Brexit: the worst of all possible worlds


It seems as if Russia has served its unintended purpose of distracting from the European Council and the guidelines on the future relationship with the UK. Mrs May has walked away with expressions of solidarity from the EU and Member States, claiming the deal brokered with the EU has laid the ground for a "new dynamic" in the talks.

With that, a complacent media is variously reporting that Mrs May has achieved "success in negotiating a standstill transition deal", while the Mail has the prime minister hailing the "spirit of opportunity". The Wall Street Journal even went so far as to declare: "Prime Minister Theresa May concluded on Friday what probably counts as her most successful EU summit".

This is an utterly bizarre "take" on what feels like the most ignominious surrender since Lord Cornwallis ceded Yorktown, Virginia to Washington on 19 October 1781 – on receipt of news of which, Prime Minister Lord North is said to have repeatedly exclaimed, "Oh, God! It's all over!".

In accepting the terms set out in the guidelines adopted by the European Council yesterday, Mrs May has effective opened the way to a further 21 months of subordination to the EU, without being able to take part in any of the decision-making processes that attend membership of the EU.

Not only that, the guidelines pave the way to a future partnership that "will inevitably lead to frictions in trade" and "unfortunately" will "have negative economic consequences, in particular in the United Kingdom".

In entirely uncompromising terms, the European Council has reiterated that "any agreement with the United Kingdom will have to be based on a balance of rights and obligations, and ensure a level playing field", noting that, "a non-member of the Union, that does not live up to the same obligations as a member, cannot have the same rights and enjoy the same benefits as a member".

The Council recalls that the four freedoms are indivisible and that there can be no "cherry picking" through participation in the Single Market based on a sector-by-sector approach, which would undermine the integrity and proper functioning of the Single Market.

Thus, it further reiterates that the Union will preserve its autonomy as regards its decision-making, which excludes participation of the United Kingdom as a third-country in the Union Institutions and participation in the decision-making of the Union bodies, offices and agencies.

Leaving no room for ambiguity, it states that the role of the ECJ "will also be fully respected" and, while it is ready to "initiate work towards a balanced, ambitious and wide-ranging free trade agreement", it cannot "offer the same benefits as Membership and cannot amount to participation in the Single Market or parts thereof".

At the Council, we heard that the EU "wants to have the closest possible partnership with the UK, which would cover trade and economic cooperation, security and defence, among other areas". However, we are told, the EU 27 leaders noted that UK's current positions "limit the depth of such a future partnership".

Donald Tusk told reporters, "We want to use the positive momentum in the negotiations to finally settle outstanding issues such as the solution to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland". He added: "In parallel, we will start our first talks about the future EU-UK relationship. Leaders will assess in June if the Irish question has been resolved, and how to go about a common declaration on our future". 

 Even to get this far, the UK has had to agree to substantial payments to the EU budget, make substantial concessions on the free movement of persons through the transition period, and to commit to a solution on the Irish border which Mrs May declared "complexly unacceptable" to any UK prime minister.

One other price we have had to pay is the effective "betrayal" of our fishermen as the UK agrees to a continuation of the hated Common Fisheries Policy.

Even then, the transition is not a done deal. The Times is reporting that this is not enough to calm the jitters of business leaders. Thousands of jobs in the City of London, it says, will begin migrating to continental Europe from next month. Mrs Mays "success" will not to stop companies in regulated areas such as finance, chemicals and pharmaceuticals from implementing their contingency plans for a so-called hard Brexit.

All aspects of the deal are linked under the principle of "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". The companies have concluded that the chance of a failure to resolve remaining differences about the transition period, such as over the Irish border, is still too high to take the risk of not being able to trade in Europe after March next year.

According to the paper, one "senior city figure" has said that between 5,000 and 10,000 jobs of finance and support staff would move by the end of this year. Another figure advising companies on their Brexit plans said more than half of all the companies they had contact with in regulated industries were intending to go ahead with their contingency plans.

This, in fact, is only to be expected. The shape of any free trade deal that the EU is prepared to offer will not give market access to UK-manufactured pharmaceuticals, chemicals, automotive and aviation products, and a host of other products. Even cosmetics will be affected.

Interestingly, calls Mrs May's deal a process of "managed surrender" which, I suppose, is something more than Cornwallis managed. As a sub-heading, it declares: "London talks tough but gives Brussels what it wants".

Yet, the national humiliation is by no means over. The withdrawal talks, says, are likely to become even more lopsided as an unofficial October deadline for agreement on the framework of the future UK-EU relationship draws near.

Any resemblance with a negotiation among equals is purely cosmetic, it adds. And that will be a different sort of cosmetic to the ones we will no longer be able to sell in the EU and wider EEA.

Michael Leigh, a former head of the European Commission's enlargement department, sees the withdrawal process in terms of an accession negotiation in reverse. And, like our entry negotiations, the balance of power and time are, once again, not on London's side. The prospect of a no-deal Brexit is more harmful to the UK than to its continental partners and we have too much to lose.

Leigh reminds us of how, during our entry negotiations, the UK's chief negotiator Con O'Neill described how, for the accession process to succeed, we would have to: "Swallow the lot and swallow it now". It turns out, Leigh says, that "leaving the bloc is a strikingly symmetrical process".

Despite this, the "ultras" have been remarkably quiescent. One wonders if the essence of the May surrender has really registered with them. Their house journal the Telegraph, for instance, leads today with an "exclusive", headlining: "Cars to travel slower than bicycles on England's clogged-up roads within a decade". The European Council is scarcely reported, while most of the media seems to be obsessing over the sacking of a person called Owen Jones.

Whether the "ultra" silence represents merely the calm before the storm or just another Tory surrender on the scale of Maastricht remains to be seen. "Ultra" leader Rees-Mogg and the other mouths alongside him will have their chance, no doubt, on Monday when Mrs May reports to the Commons on her adventure in Brussels. But something tells me we should not hold our collective breaths.

It is, after all, the combined efforts of the "ultras" that have brought us to this point, where the "least-worst" Norway option has been rejected, only for us to end up with something inestimably worse. One hopes, at least, that they are able to express a little shame for what they have done.

These people, though, are High Tories. They don't do shame, although they are past masters at betrayal. It's what they do superbly well – the only thing in which they actually excel. But, in this case, first and foremost, they have betrayed themselves – as well as those who were foolish enough to rely on them. North's first rule of politics comes to mind: never trust a Tory. The second rule is: always obey the first.

For those who might have looked to the bankrupt Ukip for salvation, all they have is an etiolated ex-leader throwing dead fish into the Thames. Farage might just as well throw himself in afterwards, for all the good he is – despite an apparent Damascene conversion, confiding recently that that the government's "biggest mistake" was not going straight way for the Norway option.

Any which way, Brexit is now going to be a matter of counting the job losses and the missed opportunities. It didn't have to be this way but, if we have a political class where incompetence seems to be its highest aspiration, I suppose we should have expected it. Now we have to clean up the mess.

Richard North 24/03/2018 link

Brexit: a solution at hand


If the increasingly impotent politicians wanted any guidance as to how to deal with the nightmare of a post-Brexit Irish border, all they have to do is look at the EEA Agreement. Right from day one, this has been staring them in the face.

In particular, they should be looking at Chapter 3 (Article 21) and then Protocol 10 on the simplification of border controls and formalities, and Protocol 11 on mutual assistance in customs matters.

As one might imagine, though, these are the provisions which form the regulatory basis for trade between Norway and Sweden, a border which is relatively free-flowing but not entirely frictionless. Truckers can find that clearance during busy periods can take as long as an hour and a half to get their loads cleared.

As a result, numerous voices have argued that, for all its advantages, the so-called "Norway option" would not provide an entirely adequate solution for a border-free Ireland.

But what the pundits fail almost completely to understand are two things. Firstly, the nature of the EEA agreement is that it is infinitely flexible. Neither the Agreement nor the Protocols set out the finite details of the arrangements and such as are agreed can be changed through established mechanisms via the EEA Joint Committee.

These changes can be introduced either as specific amendments to the EEA Agreement of via EEA relevant legislation promulgated by the EU and adopted into the EEA acquis. There is no technical limit to the number of changes, nor the frequency, permitting a process of ongoing development.

Secondly, and having regard to the first point, the Norwegian land border with Sweden – which has been continually under scrutiny as the possible model – is considered to be unfinished business. With technological and procedural enhancements planned over the next ten years, the movement of goods is expected to be even smoother than it is at present.

Many of the limitations on freedom arise from policy differences between Norway and the EU, and especially in relation to VAT, duties on alcohol, tobacco and vehicles, and from minor differences in the rules relating to the import of medicines, waste , explosives, fireworks and hazardous substances.

However, with online registration of controlled imports, with prior issue of transit permits, it is anticipated that vehicle traffic through existing customs posts will be reduced by as much as 70 percent within five years. Many of the goods which currently require physical checks will be routed to sites away from the borders, where they will be cleared.

One exception would be animal and plant material but this problem is much reduced because of the adoption of the "official controls" on foods of animal origin – and the plant equivalent - removing the need for border inspections for produce from EEA states.

The take-home point from all this, therefore, is that while the Sweden-Norway border, as it stands, is an example of what can be achieved under the EEA regime, it is not the definitive model and would not have to be copied exactly if applied to Ireland.

Any Irish border arrangement would come out of a bespoke agreement which would take into account the special needs of the island and, even then, would be amenable to continuing development and improvement. But, like Norway, where the Union Customs Code was adopted and entered into force in October-November 2013, while its substantive provisions starting to applying in May 2016, the UK would also continue with the UCC.

One special feature that could be adopted, though, is the border agency cooperation system. In 1960 and 1969 respectively, Norway signed agreements with Swedish and Finnish authorities, This allows a division of labour where the national border authorities of each country are allowed to provide services and exercise legal powers not only on behalf of their home state, but that of their neighbouring states as well.

When goods are exported from Norway, either a Swedish, Finnish or Norwegian customs office may take care of all paperwork related to exportation from Norway and importation into the before mentioned countries. This is also the case when goods are imported into Norway.

As a result it is unnecessary to establish customs offices and deploy customs officers on both sides of the border. It is decided through bilateral negotiations which country or countries will manage a border post, as well as the allocation of costs.

Thus, if trucks do have to stop, it is only at one customs checkpoint. Then, each country's enforcement personnel have the right to operate up to 16km (10 miles) into each other's territory, with mobile inspection units operating within the zone.

Altogether, a "bespoke" EEA system, melded with the latest technology, would resolve all the underlying problems in Ireland, with the border as near invisible as makes no difference. Controls would be applied, but there would be no barriers to traffic at the borders.

The problems, therefore, are neither technical nor procedural, but political. They stem entirely from Mrs May's decision to take us out of the Single Market (EEA). And, despite the blathering of the masses, the customs union is completely irrelevant. Within the EEA, tariffs and quotas disappear. A separate deal on ROO can also be accommodated within the agreement, and we retain our AEO approvals.

Turning it round, there is no solution to the Irish problem without the UK's participation in the EEA Agreement. The barrier, then, is Mrs May. Either she has to change her mind or she has to go.

Given that she does not change her mind, possibly the time for her to go is after the 29 March 2019, when we actually leave the EU. Then, under a new premier, the UK could use the transition period to negotiate with Efta, with a view to rejoining, and with all the EEA contracting parties with a view to rejoining the EEA.

If both coincide with the end or the transition period – which is the status quo option – then we will have administrative continuity and disruption will be minimised.

On that basis, the Efta/EEA option is not dead – merely delayed. And if we follow the principles of Flexcit, the current proposed transition becomes a transition to a transition. However, we cannot rule out negotiations during the transition period on reform of the EEA, to incorporate co-decision on rule-making, as Delors originally proposed.

Any solution though, will require a vastly improved level of competence on the UK side, together with a far better appreciation of how the EEA Agreement is structured and how it works. Moreover, the mantras have to be ditched, and people need to understand that the EEA is, for the moment, the only game in town.

Richard North 22/03/2018 link

Brexit: getting absolutely nowhere


"You pays your money and you takes your choice". The saying, incidentally, was used by Mark Twain in 1884, at the end of chapter 28 of ''Huckleberry Finn".

Applying it to the modern day, you can read the BBC and it will tell you: "Swedish expert offers post-Brexit Irish border solution". The gist of the story is that, according to customs expert Dr Lars Karlsson, there is a technical solution to keeping an open border in Ireland after Brexit.

Go to the Belfast Telegraph and you will get much the same story: "No physical border possible, customs expert tells MPs". This is a reference to Karlsson's evidence to the European Union Committee yesterday. It is possible to have no physical infrastructure on the Irish border after Brexit, he says, but only if the political will exists in a best-case scenario.

But, if you end up with the Irish Times, you get a different spin. The headline declares: "Post-Brexit Border unlikely to be frictionless, Swedish expert says". And this time we have Karlsson conceding that "crossing registration and CCTV" – required for some versions of his border scheme – are "too much" for some.

For the sake of completeness, though, this is the option preferred by Snake Oil Singham, who endorses Karlsson's report written for the European Parliament in November 2017, with the somewhat wordy title: "Smart Border 2.0 Avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland for Customs control and the free movement of persons".

Says Singham: "It will be hugely beneficial to have a bilateral border process in operation, as is the case in the Norway/Sweden border, and as described in the 'Smart Border 2.0' report for the European Parliament by customs specialist Lars Karlsson".

And, of course, Karlsson, president of KGH Border Services; Former Director of the World Customs Organization and Deputy Director General of Swedish Customs, is the expert. He has that perfect combination of a gold-plated cv, years of experience and all the prestige you could ever ask for.

But he is also the classic example of the narrow subject specialist, so constrained by his own discipline that he is totally blinkered, knowing nothing of the world outside his domain. As a result, although he delivers his evidence with enthusiasm, confidence and enormous authority, when it comes the Northern Irish border, his report is of next to no value.

What is extremely unhelpful about his work is that it looks at the customs issues, reflecting his blinkered approach to the subject. He is, after all, a customs specialist. But, despite the manifest inability of so many to appreciate the reality, there is a great deal more to border controls than just customs.

Not least, and by no means exclusively, there are the all-important "official controls" covering the movement of animals and foods of animal origin – the so-called sanitary controls, requiring veterinary inspection at Border Inspection Posts (BIPs). Fish and fish products also come under the official controls, requiring a separate breed of food inspector to monitor them.

Separately, there is the huge raft of phytosanitary controls, from plant health certification, to the monitoring and certification of timber products – including the ubiquitous pallets used to transport goods – and foods of plant origin: fruit and vegetables, but also nuts, spices, cereals and much else. Throw in animal feed and you have a huge range of goods, most of which must go through what are called designated points of entry.

Yet, in Karlsson's report, you will see is only one, incidental reference to phytosanitary requirements, no reference to sanitary controls, not a single reference to border inspection posts or designated points of entry, no reference to the EU's "official controls" and no mention of veterinary inspections.

As we well know, by far the greater proportion of vehicle inspections are required for sanitary and phytosanitary purposes, respectively in Border Inspection Posts and Designated Points of Entry, where presentation is mandatory before the goods can be submitted for customs clearance. The system is entirely separate from customs, and their officials take no part in the process.

In his report, Karlsson takes a special look at the Sweden-Norway border, offering the border control system as the starting point for a more comprehensive system. Using the best of available technology and systems, grafted on to the Sweden-Norway system - he believes we would provide a frictionless border between the two Irelands.

But, with the focus entirely on customs, he fails to take into account that both countries are in the single market, one in the EU and the other and Efta/EEA state. Both adopt internally the "official controls". Therefore, neither country treats the other as a "third country" and there is no application of official controls at the border, and no requirement for phytosanitary controls.

Nor are these minor or incidental omissions. Karlsson is clearly out of his depth. In his evidence to the select committee yesterday, he talked about "trusted trader" schemes to deal with agriculture. In slightly more detail, he tells the Irish Times that: "Checks under sanitary rules, a key regulatory area for agricultural trade, could be covered under the trusted trader arrangements".

Clearly, the man has no knowledge of non-customs systems. The AEO "trusted trader" certification is a customs system and has no bearing on sanitary or phytosanitary issues. The EU does not operate a preferential access system to BIPs and DPsE and, under WTO rules, they are required to give access on the same terms, in a non-discriminatory manner, to all third country users.

Then, crucially, this does not get past the central problem that the facilities do not exist at present and, should they be provided, they would constitute hard border infrastructure, confounding the pledge to avoid this. The very requirement means that there will be a hard border.

Mind, if Karlsson gets it wrong, he is not alone. Shanker Singham, the self-appointed expert in all things to do with trade, goes spectacularly off the rails, drivelling about mutual recognition (of both regulations and conformity assessment) for meat products and animals, ignoring completely the existence of official controls.

At the stroke of a pen, so to speak, Singham invents his own private, unique world where over fifty years of community legislation and the entire food control acquis disappears in a puff of smoke, miraculously paving the way to a frictionless border.

Failing this, he asserts that that the EU "has a formal Mutual Recognition Agreement with New Zealand that lists a number of sanitary measures in animal health and animal derived products where the parties have agreed recognition of equivalence, and associated reductions in border checks".

He also assets that "CETA also includes a protocol in similar terms". In Singham's miraculous little world, therefore, for the UK and EU "it would be reasonable to expect, at least while the respective regulations are still harmonised, to recognise not just the regulations but also the testing and enforcement regimes and thus avoid the need for controls at BIPs".

Here, for a start, Singham confuses the entirely separate concepts of "mutual recognition" and "equivalence". In terms of errors, this is akin to a car mechanic looking for the carburettor in a car fitted with fuel injection. It is a rookie mistake which rules out any claim to expertise. This is a man who simply has no idea what he's talking about.

For sure, the EU and New Zealand have an agreement which allows for "the progressive recognition of the equivalence of sanitary measures", but that in no way exempts imports of New Zealand produce from being presented at BIPs. They must go through the system just like produce from any other third country.

For sure, New Zealand enjoys a reduced inspection rate, as low as one percent for physical inspection of lamb carcases. But, as I explain here, that is a special situation.

Lamb is considered to be low risk, and a "high purity" inspection system applies to New Zealand produce, something that few UK abattoirs could replicate. And, with their more complex disease patterns and involvement in a wider range of zoonoses, such low inspection rates would never apply to cattle and pigs.

Thus, when Singham asserts that "CETA also includes a protocol in similar terms", he is just plain wrong. Canada "enjoys" inspection rates of 10-15 percent, against the normal requirement of 20 percent. And all produce has to go through BIPs.

But, God help us, this is what represents state of the art knowledge amongst the chatterati. Whether Karlsson or Singham, you have the blind leading the blind, spectacularly misleading spoon-fed MPs who haven't the wit to find out for themselves that they are being led astray.

And it doesn't even stop there. Even in Karlsson's specialist area, he gets it wrong. In assessing customs requirements, he takes no account of the fact that inspection frequency is based on risk assessment - a legal requirement under the UCC. He only makes one reference in his entire report to risk assessment. But what needs to be considered is that the Swedish/Norway border is a very stable, longstanding system, where the parameters are well understood.

With a new border between the north and south in Ireland, in the absence of experience and a lot of new systems in place - with plenty of people prepared to exploit any gaps - the border might be considered high risk - and for some years. Therefore, assessments of rates of customs inspections might be grossly under-represented, as is the resource requirement.

But if we can't get past these basics, there is no hope for us. In the hands of the ignorant, any idea of sensible planning goes out of the window. We are looking at fantasy worlds that simply don't exist, with the debate going round and round in circles – getting absolutely nowhere.

Richard North 21/03/2018 link

Brexit: what you see is green


If, for my first stage of Flexcit, I had written up the transitional agreement currently on offer to the UK government, it would no doubt have elicited exactly the same responses we're now getting from the "sell out" merchants.

They've been squeaking all over the internet, and for very much the same reasons for which they were originally complaining – the vassal state schtick they said was the problem with the "Norway option".

Now they are getting the "pay-no say" scenario that they thought they were getting but were not. And they haven't a leg to stand on. Having sabotaged any attempt to get a sensible resolution, they're lumbered with their own worst nightmare. If it was just them getting what they deserved, the current mess would be worth it.

As it is, when Jacob Rees-Mogg and others board a boat and pass by Parliament throwing fish into the Thames in protest at the alleged "sellout", as they are promising to do, we might pray for a nautical disaster which has him following them into the Thames.

Ironically, the price we will have to pay for the "transition" that Rees-Mogg has done so much to bring about is a settlement of the Irish question. That bill remains unpaid. The cannery has been kicked down the road again, with no proposals forthcoming from the UK government.

The best the "ultras" can offer is stunningly ill-informed drivel from Snake Oil Singham (now of the IEA), technically illiterate, strewn with errors and false assumptions. Needless to say, it is given pride of place on the "ultra" noticeboard CapX - but as long as this sort of stupidity is given house room by the chatterati, there is little hope for us.

Inevitably, nothing of Mr Singham's stupidity will have slightest impact on the Commission. And, in the absence of anything sensible there looms the infamous "backstop" whence, "the negotiators agree that a legally operative version of the 'backstop' solution for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, in line with paragraph 49 of the Joint Report, should be agreed as part of the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, to apply unless and until another solution is found".

This is the 'backstop" that a certain Mrs May dismissed as "completely unacceptable", saying that "no UK prime minister could ever agree to it". It could, she said, undermine the UK common market and threaten the "constitutional integrity" of the country by creating a new customs barrier in the Irish Sea.

But, not only has she caved in and is dumping Northern Ireland by apparently accepting something unacceptable, fishing also gets the "sell out" treatment. Had this travesty been proposed the day after the referendum, it would have been rejected out of hand. But now, it is been lauded as a "success" by our Brexit minister.

We have got there by a process of attrition. A totally unprepared UK government has fed its negotiators into the Brussels grinder, the outcome of which was as predictable as sending raw troops over the top to face German machine guns in the first battle of the Somme.

However, even the BBC in its TV news bulletins noted that M. Barnier had gone out of his way to point out that, "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". The General Affairs Committee gets its bite today and then there is the European Council on Friday, which will probably rubber stamp the draft agreement. And then we're back on the treadmill.

Despite that, the idiot Davis is drooling that we've taken a "decisive step" towards a Brexit settlement. Yet, can it really have escaped his attention that the Irish question was there at the beginning, and is still there?

That reality is not going to conceal the drama of M. Barnier's presentation yesterday, where he stood in front of a backdrop and proudly declared: "What you see is green". From where he stood, you could hardly see the white – the areas where agreement has not been reached. And white, for this day, was Ireland.

If it's reality, you're after, though, cut to the Independent. It has Jonathan Powell asserting that Mrs May's handling of the border question could bring the entire Brexit negotiation "crashing down". He accuses her of committing "the worst possible sin" of having "boxed herself in". Her Mansion House speech had "not solved the substantive problems" and, in his view, "her problems on Brexit may only just have begun".

Right on cue, the Belfast Telegraph reports UUP's Nicholson saying that the backstop option for Brexit is "unacceptable", a position that will never change as long there is one Unionist MP left standing.

The Scots, on the other hand, are wound up about fishing rights. Reuters tells us that the SNP has called the current deal "a sell-out" and a Conservative MP has warned that it would be easier "to drink a pint of cold sick" than sell it as a success.

That is where it is going to get interesting. Mrs May will come back from her "triumph" in Brussels on Friday but, on the following Monday, will have to face the Commons with her report. It is unlikely to be a "frictionless" passage.

Yet, the delusions persist – and doubtless will continue. From the very start of her tenure, Mrs May has evaded reality, made worse by being surrounded by second-raters who are trapped by their own stupidity. It seems impossible for her to break out.

When it comes to the crunch, that has been the problem all along. This is not a society that can handle expertise, or one that has any respect for knowledge. And when a snake-oil salesman of the calibre of Shanker Singham can be taken seriously, his influence reaching to the the very heart of government, we are in very serious trouble.

Even now, though, there is still time to take a different route. It is unlikely that it could work under this prime minister, though, so it is time for her to go. She has already secured her position as the worst premier this nation has had to suffer in living memory, so has nothing to gain by staying on.

If by some miracle she was deposed before the current deal is separated, a new prime minister could perhaps go to Brussels and ask for an extension of time, sufficient for us to set a new course in the direction of Efta/EEA. But for that to happen, much of the dead intellectual wood surrounding the government needs to be put to the torch.

Therein lies the real problem. If the prime minister is the pinnacle of stupidity, she rests on a huge base which will be almost impossible to shift. The rent-seekers have lodged their positions and are not going to give them up easily.

Nevertheless, reality will eventually have its day. Whether on 29 March 2019 or some time later, the UK will become a fully fledged third country, whence all the stupidity will be exposed for what it is. A shock to the system is inevitable and it can hardly be less than profound.

Out of the wreckage, perhaps, we might be able to salvage something, and start again. But until the stables are cleansed, we'll not be seeing much more of the "green" of which M. Barnier was so proud.

Richard North 20/03/2018 link

Brexit: descent into chaos


If it is fair to say that few in industry and commerce have any real idea what will happen on the borders with EU Member States on day one of Brexit. And if uncertainty prevails in the private sector, one can be pretty certain that most government agencies will also be in the dark.

Quite what the situation will be, in terms of what can be exported to the EU, and what can't, no one at this stage actually knows, and there is no means of knowing. Much will depend in the first instance on whether a transitional period is agreed, and the nature of any agreement - with the devil very much in the detail.

The best case scenario, from the viewpoint of exporters, is a status quo transition where we carry on much as before. This basically kicks the can down the road, turning Brexit day into a non-event as far as the export of goods goes. Only when the transition period expires will we have to deal with a new set of rules to deal.

As to the worst case scenario, that will arise in the event of "no deal". Either by accident or design, we will go into Brexit day with no administrative agreements between the UK and EU Member States, relying on what is called the "WTO option".

Here, there is something of a definition problem as a "no deal" can be graduated. We could, for instance, have a basic agreement on tariffs – and possibly one on VAT – but not very much else. But, until we're faced with the details, there is no way of defining the precise impact on our exporters.

A similar pall of uncertainty hangs over our importers. Ironically, the self-same WTO rules on which the "ultras" are so keen to rely will require that goods coming into the UK from EU Member States are treated in exactly the same manner as goods from third countries. Grayling's idea of a check-free border on the UK side is fantasy.

What is being given far less attention than it should, though, is what is going to happen on the other side of the Channel (and the Irish Border) on Brexit day, in the event of a no deal. And there, if possible, there is as much uncertainty as there is over here.

But if that is an issue in its own right, there is a further complication arising from the unique situation where neither side is fully aware of what the rules are. With very few exceptions, border rules have been built up between nations over a long period, with major changes phased in gradually, sometimes over a period of years.

It is that, more than anything, which keeps the system working – the fact that it is populated by people on all sides of the fence who know the rules, know what they are doing and are used to working with each other.

Now, take a day-one scenario where the UK, literally overnight, becomes a third country. As far as officials in EU Member States go, in the absence of a deal between the UK and the EU, the UK will suddenly cease to exist. The UK as an EU Member State, accessible on all the EU databases, will no longer be there. And inclusion on third country databases is not automatic – nor uniform in respect of different sectors and products.

For certain products, such as medicines, there are very rigorous rules relating to market authorisation, and UK pharmaceutical manufacturers have been warned (by the EU) to transfer their authorisations to EU-based entities in order to keep trading on or after Brexit day.

But, in the nature of things – and not least because there will be some delays before the European Medicines Agency can sort out all the transfers – by Brexit day, some UK exporters will have acquired EU-based market authorisations, and some won't.

Now put yourself in the position of an official in Calais on Brexit day, confronted with a truck carrying several different types of medicines, packaged for retail distribution. What would the previous day have gone through unchecked will now have to be stopped. The paperwork will have to be checked to determine to the products carried and whether the market authorisations are valid.

The trouble is that the documentation may or may not have been updated. In a stable, long-standing system, officials might rely on everything being correct but, where such huge changes have been made, it is possible that not all the details will be correct. Documents, therefore, will have to be carefully scrutinised for errors.

Obviously, medicines which are not correctly authorised will not be admitted. In a mixed load, they will have to be removed and returned to the UK – or the whole load must be rejected.

However, the complications are only just starting. Permission to market medicines rests not only on the authorisation. The manufacturing plant has to be officially inspected and certified as conforming with the guidelines for good manufacturing practice (GMP). Then, each batch must be certified by a Qualified Person (QP) as conforming with statutory requirements, before it can be released for sale.

In the absence of mutual recognition agreements (MRAs) on GMP and conformity assessment – which would be the case in the "no deal" scenario – then any products manufactured in the UK would have to be rejected, even if they carried a valid market authorisation, current in an EU Member State.

The complication now is that many medicines are produced in bulk in one plant and then shipped to others for various levels of packaging. Tablets, for instance, may be blister packed in one plant and then inserted into retail outers in another. Thus, our hapless official will have to check further to see whether the product was made in the EU and just packaged in the UK. And even then, if GMP requirements apply, the medicines will have to be rejected.

Probably, to be on the safe side, all medicines coming over from the UK will have to be rejected. That, at least simplifies the jobs of the officials. They will just need to keep a look out for any vehicles carrying medicines. They will have to be intercepted and returned to the UK. That will also apply to vehicles seeking to cross into the Republic of Ireland.

The worst of it is, though, though, that the complications not stop there. For a considerable number of medicines, the market authorisation holder is in the UK, while the product is manufactured in a number of sites elsewhere.

The authorisation for the beta-blocker Bisoprolol, for instance, is held by Sandoz Ltd, in Frimley, Surrey, but it is manufactured only in Germany, Ireland, Slovenia and Poland. Many other medicines have a similar profile. For many of these, even though they cross no borders, it will not be legal to sell them in EU countries.

And all this is just one sector. One presumes that a company marketing nuts and bolts for general engineering use will be able to market their goods in the EU. But if they are intended for use in vehicles, and (especially) in aviation, export may not be permitted. Vigilant border officials will have to check loads to ascertain the intended use of multi-use parts.

Any number of manufactured goods, which require third party certification, will also have to be intercepted and rejected, and it goes without saying that animals and foods of animal origin will not be permitted entry. Even the pallets on which goods are shipped may be rejected if they have not undergone the correct timber treatment.

What we are dealing with here, therefore, is potential chaos. Thousands of vehicles each day, crossing over to EU states will have to be checked, and possibly thousands returned to the UK until shippers get used to the new rules, and know what to avoid.

And this is the reason why we cannot countenance the so-called WTO option. The WTO only sets the frameworks – the detailed rules are made by the EU and they also have to be obeyed, or the products will be rejected. And your customs systems can be as "streamlined" as you like. If products don't conform, all that means is that they are sent back quicker.

Yet, nothing of this is getting through. We see recently the Brexit Committee report on the progress of the UK's negotiations on EU withdrawal. It paints a gloomy enough picture, but it's only scratching the surface, calling the wrong witnesses and asking them the wrong questions.

Even worse, we get to hear of a secret report from government that says our customs system will not be ready in time for the start of the new relationship with the European Union at the end of 2020. That assumes we get a transition deal.

The longer we leave it, of course, the better prepared in some respects we shall be. But such is the volume of change that its sheer extent will defeat any measures to prepare for them – always accepting that the resources are available. EU member states may be reluctant to commit those resources. The chances of them being ready on time are virtually nil.

Gradually, therefore, we are descending into chaos. This is unavoidable. The only thing we can influence is the degree.

Richard North 19/03/2018 link

Brexit: a respite from Putin


Of all the things that the UK might want to do as an independent nation, freed from the obligation to shadow EU foreign policy, picking a fight with Russia was probably not at the top of the list. But if we are going to take on Russia, it would be best if we understand what we're taking on.

Some interesting insight into this comes in Booker's column today when he recalls his visit to the Soviet Union in 1980 to cover the Olympic Games.

Sitting in Moscow, as the capital of the largest country on earth, at a time of high Cold War tension over the invasion of Afghanistan, it became obvious that Russia saw itself ringed on all sides by enemies, all along its thousands of miles of frontier from Nato Norway in the west to China in the east. It was a country gripped by an intense sense of paranoia.

The charge sheet against Russia in recent years may be long, from Putin's ruthless suppression of dissent to saving the Assad regime in Syria. But the one disaster the West has never understood was one entirely of its own making.

On this, there is a public figure who correctly read the crisis erupting over Ukraine in 2014. That was Tony Brenton, our ambassador to Moscow from 2004 to 2008. He recognised only too clearly that the trigger for that shambles was the hubristic desire of the West to see Ukraine, the historic cradle of Russian national identity, absorbed into the EU and Nato.

The crisis was set off by the coup whereby one corrupt but pro-Russian ruler of Ukraine was replaced by another willing to sign the agreement leading to Ukraine's EU membership.

Thus, the response of the Russian-speakers of eastern Ukraine and Crimea was wholly predictable. They wished to be ruled by their fellow Russians in Moscow rather than by some mysterious, alien bureaucracy in faraway Brussels, and were prepared both to vote and to fight for it.

They were, after all, confronting the question of why people with such a fierce sense of national identity should want to become part of an empire deliberately set up to eliminate national identity. Yet, to this day, the West remains powerless to do anything about it except make indignant noises of protest at the ineluctable consequences of its own actions.

Some understanding of this psychology might have helped inform our response to the poisoning incident in Salisbury, where finger-wagging condemnations were only going to elicit one, very predictable response.

That we are now in a confrontational situation, with the wall-to-wall coverage given to President Putin, is doubly unfortunate. Says Booker, it is diverting attention from the possibility that this week may see the near-breakdown of what have been billed as "the most important international negotiations Britain has been involved in since the Second World War".

It is now four months since David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, assured MPs that all our difficulties with the EU would be happily resolved at "the 59th minute of the 11th hour". That moment has now arrived.

The European Council meets this week to consider its "draft withdrawal agreement", still without any sign of resolution to the impasse that could prevent negotiations continuing.

The key as ever is the Irish border, which, for trading purposes, the EU insists will have to move to the Irish Sea, to protect the "integrity" of its single market, but which Theresa May insists no British prime minister could possibly accept.

To narrow it down still further, as Booker explained in February last year, just after Mrs May announced that we were to leave both the single market and the European Economic Area (EEA).

Following this blog, he reported on the disaster looming over the arrangements whereby the multi-billion-pound racing industries of Ireland, Britain and France can move racehorses between their countries to race or for sale without any hindrance.

The moment we leave, as the EU again warned on 27 February of this year, these arrangements, mandated by directive 2009/156, will lapse. As with so much else facing Britain's trade with our largest export market, up will go complex (and in the case of racehorses, prohibitive) border controls.

Last week's Cheltenham Festival, the highlight of our racing calendar, could be the last but one where those all-conquering Irish horses can appear (although "transition" might allow one more in 2020).

At least in that respect people will finally see the kind of thing we are letting ourselves in for by choosing to become a "third country", not just outside the EU but also the wider EEA (where, to avoid all these difficulties, we could have chosen to remain).

But this of course is only a small part of the story. This week seems likely to mark the moment when the "irresistible force" of Brexiteer wishful thinking collides with the "immovable object" of those implacable EU rules. And, by the way we have chosen to play it, this could be the moment when any further meaningful talks with the EU are at an end.

That, at least, was the situation when Booker left it, his column going to press on the Friday. But since then, we've had further talks in Brussels at official level and there are to be face-to-face discussions between M. Barnier and David Davis on the Monday. The leaves open the possibility that there will be a last-minute compromise that will keep the show on the road.

Perversely, one factor which could work in the UK's favour is precisely the situation which has been dominating the headlines for nearly two weeks – the Salisbury poisoning. More or less obliged to show solidarity with the UK, to avoid a public rift with a Nato ally, the Europeans may be disposed to apply temporary patches to the cracks in the Brexit agreement, and kick the cannery down the road to the June European Council.

According to The Times, what may be on the cards is the device of a political declaration on the transition. This will be provisional and still dependent on full implementation of the "Irish protocol" in the draft withdrawal agreement. Sources suggest that both sides are confident that a deal will be brokered.

As it stands, if there is no closure on the withdrawal agreement there will be no transition agreement. There cannot be a transition agreement on its own. But is some sort of accommodation isn't reached, then the Brexit negotiations come screeching to a halt on Friday.

However, the "colleagues" have far too much invested in their current stance to give much away on a permanent basis. Not least, there is Mr Tusk's credibility. If they give ground on the transition period without settling the Irish question, they will seriously weaken his authority. And in the EU, such things matter.

What could get everyone off the hook, for the time being is the one being mooted in London – the possibility of extending the negotiations past the two-year period, and then adding to the transition period. This is being suggested by the Brexit select committee, to the chagrin of committee member Rees Mogg, which itself is sufficient to commend it.

Without a fundamental shift in the UK's position, though, this can only be seen as an attempt to stall. It does not solve anything in its own right. Either Mrs May's government will have to solve the problem of how to ensure Ireland has a "soft" border, or it's game over. And if that is to be the case, many would prefer it to be sooner rather than later.

But in all this, there is something we've never really factored in. If it is going to take time for the UK to prepare for Brexit – which indeed it is – the same will apply to the remaining EU Member States and the institutions. There may be less political opposition to the idea of an extension than we first thought.

That notwithstanding, to my mind it was touch and go as to whether the talks collapsed this coming Friday. It will be hugely ironic if Putin's Russia is the immediate factor which takes the heat off. But if the respite is only temporary – then it must be, then all we've managed is to stay in the frying pan, while toasting our feet in the fire.

And maybe it will be too much to expect the headlines to recognise the real reason for any delay in execution, but I will be looking for that single line on the coming Saturday which declares: "from Russia with love".

Richard North 18/03/2018 link

Brexit: the poison chalice


I do hope that the people who so approve of Mrs May's new brand of justice are never in front of a jury where the rules that seem to apply to Russia also apply to them.

Meanwhile, the distraction has paid off. Brexit has almost disappeared from the media, leaving a rump of disjointed stories and not a hint of a unifying theme. The low-key negotiations between officials in Brussels have scarcely been reported and the latest version of the draft withdrawal agreement has slid into the public domain with minimal comment.

This is an upgrade to the document we reviewed on 1 March – the one that had proposals on Ireland that had Mrs May declaring that no prime minister could ever accept them.

And while, apparently, there has been a little bit of give and take on the transition period, the blue touch paper issue of Ireland is essentially unchanged. It still remains for Mrs May to deliver up her alternative to the Commission or put up with a "wet" border. But, as Mr Putin has just found, our prime minister doesn't do alternatives.

Thus, on the basis that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, two weeks have achieved precisely nothing. The new draft has been issued in time for it to be circulated to the 27 Member States, so we can take it that this is the version which will go to the European Council.

But when Mrs May goes to Brussels in a week's time, in order to attend the first day of the Council, you can bet that Russia will be on top of her agenda. And, if the media take their cue from her, Brexit will barely get a look in. That will leave the Council meeting as 27 to spend the next day on the issue. They will probably spend more time on it in that one day than Mrs May has in the last month.

As well at the withdrawal agreement, though, they will have the latest set of draft guidelines on the framework for a future relationship with the UK to approve. These haven't been formally published yet, so we might get some media interest when copies are officially available. But there again, they might not.

David Davis himself is due to go over to Brussels on Monday – his first visit since Christmas – but there seems little he can do, and there is nothing specific on the table for him to approve. And his boss has already ruled out any movement on Ireland. However, there will be a press conference with Mr Barnier, so we may glean something of the situation from their comments.

This will be the same day as the meeting of the General Affairs Council. Assembling in EU27 format, it will discuss the draft guidelines. This is effectively, the formal approval, preparatory to the European Council meeting which will rubber stamp the GAC decision.

The Salisbury poisoning aside – which has given Mrs May the perfect excuse to ditch Brexit for a while – there seems to be a new tone to the mood music. The UK government as a whole is giving every indication of having lost interest in the negotiations. There is a smell of fatalism, where everybody seems to be waiting for the outcome, powerless to affect it.

On the other hand it could be that cabinet members have no idea what is waiting for them. Even last night, we had Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary, asserting that there would be no post-Brexit lorry checks at Dover. Under no circumstances, he said, would the UK create a hard border.

This was on that grave of souls, the BBC's Question Time, where he roundly declared that "We will maintain a free-flowing border at Dover, we will not impose checks in the port. We don't check lorries now, we're not going to be checking lorries in Dover in the future. Absolutely clear, it cannot happen.

Nearly two years since the referendum, it is hard to believe that a cabinet minister could be so blithely ignorant of the realities – but then Grayling is a Tory. Since Mrs May has ruled out continued participation in the Single Market, a hard border is inevitable. But if the man thinks we can get away without one, then there is no surprise that he is not concerned about the lack of progress.

We see the same litany being churned out by other ministers, and a pervasive belief that the EU will open its borders at the last minute and let the goods flow. This "eleventh hour" resolution is certainly one to which David Davis has referred, and perhaps he genuinely thinks that Mrs Merkel will come to our rescue, just to keep German cars rolling towards Britain.

Strongly bolstering that fantasy is the assertion that since the UK is already fully compliant with EU law, there should be no new barriers to trade once we leave. The nuances of EU requirements, such as the obligation in so many cases for businesses to be established in the EU, and the requirement to meld with the entire EU "ecosystem" simply passes these people by.

Likewise, Tory ministers have convinced themselves that their "frictionless" border in Ireland will be a practical proposition. Thus, whatever anyone says, there is no real expectation that there will be any problems. Everything will be alright on the night.

Currently, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is warning that Mrs May's pledge of no hard border can only be achieved if the UK "remains aligned with EU rules" for the foreseeable future. There is "no evidence", it says, of a technical solution to allow Northern Ireland to break free from the customs union and single market without the return of border posts and checks.

However, there is very little likelihood that this report will be taken seriously. Select committee reports come and go. Most are hardly worth reading. None seem to have any lasting impact.

With a strong strain of delusion, which reaches right to the top, you can see why Barnier and other EU officials are struggling to get their message though. Their warnings are dismissed as "project fear" or simply not believed. We may get another taste of that from Davis on Monday as he radiates complacency when he should be in a state of panic.

Everything, however, still hinges on the Irish border question. At the European Council, Mrs May is expecting to put the transition agreement to bed and Davis is confident that a deal will be struck. One of the key lubricants is that the EU is to drop its opposition to Britain signing trade deals during the period.

He seems to be forgetting Tusk's ultimatum though – that there can be no progress until the Irish question is settled. And it's there that the Irish Times injects a note of caution.

The paper retails that UK optimism that the Council will endorse an agreement on the transition period "may be premature". This comes from the famously anonymous "EU diplomatic sources" who are raising questions on the details and also on the broader issues of the withdrawal agreement. Crucially, the Tusk doctrine seems to be prevailing in that there is reluctance to separate out discussion of the transition deal from the withdrawal agreement.

As long as the EU insists on linkage, the UK is actually going nowhere. And while UK ministers may choose to ignore the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report, the Commission will almost certainly take note of its views that technical solutions are not feasible.

That leaves an increasingly edgy business community that is finally beginning to realise that the government may not be able to deliver on a smooth transition. Thus does Sir Charlie Mayfield warn of "Brexit inertia" within companies that is "undermining efforts to improve British business performance".

"Undoubtedly, one of the great issues with what we're facing with Brexit is that it is causing a further sense of [inertia] and causing an impact on productivity — at least on confident investment in the future", he says. "There are good reasons why businesses are hesitating".

Not very much longer, one suspects, and hesitation will be translated into action as those companies that can will bail out and look to solutions outside the United Kingdom. That in itself may force Mrs May to focus on something more than Mr Putin, and fracture the delusional state within the Tory ranks.

While there is still the "Salisbury obsession", Mrs May can play, but soon enough there will be another poison chalice waiting for her, and it will not be filled with Novichok.

Richard North 16/03/2018 link

Brexit: the lion, the witch and the wardrobe


With UK tanks poised to roll over the Russian border (not), European Commission president Jean-Paul Juncker has been in Strasbourg, talking about that all-but-forgotten subject, Brexit – and future EU-UK relations.

By way of a reminder, he told us that, 349 days ago (as of yesterday), on 29 March 2017, the UK notified the European Council of its intention to leave the EU. In 381 days, on 29 March 2019 at midnight, the UK will have left the EU.

From the earliest days of these "unique and difficult negotiations", he said, "our objective has always been, and will remain, to achieve an orderly withdrawal from the United Kingdom, in its own interest and that of the European Union".

Although you would not think it from the level of media coverage in the UK, or even the activities of our politicians, Juncker went on to say that, with "every day that passes the urgency to meet all the conditions necessary for such withdrawal is greater". This urgency, he added, should inspire us all, the European Union and the United Kingdom, to act with method, pragmatism and transparency.

In a way, though, this is a rather generous appraisal. Give that David Davis hasn't visited Brussels at all this year, the greater urgency is to get the UK to act at all.

As it stands, the proposed text of the withdrawal agreement is with the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Once agreed, the final draft will be transmitted to the UK as a basis for negotiation, reflecting "the unity of the 27 Member States of the European Union and its institutions".

Said Mr Juncker, "I would have preferred that the British had not decided to quit. But those who leave the European Union must honestly say what that means. If you want to leave four decades of joint agreements and solutions behind you, you have to accept the responsibility that everything cannot stay as it is".

It was obvious, therefore, Juncker told MEPs, " that we need more clarity from the UK if we are to reach an understanding on our future relationship". With one year to go, he said, "it is now time to translate speeches into treaties; to turn commitments into agreements; broad suggestions and wishes on the future relationship to specific, workable solutions".

And then it came to Ireland. Both the UK and the EU had agreed that the Good Friday Agreement must be preserved in all its dimensions. And life for citizens on both sides of the border should be the same as it is today.

Juncker then went through the options, remarking that the "backstop" solution would only apply if the other options did not materialise.

Therefore, he said, the Draft Protocol on Ireland should not be surprised or a shock. It translates faithfully last December's agreement into a legal text. And on this, the EU, the Parliament and 27 Member States stood "firm and united when it comes to Ireland". For us, he said, "this is not an Irish issue. It is a European issue".

Echoing Mr Juncker was Monika Panayotova, the minister representing Bulgaria as holder of the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers. "Even though in the last fourteen months there has been a succession of speeches outlining the UK view on the future of our relations, we still need more concrete and more operational proposals", she told MEPs.

"At the same time", she added, "there are no indications that the UK red lines have changed since last year". To Panayotova, this explained why the draft guidelines due to be adopted by the European Council were not more detailed. But she was hopeful that the lack of detail would "provide the political space for broader dynamics in the negotiations with the United Kingdom".

As far as I recall, that's where we left it last week – or was it the week before that? In Brexitland, even though the clock is ticking, time has stood still. Revisiting what the "colleagues" have to say is like walking through the wardrobe to spell-bound Narnia, the land of perpetual winter.

The only slight glimmer of progress come from The Sun. In what it calls an "exclusive", it is telling us that Mrs May's "war committee" has agreed to climb down on its position on Britain's borders closing in 2019. It is now agreeing to extend unconditional free movement with the EU until 2021.

However, in the hard world of Brussels, the place to which David Davis never goes, it appears that nothing else has changed. The "colleagues" are refusing to make any concessions on the Irish border. There may be a quid, but no pro quo.

And just to rub it in, the Commission has published two more in its "Notice to Stakeholder" series. One relates to rules in the field of electronic communications, which currently allow providers established in at least one EU Member State the right to provide electronic communications networks and services in all other Member States without being required to have an establishment there.

They can start providing networks and services without any formal licensing process and are subject only to a "general authorisation" in each Member State where they provide networks or services. Member States may only request a simple notification, without any standstill obligation.

As of the withdrawal date, providers established in the United Kingdom will cease to benefit from the general authorisation regime. EU-27 Member States will be able to impose additional authorisation requirements on providers established in the UK.

Furthermore, with the UK becoming a third country for the purposes of EU rules on roaming, providers of roaming services will no longer benefit from the obligation of mobile network operators operating in the United Kingdom to meet all reasonable requests for providing wholesale roaming access.

The other Notice deals with rules affecting network security and information systems, which will impact on providers of digital services not established in the Union. They will be required to establish representatives in the European Union.

Slowly, inexorably, the grip of Brexit tightens. Yet, back in media land, the focus is still on Moscow, via Salisbury. Few other things are registering apart from the short-term distraction of Mr Hammond's spring statement. Journalists and their editors are determined to play out their single-issue obsessions. And in their land, Brexit isn't Brexit any more. Brexit is boring – yesterday's news that can't compete with the mystery and intrigue of Putin's Russia.

The effect of this is incalculable. Here we have the most important political event since the war and the negotiations have been sidelined by a temporary crisis, leaving the public uninformed and unprepared for what it to come.

The situation is then compounded by the Commission putting the onus on the UK government to come up with proposals for the next steps. For a short time, this hands it the publicity initiative – there is nothing new to entertain the media until the UK delivers.

This hiatus can only last for a short time – until the European Council on 22-23 March, when things have to come to a head. This gives ten days to play with Russia before reality hits. Then, Mrs May will either come up with a solution for the Irish question or, if Donald Tusk is to be believed, the talks are in crisis and Narnia comes to town.

At that point, the media is will have to deal with its single-issue obsession. If the talks are in trouble they will have to bite the reality pill. For the moment, though, it's play time. And the "sons of Adam" are still being turned to stone.

Richard North 14/03/2018 link

Brexit: late to the party


One of the most remarkable things about the Brexit debate (and there is very stiff competition) is the relative quiescence of commerce and industry, and the low-key behaviour of their representative bodies, even where vital interests are threatened and whole sectors are at risk.

Of the enterprises most at risk from Brexit, there can be few to compare with horse racing which, as we pointed out on 1 February 2017, stood to be hit rather badly from the loss of special concessions which allowed the unrestricted movement of bloodstock between the major racing centres.

The particularly troublesome issue is the lapse of the 2014 Tripartite Agreement on Racehorses, mandated by Council Directive 2009/156/EC on animal health conditions governing the movement and importation from third countries of equidae.

This is an agreement between France, Ireland and the United Kingdom, originally established in the 1970s, in order to regulate the movement of race horses between the three countries without formal veterinary inspections taking place.

Currently, it simplifies the process and reduces costs of moving horses between the three countries, allowing racehorses to be shipped without pre-movement veterinary checks and certification, and without the requirement for isolation and quarantine periods at their destinations.

Given anything short of continued EEA participation – which Mrs May had ruled out from 17 January 2017 – and these concessions would no longer apply. And since the UK would be outside the EU, to reinstate the free movement afforded will almost certainly require new legislation from the EU, made under the aegis of Commission Decision 92/260/EEC (as amended).

This requires complex procedural steps and is unlikely to be high on the priorities of either the Commission or the UK government. But the failure to reach a timely agreement on this would have a devastating effect on the industry. One would have thought, therefore, that the affected enterprises and their representative bodies would have been quick to sound the alarm and highly voluble in calling for a fix.

However, even when Booker publicised the problem in his column in the Sunday Telegraph a few days after my piece, only the Guardian followed up, with a story on 9 February. The rest of the legacy media was silent – not even Booker's paper, which had been given a scoop on a plate, did a piece. As so often, it ignored its own columnist.

As for the Guardian report,we saw something of the complacency afflicting the industry. The paper quoted Will Lambe, director of corporate affairs at the British Horseracing Authority. He said he had made representations to the government that they need to protect the industry during the coming negotiations, adding: "The tripartite agreement pre-dates the formation of the European Union and there is no reason it should not remain in place following Brexit".  

Confronted with such a low-key response (and a media unable to work the facts out for itself), it is perhaps unsurprising that it took until August before there was any more significant publicity. This was in the Irish press and even then it was fairly muted. Nonetheless, publicity there was, in a number of Irish papers, highlighting a potential disaster that had huge implications for the UK.

As before though – and in common with so many other issues – this was ignored by the UK legacy media. Clearly, it thought the fate of an industry worth annually nearly £4 billion (eight times the value of the fishing industry), employing directly and indirectly 85,000 people, was of little significance.

Bizarrely, even when the Commission issued a Notice to Stakeholders on the movement of animals, post-Brexit, nothing was reported. Yet, on 27 February 2018, the Commission declared that the "Tripartite Agreement" concluded in accordance with Article 6 of Directive 2009/156/EC between France, Ireland and the United Kingdom "no longer applies to the United Kingdom as of the withdrawal date". 

And so the silence prevailed until last Saturday, 10 March, well over a year since I reported the story. Then, in the run-up to next week's Cheltenham festival, we saw a short report in the Financial Times, retailing a call for "free movement" of racehorses after Brexit. The industry, we were told, wanted free cross-border travel for British, Irish and French thoroughbreds.

At last, in the UK legacy media (apart from Booker and the Guardian) we see it acknowledged that "restricted horse movements would have a devastating impact on the Irish breeding industry and hit the whole way UK racing is financed". But, from comments of Brian Kavanagh, chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland, there is no indication that the nature of the problem is fully understood – or that there is any clear idea of the remedy needed.

Kavanagh, for instance, refers to problems arising in the event of a "hard", evidently not appreciating that the Tripartite Agreement will lapse once Brexit takes force (after any transition period). And, if the impasse on the Irish question isn't resolved, that could be in just over a year's time, on 30 March 2019.

The Financial Times then has horseracing officials saying they want "to build on the tripartite agreement". Apparently Kavanagh, Nick Rust - chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority - and Olivier Delloye - his counterpart at France Galop, the governing body of flat and steeplechase racing in France - met senior officials representing Michel Barnier in September.

Via the FT, Mr Kavanagh says: "At that time the Commission line was Brexit is a binary thing. You're either in or out. But they also made clear they were ready to look at reasonable solutions for our industry". He then refers to the agreement on the Common Travel Area for Irish citizens (north and south) and thus believes that, "there must be some imaginative way so that can expanded to include racehorses".

Actually, this is delusional, not least as it ignores the Notice to Stakeholders. And as the procedure for dealing with third countries is already established, it will be used, to avoid charges of discrimination with other third countries. With the UK outside the EU Single Market framework, this will have to be followed before free movement of racehorses between EU Member States and the UK can be permitted.

Needless to say, the procedure cannot be initiated until the UK has left the EU which, in the absence of a transition period, could mean a period when free movement is suspended.

For the horseracing industry, therefore, this must be a nervous time and finally, in yesterday's Mail on Sunday we at last saw reference to this in a popular national newspaper. Under the headline, "British racing festivals 'face ruin from a hard Brexit'", came the news that no provision had been made for the free movement of horses once the UK leaves the EU.

In what was an obvious copy-out from the Financial Times, the same Mr Kavanagh was quoted. With considerably less detail, the only thing added was a statement from a government spokesman, who offered the anodyne and largely uninformative comment that: "We are working with Ireland and France on developing new arrangements for after we leave the EU".

For us mere mortals, this illustrates yet again how badly the legacy media are performing when it comes to the progress of Brexit. Ironically, we saw another example in the same edition of the Mail on Sunday, which covered some of the latest developments on the Legatum Institute.

Although I broke the original story in July 2017, it wasn't picked up by the Mail on Sunday until November, with a botched report that had the paper shoehorning in an irrelevant Russian dimension which confused the issue and distracted attention from the important matters of concern.

But now, updating its own story, we see the paper preening itself with the claim that it had "revealed" Legatum's "influence on the Government’s EU agenda" back in November, implying that its action had led to a Charity Commission investigation which had somehow led to Snake Oil Singham and his colleagues moving to the IEA.

Such hubris is so typical of the legacy media. Often late to the party, they will "liberate" material whenever it suits them, rarely acknowledging sources. In the style of beast, nothing exists until they have "discovered" it, whence they will claim the credit for their "revelations". We even see the papers claiming to "reveal" information when their sources are published website pages.

For all their resources and self-importance, though, they have not covered a fraction of the technical issues relating to Brexit and, even now, have almost completely lost the plot when it comes to reporting what might be an imminent breakdown in the negotiations.

When the history of this tumultuous period comes to be written, no doubt writers – many of them journalists – will be quick to criticise the politicians and campaigners. Yet, somehow, I suspect, the manifest and continued failings of the media will scarcely if at all be mentioned.

The victors, they say, write the history. And the first draft of history is often regarded as the contemporary media reports. Between the two, it is no surprise that our history is often so badly written.

Richard North 12/03/2018 link

Brexit: a model of restraint?


Booker is on good form today (although his column has been up since yesterday morning).

He reminds us that, last Sunday, he wrote that, after a year of the two sides just talking past each other on Brexit, the moment had come when hard reality was at last breaking in on the British government's serial make-believe. This, he says, has since been even more brutally confirmed.

What has particularly struck him this week, though, is the behaviour of Chancellor Philip Hammond. There was a time, he writes, when seemed to have more grip on reality than his colleagues. But last week he blew it twice over.

Firstly, he set out his hopes that the City could continue to play a central part in European Union financial services by relying on "mutual recognition", he seemed unaware that such an arrangement would be flatly contrary to EU law.

Secondly, he stated that we would be reclaiming full control of our fishing waters, oblivious to the fact that this would be against UN law, which protects other countries' "acquired rights."

And now we have Donald Tusk warning that, unless the UK comes up with a realistic proposal on the Irish border, there can be no wider trade talks. With less than two weeks before the crucial European Council meeting to conclude the border issue satisfactorily, it seems that we are much nearer to a complete breakdown of negotiations than has yet been generally realised.

That, within the minimal space allowed to Booker these days, is as neat a summary as he can manage. As always, he is banished to the back page of the review, one of the few legacy media journalists to point out that the Brexit talks are on the brink of collapse.

Two in three people believe the European Union is attempting to “bully” the UK in the Brexit negotiations, according to a new poll.

His paper's main contribution to the debate today, however, is to ignore that salient point and instead to publicise a survey it has commissioned which "reveals" that while the split of Leave and Remain voters is largely unchanged since the referendum, 67 percent of individuals, regardless of their voting preference, agreed that "the EU is trying to bully the UK" in its approach to the talks.

The findings, from an ORB International poll of more than 2,000 people, says the paper, "appear to bear out the claims about the perception of Brussels' handling of the talks, before the two sides have begun substantive negotiations on key issues such as trade and immigration".

This "bully" meme is one especially favoured by the Telegraph, which has coined the term "Eurobullies" and most presents the talks in confrontational terms, alongside the Express, the Mail and others.

To that extent, the bulk of the survey respondents are simply playing back the same sentiments that have been fed to them. In all, only 17 percent disagree with the proposition that "the EU is trying to bully the UK in the Brexit negotiations", while even 49 percent of declared remainers agree, against 36 percent who disagree.

Sadly, however, the results do little more than confirm that the legacy media still retains some ability to influence public sentiment although, with years of hostile media coverage, it probably takes very little to convince people that the EU is ill-intentioned.

And although not specified, since the sticking point in the talks is the Irish question, one can assume that the EU has gained its current reputation for being a bully on the basis of its handling of that issue.

Yet, when this is examined rationally, there can be no dispute that, with Brexit. the Irish land border with Northern Ireland becomes the external border to the EU. Under normal circumstances, full border controls would apply but, since all parties are committed to ensuring that there is no "hard" border, an exceptional situation has been created.

However, because it could otherwise set a precedent which could be invoked by others of the EU's trading partners, demanding the same treatment, any solution which avoids a hard border must be exceptional - a "one-off" - otherwise it sets a precedent. It cannot be rolled into the solution applicable to the general trading relationship.

Furthermore, there are two extra requirements. Firstly, the EU cannot make any concessions to the UK which would prejudice the integrity of the Single Market. It cannot, therefore, change the rules on things like border inspections. These must still be carried out. And then, nothing agreed can put the UK in a more favourable position than it enjoyed as a fully-fledged EU member.

All of this has been made very clear to the UK yet, despite that, UK ministers have consistently pushed for a "have your cake and eat it" while, on the Irish issue, initially, insisted on combining the talks with the general negotiations on a free trade area – not scheduled until after we leave.

Despite the importance that the EU placed on reaching a resolution of the Irish issue before moving on to other matters, it was not until December that the UK finally conceded the point that a separate solution for the Irish border must be found.

Then, with the European Council throwing a lifeline to Mrs May, allowing us to move onto discussions on the transition arrangements before Ireland had been settled, the UK was given the option of proposing a solution as the basis for negotiation. In the event that no such solution was forthcoming, the UK agreed to adopt the "backstop" solution set out in the joint report.

To date - and with the March European Council less than two weeks away - the UK has not come up with its own solution. Therefore, in the draft Withdrawal Agreement, the EU is seeking to apply the "backstop" while still allowing for a UK proposal to be made.

One must recall that, the day after the publication of the Joint Report, David Davis was saying that the commitment had no standing in law. And since then, the UK government has not offered its own proposal, while Mrs May has rejected out of hand the "backstop" to which the UK previously agreed.

The text, if implemented, said Mrs May, would undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish sea. No UK Prime Minister could ever agree to it.

And it is against that background that the EU, in the form of Donald tusk, has now informed the UK that there can be no further substantive talks until the Irish situation is resolved.

Given the circumstances, it is very difficult to see how the outcome could have been any different. And while one could readily accuse the EU of a lack of flexibility, and even suggest that it could have been more pragmatic, the UK is the country which is leaving. It has the primary responsibility for proposing the basic terms of the withdrawal settlement.

Throughout the whole Brexit process to date, though – from the time the Article 50 notification was lodged, to date, the UK has taken a passive role and ceded the political initiative to the EU. The UK's role has been largely negative, declaring what it is not prepared to accept while continually failing to be specific about what it does want.

As a result, it is hardly surprising that the EU negotiators are running out of patience and, by the same token, it is difficult to sustain a credible argument that they are "bullying" the UK. In many respects, given the inflammatory statements from some cabinet ministers, M. Barnier and his colleagues have been a model of restraint.

Richard North 11/03/2018 link

Brexit: the road to Armageddon


It would not be the first time that I have remarked on that arrogance of the legacy media, and especially its insistence on "owning" the news. Again and again we find that, in their eyes, nothing exists until they have "discovered" it.

Even though we or some other toiler in the vineyard may have already broken the story (and, most often done it better) – as with the Guardian's latest effort on customs checks at Calais – we're invisible.

After this week, though, I suspect that they are going to find that the system works in reverse. Just because they ignore a story (or give it such scant coverage that it might as well not exist), that doesn't mean it isn't happening or won't happen. If the media hadn't reported the invasion of Poland on 1939, this would not have stopped World War Two from breaking out.

So it is with the remarkable sequence of events which started with Mrs May's Mansion House Speech and culminated on Thursday with Donald Tusk's visit to Dublin and his ultimatum to the UK government. If the words he used have the meanings normally ascribed to them, that effectively means that Brexit negotiations are on hold and are on the verge of breakdown.

The problem here, though, is that news reporting creates its own dynamic. Generally, the most loyal and credulous consumers of the media product are politicians.

Thus, if the gibbering hacks report something which is of relevance to them, they will react to it. And since the reports so rarely bear any relation to the facts on the ground, the driver is the report rather than the event. Largely, politicians do no react to events – they react to reports of events.

However, in the case of Brexit, our domestic politicians are not in control. In Brexit they have an inconvenient partner in the shape of the EU, which is shaping events. And even if they can live in their own little universe for a while, eventually the EU will engineer a situation that even our media cannot ignore.

The point here is that if the talks do break down, as they seem likely to do, the consequences cannot be concealed. Those 30-mile queues outside Dover and Calais are just the start. We start with empty shelves in the supermarkets and serious economic disruption.

By the time it ends, we have a massive hike in unemployment, reduced tax take and a diminished government that is squeezed between increased obligations and reduced capabilities.

Yet, for the moment, for those who are not reliant on the legacy media's distorted news values, the real interest is whether the government can come up with anything credible to resolve the Irish border question, and whether the EU really is going to pull the plug if it is unable to deliver.

Back last year in the run up to the December European Council, it was being made very clear that, unless the Phase One issues could be resolved – of which the Irish question was the biggest stumbling block – there would be no Phase Two.

The concession made in December was that we could move on to discussions about the transition period, but only if there was a formal legal agreement, ready to be written into the Withdrawal Agreement, on all the Phase One issues. And, with the UK not having come up with anything bankable, that led the EU to lodge the "backstop" position – which Mrs May has unequivocally rejected.

From this, what does not seem to have registered is that the transition issue was supposed to be settled for the European Council of 22-23 March, thus clearing the way for detailed talks on the framework for the post-Brexit trading relationship.

Thus, the effect of Mr Tusk's intervention on Thursday, in putting the talks on hold until the Irish question is settled, is to block any discussion at all on the transition arrangements. This puts the UK in a position perilously close to a "no deal" scenario where we fall of the proverbial cliff.

The government can then get Snake Oil Singham, now working for the incompetents in the IEA, to write more pretty little fantasies about mutual recognition of standards, to go with all the other wet dreams to which he is prone.

Singham and his new colleagues at the IEA might even be able to convince themselves that whatever they dream up might be in the interests of both the UK and the EU. But, as Mr Tusk made clear to Mr Hammond, the EU has decided that it is going to define what's in the EU's interest.

And since the EU's primary interest is maintaining what it calls the "integrity" of the Single Market, when the trucks start rolling off the ferries and driving off the rail cars on 30 March 2019, they won't get as far as the exits.

We've done this scenario before, but it is interesting to note, that after the short spell of bad weather last week, reports came in of supermarkets up and down the land struggling to re-stock, with many examples cited of empty shelves (illustrated).

The main reason for this, it turned out, was not the bad weather in the EU, but the heavy snowfalls in Ireland, which severely disrupted supplies to the UK. With local problems adding to the shortfall, we saw a timely demonstration of the fragility of the supply chain. We need to get used to the idea that, if agreement is not reached on Brexit, this could become the norm. 

If the UK government sits on its backside, as it has been doing ever since the referendum, we can see the EU – already near the end of its patience – not even going through the motions of conducting talks. And although it cannot actually truncate the two-year Article 50 period, it can simply walk away from the table, making resumption of negotiations entirely conditional on the UK coming up credible proposals for the Irish border.

That brings us full circle. That, in effect, was precisely what Mr Tusk did last Thursday. If he sticks to his guns, there will be no further negotiations until the UK delivers. And, with the publicity being downplayed in the UK, and there having been no public political response, it does not look as if we are going to see anything soon from Mrs May's government.

In my view, such was the gravity of Mr Tusk's statement that there should have been an emergency statement in the House of Commons on Friday and, possibly, an emergency debate. But, so far, we cannot even be certain that the message has reached No. 10, much less that it has been acted upon.

Maybe the media will drag itself out of its slumber in the few days before the European Council meeting, and maybe we'll get a statement from the prime minister. All we have to go on for the moment, though, is a statement from the fool Johnson that the UK would "do very well" under WTO rules.

If this in any way represents what passes for thinking at high level in the government, then we are doomed. The March European Council will pass in a welter of recriminations, with nothing achieved, and the timetable will be set back even more. When we should we discussing framework for our new relationship, we will still be stuck on the Irish question.

That will leave us a year. The first year has already gone incredibly quickly and achieved nothing bankable – on the basis that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. The next year can pass just as fast. And as long as Mrs May fails to respond, we can see a situation where the Brexit deadline approaches with no transition arrangements in place.

All that will be left then for an impotent government to do is to seek to apportion blame to anywhere except where it belongs. Back in the day, the situation was resolvable but Mrs May killed it with her Lancaster House speech in 17 January 2017. That is the day which will go down in history as the day when our prime minister wrecked our chances of a rational Brexit.

There will be those who will be more than willing to join the government in blaming the EU for the consequences of Mrs May's decision, but it will cut no ice with the EU. And their economies will survive the perturbations. Our economy will not.

Having lived in a dream world, sustained by the make-believe fantasies of the likes of Snake Oil Singham, our government will have made no preparations for the disaster to come and will have little capability to respond once disaster strikes.

The irony is that, even now, Mrs May could easily accept the EU's Irish border solution, had she famed it as a device to keep her in the talks, and buy her two years of transition. That would give time to work up a practical solution. But she hasn't even had the sense to do that, and has left herself without options.

From the "road to Brexit", therefore, we now are now on the road to Armageddon, with the extraordinary twist that the legacy media haven't even noticed. In course, they will "discover" the crisis and take ownership of it. And they will never acknowledge that, when the countdown actually started, they weren't even there.

Richard North 10/03/2018 link

Brexit: Ireland first


We know today that the UK government rejects: "a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea" said European Council president Donald Tusk. He was speaking in Dublin after meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to discuss Ireland's concerns on several important issues ahead of the European Council in two weeks.

And it wasn't only the "wet border" that the UK rejects. That takes in the EU's Single Market and the customs union – a position Tusk says must be respected. On the other hand, the EU expects the UK to propose "a specific and realistic solution to avoid a hard border". And as long as the UK doesn't present such a solution, said Mr Tusk, "it is very difficult to imagine substantive progress in Brexit negotiations".

Then we got the bombshell: "If in London someone assumes that the negotiations will deal with other issues first, before moving to the Irish issue, my response would be: Ireland first".

If that represents the official policy of the European Union, then we have to take it that the negotiations are frozen. They will remain so until the UK comes up with a solution that will avoid a hard border in Ireland. That is how the Independent sees it, reporting that the EU "has thrown down an ultimatum to Theresa May".

Oddly enough, The Times - once the "paper of record" – hadn't picked this up at the time of writing. But the Daily Mail had managed to tear itself away from poisoned Russians long enough to notice. This paper had it that Donald Tusk had warned that all 27 EU nations "are united in their determination to secure a deal for Ireland before trade talks".

As one might expect, the BBC has also picked it up, with its website headlining: "Brexit: 'Ireland first,' says Tusk after Varadkar meeting". It also quotes Tusk elaborating the EU's position. "Since my last visit here in Dublin", Tusk said, "I have spoken to virtually every EU leader, and every one of them – without exception – declared, just like Prime Minister Bettel did yesterday, that among their priorities are: protecting the peace process, and avoiding a hard border".

He then uttered what could be taken as a battle-cry: "The EU stands by Ireland. This is a matter between the EU27 and UK, not Ireland and the UK".

This is both unequivocal and damning. And it wasn't even the full extent of what Tusk had to say, in what was actually quite a short statement. On his way to declaring solidarity with Ireland, Tusk referred to Hammond's speech from yesterday.

Then, Hammond had noted that Mrs May had set out "why it is in the interest of both the UK and the EU27 to ensure that EU businesses and citizens can continue to access the UK Financial Services hub". The Chancellor also referred to the UK and the EU acting in the "mutual interests".

In what was an unmistakable, and almost brutal snub, Tusk told his audience: "I fully respect the Chancellor's competence in defining what's in the UK's interest. I would, however, ask to allow us to define what's in the EU's interest".

He then went on to say: "Services are about common rules, common supervision and common enforcement to ensure a level playing field, to ensure the integrity of the single market and ultimately to ensure financial stability. This is why we cannot offer the same in services as we can offer in goods. It's also why FTAs don't have detailed rules for financial services". Hammond, for all his hubris, has been put firmly in his place.

As for the Telegraph, if you look hard enough you can find the story, but pride of place is given to the fool Johnson claiming that "no deal Brexit should not hold any 'terrors' for Britain because UK would 'do very well' under WTO rules".

This is the measure of a newspaper that has completely lost its way, one which no longer makes any pretence at reporting news objectively. The Johnson story was an "exclusive", arising out of an event organised by the paper at which the foreign secretary spoke. And that is given preference to Tusk telling us that the Brexit negotiations have, effectively, been shut down.

What we get from Tusk is a clear sense of irritation – part of which must surely stem from the legacy media treatment of his statement yesterday. What should have been front page news in every national was relegated to inside pages after the media chose to obsess about the poisoning of the Russian spy.

No one will argue that that incident was not important but here again we have media incontinence, displaying its inability to deal with more than one subject at a time. And even today, none of the nationals give any coverage at all to EU issues on their front pages.

It is not only the UK politicians but the media which is being fundamentally unserious on this issue. We have to go across to the Irish Times to get front-page treatment. That much is predictable but it also says a great deal about the importance with which the subject is being treated.

Taking account of the comments of the fool Johnson on the WTO option, one wonders whether the UK government is at all serious about pursing the Brexit negotiations, or whether it has secretly given up and is just going through the motions.

For what it is worth, the Express tells us that Ministers are gearing up for a walkout from Brexit talks "if Brussels continues to play hardball". Relying on one of those "senior cabinet sources", we are led to believe that plans for scenarios including "no deal" and the EU refusing to let Britain rejoin its agencies are more advanced than many people realise.

Certainly, by no stretch of the imagination can one accept that the UK government is putting maximum effort into these talks. Looking back over its performance, it has been giving the EU what one might term the "right royal run-around". Right up to the Mansion House speech, every time the EU pushes for a clear answer, Mrs May resorts to generalities and evades the issue.

Right now, it looks very much as if the "colleagues" are running out of patience. And, if the Independent is right, and Mr Tusk has just delivered an ultimatum, then things are taking a turn for the worse. The UK needs to start taking the talks far more seriously than it has done to date.

There is no way the EU is going to buy into the UK's current ideas for managing the border and, as longs as Mrs May maintains her stance that the EU's guideline proposals are unacceptable, we simply have nowhere to go. 

If, on the other hand, Mrs May is content to allow the likes of the fool Johnson free rein to peddle his stupidity, then she can hardly be surprised if the EU draws its own conclusions. And it gets worse when we see Liam Fox condemning "EU chiefs" as "acting like gang leaders", who are "throwing threats of violence around" to get what they want on Brexit.

This is not the language of diplomacy, especially when Fox criticises the argument of Donald Tusk and others that British trade access must be worse than the status quo after leaving the EU. "The idea of punishing Britain is not the language of a club, it's the language of a gang", he says.

With that, it really doesn't look as if there can be a meeting of minds any time soon. With the March European Council only two weeks away, we could be coming to the end of the line - much faster than anyone anticipated.

Richard North 09/03/2018 link

Brexit: bypassing the UK


In October last year we picked up the news that the ferry company CLdN SA was preparing to deploy its newly-built ro-ro ferry, named the Celine, to the port of Dublin. This 234m giant, with the capacity of 8,000 lane metres (equivalent to nearly 500 articulated trucks), had originally been intended to serve the UK-Belgian route but has now been pressed into service on the Dublin-Zeebrugge route, by-passing the UK route to the continent via Holyhead.

At the time, I remarked that, with additional ferries also planned to exploit the major expansion of Dublin port, we were seeing practical steps being taken to reduce the Irish dependence on the UK and to forge increased direct links with EU Member States. And now, Celine has a brand new sister in the Delphine, which has just made a maiden call to Dublin Port. It will also serve the Rotterdam-Zeebrugge-Dublin route.

In many ways, this was inevitable, although there is something of a "bidding war" going on. A new "super cruise" ferry will carry passengers from Holyhead to Dublin from 2020 after Irish Ferries ordered a new ship. This €165.2 million vessel will take up to 1,500 cars or 330 trucks across the Irish Sea. It will be the largest cruise ferry in the world in terms of vehicle capacity, and will be one of two super-cruise ships serving the route.

Irish Ferries had previously warned of a potential "significant displacement of traffic" from Holyhead to ports in northern England and Scotland if Brexit brings stringent checks at Welsh ports, while more relaxed arrangements remain on the land border. But Eamonn Rothwell, Chief Executive Officer for Irish Continental Group, the owners of Irish Ferries, said the new ship "underpins the confidence" they have in their markets.

On the other hand, Brittany Ferries has announced what it says is the first ever direct ferry link between Ireland and Spain. The company will operate two direct return sailings weekly from Cork to Santander in Northern Spain, from the end of April to November of this year. A new ship will be chartered to serve the route.

But it is on the political front that we're seeing an even more interesting development. Budget commissioner Günther Oettinger has been Dublin to tell the Irish parliament that there's EU money in that there Brexit. He was there to discuss the multiannual financial framework budget for 2021 to 2027, telling the parliament's Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform that the new EU budget would have provision to fund "shocks" arising from Brexit.

The European Union, Oettinger said, could fund new ways of connecting Irish and continental European ports if a "super-hard Brexit" cut off access to the UK. EU financial reforms meant money could be redirected to ensure the transport of products from Irish ports (Dublin pictured) to Rotterdam, Antwerp and other EU ports, bypassing the UK.

There is, of course, the small matter of the annual €12-14 billion hole left in the budget as a result of the UK leaving, but it does seem a measure of the EU's determination to maintain business as usual that money is potentially being made available, despite expected cuts in the cohesion fund and CAP payouts.

The one thing one can't fault is Oettinger's timing. His pep talk comes just at the moment when the EU seems to be calling time of Theresa May's latest journey in the Tory fantasy Brexitland.

In a stinging analysis of her Mansion House speech, obtained by the Guardian, the General Secretariat to the EU Council has dismissed her ideas as "more a domestic communication battle than proposing real substance and ways forward". She used the language of finding a balance between rights and obligations, says the analysis, but essentially argued that the UK would decide on that balance by itself for each sector of the single market.

Thus, while Mrs May had promised "clarity" on the UK's future trading relationship, her speech did not address the question of the unresolved tension in the UK position.

And, although she called for a "new and better model", it was one that does not yet exist, with the Secretariat describing it as "unworkable" and "double cherry-picking". Furthermore. there had been "zero progress" when it came to ideas for customs cooperation.

This EU analysis is very much on the ball and, following Stefaan de Rynck's lecture yesterday, even elements of the British media are beginning to realise that the game is up. Late on Monday night, we had the Guardian reporting that de Rynck had dealt a "deals blow to Theresa May's free-trade proposal", referring specifically to his comments on mutual recognition of standards.

With the subject thus broached, other newspapers piled in, mostly lifting from the Guardian story. By yesterday afternoon, the story had even penetrated to the fog of Robert Peston's mind, enough for him to realise that mutual recognition was an issue, even if he didn't really understand why.

Reuters then followed up with a report of how French economy minister Bruno le Maire had ruled out the idea of a free trade deal for financial services and said that UK companies might have to rely on "equivalence".

This cuts right across Mrs May's ideas of mutual recognition, which would amount to a blanket permission for UK firms to trade in the EU on the basis on their conformity with UK law. Applicable to third countries, equivalence is based on a case-by-case assessment of regulatory conformity, specific to each enterprise, sometimes taking years before approval is given.

Despite all that, Chancellor Philip Hammond is to insist that the UK can overcome EU opposition and include financial services in a post-Brexit free trade deal. He is dreaming.

In her speech, Mrs May also raised the prospect of the UK's continued participation in some of the EU's regulatory agencies – which from the outset seemed over-optimistic. Now, in a select committee appearance yesterday, David Davis admitted to MP Stephen Kinnock that some agencies, such as the European Medicine Agency, had no provision for third-country membership. EU laws would have to be re-written to allow continued UK participation.

Davis could not offer any assurances that the EU would even be prepared to negotiate on such issues. The EU's Notice to market authorisation holders in respect of medicines is not at all promising.

Further, if any concessions are given to the UK, similar deals may have to be given to other trading partners, damaging the entire structure of the EU system. For that reason alone, it is most unlikely that there will be any special favours coming the UK's way.

More of the EU's attitude may come clear when, delayed for one day, the EU publishes its negotiating guidelines today on the UK's trade relationship. In the meantime, we're getting unhappy messages from Vauxhall, with Carlos Tavares, chief executive of PSA, saying that the lack of clarity over the terms of the UK's departure were "a big concern".

The way it's going, though, the uncertainty is to be welcomed if the effect of clear statements is simply to confirm the parlous position of the UK. Basically, in less than five days, Mrs May's Mansion House initiative is unravelling, leaving the cupboard bare.

The situation gets even worse with the news that the UK's trade with more than 70 countries could "fall off a cliff" after Brexit, while ex-ambassador Sir Peter Westmacott says that the prospect of easy UK-US trade deal is an illusion.

For all that, it is hardly to the EU's advantage to pull the plug - just yet. If, as with Ireland, it is to promote the reorientation of trade away from the UK, looking for alternative routes and import substitution, it is going to need time to make the arrangements. On top of that, there are the border checks to organise and the infrastructure to provide.

On that basis alone, a prolonged transition period would suit the EU as much as it would the UK – perhaps more so if the UK is then bound to make substantial, ongoing contributions to the EU budget. It could be that the longer Mrs May prevaricates, the better off the "colleagues" will be. And if they appreciate this, they will not be too severe on the UK in the guidelines due out today. They may be couched in terms of keeping the discussion going and the options open.

Whatever the outcome, things do not look good for Mrs May. She has invested heavily in her pack of six, "road to Brexit" speeches and she is no further forward than when she started. She can hardly pull another speech out of the bag and, in any event, there would be no guarantee that it would produce any better results than the last.

Mostly, then, we need to be watching the Irish ports and the growth of sea traffic to the continent. And with every ton shipped direct to Europe, Mrs May's aspiration will take another hit.

Richard North 07/03/2018 link

Brexit: drawing conclusions


I am not sure of the value of the Prime Minister going to the Mansion House in the City to give a policy speech on Brexit, as she did last Friday, only then to turn up at the House of Commons yesterday, essentially to repeat the same speech.

There was a time when I might have complained that constitutional proprietaries demand that a prime minister should address the House of Commons first, and hold herself accountable to the MPs. But, for all that those assembled MPs had to offer, she might as well not have bothered.

The only marginal entertainment came when Emma Reynolds (Lab, Wolverhampton North East) asked Mrs May to name an international border between two countries that were not in a customs union and had different external tariffs where there are no checks on lorries carrying goods at the border.

Mrs May, in her usual way, resorted to waffle, stating that there were "many examples of different arrangements for customs around the rest of the world". Indeed, she said, "we are looking at those - including, for example, the border between the United States and Canada".

That didn't really answer the question but it was good enough for the legacy media. The Guardian managed a headline out of it, declaring: "Post-Brexit Irish border could be like US-Canada, says May", retailing a "challenge" by shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman, who pointed to the presence of armed customs guards on that border.

In fact, just looking at one of the customs posts (pictured above), at the Ambassador Bridge, one can immediately see that there is not the remotest possibility that the US-Canada border arrangements could provide a model for the Irish border. One struggles to imagine what Mrs May must have been thinking of, even mentioning this border.

The Irish Times had even more fun of it, having Taoiseach Leo Varadkar dissing Mrs May's apparent suggestion. Varadkar actually visited the US-Canada border last year, when he said such a system would not solve the potential issues that could arise between the Republic and North after Brexit.

Perhaps the best (although not the last) laugh went to a tweet from Sam Ashworth-Hayes who posted pictures of a US border post – including dense traffic queues – remarking that, if Theresa May says that the Irish border could look like the one between US and Canada, she is "completely right".

But while so many were having fun at the prime minister's expense, no one seems to have noticed what was embedded in the last paragraph of her statement to the Commons. "My message to our friends in Europe is clear", she said, then adding: "You asked us to set out what we want in more detail. We have done that".

Readers will recall from my report of yesterday Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney saying that Mrs May hadn't "really gone into any more detail than we've already heard in terms of how she's going to solve the problem of maintaining a largely invisible border on the island of Ireland".

But here we have Mrs May expressing her view that she had provided more detail. And indeed she had, introducing the concept of mutual recognition of standards as a core element of the UK's trade relationship with the EU. But, in the 16 thousand-words plus of the statement and the accompanying "debate", the prime minister was the only one to mention it – three times. Not a single MPs in the chamber brought up the issue.

However, later that evening, there was someone who did. This was Stefaan de Rynck, senior advisor of Michel Barnier, speaking at a seminar hosted by the European Institute and the Institute of Public Affairs at the London School of Economics.

Helpfully recorded and posted on Facebook, we thus were able to hear his comments. There is, he observed, a lack of understanding in the public debate about what the Single Market is. As to mutual recognition, this could exist between member states but the joint rule-making system could kick in at any time and take over from it.

In financial services, as a result of the financial crisis, he noted, we have moved away from mutual recognition of national standards to a centralised approach, adopting a single European rulebook with common enforcement structures strengthening single enforcement and supervisory structures.

In this case, mutual recognition was abandoned to avoid the problem of regulatory arbitrage between different systems – with service providers essentially shopping for the most relaxed system.

This sort of issue, the emergence of regulatory agencies and the strengthening of EU policies, has led to a reduced reliance on mutual recognition. The essence of this is that mutual recognition is a diminishing feature of the European system.

It was thought at one time, de Rynck averred, that it could have led to market efficiency but it had failed. There was now a "single rule book" and greater use of harmonised standards, alongside central surveillance and supervision.

Even when it applied, mutual recognition could work only within the framework of the Single Market. This necessarily meant a "pretty firm rejection" of Mrs May's idea for extending it to form the basis of a post-Brexit relationship. Her detailed offering was doomed before it has even got off the ground.

Outside the cloistered domain of the theologians, however, the real world is intruding, with Airbus now warning that, in the lack of clarity from the centre, it was having to reconsider its post-Brexit position.

It would, the company said, would soon have to decide whether to start stockpiling parts to avoid border delays, adding costs that could make its British operations uncompetitive.

Katherine Bennett, senior vice-president for Airbus in the UK, said that despite some welcome assurances from government over Brexit, there was concern that customs and paperwork could delay its manufacturing process. She said: "It's critical for our business to ensure that the wings that we build in Broughton and in Filton can get to France and Germany for the final assembly line".

The company spent about £5 billion each year on the UK supply chain, she said. "It's really important that the parts don't get held up in warehouses. We have a very just-in-time delivery system". And, on that basis, a three-hour wait on a lorry at Dover "would be a critically bad issue for Airbus", as would be delaying cargo flights carrying completed wings to Europe.

There we have the great divide. While Mrs May is accused of "trying to dance on the head of a pin that simply doesn't exist", the practical issues that determine how businesses can function in a post-Brexit world are not being addressed.

The MPs can play their dire little games and dance around the head of Mrs May's pin, but international businesses are wondering whether they still have a future in the UK. If they are not given answers, they will draw their own conclusions.

Richard North 06/03/2018 link

Brexit: no clear way out?


From a personal point of view, the easiest thing to do for today's blogpost would have been to review Mrs May's interview with Andrew Marr. However, while even the best of his interviews tend to be vacuous, this one was more so than usual. Pre-recorded at No 10, it had all the hallmarks of stage-managed propaganda with nothing on offer that the prime minister hadn't already said.

The interview with Simon Coveney was far more interesting. From that we seemed to get a genuine human response, with the Irish foreign minister giving his view on Mrs May's Mansion House speech.

What she referred to, essentially in terms of detail, Coveney said, was the basis of two papers that the British negotiating team had published last summer. There was the "Northern Ireland and Ireland" position paper and the future partnership paper on "Future customs arrangements". Beyond that, he said, the prime minister hadn't "really gone into any more detail than we've already heard in terms of how she's going to solve the problem of maintaining a largely invisible border on the island of Ireland".

Actually, Coveney isn't quite right there. One can forgive him for that: once you've heard one May speech on Brexit and her feast of clichés, they all tend to sound the same and blur into one another. But her mention of mutual recognition seems to be new.

I've gone through both papers again, and there no mention of "mutual recognition" of standards. The first time it makes a formal appearance in a ministerial speech, in the Brexit context, is in February, when David Davis raised it in Vienna. From what I can ascertain Mrs May picked up the theme from there, building it into her own speech as a key device to break the logjam.

Before she had done so, it is a pity she hadn't read the guidance from her own government. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills had issued guidance on 16 October 2012 and she could have learned a great deal from it, and specifically the application of the principle to "non-harmonised goods".

However, with it popping up in Mrs May's speech, we really do seem to have something new added to the mix, even if Coveney didn't realise it. But then he's hardly alone. Almost to a man (and woman), it's passed the legacy media by. It was raised in the Marr interview, but only by the prime minister, when she referred to , "a new relationship on financial services based on this concept of mutual recognition and agreement on regulations".

Needless to say, Marr did not pick up on the cue. He immediately started blathering about passporting, his researchers having missed this vital issue. One wonders where, if at all, anyone does any serious research these days.

However, Marr interviewed Peter (now Lord) Mandelson, former EU trade commissioner. Speaking of the "leap of faith" that when it comes to regulations "we're going to look for mutual recognition, not alignment", he then declared: "I don't believe the EU will accept that in a month of Sundays". He accused Theresa May of "trying to dance on the head of a pin that simply doesn't exist".

The origins of the thinking (if that's what you can call it) on mutual recognition are obvious enough, the term having appeared in the Legatum Institute paper in November 2017. But we also see it emerging in Guardian which revealed in mid-February that Daniel Hannan's Initiative for Free Trade (IFT) was arguing that an "ideal US-UK FTA would focus on mutual recognition of standards and qualifications for goods and occupations".

If the legacy media is failing to put two and two together, however, it appears that the point hasn't been lost in Brussels.

Our own people may be beset by muddled thinking but Commission officials are well aware of the implications and are not disposed kindly towards an attempt to by-pass established Single Market systems. Mandelson notes that they will remain true to the "legal basis of the single market [and] the rules and the established trade policies of the European Union".

Come tomorrow, therefore, when the Commission releases draft negotiating guidelines on future trading relationships, we are told that the draft is being kept short and general to smoke out more detail from Mrs May on her intentions.

Sources confirm the Mandelson view, saying that it was "unthinkable" that the basic thrust of the EU's position would be altered by the prime minister's words. Specifically, it will be made clear that the call for a mutual recognition of regulatory frameworks – as well as Swiss-style membership of EU agencies, including the European aviation safety agency - will not be possible with the UK outside the Single Market.

Certainly, it is more than evident that patience amongst leaders of the EU Members has worn very thin and sources suggest that even the most Anglophile of them are wearying of the charade. This works against Mrs May, as the UK's position is serving to strengthen the unity pf the 27 – Italian elections notwithstanding.

Over the many years I have been watching the EU – reinforced by my time served in Brussels – one learns not to under-estimate the European Commission. Some of the best and brightest political minds in Europe are to be found in Brussels and they are not unaware of the manoeuvrings of Mrs May's right wing "theologians".

There are, of course, blind spots, but it will not have escaped their attention that there are those in high places in the UK political system who have never wanted a deal. They fully expect, therefore, that the Hannan, Redwood and IDS tendency in the ERG will cast the inevitable EU rejection of their ploy as a "national humiliation", arguing that we should walk away and take up the WTO option.

All the indications are though, that Mrs May doesn't favour this route. Her Mansion House speech and her Marr interview follow-up reveal an emollient demeanour that signals a reluctance to pursue a confrontational position.

Even when pressed during questions after her Mansion House speech, she showed no great enthusiasm for her earlier "no deal is better than a bad deal" mantra, from which one can assume that she has no immediate plans to stage a walk-out, however much her "ultras" would want her to do so.

On the other hand, though, her lack of knowledge of the issues – and her innate lack of understanding of the "biology" of the European Union - leaves her prey to bad advice and what could be fatal missteps. Having then to steer a path between bitterly divided Cabinet colleagues, her main concern is the political stability of her own government, rather than assessing what will produce a deal that Brussels can buy.

The outcome of this would seem to favour an eventual "Canada Dry" type of resolution, although the festering sore of the Irish border question will stay on top of the agenda. To that extent, Mrs May remains trapped between irreconcilable opposites.

Factor in a compliant and ignorant legacy media, and a Parliament with very few serious people on either side, and we have the makings of a political train wreck. The task for the saner forces on both sides of the Channel now amounts to damage limitation, trying to avoid the worst.

The result, as Mandelson observes, could be "painful for the country". But no one yet is able to suggest a clear way out that has a chance of working. And all the while, the clock is ticking.

Richard North 05/03/2018 link

Brexit: an irresistible force


When Mrs May spoke at the Mansion House on Friday, she recalled the day eighteen months ago when she stood in Downing Street and addressed the nation for the first time as prime minister.

"As we leave the European Union", she said at the time, "we will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us". "That pledge to the people of our United Kingdom", she told us last Friday, "is what guides me in our negotiations with the EU".

Yet, if as seems possible, we end up with a "hard" Brexit, there is every chance that the only people who will benefit will be the money men behind the Legatum Institute, and their fellow travellers. And since Mrs May's thinking seems to be dominated by ideas pouring out of the Legatum Institute, it is entirely valid to question her sincerity.

That leads us to consider the eternal question of whether Mrs May's current performance is driven by incompetence or something more sinister. But, whatever the reasons, it is certainly the case that the turning point was her Lancaster House speech, 13 months ago.

It was then, as Booker remarks in today's column that Mrs May announced that she wanted to remove us from all the complex arrangements that allow us unfettered access to our largest export market.

But, as she comes up with her scheme for reducing the damage that will inevitably arise from this action, based on the idea of mutual recognition as the basis for our trading relationship with the EU, Booker gives her the benefit of the doubt, calling it "wishful thinking".

Either way, there can be no question that Mrs May's optimistic phrases about negotiating her "broadest and deepest possible partnership" with the EU are not going to be realised. This says Booker, the enormous question that looms over the whole dismal story of Brexit has been when inescapable reality would at last begin to break in on that endless sea of wishful thinking.

Arguably, last week – and both Booker and I would argue for the proposition - the EU's publication of its "draft withdrawal agreement" was that point it did so. For a year we have had little more than shadow boxing, with both sides simply talking past each other.

The EU has stolidly sat there repeating the rules of the club we have chosen to leave. The UK team, on the other hand, have seemed incapable of practical engagement at any point. We have babbled about "frictionless borders" and Mrs May has gone on about creating that "deep and special partnership".

Overlaying that is the robotic repetition of the mantra: we must "take back control of our laws, our borders and our money", as if these assertions were themselves a substitute for thought.

But last week, with the publication of that 119-page draft text, the moment of truth at last arrived. And what it all came down to as the make-or-break issue was the wholly intractable question of the Irish border.

This is something that Booker has been warning for more than a year, with this blog raising the warning flags a little longer than that. But during the referendum campaign, when I was briefing former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson on this, I was fairly optimistic that it wouldn't be a problem.

In a piece written in early April 2016, I dealt with the issue of transit traffic, travelling from Ireland though to EU destinations, arguing that there were established systems, such as TIR and the Convention on a Common Transit Procedure, which would ensure the free flow of goods.

In a piece a few days later, I argued that the use of technology and automated systems could do much to reduce any problems. With the spread of such systems, it was inconceivable, I argued, that there would be routine checks at the Irish border.

That is very much an argument put in a report to the European Parliament in November 2017, looking at the Smart Border 2.0, the basis of which the UK government also relies (in part) – to say nothing of the "ultras".

However, all such systems relate to customs checks. During the campaign I forbore to mention the problems that could arise with sanitary or phytosanitary checks – which are separate from the customs process.

But then we were in the depths of the campaign and my underlying assumption was that we would remain in the Single Market, via the EEA. And since Owen was saying at the time that "only a madman" would leave the Single Market, this was a fair enough assumption.

However, in its draft text, the EU has again spelled out – and more formally than ever before - that there is no way under its rules that we can retain that "frictionless" border between the two parts of Ireland, because this could allow Northern Ireland to be used as a back door into the EU market by any country in the world.

Even though electronic systems could provide a partial answer, the UK has not as yet put a formal proposal to the EU as to how border traffic would be managed. And, it is in the absence of that proposal that the EU is taking steps to protect the "integrity of the single market".

The effect of its proposals would be that, to avoid a border between north and south, the customs border would have to move to the Irish Sea, leaving the two parts of Ireland united under the trading arrangements of the EU and thus cutting Northern Ireland off from the rest of the United Kingdom.

As it currently stands, the EU insists this is the only way its market can be protected. And predictably, Mrs May says this is "wholly unacceptable" and that no UK prime minister could agree to it.

Her alternative, though, it the idea that the UK should trade on the basis of mutual recognition of standards. Thus, if we accept the EU's own standards as they apply to the goods exported to us, and the EU accepts our standards as they apply to goods exported to Member States – which would remain at least as high as the EU's - there would be no need for border checks.

However, seductively simple though this might seem, this is not going to fly. We see in the EU's own legislation - Regulation (EC) No 764/2008 that mutual recognition applies (in the main) to "products which are not subject to Community harmonisation legislation". Within the Community, where there is a harmonised standard, trade on the basis of mutual recognition is no longer permitted.

It is inconceivable – as the EU's negotiators have so often pointed out – that the UK will be able to improve its trading position with the EU as a result of Brexit. Therefore, UK traders are not going to be allowed a facility that is not afforded to traders within the community. If harmonised standard exist, UK traders will be required to conform with them. Mutual recognition is out of the question.

The EU will, doubtless, be prepared to consider mutual recognition agreements (MRAs) on conformity assessment, This allows exporters to the EU to check compliance with EU standards in their home countries.

Canada has been one of the nations benefitting from such an agreement but it is interesting to note that within the text, it specifies that the Agreement "shall not be construed to entail mutual acceptance of standards or technical regulations of the Parties and … shall not entail the mutual recognition of the equivalence of standards or technical regulations".

There is no example anywhere in the world of the EU concluding a wide-ranging agreement with a third country on mutual acceptance of standards. It applies only within the territories of the EEA states.

That Mrs May evidently believes the UK can be an exception is clearly an example of wishful thinking. So, writes Booker, the seemingly "irresistible force" of Brexiteer wishful thinking has at last met the immovable object of those EU rules.

Of course, if we had chosen to leave the EU but remain in the wider European Economic Area, none of this crisis need have arisen. But the result is that Mrs May has landed herself in an impasse from which there is now no way out.

Richard North 04/03/2018 link

Brexit: a small addition


Time and time again we've seen this. "Team UK" does absolutely nothing, leaving all the running to the EU. Mr Barnier's negotiating team then moves in to fill the vacuum, whence the UK establishment bitches like mad because they don't like what the EU has produced.

In the particular case of the first draft of the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK was given every opportunity to come up with its own proposals.

This was set out in December's Joint Report which re-emphasised the UK's commitment to protecting North-South cooperation and repeated its guarantee of avoiding a hard border. Any future arrangements, the report said, must be compatible with these overarching requirements.

At the time, it was intended that the UK should achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship, details of which it has been pressed to provide for some time. In the event that this was not possible, the idea was then that the UK should propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland.

It was only in the absence of agreed solutions – arising from one or the other of these activities – that the UK agreed "to 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 (Good Friday) Agreement".

As it turns out, the UK has not produced any formal proposals and has shown no signs of delivering anything which looks even close to a solution that the EU would be prepared to agree. And it is in the precise context that the Commission has decided to produce its draft which, it says, "translates" the Joint Report and Joint Technical note into a legal text".

What this amounts to is an eight-page protocol (which includes nearly two pages of recital), is what is being called a "backstop" option. And this small addition has the potential to blow the Brexit negotiations apart for, without agreement on this, there will be no transition.

In the protocol, Northern Ireland continues to be part of a functioning Single Market, joining a "common regulatory area" with the rest of the Union, thereby constituting "an area without internal borders in which the free movement of goods is ensured and North-South cooperation protected".

In jargon terms, the "common regulatory area" is the technical term for the Single Market (or internal market, if you prefer), although it has not been used before by EU institutions in this context.

The term made a single, guest appearance in 2007 in relation to the treaty creating the Energy Community extending the EU energy market to its southern European neighbours within what the Commission described as "a common regulatory area with shared trade, transmission and environmental rules".

In relation to the Single Market, I first used the term on 4 May 2016 and again a few days later. It is interesting to see the term now lodged firmly in the Union lexicon.

Of course, there is much more than Ireland in the whole draft, which runs to 119 pages, and must be agreed by the 27 Member States before it is formally put to the UK.

The whole thing would be (and doubtless will be) much longer, by a factor of many more pages, if the Annexes to the Irish Protocol were complete. In Annex 2, for instance, will be specified the entire list of EU law that will apply in the common regulatory area, aimed at ensuring the free movement of goods and protecting North-South cooperation.

Lifted from the EU acquis will be the laws which cover the free movement of goods, customs controls, VAT and excise duties, sanitary and phytosanitary requirements, the production and marketing of agricultural and fisheries products, wholesale electricity markets, environmental protection in relation to the control of the import into, release into, or transport within the Union of substances or material, or plant or animal species, and State aid.

By reference to the EEA acquis, this will be a list of about 5,000 measures, which will apply in perpetuity to Northern Ireland.

But it doesn't stop there. The Agreement also requires that customs duties on imports and exports, and any charges having equivalent effect, "shall be prohibited between the Union and the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland. Furthermore, quantitative restrictions on imports and exports and all measures having equivalent effect shall be prohibited.

If I understand this correctly, it opens a huge, tariff-free back door into the UK where any goods from the rest of the EU can pour into Ireland and thence to Great Britain via Northern Ireland.

With that, we are seeing the crunch point in the negotiations, as was always going to be the case. This is the point where May's stupidity, in committing to leave the Single Market without thinking through the consequences, finally meets reality.

Her ill-considered action meant that – short of non-existent technical solutions – there was going to be a "hard" border in Ireland, unless the UK agreed to move it to the Irish Sea, creating the so-called wet border, an outcome which has been evident for some time. And if Mrs May refuses that solution, she has on her hands an unsolvable problem. Strangely enough, I wrote in a blogpost recently, unsolvable means unsolvable. That is proving to be the case.

There is absolutely no point, therefore – as she did at PMQs yesterday in the prime minister rejecting, in toto the Irish provision. The draft legal text, she said:
… would, if implemented, undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea, and no UK Prime Minister could ever agree to it. I will be making it crystal clear to President Juncker and others that we will never do so. We are committed to ensuring that we see no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but the December text also made it clear that there should continue to be trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, as there is today.
This is only something which her government agreed with the EU in December and, true to that agreement, the Commission has included (in Article 15 of the Protocol) a provision which states that,
Should a subsequent agreement between the Union and the United Kingdom which allows addressing the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, avoiding a hard border and protecting the 1998 Agreement in all its dimensions, become applicable after the entry into force of the Withdrawal Agreement, this Protocol shall not apply or shall cease to apply, as the case may be, in whole or in part, from the date of entry into force of such subsequent agreement and in accordance with that agreement.
It remains entirely open for the UK to come up with its own proposals and negotiate a separate solution – not that any such solution exists. But Mrs May has boxed herself into a corner and she only has herself to blame.

If things get too bad, however, she can always turn to the "safeguards" in Article 13. Presumably, with unintended irony, the Commission has copied out almost word-for-word parts of Articles 112 and 113 of the EEA Agreement, covering safeguard measures. We thus see:
If the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties liable to persist, the Union or the United Kingdom may unilaterally take appropriate measures. Such safeguard measures shall be restricted with regard to their scope and duration to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation. Priority shall be given to such measures as will least disturb the functioning of this Protocol.
This, of course, is a measure so many pundits have been telling us could only apply to the likes of Liechtenstein, because it is such a small country, and could not possibly apply to the UK. Yet here we find it, the catch-all provision, without which no treaty should be considered compete.

As for yesterday, any evaluation couldn't be complete without noting that John Major also gave a speech.

This is the man who agreed the Maastricht Treaty and then called together his staff to find out what he had agreed. He then rammed the ratification through Parliament in the teeth of opposition from his own side, and all but destroyed the Conservative Party in the process. He is the very last person who needs to be opening his mouth just now.

Richard North 01/03/2018 link

Brexit: bordering on the ridiculous


One could get a little bored with repeating "I told you so", but I could hardly miss the opportunity to comment on the latest Notice to Stakeholders, this one dealing with "EU rules on animal health and welfare and public health related to the movement of live animals.

In a very specific context, I wrote about this on 2 February 2017, drawing attention to the effects of Brexit on horse racing. In particular, I referred to the tripartite agreement on the movement and trade of horses between France, Ireland and the United Kingdom, noting that this could cease once we left the EU, with a devastating on racing in all three countries – and especially Ireland.

As always when writing such pieces, I wasn't relying on a press release from the industry concerned, or official notices from the EU or any of the governments involved. I worked it out for myself and posted the results of my research, often being the first to do so in the fields I addressed.

On this one, I was writing about an industry worth £3.45 billion to the UK economy, employing (directly and indirectly) 85,000 people and underpinning a £12.6 billion gambling market. I hadn't worked out its value to Ireland, but it had to be substantial, making this an issue of some importance.

Although Booker followed it up in his column, only a few days later – in the days before the paper had eviscerated his column and consigned it to the obscurity of the review section – what was remarkable was the lack of interest shown by the rest of the media.

This was genuinely new information, on a significant industry which had a high level of public interest and which, with the advent of Brexit, could be very seriously damaged. Yet, there was no reaction, either to my blogpost or Booker's piece.

Since then there have been some half-hearted pieces in the Irish press, and even some reports which in August last year were picking up the broader issues on live animal movement. That was occasioned by the Dublin Horse Show, which hosted a "Brexit equine forum", leading to the Irish Times headlining a story with "Brexit poses 'formidable' challenges for Irish equine industry".

Elsewhere, we had the Irish Independent running a story headed: "Post-Brexit border checks on animals at ports 'a nightmare scenario'", which had John Melville, superintending veterinary inspector at the Irish Department of Agriculture, outlining the nature of the coming problems.

Despite all that, even the Irish have never given the issue the attention it deserved and, even to this day, that remains the case. However, this is the day that we have absolute confirmation from the European Commission that, amongst other things, the tripartite agreement will no longer apply to the EU following Brexit, putting the Irish and UK horse racing industries seriously at risk.

For sure, Armageddon may well be delayed if a transitional agreement is concluded but, as tensions build over the Irish border question, that is by no means a done deal. Come the end of March next year, all horses may have to be subject to expensive veterinary checks before being sent to EU destinations and, on entry to the EU, must be re-examined in border inspection posts.

Such checks, which will also extend to foods of animal origin - with separate checks for plants and plant-based foods and other materials - will, as John Melville warned, constitute a "nightmare scenario". Yet, on the very day that we see the Notice to Stakeholders issued, we have the stupid arse Alexander Johnson equate the Irish border to the dividing line between the London boroughs of Westminster and Camden.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, the fool dismissed the need for a hard border post-Brexit in Ireland, saying: "We think that we can have very efficient facilitation systems to make sure that there's no need for a hard border, excessive checks at the frontier".

He added: "There's no border between Camden and Westminster but when I was Mayor of London we anaesthetically and invisibly took hundreds of millions of pounds from the accounts of people travelling between these two boroughs without any need for border checks whatsoever".

Latterly, this vain fool is still arguing that we can rely largely on "electronic paperwork" at the border, based on the experience of HMRC checking only four percent of consignments arriving from third countries.

This again is an area where the media in general have been less than stellar in their coverage, failing to highlight the extent of sanitary and phytosanitary checks that will have to be carried out, a failure shared by the politicians and particularly those in the select committees.

One can hazard that, if the outcome of leaving the Single Market had been reported properly, we would not be seeing anything like the volume of stupidity we're experiencing on customs unions. Clearly, the requirement for sanitary and phytosanitary checks is entirely unaffected by customs union agreements which, in itself, means that the hard border becomes a reality even with a fully-fledged customs union between the EU and the UK.

What it is about this issue which seems to addle the brains of our politico-media establishment is beyond mortal comprehension. But the collective seems incapable of understanding that there will need to be a whole range of physical checks at the border, once we leave the Single Market. Electronic checks, and even beyond the border inspections, are no substitute.

To an extent, though, the message is getting through and Johnson is no longer guaranteed the free ride on which he used to be able to rely. Thus we have the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Smith branding the foreign secretary's comments as "typically facile and thoughtless". However, this is one of Labour's shadow cabinet ministers, speaking the day after his leader plumped for membership of a customs union to help avoid a hard border in Ireland.

Less compromised was SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, who resorted to the tweet machine to declare that when Johnson "decides to come down from the other planet that he clearly inhabits he's welcome to come and actually visit the Irish border".

Liberal Democrat Northern Ireland spokesman, Alistair Carmichael, was equally direct. The comments show, he said, that "this country is not in safe hands". Once again, he added, "the Foreign Secretary has shown why he shouldn't be allowed out of the house to talk about foreign affairs".

"He has revealed a complete lack of understanding of the complexities and history of the Northern Irish border. It is one of the major outstanding issues of Brexit negotiations and one of our most senior Cabinet Ministers hasn't even bothered to read his briefing notes".

Today, via the European Commission, we expect to see the fruits of that lack of understanding, which spreads right across the entire political domain. There is no single Westminster politician who has publicly demonstrated a grasp of the Irish border issues.

But even then, we have the Irish Times headlining: "NI to effectively remain in EU customs union after Brexit", with reference to adhering to Single Market rules only coming in later. The spell of the customs union is very hard to break.

However, the paper is talking about maintaining a "common regulatory area" on the island of Ireland. Connelly, writing for RTÉ talks of Northern Ireland remaining part of the EU's customs territory, post Brexit, with an allusion to a "single regulatory area". They amount to the same thing, comprising the essence of the Single Market solution. In particular, the Commission is to propose that EU law on animal health and related matters is applied to north and south, paving the way for a "wet" border in the Irish Sea.

Thus, slowly, inexorably, it seems that Mrs May is being squeezed into a workable solution, with goods crossing the Irish Sea from the mainland to Ireland having to be checked by joint EU-UK inspection teams.

How the DUP will react when the chips are down isn't yet known and, for all their huffing and puffing, the "ultras" are also an unknown factor. With Corbyn's Labour Party apparently gaining strength over Brexit, they are not necessarily going to risk bringing down the May government and triggering a general election.

Yet, the implications are profound. The "independent" UK will require the permission of EU officials, stationed on its sovereign territory, before it can permit the movement of goods from one part of the UK to another. If the politicians are even capable of understanding the implications of this, then it could prove too much for some to bear.

The hints are already there of troubles to come. Mrs May herself is reported to be ready to warn the EU that she will not sign up to "anything that threatens the constitutional integrity of the UK".

"This is a draft negotiating position by the EU and not a final, binding text", says a senior government source. "We are fully committed to implementing the December agreement, but the EU should be absolutely clear that the prime minister is not going to sign up to anything that threatens the constitutional integrity of the UK or its common market".

Sales of popcorn look set to soar.

Richard North 28/02/2018 link

Brexit: the speaking of words


What struck me most about the Corbyn speech, and not in any laudatory sense, was the short section on Mini production. Said Corbyn:
A Mini will cross the Channel three times in a 2,000-mile journey before the finished car rolls off the production line. Starting in Oxford it will be shipped to France to be fitted for key components before being brought back to BMW's Hams Hall plant in Warwickshire where it is drilled and milled into shape. Once this process is complete the Mini will be sent to Munich to be fitted with its engine, before ending its journey back at the Mini plant in Oxford for final assembly.

If that car is to be sold on the continent then many of its components will have crossed the Channel four times. The sheer complexity of these issues demand that we are practical and serious about this next stage.
Now compare this with the real world. In the case of the Mini, assembly is carried out at the BMW plant in Oxford. The plant at Swindon produces body pressings and sub-assemblies and the plant at Hams Hall near Birmingham makes the engines, which it has done since 2006.

As regards engine production, most of BMW aluminium block and head castings are made at Landshut near Munich. Some of the machining is carried out at Steyr in Austria, mainly cylinder heads. But that plant also makes crankcases, crankshafts and con-rods for BMW cars, including the Mini. Some BMW engine machining was also carried out by the PSA Peugeot Citroen factory in Douvrin, France, but it does not handle Mini engines.

In fact, since the upgrade of the plant in 2013, most of the machining of parts and the main assembly of the Mini engines is undertaken at Hams Hall. When complete, the engines are mated with front suspensions and steering units, and fitted to the cars as single sub-assemblies in the Oxford plant.

The real point about the passage in the speech, though, is that it is gibberish. Cars, invariably, are assembled in one plant, with all the components brought together in one vast, orchestrated enterprise which has completed vehicles rolling off the line ready for sale. The idea of partially completed cars being shipped across Europe for assembly (and to be fitted with engines) is technically illiterate. The idea of a car being "drilled and milled into shape" is comedic.

Thus, no one with any feel for the subject could ever speak out loud the words in the sequence which Corbyn used, at least, not without cringing in embarrassment. And presuming the opposition leader approves his own speeches, one can only assume that he knows nothing of car production. But then, neither do his speech writers – nor any of the people who might have been asked to vet the completed speech.

As it turns out, the piece from the speech may have been lifted from the Evening Standard from July 2017. It is there that "award-winning" journalist Anthony Hilton has Mini crankshafts crossing the Channel three times. That story, in turn, may have been lifted from a piece in the Guardian written by Graham Ruddick and Philip Oltermann in March 2017.

Thus, the Corbyn team not only doesn't do its own research but, when it lifts a story from the print media, it gets the details badly wrong – incidentally talking down the magnificent achievements of British automotive engineering. And you would trust this lot with government?

The ultimate irony, though, is that even the original Guardian story is wrong, with an additional error from Hilton who describes a crankshaft as "the bit which transmits the power of the engine to the wheels" – evidently confusing it with a driveshaft.

The Guardian offers the story as "just one anecdote that succinctly sums up the problems that Brexit and the threat of tariffs pose to the UK car industry". Interestingly, all three writers have the crankshaft being made in France – which has to be Douvrin as the only French factory which has handled BMW engine business. But, currently, this plant has no foundry. Since 2005, PSA has produced its crankshafts in Mulhouse in eastern France - but not for BMW.

For Minis, the sequence is clear: the crankshafts are made in the Steyr plant in Austria. They are then shipped straight to the UK where they are machined on a new, dedicated line at Hams Hall - in place since 2013. There, they are fitted directly to the engines which are sent to Oxford for assembly into the cars. Only one move across the Channel is required, from Austria to the UK.

In almost every respect, therefore, Corbyn's little anecdote is wrong. But, for him, detail hardly matters. He isn't in the business of conveying information or educating his listeners. His speech was the process of speaking words, an empty, sterile process of making sounds in a defined order, without the first idea of what he was actually saying. They could just as well have been spoken in a foreign language, the meaning of which had not been revealed to him.

And that applied not only to the section on the Mini, but to the totality of his references to the European Union, the customs union and the Single Market. They came merely from a man who was engaged in the speaking of words. "Labour", he said, when he finally got round to talking about the EU in a speech that went on for 4,376 words:
… would seek a final deal that gives full access to European markets and maintains the benefits of the single market and the customs union as the Brexit Secretary, David Davis promised in the House of Commons, with no new impediments to trade and no reduction in rights, standards and protections.
That much puts Corbyn in exactly the same "have your cake and eat it" territory as the Conservatives – except that he has an entirely different means of achieving this magical state. He tells us:
We have long argued that a customs union is a viable option for the final deal. So Labour would seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union to ensure that there are no tariffs with Europe and to help avoid any need for a hard border in Northern Ireland.
The two paragraphs cited and consecutive and need to be taken together. Mr Corbyn is effectively suggesting that we enter into a customs union with the EU in order to give us full access to European markets and maintain the benefits of the single market and the customs union.

And that really is gibberish. Even if it was technically possible, which it isn't, it would be a political non-starter. The EU has said any number of times that the UK is not going to get full EU benefits once it has left – whatever mechanism is chosen.

Then, what follows is equally absurd. Corbyn argues for a new customs union with the EU which would "ensure the UK has a say in future trade deals". He doesn't understand that customs union doesn't actually prevent a member doing deals with third countries. Instead, he proposes that the UK should continue to partake in the EU's existing trade deals and should be able to be part of ongoing trade negotiations, then benefiting from new agreements.

If that man had said that he wanted to be part of the Lunar Federation, but only on condition that we had equal stakes in the green cheese quota, he might have made more sense. And, doubtless, had he said precisely that, we would have had a dead-pan Laura Kuenssberg blathering about the political advantage it had given the Labour Party.

But that is a key part of the story. We have an opposition leader standing up to utter the most outlandish gibberish and the media takes him seriously. Even when Corbyn told us that Labour "would negotiate a new and strong relationship with the single market…", they didn't fall about laughing and wonder whether this was a spoof, with a double hired to play the part of the Labour leader.

Then, this is par for the course. Few journalists have bothered to acquaint themselves with the issues and, like the politicians they serve, are content to feed the public with a diet of ill-researched tosh – anything that will serve their purpose.

In this particular speech, though, we have the irony of Corbyn using material lifted from the media which in itself is wrong, mangling it to add further errors and then feeding it back to the media which doesn't even recognise that it is being treated to a farrago of misinformation.

In a way that is entirely fitting and symbolises the entire politico-media nexus. Trash shall be fed unto trash, endlessly recycled until it ceases to have any bearing with reality, by which time it is ready to be turned into a political speech for publish consumption.

Thank you Mr Corbyn. Don't call us …

Richard North 27/02/2018 link

Brexit: party political lines


We had Keir Starmer on the Andrew Marr show yesterday, firming up on the Labour Party's position on a customs union. All we have to do is wait for Corbyn's speech today and it will be locked in as party policy.

That said, we have to confront the idea that the man (Starmer) is either terminally stupid, or he believes us all to be, so much so that we will accept without complaint his assertion that a customs union will avoid a hard border in Ireland.

Surely to God by now, we should have politicians who are sufficiently knowledgeable about the basics? Surely they must know that a customs union will have no effect on freeing up trade on the Irish border once we leave the EU (and end the transition period). To ensure free movement of goods (and some services) we must retain, via the EEA, participation in the Single Market.

Needless to say, despite the rank stupidity of the assertion, the idle Marr let it pass without challenge. Thus he misses, as he so often does, the key point and lets another politician off the hook. Only the BBC – apart from the rest of the media – could employ someone so utterly useless.

On the same day, though, we also had Hilary Benn, chair of the Brexit Committee tweeting about Efta, giving the firm impression that believes this to be a customs union. Thus, amongst the MPs and media, we have the building evidence that we are caught in the grip of an epidemic of stupidity.

Trying to assess why many ostensibly intelligent people manage to get it so wrong, so consistently, has been a never-ending labour on this blog and we're probably no closer to an answer than we've ever been.

But one there is one thing that does begin to stand out. These politicians and their media handmaidens don't know the basics because they don't need to know. The details are of no interest to them as they are playing (and reporting) an entirely different game.

Mr Starmer, Mr Benn, Mr Marr, Mr Corbyn and all the rest are really only interested in party politics, domestic politics. And here, in the notion of a customs union is the "clear blue water" that the pundits so much treasure and the parties squabble over.

Mrs May has pinned her policy on leaving the customs union so Mr Corbyn's party has settled on supporting a customs union. One might suppose that if the Conservatives took a different view, whatever it was, Labour would oppose that, just for the sake of it.

As it stands, in true party political style, David Davis accuses Mr Corbyn of acting like a "snake oil" salesman, making a move that "would shackle Britain to Brussels in a flagrant betrayal of Labour’s Election manifesto a year ago".

From the Labour side, with statesman-like dignity, Frank Field declared that staying in an EU customs union after the end of a transition phase in 2020 would "rat on the people's decision to leave".

Where these childish games falls apart though is that there are substantive issues at state, and the arguments are not being played out on a national stage. There are players who aren't in the least interested in UK domestic politics. The final arbiters are in Brussels and they won't allow the outcome to be fudged. between the parties as they so often are when just UK interests are at stake.

The simple truth is that Labour has no more got a solution to the Irish border question than have Mrs May's Conservatives. The warring parties have a bone to fight over, but the issue lies unresolved.

But, while they play their sterile game, Brussels is stirring and, according to the Financial Times, they are cooking up something that none of our idle politicians are going to like.

What this amounts to in the jargon of the game is that the Commission plans to "operationalise" the agreement on Ireland brokered in December and published in the Joint Report. This will created a legal structure which will form part of the final withdrawal agreement.

It was in this that the parties stated that the United Kingdom remained committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to "its guarantee of avoiding a hard border". But, the following paragraph (ironically, paragraph 50) made execution of that promise effectively impossible by refusing to allow any new regulatory barriers between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland.

This was the crunch. Either the UK as a whole (including Northern Ireland) stuck to the Single Market or Northern Ireland and the Republic remained and the border moved to the Irish Sea. Practically speaking, there are no other alternatives.

Conscious of this, Commission officials have come up with the only solution possible, elegant enough in its own terms. They have simply omitted from the new draft, which we will see on Wednesday, any reference to creating new regulatory barriers across the Irish Sea.

This scenario, according to the FT, would keep Northern Ireland entirely within the grip of Brussels and, to the likely discomfort of the DUP, offers no other options. This puts the DUP on the line and, by inference, puts Mrs May's Conservatives on notice.

And, from current performance, the DUP is not going to give up easily. Nigel Dodds, the DUP's Westminster leader, on Sunday, redefined his party's requirements, stating that he wanted an open border with the Irish Republic "but we're also very clear that there can be no border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom economically or politically". He added: "I think in terms of a customs union it is very clear... that you do not require membership of the customs union to preserve a frictionless border in Ireland".

For all the party political posturing, therefore, neither Labour nor the Conservatives are any further forward. But, while they play their games, they are being quietly but nonetheless dramatically undermined. They are about to have imposed on them a situation which they can neither tolerate nor resolve, but have nothing to put in its place.

Particularly, this makes today's speech by Mr Corbyn a complete irrelevance and, by the time Mrs May gets to deliver hers on Friday, it will have already have been consigned to history. Devoid of any workable ideas on Northern Ireland, and chained to her absurd "ambitious managed divergence", she will be speaking into a political vacuum.

In the meantime, the FT quotes a UK government official. "It is no surprise that the EU will continue to produce documents that push their negotiating position", he says. "However it is important they [the Commission] accurately reflect the [December deal] and include the full scope of the agreement, rather than simply the bits which best suit one side".

This is countered by an EU negotiator who says, "Next week is an important moment. We can't just listen to the grumbling, if we are to push the negotiation forward it is important to put a text on the table". He adds: "It is dangerous, but it is the only way. Otherwise it will grind to a halt. We need to kick-start the negotiations".

That might suggest that there is room for manoeuvre but the reality is that there is precious little the Commission can concede. Throughout the entire negotiations, we have seen the UK government cede the initiative time and again, only for the EU negotiators to pick up the pieces. And with Mrs May and her cabinet so short of ideas, this is happening yet again.

But, for all that, the Conservatives will be the last to recognise their plight. In addition to Kier Starmer, Marr also interviewed Liam Fox who displayed an extraordinary insouciance. He sees the EU as being "frightened" of a "less regulated Britain", arguing that "we can diverge as much we like".

These people simply are not on the same planet as the rest of us. Trapped in their Westminster bubbles, they haven't the faintest idea of how the rest of the nation sees them, much less the rest of the world, and are totally incapable of relating to anything that approaches reality.

Sadly, we have to put up with this time-wasting sham of party-political conflicts, before the grown-ups intervene to decide what is going to happen.

Richard North 26/02/2018 link

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

Log in

Sign THA
Think Defence

The Many, Not the Few