehicle regulations, we can also get away from the "big bang" approach to trade negotiations, and embark on a process of incremental development, where parties can opt in and out, according to their wishes and needs.

But there is another issue, one which has been almost (if not actually) totally ignored in the pursuit of freeing up world trade. That is the vexed question of the need for democratising trade deals, so that we don't have trade agreements over-riding domestic law when this is felt to be against our national interests.

To that extent, it can be – and has been – argued that even the WTO agreement is anti-democratic, differing in some respects from the EU only in the matter of scale rather than principle. Either way, domestic law has to give way to international accords.

The impact of this, of course, can be overstated. I have been known to remark that I would not be prepared to man the barricades over an international standard for the sugar content of jam – especially when this is determined by the characteristics of spoilage organisms.

However, there will always be areas of friction between domestic and international laws, and a way must be found to deal with them, in a way that maintains the integrity of the international order, while protecting democracy at the local level – the only level where it has real meaning.

Thinking this through, it has occurred to me that a combination of strategies could suffice. First, we could adopt the EEA Agreement device of safeguard measures – allowing opt-outs from treaty provisions on certain grounds. Then we could employ The Harrogate Agenda referendum system, together with specific restraints in a written constitution.

The way these would work together is that the government would be constitutionally prohibited from signing up to any treaty unless it embodied formal safeguard measures – or waivers, as in the WTO agreement.

Then, at any time once a treaty is in force, a referendum can be called (subject to THA restraints) on whether any specific treaty requirement should be struck out by invoking the safeguard measures or a waiver. If a majority voted in favour, then the government would be obliged to invoke the measures, opting us out from the relevant part of the treaty.

Given that safeguards are a common part of treaty law, such a device would maintain the integrity of the international order. It might also provide a vital safety valve, that would keep us attached to certain treaties. Imagine, for instance, whether we would have had a referendum on leaving the EU if we could have had a referendum on whether to modify the freedom of movement provisions.

In terms of taking back control, where the population of a country feels it has the final say as to whether any particular treaty provision should apply, there might be considerably less resistance to developing international cooperative agreements.

Doubtless, though, there are endless queues of people who would be only to keen to sneer at the idea of injecting real democracy into the international system, rather than the sham democracy represented by EU systems. But, above all, we have people who see it as their role in life to sneer at anything which differs from their perceptions of the norm.

Nevertheless, it is fair to say that the thinking on trading relationships and treaty systems has slipped into a rut, lacking in imagination and innovation. From the likes of Mr Johnson and others, we get the same tired mantras, based largely on 18th Century ideas which have progressed little since their inception.

As far as Brexit goes, we desperately need some new thinking, but also the urgent recognition that the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement is only one small step for man. More than anything, we need a sense of perspective.

As long as the deal gets us out of the EU, nothing is forever. We can come back again and again until we get closer to what we want. With our closest neighbours, though, there will never be a time when we are not negotiating about something. One could say that the Brexit process is not just for Christmas, but for life. Once started, it will never, ever end.

Richard North 11/03/2019 link

Brexit: a done deal?


In what passes for news, the Telegraph is breathlessly announcing that Theresa May's hopes of a last-minute Brexit breakthrough appear doomed after a "total breakdown of trust" between London and Brussels.

Apparently, the famous "last ditch plea" speech, from the depths of Friday afternoon Grimsby has "backfired spectacularly", with Brussels accusing our beloved prime minister of playing a "blame game".

Michel Barnier - who the Telegraph helpfully tells us is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, just in case you've been asleep for the past two years and didn't know – has responded to the speech with the unprecedented round of tweeting which sort of suggests that he is a tad teed off.

This is augmented by those ever-helpful "sources in Brussels" – who can't actually be in Brussels because Brussels closes down for the weekend, starting on Thursday evening. But they say that Mr Barnier's patience with the UK negotiators had worn out, and that Mrs May "has never been able to demonstrate a stable majority for any of her decisions".

In between all this somewhere is an amount of detail, which includes having Northern Ireland doing the business with the EU, while the rest of the UK goes its own way and we set up a "wet" border with the province – an option that Mrs May has already rejected in somewhat forthright terms.

Yet, for all that, Mrs May is due to speak to EU leaders by telephone over the weekend and a European Commission spokesman said "intensive work" was going on between London and Brussels, which suggests that some parts of Brussels might have to be temporarily repopulated before the end of the weekend.

But, if the Telegraph believes this is "going backwards", the Guardian takes a more violent view of events, calling this a "slap in the face". Brussels apparently reached out to Grimsby, to have Barnier set Mrs May "on course for Brexit defeat".

You can see how tense things have become when the paper actually quotes "UK sources", to tell us that there is nothing in Barnier's offer that could change MPs' minds. "It will not be enough to persuade Geoffrey Cox to revise his legal advice about the indefinite nature of the backstop – there is no reason for optimism", one official "close to the negotiations" says.

The thing is, there never was any reason for optimism before Mrs May's speech. It went exactly as forecast with no surprises, other than being delivered in what looked like the store room of her host, the offshore wind turbine installer Ørsted, a firm that "takes tangible action to create a world that runs entirely on green energy".

It seemed hardly the ideal place for such an important speech and it could have been filmed in any number of light industrial premises along the North Circular Road. There was no need to drag the unfortunate journalists all the way to Grimsby for such an uninspiring backdrop.

The lack of inspiration, however, did not stop the prime minister creating a cliché-rich environment of her own, ideal for broadcast news soundbites. This included a direct challenge to MPs. If they rejected the deal on Tuesday, Mrs May said, "nothing would be certain".

That generated the first of many headline-grabbing soundbites, as the prime minister said: "It would be a moment of crisis". MPs would immediately be faced with another choice, which could mean we leave the EU with no deal on 29 March, or we delay Brexit and carry on arguing about it. It could mean a second Brexit referendum or it could even mean "we might never leave the EU at all".

That last soundbite at least got a headline from Sky News, which is always game for the cheap shot.

It tells us that Mrs May's stark warning, was "designed to persuade dissenting Brexit-supporting MPs to fall into line". However, it has obviously failed to convince Jeremy Corbyn – not that anyone thought it would. He said it was a "sign of desperation".

Sky's rival news broadcaster, the BBC, contents itself with the anodyne: "One more push needed to get deal through, says May", offering the prime minister's own punchline, "Let's get it done".

Not to be outdone on the competition for the most boring headline, ITV News raced into the fray with, "May suffers fresh setback in Brexit deal negotiations", although this broadcaster doesn't seem to have got the memo about the game being over. Mrs May’s hopes of a Brexit breakthrough are merely "hanging in the balance", after what only "appeared" to be a rebuff from the EU.

Such is the ephemeral nature of political speeches, though – especially when they are trailed heavily the day before – that little of the content has survived to make today's headlines. Barnier's response is making the weather, even if some think his swift response is motivated by a determination to deflect the blame for the failure of Brexit.

If it really is the case that the "blame game" is to the fore, then it would suggest – more reliably than can legions of anonymous sources – that the EU is giving up on the prospect of Westminster ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement. But then, if Mrs May is also playing this game, that says that she is giving up as well. In that case, on Tuesday, we will merely see her going through the motions.

With so few expectations of success, the emphasis may well turn to the post-vote manoeuvres in the Commons, with Brussels fading into the background. We might also expect a ramping up in the media of no-deal horror stories as the clock ticks down to zero.

The BBC has piled in with a story about chemicals, under the headline: "No-deal Brexit threat to 'billions of pounds' of chemicals". This is only 26 months after we carried the story.

Nevertheless, it takes the rare genius of the BBC to write an analytical piece about the effect of EU regulation on our chemical exports without once mentioning the REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) Regulations, relying as always on lightweight sources for oral evidence, mixed in with the obligatory human interest narratives.

Where the BBC leads, the Guardian follows, or vice versa. The newspaper is very much in the market for Brexit horrors, and they don't get much worse for Champagne Socialists than this one, with the headline: "End of the booze cruise? Calais wine stores run dry amid pre-Brexit stockpiling".

"Last weekend was manic, we'd never seen anything like it", Marco Attard, co-owner of the Calais Wine Superstore, wails to the Guardian. "We were so taken by surprise in February and early March that we sold out of many lines and have pressed the panic button to get more stocks in".

As a pointer to the future, Mr Attard says: "People are realising they might not be able to come to Calais and bring back the same amount of wine if we get a hard Brexit. They are stockpiling".

Horror of horrors, in the UK where the average price of a bottle of still wine in the UK is £5.73, the combination of extra post-Brexit costs could add an extra 20p to the price. You can see why the Guardian is so worried. This is even worse than the news that the number of overseas dogs being entered at Crufts has dropped for the first time in almost a decade.

Perhaps not all is lost, as the Irish Times is seeing things in less apocalyptic terms. It has convinced itself that the prospect of the UK seeking an Article 50 extension has risen significantly, with most EU Member States favouring two to three months.

That would give the booze cruises a little longer to run, although the feeling is that Mrs May will have to work hard to offer the "colleagues" a satisfactory reason for a time extension. One senses that even Mr Macron will not be too convinced that the need to support Calais wine merchants is sufficient grounds.

One very good reason for not approving an extension, though, is that it would cut short these interminable speeches from Mrs May, delivered from more and more bizarre venues. However, on a reductio ad absurdum basis, it might just be worth it if Mrs May could be persuaded to deliver her next speech from the top of a wind turbine. That is a less than simples challenge.

Richard North 09/03/2019 link

Brexit: training for chaos


I wish it could come as some surprise, but it doesn't. One remains distinctly underwhelmed by the legacy media reports retailing the entirely predictable failure of the non-negotiations being carried out in Brussels.

Not untypical of the genre is the Mail which chortles to itself with the headline, "Europe says NON! Brexit talks in deadlock as UK walks away empty-handed", which it then follows up with the entirely predictable question: "is the PM running out of time before crunch Commons vote?"

The narrative here is that there was a "heated stand-off" between EU negotiators and attorney general Geoffrey Cox, whence the EU refused to grant the UK "very reasonable" assurances over the Irish border backstop.

Michel Barnier is said to be "still determined" and EU officials are reported as preparing to work round the clock this weekend, even though they are saying that it is "unlikely" an agreement will be reached before then and that talks will go down to the wire.

Even if they were able to pencil-in a provisional agreement by the end of the weekend, that would only leave Mrs May just 24 hours to travel to Brussels to endorse the new text on the Monday, before taking it back to be voted on by MPs the next day. And this is in the context where some of the more bolshie MPs are saying they want two days to study any new draft.

Still, at least this sort of report gives the media something to be reporting on in what would otherwise be a news vacuum as we while away the hours to the Tuesday vote, ready for another session of the eternal soap opera. And, even if no one can predict the outcome with any certainty, the general expectation is that parliament will, once again, refuse to ratify the withdrawal agreement.

To an extent, one can sympathise with the political hacks who have to keep the story moving despite there being nothing much of interest to report. At least most of them have a knife crime "epidemic" to keep them occupied, or even antisemitism in the Labour Party.

Those who have drawn the short straw can always fall back on the old faithful, predicting voting numbers to come up with a figure for how much Mrs May will lose. The Telegraph is heavily into this, setting the expected defeat at 100 votes. But, it says, Downing Street is already making plans for a third attempt, and Mrs May is considering making a major speech on Friday to plead for support from MPs.

At least a hundred down will not be quite as devastating as the 230 majority against the first attempt to ratify. One supposes that if Mrs May can cut that figure by more than a half, if she keeps repeating the vote she may eventually get the majority she needs. There is talk even of another vote in the week commencing 18 March.

The Times on the other hand seems to have given up on Brexit, devoting its attention to British billionaires and tax havens, while the Financial Times comes up with the startling news that the Brexit impasse is raising fears in Downing Street that Mrs May is losing control. We'd never have guessed that one.

To add to the entertainment, though, some media sources are reporting on how the government has set up "expert" panels to develop alternatives to the backstop. It is intended that these panels will help influence the UK's position in the talks, including looking at how other borders operate and the use of "cutting-edge" technology, all with a view of avoiding a hard border.

This comes on the back of £20 million funding to support the development of ideas which emerge from the work, although it has still not been explained how any of these alternatives will be able to deal with the full range of checks needed, in the absence of cross border cooperation agreements.

It is all very well arguing that, in the fullness of time, a combination of political agreements and technological trade facilitation measures may be able to reduce border checks to a minimum, but nothing is going to take the place of the Withdrawal Agreement in the short-term.

Before we can ever get to the stage where we can explore facilitation measures, MPs will have to bite the bullet and ratify the WA, otherwise the full range of border controls kicks in automatically.

Then, of course, there will never be frictionless trade unless there is a firm commitment on the part of the UK to retain regulatory harmonisation with the EU, while also keeping common surveillance and enforcement systems in place.

Setting up the arrangements outside the framework of the Efta/EEA systems would be theoretically possible, but complex and time consuming. We would struggle to do it within the 21-month implementation period, and would most likely have to look for a time extension in order to get everything in place, especially if we intended to rely on innovative technology.

There is also the issue which we all failed to address during the referendum campaign – VAT harmonisation. Even the systems prevailing in Efta/EEA states, and with Switzerland, would not ensure a soft border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. We would need to sign up to a comprehensive VAT treaty with the EU, the extent of which currently does not exist outside the EU.

Those who seem to take delight in picking holes in the thinking that has emerged on this, through the blog and in the different editions of Flexcit, need to remember that we recommended settling our post-Brexit relationship with the EU before making our Article 50 notification.

I also suggested that it might be necessary to apply for a time extension before we even got down to the negotiations, with the suggestion that it could take as long as 20 years for us to finalise our trading relations.

In other words, if we were going to come up with our own ideas for the trading relationship with the EU, we needed to have started work immediately after the referendum. Leaving it to the last minute, after an agreement had already been signed off, is hardly a sensible approach.

As it now stands, we need to hope that there is plenty of scope for innovative systems, as the so-called Norway option is now all but dead in the water. Certainly, the much vaunted Common Market 2.0 is no answer, and with Jeremy Corbyn reaching out to its Tory MP supporters, one can take it that the idea has no future.

To an extent, there has been far too much emphasis on structures and labels – even if the various supporters rarely seem to understand the implications of the systems they favour. The important thing to realise is that, given goodwill on all sides, the eventual structures adopted are perhaps of less importance than the guiding frameworks.

A crucial determinant of success – whatever the structure chosen - will be the UK commitment to maintain the harmonisation of regulation, surveillance and enforcement in matters concerning cross-border trade with the EU.

As a taster for what things might look like in the shorter term, we've being hearing reports of long queues of lorries outside Calais, as customs officials took industrial action in a bid for more resources – seeking to show what pressures would apply after Brexit.

Yesterday, saw reports of delays spreading to Eurostar services as French customs staff replicated the sorts of checks which may be required once we have left the EU.

Train services between Paris and London suffered long delays, with trains leaving up to two hours late as thousands of passengers were forced to queue up through passport controls (pictured), with customs officials taking longer to question travellers and running baggage checks.

Vincent Thomazo, of France's UNSA customs union, said, "We are making sure controls are very strict", adding that the "delays and long queues" proved how customs and security staff were not equipped to cope. Trade union leaders are insisting that they "don't have the resources to cope adequately" with Brexit and wanted management to see how incredibly difficult the job was going to become.

Whether in fact this really represents what might happen in the immediate aftermath of Brexit no one really knows. But when it comes to France there is always a possibility of industrial action, which may slow down or halt goods or passenger processing. One might even see French farmers (or fishermen) blockade ports such as Calais, seeking to prevent UK goods being landed.

Therefore, one might look upon the last few days as training days, preparing people for the chaos to come – or not. For such a long time now, it has been impossible to predict the outcome of Brexit, and things don't seem to be getting any better.

Richard North 07/03/2019 link

Brexit: out just in time


It goes almost without saying that, when an event of any consequence occurs, someone, or even whole groups of people, will pop out of the woodwork and claim they had seen it coming.

Some of them will be entirely justified in their claims but, with any such event, there will have been a wide range of predictions, many of them wrong. But, by the law of averages, some of them will be right.

The same sort of dynamic goes for things like the creation of the European Union. There will be those who say the full objectives of the founders were openly disclosed and there was no secret about their motivations. Others will say, as do I, that the establishment was all part of The Great Deception and most people were kept in the dark.

Of course, both are right. A few people were aware of what was going on but the majority took the general drift and conformed with whatever consensus view their particular tribe was comfortable with.

Latterly, much could be said of the Brexit campaign. Currently, French president Emmanuel Macron is addressing us by way of an open letter, headed: "Dear Europe, Brexit is a lesson for all of us: it’s time for renewal".

And he asks who told the British people the truth about their post-Brexit future, who spoke to them about losing access to the EU market, and who mentioned the risks to peace in Ireland of restoring the border.

The truth of the matter is that a lot of people spoke about a lot of things relating to Brexit. But most people listened to what they wanted to believe and ignored the rest – in the same way that people listened to their preferred narrative about the foundation of the EU and ignored the rest.

Therefore, Macron is not in a particularly good position to be talking about nationalist "anger mongers" who, "backed by fake news, promise anything and everything". If the founders of what became the EU had been more open and, in particular, the UK politicians advocating European unity had been more honest, we perhaps would not have joined the EEC in the first place.

On that basis, Mr Macron's "Europe" wouldn't be in the place it is now and he wouldn't be writing tortured pieces of prose in the Guardian, packed with half-truths and delusional rhetoric.

What is so striking about the likes of Macron though, is how ready they are to claim democratic credentials, in this case arguing that the European model is based on freedom: of people, diversity of opinions and creation, the first "freedom" being "democratic freedom" – the freedom to choose our leaders.

Actually, while the French people have the luxury of choosing their own president, we in this country don't get to choose our leader. The prime minister for the moment was appointed by her party, and currently stands as the leader of a minority party, her only elected office being that of an MP for her constituency.

But what Mr Macron also skirts over is the fact that his beloved "Europe" has in the European Union its own supreme government, the leaders of which are not elected to their roles by the people.

And nor could any direct elections – should they choose to have them – actually be democratic. The essence of a valid election requires a demos, and there is no European demos that could legitimise an EU-wide vote. The process of election, in itself, does not make for a democracy.

So far out is this man, though, this president of the French Republic, that he is calling for Europe, "where social security was created", to introduce a social shield for all workers, guaranteeing the same pay for the same work, and an EU minimum wage, appropriate to each country, negotiated collectively every year.

One can only assume that an EU minimum wage is a serious suggestion. Why should we think otherwise? And if it is, the ramifications are extraordinarily serious, representing a huge leap in power for the European Union.

But Mr Macron wants the EU to set a climate change target of zero carbon by 2050, and he wants pesticide usage halved by 2025. He wants a "European food safety force" to improve our food controls and, to counter the lobby threat, independent scientific assessment of substances hazardous to the environment and health.

This imperative, he says, needs to guide all our action: from the Central Bank to the European commission, from the European budget to the Investment Plan for Europe, all our institutions need to have the climate as their mandate.

Progress and freedom are about being able to live from one’s work, Mr Macron adds. Therefore, he avers, Europe needs to look ahead to create jobs. This is why it needs not only to regulate the digital giants by putting in place European supervision of the major digital platforms but also to finance innovation by giving the new European Innovation Council a budget on a par with the United States in order to spearhead new technological breakthroughs such as artificial intelligence.

Incidentally, he also wants European rules banishing incitement to hatred and violence from the internet, "since respect for the individual is the bedrock of our civilisation and our dignity".

And, for Mr Macron, nothing of this can wait. European humanism demands action, he says. Everywhere, people are standing up to be part of that change so by the end of the year, "let's set up, with representatives of the EU institutions and the member states, a Conference for Europe in order to propose all the changes our political project needs, which is open even to amending the EU treaties".

This conference, Macron argues, will need to engage with citizens' panels, and hear from academics, business and worker representatives, as well as religious and spiritual leaders.

It will define a roadmap for the EU that translates these key priorities into concrete actions. There will be disagreement, he says, "but is it better to have a static Europe or a Europe that advances, sometimes at different speeds, and that is open to all?"

Bizarrely though, in this "Europe", which we would have acquire so much more power, he asserts that "the people will really take back control of their future". And in this Europe, he is sure that the UK will find its true place.

The Brexit impasse is a lesson for us all, says Macron. We need to escape the "trap" of lies and the irresponsibility that can destroy "Europe", as represented by these dreadful lies told during the Brexit campaign.

He thus wants to make the forthcoming European Parliament elections and "our project" meaningful. It is for you, the people of Europe "to decide whether Europe and the values of progress that it embodies are to be more than just a passing episode in history". This, he says, is the choice I put to you: that together we chart the road to European renewal.

All we can say of this, however, is here is an example of a desperate need for Mr Macron to listen to the words he is actually articulating. He is proposing a massive leap in centralisation, with the EU Member States awarding massively more powers to the anti-democratic institutions of the EU, all in the name of letting the people take back control.

Through the tortuous months since the Brexit referendum, there have been many concerns and doubts about the wisdom of leaving the EU. So here, Mr Macron – one half of the Franco-German motor of integration – has done us a huge favour.

He has reminded us that, when it comes to European political integration, there is no status quo. The ambitions for further integration are still as active as they ever were. And, most of all, no sooner is the UK set to leave than he is proposing a massive "conference of Europe", to prepare for the next round of treaty change.

In arguing that this is directed towards giving more power to the people, one could say that the French President is seeking to deceive us all, cloaking political integration in the honeyed words of democracy. But most of all – if he actually believes this guff – he is deceiving himself.

Either way, Macron embodies all the "values" and the delusions which made leaving the EU so necessary and, in the longer-term, the only sensible path that the UK can take. There is no possible way we can share these ambitions and to pretend that we have any common cause with the French president would be sheer hypocrisy. We are getting out just in time.

We can always wish the Europeans well if they are intent on pursuing these delusions. But they are not for us. However bad our leaders are, at least we will now be free as a people to focus on devising and improving our own systems of government, taking us closer to the idea of a democracy which the likes of Mr Macron want to leave behind.

Richard North 05/03/2019 link

Brexit: shambles time


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard North 04/03/2019 link

Brexit: death cult Tories


Not a lot has changed since yesterday, and not a lot since the day before and the day before that. In truth, not a lot has happened for a while, apart from an awful lot of noise, expanding into a whole new universe of tedium.

Newspaper journalists are reduced to quoting other newspaper stories, in particular the Barnier interview, which is only of marginal interest as it tells us very little that we didn't know before. In other times, we would have seen something more substantial before hitting the front page of The Sunday Telegraph.

There, the theme is one that has been emerging for a little time, the fear that a delay to Brexit could put the whole project at risk. So we have those vast intellects, Andrea Leadsom and Jeremy Hunt who join forces to tell their readers that "the active pursuit of a delay to Brexit, with no purpose beyond frustration, is a betrayal of referendum result".

What's on the table, of course, remains on the table. As Barnier himself says, once again, there will be no changes to the backstop. "To limit it in time or to introduce a unilateral exit clause would call into question its credibility", he says. "It cannot be 'time limited'", he adds, then offering the chance of a get-out.

The backstop, Mr Barnier confirms, "it can be 'event limited'. It will stop when we have either a global agreement on the future relationship, or a specific agreement on Ireland. This is what is planned".

As for that cunning plan, the EU is "working on clarifications and guarantees that can be made to the backstop". He addresses the fear that it will be used to keep the UK indefinitely in a common customs territory but, he says, "This is not and has never been our will. Europeans are committed to working as quickly as possible on solutions to avoid having to use it, or not too long".

The objective then is to "find guarantees to confirm, clarify, guarantee the goodwill and good faith of Europeans, with commitments that will have a real legal force because they will be joint". Assurances can then be given in an "interpretive document", although the form "remains to be defined". This would come "in addition to the treaty of exit and the political declaration".

And that's where we were yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before. Barnier and his team have been working "night and day", to that end, but it is in the lap of the Gods. If enough MPs decide to go with the "interpretive document" then we will have ourselves a Withdrawal Agreement next week. If not, the soap opera continues.

Much will supposedly rest on Mrs May meeting conditions set by Rees-Mogg and his ERG pals, a mere three tests, possibly representing their numeracy limit. They want a legally binding clause that "unambiguously overrides" the text of the withdrawal agreement, stronger language that the so-called Irish border backstop will be temporary and a "clear and unconditional route out of the backstop if trade talks fail".

If that is what they actually want, then the resolution is out of their hands. The vote will depend on Labour MPs and other strays backing the agreement. And, whether that happens is anyone's guess.

Meanwhile, Sir Ivan Rogers has been talking to Spiegel. He acknowledges that the Brexit process would be a long, tortuous and potentially conflictual process, but what has surprised him is the extent of the mess.

Four weeks before the Brexit deadline, he says, "the political class is unable to come to any serious conclusion about what kind of Brexit they want". Of course, he adds, Brexit is a revolutionary moment, but he admits to never having seen a political crisis like this in his entire professional career.

Dismissing the idea that a no-deal is "off the table", he thinks there is still a serious possibility that we will be paralysed after March, with no resolution. There will then be a risk that we end up with a no-deal exit in June or July. Sir Ivan does not think that there is an appetite in lots of European capitals to simply roll forward extensions while we are still working out where to go.

He complains that Mrs May indicated to the Europeans that we would be going much further out of the EU than Norway and Switzerland, or even Turkey, which has a customs union agreement with the EU. But he doesn't think she fully understood what a dramatic rupture that would have been. Since then, she has tried to edge things back. But, having started with a hard line position, every time she's moved a little bit back, the right wing of her party cries betrayal.

Furthermore, Mrs May was not by any means the only one who didn't understand the implications of what she was doing. That lack of understanding is "an endemic problem".

Says Sir Ivan, "I am one of the few who has worked for the bulk of my career on European issues. British politicians don't understand what the single market or the customs union is or how the EU really works". He admits that this is a problem in many member states, but it is worse here.

He has worked with several prime ministers very closely. "Although all of them have been very able people", he says, "none of them have had a deep understanding how the European Union works. They don't have an emotional attachment to the EU, because we've always had a rather mercantile relationship with our neighbours".

Then, putting a perspective on our future relationship with the EU, he says that making a deal will take much longer than many people think. The planned trade deal is not "the easiest in human history," as Liam Fox has claimed. It's not easy to solve for one simple reason: this is the first trade deal in history where partners are seeking to get further apart. He thus states:
All trade deals I've ever worked on were about getting closer together and dismantling barriers to trade. We are now deliberately re-erecting barriers, seeking a thinner relationship than the one we have. We like the free trade with Europe, but not the European institutions. Well, that's not on offer. That's why the next step of the negotiations will be conflictual again. The Europeans will say: There must be a reason why you wanted to leave and diverge from our model, please tell us what degree of divergency you want and why. You only need to say it that way to realise that this will not take months, but years.
And there is a cause for considerable gloom. Just sorting what should have been the relatively simple process of agreeing the mechanical processes of leaving has all but torn the political system apart, with issues unresolved 32 months after the referendum. And now, even if at the eleventh hour, we do reach an agreement, the hardest part is yet to come, and this supposedly can be done in 21 months, perhaps with a short extension.

Thus, it is all very well for 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady to write in the Mail on Sunday that, "the whole country is tired of vacillation and delay". When the right compromise is offered, he says, we should pull together behind the Prime Minister and help her to deliver our exit from the European Union on 29 March.

For the backstop to be consigned to history, any new trade agreement has to offer frictionless trade and a whole lot more, the like of which has never been secured between states outside the EU. Not even the Efta states can claim such a status, and especially not Switzerland, which may prove to be the closest model for the UK-EU relationship.

And this is something which is simply being skated over. It is all very well saying that the backstop will not be used if there is and alternative agreement which will secure the absence of a hard border, but there is nothing on the horizon which could get close to replicating the conditions necessary to maintain the status quo.

The worrying thing, therefore, is that we are dealing with political classes who go far beyond the failure to understand the EU, as averred by Sir Ivan. We have a level of self-deception amounting to delusion amongst our MPs that there is any possibility of reaching a sensible working arrangement with the EU. The best the ratification can achieve is to kick the can down the road those additional 21 months, before we're in exactly the same situation that we are now.

Not for nothing are those who are blocking the current deal being described as "death cult Tories", but if the truth were known, parliament as a whole has become a death cult, filled with brain-dead zombies who have long ago departed from the ranks of humanity. And, if we let them, their cult will destroy this nation. The process of destruction is only just beginning.

Richard North 03/03/2019 link

Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
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