Brexit: grandstanding


Since 1972, Parliament has been sitting on its hands, allowing successive EU treaties to be signed. It has then been content to ratify these treaties, holding unto itself only the power to make the decisions as to whether more and more of its powers should be outsourced to Brussels.

Then, when it finally came to whether we should leave the EU, the people made the decision, in the face of a parliament that, on balance, supported continued membership. And now that the people have decided and the government is in the process of implementing their decision, some MPs have rediscovered "democracy" and have demanded a vote on the withdrawal settlement negotiated under Article 50.

Having awarded themselves this vote, if Dominic Grieve's amendment survives (which it probably won't), they could severely damage the withdrawal process. Once the Article 50 settlement has been concluded, there is no provision for it to be renegotiated if any of the parties reject it, leaving the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal.

In theory, MPs could rescue us from a bad deal, but since its effects could not begin to match the consequences of no deal,  MPs have awarded themselves the power to turn a crisis into a potential disaster - all in the name of democracy. What happens, for instance, if the European Council and Parliament approve the deal and Westminster says "no"?

The fact that we are confronted with this situation is, of course, highly unsatisfactory, but one should note that the essentially flawed Article 50 came with the Lisbon Treaty. This was approved by parliament – after a referendum had been rejected. That makes it parliament's mess (in part) – they need to put up with it, just like the rest of us have to.

Much of the angst is, in any event, special pleading. The wording of the Article 50 settlement is only a very small part of the overall withdrawal process, with little lasting effect (barring, of course, Northern Ireland, which could as yet scupper the deal).

But if I am right in my assessment, then the transitional arrangements will need a new treaty, as will any trade deal agreed with the EU. And in both instances, parliament will get a vote, if it can be bothered. The UK ratification process makes provision for a vote if parliament demands it.

Given the quality of the debates we see in the House, and the average MP's understanding of EU and trade issues, any debate leading to such votes would hardly we worth the time. In any case, since most MPs vote on party lines, the outcomes would mostly be pre-ordained. But the point is that parliament does have the power to make a difference. Mostly it doesn't bother. It just makes noise – rather a lot of it.

As much as anything then, yesterday's vote represented nothing very much, other than an opportunity for MPs to indulge in yet more grandstanding – which is about the only thing they're any good for. It also reflected the inwards-looking nature of the institution and the chronic parochialism which elevates local interests above far more important events happening elsewhere.

One of those events took place in in Strasbourg, where Michel Barnier spoke to the plenary session of the European Parliament, reporting "on the extraordinary negotiation with the United Kingdom and on the first result we reached last Friday". From that one speech, we glean more information of use to us than we get from a bucket-full of Westminster effluvia.

Central to Barnier's speech was a reminder of his core philosophy. In this negotiation, he said,
… our state of mind has never been to make mutual concessions. This is not about making concessions on citizens' rights. This is not about making concessions on the peace process or stability on the island of Ireland. Nor is it about making concessions on the thousands of investment projects which are financed by EU policy and the EU budget.
There's nothing new here, but it does serve to illustrate once again how wrong HMG's approach to the negotiations has been, treating them as bargaining sessions as if in a souk. This was not the way to do business.

What was especially interesting, though, was Barnier's decision in his speech to focus principally on citizens' rights. The provisions of the Joint Report were spelt out, with the EU's chief negotiators pointing out that the rights of "4.5 million European citizens" living in the UK would be protected by their inclusion in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Spelt out then was the singular fact that the Agreement will take precedence over national law and its guarantees "will have direct effect, for the duration of the lifetime of the people concerned".

"There will be no ambiguity in the interpretation of the rights on either side of the Channel", Barnier added. "Current ECJ case law will be part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and future case law will apply. British courts will have to take 'due regard' of case law for the lifetimes of the citizens concerned".

Furthermore, the British authorities will create an independent authority to which European citizens can have recourse in the United Kingdom, in the same way as British citizens in the EU can have recourse to the European Commission.

But it is a measure of the lack of trust that the "colleagues" have in the UK government that they are insisting that the details of this independent authority must be included in the Withdrawal Agreement. So indeed will the administrative procedures that the UK will apply to allow EU citizens to stay in the UK. Nothing is being left to chance – or the good will of the UK government.

Barnier, however, acknowledges that neither on this issue nor on the other subjects of the orderly withdrawal "are we there yet". He thus points out that there are many details still to be resolved,some of which have yet to emerge into the public domain, such as Euratom.

We will continue the negotiations on the subjects that need more clarification, he says, deepening and negotiation: the governance of the future agreement, other subjects such as geographical indications, the issue of data.

As to Ireland, this "will form part of its own specific strand in the negotiations". "Each assuming their responsibility, we need to find specific solutions for the unique situation of the island of Ireland", he adds. The UK is not going to be allowed to roll this in with the trade negotiations. The issue will have to be settled, or we go no further.

Hinting at battles to come, Barnier talked of moving forward on defining a transition period. It will be "short and supervised during which we will maintain the full regulatory and supervisory architecture – and obviously the role of the Court of Justice – as well as European policies".

Meanwhile, on the future relationship, that is a matter for "our internal preparation". It is not open, at this stage, for the UK to take part in the discussions.

But certain things had already been decided. "I can already tell you, and I say so clearly and calmly", Barnier declared, "that there are non-negotiable points on the integrity of Single Market, the four indivisible freedoms which are the foundation of the Single Market, and the autonomy of the Union's decision-making, which the UK has decided to leave".

And never missing an opportunity to remind us of our coming status, he added: "The United Kingdom will become a third country on 29 March 2019", then asserting, "We think that a close, future partnership remains our common horizon".

To conclude, Barnier told the European Parliament, "We know where we are today; we know where we are going". Would that a UK government could be so confident. But with Dominic Grieve snapping at its heels, the very last thing our government knows is the nature of its destination – even less does it know how to get there.

Richard North 14/12/2017 link

Brexit: dereliction of duty


Something very strange happened yesterday. Theresa May, prime minister of the United Kingdom for the time being, stood in the Commons to give a statement on the outcome of Friday's Brexit negotiations. She delivered a litany of nonsense, one impossible scenario after another. Her own party loved her for it. The opposition, confused and ill-prepared, failed to make an impact. Mrs May lived to see another day.

In a sane political system, where MPs knew what they were talking about and we had an opposition worthy of its name, she would have been shredded. Her statement would have been challenged, dissected and torn apart, its author humiliated. But we don't have a sane system and for a leader of the opposition we have Jeremy Corbyn. And that's why Mrs May lived to see another day.

As always, the key issue was the Irish question, with Mrs May holding forth about the joint report reaffirming her government's "guarantee that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland". And with this came an expression of her "determination to uphold the constitutional and economic integrity of the whole United Kingdom".

This, Mrs May said, she had reinforced further by making six principled commitments to Northern Ireland. The first was to "uphold and support Northern Ireland's status as an integral part of the United Kingdom, consistent with the principle of consent".

The second was to "fully protect and maintain Northern Ireland's position within the single market of the United Kingdom". Third, there were to be "no new borders within the United Kingdom". Thus, in addition to there being no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the government would maintain the common travel area throughout these islands.

Fourthly, the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, would leave the EU customs union and the EU single market. Fifthly, the government would "uphold the commitments and safeguards set out in the Belfast agreement regarding north-south co-operation". Sixth, the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, would no longer be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

The trouble is that all of this sounds so eminently reasonable, especially when trotted out in the brisk, managerial tones of the Prime Minister. But it holds together only if no one asks for details of the essential requirements for the guarantee of no hard border, alongside protecting and maintain Northern Ireland's position within the single market of the United Kingdom. And, of course, no one asked.

Instead, the assembled MPs allowed Mrs May to list three quite improbable scenarios, any one of which might be supposed to deliver her new nirvana. Initially, she said, "our intention, is to deliver against these commitments through the new deep and special partnership that we will build with the European Union".

"Should this not prove possible", Mrs May told the House, "we have also been clear that we will seek specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland".

And then, "because we recognise the concerns felt on either side of the border, and we want to guarantee that we will honour the commitments we have made", said May, "we have also agreed one further fall-back option of last resort":
If we cannot find specific solutions, the UK will maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union that, now or in the future, support north-south co-operation, economic co-operation across the island of Ireland and the protection of the Belfast agreement.
Stepping back slightly, we have to remind ourselves that each or any of these three layered options are intended to "guarantee that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland". And with that in mind – bearing in mind that, at present, this comes with the Single Market – how does anyone think a mere free trade agreement, even in the form of a "deep and special partnership", is going to deliver that?

Interestingly, not one of the many questioning MPs thought to address that issue. All it would have needed was somebody to ask, "how does a deep and special partnership guarantee no hard border". But there was no answer to that question, because there was no question.

As to the first fall back, that too cried out for a question to the prime minister: "What might be the 'specific solutions' you will seek to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland?" But again, question there was none. Predictably, therefore, answer there was none.

That left the second fall back, where the UK would maintain "full alignment" "with those rules of the internal market and the customs union that, now or in the future, support north-south co-operation, economic co-operation across the island of Ireland".

Helpfully, there were a number of questions about "full alignment", not least from Jeremy Corbyn and from Labour's Chris Leslie, who wanted to know if it was a "meaningless concept". In response, the Prime Minister happily reiterated what David Davis had told us the previous day on the Marr show.

"Full alignment", she said, "means that we will be achieving the same objectives. I set out in my Florence speech that there are a number of ways in which we can approach this. There will be some areas where we want to achieve the same objectives by the same means".

What is important here, though, is what, in the view of the Prime Minister the term doesn't mean. And specifically, we can take it that it emphatically does not mean harmonisation of standards. "In any trade agreement", Mrs May later said:
there is an agreement about the rules, regulations and standards on which both sides will operate, but also an agreement about what happens when one side wants to diverge from them. The important point is that this Parliament will be the body deciding those rules and regulations.
From there, we really cannot go much further. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of the basics pertaining to the Single Market – which seems to exclude most MPs – will know that the free movement of goods and services arises out of the programme of harmonising laws throughout the Union.

Those whose memories go back to the late 80s and the early 90s will recall the great upsurge of EU law that came with the "completion of the Single Market", where between 1986 and 1992, more than 280 pieces of harmonising legislation was adopted in order to enable the abolition of internal borders.

If then, the essential requirement for invisible borders is the harmonisation of laws, how can Mrs May suggest that the EU will permit such a border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, without maintaining legislative (and system) harmonisation? This would have been such an easy question to ask.

In fact, someone did get close, none other than Ed Miliband. He noted that the Prime Minister had seemingly confirmed that we would have full regulatory autonomy after we leave the European Union. "Will she explain", Miliband thus asked: "how that is compatible with regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and no hard border?"

Needless to say, Mrs May didn't directly answer the question. Decisions about the future rules and regulations on which this country operates will be made by this Parliament, she said, adding that "we will avoid, and guarantee that we will not have, a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland". She then said:
In any trade agreement, a decision will be taken as to those rules and regulations on which we wish to operate on the same basis, those areas where we have the same objectives but will operate on a different basis, and those areas that are irrelevant to the issue of the trade agreement.
It was then down to Labour's Ian Murray, who put to Mrs May that she had reaffirmed that the UK will leave the single market and the customs union and the Government "will fully protect and maintain Northern Ireland's position within the single market of the United Kingdom". Yet, she says – observed Murray – there will be no "hard border" and [no] "regulatory harmonisation".

On that basis, it was entirely fair for Murray to ask: "Are not those three statements contradictory?" For his troubles, he got a one word response: "No", a reply some might have thought contemptuous. It certainly did not address the issues.

That, though, seems to be the trademark of this prime minister. Throughout the Brexit negotiations, she has relied on generalisations and vague promises, never supplementing them with detail or being "clear" (Mrs May's favourite word) about how she would implement them.

Largely – and with very few exceptions – most Tory MPs seemed content to accept Mrs May's assurances. But from all MPs, across the party divides, there was little attempt to force from her the essential details as to how she aims to honour her pledges. When, as in the "no hard border" pledge, it is evident that the Prime Minister cannot deliver, the failure to press the point amounts to a dereliction of duty.

Richard North 12/12/2017 link

Brexit: a phony deal


With excruciating slowness, the media is gradually getting the message – the "bad Friday" agreement is a crock – a phony deal. In the lead is Tony Connolly of the Irish broadcaster RTÉ, perhaps the only journalist around making a serious attempt to understand the vital technical issues.

And it is on the technical issues that Mrs May's "deal" hangs or falls – phrases like "full alignment", one which happens to form one of the crucial elements. And it was on this which Andrew Marr questioned Brexit Secretary David Davis on his chat show yesterday.

Trying to pin Davis down, of course, is something of an art form. In response to the direct question, "What does full alignment mean?", the Brexit Secretary digressed somewhat by referring to an exchange moments earlier about "no divergence".

This, he explained, "would have meant actually taking cut and paste rules" – effectively the harmonisation which is required for participation in the Single Market and anything approaching a "frictionless" border between the UK and EU Member States.

Before then moving on to answer the question, Davis kindly told us that "full alignment" only applied to "about four" important areas, "agriculture, road and rail", to which Marr added "health, tourism, transport".

Thus did he confirm the Irish times piece from Friday, which declared: "UK qualifies implications of 'full alignment' Brexit pledge", retailing an affirmation from the Mrs May's government that "we are leaving the customs union and the single market in March 2019".

Actually, the Irish Times had six heads: transport, agriculture, education, health, environment and tourism, of which "environment" – in EU terms, is a pretty hefty thing for Davis to leave out. But, nevertheless, the point stands that the UK has no intention of addressing anything like the full Single Market acquis, omitting such interesting things like car manufacture, chemicals and pharmaceuticals – to say nothing of aviation.

Even within the sectors covered, however, the application is limited. When Marr asked "in very, very simple terms", whether the EU's carrots and our carrots "will be broadly speaking the same carrots", Davis responded with "not necessarily".

The regulations, Davis said, "will be very similar" but the key parameter is "outcomes". As the Prime Minister had laid out in her Florence speech, "there are areas where we will want similar outcomes and we'll have similar methods to achieve them". Thus, said Davis, "we will meet the outcomes, we'll meet the outcomes but not do it by just copying or doing what the European Union does".

Expanding on this, Davis then asserted "there will be areas where we'll have similar outcomes, we'll have different methods to achieve them, that’s going to be true of a lot of product areas, a lot of manufacturing and so on and there will be areas where we want different outcomes and will use different methods".

As to maintaining EU regulations, "That's not what we're going to do", he declared, with a degree of finality. "We're going to bring back control. That's the phrase used and the House of Commons will decide".

As for the deal overall, to detach us further from the idea that Mrs May's government was taking things seriously, Davis blandly informed Marr that the deal "was a statement of intent more than anything else. It was much more a statement of intent than it was a legally enforceable thing".

And thereby, did he confirm precisely what I had said in my Saturday, "nothing bankable" blogpost. There are no commitments here, and there is no intent to maintain the Single Market acquis.

On this basis, the "guarantee of avoiding a hard border" is not a guarantee at all. It is a statement of intent and, without that necessary commitment to the Single Market, is undeliverable. As I noted earlier, in order to avoid a "hard border", Northern Ireland itself must adopt the full Single Market, etc., acquis - as must the UK unless there is a "wet" border in the Irish Sea.

Since Mr Davis is candidly admitting that these conditions are not going to be met, neither the Council nor the European Parliament can approve any arrangements that allows for frictionless trading. A "hard border", on the basis of what the Brexit Secretary has told Marr is a certainty.

If it wasn't the Marr Show that spilled the beans, though, there is always the Sunday Telegraph (no paywall), which retailed a claims that Theresa May's aides told Foreign Secretary Johnson and Michael Gove that "the key concession used to seal Friday's deal with Europe" – i.e., "full alignment" - was "meaningless" and "not binding". It did not, they were told, "mean anything in EU law".

Despite, therefore, Davis asserting that "the odds, as it were, against a WTO or no deal outcome have dropped dramatically", it seems more likely that we have drastically increased the likelihood of the talks collapsing, with an accidental "hard Brexit" the necessary consequence.

It cannot be the case that the negotiations can run their course, only for it to be discovered that the prospects for an invisible border have evaporated, and that there will be no political consequences. One can expect a rebellion in the Commons, with a very real possibility that the May government falls.

However, there are developments afoot which could conspire to make this the least of Mrs May's problems. Courtesy of, we have had early sight of the negotiating guidelines which Donald Tusk intends to put to the European Council on Friday.

What will immediately create waves is that their scope is "disappointingly narrow", dealing only with the transitional arrangements. On the future trade deal, the guidelines note:
While an agreement on a future relationship can only be finalised and concluded once the United Kingdom has become a third country, the Union will be ready to engage in preliminary and preparatory discussions with the aim of identifying an overall understanding of the framework for the future relationship. Such an understanding, which will require additional European Council guidelines, should be elaborated in a political declaration accompanying the Withdrawal Agreement.
This kills stone dead any idea that we will see any form of trade agreement in place by the time we leave, leaving the UK entirely reliant on reaching an agreement on transitional arrangements to tide us over, while a trade deal is negotiated. But here – although entirely expected – the terms offered are seriously bad news. The guidelines state:
As regards transition, the European Council notes the proposal put forward by the United Kingdom for a transition period of around two years, and agrees to negotiate a transition period covering the whole of the EU acquis, while the United Kingdom, as a third country, will no longer participate in or nominate or elect members of the EU institutions.
They go on:
Such transitional arrangements, which will be part of the Withdrawal Agreement, must be in the interest of the Union, clearly defined and limited in time. In order to ensure a level playing field based on the same rules applying throughout the Single Market, changes to the acquis adopted by EU institutions and bodies will have to apply both in the United Kingdom and the EU. All existing Union regulatory, budgetary, supervisory, judiciary and enforcement instruments and structures will also apply. As the United Kingdom will remain a member of the Customs Union and the Single Market (with all four freedoms) during the transition, it will have to continue to apply and collect EU customs tariffs and ensure all EU checks are being performed on the border vis-à-vis other third countries.
What the EU is demanding is that the UK remains effectively a full member of the EU as regard the obligations, subordinate to the ECJ and Commission rulings, but without any representation in the European Council, the Council of Ministers or the European Parliament – and with no UK Commissioner. And, since the "budgetary instruments" still apply, we'll still be paying the full UK contribution.

By any measure, this is the worst of all possible worlds, the full application of "pay – no say" which the Efta/EEA option was supposed to saddle us with, in one of those falsehoods that dominated the referendum campaign.

But, having ruled out that option – where we would have had significant input in the creation of new law, and would be paying only a fraction of the contributions – and then not into the EU budget – Mrs May is confronted with the idea that we have to obey all the 20,000 laws of the acquis, and not just the 5,000 or so of the EEA acquis, most of which are technical standards which we would implement anyway.

The effect of these arrangements would, without doubt, serve to delay our withdrawal from the EU by a further two. The crisis on the border would be deferred, and trade with the EU could continue, but at the price of a Brexit in name only.

This completely negates Mrs May's pledge that "we are leaving the customs union and the single market in March 2019", and makes a mockery of any aspirations of being an independent nation, moving the timeline to March 2021 – nearly five years since the referendum.

It seems inconceivable that Mrs May or her Cabinet could find this acceptable and the Tory "Ultras" could not conceivably accept these terms at all. This is a recipe for civil war within the Tories, with the odds very high for the UK falling out of the EU in an accidental Brexit, effectively the hard Brexit by default.

On a technical note, I don't see how the transitional arrangements can be part of the Withdrawal Agreement. Under Art 50, once the Withdrawal Agreement takes effect, the treaties cease to apply to the UK. To make them re-apply needs a new treaty. That, as a detail, may come to the fore, adding further to the complications.

That apart, by the end of next week, we can see Mrs May's famous "breakthrough" being ripped apart. The drama of last Friday will be long forgotten as we are precipitated into the mother of all crises, spelling the end of Mrs May's inglorious attempts to engineer a rational Brexit.

At the very least, her stupidity in rejecting the Efta/EEA option has confronted us with a situation far, far worse, while prolonging the Brexit agony for another two years. And when those two years are over, all the problems attendant on the UK becoming a third country will re-emerge.

For the moment though, we have the bizarre situation where the Irish media are providing better coverage of the issues that the UK equivalents, with the Irish Times telling us that EU Brexit negotiators have expressed doubts about the feasibility of the UK's pledge to avoid a hard Border in Ireland after Brexit.

European Commission officials, we are told, are saying the UK's determination to leave the single market and the customs union "seems hard to reconcile" with its promise to avoid a hard Border in Ireland. 

That may well go down as the understatement of the century, but it does give some hint of the storm to come as the "bad Friday agreement" begins to unravel. Then, as Mr Blair never said, things can only get worse.

Richard North 11/12/2017 link

Brexit: reality on hold


Reviewing the recent responses to the "Friday deal", it is quite evident that the media and the bulk of the pundits have been taken in by the theatre. The result is that there is scarcely anything in the media worth reading or listening to that hasn't either missed the point or got it plain wrong.

Nor does one have to be an out-and-out cynic to suggest that, when it comes to politicians, we should watch their hands, not their lips. Simply a little healthy scepticism is all one need ask for.

As regards the theatre, the dawn press conference after a night of make-or-break negotiations is such a cliché that one is surprised that the actors didn't get a slow handclap from the hastily assembled audience.

Where we need to be looking her, of course, is the small print. But, after several readings of the Joint Report, one can only conclude that the authors must have been using hallucinogenic drugs.

Anything of this nature that lacks essential coherence and so challenges reality cannot possibly succeed as a negotiating draft. The very lack of coherence and the inbuilt contradictions will serve to drag it down. New crises are simply a matter of timing.

In fact, the crucial document is not the Joint Report but the Commission communication. This sets out in detail the immediate negotiating parameters, pending the Council guidelines.

Next week we will see the EU's negotiating guidelines proper. Then we will begin to see the mountain facing us, and how little we have actually progressed. And it is at this point, we will realise that the UK government is not even close to a deal.

If, as expected, the focus of the next round of talks is on the transition period, then the first crisis will not be long in coming. The terms the EU is dictating amount to full conformity with the entire EU acquis - including new laws that take effect - and subordination to the ECJ.

This, in effect, will mean an extension of UK membership for the period, but without the representation . It will be the worst of all possible worlds – "pay, no say" with a vengeance. At the end of the period, we will be no further forward for having kicked the can down the road.

All the old problems attendant on our leaving the Single Market will still be there waiting for us, and the EU will have little incentive to do anything other than offer an extension.

For the moment, though, we have to go through the tedious charade of self-congratulation and misdirection, while almost everyone ignores the obvious – the crucial issue highlighted by Booker in today's column (no paywall). Simply, he says, it was in no one's interests, and especially not the EU's interest, that the talks should collapse, not least because no one on either side is yet remotely prepared for what will eventually happen when the UK leaves the Single Market.

And, when push comes to shove, it was all very well for Theresa May to say there will be no "hard border" in Ireland. But how telling, Booker adds, that she gave no hint as to how this miracle could be achieved. What we saw on Friday, therefore, was Mrs May not just them "kicking the can down the road, but the whole cannery".

And, for all that, we are still left with precisely those same problems which became inevitable when Mrs May announced in January that we were to leave not just the Single Market but also the European Economic Area (EEA). Remaining in the EEA was always the only practical way in which we could have left the EU but preserved those "frictionless" borders she said she wanted.

How telling that also on Friday morning we read of the MPs in the Public Accounts Committee slamming our "reckless" Government for its "wishful thinking" in failing to have made any proper preparations, at Dover or anywhere else, for some of the immense practical problems which will arise when border controls have to be erected on both sides of the Channel.

But for the dawn theatricals in Brussels, we might have seen the media make more of the report, especially as its findings indicated that at least some MPs (pace the PAC) are beginning to appreciate the extent of the disaster awaiting us.

Government departments, the PAC said, are assuming that the risks to managing the border will not change immediately when the UK leaves the EU, and that border checks will therefore be the same after March 2019 as they were before.

They are therefore not planning for any major new physical infrastructure at the border by March 2019, and do not expect all new or updated IT systems to be ready by that date. Departments say they are planning for a no-deal scenario, but do not expect there to be many changes whatever the position in March 2019.

The Committee went on to say that they were very concerned that the Government's assumptions are risky and do not allow for changes in behaviours by companies trading across the border or people crossing it. Particularly, it says, in the event of a no-deal scenario, the border could be exposed to risks on day one of the UK’s departure.

Officials, we were told, are relying too much on there being a transitional period in order to have the time to develop the new systems and infrastructure that may be required. The current negotiations bring significant uncertainty, but the new Border Planning Group (the Group) and government departments need to step up and be prepared for the possibility of a no-deal scenario and for the costs of all potential options.

It is worrying, the PAC then concluded, that we were told that the Group could not plan for any challenges around the Irish border and the 300 crossing points, as it needed the political process to go further before it could fully understand the issue.

This being the case, all that happened on Friday was that both sides bought extra time to prepare for the massive disruptions to trade which Mrs May's decision to leave the EEA has still in due course made unavoidable.

What is particularly weird about this, says Booker, is that we have never been given any proper explanation for that decision. We were told that remaining in the EEA would have been tantamount to remaining in the EU, when in fact it would have freed us from 15,000 of the EU's 20,000 laws, only having to obey the 5,000 relating to trade.

Yes, by wonderful irony, that is precisely what we are intending to do anyway, under less advantageous terms than would have been available. This rather makes every objection we were offered to our remaining in the EEA a caricature of the truth, clearly originating from those who had never looked intelligently or honestly at the evidence.

Instead of which we are left still chasing nothing more than that chimera of a fondly imagined but wholly undefined trade deal, which can only in some form or other give us "hard borders" and damagingly less access to our largest single export market than we have now.

And all this arose, says Booker, because Mrs May and her advisers never did their homework properly, or had any idea just what terrifyingly intractable problems this would be landing us with. If only all this could have been openly debated in that desperately trivialised referendum campaign we might not be where we are now.

The trouble is, though, we are where we are. There's little that can be done in this system to overcome high-level ignorance where issues of huge importance are decided by tiny cabals, isolated from the real world and therefore remote from the normal human interchanges which inform lesser mortals.

Interestingly, I have been reading the autobiography of Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and latterly his minister of munitions. An early member of the Führer's inner circle, he observed that the higher the ranking of Party officials, the greater their isolation and the less their knowledge of ordinary events. He also noted of some in high office that "their arrogance and conceit about their own abilities is boundless".

Much of what went on at high level in Germany during the Hitler period is special to it, but some of what Speer recounts is easily identifiable as the Dunning-Kruger effect. This is a disease of government, one of timeless effect, from the Bourbons and before, to Mrs May and her kitchen cabinet.

We talk about this in more colloquial terms as the "bubble effect" but any analogy has its limitations. There is not one bubble but many, and some are multi-faceted, with bubbles inside bubbles inside more bubbles. Not one but many transparent walls can separate the inner denizens from the real world.

In one such bubble lives our Prime Minister, taking advice and counsel from a desperately limited circle, otherwise cut off from the rest of humanity. And when those people are imbued with boundless "arrogance and conceit about their own abilities" (as is all too evident with Nick Timothy, just from the evidence of his Telegraph column), there is nothing they can learn and nothing they can be told.

The essence of the "bubble" though, is that it filters the flow of information, so that ordinary and obvious things never penetrate and low-ranking or despised sources are easily eliminated.

The media, of course, has its own bubbles, so constructed as to have filters which allow the passage of information to those in power, and between themselves, but never from those who would disturb their primary industry – the process of creating narratives. Thus the system is custom-made to foster and disseminate error.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that our leaders get things wrong and even less so that the media so often projects a joint narrative which completely misrepresents reality.

In these dark days, when so much is at stake and there is so little clarity, perhaps the only thing that will break through the multiple tiers of bubbles is the real world test of whether things keep working. To that effect, the PAC report offered rare insight – even if it was less than complete. How ironic it was that its message, issued on the same day as Mrs May's theatre, was drowned out by it.

However, facts don't go away because they are ignored, any more than does reality. Soon enough, they reassert themselves – largely because they must. Sadly, their arrival is often accompanied by turmoil and pain.

That, it seems, is the destination for Brexit. The noise level is far too high for any rational argument to survive, and is set to get higher. But, while the perpetual fudge can stave off the effects of reality for a long, long time, eventually it comes. Reality may be on hold, but it will arrive.

Richard North 10/12/2017 link

Brexit: nothing bankable


Ostensibly committing the UK to a "soft" Brexit, the Joint Report from the EU and UK negotiators, published yesterday, actually does no such thing.

As the accompanying (but less read) Communication makes clear, "the Joint Report is not the Withdrawal Agreement". And in that one terse sentence on the first full page of the document is set the essence of Friday's dramatic "breakthrough". The "dawn patrol of Mrs May and Jean-Claude Junker shaking hands on a "deal" that takes us into phase two of the Brexit negotiations may be good theatre, but that is about all it is.

In the Communication, we are reminded that, only if the European Council considers that sufficient progress has been made in those negotiations will it instruct the European Commission to draw up a proposal for a Withdrawal Agreement. This will be "based on Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union" and will be drafted only "on the basis" of the Joint Report as well as "the outcome of the negotiations on other withdrawal issues".

The only commitment in relation to Friday's deal, therefore, is that the final Article 50 agreement will be drafted "on the basis" of it and the outcome of the subsequent negotiations. There is nothing in the Joint Report which constitutes a formal treaty or any legally enforceable commitment.

In fact, as the Joint Report takes pains to point out, "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed", a caveat that over-rides its apparent requirement that the Joint Report shall be "reflected" in the Withdrawal Agreement "in full detail".

In any event, any supposed "commitments" do not, "prejudge any adaptations that might be appropriate in case transitional arrangements were to be agreed in the second phase of the negotiations". Furthermore, they are "without prejudice to discussions on the framework of the future relationship".

Returning thus to the Communication, we find that the Withdrawal Agreement "will be concluded by the Council upon a proposal from the Commission" – on the basis of QMV – but only after "obtaining consent of the European Parliament". And, of course, it is "subject to approval by the United Kingdom in accordance with its own procedures".

Were it the case, however, that the parties sought to make the Friday (but not the Good Friday) deal enforceable, those attempts would fall foul of the simple premise in law that requires any "commitments" to be reasonably capable of execution. And, where we find the core element in the "Ireland and Northern Ireland" section (paras 42-56), there is a lack of coherence which amount to self-contradiction.

The heart of the section is set out in paras 49-50, the first of the pair asserting that the UK "remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border". Any future arrangements, it says, "must be compatible with these overarching requirements".

As a binding commitment, that immediately falls apart as its execution is subject, inter alia, to the approval of the European Council, the European Parliament and the UK "in accordance with its own procedures" – and can be swept aside by any agreements made in discussions relating to the framework of the future relationship.

Moving on, we are told that the UK's intention is to achieve these objectives "through the overall EU-UK relationship". But, unless the UK embraces measures equivalent to the adoption of the full range of Single Market rules, that cannot happen. And since this has already been ruled out by Mrs May, it isn't going to happen.

Effectively recognising that, para 49 goes on to say that: "Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland". But that brings us back into DUP territory, where no agreement is politically tenable. This option is also a non-starter.

What the Joint Report amounts to then is the latter part of para 49, which offers the fallback "in the absence of agreed solutions". Then, the UK "will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement".

This is generally taken as a commitment by the UK to adopt the Single Market and Customs Union provisions – especially as the reference is to "full alignment" - thereby banishing the prospect of a "hard" Brexit. The Republic of Ireland is thus being lauded for its actions in "rescuing" the UK.

In the event of this happening, though, we have to add para 50, where the UK "will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop" between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, unless "consistent with the 1998 Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly agree that distinct arrangements are appropriate for Northern Ireland".

In all circumstances, however, the UK "will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland's businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market".

What this then amounts to is giving the power to the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly to require the entire UK to maintain "full alignment" with the "rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union" unless they decide to go their own separate way.

This, on the face of it, looks to be exactly what it is – absurd. The tiny Northern Ireland "tail" is wagging the huge UK "dog", forcing Mrs May to abandon her own party commitment to leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union. But, as we later learn – courtesy of the Irish Times - this is not to be.

Rather, as confirmed by a senior official at the Department for Brexit, the commitment to maintain full alignment with the "rules of the internal market and the customs union" applies only to the six areas of North-South economic co-operation identified in the Belfast Agreement. These are transport, agriculture, education, health, environment and tourism.

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

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

And there we confront the EU's own requirements. In order to avoid a "hard border", Northern Ireland itself must adopt the full Single Market, etc., acquis - as must the UK, unless the border moves to the Irish Sea. And since these conditions are not going to be met, neither the Council nor the European Parliament can approve them.

This alone tells us that the Joint Report is already dead in the water. It is not the basis for a serious negotiation – merely a device to keep the talks moving and to allow Mrs May to claim a much-needed "victory" in order to keep her in office a little while longer.

When Donald Tusk expresses his concerns that Downing Street "was not aware of how difficult the coming negotiations would be", he is only stating the obvious.

Mrs May has not so much kicked the can down the road as the whole cannery. But it is still there, looming on the horizon, ready to dominate phase two. In so doing, the parties have set themselves up for a fall – apparent commitments that aren't actually commitments and which cannot be implemented.

The only face-saver is the agreement to discuss the transition period, but even then the Tory "Ultras" aren't going to like what they see – full adoption of the EU acquis, subject to the jurisdiction of the ECJ without any representation. This is the worst of all possible worlds.

Then, given the chaotic nature of the Joint Report, that is the least of our problems. We have not escaped a "hard Brexit" – we have made it more or less a certainty. Even collapse is still a possibility, which makes transition academic. On present form, we'll be long gone before it can take effect.

Richard North 09/12/2017 link

Brexit: media noise


This is just the sort of fracas the legacy media love: an environment stiff with personalities, replete with conflict and intrigue, dirty-dealing, bad faith, claim and counter-claim.

It is also the point when sensible analysts pack their bags and go home, waiting for the noise level to subside. There is little of value which can be discerned when a media frenzy takes hold and so many different voices are cluttering the terrain.

The central point – widely ignored by all – is that Mrs May's cover story (based on the adoption of "regulatory alignment") has been well and truly blown. Thus, by any rational measure, she has nowhere to go with the talks in Brussels as she will not be able to offer anything which meets the EU's requirements.

However, one senses that the "colleagues" are anxious to have the talks run on into phase two, primarily because a failure of the negotiations right now would fatally weaken the UK prime minister to the point where she could be deposed. And the current sentiment in Brussels is, "better the devil you know". Bad as she is, her replacement could be inestimably worse.

For the rest, yesterday was the day when the entire world woke to the conclusion that has been troubling us for many months – that them up there simply don't know what they're doing. Any illusion of competence, either from May or David Davis, has been well and truly shattered.

Bluntly, though, I don't know why anyone should be at all surprised. That Davis's boast of having prepared zillions of impact analyses turned out to be so much hot air is entirely in character. We observed back in September that there was something of the Walter Mitty in the man, and that his word was not to be relied upon. The only good thing we can say about him is that he is consistent.

As for Mrs May, her truculent performance at PMQs more than adequately illustrated her lack of grasp of the issues, as she was tasked about how she would bring about a solution to the Irish question.

"That is the whole point of the second phase of the negotiations", she said, "because we aim to deliver this as part of our overall trade deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and we can only talk about that when we get into phase two".

The point, of course – as the "colleagues" have been at pains to point out - is that solution to the Irish border must be unique, and cannot be rolled into the general trade agreement. It is Mrs May's failure to understand this (together with almost every Conservative still capable of breathing – hard enough though that might be for some) that has been partially responsible for the mess she is in.

That notwithstanding, Michel Barnier has been told that the UK government is working on another text which they hope to submit to Brussels, in lieu of the last one. Barnier, for his part, has given Mrs May until Friday to craft a plausible fudge, failing which there will be no December approval to move to phase two.

As a sign that the "colleagues" are really rooting for the stricken May, though, we hear Leo Varadkar airily dismiss the looming deadline, remarking that, if the issue fails to make the cut and it isn't possible to move to phase two next week, "well then we can pick it up in the new year".

Although the first formal European Council of the new year is not until March, there is talk of an emergency session in either January or February, allowing Mrs May to cobble something together over the Christmas break, when hostilities are traditionally at their lowest ebb.

For all the talk of Brussels being "difficult", therefore, all the signs are that the key players on the EU scene are bending over backwards to help. Had they wished to pile on the pressure, they could have stuck to last Monday's deadline and then pencilled in March for the next review, leaving Mrs May to the tender embrace of her "Ultras" and the Corbynista – not that the latter should trouble her much.

For want of any stated explanation for this sudden outcrop of European solidarity, one can only surmise that, if the talks had dramatically failed this week, by the time March can along, there would be a different prime minister sitting in the UK slot in Brussels. Since this could range from such persons as the odious Rees-Mogg to Jeremy Corbyn (asked by the Queen to form a government), one can understand why the "colleagues" want to hedge their bets.

But that alone isn't going to solve any problems, and it isn't even going to buy time. Even a January review would only leave nine months for substantive talks – assuming that the EU still wants six months to ratify an agreement. However, given the EU's new-found "caring, sharing" demeanour, M. Barnier could perhaps be instructed to revert to the device of stopping the clock.

For all that, though, charity and the EU rarely go hand in hand without there being a price. Even if M. Barnier is being overtly considerate, that doesn't change the fundamentals. Particularly on Ireland, if there is to be an invisible land border, and the UK is not prepared to adopt the full rigour of the Single Market acquis and all that goes with it, then there will have to be a "wet" border.

Here, the expectation is of a border in the Irish Sea, with controls on goods passing between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. But, if that is not to be, then the Irish Republic will be in the frame. To prevent the land border being a "back door" into the Single Market, the other Member States will have to apply controls on goods exported from Ireland to the rest of the EU.

Since this hasn't been mentioned recently – out in the open, at any rate – one wonders if Varadkar is fully aware of what could be in store for him. Essentially, he will have to make the choice of dumping the UK and setting up a hard border to check goods coming over from Northern Ireland, or the EU will dump Ireland, setting up border controls on its exports.

Leo Varadkar, therefore, has more at stake in this game than any other player, and given that Ireland has for some time been seeking to reduce its economic reliance on the UK, the chances are that, forced to make a choice, he will "opt for Europe" rather than throw in his lot with a newly independent UK.

The bizarre thing about all this, though, is that barely anyone is seeing the situation with any clarity. We get, for instance, Bombardier saying that it would oppose any move that would effectively shift customs controls to the middle of the Irish Sea. It gives as its reason the fact that it does relatively little trade with the Republic and most of its imported components come from the UK.

However, given the need for it to gain EU approval for its design and manufacturing operations before it can export to EU Member States, it may find that closer ties with the EU are in fact more important than easy trading links with the UK.

It is here, of course, that Mr Davis's non-existent impact assessments would have come in useful, but it is also the case that either the parliamentary select committee system, the media, or even academia, could have worked out for themselves what various exit options entail.

After all, if a pensioner sitting in his daughter's former bedroom in a converted mill on the outskirts of unfashionable Bradford can work it out using a steam-powered personal computer, then I'm sure that these better-resourced outfits should have no problems.

But that brings us back to where we started. These outfits no longer exist to make sense of the world and report what they see (and understand). Primarily, they are noisemakers. And currently, they are in their element.

But when the noise abates, the issues will still be there. And so will we, listening for the signals that are currently being drowned out.

Richard North 07/12/2017 link

Brexit: creative ambiguity


No doubt European Commission officials who watched the "urgent questions " on Monday's abortive Brexit negotiations will have come away confused and perplexed. For, if Mr Davis's definition of "regulatory alignment" is one on which Her Majesty's Government now intends to rely, there is no basis of an EU-UK agreement on cross-border trade, much less any rapprochement on the Irish question.

For the purposes of settling a form of words that could form the basis of a commitment to the Irish Government on the border arrangements with Northern Ireland, the phrase "regulatory alignment" has considerable merit, particularly in terms of providing for the "creative ambiguity" that Mrs May sought in creating a text that meant all things to all people.

Here, this term seems at the last minute to have replaced the original Irish demand for "no regulatory divergence", a phrase with little inbuilt ambiguity which would require the regulatory regimes between Ireland and Northern to be kept fully harmonised. The use of the alternative "regulatory alignment" allows for the possibility of "parallel" regimes, without having specifically to state this as a necessary outcome.

The favourable response of both Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk to the Anglo-Irish agreement which contained this phrase evidently attests to their willingness to live with ambiguity, regarding it as "sufficient unto the day" to allow the Brexit negotiations to progress to phase two. The details could always be thrashed out at a later date.

A particular merit of this approach is that, in its most severe construction, "regulatory alignment" can mean rigorous harmonisation not only of rules and regulations, but also of the entire regulatory regime. That will necessarily include surveillance and enforcement and all the other trappings which would go with a system which seeks to emulate the structure and extent of the Single Market.

On the other hand, used in looser environments, the same term can mean merely an approximation of laws and systems, sufficiently close to allow for different regulatory authorities to rely on mutual recognition. It would not require systems to be irrevocably harmonised.

Precisely that ambiguity would allow a Conservative government to present to its own supporters and the public at large a vision of a relaxed trading system. Some divergence would be permitted and the UK would have the flexibility to approve its own laws. But, for the purposes of the Brexit negotiations, the Commission could be assured that only the strictest application of the term would be considered.

If that was the plan – and it is the only possible way the Commission could have approved it – then it yesterday sustained multiple holes below the waterline, after Mr Davis blew the ambiguity out of the water.

Nemesis came when the Secretary of State for Brexit responded to a question from Yvette Cooper, who asked for clarification of the Government's position. Was regulatory alignment "really important not just for the Good Friday agreement, but for businesses right across the United Kingdom?"

Davis, in turn, referred to Mrs May's Florence speech, asserting that the Prime Minister had "made a very plain case for the sorts of divergence that we would see after we left". She said, or so Davis would have us believe, "that there are areas in which we want to achieve the same outcomes, but by different regulatory methods".

In fact, Mrs May said no such thing – not explicitly, at any rate. In fact, during that speech, she said, "when it comes to trade in goods, we will do everything we can to avoid friction at the border", adding that, "of course the regulatory issues are crucial".

Noting that the EU and the UK shared "a commitment to high regulatory standards", she accepted that, "in any trading relationship, both sides have to agree on a set of rules which govern how each side behaves". Thus, she said, "we will need to discuss with our European partners new ways of managing our interdependence and our differences, in the context of our shared values".

That, really, was as far as it went, although Mrs May did acknowledge that "the decisions we both take will have consequences for the UK's access to European markets and vice versa", an important if somewhat obvious observation.

Thus, when speaking yesterday, Davis was starting to break new ground when, continuing his answer to Yvette Cooper, he said: "We want to maintain safety, food standards, animal welfare and employment rights, but we do not have to do that by exactly the same mechanism as everybody else. That is what regulatory alignment means".

To Antoinette Sandbach, Davis reiterated "that alignment is not harmonisation. It is not having exactly the same rules; it is sometimes having mutually recognised rules, mutually recognised inspection and all that sort of thing. That is what we are aiming at".

Just to make himself perfectly clear, he then told Mark Pritchard that we could leave the single market and the customs union, yet have UK regulatory alignment, by "using things such as the mutual recognition and alignment of standards. That does not mean having the same standards; it means having ones that give similar results".

To Chris Leslie, the Labour member for Nottingham East, he declared that regulatory alignment was "not harmonisation, being in the single market, or having exactly the same rules". It was, he said, "this House exercising its democratic right to choose our own laws in such a way as to maximise our ability to sell abroad. That is how it will work".

Later on, Labour's Chuka Umunna intervened, reminding the Secretary of State that he did not think that keeping the UK overall in the customs union and the single market was the answer. So, asked Umunna, "what does he believe is?" The answer was: "a comprehensive free trade agreement, a customs agreement and all the associated regulatory alignment".

Stephen Hammond asked whether, for the continued success of legal, professional and financial services post Brexit, not only mutual recognition, but UK-wide regulatory alignment with the EU will be necessary, to have Davis declare: "If by alignment my hon. Friend means mechanisms such as mutual recognition, yes, I agree entirely".

Mike Gapes got short shrift when he asked Davis to "tell us the difference between regulatory convergence and regulatory alignment". "One is about harmonisation, one is not", said Davis, picking up the "slightly confused" Lucy Powell who asked whether regulatory alignment was "the only way to deliver the frictionless border". "The simple truth", said Davis, "is that we will need to establish arrangements whereby we get the same or similar outcomes for some areas of industry and service - no more, no less".

Then, having already told Antoinette Sandbach and others that regulatory alignment applies to the whole United Kingdom, Davis was confronted by Stephen Timms, who challenged him to confirm this.

Said Davis, "I have explained to the House that regulatory alignment is not harmonisation. It is a question of ensuring similar outcomes in areas where we want to have trade relationships and free and frictionless trade. Anything we agree for Northern Ireland in that respect, if we get our free trade area, will apply to the whole country".

So, the cat is out of the bag and there is no going back. Essentially, the UK is aiming for what it has always aimed, more or less from the start of the May administration. It wants "a comprehensive free trade agreement, a customs agreement and all the associated regulatory alignment", the latter meaning either mutual recognition or what amounts to regulatory equivalence.

Furthermore, in his haste to pacify the DUP, Davis has confirmed that Northern Ireland will not be treated as a special case – yet despite this still expects a "frictionless border".

Currently (at the time of writing), Mrs May is still waiting to speak to Arlene Foster and her Wednesday visit to Brussels has been cancelled. As far as the rest of the week goes, Mr Juncker has told her that she has the Thursday but that's it.

But, even if by then – or whenever the next meeting takes place – Mrs May has managed to square off the DUP, her Secretary of State has destroyed the Brussels pitch. As now defined, there is no possible way that the "colleagues" can accept regulatory alignment as a satisfactory basis for allowing UK goods free access to Ireland.

Such is the apparent concern of Brussels that the talks should continue, one takes the view that the EU collectively has decided that it is too early for them to fail. We can, therefore, expect another fudge, although the options for "creative ambiguity" are rapidly running out.

What we must not lose sight of though is that this current shambles has demonstrated that the UK government's strategic thinking on Brexit has not advanced one iota. It is still wanting to have its cake and eat it, and still hasn't come to terms with the consequences of leaving the Single Market.

And all of this goes back to the Lancaster House speech, my response to which was expressed in uncharacteristically blunt language. And if that's what we were then, that's what we are now. Nothing has changed.

Richard North 06/12/2017 link

Brexit: no deal means no deal


Sticking strictly to the facts, all we know of the current situation is that Mrs May went to Brussels in the expectation of making a deal with Jean-Claude Juncker. That in turn would pave the way for the European Council to approve a mandate for Michel Barnier to move to phase two of the negotiations.

From that, the only thing we know for sure is that Mrs May didn't get her deal. After the meeting, both parties held a joint press conference during which they said very little. There were no questions and Mrs May left for a meeting with Donald Tusk to ask for extra time.

As to the reasons why there was no deal concluded, most of what we're getting is speculation, based largely on leaks to the media.

Their current narrative is that the UK government had been on the brink of an agreement in which it would accept "continued regulatory alignment" between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland – apparently based on a deal brokered between Whitehall and Dublin.

As the narrative has developed, it is asserted that the DUP intervened publicly, rejecting the Whitehall/Dublin deal. This led Mrs May to break off her meeting with Juncker to take a 'phone call from Arlene Foster, the outcome of which, it is said, was that attempts to conclude the deal with Brussels on the day were abandoned.

Foster's pitch, based on "speculation emerging from negotiations", was that Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK. The DUP would not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separated Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the UK. The economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom would not be compromised in any way.

Crucially, we are told, Foster came away from her telephone discussion with Mrs May saying that the government understood the DUP's position. The prime minister had made it clear that there would be no border in the Irish sea and that the "territorial and economic integrity of the United Kingdom will be protected".

A popular media narrative thus rests on the scenario that "Theresa May's desperate bid to break the Brexit deadlock and move on to trade talks was dramatically torpedoed in an eleventh-hour phone call with the DUP".

That said, there are some crucial, unresolved inconsistencies in this narrative to the extent that it hardly seems to hang together. First, and most important, it relies on the idea that Mrs May went to Brussels with a proposal that she must have known that the DUP would not accept – and then had to be dragged out of her meeting with Juncker to be told this.

Now, over months that Mrs May has been prime minister, we have largely come to terms with her incompetence. But it is nonetheless difficult to believe that, with the well-known and frequently rehearsed position of the DUP, she could go to Brussels with a proposal she must have known would by rejected by this Northern Ireland party. This is carrying incompetence to a new level.

Secondly, while much has been said of the Whitehall/Dublin deal, as far as I am aware, the full official text has not been made public. All we have to go on is an "early negotiating text" leaked to RTÉ News and "sight of a key phrase in the joint text".

This "key phrase" said that "in the absence of agreed solutions, the UK would ensure no divergence from those rules of the internal market and the customs union which supported North/South cooperation and the protection of the Good Friday Agreement".

And while there is also talk of "regulatory alignment", there are no indications as to whether that encompasses the full extent of the deal, or whether there was more to it – especially in the small print.

Further, we do not know whether this deal, apparently agreed between the UK and the Irish Republic, was necessarily agreeable to Brussels. And nor do we know that Mrs May based her proposal on the exact deal that was agreed, or whether she changed some of the text, or even played around with the framing.

What we do know though is that the prime minister made it clear to Arlene Foster that "there would be no border in the Irish Sea and that the territorial and economic integrity of the United Kingdom will be protected".

This begets another major inconsistency. As it stands, there is no possible way that Brussels could accept a situation where there was a soft border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, with no controls over goods from the mainland UK. This would open a back door into the Single Market which would be completely unacceptable to the remaining EU Member States.

This again is an issue of which Mrs May can hardly be unaware, which leaves one dubious at the prospect of her proposing something to Brussels that cannot ever have been acceptable.

This, then, leaves us with two implausible options. On the one hand, Mrs May went to Brussels with a proposal she knew the DUP could not accept, or she went with a proposal that the EU could not accept. And, from what we know, it could just as easily have been the case that she went with the second proposal – her telephone conversation with Arlene Foster simply confirming something that was already in hand.

There is little doubt, however, that Mrs May did go to Brussels expecting a deal. She had booked time in Parliament today, asking the Speaker to clear "several hours" for a "major statement" on the outcome of her talks. This has now been cancelled.

Going for the other option, we have a statement from Leo Varadkar. Speaking yesterday, he claimed that the United Kingdom had agreed a text on the border that had met Irish concerns. He was, therefore, "surprised and disappointed that the British government now appears not to be in a position to conclude what was agreed earlier today".

This might be given credence by suggestions that Mrs May was relying on "creative ambiguity" in the Irish text, thinking that it would get the UK past this milestone and give her wriggle room when it came to filling the detail.

In this, May possibly banked on the full text not being published, except that most of the content was leaked by Belgian Green MEP Philippe Lamberts. He, with other MEPs had been meeting Juncker in the morning, emerging to tell journalists that the "Brits" had accepted "reality". This is said to have provoked Arlene Foster into action.

Either way, however, Mrs May's negotiation was doomed to fail – as it always was. This is the epitome on the rock and the hard place, where the only real option – the "wet" border was never going to be politically acceptable to the DUP. If Mrs May didn't realise this, and thought she could get away with a fudge, then we have a very worrying situation.

One wonders, therefore, Mrs May was going through the charade of trying to make an unmakable deal, simply so that she could say that she had tried. But even that does not square with the indications that she believed she would conclude a deal.

And despite everything, that is still on the table. Mrs May is to return to Brussels on Wednesday for another round of talks, with Donald Tusk saying that there is "still time" before the 15 December, when the European Council must meet to determine the fate of the negotiations.

Whether the prime minister can pull it off remains to be seen. I suspect it will depend on whether Brussels prefers its fudge toasted or fried. For the moment, though, no deal means no deal – the only thing clear about this episode.

For the rest, we're getting confirmation of that old saw about Irish politics: if you think you understand them, you haven't been listening.

Richard North 05/12/2017 link

Brexit: everybody gets a prize


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On the day that Mrs May meets Jean-Claude Juncker to present him with the "final offer" which it is hoped will take us through to phase two, the Financial Times is claiming that the UK is on the brink of a deal.

With the scent of fudge in the air, the paper could be right – but then it could be hopelessly wrong. If it is, it'll quietly forget this story but otherwise we'll never hear the last of it.

As one might expect, the evidence is pretty thin, apparently based on an exchange with another of that increasingly common breed, the anonymous official. Just for a change though, this one is Irish. What's more, he (or even she) is a senior Irish official. This must mean that what he (or she) has to say must be truer than if it came from a mere official – or, heaven forefend, a junior official.

Supporting the FT narrative (not), he (or she) says that they (the Irish government) were "still awaiting signs of a definitive breakthrough". That, of course, leaves the agreement "hanging in the balance", which prompts the official to say: "As we speak at the moment, this is a very fluid situation. There are intensive contacts back and forth".

In terms of substance, that is all you get – which means that the story is not inconsistent with the Telegraph headline, which has: "Brexit timetable in jeopardy as Theresa May fails to reach deal on Irish border ahead of EU deadline".

To an extent, this is a matter of half-empty, half full, with the Tory comic reporting: "Theresa May will go into a crunch meeting with EU leaders on Monday admitting she is yet to find a solution to the Irish border problem". But to put it on the half-empty side, this paper adds that a Cabinet minister has suggested for the first time "that Brexit might not happen".

However, the paper also thinks that no agreement is in sight – thereby completely contradicting the FT - thus suggesting that "the Prime Minister is now likely to ask for a last-minute extension to the Monday deadline".

Not content with a mere "senior official", the Telegraph relies on "Whitehall sources". These, of course, are just as anonymous, but also well enough known for the paper to state that they have "bitterly complained" that Leo Varadkar had "moved the goalposts" by insisting on guarantees over the future border arrangements now, having earlier said the issue could be thrashed out once trade talks were underway.

One presumes here that the UK negotiators are relying on Varadkar's speech to the Dáil earlier last month when he said that it was "not going to be possible" definitively to settle the question of the border with Northern Ireland until the shape of the future EU-UK relationship emerges.

At that point, the Irish Prime Minister was of the view that it was "likely that we will be able to say that sufficient progress has been made at the December meeting". This, he thought, would allow the EU to move on to discussions on transition and the future arrangements.

However, that depended on what happened over the next number of weeks, and the "specific assurance and guarantees we can get in writing from the United Kingdom". He sensed that things were "moving in the right direction" and he was more optimistic than he had been in October. With that, though, came the caveat, that his mood "may change".

Nevertheless, Varadkar did address the lack of clarity in the Brexit debate, saying the way it was intended to deal with this "is not that everything in phase one has to be agreed before we move on to phase two".

It was, he added, "that sufficient progress has to be made on phase one: on the financial settlement, on citizens’ rights on issues specific to Ireland and that allows us to move on to phase two where we can talk about the transition arrangement and the new relationship".

Varadkar then concluded: "It is not going to be possible to fully resolve the border question until we start to talk about the future relationship that the UK will have with the European Union". There will come a point, he said, "when it is in our interests to actually start talking about that".

Clearly – or not so clearly – that point has not been reached and the Irish are still after written guarantees that they feel they haven't yet got. Varadkar will hold a special meeting of his cabinet today discuss Brexit, and we may get further statements before Mrs May struts her stuff.

Here, in a less than helpful manner, May has the support of her Brexit secretary, who is still insisting that it is "imperative" that the Irish border is "discussed in tandem with Britain's future trading relationship with the EU.

But, according to the Sunday Times, Varadkar agrees that a parallel process could help to ease the resolution of outstanding issues in relation to the Irish border.

He says: "I think the suggestion that David Davis has made, to a certain extent, is common sense. If we were able to have a trade agreement between the EU and UK then, of course, it will be much easier to sort out issues around the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland". But he then adds that he has not seen any evidence from the Brexit papers released to date that Britain had a solution to the trade and customs arrangements that would be necessary after March 2019.

That, if the Guardian is to be believed, puts Mrs May taking "personal charge" of the Brexit negotiations.

For all the to-ing and fro-ing, hopes remain that her meeting with Juncker will clinch the deal. And, although I have been writing of "dinner", it seems that Mrs May is actually having lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker before later meeting Donald Tusk.

Work on the final text of an agreement is being worked on by officials in Dublin and the Guardian sits on the fence, saying that the chances of it being ready in time for the May-Juncker lunch has been put at 50:50.

An added complication for Mrs May is a tedious letter signed by former cabinet ministers Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson, Nigel Lawson and John Redwood, plus 30 others.

They are asking Mrs May to make any payments to the EU conditional on reciprocal free trade "without tariffs" between the UK and the EU, which must be agreed in principle by 30 March next year. They also want the UK to have freedom to conclude trade deals "across the globe" from 30 March 2019, and insist that the ECJ shall cease to have any jurisdiction over the UK from the date we leave the EU.

They also want freedom of movement to end, that any "necessary implementation period" should not exceed two years, and that no new EU regulations should apply to the UK from 30 March 2019. And as regards the Irish question, all they want is for the parties to "work diligently and act in good faith" to secure an agreement before we leave.

On the regulation point alone, these "Ultras" are seeking to build in divergence to the Article 50 agreement. While the comprehensive trade deals the EU has done require that the parties work towards regulatory convergence (while the Swiss and EEA deals require continued adoption of relevant EU measures), we are supposed to be asking for a deal that does the opposite. This, undoubtedly, will close down access to EU markets and make a comprehensive trade deal very hard to agree.

Front runner in opposing continued ECJ involvement is Owen Paterson, alongside Iain Duncan Smith. They regard a "foreign" court having jurisdiction over the UK as being intolerable to an independent United Kingdom. Paterson, it appears, is content for us to be subordinate to the European Court of Human Rights, the WTO dispute bodies and the International Court at The Hague.

All this, apparently, is perfectly acceptable. But to accept the ECJ "would be to condemn ourselves to the status of a vassal state, relinquishing power over our laws – and by extension over our people – to a court on which we are not represented". The citizens of a newly sovereign nation, says Paterson, "deserve better than that".

However, all is well with the world. This morning's edition of The Times has sided with the FT. Its senior officials are saying: "Brexit deal 90% there". It would be churlish to dwell on the ten percent. How could anything possibly go wrong?

Richard North 04/12/2017 link

Brexit: the most fateful mistake


One of the most tedious aspects of the Brexit debate – which is already more far more tedious than it should be – is the inability of the pundits to grasp the most basic of the issues and thus explore the "real" situation rather than that which is imagined to be.

By contrast, the real issues – their technicalities and complexities – are fascinating and their diligent study brings its own rewards. The tedium comes with having to deal with people who have never sought to understand the issues and are thus driven to propose (or support) one improbable scenario after another, only then to find that their nostrums fail to deliver anything remotely approaching workable solutions.

When it comes to the Irish question, however, a useful insight comes with Booker's latest column, illustrating that we've been failing to grasp the issues presented by this troubled island for well over a century (no paywall).

Decades ago, when he was reading Irish history at Cambridge, he writes, nothing struck him more than the passage in Winston Churchill's The World Crisis where the great man recalled how the final Cabinet meeting before the outbreak of the Great War was spent "toiling over the muddy fields of Fermanagh and Tyrone", as they deliberated on where the border should lie between Northern Ireland and the proposed new Irish Free State.

Four years later, Booker observes, what should re-emerge as top of the agenda for the first Cabinet meeting after the Armistice but those "dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone". Who could have foreseen that a century later that same Irish border might be the crucial breaking point in Britain's bid to leave the European Union?

Bringing us up to date, tomorrow Mrs May dines with Jean-Claude Juncker, supposedly to deliver the final UK position on the three points on which we will be assessed by the European Council to determine whether negotiations can move on to phase two.

Already, Mrs May has made the predictable concessions on the financial settlement and, while there has been some progress on the expat issue (which is still stalled on the role of the ECJ), on the Irish border we seem to be heading for a completely intractable shambles.

Writes Booker, the EU correctly explains that, by choosing to leave not just the Single Market but also the wider European Economic Area (EEA), the UK becomes a "third country". It is then automatic under the rules that we will face the "hard border". And this, as I have pointed out, is not something the EU does to us.

Becoming a "third country" is a status that we as a nation assume as a result of our moving out of the regulatory union that is the Single Market. By so doing, we become the same as any other country outside the union, with all the physical infrastructure, inspections and delays that this implies - only more so. 

Most other countries have spend decades forging trading links and concluding a vast network of informal and formal trade agreements. We will be tearing ours it. For the UK, it is year zero.

As the the inevitable presence of a hard border, this much the House of Commons Brexit Committee seemed at last to recognise in its report published on Friday. But, contrary to any sense or experience, Downing Street remains adamant that there can be no "hard border". This has become an unvarying mantra that has long since lost touch with the real world.

Yet, if Theresa May had understood the rules of the system that we have been part of for 44 years, Booker writes, she would know that we will be compelled to apply our own border controls in Northern Ireland, just as we do now on all goods from third countries as members of the EU.

Without such controls, we would otherwise fall foul of precisely those "WTO rules" our "hard Brexiteers"- the "Ultras" as we call them - are so fond of. These are the rules which prohibit discrimination in trading arrangements that favour one country over others.

If we were to exempt goods entering Northern Ireland from border controls, every other country in the world could claim the same rights. So now there is talk of leaving Northern Ireland in the EU customs union and the Single Market, to move the inevitable hard border into the middle of the Irish Sea.

At that point, step forward those Democratic Unionist MPs, on whose votes Theresa May's fate depends, to say that although they also cannot accept a hard border with the south, this compromise is even more unacceptable. It would be the first step towards a united Ireland.

Once again, Booker thus observes, those "muddy fields" and "dreary steeples" re-emerge at the centre of UK politics. Yet the tragic fact is that this crisis was wholly avoidable.

Like so many other problems we have brought on ourselves in the shambles we are making of Brexit, this one would never have arisen if only Mrs May had not made that reckless decision last January to leave the wider EEA, allowing us to leave the EU but without any "hard borders".

But, instead of looking forward to a measured transition from full membership of the EU to a stable trading partnership, we are haunted by May's idiosyncratic – even dictatorial – approach to governance, relying wholly on advice from Nick Timothy. We enter this new and critical phase in our history slave to a decision made by people who hadn't the first idea of its consequences.

In normal circumstances, the sustaining myth of any nation is that the people running the government actually know what they are doing. But, as government faces its most complex task since the war, we find decisions being taken not on the basis of knowledge but fuelled by the ignorance (and obstinacy) of a tiny number of people.

In this context, readers will recall that, in the recent Irish report of UK's handling of the negotiations, we had an observation from Ian Forrester - the British judge in the ECJ.

He criticised "the quality of politicians in Westminster" and said there had been "a fair amount of contact" between him and the British government on the issue. Of all those he had met, "only one person … had any real grasp of the complexities involved [in leaving the EU]".

It takes little imagination to work out who that person might have been. When I put it to Sir Ivan Rogers that he was the "mystery man", he did not disagree. He has now left government service.

Sir Ivan himself has his own views on the capability of the civil service and, in his view, the personnel and the structures have deteriorated over the period of his career. They are not, he believes, up to the task confronting the nation, any more than are the politicians.

This damages beyond repair the idea that we can rely on the people "in charge". Contrary to general expectations, the higher up the tree we go, it seems that –the less knowledgeable people are – and the more serious their errors.

And here, Booker and I are as one: that Mrs May's ill-considered decision to take the UK out of the Single Market will be looked back on as the most fateful single error in the entire dismal story of Brexit. Of all the possibilities for an ordered Brexit. there was never any rational choice other than the Efta/EEA option.

This is not just another free trade agreement, a top-level graduation of the other comprehensive deals so far concluded by the EU. The EEA, uniquely, embodies the complex mix of governing and administrative institutions and the dispute mechanisms.

These are fully integrated with the surveillance and enforcement systems, which then rely on high level consultation and communication – with the whole package bound by a common legal framework which is routinely and reliably updated to keep it in phase with the EU's Single Market acquis.

Consistently, though, we hear the prattle of ignorant minds, arguing that regulatory conformity is sufficient to ensure market access, when this is but an element of the whole. It is the complexity and sophistication of the EEA Agreement, taken as an indivisible whole – rather than any one part - which enables the near-frictionless trade which its members enjoy.

The long and the short of this is that we confront an all-or-nothing situation. We either adopt the whole package – giving us something we can build on and develop - or we are on the outside. There are no half measures. If we choose an alternative - whether a Ukraine-style deal, a CETA analogue or something similar to the agreement with the Republic of Korea - the outcome will be the same. We will be on the outside. It is just a matter of degree.

What almost everybody seems to have lost sight of is that we are currently members of the most comprehensive and sophisticated treaty organisation in the world, which in turn is host to the most heavily integrated trading system in the world. That makes the Single Market unique. There are no parallels. Thus, to withdraw is inevitably going to be traumatic. Things are not going to be the same. There was never any prospect that they could be.

Yet, time after time, we are hearing politicians and others who voice expectations of normality. To them, it is almost as if leaving the EU was of the same magnitude as changing the shop from which one gets one's papers delivered.

And, if seventeen months after the referendum – following a lacklustre campaign where the important issues were barely discussed – we still cannot get the basics right, then there seems little hope that things can improve. Like a pernicious weed which, if left neglected, will take over a garden, ignorance has taken over the debate – from the highest to the lowest level.

Remarking on this phenomenon, Pat Byrne, the founder of the Irish airline CityJet, declared: "It almost seems that the Brexit car crash must be allowed to happen before the people of the UK see the folly of it". This, could, however, he more of a case of fools rushing in.

Richard North 03/12/2017 link

Brexit: they simply do not understand


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Charles Moore is in full flow this weekend, writing up in his column that: "Theresa May's fearful Brexit is leading us towards a Declaration of Dependence" (no paywall).

Fisking Moore just for the sake of it, although entertaining enough, is a complete waste of time. But since he seems to have appointed himself spokesman for the "Ultras", his columns increasingly give us some insight into what might loosely be called the "thinking processes" of the Tory claque which is devoting itself to bringing about a "hard Brexit".

From his current column, we can see that Moore's great lament is that having, effectively, committed £50 billion in payments to the EU, we are not getting anything substantial in return.

Certainly, he says, we have gained "no concession about future trade" and "no sympathy for the 'imaginative' trade approach we have called for". The process set by Michel Barnier and meekly accepted by our negotiators, Moore complains, "has always been deliberately unimaginative".

All we are getting is an acknowledgement (leaving aside Ireland and the expats) that paying the money brings us "sufficient progress" in the talks to allow us to start discussing trade. It does not buy us acceptance of any British views on the subject.

The EU, he says, "will insist on Britain retaining the 'European model' of regulation if it wants a trade deal". All we jettison is rights – a judge at the ECJ, a place among the Council of Ministers, representation in the European Parliament. What we keep is the rules and obligations.

From this we can infer (and we have to infer, because he does not make the case openly) is that Moore thinks we should be entering a grand bargain: our money in return for special favours in the manner of bartering for a Turkish carpet in a souk. The more money we pay, the better the carpet we should be getting.

However, whether you agree with the detail of the EU's stance or not, it is pretty plain that the "colleagues" see the money question as meeting past commitments. It is not a "divorce bill" as the media so often paints it – it is simply paying outstanding bills. In the nature of things, that does not confer any rights or create any privileges. That Moor should want "favours for cash" illustrates how little depth to his work, on which basis one can scarcely credit how superficial his (and by inference the Ultras') case really is. But only if we are prepared to wade through his polemics can we really understand what he's after.

In this column, we're nearly at the end before we see the case summed up – and then only in two short sentences. In the first, he says, "The purpose of our EU membership was to converge" and in the second, he declares: "We decided to diverge".

You have to give it to the man – this is a beguilingly simply analysis. But then, as we have so often observed, the "Ultras" don't do detail. What they prefer – as illustrated by Moore – is mantras. The whole of our experience of the last 44 years of EU membership is collected together in one word: "convergence". And since we are now leaving the EU, our single purpose – our sole objective – is "divergence".

Therein we can find the entire thrust of the Ultra objections to any process of managed withdrawal, and all that goes with such a process. We are leaving in order to be different so, when we leave, we should be devoting ourselves to being different. And now, Moore wails, "we are not being allowed to. Our Government is ruled by fear, and clings to its jailer even though the prison doors are open at last". He then writes:
How different Mrs May's narrative could be. National independence is a language of possibility. She could seize on this week's dramatic drop in the net migration figures from the EU to suggest the benefits of controlling our own borders. She could state that our offer of so much money is strictly tied to a reciprocal no-tariff trade deal. She could announce that, with time so short, we shall prepare fully for the possibility (actually the likelihood) that the EU will not agree to any special, bespoke agreement for Britain, and therefore get ready to trade on WTO terms. Instead she is almost making a Declaration of Dependence.
At the heart of this little squib is the reliance on the WTO option and the evident belief that WTO terms would be anything but a disaster. Last week, we had the Telegraph's Liam Halligan trying to make the case, recruiting WTO boss Roberto Azevedo to say that it was "not the end of the world".

This week, though, freed from the Halligan spin, he adds: "But it's not going to be a walk in the park. It's not like nothing happened, there will be an impact. It will be a very bumpy road, and maybe long as well". Further knocking Halligan into the dust, he then says: "Now, the question is how bumpy and how long - and that depends a lot on the terms of the agreement that will be reached between the UK and the EU, I have no way of knowing at this point in time".

Confronting this "long" and "very bumpy road", anyone sensible slows down and takes extra care to avoid the potholes, thus sparing the suspension. But the "Ultras" want to ramp up the speed to a reckless level, convincing themselves that no harm will come from their action.

And then there is the Irish border question, something that Moore avoids, on the grounds that " nobody seems clear what on earth is happening". Yet Moore's column comes after the publication of the Brexit Committee report (which had four Tory abstentions). This had MPs telling us that:
We do not currently see how it will be possible to reconcile there being no border with the Government’s policy of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, which will inevitably make the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland the EU's customs border with the UK.
And while Moore bleats about money in return for a trade deal of our choice, European Council President Donald Tusk has met Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, telling him that the EU is fully behind him and the Irish people and their "request that there should be no hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit". Says tusk, "The Irish request is the EU's request". He adds:
It is the UK that started Brexit and now it is their responsibility to propose a credible commitment to do what is necessary to avoid a hard border. It is clear that we cannot reach a full agreement on every single detail at this stage, especially that the final outcome will be linked to the future relations between the EU as a whole and the UK.

As you know, I asked Prime Minister May to put a final offer on the table by 4th of December so that we can assess whether sufficient progress can be made at the upcoming European Council. And we have agreed today that before proposing guidelines on transition and future relations to the leaders, I will consult the Taoiseach if the UK's offer is sufficient for the Irish government. Let me say very clearly: if the UK's offer is unacceptable for Ireland, it will also be unacceptable for the EU. I realise that for some British politicians this may be hard to understand. But such is the logic behind the fact that Ireland is an EU member while the UK is leaving. This is why the key to the UK's future lies - in some ways - in Dublin, at least as long as Brexit negotiations continue.
Clearly, this is not only hard for some British politicians to understand. The "Ultras", as represented by Charles Moore, are having difficulty understanding this as well. As I have remarked elsewhere, they seem to lack the intellectual architecture to make sense of what they see and hear. They are beyond our reach.

Richard North 02/12/2017 link

Brexit: less optimism and more specifics


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Last month, I raised the issue of the effect of Brexit on manufacturers of aircraft and aviation components who are holders of Production Organisation Approvals (POAs) issued by the UK approval authority - the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

This came about from my own personal exploration of EU rules relating to aircraft, etc., manufacturers, and I advanced the possibility that, when the UK withdraws from the EU – as from 30 March 2019 – UK-issued approvals will no longer be valid.

From that date, I suggested, no manufacturers would be able to export aircraft or components to the EU (or the EEA), until they had sought and gained new approvals direct from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), as is required for production organisations located in third countries.

Furthermore, when it comes to the export to other countries such as the US, where the EU has mutual recognition agreements on approvals, the UK would also be unable to export aviation-related goods. This is because market access is conditional on the manufacturers holding valid POAs.

On that basis – unless arrangements were made to carry over approvals, by whatever means – business worth £28 billion would be at risk. And, in the event of no carry-over, there could be no exports at all for however long it took for UK manufacturers to gain EASA approvals.

Being a mere blog, however – even if our daily readership is now touching the 30,000-mark – such information has been totally disregarded by the politicians and the legacy media. Even if the entire aviation industry is poised to shut down, this isn't news unless it comes from prestigious sources. But then, if the source is prestigious enough, they can make to with garbage and don't need real news.

Accuracy is irrelevant as long as the source has a posh handle or a high enough rank within an "acceptable" organisation. No matter what we report, stuff from myself and others like me is invisible. We are totally below the radar.

However, in this instance – although I have every confidence in my own work – I did write to EASA asking for confirmation of my assessment. Yesterday, I received a response informing me that, on such matters, I was supposed to refer to my national "competent authority" – the CAA. Despite that, the EASA official then went to answer my questions, which has proved very helpful indeed.

In the first instance, I had asked for clarification of the rules relating to applications for approvals, specifically the criteria for the choice of approval authority. Under what circumstances, I wanted to know, is a Production Organisation required to seek approval from an NAA and when does EASA do the approval?

It turns out that, except in the exceptional circumstances of Airbus, which has multiple locations in Europe and elsewhere, the deciding criterion is the principal place of business (PPB). Where companies have their PPB located an EU Member States, they come under the responsibility of their National Aviation Authority (NAA). Otherwise EASA is the competent authority.

As to Brexit, I asked specifically whether the POAs awarded by the UK NAA (the CAA) would remain valid after we had left. The response was candid.

At this stage, the official said, we don't know. It depends on the scenario that will be agreed between the EU and the UK. However, in case of a "hard Brexit", it is the case that POAs issued by the CAA will not be recognised. "UK companies", I was told, "will have to apply for EASA POA to do business with Europe".

In case of a soft Brexit (most wanted for everybody), there are several possibilities. The UK could negotiate "a situation similar to the situation of Switzerland or Lichtenstein" where approvals are recognised "as they are somehow assimilated in the European System".

So there it is. Most definitely with a hard Brexit – and in any event where alternative arrangements are not negotiated and agreed – there will be an interruption in supplies from UK manufacturers to EU and other aircraft users. That will apply to the Rolls-Royce engine makers, to Bombardier – Northern Ireland's biggest employer – and a host of other enterprises.

How long the break will be, there is no way of knowing. One can only suppose that if relations with the EU are acrimonious, then EASA will not be too keen to hurry through the new approvals. On the other hand, if the reapplications are treated as simply an administrative tidying up exercise, new approvals could be processed within days.

That notwithstanding, I have not seen any public representations on this issue from the industry or its representatives. Those affected need to be aware and also need to be lobbying government to ensure the necessary measure are taken to ensure continuity.

One assumes also, that suppliers will be keeping up stock levels in their European depots, and warning their European stockholders to do likewise. That way, they should be able to fulfil orders without calling for supplies direct from the UK. With luck and good management, there should then be no serious adverse effects from what is hopefully a short break before approvals are regularised at an EASA level.

This is but one of those issues, however, which emerges from the woodwork – an unintended and largely unrecognised consequences of Brexit. And, possibly, the greatest danger is that not all the threats are recognised in time, and we lose trading rights or market access simply because no one realised that there was a problem, or took the necessary action in time.

One such problem falling into this category might be the Third Country Operator (TCO) approval, which must be carried by any foreign airline which intends to operate within EEA airspace – about which I wrote at the beginning of November.

Also issued by EASA, as it stands UK-registered airlines do not need TCOs because the UK is an EU Member State. But, on Brexit, we have the familiar situation where the UK acquires the status of "third country". Its airlines must then respond to the requirements for third country operators.

The ironic thing here (if "ironic" is the appropriate word), is that airlines cannot apply for TCOs until the UK becomes a third country. That doesn't happen until we leave the EU. And, once again, there is the possibility of negotiating continuity agreements, but only if the issues are recognised in time and the appropriate measures are taken.

It is here, though, that there is some cause for concern, In front of the House of Lords EU Internal Market Sub-Committee yesterday, we had civil aviation representatives in the form of Tim Alderslade, from Airlines UK, Karen Dee of the Airport Operators Association, and Dr Barry Humphreys, from his consultancy, BKH Aviation.

From Alderslade - to an extent supported by the other two - we had a "confident" appraisal. The industry took the view that aviation was so important to the economies of the UK and the rest of the EU, that neither our government nor the EU would want to see any interruption in services. Thus the argument went, that because no one wanted disruption, there wasn't going to be any.

The only slightly cautious note came from Dr Humphreys. After most of the discussion had been on market access, EASA was briefly mentioned, whence he said: "If we don't get the safety regulation right, there will be no air services". And indeed, that is the case. If UK airlines don't hold valid TCOs, they will not be able to operate in Europe.

Here, the crucial point is that TCOs will not be issued automatically. There must be special arrangements made to ensure cover from day one of Brexit. And, for the moment, no one even seems to recognise that there is a problem. Even if the market access issues are resolved, airlines could end up grounded by default.

Even then, the market access issues have not been resolved. Despite the optimism, the necessary negotiations have not even started. And although The Times yesterday was reporting that the UK was close to an Irish border deal, with Brussels supposedly ready to speed up approval for a Brexit transition plan, there is nothing in writing that could be regarded as bankable.

However, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. As fast as the government comes up with proposals for the Irish border, the DUP knocks them down.

Nevertheless, The Times tells us that "technical work" has begun to ensure the continuation of international treaties signed by the EU, such as those covering aviation, for Britain during the transition. That, in a limited way, is encouraging, but there is no hint as to the extent of the "technical work" that must be completed before EU-UK relations are normalised.

This tells you that the optimism is unwarranted. With every week that passes, new "wrinkles" emerge, and we find more and more things which need to be done before trade can function properly. Even if we had a handle on all the issues – and that is by no means certain – there is no evidence that our government has the capacity or the understanding to deal with them.

From the performance on Wednesday of Robin Walker, and some of the officials and later witnesses to the Exiting the European Union Committee, we cannot even have confidence that all the important issues have been identified – much less understood.

But, if we slew off the optimism, for civil aviation – and its manufacturing arm – the car manufacturing industry, the chemical and pharmaceutical industries, and many more, the default position is that their external/export operations cease to function on Brexit.

Thus, we need to hear a little less of people's optimism about how things will be alright on the night, and a lot more of the specifics of how we are going to avoid shutting down vital sectors of our economy, where shut-down is the default value.

There may be little which cannot be fixed, but nothing gets fixed unless somebody fixes it. The world doesn't run on wishful thinking, neither does the UK economy and nor will Brexit.

Richard North 01/12/2017 link

Brexit: Britain to dismantle border controls


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No such specific announcement has been made but that nevertheless is one conclusion that could be drawn from government evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee yesterday.

In front of the committee, chaired by Conservative MP Dr Andrew Murrison, were Chloe Smith and Robin Walker, both Parliamentary Under Secretaries of State, respectively from the Northern Ireland Office and the Department for Exiting the European Union.

Between them, under questioning from the chair, from Conservative MP (former Colonel) Bob Stewart and Lady Hermon (Independent), they affirmed that the UK would take no steps to harden the Northern Irish border after Brexit, even if we crash out without a deal. This is picked up by the Irish Times which quotes Walker at length.

"The UK would not under any circumstances want to be taking steps to harden that Border and interrupt people’s daily lives", the paper has him say. "So we will make sure that we will do everything in our power so people can go on with our daily lives and that our commitments under the Belfast Agreement are met. And whatever contingency planning the government undertakes will absolutely have those principles in mind".

Colonel Bob Stewart was pretty emphatic in his line of questioning. As an officer of the 1st Cheshires, he'd done several tours in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles, and had been hero of the Droppin Well bombing at Ballykelly in 1982.

Since Colonel Bob knew that "hard borders" were indeed "hard", he didn't want to see border posts all over again. His experience of them being attacked had warned him off the idea.

As far as Brexit was concerned, therefore, one way of doing it was to say that on the Northern Ireland side of the border, "there will be nothing on the border". We say to the EU, "you do what you want". We had to find a system, he said, where cars could move through the border without being stopped.

Again, it was Robin Walker determined to share that vision. There would be no physical infrastructure on the border said the PUSS. "We don't believe there should be physical infrastructure on the border. We want to preserve the free movements that we have today". And that was enough for Colonel Bob. "If the European Union want to put up barricades, that's up to them", he declared.

It was then the turn of the doughty Lady Hermon, she of the constituency of North Down. First elected for the Ulster Unionist Party, she had stood as an independent MP since 2010. And now she was asking the ministers how, in the event of a "no deal", you would avoid a hard border? "I need you to spell out what will happen in the event of a 'no deal'", she said.

Yet again, it was for Robin Walker to do the business. "I reiterate", he said, "The UK would not under any circumstances want to take any steps to harden the border". And, to that effect, "we're not going to put up infrastructure, we're not going to do anything to harden the border".

That was interesting phrasing: ""The UK would not … want to take any steps to harden the border", Walker had said. That's not exactly a ringing, absolute commitment – it's more of an aspiration.

Nonetheless, we can see what the line is, the "take home" message is that the UK has no intention of putting up infrastructure at the border. And without that, any attempt to control traffic at the border would result in total chaos. Without the facilities, you simply cannot manage customs checks, much less the complex sanitary and phytosanitary checks.

Therein lies the enigma. The UK imports goods from all over the world and, apart from EU goods, applies border controls of varying sophistication, as well as the "official controls" on animals and foods, and other products. But once we leave the EU, to us, EU countries have to be treated the same as all other countries with which we trade, under exactly the same terms.

This is a matter of WTO rules – the one's that so many "ultras" are so keen to pursue. The WTO non-discrimination requirements mean that, if we apply no checks to EU goods at the Northern Irish border, then we cannot apply them anywhere else. It really is as simple as that.

Yet, here we have two ministers of the crown, and a room full of MPs, and none of them thought to mention this simple fact. They were all prepared to blather about anything under the sun, but not one seemed to be aware that what was being proposed could not be validly implemented under international trade law without us first dismantling all our other customs and sanitary controls.

Furthermore, the consequences of breaching WTO rules are not to be sneezed at. Any country adversely affected can complain to the WTO dispute panel and, if its complaint is upheld (by the appellant body if necessary), it can be allowed to impose sanctions on UK exports. The highly damaging effects would, most likely, make heavy inroads into UK trade, with significant impacts on GDP.

One would have thought that at least one MP might have been aware of this issue, but to expect MPs actually to know anything of what they are doing seems too much to ask. And this is by no means the first time a select committee has dropped the ball. One really does wonder what the point is of having them.

Gradually, though, some of the essential information is getting through. James Hookham of UK Freight Transport Association (FTA), was also giving evidence yesterday, only to the Exiting the European Union Committee. And he had got the message. Leaving the Single Market meant that checks at the point of production move to checks at the border.

Attempting to assess the state of play across the EU, he had been trying to contact customs officials from different administrations. Irish border officials, he said, were being helpful but he was unable to get French customs "to pick up the phone".

Hookham was looking for answers to four questions: future tariff arrangements; "conformity checks" on exported goods; whether vehicle permits would be required for trucks to cross borders; and recognition of driver qualifications across borders. Without answers, Hookham averred that keeping Britain trading might not be possible.

And more particularly, he said, the free flow of goods would depend on whether the customs operations in France, Belgium, Holland and Ireland would be ready.

Other witnesses were Peter Hardwick, Head of Exports, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, Sian Thomas, Communications Manager, Fresh Produce Consortium and Duncan Brock, CIPS Group Director, Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply.

The consistent theme was the complaint of "uncertainty", but particularly was Sian Thomas who warned that because Great Britain had been working with the EU (and its predecessors) since 1972, there was a lack of expertise on how to manage the export processes.

Once again, we didn't get any sense that the MPs were getting the message, or understanding the implications of what they were told. Hookham's comments on driver qualifications (which I was writing about in January) were the first time I'd heard such concerns aired and the implications are dynamite. If qualifications aren't recognised, then the trucks stop moving.

Companies were beginning to make decisions, and where they could they were moving production to the mainland – something which the banks are also doing.

If one wanted to see evidence of the UK sliding inexorably to disaster, one just needs to look into these select committees. The issues are there, but I don't see any MPs taking them on board.

Richard North 30/11/2017 link

Brexit: for a mere €1 billion a week


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In its own drearily predictable way, the behaviour of the legacy media can almost be guaranteed.

Given a subject of importance, it will ignore the issues way past the point where those most closely involved begin to wonder whether it will ever notice what's going on. Then, at the last minute, it suddenly wakes up and "discovers" what everybody else has been talking about for months (if not years) and, in its arrogance, takes possession of the subject.

Its journalists and co-opted commentariat will become instant experts and start issuing us mere mortals with verbose, self-important pieces, telling us "all you need to know" about the objects of their newly acquired interest, while the BBC regales us with "reality checks", conveying the findings of their teenage "researchers".

One such subject which has recently become fashionable in this way is the "Irish question". Despite this having been an issue right from the beginning in the Brexit talks, it has been given far less attention than the financial settlement, which has been the obsession of the media for some long while.

When they do "discover" a subject, though, the other thing we can almost certainly guarantee is that the media writers will display a profound ignorance for the details, presenting to the world a lack of grip which survives only because the industry is entirely inwards-focused and entirely impervious to criticism.

Everything is relative, of course, and to get to the dregs one used to have to go to the tabloids. But, more recently, The Daily Telegraph has been giving the redtops a run for their money, plumbing the depths of stupidity combined with ignorance and prejudice.

A glorious example of this is the piece by Juliet Samuel, optimistically published in the "premium" section under the headline: "Is Ireland really willing to put watchtowers on our border to inspect a few milk churns?" (No paywall on this link.)

This is the Telegraph view of the cross-border inspection problem facing the Irish authorities as they confront a trade amounting to around one billion litres of milk produced in Northern Ireland which goes over the border for processing every year, worth €2-300 million each year.

However, one can quite imagine the superior chortles in the Samuel household as the egregious Juliet regales her smart dinner party guests with the vision of stout Irish peasants and their ancient tractors and trailers laden with milk churns, chugging over the border to be confronted with uniformed customs men ready to peer into the interstices of their battered milk containers.

This, undoubtedly is the metropolitan clever-dick view of the milk production. It certainly reflects Samuel's views, as she actually refers to "this dangerous movement of tractors and cows", notwithstanding that the Irish diary industry is one of the most modern in the world. It is many decades since milk producers last saw milk churn, other than as museum pieces to remind them of times gone by.

Most likely, the milk will be collected by modern, articulated milk tankers (pictured), from gleaming stainless steel storage vessels filled by obedient cows which, these days, are most likely milked by high-tech robots, untouched by human hand.

The thing about metropolitan clever-dicks though is that they don't do detail and facts are an optional extra. Freed from any obligation to inform – and even the slightest need for accuracy - la Samuel is allowed to visit her ignorance upon us, grandly telling us: "There are few Brexit issues as tricky as the Irish border. Difficult as the issue is, however, there is an easy way to summarise the general British view: you create a border if you want to. The UK has no interest in doing so".

If he was already dead, one could imagine Michel Barnier rotating in his grave at such speed that local seismologists would be recording ground movements of earthquake intensity. As it is, one can almost hear his weary voice repeating the simple fact that, in leaving the EU, the UK creates by virtue of its withdrawal an external border between itself and the EU.

This, as Barnier would say, is not something the EU has done. This is the consequence of the UK leaving the EU, acquiring the status of a "third country".

This, of course, sails over the head of la Samuel. She refuses to accept that a border is necessary. The demands for it are simply a measure of "Irish anger and EU dogma". To move on, she says, "the UK should make two things clear: Britain will not be the one recreating Northern Ireland's old, hated border, and the future of the six counties will be decided by their own people".

To make her case, Samuel then seeks to diminish the extent of the problem, arguing that, "as borders go, the invisible line between Northern Ireland and the Republic is hardly the site of a great international trading bonanza".

A third of the trade across the border, she days, consists of live animals and food, of which a large portion is milk, trundling south, fresh out of cows’ udders, and back north after pasteurisation. By comparison, she gives the value of Northern Ireland's exports to Ireland as about £3.6 billion in 2015, "just under five percent of its total sales of goods and services and a quarter of the amount it sold to Great Britain".

In Samuel's view: "It's important to keep the scale of trade across the Irish border in mind because, although it is extremely important to all who live and farm around it, the data is a reminder that we are talking about a very, very small contributor to the economics of the EU single market".

What of course, she neglects is that much of the trade with the UK goes via Northern Ireland, contributing to the 400,000 cross-border movements of commercial vehicles per month.

Then there is the totality of the trade between Ireland and the UK. In 2014, for instance, Ireland imported €11.4 billion in services and exported £18 billion-worth. As regards trade in goods, in 2015, exports to the UK were valued at €13.8 billion while imports stood at a healthy £16.9 billion.

On average, Ireland and the UK trade in goods and services amounts to well over a €1 billion a week – only slightly less than half the amount traded with the entire United States.

Affected by the trading relationship forged between Ireland and the UK, therefore, is not just cross-border trade between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but the entire volume of trade. In value terms, that has the UK exporting more to Ireland than it does to China, India and Brazil combined.

After Brexit, the problem – as defined by Samuel – "is that Northern Ireland will no longer be subject to EU rules after Brexit, meaning all of its exports will need to undergo EU inspection and tariffs, which inevitably requires a hard border". The only way to avoid this, we are told, is to keep Northern Ireland inside the EU single market and customs union, moving the hard border into Britain, at the Irish Sea.

Britain, predictably, disagrees that a hard border is needed. The UK has suggested instead that large, cross-border businesses be subject to a "trusted traders" regime, which would allow inspections to take place on business premises, rather than at the border. For small traders, Britain's suggestion is even more radical: they should simply be exempt from the demands of inspections and tariffs.

This, Samuel considers, "is a pragmatic and humane approach". But, she says, "the EU hates it and, more importantly, so does Ireland. Both Dublin and Brussels argue that not policing the border would destroy the legal integrity of the single market. The EU's external borders are sacrosanct, they declare, and must be thoroughly policed". Thus, does Samuel grandly opine:
There is something slightly surreal about this objection. The EU's external borders are, as we have seen, rather porous. We are invited to believe that the Single Market's integrity hinges on the inspection of milk cartons moving across the Irish border when the EU routinely allows thousands of undocumented people to enter its territory across the Mediterranean. This is, frankly, bonkers.
Personally, I distrust anyone who uses the word "bonkers" in an argument. There is something ineffably unserious about it, which betrays a like character in its user.

Furthermore, we can see what Samuel has done, reducing the issue to a matter of "the inspection of milk cartons moving across the Irish border", then introducing the straw man of the EU routinely allowing "thousands of undocumented people to enter its territory across the Mediterranean", which has nothing to do with the Single Market.

Further trivialising the issue, she then declares that "the UK will not be putting up watchtowers to inspect milk churns". Instead, she says, we will "continue to trust Irish and EU standards".

This piece of stupidity, we should remind ourselves, comes in a newspaper which supports the "WTO option". Strangely though, those people who seem to be most keen about WTO rules seems to know least about them.

As we know, the UK itself will be keeping in place its inspections on products from other third countries (and has already undertaken to continue using EU law). But, to avoid falling foul of WTO anti-discrimination rules, it must subject imports from the EU to exactly the same regimes. Nevertheless, the UK will not be putting up "watchtowers". Instead, it will have to spend millions on new Border Inspection Posts.

Neither are we finished yet. Samuel, without beginning to understand the implication of the UK becoming a "third country", believes "Ireland is flexing its negotiating muscle". Then, failing to think through the consequences of a "no deal" scenario, she asserts that, if Britain leaves the EU with no deal whatsoever, "the country that will suffer most from that, aside from the UK, is Ireland".

Stupid to the last, she concludes, "All this in aid of policing the Irish milk market. It hardly seems worth it". Never mind that, as this European Parliament report sets out, in the course of production of Guinness, approximately 13,000 border crossings are made each year. Bombardier, one of Northern Ireland's largest employers, engages more than 60 suppliers in Ireland.

In her ignorance, bound up with the arrogance that afflicts her type, Samuel maintains a haughty indifference to these wider issues. Nor, I suspect, is she aware of MV Celine and the implications of her move to Dublin. Given a UK failure to accommodate the needs of Ireland and the EU, the Irish are quite capable of shifting the bulk of their trade to the continent and beyond.

As the MV Celine indicates, there are already preparing the ground and activities will intensify if we end up with a hard border. Already, in term of, trade in goods, the UK is no longer Ireland's most lucrative trading partner. Its importance will continue to diminish.

But then, to arrest the decline, we have to do something serious about addressing the Irish border question. And on this, we might ask Samuel, does a mere €1 billion a week seem worth it?

Richard North 28/11/2017 link

Brexit: more shades of ignorance


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More than 500 days has passed since the referendum - time enough for even the most untutored of people to acquaint themselves with the basics of Brexit.

But mere knowledge, it seems, is not for the Telegraph. From its lofty heights, it transcends worldly concerns to reach down and instruct us mere plebs on the finer points of the Irish question.

According to this newspaper in yesterday's leader, "the border between the UK (which, of course, includes Northern Ireland) and Ireland (as in the Irish Republic) is an entirely internal matter". Thus we are informed:
… the two countries enjoyed a free movement area before joining the Common Market. Yet the EU and Dublin seem determined to use the border as a stick to beat the Government with, as a demonstration of European solidarity and a crude negotiating tactic in the Brexit talks. That this performance is dressed up as some crusade to protect the peace process is particularly tasteless.
The current stance by the Irish government, such as the proposal to keep Northern Ireland within the EU customs union, is regarded as "grandstanding", while Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has labelled it "blackmail". Any attempt by the EU, a third party, to impose a border settlement "would be seen as illegitimate".

With all this in mind, the leader-writer concludes that Theresa May "needs to get to grips with this issue". On top of that, "Ireland must face facts, the EU has to recognise its limits and the talks need to move on". So much is to be gained from a positive future relationship with Ireland and the EU and there is "too much to gamble away on political posturing".

And there, neatly summed up for anyone with a wit to understand what they are reading – i.e., anyone not on the staff of the Telegraph is ignorance so vast that it needs to be preserved for prosperity – a warning to future generations of how low it is possible to sink in the information chain and still retain something approaching sentience.

As to this example so fortuitously provided for us, the first point is, of course, the "killer". For as long as the United Kingdom is a member of the European Union, the land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is an "internal border" of the Union. The Single Market is in force and free movement of goods, etc., applies.

However, once the UK has left the EU and if, as Mrs May intends, we leave the Single Market, the line between the province and the republic becomes part of the external border of the EU and the only land border between the UK and the EU.

Then, any weaknesses or legal discontinuity can turn this into a "back door" in to the EU. Any goods entering via this route will have free circulation throughout the Union and if they have by-passed the external controls, the integrity of the entire Single Market.

As such, on just that basic issue, the arrangements made at this border are a vital interest to the EU. But there is more. All parties wish to see a "soft" border with no visible controls, which will require – if indeed this is possible – special and innovative provisions, implemented by all parties involved.

Now, the issue here is that arrangements made could be taken as setting a precedent, so that whatever concessions are made to allow the invisible border to work could be demanded by the EU's other trading partners. And, under WTO non-discrimination rules, the EU would be hard-put to resist the pressure.

Not only is the border a vital interest, therefore, the EU has entirely legitimate concerns about the nature of any arrangements. To avoid being held hostage to fortune, the EU must ensure that any border solution is seen to be unique, applying only to the land border, thus preventing other trading partners using it a leverage to get themselves a better deal.

Under these circumstances, no rational person could argue – as does the Telegraph - that the EU and Dublin are using the border "as a stick to beat the Government" or as "a crude negotiating tactic in the Brexit talks". It is neither "grandstanding" nor "blackmail" and, since the EU has been careful to leave the UK and Ireland between them to come up with proposals, it cannot rightly be accused of seeking "to impose a border settlement".

Just about every assertion and every argument made by the Telegraph is wrong, making its advice to Mrs May, Ireland and the EU a travesty. The only "posturing" being done here, political or otherwise, is by the newspaper.

When it comes to posturing though, that is mostly what we get from the legacy media which, during the week has been working itself into a lather over the exclusion of the UK from the "European City of Culture" competition, on the grounds that the a post-Brexit UK will no longer qualify for entry.

Sticking only to that shallow point, though, few of the media were able to draw the wider conclusions that Booker notes in today's column.

Whether or not we should mourn that UK cities are no longer eligible to bid for the supposed honour, he leaves to others to decide. But what was interesting about this was how the EU went out of its way to emphasise that, under the rules, this is inevitable because we are choosing to become what it technically classifies as "a third country".

Its clear message was that, if we were "members of the European Free Trade Association" or remained in "the European Economic Area (EEA)", this supposed problem would never have arisen.

Nor is this the first time that the EU has tried to convey that, if only we remain in the EEA, a huge number of other far more serious problems would not be bedevilling our seemingly stalled negotiations, including that potentially insuperable difficulty we face over the Northern Irish border.

Last week, Booker mentioned a whole range of our most successful exporting industries which, thanks solely to our reckless decision to leave the EEA, will be faced with terrifying "non-tariff barriers" to their continuing ability to trade with the EU, by far our largest export market, worth in total £230 billion a year. The exports threatened in this way range from cars, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, medicines and financial services to Welsh lamb and cheese.

For instance, precisely those same rules that will prohibit us from bidding for "Cities of Culture" mean that, once we leave the EEA and thereby become a "third country", we will automatically drop out of the system that currently gives our aviation industry, including our airlines, virtually all their legal authority to operate, and even to fly at all.

We will then have to negotiate a whole stack of complex new agreements allowing us to resume exporting (and flying), not just to the EU but to the rest of the world.

The truth is that our ministers and all those others who wish us to leave the EEA have never begun to explain to us the real implications of what we are facing here.

And as all the evidence suggests, including that of a senior figure formerly close to Government at the highest level who last week shocked his large audience at a private City seminar staged by a top international bank, this is because they haven't yet begun to understand those implications themselves.

One again, therefore, we home in on the same point – the overweening ignorance that is fuelling the Brexit "debate", with neither the media nor the politicians up to speed on the basics.

Nevertheless, it is not just ignorance which is poisoning the well. As I pointed out at the end of July, there are other, more sinister influences at work. And, less than four months later, we have the Mail on Sunday picking up the baton and running with it, outing the Legatum Institute in spectacular style.

With Legatum's work, it is sometime difficult to decide whether it is ignorance or a deeper agenda at play – although the net effect is often the same. But here is an issue which complicates an already murky picture. This is something to which we will have to return.

Richard North 26/11/2017 link

Brexit: aspirations


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Mrs May has been in Brussels, having lunch with Angela Merkel and communing with European Council President, Donald Tusk. The hour-long meeting with Tusk, we are told, included a "frank discussion" about the extremely tight timeline that the UK now faces and the clock counts down to December.

Tusk, it appears, set the 4 December – ten days - as the "absolute deadline for the UK to make additional efforts" that would clear the way for Michel Barnier to advise the European Council that "sufficient progress" had been made in the three "phase one" issues.

That is the day Mrs May is set to dine with Jean-Claude Juncker, leaving the Prime Minister to depart empty-handed. Had she been a lesser person, she might have worn a teeshirt bearing the legend: "I went all the way to Brussels and all I got was a lousy tweet" – as well as a nice snapshot (above).

Picture aside, all she did get for her trouble was a tweet, with Tusk saying: "Sufficient progress in Brexit talks at December European Council is possible, but still a huge challenge. We need to see progress from UK within ten days on all issues, including on Ireland".

Here we go again, the same old, same old. Nothing has changed and, of course, nothing will change until all three of the "phase one" issues have been settled. And perhaps that simple fact is percolating into the dim consciousness of Mrs May who, according to Downing Street has conceded that Northern Ireland's membership of the EU customs union after Brexit is "a matter for negotiations".

According to RTÉ, Leo Varadkar has previously suggested adopting "bespoke" arrangement similar to that operated on the Isle of Man. This would have Northern Ireland, or even the whole of the UK, continuing to observe the rules of the single market and customs union without necessarily remaining a member of either.

Predictably, though, DUP leader Arlene Foster warns against any divergence between the regulatory framework of Northern Ireland and the British mainland.

"What we don't want to see is any perception that Northern Ireland is in any way different from the rest of the UK", she says, "because that will cause us great difficulties in relation to trade. The single market that really matters to us is the single market of the United Kingdom".

That leaves the Downing Street spokesman offering platitudes about the need to continue to negotiate "to find an innovative way forward". But that means dealing with Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney who insists, as always, that EU leaders would not give the green light for the phase two negotiations at the December council unless there was progress on the border issue.

In a nicely caustic comment, he dismisses British assurances as "aspirational". The had to be, he says, a "credible roadmap" from the UK setting out how they would ensure there was no return to a hard border. "We can't move to phase two on the basis of aspiration", Coveney remarks.

The thing is though, the Irishman isn't really very much clearer about what he wants than the UK Prime Minister. He talks of "regulatory divergence between the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland", whence he says, "it is very hard to see in that scenario how you avoid hard border checks". Mr Coveney thus wants progress "in the context of the regulatory divergence issues".

This is almost a bad as the idiot David Davis who also sees issues in terms of regulatory convergence. Neither he nor, it seems, Coveney, understand that the absence of a border requires far more than this. One wonders where this is going, if neither party is addressing the practical realities of border relations.

Nonetheless, there is no hint that Coveney is going to give in easily – whatever it is that he actually wants. His deadline remains December so that we can all move on. "If we can't", he says, "then I think there is going to be a difficulty coming up".

One difficulty that no one anticipated was the collapse of the Irish government, which is a distinct possibility after the opposition tabled a no-confidence vote.

Come what may, though, there is still going to be a "difficulty" – even if the Irish question is settled. That much we're getting from Sir Ivan Rogers who is also using the "a" word, telling us that Theresa May can hope for no more than an "aspirational" and "purely political" agreement on free trade before Britain leaves the EU.

Sir Ivan was delivering a lecture on EU-UK relations at Oxford University's Weston Library, stating that, like David Cameron before her, Mrs May would run up against the EU's attachment to "legal form and processes". She will find that "at very best", the EU would agree to a "political agreement" about future trade, not a legal agreement.

It was also "obvious", Sir Ivan said, that the EU would offer "far less on market access" than the UK currently enjoys, and that its negotiators would be unlikely to take seriously any British threat to walk away.

"The threat to walk out to go to WTO-only terms with the EU", he added, "must totally contradict the UK's own sober assessment of its best interests post Brexit". It can thus "safely be assumed that the UK government sees huge economic value in not going there".

Yet, precisely where the government is going no one can begin to work out – least of all Mrs May herself who, to judge from her comments after the Tusk meeting, still seems to think that her Florence speech carries weight. And this is the speech where she thinks we will conclude a free trade deal with the EU and be looking to a two-year implementation period.

Simon Jenkins, on the other hand, refers back to the Irish border problem and argues that the UK government must announce it will remain in a customs union with Dublin.

Since Dublin's Varadkar means to stay in the EU, Jenkins asserts, that means no trading barrier between Northern Ireland and the EU. But since May must retain Unionist support, she cannot admit any trading barrier between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Ergo, there can then be no trading barrier between the UK and the EU. Britain, therefore, has to remain in the customs union with the rest of Europe.

So here we have yet another epic example of issue-illiteracy, another pundit proposing something which simply cannot happen. Yet, despite that, such nostrums suddenly become fashionable and, for a brief period, they will be seen as the only solution in town.

Small wonder, with nothing credible on the table, a "no deal" outcome to the Brexit talks is regarded as the most likely result of the talks.

This is the finding of a recent poll which had 13 percent of respondents expecting continued membership of the Single Market, 15 percent expecting a limited trade deal, 16 percent anticipating a comprehensive trade deal and 17 percent the "no deal" outcome.

If more had been acquainted with Sir Ivan's views – and the impossibility of concluding any trade deal with the EU, prior to Brexit, became better known, the scoring of the "no deal" option would, most likely, have been considerably higher.

Nevertheless, despite the expectations, a "no deal" result is not the most favoured option. Continued membership of the Single Market is the most popular option, with 24 percent backing this outcome, against 17 percent for a comprehensive trade deal, 14 percent backing a limited trade deal and 11 percent "no deal".

The pessimism reflects the 55 percent who thought the Government was handling the Brexit negotiations poorly, against 21 percent who said they were doing well, and the 64 percent who saw the UK's negotiating position as "unclear", compared to just 20 percent who said it was clear.

For once, it would seem, this blog's sentiments reflect the mainstream – with the so-called "mainstream media" trailing behind. In fact, the legacy media has always been behind the curve, alongside the most politicians who simply don't have a clue.

But, since everybody seems to be into "aspirations" for the moment, a means must be sought of bringing public expectations into line with their aspirations. Not only is continued membership of the Single Market the most popular public choice, it is the most sensible. That the public expects it to be the least likely says a great deal about the state of British politics.

Richard North 25/11/2017 link

Brexit: "chaos and confusion"


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A leaked report is dominating the Irish headlines, with RTÉ leading the way. Details are also spilling over into the UK media.

The "report" is a confidential internal memorandum circulating in the Department of Foreign Affairs. It tells us very little that we didn't know already but confirms the "negative and deeply unflattering picture" of Britain's performance in the Brexit negotiations.

However, it differs from our own deductive analyses in being based on an extensive round of meetings between 6 and 10 November, between Irish ambassadors and senior embassy officials and government and foreign ministry officials in ten EU member states and in Japan.

From this, we learn of "scorn" about the British negotiating position and alarm at the "chaos" the Conservative government, with frustration at the inability of British ministers and civil servants "to agree a coherent policy on Brexit". As a result, there are "significant concerns" across European capitals that it will be difficult to break the deadlock in the negotiations ahead of the December summit.

Of several notable events, one was a meeting in Luxembourg when, Ian Forrester - the British judge in the ECJ – criticised "the quality of politicians in Westminster" and wondered if the British public might view Brexit as "a great mistake" when they realised what it entailed.

The judge said there had been "a fair amount of contact" between him and the British government on the issue. However, he said "only one person out of all those who had been in contact had any real grasp of the complexities involved [in leaving the EU]".

Judge Forrester was then quoted as saying "this process is going to go on for some time and ... his hope was that it would gradually dawn on people what leaving actually entailed, that there might be a slow realisation that this was just a great mistake and the mood might swing back to remaining".

A minister in the Czech government saw Foreign Secretary Johnson as "unimpressive", but noted that, in the instance of his visiting the Czech Republic in September had at least "avoided any gaffes". The Czech Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Jakub Dürr told officials "he felt sorry for British Ambassadors around the EU trying to communicate a coherent message when there is political confusion at home".

Overall, the various ministries across the EU expressed doubt that Britain would be permitted to move to the second phase of talks unless it brought forward solutions to the issue of the UK's financial liabilities on leaving the EU.

Most officials and ministers noted that the EU remained united at 27, and that Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, had appeared far from optimistic that a breakthrough would happen at the December summit.

Some senior figures warned about Britain crashing out of the EU without agreement. At a meeting in Rome, the Italian Minister for Economic Development, Carlo Calenda, said a "no deal" scenario could cost Italian businesses €4.5 billion. Several member states expressed concern about the border and sought information from Irish officials about the kinds of solutions that might be required.

Ioannis Metaxas, the Greek Ambassador for EU Affairs at the Foreign Ministry in Athens, said he was "pre-occupied with Brexit, which would cause 'big problems' for Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark". He was "keen to know what the solutions would be in terms of managing both migratory and customs flows between the north and south".

At a meeting in Japan in September between Tanáiste Frances Fitzgerald and the vice minister of economy, trade and industry, Fitzgerald "took every opportunity to make the case for Ireland as the ideal post-Brexit solution for Japanese companies considering investment or expansion in the EU".

On 7 November, Irish embassy officials in Paris met Gaël Veyssiere, the head of cabinet of the French minister for European Affairs, who was keen to learn how Irish issues would be dealt with in the coming weeks during the negotiations.

At that point, Veyssiere had "picked up" remarks by Pascal Lamy, former WTO head, that Northern Ireland could "become like Hong Kong, a special autonomous zone within the EU". Veyssiere also said that unless the UK brought forward some solutions to the financial settlement, "there could not be a positive outcome in December". Yet, he was "very negative about the possibility of this happening and about the level of engagement by the UK".

Other details include an account of a dinner on 23 October, where Davis dined with the French Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian and Nathalie Loiseau, the French Minister for European Affairs. "Despite having billed this in the media in advance," the paper states, "as a meeting to 'unblock' French resistance, Davis hardly mentioned Brexit at all during the meeting, much to French surprise, focusing instead on foreign policy issues".

In a meeting with the Cypriot Minister for Foreign Affairs Ioannis Kasoulides, the Irish ambassador was told that "the UK must do more on the financial settlement - it's a matter of trust". The Irish embassy in Slovakia reported that government ministers there were insistent that the financial settlement issue was "very important", and that EU citizens in the UK must have their rights protected, not just for four years "but for 40 years".

A similar picture emerged in Latvia, where senior government officials said UK ministers had made "a poor impression on their rounds of capitals and Latvia is pessimistic with regards to reaching an agreement in December".

The Swedish Minister for Trade Ann Linde told Irish officials that "no country, either inside or outside the EU should be worse off because of Brexit". Sweden was in "full agreement" with Mr Barnier and the EU should have "a coordinated and coherent voice". Although Ms Linde said she was "optimistic" about a good outcome in December, the UK would "have to provide clarity on the financial settlement".

All this, though, must be seen in the broader context of the scene set by Mrs May. According to a source directly in touch with her, with whom I talked earlier in the week, the decision to leave the Single Market was taken solely by the Prime Minister, after discussing the issues only with her then closest advisor, Nick Timothy.

Crucially, neither Mrs May nor Timothy had the first idea of the consequences of taking the UK out of the Single Market, nor any understanding of what the country's new "third country" status brings.

Without having consulted with other political colleagues, or more widely with business or industry – much less those of us who had done the background research – Mrs May led us blindly into a trap of her own making. She created a political environment where it is virtually impossible to devise or sustain "a coherent policy on Brexit".

Something of this is finding its way into the legacy media, where we see explored the political pressures which drove Mrs May to make her momentous decision.

But it is thus confirmed that the foundational decisions of Britain's withdrawal strategy, which is shaping the Brexit negotiations and the entire future of the UK, were taken, in essence, by two people. Not even the Cabinet had a chance to debate the issues.

On this blog, we complain – with some justice – that our arguments and research are ignored, but the truth of the matter is that, when it came to the core Brexit strategy, everyone was ignored. Rarely - even in the most rigorous of dictatorships - have we seen such a tightly-framed decision process where matters of such great importance have undergone such little debate.

The process of Brexit, therefore, is a blind march into ignorance, led by a woman with neither the capability or the knowledge to inspire, surrounded a braying, ramshackle apology for a political party which cannot even communicate with its own leader – much less the rest of the country.

For all that this country claims to be a democracy, never in history have its people been so blindly led, into territory where they don't want to be, with consequences they barely understand, yet lack the means to avoid.

For future historians, the events of the thousand days of Brexit will provide unending opportunities for discussion and evaluation. And as we ponder over the events of the First World War and try to imagine how it was that our leaders took us into a conflagration which robbed millions of their lives, they too will scratch their heads in wonderment as they try to work out quite how our government made such a mess of Brexit.

In all that, though, two names must stand out – Theresa May and Nick Timothy (pictured). And the record we see from the Irish of the "chaos" that has ensued is only a down payment.

Richard North 24/11/2017 link

Brexit: movement in the undergrowth


000a undergrowth-022 Brexit.jpg

Having been in London at a private conference, delivered under Chatham House rules, I am in something of a dilemma. If I tell you where I was, I can't tell you anything of the proceedings. It follows, therefore, if I tell you anything of the proceedings, I can't tell you where I was. If I did, I'd have to kill you.

Suffice it to say, therefore, that I was on a panel chaired by a BBC Today person, with a former civil servant of some fame - one, who has been regarded with some approval by this blog and whose views on Brexit very much accord with my own.

My presence on the panel, together with a garden implement who used to be president of an organisation that might have something to do with industry, was highly fortuitous for this anonymous ex-civil servant. He found to his satisfaction that, just for once, he was not the most pessimistic person in the room in his analysis of our prospects for Brexit.

The differences, however, were only marginal. We both agreed that there was not a great deal of cause for optimism, especially as industry seems to be afflicted by a pervasive sense of complacency.

Separately and independently, we had both found that senior ranks within a wide range of business enterprises were almost completely unaware of the extent of the crisis that was about to descend upon them, while presentiments of gloom tended to be dismissed, purely on the basis that the consequences of a failed Brexit were so serious that they could not be allowed to happen.

Quite who is going to step in and prevent the disaster is never actually specified and nor are the mechanisms which will be deployed, which puts the confidence in the realms of a belief system that transgresses mere knowledge and experience. It really is as shallow in its roots as it appears: the disaster cannot be allowed to happen because, if it did, it would be a … er … a disaster.

But the other area of almost total accord was in our estimation of politicians in the driving seat, right to the highest level. The two factors which had the most influence on them was, on the one hand, a most extraordinary level of ignorance and, on the other, an almost complete inability to listen. If anything, the stories that have leaked out on these aspects are somewhat under-stated.

That ignorance, though, was not entirely confined to the politicians. In a smaller meeting after the main event, in an impressively modern room with a panoramic view of the Thames that people probably have died for, the conversation drifted into a discussion on the nature of free trade agreements.

It was at this point that I asked for a show of hands of those who had ever downloaded a copy of an EU agreement and read it – even if it was only a skim-read. Apart from my host, not a single hand went up.

Intriguingly, the ensuing silence was broken by the observation from my anonymous civil servant that most ministers similarly lacked ambition in their choice of reading material. These trade agreements were, in a very real sense, a closed book.

The point here, of course, is that it is very easy to be enthusiastic about the utility of free trade agreements if one hasn't actually looked at any of them. But when you read through the detail, one begins to understand quite how limited they are as instruments of trade.

And very much in our collective consciousness was Monday's speech in Brussels by Michel Barnier. In particular, his comments about "access" to the Single Market" struck a chord: you can have "access" but this is different from being part of the Single Market. And how different, people are beginning to find out.

No sooner, for instance, do I write a lengthy piece on the problems facing civil aviation manufacturing than we see in the Guardian a report on Airbus and its evidence to the business select committee.

At least the term "non-tariff barriers" is beginning to get some currency, although there the dead hand of incomprehension is still playing its part. Having finally come to terms with the idea that there is more to international trade than tariffs, we see everything else being translated into "customs delays".

This lack of comprehension on the part of the media came up, but it was also noted that information was not getting through to the higher levels in the corporate environments. The people who really did understand the issues – and there are some – are further down the food chain.

This was evidence in the Airbus submission which has the company's senior corporate representative in the UK, Katherine Bennett, warning about the threat of new customs bureaucracy, which "could deter long-term investment and accelerate a shift to Asia". Yet, for Airbus in particular and the aviation manufacturing sector in particular, customs issues are the least of their problems.

This I actually managed to point out, drawing attention to the plight of the food industry. It's not customs delays that will affect exports but the rather more serious problem of their losing export approval. This followed comments about the NFU and its inability to see where the peril lies, another example of the failure to come to terms with the UK's change of status from EU Member State to "third country".

Here, there is that continued tendency to focus on the effects of leaving without a deal, as here, where the head of the ADS aerospace trade body warns MPs that if the UK was to leave the EU without a deal, it would be "chaotic" for the industry. They simply do not get the point that many of our problems arise from leaving the Single Market, and will cause damage with or without a deal.

Nevertheless, not unhelpful yesterday was another Guardian piece which had Leigh Pomlett, executive director of CEVA logistics group, declaring that it was "bordering on insanity" to think new Brexit customs systems will be in place for 2019.

"It is just the urgency of this that worries me. It takes me longer to negotiate a supply chain contract than we have here. Arguably, it is already too late", says Pomlett. For sure, this is still keeping the focus on customs and the prospect of delays at the borders. But what makes this intervention different is the language used.

Too often, industry representatives are overly-guarded in their statements, their excessive caution (or diffidence) diluting their messages to such an extent that they lose any impact. In this instance, we have someone telling it like it is – even if we were writing about it in March.

There are times when I have to sit back and review my own position, wondering if I'm losing my own sanity – not least when we read this (Guardian yet again), where we see the headline: "UK confident Irish border will not stop progress of Brexit talks", retailing the view that "Downing Street still believes the Irish border problem can be resolved by December", despite Dublin's veto threat.

With Mrs May supposedly doubling what she is prepared to pay for the "Divorce Bill", this has senior UK officials, who "remain confident that Northern Ireland will not prove an insurmountable sticking point at the next EU council in December".

Here, it is not just the quality of the media and the politicians which is in doubt. The "Rolls-Royce" civil service is actually closer in performance to a second-hand Trabant. Many of the old skills have been lost and the Whitehall structure is creaking.

Needless to say, we predicted this problem in Flexcit (see pages 174-177). And yesterday, in front of an audience of hundreds of the most senior financial business representatives in the country, I heard this described as the "only credible leaver plan".

If there is room for optimism, it is that all the options have not yet been exhausted. Waiting in the wings (possibly) is a battle over the government's refusal to give notice under Article 127 to leave the EEA. This may (just) be the battle that keeps us in the Single Market, despite the best attempts of the "ultras" to wreck our economy.

All the same, there is nothing yet which can suggest that we are winning the battle. But I do sense movement in the undergrowth. The "ultras" may be making a lot of noise and the government's stupidity may be dominating the headlines, but there are quiet voices making themselves heard.

(pic: Shutterstock)

Richard North 22/11/2017 link

Brexit: future of Europe more important


"Europe is today more necessary than ever" and, "the future of Europe is more important than Brexit". The EU is willing to cooperate with the UK, and it will be in the UK's interest to have a strong EU as a close partner. But that's as far as it goes.

So says Michel Barnier, back in the news again with a longish speech (2000+ words) yesterday on his favourite subject – Brexit. It comes to something when we see more of this French politician than we do our own Prime Minister, and he has more to say about the process than our own Brexit Secretary.

Another small but welcome difference with Barnier is that he seems to be able to speak in sentences, in a speech sectioned into paragraphs, instead of the endless stream of soundbites that characterises a British politician's effort.

For all that, there's not a lot new in this speech – not since the last one. Even M. Barnier is having to repeat himself and the "debate" stalls around a few limited issues with nothing intellectually challenging to fuel the discussions.

In deference to the title of the conference at which he was speaking – on the future of the EU – Barnier managed to put Brexit in its wider context, suggesting that it could be "a turning point in the European project" - a time of awakening, making 2016 "the moment when the EU realised that it had to stand up for itself".

Once the rhetorical flourishes had been dispensed with though, it was back to business with the EU's chief negotiator keen to tell us that the "no deal" is not our scenario. "Even though we will be ready for it", he says (which is more than one can say for the UK government), "I regret that this no deal option comes up so often in the UK public debate".

"Only those who ignore, or want to ignore, the current benefits of European Union membership can say that no deal would be a positive result", Barnier declared, then setting out the "three keys" to building a strong partnership with the UK.

These we heard recently and, despite the media's determination to make Brexit all about money, here they are again: citizens' rights; settling the accounts; and Ireland. And it doesn't matter how many times the media ignore the "Brussels Triangle", here it is, ready to swallow up not just the occasional ship or flight of aircraft, but whole nations.

Key amongst keys is, of course, Ireland and M. Barnier has long since run out of patience. "I expect the UK, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, to come forward with proposals", he says. "The island of Ireland is now faced with many challenges. Those who wanted Brexit must offer solutions".

As to the second key, that is the "integrity of the Single Market". Clearly, we are not the only ones tired of the superficiality of the public debate. Barnier says the debate "on what leaving the EU means needs to be intensified" – and not only in the UK.

Talking of sound bites, M. Barner observes that there are two such, emanating from ardent advocates of Brexit – mutually contradictory. The first is that the UK will finally "set itself free" from EU regulations and bureaucracy. The second is that, after Brexit, it will still be possible to participate in parts of the Single Market. Simply because we have been together for more than four decades, with the same rules, and we can continue to trust each other.

These views says Barnier, do not seem to offer "a sound basis for going forward". Not just for the English is reserved the art of the understatement. "The same people who argue for setting the UK free also argue that the UK should remain in some EU agencies", Barnier notes. "But freedom implies responsibility for building new UK administrative capacity". He declares:
On our side, the 27 will continue to deepen the work of those agencies, together. They will share the costs for running those agencies. Our businesses will benefit from their expertise. All of their work is firmly based on the EU Treaties which the UK decided to leave. Those who claim that the UK should "cherry-pick" parts of the Single Market must stop this contradiction.
I sometimes wonder whether Barnier reads the blog – him or his researchers. For he then goes on to says: "The Single Market is a package, with four indivisible freedoms, common rules, institutions and enforcement structures". Now where have we been reading recently about enforcement, other than in this piece.

The trouble is that the "ardent advocates of Brexit" don't do nuance. The idea that we are walking away from the "institutions and enforcement structures" of the Single Market hasn't percolated their brains. They think that, because we have regulatory convergence – for the moment – that we can continue as before. But, says Barnier, even walking away from the "four indivisible freedoms" "means that the UK will lose the benefits of the Single Market". This, he says, "is a legal reality" – and he doesn't even get as far as the institutions and enforcement structures.

But what he does say is that "The EU does not want to punish, once again". It simply draws the logical consequence of the UK's decision to take back control. For instance, "On financial services, UK voices suggest that Brexit does not mean Brexit". However, says the man, "Brexit means Brexit, everywhere". He continues:
They say there would be no changes in market access for UK-established firms. They say joint UK-EU Rules would be decided in a new "symmetrical process" between the EU and the UK, and outside of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. This would contradict the April European Council guidelines, which stress the autonomy of EU decision-making, the integrity of our legal order and of the Single Market.
"The UK will, of course", Barnier says, "have access to the Single Market. But this is different from being part of the Single Market. And a good deal on our future relationship should facilitate this access as much as possible. And avoid a situation where trade would happen under the WTO rules for goods and services". To achieve this, he says:
… there is a third key: we need to ensure a level playing field between us. This will not be easy. For the first time ever in trade talks, the challenge will be to limit divergence of rules rather than maximise convergence. There will be no ambitious partnership without common ground in fair competition, state aid, tax dumping, food safety, social and environmental standards.
But then, he says, it is not only about rules or laws. It is about societal choices – for health, food standards, our environment and financial stability. The UK has chosen to leave the EU. Does it want to stay close to the European model or does it want to gradually move away from it?

The UK's reply to this question will be important and even decisive because it will shape the discussion on our future partnership and shape also the conditions for ratification of that partnership in many national parliaments and obviously in the European Parliament.

This, Barnier says, is not said in order to create problems. He seeks to avoid problems. If we manage to negotiate an orderly withdrawal, fully respect the integrity of the Single Market, and establish a level playing field, he concludes that "there is every reason for our future partnership to be ambitious".

The EU will be ready to offer its most ambitious FTA approach and the future partnership should not be limited to trade. But the EU is not going to hang about waiting for the UK, he said, at which point came the warning that the future of Europe is more important than Brexit.

Most of this, though, will go sailing over the heads of the "ardent advocates of Brexit". Barnier's words will either be seen as a threat or they will be misunderstood in other ways. The chief negotiator is speaking but he is not communicating - because the other side isn't listening.

It doesn't want to hear.

Richard North 21/11/2017 link

Brexit: déjà vu all over again, again


It was that 1988 Commercial Union Insurance Company which ran the highly successful series of television adverts using the catchphrase: "We won't make a drama out of a crisis".

This, at the time, was a valued attribute but, such are the values of our time that the reverse now seems to hold true. Nothing holds media attention and even the admiration of the assembled hack corps those have made a perpetual crisis out of one particular drama.

There are no prizes for guessing the identity of that drama, the one that has dominated the political scene for well over five hundred days. But what is really beginning to drag is the tedium of having the same crisis played out, over and over again.

Right from the beginning it was three things: the money, the expats and the Irish question. And now, after all that time, these same three things are dominating the headlines: the expats and the Irish question.

Now, though, we have the added delight of Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, telling us that "Brexit-backing politicians" had "not thought all this through" in the years they had been pushing for the UK to leave the EU. As if we didn't know.

But then, in a touch of déjà vu all over again, we have Varadkar tightening the screws on the British and putting Ireland front and centre of the negotiations – just as the hacks wanted to make it all about money, as they always do.

At the informal European Council in Gothenburg, Sweden, he warned that he will block progress of the Brexit negotiations to phase two unless he get a "formal written guarantee" that, come Brexit, there will be no hard border with Northern Ireland.

"We've been given assurances that there will be no hard border in Ireland, that there won't be any physical infrastructure, that we won't go back to the borders of the past", Varadkar said. "We want that written down in practical terms in the conclusions of phase one".

The slight problem with this is that the UK government hasn't the first idea of where to start on all this – hence their risible attempts to pretend that a hard border can be magicked away with new, all-singing, all-dancing technology.

As if that wasn't enough, déjà vu was also very much in evidence when Donald Tusk decided on a short statement, reminding us that internal preparations on the second phase of negotiations had started in October, covering "transition and the future relationship".

Thus, he said, "we will be ready to move-on to the second phase already in December. But in order to do that we need to see more progress from the UK side". Then repeating something we must have heard a hundred times or more, he told us: "While good progress on citizens' rights is being made, we need to see much more progress on Ireland and on a financial settlement".

The European Council President had earlier told Mrs May during a bilateral meeting that "this progress needs to happen at the beginning of December at the latest". He hoped some movement would be made by next Friday when the two leaders are due to meet again.

However, inside the warm, velvet glove was a fist of the best European steel. "If there is not sufficient progress by then", he said, "I will not be in a position to propose new guidelines on transition and the future relationship at the December European Council".

The previous day, we had had a particularly inane speech from David Davis in Berlin, which demonstrated nothing more than the simple fact that he doesn't have the first idea of how the EU works.

This is the man who thinks that the UK has made some "concessions" to the EU and, therefore, the EU should give us something back. Right from the start, these idiots have been treating the Brexit negotiations like a bargaining session in a souk. Now, having given something, the clever Mr Davis wants some "concessions".

Mr Tusk, on the other hand, wasn't in the mood to put him out of his misery. Referring to those "concessions", he told the media gathered at Gothenburg: "I can say only that I really appreciate Mr Davis's English sense of humour". If it hadn't been irony, one might have said that, in this, Tusk was very much on his own. We have long since tired of Mr Davis's "humour".

And so, we're back where we started, back where we've always been – making crises out of a drama and repeating them again and again. Yet, even in the unlikely event that the UK does make the cut in December, we're not out of the woods.

As has been long predicted, in another magnificent example of déjà vu we have been told that there is no chance of Mrs May's "deep and crisp and even" agreement. The best we can hope for is a Canada-like deal.

Barnier had already advised us of this, informing us that, "from the moment the UK told us that it wants out of the single market and the customs union, we will have to work on a model that is closer to the agreement signed with Canada". The Single Market, he said, "is a set of rules and standards and is a shared jurisdiction. Its integrity is non-negotiable, as is the autonomy of decisions of the 27. Either you're in or you're out".

When she departs this mortal coil, this needs to be etched on the gravestone of Mrs May and on those of her other faithful ministers and hangers-on. And now it isn't just Barnier. We're getting that in an internal discussion paper prepared by the European Commission, spelling out precisely the thing, that rejection of the Single Market puts us on the naughty step.

Bluntly, the Commission states that "single market arrangements in certain areas" or the "evolution of our regulatory frameworks" could not be managed within the EU body of law as it stands and therefore the UK would have to be satisfied with a "standard FTA".

This should be ringing alarm bells but, as we observed yesterday, the world out there has no conception of what a "standard FTA" really means. There is some dim appreciation of what "no deal" means, but the impact of stepping outside the Single Market simply hasn't sunk in.

Gradually, we see some elements being picked up in the media, done late and done badly, with usually only part of the picture given. What none of them are doing is putting the whole thing together. We see glimpses of the torment to come, but nothing of the scale of things to come is getting through.

So, instead, we get déjà vu all over again. Meanwhile our politicians prance and prattle about things of which they know little and fill the air with noise.

Richard North 18/11/2017 link

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