Brexit: nothing is clearer

16/02/2019  


As I write, the BBC website is full of the latest news about Trump and his wall. And, in its own, pompous, arrogant way, it deigns to instruct us on whether there is a crisis on the US-Mexico border.

The BBC website is full of that sort of thing – there is barely a subject on which it does not feel qualified to lecture us, setting itself up as the "go to" authority on virtually every subject under the sun. All too often, it will advertise itself as precisely that.

The scope of that hubris extends, as you might expect, to Brexit. With insufferable arrogance, the BBC hosts a webpage authored by reporters Alex Hunt and Brian Wheeler, claiming to offer: "All you need to know about the UK leaving the EU".

Given the complexity of the subject, that alone should dissuade anyone from making such a hubristic claim, but even more so when the exact meaning of so many issues is contentious – and often hotly argued – and where, in others, careful interpretation is required.

In the first category, there is a more than adequate illustration where the Hunt and Wheeler pair purport to tell us what the European Union is, asserting that: "It began after World War Two to foster economic co-operation, with the idea that countries which trade together were more likely to avoid going to war with each other".

Here, as a co-author of a definitive history of the European Union, I would not agree. With the preamble to the Treaty of Rome declaring the objective as "the ever closer union" of the peoples of Europe, the "idea" of the EU is and always was the political integration of its member states. Economic cooperation was always the means to the end, and never the end in itself.

Some people would claim that this is arguable. I wouldn't, but even if one accepts that it is, that leaves no room for such a definitive, unequivocal statement of the type made by Hunt and Wheeler. This isn't information: it's propaganda.

As to the other category, we can see a more recent example where the pair address the issue of whether Brexit can be cancelled. They claim that the ECJ has ruled that the UK could cancel the Article 50 Brexit process unilaterally, "provided the decision followed a 'democratic process', in other words, if Parliament voted for it".

Yet, actually, that is not what the judgement says, even if the press release, rather unfortunately, has elided some of the text of the judgement to come up with this statement: "The revocation must be decided following a democratic process in accordance with national constitutional requirements".

At this level, though, there is no reference to a parliamentary vote, merely a democratic process, "in accordance with national constitutional requirements". Arguably, the cabinet of an elected government which agreed a decision by the prime minister to revoke the Article 50 notification, followed by the formal revocation initiated by the prime minister, would satisfy that requirement.

Fortunately, however, we don't have to argue the point. We need only to refer to the actual judgement, which (not unusually) differs in detail from the press release.

In its reference to a "democratic process", it declares that refusing to allow a Member State to revoke its notification, after it had decided to do so "through a democratic process", would be "inconsistent with the Treaties' purpose of creating an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe". Interestingly, we see declared the purpose of the Treaties – and it is not economic cooperation.

This section, though, is part of the preamble and only later does the judgement set out the formal condition for revocation, viz:
… as long as a withdrawal agreement concluded between the European Union and that Member State has not entered into force or, if no such agreement has been concluded, for as long as the two-year period laid down in Article 50(3) TEU, possibly extended in accordance with that provision, has not expired, that Member State … retains the ability to revoke unilaterally the notification of its intention to withdraw from the European Union, in accordance with its constitutional requirements.
Strictly speaking, therefore, the only condition which is relevant to the BBC claim is that the notification must be made in accordance with the UK's constitutional requirements. And again, even if you want to assert that this is arguable, a strict requirement that there should be a parliamentary vote (in favour) is an invention.

With this, and much more, therefore, one rather wishes the BBC would tone down the hubris, and confine itself to statements of fact. But there is more to it than that. There are issues relating to Brexit which are both complex and important, and which would benefit from simple, factual explanations. Properly presented, they would immeasurably enhance the quality of the debate. And yet here, as much as in the explanations they do volunteer, the BBC is often singularly lacking.

To look for a topical example, one does not have to go far. Yesterday, I reported on the conclusion of the US-UK MRA on conformity assessment, emphasising its importance and also (then) noting that the BBC had not reported it.

In fact, it took until after midday yesterday for an article to appear on the website and, from the content, it is very clear that the (anonymous) author had very little appreciation of what an MRA on conformity assessment is, much less how important such agreements are.

It would have helped if the BBC had referred to the agreement by the full title that is found in the government press release, where it is referred to as: "The Mutual Recognition Agreement on Conformity Assessment (MRA)".

Unhelpfully, though, not only does the term "conformity assessment" not appear in the BBC script, neither is there any explanation of what the agreement does. Yet, this is clearly set out by the government, in this passage in its press release:
The agreement will maintain all relevant aspects of the current EU-US MRA when the EU-US agreement ceases to apply to the UK. It helps facilitate goods trade between the two nations and means UK exporters can continue to ensure goods are compliant with technical regulations before they depart the UK, saving businesses time, money and resources. American exporters to the UK benefit in the same way.
It would have improved things if a little bit of detail had been added, such as telling readers something about the context. The issue, of course, is about conformity with local regulations – EU-produced goods with US requirements and US-produced goods with EU requirements.

Without the MRA, goods would have to be tested in advance in the countries of their destination or, when intercepted by the customs on entry, would be tested then – causing considerable disruption (and expense) at the borders.

With the MRA in place, manufacturers in the countries of origin can submit their products to approved testing houses in their own countries and certificates of conformity (attesting to conformity with regulations at the point of intended destination) are recognised by the respective customs authorities, without any need for further testing.

This is a massively important agreement, saving huge amounts of time and money - and is no small thing. The basic EU-US Agreement runs to 78 pages, covering telecommunications equipment, electromagnetic compatibility , electrical safety, recreational craft, pharmaceutical good manufacturing practices, and medical devices. Additionally, there is an agreement on marine equipment.

Together with the lists of approved testing houses, the implementing protocol, the procedural agreements and the specifications concerning assessment and supervision of systems, this is a substantial body of work which will do much to facilitate post-Brexit trade between the UK and the US.

All the BBC can grudgingly concede, though, is that "the UK-US agreement is not a free trade deal - which can relax trading rules, reduce taxes (tariffs) on imports and exports, and grant easier market access".

Yet, this is a trade deal. Make no mistake. While it is not a formal Free Trade Agreement in its own right, MRAs on conformity assessment can be found embedded in most of the modern EU trade agreements. So important are the EU's agreements that there is a special protocol in the EEA Agreement extending them to the Efta states – thus enabling "simplified market access".

And it is there that the BBC have introduced an egregious error, declaring that the agreement "is not a free trade deal - which can … grant easier market access". This simply is not true.

A switched-on organisation could do far better than this. It could not only get it right, it might point out that this is how trading nations organise their affairs when they do not want to commit to full-blown free trade agreements. It could also tell us that these agreements are over and above WTO rules and that countries with sophisticated economies would find it very hard to trade without them. WTO rules are not sufficient.

The UK government is to be congratulated for concluding this agreement. It was very necessary that it should have done so. But it was also very necessary for the media to explain what is going on. The BBC tried, and failed. As for the rest of the media, they don't even seem to have tried.

Where the agreement has even been mentioned elsewhere, as in the Independent, the narrative has been side-tracked into personality politics. It is far more important for the newspaper to tell us that Mr Trump has declared trade links had been "strengthened", with lengthy quotes from the president and Liam Fox than it is to explain to us what the agreement is about. All we get in that quarter is that it allows goods made in the UK to be sold in the US, and vice versa, "with less bureaucracy for manufacturers and exporters".

The Evening Standard falls for the same trap, actually providing less detail than the Independent. The Daily Mail, in substantially more space, manages to say even less on the MRA. Oddly enough, the best (although by no means full) report comes from the non-paper, the Daily Express, which parades the story on its front page as "Trump's Brexit boost for Britain". Predictably, although this rag has been at the forefront in promoting the WTO myth, any reference to WTO rules is absent.

And that, sadly, conceals the ultimate irony. Brexiteers are said to welcome the continuation of the deal, thereby contradicting the very claim made by so many "ultras" that the EU doesn't have a trade deal with the US and relies on WTO rules – permitting the UK to do likewise. It does, and it doesn't, which means that the UK is not even trying to. 

But nothing the media is saying makes this any clearer.



Richard North 16/02/2019 link

Brexit: scanning the horizon

12/02/2019  


There is possibly only one person in the world who knows what Mrs May intends to do – and that's Mrs May. But it is just as possible that she herself doesn't know what she's doing – or has simply run out of options.

For the rest of us, though, we have no way of knowing the difference. Not even the media "in-crowd" have any idea of what is going down so, like the rest of us mere mortals, they are reduced to speculating – some at greater length than others.

Needless to say, this is a highly unsatisfactory situation. Despite following the Brexit drama since its inception, I personally have no more idea of what might happen than the proverbial man in the street. Anybody's guess is as good as mine. We might as well flip a coin.

That said, if I was forced to put money on the outcome, it would be the no-deal scenario – occasioned simply because Mrs May had failed to get the Withdrawal Agreement ratified, and parliament didn't have the wit to call a halt to the madness into which we're descending.

If it's any comfort, the "colleagues" don't have a much better idea of what's going to happen than we do, illustrated by yesterday's press conference with Xavier Bettel, prime minister of Luxembourg, and Michel Barnier.

Barnier picked up on the theme introduced by a series of slides published earlier in the day, explaining the Withdrawal Agreement – sixty sheets in document form, including the cover sheet.

The slides start with a statement from Barnier, drawn from 25 November when the Withdrawal Agreement was finalised. It has him saying: "We have negotiated with the UK, never against the UK. This deal is a necessary step to build trust between the UK and the EU. We need to build, in the next phase, an unprecedented and ambitious partnership. The UK will remain our friend, our partner and our ally".

It looks here as if the EU is getting in its narrative first – not sitting back waiting to take the blame for the collapse of the deal. And, in Luxembourg, Barnier starts off in much the same way, saying that the Withdrawal Agreement was negotiated with the UK, not against it. The EU has no intention of punishing the UK or acting against it.

The backstop, Barnier says, was agreed but the future is not one where they envisage putting it into effect. Using the political declaration they look forward to working out a future relationship between the EU and the UK as partners, as friends.

However, embedded in the velvet glove is the steel fist. The EU needs the border in Ireland to protect the safety of its citizens, to protect their industry by ensuring that their conformity is maintained. They cannot – and therefore will not - allow goods to enter Ireland from the UK without controls.

Brexit, the retrait ordonné (orderly withdrawal) was agreed with the UK, with Mrs May herself. It was agreed with the countries of the EU and cannot be renegotiated. And so, the EU still hopes for an orderly withdrawal but it must prepare for every scenario, including a no-deal. And so endeth one of a series of flat statements, repeating what has gone before, with a resigned acknowledgement that the EU is reconciled to the worst outcome.

One almost gets a sense of fin de siècle. There is no last-minute appeal to rationality, or any suggestions as to how things might proceed. All we got was a warning. "Something has to give," Barnier said, with a reminder that the time left was "extremely short". The EU was "waiting for clarity and movement from the United Kingdom", something that Barnier must know that he is not going to get.

Back home, we still get endless prattle from the media about parliament introducing a motion to "block" a no-deal, a move which – if pursued – will indicate that parliament has failed to understand the limits of its own power, alongside the media's inability to appreciate the finer points of our constitution. As it stands, no-deal remains the default under Article 50, leaving open only three possibilities if it is to be prevented from taking effect automatically on 29 March.

The first is the one we've more or less written off – the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement by parliament sometime before the date. There is even talk of this happening within the last days of March, which is a possibility. But there is no second-guessing the mood of parliament. A troop of baboons would be easier to predict.

A second option, one that has been well rehearsed, is the delaying action: seeking an extension to the Article 50 period. Some appear to assume that all we have to do is ask and it will be granted. But the unanimous assent of the EU-27 is required. This cannot be taken for granted and the price demanded might be unacceptable – even if an agreement was in the offing.

That leaves option number three, the unilateral revocation of the Article 50 notification – stopping the Brexit process in its tracks. But this is not for parliament to decide.

The confrontation was skirted last time but, if a vote instructing the executive to take this option ever succeeded, it would precipitate a constitutional crisis. The power to revoke the notification rests with the prime minister as the custodian of residual crown prerogative. It is not for parliament to intervene.

Take down all three and leaves us where we started, looking down the nose of a no deal – but not just yet. Today, if the Guardian has it right, Mrs May is going to indulge us with her latest round of can-kicking. She is to ask the Commons to give her another fortnight's grace to keep up what amounts to the pretence that she is renegotiating the backstop.

This, I suppose, beats Jeremy Corbyn's pretence that he is capable of making an intelligent contribution to the Brexit debate, so much so that the prime minister is casting him adrift. Labour wrote itself out of the script right at the beginning and that's where it intends to stay. It is not even worth the time and effort charting the convolutions emerging from that quarter.

For us mere mortals there is no escape from the eternal soap opera presented to us by a media desperate to keep some sort of narrative going. Thus we are assailed with endless speculation, titillated by court gossip and lectured by knowing commentators, all with the intention of projecting the impression that it is possible to know the unknowable.

Just occasionally, it would not hurt to return to earth and address the most straightforward of issues: there is only one certain way to avoid a hard deal, and that is for parliament to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement when (or if) it is again submitted to a vote.

At the moment, we don't even know when that will be, or under what terms. Even now, having left it so late, the damage will be incalculable. But that is the price of allowing our political system to disintegrate, letting the morons take over.

In a situation replete with so much irony though, one simply cannot ignore yesterday's editorial in the Telegraph, where the teenage scribbler responsible complains about the lack of activity in parliament and argues that, if we really are heading for no-deal, this week should be crammed full of the legislation that will be needed to ensure that a no-deal "can happen relatively smoothly" on 29 March.

This, of course, is the newspaper which, perhaps more than any other, has embraced the idea of a no-deal so it would have a vested interest in making it work "relatively smoothly". But, if we are anywhere near close to understanding the ramifications, any belief that a no-deal could be "relatively smooth" is absurd.

Still, with less than 50 days to go, we have a new game in town. We stand poised on the brink of the precipice, scanning the horizon for the last-minute miracle that will drag us back from the edge and make everything right. Doubtless, there is a deep-seated belief that, like the Hollywood westerns of old, the US Cavalry will come charging over the hill, just at the point when everything looks lost, and save us from the ravaging Indians.

Just nobody please mention Little Bighorn or General Custer. The nation is in the market for fairy tales, not gritty realism, as we go through the motions of giving a damn.

Cartoon: Chris Cairns@cairnstoon - commissioned and first published by Wings Over Scotland, 9 February 2019.



Richard North 12/02/2019 link

Brexit: this insanely unnecessary shambles

10/02/2019  


"Despite its reception elsewhere", Booker wrote for the Sunday Telegraph this week, "regular readers of this column will not be unfamiliar with the point so deliberately made by the European Council President Donald Tusk. This was when he said "I've been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely".

That was Booker's opening paragraph, which was then followed by this:
In 2015, before the referendum, the Vote Leave campaign was presented by my expert friend Richard North with a long and detailed analysis showing why the only way for us completely leave the EU without seriously damaging our economy was to join the European Free Trade Association, thus remaining in the European Economic Area with free access to the EU market (and no Irish border problem). Vote Leave's director Dominic Cummings rejected this paper on the grounds that proposing any specific plan would only provoke fractious argument.
However, without any further intervention from Booker, when the piece came to be published in the newspaper, this is all the reader was allowed to see:
In 2015, before the referendum, the Vote Leave campaign was presented with a long and detailed analysis showing why the only way for us to leave the EU completely without seriously damaging our economy was to join the European Free Trade Association, thus remaining in the European Economic Area with free access to the EU market (and no Irish border problem). Vote Leave, however, decided against proposing any specific exit plan as that would only provoke fractious argument.
There is something particularly Soviet about this behaviour, redolent of May 1920 when Lenin gave a famous speech to a crowd of Soviet troops in Sverdlov Square, Moscow. In the foreground were Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev but, in later copies of this photograph, both these figures had completely disappeared.

So it is here. Booker's "expert friend" Richard North is not allowed to appear in the column (except when occasionally allowed as Booker's co-author) and, since the favoured child Dominic Cummings is portrayed in an unfavourable light, the reference to him is discreetly erased from the record.

One is reminded of Dr Tim Coles, author of Real Fake News who, in this clip ,talks of the "propaganda of omission" – keeping issues out of the public domain as a means of keeping them off the agenda. "If you're given facts and information", he says, "you can counter it, but if you're not told about key information and analysis, you can't even think about things".

In respect of the Telegraph, Booker and I have been putting up with this for some years but, for me, the sentence is wider than just this newspaper. Not only have I been deliberately no-platformed by a wide variety of media organs, any mention of the exit plan we pioneered has been ruthlessly excluded from the debate. Despite over 100,000 downloads before the EU referendum, Flexcit is almost completely invisible.

Yet, when it's convenient, we see a crack appear in the system, albeit a small crack, when columnist Juliet Samuel is allowed to make a brief reference to the plan.

Writing in the Telegraph under the headline, "Brexiteers are rejecting exactly the kind of Brexit they used to want", she also picks up on Tusk's outburst, but with a difference.

The reason why Brexiteers have "so spectacularly failed to take control of the negotiations over the last two years" she asserts, is not, as Donald Tusk claimed this week, that they had no plan. They were flush with plans – pamphlets, articles, speeches, journals.

"There's Flexcit, a 400-page blueprint for leaving the EU over a 20-year period. There's Change or Go, a 1,000 page dossier laying out every option under the sun", she says, and "there might even be a feasible strategy for a no-deal". The problem, she avers, "is that the Brexiteers have so many plans and they change so often that they can't unite consistently behind any of them".

Before we go any further, though, we should note that Mr Tusk was not exactly in analytical mode, complaining about a lack of any plan, per se. His precise concern was for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely. That there were plans aplenty is not disputed – although Change or Go wasn't one of them. The problem was that, when it really mattered, the official leave campaign, Vote Leave, rejected in its entirety the concept of having a plan – any plan. Brexiteers weren't given a chance to unite behind a plan – there wasn't a formal plan around which they could unite.

Had there been an open debate about the plan to adopt, and the campaign had broken up without a decision being made, then Juliet Samuel might have had a point. But what the campaign suffered from was that unique act of political cowardice on the part of Dominic Cummings and his colleagues, making a decision on behalf of the entire campaign, that there should be no plan.

But there is another issue here as well, one which the Telegraph would never allow Juliet Samuel or any of its writers to make. And that is the failure of the media to question the absence of a plan – to scrutinise the leave campaign and bring it to account.

Instead, the media went for the soft option of pursuing the personality-driven campaign that was presented to it, largely avoiding the technical issues or dealing with them at a very superficial level, usually on a "biff-bam" adversarial basis.

During the campaign, though, there was one particular episode where David Cameron went to Iceland in late October 2015 and took the opportunity to denigrate our "Norway-style" future outside the EU, arguing that Britain would end up having the worst of all worlds if it adopted Norway's approach to the EU.

Bizarrely, at that point, the entire leave "aristocracy" joined in to make common cause with Cameron. Ruth Lea blithely told British Influence that "we all agree … Norway is not the way" and John Redwood declared: "Eurosceptics don't want the Norwegian model".

At the time, the Leave Alliance upped its tempo, with our group of bloggers actively supporting the Norway option. Yet, as I remarked at the time, nothing of this mattered to the guardians of ignorance. Of the legacy media, I wrote, "we are invisible – we simply don't exist. As for Flexcit, it is as if it was trapped in the enchanted forest, where the text fades to invisibility when viewed by someone from the inner circle".

Nicholas Soames wearing pink socks in the House of Commons got more publicity than Flexcit gained throughout the referendum campaign. Not once were either Booker or I – authors of the seminal history of the EU, The Great Deception - interviewed by the BBC.

Then and to a great extent now, there were two campaigns. The establishment-sanctioned effort, and the campaign run by the people. "We", I wrote, "are invisible. In the collective establishment mind, we don't exist as sentient entities. On voting day, we become the cannon fodder, to do as we are bidden".

It is simply not good enough, therefore, to pick on the issue of the backstop, as it stands now, and point to the incoherence of the leave response. The reason why we have ended up with the backstop is because Mrs May, in her fateful Lancaster House speech, rejected the idea of our continued participation in the Single Market. And that, to a very great extent, goes back to that October in 2015 when both sides appeared to round on the Norway option.

Not then, and not to this day, has any journalist gone into print to explain Flexcit, nor even to explore the Efta/EEA option properly. Mostly, when the hacks refer to Norway, they trot out the same tired clichés of "pay, no say", without the first idea of what they are talking about.

Sadly, this ignorance also prevails in the mind of Juliet Samuel, who manages to assert that the backstop is very similar to "nearly all" the plans that had been endorsed by Eurosceptics. It delivers, she says:
… all of the following elements of Brexit: an end to EU budget payments, full control over immigration, total control over the services industries (including finance) that comprise 80 percent of our economy, substantially increased control over all other industries, the right to reject any future EU employment, environmental or social legislation, control over farming and fisheries and an end to the jurisdiction of EU courts.
Even there, she is wrong. The backstop applies to Northern Ireland and delivers regulatory alignment in the province. The Withdrawal Agreement then takes us out of the EU but, in the longer-term, issues such as payments to the EU, immigration, services, and the other matters, will be determined during the talks on our future relationship.

What we most certainly don't get is the structured relationship afforded by membership of the EEA, with its institutional provisions and mandatory consultation on new, EEA relevant laws.

Thus, for all that Juliet Samuel has the luxury of a longer piece on the subject, it is still Booker who finishes off closer to the truth, despite the censorship from the Telegraph. Initially, he writes, "Theresa May insisted that she still wanted 'frictionless' trade with the EU, but was then persuaded by her ultra-Brexiteers that she should trigger Article 50 without any practical idea of how this could be achieved".

For two years we stumbled on through the negotiations, he adds, with the Brexiteers coming up with one unworkable proposition after another, none of which showed any understanding of the reality of what we were up against, until we reached the present complete impasse, making it ever more likely that we could face the ultimate disaster of leaving without a deal.

"I'm afraid" he concludes, "Tusk was entirely accurate in identifying the real cause of this insanely unnecessary shambles, the catastrophic consequences of which may be with us for decades to come". And it is so very telling that Booker is not allowed to disclose more about this "insanely unnecessary shambles".



Richard North 10/02/2019 link

Brexit: a special place in hell

07/02/2019  


Well, he said it and then, just to make sure we got the point, he tweeted it: "I've been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely".

Whatever else, Mr Tusk's remark was not off-the-cuff. This had the hallmark of a deliberate, premeditated comment coming as it did at the end of a prepared statement after his meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. The full statement itself is worth noting. Not a word is wasted.

"There are 50 days left until the UK's exit from the European Union, following the decision and the will of the UK authorities", Tusk said. "I know that still a very great number of people in the UK, and on the continent, as well as in Ireland, wish for a reversal of this decision".

But, he said, "I have always been with you, with all my heart. But the facts are unmistakable. At the moment, the pro-Brexit stance of the UK Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition, rules out this question. Today, there is no political force and no effective leadership for remain. I say this without satisfaction, but you can't argue with the facts".

And then came the key part: "Today our most important task is to prevent a no deal scenario", Tusk said, stressing that the position of the EU27 was clear. They were not going to make any new offer. "Let me recall", he said, "that the December European Council decided that the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for re-negotiation".

With that, he hoped today to hear from Mrs May "a realistic suggestion on how to end the impasse, in which the process of the orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU has found itself, following the latest votes in the House of Commons".

The top priority for the EU, according to Tusk, "remained the issue of the border on the island of Ireland, and the guarantee to maintain the peace process in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement".

There was no room for speculation, Tusk said. "The EU itself is first and foremost a peace project. We will not gamble with peace; or put a sell-by date on reconciliation. And this is why we insist on the backstop".

In what amounted to a direct warning to Mrs May, he then said, "Give us a believable guarantee for peace in Northern Ireland, and the UK will leave the EU as a trusted friend".

"I hope", he said, "that the UK government will present ideas that will both respect this point of view and, at the same time, command a stable and clear majority in the House of Commons. I strongly believe that a common solution is possible, and I will do everything in my power to find it".

Coming to a conclusion, he then delivered a further warning: "A sense of responsibility", he said, "also tells us to prepare for a possible fiasco". And at that point came the "plan" comment. Clearly, this was an intended remark.

Needless to say, this has provoked a storm of protest, not least from Andrea Leadsom, who thought Mr Tusk an "EU Commissioner". It showed, she said, that he had no manners, the "sign of a charming fellow".

Health secretary, Matt Hancock, said: "It's this sort of arrogance that drives antipathy towards the EU. We are a country that upholds the result of democratic votes. Our EU partners need to respect that", and home secretary, Sajid Javid – he who wants more "goodwill", tweeted that Tusk's remarks were "out of order".

Arlene Foster, DUP, condemned Tusk for being "deliberately provocative [and] very disrespectful", while Sammy Wilson described him as a "devilish Euro-maniac". And, in the House of Commons, Peter Bone complained about what he described as a "completely outrageous" insult. "I don't recall any president insulting members of this House, members of the government and the British people in such a way", he said.

Of course, what really must hurt is the simple fact that Tusk is right. In the first place, we had the leave campaign refuse to commit to an exit plan and then, after the event, Mrs May launched the Article 50 process without the first idea of where it was going to take us.

Through the entire process, she has been a study in negativity, knowing what she didn't want, but failing at any time to express to the EU precisely what she did want. And now, at the eleventh hour, she comes to Brussels, as Sinn Féin's Mary Lou McDonald puts it, "with no plan, no credibility and no honour".

As for those who deserve those reserved places in hell, Verhofstadt seems to have a different view. "I doubt Lucifer would welcome them", he said, "because according to what they did to Britain, they might even be able to split hell".

Nevertheless, I wrote about this only a little while back. In the number one spot, I would put Nigel Farage, followed by Lord Lawson and his colleagues in the IEA, and then Dominic Cummings and his vile crew in Vote Leave. Only then would I open the gate for Mrs May, but Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the opposition, also gets a slot.

But for all that, dwelling on this isn't going to get us very far. One wonders what Donald Tusk expected to achieve by his remark. The Guardian's John Crace picks up the exchange between Leo Varadkar and Tusk after the fateful words had been delivered.

"They'll give you a terrible time in the British press for that", Varadkar whispered. Tusk merely smiled: "Yes, I know. Hahaha". According to Crace, he no longer cared that much what anyone thought. He had tried to be nice to the Brits "but all you got in return was news bulletins with Theresa May in a Spitfire and people comparing the EU's aims with Hitler".

And there may be an element of truth there. If this is taken as a signal, it says that the EU has virtually given up hope of achieving anything from Mrs May's visit, and they don't care who knows it. They've gone through the hoops – to hell and back, even – and now it is just a question of going through the rituals once more, Frankly, if they have reached even a fraction of my level of boredom, then I'm surprised they've stayed the course this far.

Furthermore, while the focus is on Tusk, he is by no means alone: yesterday the EU was doing things in stereo, with Leo Varadkar also meeting Jean-Claude Juncker, from which a joint statement emerged.

In this case as well, no one could accuse the pair of beating about the bush. "The Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration have been negotiated in good faith and have been agreed by all 27 Leaders of the European Union Member States as well as by the United Kingdom Government", they said, adding, "As we have said on many occasions, the Withdrawal Agreement is the best and only deal possible. It is not open for renegotiation".

Reiterating that the backstop was an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement, they reminded us that the agreement, including the backstop, was "a balanced compromise" and "not a bilateral issue". This was a European issue: "Ireland's border is also the border of the European Union and its market is part of the Single Market. We will stay united on this matter", they said.

As with Tusk, there was a reference to stepping up preparations for a no-deal scenario, leaving the UK in no doubt that there was a limit to how far the EU is prepared to go.

Fortunately for Mrs May, Brussels officials are stressing that Mr Tusk's remarks about special places in hell only apply to the relevant personnel when they are dead and "not right now". That leaves Mrs May free to respond when she arrives in Brussels.

Early comment from Number 10 is telling us that Mrs May will ask representatives of the EU institutions to work "urgently" with her to secure changes to the withdrawal agreement that she can use to win over fractious Conservative Party members as well as MPs across parliament.

She will acknowledge that the agreement "was the product of much hard work and was negotiated in good faith", but will add that Westminster had sent "an unequivocal message that change is required". It was thus for everyone involved to "show determination and do what it takes to now get the deal over the line".

The trouble is that Mr Tusk had already given his response before these words were even uttered, leaving the media geniuses to speculate that the chances of a breakthrough "are not good". What would we do without these sages?



Richard North 07/02/2019 link

Brexit: a near meaningless tumble of words

06/02/2019  


At least when he did give a speech – which was actually not very often - you knew what he was getting at. Thus, when Winston Churchill declared that he had nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat, nobody needed to second-guess him in order to work out what he was saying.

Nearly 80 years later, things seem to have moved on a tad. When our current prime minister gives a speech, we find ourselves having to dig deep into the content to divine exactly what she is trying to say.

In truth, though, this is probably not possible. As she left it in her speech, Mrs May simply spoke of her "determination" to work towards a solution. This meant that "we will find a way to deliver Brexit", but it also had to be a way "that honours our commitments to Northern Ireland", and one "…that commands broad support across the communities in Northern Ireland", and also one "that secures a majority in the Westminster Parliament".

And what that boils down to is that she has asked the Home Secretary – he who wants goodwill from the EU - working closely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to review relevant issues urgently "to deliver a long term solution consistent with the letter and spirit of the Belfast Agreement".

In terms of detail, the speech text takes us no further forward. And, while she is looking for the "broad support" of communities in Northern Ireland and a majority in Westminster, there are two glaring omissions. Nowhere, specifically, does she call for or expect the agreement of the Irish Republic, and neither does she factor in the approval of the European Union.

This is almost as if Mr Churchill had given his speech in May 1940 and missed out the toil, tears and sweat. But then the omissions would have been obvious – today less so until you try to work out what it is Mrs May is attempting to convey, described as "a near meaningless tumble of words that die the moment they are uttered".

For us mere mortals who have only the text of the speech to go on, that effectively seems to be the end of it. But in questions afterwards (the answers to which are not published), Mrs May went on to say that there was no suggestion that she was planning to abandon the backstop altogether.

According to The Times, when asked about this, she replied: "I'm not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn't contain that insurance policy for the future", adding that: "What parliament has said is that they believe there should be changes made to the backstop".

Even then, that belongs in the land of make believe. Sir Graham Brady's amendment, on which MPs voted, specifically required the Northern Ireland backstop "to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border". There was no suggestion merely of changing the backstop. The idea was to get rid of it.

That much was made clear by Brexit supporters who, according to multiple press reports, "immediately expressed their alarm at some of May's language". "She knows what she promised us", said one ERG source, adding: "Even if she didn't mean what she said, we do".

No sooner was that said than Mrs May's spokesman reached out to insist that the prime minister's words were consistent with previous comments. Furthermore, the plan to look at "alternative arrangements" was consistent with the kind of insurance policy she had referenced in the speech.

So we return to that magical mystery world of Theresa May. Simultaneously, she is writing off the possibility of approvals from the European Union, the Westminster Parliament, the ERG, the DUP, Uncle Tom Cobley and all. And yet, the prime minister is still asserting that she can "deliver Brexit that honours our commitments to Northern Ireland".

All that leaves now is for Mrs May go to Brussels on Thursday, when she will explain to Jean-Claude Juncker that there is "no suggestion" that the backstop would be removed. But somehow, she expects that the Commission will open the books and adapt the backstop to meet her requirements.

Variously, we seem to be back in the territory of providing for a unilateral termination or for the preferred option of a time limit. Neither of these in the past have been acceptable to EU negotiators and, if allowed, would defeat the object of having a backstop.

Bizarrely, the DUP's Arlene Foster is accusing Brussels and Dublin of "intransigence", suggesting that this could lead to a no-deal. Any such outcome, of course, would be nothing to do with the DUP.

As to the mythical "alternative arrangements", the working group set up under Stephen Barclay has been busy attending meetings in the Cabinet Office, supported it would seem by Shanker "Snake Oil" Singham, who is still peddling his failed dogma on "equivalence".

It is ironic that this charlatan has got his feet so deeply embedded under the table, just as the Charity Commission has issued an official warning under the Charities Act to the IEA, for its publication of Singham's "Plan A" report, and for the handling of the launch, where only those "who held a particular set of views" were invited.

The publication and promotion of the report  was held to be "campaigning and political activity that contravenes legal and regulatory requirements", with the launch event providing "a platform for parliamentarians known to publicly and vocally support a particular outcome from the UK’s exit from the European Union to launch an alternative plan to the current one being pursued by Government".

Singham, of course, is no stranger to Charity Commission intervention, with the Legatum Institute being accused of breaching charity rules when it promoted his work. Yet, the media continue to give him a free pass, often passing him off as a trade expert representing the "independent" IEA.

His particular brand of ignorance has done much to poison the Brexit debate, as he offers hopelessly unwieldy nostrums which could not exist in the real world. And despite any number of detailed critiques, including several on this blog, he soars serenely above it all, untroubled by the need for accuracy, knowledge or even legality.

Interestingly, displaying an arrogance that we've met before, the IEA has effectively rejected the warning, arguing that it "has extremely widespread and worrying implications for the whole of the think-tank and educational charity sector".

Unfortunately, it seems that the implications are not worrying enough to curtail the activities of a think-tank industry which is clearly out of control and has had a malign effect on the Brexit debate. Bodies such as the IEA have lent their "prestige" to charlatans such as Singham, who have gained greater traction for their flawed nostrums than is either safe or sensible.

When think-tanks are simply ill-concealed political lobbyists, often supported by foreign money of rather dubious origin, it is time they were reined in. They have no business even being granted charitable status.

It is thus not only the politicians who are guilty of "a near meaningless tumble of words". As much garbage is trotted out by the likes of Shanker Singham, endorsed by think-tank sponsors and repeated uncritically by the media, then to be endlessly circulated on social media, where it develops a life of its own.

The willingness of so many to regurgitate uncritically the rubbish that is churned out tends to magnify the original damage and is largely defeating the purpose of social media. Rather than a repository of easily accessible knowledge, it is becoming mindless noise, requiring heavy filtration and other defence measures.

But, for all that, even if the rot didn't start at the top, that is certainly where it has reached, with our prime minister delivering supposedly important speeches at a critical juncture in our history, which make no sense at all. If all she is producing is noise, it is hardly surprising that so many others follow in her wake.



Richard North 06/02/2019 link

Brexit: an infestation of groundhogs

05/02/2019  


It doesn't matter where you go at the moment on the news web. You cannot avoid bumping into the Theresa May soap opera, a grotesque re-run of the Brexit farce that has our prime minister chasing after the chimera of "alternative arrangements", with no apparent chance of success.

And so it was that yesterday brought the Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok into the fray. He was visiting Co Louth to learn more about the implications of a crash-out Brexit on Border communities, whence he delivered the bad news: an alternative to the withdrawal agreement was "not realistic".

The backstop was not there because the European Union asked for it, said Mr Blok. It was there because the UK has drawn a number of red lines. "It is the result of more than two years of negotiations, so after 2½ years of negotiations, it's not very realistic to expect that there will be a completely different outcome".

Any one of a million people could have delivered these words, a chip off the old Blok one might say, especially when he added a happy homily to go with the predictable negativity: "The EU has shown unity throughout negotiations and there is no reason to change that unity. We are willing to listen to any proposals made by the UK, but until now there haven't been any specific proposals".

Nevertheless, Brussels seems to be trying its best to give Mrs May something to work with. Martin Selmayr, secretary general of the European Commission, offered a legally binding assurance that the backstop would not lock Britain into a permanent customs union with the EU.

This is a move which could enable the prime minister to claim she had secured fundamental changes to her deal, thus paving the way for the vote next week when MPs will be given another chance to ratify the withdrawal agreement.

But things are never that simple. The offer was made known to the members of the Brexit select committee, who were visiting Brussels. But the Brexiteers on the committee, including Andrea Jenkyns and John Whittingdale, immediately rejected the idea.

That doesn't mean the idea won't fly, of course. A sprinkling of unicorn horn powder on the Labour party may work miracles – or not. And maybe even the intervention of Angela Merkel could help. In a public statement, she insisted that the "riddle" of the Irish border could be solved by compromise on both sides. The German chancellor was determined to do "everything" to avoid Britain crashing out, apparently echoing Sajid Javid by declaring that this was possible if "everyone shows goodwill".

That leaves Mrs May to strut her stuff in Northern Ireland today and tomorrow, when she is expected to show her commitment to the province and signal her unwillingness to bow to Brexiteer demands to get rid of the backstop policy altogether. She will, we are told, use a speech to acknowledge that it is a "concerning time" but "we will find a way to deliver Brexit" that honours commitments including avoiding a hard border with Ireland.

Basically, though, everybody is playing with words in an attempt to find a magic formula which will convince enough MPs to vote with Mrs May and thus avoid a no-deal Brexit. The game has long lost any meaning and most of those who have followed the issue closely are having trouble finding enough will to continue living. The general sentiment is that, whatever it is that they are going to do, they need to do it quickly and get the torture over. There is only so much that warm bodies can bear.

Privately, though, the Guardian says, there is "scepticism" among many in government about the prospect of a breakthrough before the prime minister returns to parliament to make a statement about her Brexit plans on 13 February. "She's just burning down the clock", says one cabinet source.

And, if that is the case, then the situation is beyond analysis. We are just recording noise, filling in time until 29 March until we leave and face the no-deal music. It might be better if Mrs May was more open with us and told it as it is. We could then stop playing empty games and concentrate on preparing for the inevitable.

Meanwhile, we are actually seeing some evidence of preparation from HM Revenue and Customs, which has announced that it will implement simplified importing procedures for businesses importing from the EU, in the event that we leave without a deal.

This concession, which will last a year, means that importers will be able to transport goods from the EU into the UK without having to make a full customs declaration at the border, and will be able to postpone paying any import duties.

The process delaying import duties actually already applies to the bulk of imports from the rest of the world, thus ensuring that there are few delays at the ports. Verification inspections are done on the basis of risk assessment, and are most often done at the business premises, where forensic accounting is used to reveal any discrepancies.

That much, of course, can apply to goods being exported to the EU, where Member State customs authorities will not need to carry out a high level of port inspections in order to administer their revenue-gathering activities. Such inspections as will be needed will be devoted to identifying criminal activity, such as counterfeiting and to ensuring regulatory conformity.

But, for all the rush to ease the flow of goods at the ports, there is yet another element that has been overlooked – the possibility of VAT fraud. Once we have left the EU, traders will be able to recover VAT from goods exported to EU Member States. It is the easiest thing in the world to over-claim on the volume of goods exported, or to slip the goods back into the UK, thence to claim again for VAT refunds.

The idea that we are potentially dealing with criminals came up yesterday, and puts something of a damper on the giddy aspirations of Brexiteers for a frictionless border. If the UK is overtly committed to maintaining a low level of import checks - and we are no longer receiving intelligence from EU customs operations - then we become a target for scammers and fraudsters seeking to unload dodgy goods on UK consumers.

Similarly, if the Irish border is open, it becomes a portal not only for British goods but for imports from the rest of the world, where the UK is being used as a back door into the EU.

Thus, we have Sabine Wayand declaring that relaxing border controls "would not be goodwill" but a dereliction of duty by public authorities in the EU "that have a duty to ensure public health and safety of consumers, protect against unfair competition and enforce public policies and international agreements".

That does indeed cut through the idle rhetoric of the "ultras" and bring them back down to earth. Where borders do exist, delineating different regulatory regimes, they must be policed – otherwise there are plenty of predators who would exploit weakness, to the detriment of honest citizens.

The backstop, therefore, is not going to melt away, no matter how much it is seen as a barrier to the agreement of a deal. Even the BBC has realised that, although the EU would prefer the withdrawal agreement to be settled, they will tolerate a no-deal as the price for protecting the integrity of the Single Market.

Eternally repeating the mantras, therefore, is going to have no impact at all on events. The positions are settled and, while the EU is prepared to make cosmetic gestures, there is no chance of any substantive change. Going through the same arguments again and again brings us nothing more than an infestation of groundhogs – and a collapse of patience. This has gone beyond the point where we've had enough of it.



Richard North 05/02/2019 link

Brexit: the zombie plan

04/02/2019  


A series launched recently on Netflix has Natasha Lyonne playing Nadia Vulvokov in the series Russian Doll. Not dissimilar in broad concept to Groundhog Day, the central dramatic device is for Nadia to be killed over and over again, each time to restart her life at exactly the same point – in the toilet of her friend's apartment, where a party is in progress celebrating her birthday.

The parallel between this and Brexit is obvious, particularly the notion that there are technical fixes that will enable the Irish to avoid a hard border in the event of a no-deal. That zombie idea has died almost as many times as Nadia in the eight-part series but, no sooner dead, it reappears in the toilet of No 10 Downing Street.

In its latest iteration, it has taken on the mantle of the "alternative arrangement" that Mrs May so desperately needs to satisfy the ERG and dispense with the Irish backstop which is holding up progress on the withdrawal agreement. It has thus acquired the unlikely sponsor of home secretary Sajid Javid, who yesterday assured Andrew Marr that this was a viable proposition.

Months ago, this great sage asked the Border Force to advise him, looking at what alternative arrangements were possible. And, he told Marr, "they've shown me quite clearly you can have no hard border on the island of Ireland and you can use existing technology".

Thus, according to our home secretary, "It's perfectly possible". We don't even need magic wands or powdered unicorn horn to sprinkle along the border. "The only thing that's missing", he says, "is a bit of goodwill on the EU side".

I must admit, it's a little bit worrying to discover that we have a cretin for a home secretary, but then you just can't get the staff these days. But, while there is no one in his own department who can call him out (and keep their jobs), at least we have the former director general of the UK Border Force (UKBF) prepared to do the honours.

This is Tony Smith CBE, who now runs his own border security consultancy. He took to Twitter to explain that the UKBF had an operating mandate agreed with Ministers which set out what checks are made by the UK.

Currently, some of those checks are electronic, some are hands-on. UKBF does people and goods checks but not in Ireland. There, due to the Common Travel Area and the Single Market, these are not necessary. And should they arise, he says, "tech" can go a long way, but it "can't fix this alone".

"We need to understand", says Smith, "what needs to be checked before we can deploy tech". And that depends upon what the Customs partnership will look like and what regulatory alignment is agreed between the authorities either side of the border.

Currently, we have bilateral agreements with neighbours such as the CTA with Ireland and Sangatte/Sandhurst with France. These inform what checks are done, where and how. And what checks can be done by one country on behalf of the other.

So, Smith advises us, "the key is in the protocol". And "tech" is then just a tool that follows that. We have good systems in place (as does the EU) for electronic checks, but without some clarity about the regulatory framework on either side it is hard to say how this will work in practice.

Bilateral or multilateral agreements can reduce the level of checks needed and "tech" can go a long way. But it needs to be seen as part of a border transformation programme within a regulatory framework, and not a solution in its own right.

And that, of course, doesn't take into account the sanitary and phytosanitary checks, to say nothing of product conformity checks in the absence of a Mutual Recognition Agreement on conformity assessment.

If there was any doubt still to be had, though, that goodwill could fix it, we had Sabine Weyand enter the fray once more, this time directly to address the issue of whether technology could solve the Irish border problem. Her short answer was: "not in the next few years".

In fact, she was being generous. Not ever will "tech" be the answer. It must always be worked in with the regulatory framework and, as long as there is no-deal, there is no framework to work with. Javid, like so many others on this issue, is simply gibbering.

Yet, despite that, Mrs May is due in Brussels this week, "Battling for Britain" over the miasma of "alternative arrangements", apparently seeking a compromise solution that will involve the EU conceding that the backstop should have a unilateral withdrawal clause or a built-in end date.

Neither of those will be agreed by EU negotiators, so if that is the extent of her mission, she is already doomed to failure. But, it seems, the "ultras" are determined to make it so, with their insistence that the backstop is scrapped entirely and replaced by the aforementioned "tech".

Given that the prime minister is already on a path to failure, though, it seems hard to accept The Times narrative that she is being set up to fail by the hardliners. Mrs May is quite capable of failing all by herself without any outside assistance.

Nevertheless, we are told that Downing Street is going through the motions, setting up a new working group to explore the possibilities of implementing the so-called "Malthouse compromise", a scheme so mad that I have not even bothered to publish an analysis, in the expectation that it would soon self-destruct.

I suppose I should have known better. As with the "WTO option", the madder the scheme and the less likely it is to work, the more likely it is that it will be taken seriously by the politicians and the media. In the working group, we are to see a mix of Brexiteers and Tory remainers, including Nicky Morgan, Steve Baker and Owen Paterson, chaired by the current Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay.

These people will now waste their time pondering over the application of technology to the Irish border, on which basis the "cunning plan" is to get the EU to abandon the withdrawal agreement altogether – with the backstop - allowing an extended transitional period while the details of a new departure agreement are worked out.

It does not seem to matter how many times Barnier and other senior EU officials have said that, without the backstop, there will be no withdrawal agreement and, without the withdrawal agreement, there will be no transitional period. This, after all, is a zombie plan, ready for its next appearance in the Downing Street toilet.

That almost certainly keeps us on track for a no-deal exit, even if there is now talk of the EU agreeing to a "codicil" to the withdrawal agreement – whatever that actually means. More likely, we are led to expect that pressure will increase for a delay to Brexit, simply to allow us more time to prepare.

It is presumed that "the scales will fall from Theresa May's eyes" this week, when she gets the cold shoulder from Brussels and realises that her "Battle for Britain" is over before it even started. Then, she will put her energy into convincing the "colleagues" that they need to give her more scope to organise the self-destruction of the UK.

Nevertheless, we can be reassured by Liam Fox. He has recognised that it would not be in the UK's best interest to leave without a deal, admitting it could put the economy "into a position of unnecessary turmoil".

Even then, he argues that, "We would be able to deal with that scenario", asserting: "we have got to guard against two things. One is an irrational pessimism that says that everything will be a catastrophe and irrational optimism which says everything will be okay". The truth, says Fox, "lies between the two".

This, doubtless, will give us endless comfort as the zombie apocalypse gathers force, and we find the streets littered with the corpses of abandoned Brexit plans - and Nissan motor cars.



Richard North 04/02/2019 link

Brexit: surveying the wreckage

02/02/2019  


One strand of the Brexit story which emerged yesterday was the Purchasing Managers' Index for January, with some unsettling news.

UK manufacturers, it appears, had stockpiled at a record rate last month, the fastest rise in inventories recorded in the 27 years since formal monitoring began, indisputably a direct response to fears of component delivery hold-ups due to port disruption in the event of a no-deal Brexit in March.

If nothing else, that tells us that manufacturers are taking the threat of a no-deal seriously. But, with other data that have emerged, a lot more can be deduced. Specifically, the index of overall manufacturing activity came in at 52.9, down from 54.2 in December and below City analysts' expectations. A further contraction is expected for the first quarter of 2019.

The crucial issue, though, is that, despite the temporary boost provided by stockpiling activities, the underlying trends in output and new orders is, according to the compilers of the index, "lacklustre at best". Growth of new order inflows has slowed sharply and new export orders are near-stagnant. Already, there is a clear risk of manufacturing sliding into recession.

And if this is what is happening in the run-up to a no-deal Brexit, it takes very little imagination to continue the trend and work out what might happen in the aftermath of Brexit. Essentially, if it's bad now and getting worse, the onset of a no-deal can only make it even worse.

Crucially, the reason why export orders are stagnant is that overseas customers are reluctant to order goods, in case they face delays or tariffs on delivery in the event of a no-deal. They are thus looking to alternative suppliers, and reducing their reliance on UK sources.

Not only is this a process that is likely to continue, once we leave the EU without a deal, fears in many instances will be realised. EU-based businesses will find it very difficult to procure from the UK many different categories of goods. UK exports to EU Member States will therefore continue to contract, even to the point at which the word "collapse" is being used.

Picking up from my piece yesterday, therefore, this additional news provides additional support for my thesis that the primary impact of a no-deal Brexit will be on exports. Necessarily, if the volume of outgoing trade then contracts, we are less likely to see congestion at the ports. The most important adverse effects are going to be economic, which are not going to be immediately visible.

However, far from acknowledging the likelihood of delayed effects, the immediate impacts of a no-deal Brexit are now becoming a fashionable cause for the legacy media to pursue, ranging from food shortages to the downturn in new car sales. Scarcely a day goes by without us being regaled with one or more lurid stories about the fate that awaits us.

This, of course, does not preclude the possibility of some of these stories being true – at least partially so. One of the latest is a report from the Guardian which has officials warning of "putrefying piles of rubbish" after a no-deal Brexit.

The problem will arise when, supposedly, "export licences" for millions of tons of waste exported to EU Member States for processing and disposal will become "invalid overnight". This will leave the UK with significant quantities of unprocessed refuse which could give rise to any number of pollution events.

There is also concern that if farmers cannot export beef and lamb, a backlog of livestock on farms could cause liquid manure stores to overflow – something not likely to be a problem with sheep, but an issue that could give rise to some local problems for cattle rearers.

However, the intra-Union movement of waste is not currently governed by "export licenses" as such, but by a system of notifications and consents. Mostly, those that are in place when we leave the EU will lapse, as EU waste law will no longer apply to the UK as a third country.

That itself, though, does not necessarily prohibit the export of waste to EU Member States. But a different system will apply, which requires a more complex bureaucracy, the involvement of customs controls and certain financial guarantees. Obviously, it will take time to set up new systems. Until then, waste movements will be prohibited, raising significant and very real problems, especially in Northern Ireland.

Although this is now news to the Guardian, it is worth pointing out that the issue was raised in an EU Commission Notice to Stakeholders, published on 8 November 2018. It has taken the newspaper all this time to notice something that has been in the public domain for nearly a quarter of a year - then only noticing because it has been "leaked" from UK sources. Once again, we see the best way of keeping a secret is for the Commission to publish material openly on its own website.

There is also another short-term issue here, to which the Guardian does not refer. Because of the imbalance of trade in goods with the EU, waste exports from the UK have had the beneficial effect of filling containers from the EU that would otherwise have been returned empty - thereby attracting return revenue and reducing overall shipping costs.

With this "trade" now effectively prohibited, one might see a significant hike in transport costs, as containers are increasingly only able to attract revenue on one leg of a return journey.

And if this is a real effect of a no-deal, there are doubtless others which will exert noticeable short-term effects. According to The Times the civil service itself thinks that a no-deal Brexit "could quickly overwhelm Whitehall", forcing the government to go on emergency round-the-clock footing for months after Brexit day.

Immediate priorities, we are told, will be "welfare, health, transport and security of UK citizens at home and abroad, and the economic stability of the UK". And even as regards the Department for Transport, the scale of the operation is "potentially enormous".

A 37-page guide to the working of the transport operations centre states that, if there is no deal, "the impacts could be felt [and] could fall across every transport mode [and possibly each sector within wider government], and could grow exponentially as … the capabilities of responders at all levels decrease or become overwhelmed".

Particularly, the government is worried about consequences they cannot foresee, its guide stating: "Critically, it has to be understood that … there will be issues of unanticipated impacts that arise, or impacts which had not been fully understood".

That is a fair enough comment, especially as so much depends on the actions of EU Member States, in the context where many of them are either unprepared or uncertain of what is required of them – or both. In the absence of certainty, there is a limit to how much planning can be done. Much will have to be left to ad hoc responses on the day.

Yet, even if the immediate effects of a no-deal Brexit might be overstated, the most obvious thing for any export industries might be to plan time out in the period immediately after 29 March, until the situation becomes more certain. But for some, the period before Brexit is also hedged with uncertainty.

Ships bound for the Far East, for instance, take six weeks to arrive. Prior to Brexit, goods loaded will be processed with regards to EU agreements with the destination countries but, by the time they arrive, we might be out of the EU and the agreements may no longer apply. Shippers might be faced with unexpected restrictions, while importers might be confronted with demands for tariff or other tax payments.

This might be an additional reason why export orders are stagnant, in which case we might see the position deteriorate in the run-up to Brexit.

Most of all, therefore, businesses need certainty. We are entering a limbo period where any long-term planning is becoming near impossible, and the focus is entirely on short-term needs and survival strategies. That in itself will have a significant cost.

Even a delay in Brexit now will just prolong the agony, to the extent that, if it is to happen, we are best getting a no-deal over and done with. And if a deal is delayed to the last minute, it will be of little short-term help. Firms are already entering the window where they have to assume the worst. Much of the damage has already been done and all that can be done is to survey the wreckage.



Richard North 02/02/2019 link

Brexit: beyond tedium

31/01/2019  


As the torrent of drivel pours forth, the UK media sets for itself a new low in its reporting of Brexit, presenting as it is doing the prime minister in confrontation with the EU over the supposed negotiations, treating this as if it was a real event.

As it stands, the Article 50 negotiations finished on 25 November with the publication of the Withdrawal Agreement, which was subsequently endorsed by the December European Council. Barring a political earthquake of extinction-level proportions, that effectively ended the matter, and marked the start of the ratification process.

Time after time since, various EU officials have made it abundantly clear that the negotiations are over and that there will be no renegotiation. On the table is the withdrawal agreement (the political declaration doesn't need ratification) and the necessary consequence of the failure of any of the parties to ratify is that we automatically leave the EU without a deal.

There is absolutely no point, therefore, of the media trying to cast this as a battle between a "plucky" Mrs May and a recalcitrant EU which is wickedly refusing to restart the negotiations. The negotiations have ended – what part of "ended" doesn't the media understand?

Of course, they are only one part of the nexus of insanity, with the primary driver in this current episode of the ongoing Brexit soap opera is Sir Graham Brady and his fatuous amendment on Tuesday, which induced 317 moronic MPs to vote for the Northern Ireland backstop "to be replaced with alternative arrangements" which, to this date haven't been specified and most likely never will be.

One can entirely understand the political imperatives that drove Mrs May to back this amendment. When you are surrounded by idiots, there is a real limit to the things one can do in order to deal with them.

That said, there is no excuse at all for the media to go along with the fiction that there are going to be any meaningful (or any) renegotiations. And it is totally absurd for any media organ to project a sense of shock or outrage at the EU's response. After all, when Sabine Weyand recently reminded us that there was "no negotiation between the EU and the UK", she almost apologetically had to add: "I'm not giving you any news here".

Latterly, we have an account of how Oliver Robbins, the prime minister's chief Brexit negotiator, warned against backing the Brady amendment, on the basis that the EU would be unwilling to reopen negotiations. If any confirmation was needed, there we have the indications that Mrs May knew full well that her ploy was not going to succeed.

There is thus no excuse for the likes of the Mail to wax indignant about the EU response, claiming that Jean-Claude Juncker is playing "hardball" simply because he reminds us that, when we leave the EU, the Irish border becomes the external border to the European Union. This is purely a statement of fact. And bluntly, the Brookes cartoon in The Times (pictured) is just playing to the gallery at the lowest possible level.

For the rest, there is just blather, with the BBC's Nick Robinson tweeting that the EU and Ireland "seem to be playing hardball in belief that Commons will stop no deal Brexit & a cross party coalition for a customs union would be a better bet than a Tory party deal to ditch the backstop &/or go for a managed no deal". That man seems to have a record-breaking capacity for packing more inanities into a tweet than the inventors of Twitter would have thought humanly possible.

At the heart of the media inadequacy, of course, are the two core approaches which dominate political reporting: the obsession with personalities and the insistence on framing stories in an adversarial context. With a scant regard for accuracy, the media is further handicapped by its profound ignorance of how the EU functions, creating an almost perfect storm of irrelevance in its broader coverage of Brexit.

Already preordained is the next instalment of the soap opera, set for the days before Valentine's Day when, on 13 February, Mrs May will have returned from Brussels – presumably empty-handed – to lead yet another interminable and unilluminating debate, with a vote the following day. It may be a day early, but some hacks could not resist allusions to a Valentine's Day massacre.

Until then, the tedium will continue, with little chance of it abating. But, if Mrs May takes the risk, and resubmits an unchanged Withdrawal Agreement to the House, we can expect this to mark our irrevocable descent towards a no-deal Brexit.

More correctly, I suppose it will be a Valentine's Day Eve massacre, the day when all hope of a negotiated departure evaporated. And at that point, the media can then go to town on disaster predictions, vying with each other for the most lurid or outlandish consequences.

By the time we actually reach 29 March, the nation will have been driven into such a state of catatonic boredom that television hacks will be reduced to interviewing each other, with their audience numbers not exceeding the number of staff they can pack into their newsrooms. The rest of the nation will be playing Candy Crush or some such, as the more attractive option. Brexit day may pass without anyone noticing.

Of course, we could (and most probably will) see attempts at prolonging the agony. There may be a push to reactivate the flagging prospects for another referendum, there may be attempts to delay Brexit (which could succeed, if only because the "colleagues" want more time), and a last stand on revoking the Article 50 notification.

Assuming all these endeavours come to nought, we enter a new phase in our history, celebrated by massive traffic jams or perhaps not. For a variety of unpredictable reasons, Brexit day could truly be a non-event. The true damage of a no-deal may take some time to materialise.

There is even an outside possibility that Mr Corbyn, with his new-found enthusiasm for talking to his own prime minister, rather than sundry terrorists, may convince parliament to embrace his latest idea of a "comprehensive customs union" – whatever that might be, bringing to life Nick Robinson's speculation.

So far, though, exchanges with the prime minister on this have not been productive – although in another sense they have proved to be highly illuminating. We see, for instance, Mrs May challenging the leader of the opposition in the House, demanding to know whether a customs union means accepting the common commercial policy, accepting the common external tariffs, accepting the Union customs code and accepting the EU’s state aid rules.

We could take it from this that the prime minister believes that the customs union does involve all that, which is especially interesting. The EU's customs union is defined by Articles 30-32 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the EU, whereas the State Aid provisions are set out in Articles 107-109 – completely different parts of the treaty, with no direct relations between them.

Interestingly, the legal base of the State Aid Regulation is Article 109 and, on inspection, it is "EEA Relevant". That makes the rules part of the Single Market acquis, rather than part of the customs union. From the context of his comments, though, and his references to protecting jobs and industries, maintaining living standards, and delivering "frictionless and seamless trade with the European Union", it would seem that Mr Corbyn has more in mind the Single Market than a customs union. 

From either side of the House, therefore, there is a perilously fragile understanding of the basics of EU treaty law. It is unsurprising that our politicians fare so badly in Brussels.

Putting it all to bed is Michel Barnier, who in the European Parliament explicitly accused Mrs May of bad faith, declaring that, even before the votes in the Westminster parliament, "she distanced herself from the agreement she herself negotiated and on which we agreed".

"The British government", he said, "subsequently gave the government's explicit support to the amendment made by Sir Graham Brady, which requests that the backstop, which is foreseen in the Protocol on Ireland, is replaced by alternative arrangements, which have never actually been defined". At the same time, he complained, "the House of Commons, rejected the no-deal scenario, without, however, specifying how to avoid such a scenario".

Adding his voice to the throng, he stated that, "The backstop is part and parcel of the Withdrawal Agreement and it will not be renegotiated. The December European Council conclusions - which are fully in line with the recent resolutions by the European Parliament - do not leave any room for doubt on this point".

And there is no room for doubt on that other matter, about which M. Barnier would be far too polite to comment. The media, in all its forms, is part of the problem.



Richard North 31/01/2019 link

Brexit: planning to fail?

30/01/2019  


Of the seven amendments selected by the speaker yesterday, only two were agreed by the House of Commons, to add to a "neutral" motion put by the government in the debate on exiting the European Union.

The first was the so-called Spelman amendment, a non-binding aspiration which sought to convey the House's antipathy to a no-deal Brexit. It gained 318 votes, against 310 opposed - reflecting the tribal vote. The second, tabled by Sir Graham Brady and supported by the government, required the backstop to be replaced. It got 317 votes, with 301 against. The two together produced a composite motion, the substantive part of which read:
This House … rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship, and requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border; supports leaving the European Union with a deal and would therefore support the Withdrawal Agreement subject to this change.
Interestingly, parliament pulled back from a full-blown constitutional tussle that it wasn't going to win, rejecting the Cooper amendment. This aimed to make time for a private member's bill that would have had Mrs May seeking to extend the Article 50 negotiating time to the end of 2019, if there was no deal by late February. It was defeated by 321 votes to 298.

The MPs also dumped a similar amendment fronted by Labour's Rachel Reeves, which would also have required the prime minister to seek an extension to the Article 50 period if there was no deal in place by 26 February. That one lost by 322 votes to 290.

To add to that, the Dominic Grieve amendment went down, 321 votes to 301, removing the chance of introducing a complicated procedural device which supposedly would have given MPs greater control over parliamentary business.

Faced with just two successful amendments, therefore (one of which she supported), Mrs May used a point of order to respond, noting that, a fortnight ago, the House had "clearly rejected the proposed withdrawal agreement and political declaration, with just 202 Members voting in favour".

Now, she said, the majority of MPs had said that they "would support a deal with changes to the backstop" (plus some measures to address concerns over parliament's role in the negotiation of the future relationship and commitments on workers' rights in law). It was "now clear", she declared, "that there is a route that can secure a substantial and sustainable majority in this House for leaving the EU with a deal".

For Mrs May, this was a "mandate" which she could take to Brussels "and seek to obtain legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement that deal with concerns on the backstop while guaranteeing no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland".

Nevertheless, she said, there was "limited appetite" for such a change in the EU. Negotiating it would not be easy. But, in contrast to a fortnight ago, the House had made it clear what it wanted, while also reconfirming that it did not want to leave the EU without a deal.

However, simply opposing a no-deal was not enough to stop it, Mrs May added. The government would now "redouble their efforts" to get a deal that the House could support.

Scarcely had the prime minister spoken, though, when Donald Tusk's spokesperson was in action with a rapidly crafted statement that declared:
The Withdrawal Agreement is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. The backstop is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for re-negotiation. The December European Council conclusions are very clear on this point.
This could hardly have come as a surprise. It has been the EU's consistent position forever. And, with 27 Member States having held together long enough to agree it, they were not going to re-open the book, with the risk of the discord that that might bring.

And just to prove the point, the Irish government responded with alacrity to the votes and Mrs May's response to it, reiterating that the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, was not open for renegotiation. The EU position, it said, "has not changed", playing back Mrs May's own words: the best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal was to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement.

The thing is that there is no way that Mrs May cannot have known this. She can be under no illusions about the chances of success of her mission to Brussels. The "colleagues" are prepared to talk round the margins of the political declaration, if she can change some of her red lines, and they are prepared even to look at a request for an extension of Article 50.

Tusk's statement actually says that the EU-27: "Would stand ready to consider it", with the rider that they would "decide by unanimity" – making it clear that we should not expect a done deal. The EU27 will adopt this decision, "taking into account the reasons for and duration of a possible extension, as well as the need to ensure the functioning of the EU institutions", he adds.

Perhaps giving a clue as to why a time extension might be entertained, Tusk went on to say that: "We will continue our preparations for all outcomes, including a no-deal scenario". Clearly, many of the Member States are not ready for a "sudden death" no-deal, and even three months or so – which would not interfere with the European Parliament's plans – would help enormously.

But, when all is said and done, "the EU's process of ratification of the agreement reached with the UK Government" will continue. The Withdrawal Agreement is untouchable, and Mrs May knows it. And that leaves us with a conundrum: what does Mrs May think she is doing?

The Telegraph headlines that Mrs May: "wins backing from MPs to renegotiate backstop" and likes to think that she is set for a showdown with the EU. But, in her dealings with parliament, she has often proved to be quite canny. Her "play" is unlikely to be that crude.

Rather, it looks as if the prime minister is playing a passive submissive game. Her ratification motion has been rejected, so she has quite deliberately gone back to parliament for instructions. With her marching orders in her pocket, she will now obediently toddle off to Brussels, where she will receive a polite but firm rejection to her request to renegotiate the backstop.

She has absolutely nothing to lose by doing this. She will be following in the wake of Canute when he commanded the tide to retreat, to demonstrate to his courtiers the limits of power. Mrs May will return calmly to parliament and tell MPs how sorry she is. "I tried my best", she will say, "but the man from the European Council, he say 'no'".

She might be able to sugar the pill with a few cosmetic changes to the political declaration, but her basic message to parliament will be: "over to you". The same choice then awaits them: the Withdrawal Agreement or a no-deal. But it will be parliament that makes the decision. She is but the obedient servant, doing her best to execute parliament's will.

Confronted with an increasingly irritated public, who have been watching with mounting despair the games being played in Westminster, this will be when the cracks start to appear. More than a few MPs are worried about the prospect of deselection, and even the bubble walls are not thick enough to shield them entirely from the contempt that is coming their way.

Even as the clock ticks down to oblivion, Mrs May can afford to bide her time. There will still be a few delusional MPs – like Alexander (aka Boris) Johnson – who believe that the EU will cave in, but my guess is that the majority are beginning to see the writing on the wall.

If some want to hold out, they can then vie for blame with the EU as to who is responsible for the no-deal disaster. Mrs May, however, can float serenely above the fray. Planning to fail may be her only way of succeeding – bringing enough MPs together to stave off the disaster, living to fight another day.

Meanwhile, Mrs May has even got Jeremy Corbyn to talk to her. Having previously boycotted cross-party talks, he says that he is ready to discuss a "sensible Brexit solution that works for the whole country". You take your victories where you can get them.



Richard North 30/01/2019 link

Brexit: we need to be honest

22/01/2019  


"There is widespread concern", said Mrs May in her Commons statement yesterday, "about the possibility of the UK's leaving without a deal".

She then noted that, "there are those on both sides of the House who want the Government to rule that out", but this was not for the prime minister. "We need to be honest with the British people about what that means", she said. "The right way to rule out no deal is for the House to approve a deal with the European Union, and that is what the Government are seeking to achieve. The only other guaranteed way to avoid a no-deal Brexit is to revoke article 50, which would mean staying in the EU".

Moving on, she addressed the other factions in the House. For those who wanted to extend the Article 50 period, she observed that this was "not ruling out no deal, but simply deferring the point of decision". Furthermore, she said, "the EU is very unlikely simply to agree to extend article 50 without a plan for how we are going to approve a deal".

Thus, she observed, "when people say, 'rule out no deal', what they are actually saying is that, if we in Parliament cannot approve a deal, we should revoke Article 50". But, if that was the consequences of what they were saying, Mrs May was opposed to it. "That would go against the referendum result", she declared, "and I do not believe that that is a course of action that we should take or one that the House should support".

Nor did she believe there was a majority for a second referendum, which meant that those MPs who thought that this was the answer would have to "think again about their approach".

The plan, then, was to talk to colleagues, including in the DUP, to consider how we might meet our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland in a way that can command the greatest possible support in the House. She would then "take the conclusions of those discussion back to the EU" in the hope of getting concessions.

Whatever she does get, the EU has already indicated that it will be slight. This will leave us with the vote on 29 January. And when the more egregious MPs have finished playing their games, we will be in exactly the same position that we were last December. Either the House approves the Withdrawal Agreement or the result will be a no-deal Brexit. And if the House chooses the latter, by design or default, then Mrs May is right about one thing: "We need to be honest with the British people about what that means".

Much of how we fare in the event of a no-deal depends, of course, on the degree to which our closest neighbours – and especially France – are prepared to deal with the cliff edge. And, to date, there has been a perverse tendency by the "ultras" and their allies - aided by the lamentable inadequacies of the UK media – to pretend that preparations are far more advanced than they actually are.

This came to a head nearly two weeks ago when the BBC Today programme interviewed Jean-Marc Puissesseau, a local politician who currently occupies the political post of President of the ports of Boulogne-Calais. His unguarded and largely misleading comments were seized upon as proof positive that concerns about major congestion at Calais were "scaremongering". MP Bernard Jenkin even claimed that the interview, "completely spikes the fear campaign about WTO Brexit causing queues at Dover".

Particularly relevant were assertions that a single veterinary and sanitary inspection point would be developed off-site, at a place called La Zone Turquerie, so as to avoid congestion. Puissesseau claimed that the port authorities had "already been building infrastructure and parking", so that operations, "will not influence the traffic in Dover".

Like similar lies that have spread halfway round the world before the truth had even laced up its boots, this one has had a fair degree of mileage. But, even a week ago, the claims were looking shaky, albeit only to the readers of this blog, despite even more misleading claims, this time from Telegraph hack James Rothwell. He claimed of the Turquerie site, that "diggers are laying the groundwork for a warehouse complex for inspectors and a lorry park", citing Jean-Paul Mulot, a spokesman for the president of the Hauts-de-France region, who said he was "confident the new complex would be ready within 11 weeks".

In addition to my work, however, further crumbling at the edges of this claim came from an unlikely source, the French edition of Euractiv. Referring to the "additional controls" needed at Calais because of the UK's exit from the single Market, it also cited Jean-Paul Mulot. But this time, Mulot spoke only of having "taken out options" to buy land and modular structures for the Tunnel and Calais port, "because we do not yet know the outcome of the problem".

The article then had a familiar figure chip in, none other than Jean-Marc Puissesseau who gaily declared that there was an inspection facility under construction in Calais, "on the grounds of the port".

That, of course, was not what he was saying earlier, but it reflects the confusion over siting, where local politicians seems to have been under the mistaken impression that remote siting of border inspection posts was permissible, until disabused by Ms Céline Gauer, Deputy Secretary General of the European Commission.

But we now have Pierre-Henri Dumont, an MP for the Calais region, who in a debate in the National Assembly last Wednesday spoke bitterly of "procrastination" by central government. He claimed that the minister responsible, Nathalie Loiseau, Minister for European Affairs, did not know how many veterinarians would be needed. And the number of customs officers assigned to controls was "vastly inadequate compared to that of our European neighbours".

As to the infrastructure – the buildings needed to house all these new officials – he emphatically declared that they would not be ready on time. Emergency provision, based on "modular construction", would be needed, if there were to be any facilities at all.

Dumont then quoted Jacques Gounon, president and CEO of Getlink (Eurotunnel). Last week, the CEO had complained that Paris was "in the dark" and had made no serious preparations for Brexit. The state did not know exactly what they would need and, as long as customs and veterinary services had not clarified their requirements in terms of space and infrastructure, "Eurotunnel could not file a building permit".

Initially, Dumont claimed, there had been two options prepared, a single inspection point serving both the tunnel and the port, and two sites with two separate entrances. Yet, in six months of meetings and round tables, Paris had not been able to give a simple answer as to which option to progress.

Repeating his complaint in a recent tweet, Dumont asked bitterly of the central government, "How do you expect port operators to build infrastructure when you are unable to tell them what you want and do not know the number of customs and veterinary checks?"

This is such a very different picture from what has been presented to us in England that it is scarcely possible to believe that the British media have been talking about the same issue – until yesterday that is, when the Guardian finally sent a reporter with a lorry driver over to Calais, bringing back a photograph (above), said to be of the planned border inspection post. As can be seen, work has yet to be started.

As it stands, though, the decisions as to where even to site the facilities have yet to be made, and it will then be for the operators to finance the new facilities. But, so critical has the finance issue become that mayor Natacha Bouchart has asked prime minister Édouard Philippe for a special "Brexit intervention fund".

The prime minister was in Calais and Coquelles last Friday, together with Gérald Darmanin and Nathalie Loiseau, when Bouchart spoke of the creation of two temporary centres, one at the port of Calais and the other at the Channel Tunnel in Coquelles – covering customs controls and veterinary services.

These would be "emergency measures" that would "sweep aside" - at least for the moment – the joint port/tunnel control project on a shared Turquerie site. But this being something of Bouchart's pet project, she could not resist pushing it in front of the visiting ministers: "The Turquerie area can play a role", she said.

However, while Bouchart wants the creation of "an economic development zone between the port and the tunnel", it looks as if she got short shrift from Paris. The prime minister confirmed that the state would pay €8.5 million for tourist projects, but there was no special Brexit money for Calais. There had to be equal treatment for all territories.

The effects of this will be only too obvious in the event of a no deal. With Puissesseau claiming that there would be no congestion because of the central site, it follows that temporary facilities, cobbled together in modular buildings, will hardly be the most efficient way of handling the necessary checks. Congestion must be regarded as inevitable.

Perhaps it is just as well that the papers are squealing about a drop in traffic as much as 87 percent – something noted by Sky News even though it had been pointed out by the Financial Times on 31 December and we wrote it up on the blog on 2 January.

Still, give it a few more weeks and the legacy media in general might just begin to notice that things are not quite right at Calais (having ignored the Guardian report), no doubt led by Sky News's Faisal Islam who can parade his clever discoveries, to show us how wonderful he is. But, if you want the details earlier and better - without the drama queens - just read this blog.



Richard North 22/01/2019 link

Brexit: a black hole at the heart of government

21/01/2019  


"MPs are in a dark room, looking for a black cat, that isn’t there", writes Matthew d'Ancona in a piece that starts well but tails off badly as he concludes by asking, "if there is any way of breaking this impasse that doesn't involve a fresh referendum, will somebody please tell me what it is?"

There is, of course, a way out. That is for parliament to take the decision it insisted it was its to make – the "meaningful" decision as to whether to accept the withdrawal agreement. And if it decides not to – which it has done so far – then it needs to "own" that decision and accept that the only rational alternative is a no-deal Brexit, with all that that entails.

Instead, like the bunch of wimps they are, they want it both ways. They don't want to take responsibility for making the decision which will take us out of the EU on extremely unfavourable terms, yet they can't bring themselves to accept that the consequences of not so doing will be extremely dangerous for the nation, expensive and politically disruptive.

So, unable to make a firm decision either way, they hide behind the procedural step of last week's vote – one which registers its opposition to Mrs May's plan, but stops short of the "killer step" that would remove the prime minister from office, and thereby bed in their decision and make it stick.

Instead, by allowing Mrs May to remain in place, they leave her to do what she must do, to present the same plan over and over again – like parents re-presenting a recalcitrant child with its uneaten food at successive mealtimes – until the MPs either cave in, or we run out of time and take the default option. Then we end up with the "accidental" no-deal exit, an option that no one decided to adopt, for which no one will take the blame.

In the meantime, we have a group of dissimulating morons under the flag of the ERG which, against all the odds, continues to insist that the no-deal scenario is an acceptable – and even beneficial – option which we can embrace without fear, lying through their teeth at every opportunity, with a bizarre perversion of the truth which is as close to arguing that black is white as makes no difference.

If the mood takes you otherwise, you can have the Dominic Grieve tendency, those MPs who are trying to intervene directly in the Article 50 process, variously wanting to extend the Article 50 period or to revoke the Article 50 notification. They are so overwhelmed with admiration of their own brilliance, that they have forgotten everything they ever knew about constitutional law and are playing games at our expense.

Grieve's particular plan is so convoluted as to invite ridicule before it even gets off the ground. But, at its heart, it apparently seeks to deny that, except under very rare circumstances that came to a head with the invocation of Article 50, the negotiation of treaties and the matters pertaining thereto, are the exercise of Crown prerogative.

Short of a Supreme Court Ruling, there is nothing Parliament can do to force the Executive to exercise its powers defined by Crown prerogative. The very definition of Crown prerogative is that the power exercised is beyond the writ of Parliament. The prime minister does not need its consent.

Grieve may be deliberately pushing at the margins with a view to triggering a constitutional crisis. But the only sensible response from Mrs May is to tell him what to do with his presumption. Parliament is encroaching on the sovereignty of the Crown. Does he think this is a democracy? Does he even think that his institution represents a democracy? He needs to be told.

Then, as far as instructing Mrs May to seek an extension to the Article 50 period goes, there is the added proviso that any extension requires unanimous approval of the EU-27. Thus Grieve is seeking to use Parliament to do the equivalent of demanding that King Canute turns back the tide. And we know how well that worked.

But the central premise is that negotiating treaties is a matter for the Crown. Parliament gets its look-in when it comes to ratification. In this case, we have the irony in that Parliament has failed to ratify the withdrawal agreement so a group of self-appointed MPs are now seeking to interfere with affairs which rightly belong to the Crown.

As part of this, or alongside, we have that bundle of deluded ones who want to extend the negotiating period to that they can introduce their bastardised version of the "Norway option" – which has since become the better-described Efta/EEA option, to those people who have the faintest idea of what they are talking about.

Clearly, this doesn't apply to the cretins' appreciation society, who have rung through the changes of "Norway then Canada", through to "Norway plus" and finally "Common Market 02". Their "cunning plans" have in common that they are based on the false surmise that joining or staying with the EEA is a quick fix that can easily be accomplished.

In their parallel universe, the EEA Agreement can be shoehorned into place, alongside a completely unnecessary customs union, to provide us with a magic token that will see off the dreaded "backstop" and pave the way for our journey to the sunlit uplands.

For those for whom mere dishonesty is not enough, there are always the second chancers to go for, those who, in the style of the Communists' peoples' democratic republics, believe they can engineer their own "peoples' vote", classically replacing the electorate to give a "better" answer than the one they've already got.

This thinly disguised "continuity remain", fronted by the very people who lost the 2016 referendum campaign, adding their own incompetence to the list of things which deprived them of their victory, believe they can exploit the failure of parliament to justify overturning the referendum result, with yet another referendum.

This group, of course, also wants a delay in the Article 50 process, to give time to hold a referendum which – the government says – could take a year to organise.

Neglecting the Labour Party, which is firmly entrenched in its own private parallel universe, all that is left from the motley crew which inhabits the decaying gothic monstrosity by the Thames is Mrs May's payroll vote. But even this might find it hard to support her latest wheeze – a bilateral treaty with the Irish which cuts out the "backstop" from the withdrawal agreement, thereby detoxifying it so all the little lambkin MPs can rush to the next division and vote in favour.

Never mind that the idea of a bilateral deal with Ireland harps back to the very first days when May thought she could by-pass the Commission and talk directly with Member States. She was told then, in no uncertain terms, that this wasn't going to happen. So here she is, attempting to repeat exactly that which she has been told on multiple occasions that the EU is not prepared to do. The woman is the very embodiment of Proverbs 26:11.

Nevertheless, this seems to have captured Jacob Rees-Mogg in its fantasy allure. He is now suggesting (or so we are told) that he will back the deal if the backstop is removed. However, more than 50 other Tory MPs have signed public pledges on the "Stand Up 4 Brexit" website promising to reject Mrs May's deal on other grounds.

And that has another Guardian hack spring to his word processor in defence of his salary. This is Andrew Rawnsley who, in the hope of gathering some intelligence about how the captain of the Brexit ghost ship intends to navigate her way out of this hell, turned to a "senior and clever Tory who is a close shipmate of the prime minister".

The brave hack having thus asked him: "How will it end?", got the sagacious reply: "I haven't got a fucking clue". But actually we have got a "fucking clue". We're headed for the cop-out option, the no-deal, because we have a black hole at the heart of government. We're so far past the event horizon that Parliament has given up any attempts to drag it out of the gravity well, filling in time by playing games around the edges.

This is styled as parliament "taking over control" of the Brexit process, but that can only be true if it takes in the concept of watching Brexit being pulled into the oblivion of a no-deal. All that is left for us, the mere plebs to do, is watch in awe as the process of government disintegrates. And, for that, we get ringside seats.



Richard North 21/01/2019 link

Brexit: the ayes to the right

16/01/2019  


Possibly, the only surprise about last night's vote was the scale of the defeat. With the noes taking 432 as against the ayes who garnered a mere 202, that put the prime minister 230 votes behind. Some of the smart money reckoned on her losing by less than a hundred.

Wasting no time at all, though, Mrs May quickly pitched in to set out her government's position. "The House has spoken and the Government will listen", she declared, adding with delicious understatement: "It is clear that the House does not support this deal".

The next points she made, though, were of considerable relevance to the ongoing debate. "Tonight's vote", she said, "tells us nothing about what it [the House] does support; nothing about how, or even if, it intends to honour the decision the British people took in a referendum that Parliament decided to hold".

And now we go into a predictable regime, starting with a motion of no confidence that Mr Corbyn has obligingly tabled at the invitation of the prime minister. Thus, we can have the next instalment of the soap opera today, from which Mrs May is expected to emerge unscathed, putting the general election genie back in the bottle.

For a follow-up, the prime minister will hold meetings with her colleagues, the DUP and then "senior parliamentarians from across the House to identify what would be required to secure the backing of the House". A "constructive spirit" will prevail but Mrs May is in no mood for playing games. Given "the urgent need to make progress", she is only prepared to entertain ideas "that are genuinely negotiable and have sufficient support in this House".

What precisely those might be were not stated, but if the meetings yield such ideas, we are led to expect that the Government "will then explore them with the European Union".

Before yielding the floor, Mrs May concluded by offering two reassurances. First, she was not playing for time, attempting to "run down the clock" in order to end up with a no-deal. Secondly, addressing "the British people who voted to leave the European Union in the referendum two and a half years ago", she expressed her belief that it was her "duty to deliver on their instruction". That, she intended to do.

In terms of her demeanour, the prime minister did not come across as defeated. If she was "humiliated", as some would have it, she didn't show it. If anything, she seemed more determined and uncompromising than she had been before the vote.

"Every day that passes without this issue being resolved", she said, "means more uncertainty, more bitterness and more rancour", before concluding with a call to Members on all sides of the House "to listen to the British people who want this issue settled, and to work with the Government to do just that".

Nevertheless, she got little sustenance from Donald Tusk who, in an off-the-cuff tweet, asked: "If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?"

But the more considered response came in a formal statement from Commission president Juncker, who took note "with regret" of the outcome of the vote, while stating that, "on the EU side, the process of ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement continues".

The Agreement, he said, was "a fair compromise and the best possible deal". The European Commission and Michel Barnier had "invested enormous time and effort" to negotiate it, and he, together with president Tusk, had "demonstrated goodwill again by offering additional clarifications and reassurances in an exchange of letters with Prime Minister".

Juncker concluded by saying that the risk of a disorderly withdrawal had increased with the vote. "While we do not want this to happen", he said, "the European Commission will continue its contingency work to help ensure the EU is fully prepared". And, with that, he urged the UK "to clarify its intentions as soon as possible".

It would not be possible to read into that any suggestion that the EU is prepared to consider further negotiations. But that does not stop The Times telling us that "it is understood" that EU governments are ready to reopen "all dossiers" of the Brexit deal.

The newspaper also reports that, while Mr Juncker has flown back to Brussels from Strasbourg to be ready for "emergency" talks, Mrs May is expected to travel to Brussels "within 48 hours" for fresh negotiations to save her draft withdrawal agreement.

UK media expectations appear to be centred on an extension of the Article 50 time period, with the Guardian having "EU officials" predicting that the first step will be for MPs to tell May to request an extension of the two-year negotiating period. This will remove the cliff edge of 29 March and set off a debate among the other 27 Member States on the terms of a prolongation.

Yet, there was no hint of that from Mrs May in her addresses to the House yesterday. In closing the debate before the vote, she had unequivocally ruled out any of the options being touted, leaving us only with the deal that she was proposing. Her belief was that, with this, "we can lay the foundations on which to build a better Britain".

Concluding that speech, Mrs May spoke of "the test that history has set for us today", telling MPs: "we each have a solemn responsibility to deliver Brexit and take this country forward", calling on the House "to charge that responsibility together".

From now on, though, media noise will build to a crescendo and the sense of what Mrs May was saying will be lost. But there doesn't have to be any great perspicacity to realise what she is doing. If she is out of her depth with EU politics, she has proved herself adept at defensive manoeuvres on the domestic stage, and here she is quite clearly transferring blame for failure onto the MPs.

In this, she can probably rely on there being far more support in the country at large for her as a person than there is for the braying rabble that constitutes the House of Commons. And if there is a single theme unifying the country, it is the desire to see Brexit over and done with. Deftly, Mrs May has put MPs in the frame. She can now afford to stand back and let them take the heat.

As to the "colleagues", it is instructive to see Mr Juncker's comments on the "disorderly withdrawal" and his emphasis on not wanting it to happen. Despite the claims of French local politicians, and others, continental countries are far less prepared for Brexit than they would have us believe.

My firm impression is that there has been a strong element of complacency. EU Member State governments (with the notable exception of Ireland) have been working on the premise that the Withdrawal Agreement will go through, buying them time to prepare their border controls and to make other arrangements. As a result, they are nowhere near ready for a no-deal Brexit on 29 March.

On that basis, some of the front line Member States could actually welcome an Article 50 extension and the delay it brings – without necessarily wanting to see any other outcome from it. Six months to a year extra could transform their situations.

At first sight, it might then seem counter-intuitive for Mrs May not to seek an extension. But she could gain a certain amount of leverage by refraining from making a request, forcing the Member States to take the initiative. This could enable her to extract just enough concessions to make the next vote in the Commons a more winnable proposition.

Without putting too fine a point on it, though, there seems to be very little that Mrs May can do to make the Withdrawal Agreement more palatable to its critics. Her best bet, therefore, might be to tough it out, and dare MPs to tip us over the cliff edge.

For sure, she can make the maximum use of the theatrical opportunities afforded by her jetting off to Brussels for "emergency" talks, complete with the long-expected drama of her returning with a "piece of paper" in her hand spelling out new concessions. Corny and transparent though this might be, it could be the face-saver that the Labour Party needs. With that, it could back the "new" deal against recalcitrant ERG "ultras".

And if that much is speculation, it is no more or less so than the torrent of self-aggrandising clatter filling the legacy media. No one in all honesty can begin to predict where and how this is all going to end.

But, in a perverse way, it can only end well for Mrs May. If she gets her deal, it is a famous victory. If she fails, she will go down in history as having tried her very best against insuperable odds, only to be blocked by an irrational parliament determined to force us into penury.

That, by most normal measures, is a win-win. Would that they knew it, it is the MPs who are on the rack.



Richard North 16/01/2019 link

Brexit: the net closes

09/01/2019  


If there is anything useful to take from the government defeat on the amendment in parliament yesterday, it is that the majority of MPs seem opposed to a no-deal.

If that meant that they were prepared to support Mrs May's deal, the prime minister's troubles would be over. But that isn't the way it's going to work. In the perverse dynamics of Brexit, majorities can only be found to oppose things.

And for all that, there surely cannot be any MPs who seriously believe that their actions are going to stop the UK drifting into a no-deal scenario, especially as the amendment will have very little material effect. However, clearly, some MPs believe it will, apparently unaware that no-deal is the default outcome in the event of the withdrawal agreement not being approved.

But while the MPs have been playing their fatuous little games, others are making their own judgements, not least the French government which now seems to be firming up on its views about UK intentions.

The trail leads back to a memorandum dated 20 November published by the French Ministry of Agriculture. From this, it is apparent that the French government was already fully aware that Brexit permanently changed the trading relationship with the UK.

In particular, it noted that Brexit meant that sanitary and phytosanitary measures would have to be applied to animals, plants, animal products, plant products and other goods imported from the UK, in approved border control posts. As a result, it was embarking on a major staff recruitment programme to enable this to happen.

It had decided to create new border inspector jobs, with inspectors at Calais Port and Calais Eurotunnel, Caen-Ouistreham, Cherbourg and Roscoff. Where there were already established border control posts, the establishments were to be increased. This would apply to Dunkirk, Le Havre, Saint-Malo and Brest.

Different categories were involved, from heads of posts and their deputies, to veterinary and phytosanitary inspectors. The number of posts per category had not been precisely determined and was to depend on the nature of the controls to be implemented.

Although applications were invited before 14 December, the memorandum noted that the date of the re-establishment (sic) of the border controls was "not yet known" and would depend on the outcome of the ongoing negotiations.

As far as the Ministry was concerned, the starting dates could be either 30 March 2019 or 1 January 2022. But it nevertheless warned that the regional departments of Hauts-de-France, Normandie and Bretagne must prepare to recruit "emergency teams" at the border posts. As a result, it said, the new positions had to be filled as of 1 February 2019, giving time for mandatory training of two months, from 1 February to 30 March 2019.

Jobs are now being formally advertised, although the job descriptions (for example, head of post and inspector) seem to lack details of starting dates. However, a Facebook advertisement indicates that interviews are to be from 10-14 January. This seems a little late if the positions are to be filled by 1 February and, given that two months of training is "mandatory", it doesn't seem possible that the inspection service will be ready in time.

Nonetheless, this provides evidence of a formal commitment by the French government to staff border control posts, even if the lack of further information on staffing levels does not indicate the scale of that commitment. And crucially, we are to see border posts attached to Calais port and Eurotunnel.

A further mystery is the precise location and scale of the border control posts. What is not generally understood is that these facilities are provided and maintained by the private sector, which also manages the buildings for the officials who occupy them.

In Marseilles, for instance, the Syndicate of Freight Forwarders created a dedicated company called STM Entreprise to manage the Pif-Pec there. In Le Havre, the Union of Freight Forwarders and Commissionaires du Havre funded the existing inspection facilities (pictured), spending in 2007 nearly €3 million on a 10,000 square metre building, equipped with seven docking bays.

Utilisation, however, seems remarkably low, handling between ten and 100 consignments a day with 17 inspection staff (one of whom has some strange ideas about personal hygiene – see the link).

Even though the unit is earmarked for expansion, as of October last year the president of the Le Havre syndicate was still seeking clarification from Brussels on health certification and was mooting collaboration with other Normandy ports under the banner of Ports Normans Associés. Clearly, no decision had been made on what additional infrastructure was required.

There is, of course, still the possibility of furnishing temporary facilities, but those – if they can be found – will hardly be satisfactory. But, whether or not they are late or on time, the net is closing on UK food exports. The days of free movement of goods are coming to a close with a vengeance.

And nor are we going to be alone in seeing the effects. The European Livestock and Meat Trades Union (UECBV) has produced a report, suggesting that the magnitude of the shock of a hard Brexit would be significantly greater than that caused by the Russian food import ban in 2014.

Looking at the situation from the European perspective, it assumes that the UK will impose its own border controls and calculates that the additional burden of veterinary and health checks on animal products would increase costs at current trade levels for EU meat exporters by over €43 million per year.

Its concern is that the UK market is one of the highest value markets for EU meat, and the UK beef price is one of the highest in Europe, with the same largely holding true for pig meat and sheep meat prices.

A situation in which trade with the UK was severely restricted, it says, would therefore not only mean a massive loss in volume of trade for the EU-27, but also a loss in high value trade with a sophisticated consumer market. Its greatest fear is that trade in all meat products between the UK and the EU could be eliminated.

Here, of direct interest to the UK, it notes that every carcass, whether beef, pig or sheep, is butchered into an array of cuts, each with differing value. These are sold across multiple markets and market channels in order to match supply and demand and maximise the overall market revenue for the full carcass.

Meat trade therefore involves a carcass-balancing element. The UK, for example, imports and exports a similar quantity of lamb, but its imports are primarily leg while its exports are primarily carcass. Thus, trade is important for finding a market equilibrium, as it would be impossible for producers to extract value from cuts for which there is no domestic demand.

Interestingly, the report also draws attention to the UK as a land-bridge for trade within in the EU27 - the two-way flow of product between Ireland and the other 26 EU countries – which would become extremely problematic and, at a minimum, highly bureaucratic.

More than 90 percent of Irish meat exports to continental Europe flow via the land-bridge through the UK, due to the cost-effectiveness and speed of this transit route compared to, for example, the sea route direct to France. Transit using the land-bridge from Ireland to Calais takes an average of 10.5 hours, compared to 20 hours by sea to the port of Cherbourg in northern France, or at least 38 hours to the port of Zeebrugge in Belgium.

And in what seems a familiar lament, it states that "it is essential that preparations of ports begin ahead of time, in order to protect against a hard Brexit outcome". That, it might seem, is too late to make a difference, with the ports struggling to deal with the implications. All too soon, we will discover what these are, from direct experience.



Richard North 09/01/2019 link

Brexit: the wheels on the bus …

06/01/2019  


She's at it again, only this time writing for the Mail on Sunday. And there, our revered prime minister is telling us that this can be a year when the UK turns a corner. We can "draw on our enduring strengths to build a better future for our country". 

In every task we face, she says, from growing an economy that provides opportunity for everyone, and sustaining the first-class public services we all rely on, to keeping everyone in our country safe, "we can be inspired by those strengths".

This, of course, applies especially "to the most pressing matter facing us": Brexit. When MPs cast their vote on our withdrawal from the EU, Mrs May says, "they will determine the future course our country will take".

She refers to "a democratic process" that began when the Conservative Party won an overall majority in a General Election with a manifesto commitment to hold an in-or-out vote. It continued through a keenly fought referendum, and now, she says, it will culminate in the representatives of the people having their final say.

When they do so, the prime minister declares, MPs must ask themselves three things. For the first, is whether the deal she has negotiated delivers the result of the EU referendum by taking us out of the EU and restoring sovereign control over our borders, laws and money.

Secondly, they have to ask themselves whether it protects the jobs constituents rely on to put food on the table for their families and the security co-operation that keeps each one of us safe. Thirdly, she wants them to ask whether it provides "the certainty that citizens and businesses have every right to expect from those who govern and represent them".

Mrs May says she believes her deal does all of those things. The big problem, though is that, excluding her own circle of close supporters who would agree with her out of loyalty, she could be the only person in the country who does.

Certainly, the number of MPs who believe all three points to apply must be vanishingly small. Were she more candid, she might try asking MPs to support her deal, even despite it doing none of the things she claims for it. Should she do so, she will only be allowing them to plod down the same path she has taken.

After all, the real reason why Mrs May agreed the deal she has is because she has closed down the more agreeable options with her Lancaster House speech in January 2017. Now she has to take what she can get, because the alternatives are even worse. And if MPs are to vote for her deal, it is because the price of not doing so is a no-deal Brexit, the worst of all possible options bar re-joining the EU.

But if Mrs May is playing games, so are the MPs – except that there are many different groups with their own favoured variations. One group, according to The Sunday Times, wants to add amendments to the Finance Bill which will have the effect of "starving the government of cash" if it goes for a no-deal without the specific authorisation of parliament.

This is a group of select committee leaders, headed by Yvette Cooper, but it includes former Tory ministers Nicky Morgan, Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles. They plan to block Treasury powers that could be used for emergency interventions in the event of no-deal, "unless parliament has explicitly voted for no deal or unless the government has requested an extension of article 50".

There is then another group, backing an amendment tabled by the Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru. This would stop the Treasury raising any income tax or corporation tax unless parliament approved a Brexit deal.

Yet, with all these twists and turns, and others I can't even be bothered to detail, we'll be absolutely no further forward. All Mrs May has to do is something which, in the past, she has proved to be a past master in doing – kicking the can down the road. After less than three months, when we reach 29 March, the time runs out and we crash out of the EU automatically.

However, the prime minister doubtless has her own plans. Her team is drawing up plans to strengthen support for her deal by asking the ECJ to rule on whether the Northern Ireland backstop is "temporary". If she can get a form of words that makes it look as if it can be brought to an end, this many be enough to pull a winning majority into her camp, and get the withdrawal agreement approved.

Such is the noise level though that the situation remains as murky as ever. Trying to predict an outcome hasn't got any easier and there is nothing immediately on the horizon which suggests that we are moving towards a resolution.

The only clear strain that is emerging is the "ultra" determination to play down the consequences of a no-deal, with the likes of Peter Lilley re-issuing his propaganda in another pamphlet, this one headed 30 truths about leaving on WTO terms.

Lilley would have it that there will be no delays at the border, neither for imported goods nor for exports to EU Member States. And in the latter area he argues that France is actively determined to prevent delays at Calais for fear of losing trade to Belgian and Dutch ports.

We have, of course, seen all this before – not least in summary form in yesterday's Telegraph. But one has to give it to the man - he is nothing if not persistent in pursuing his line, repeating it to the point of tedium no matter how many times it is debunked.

With Mrs May's counter-propaganda yet to get into its swing, however, Lilley and his colleagues are getting a series of free hits, even if they are largely preaching to the converted. But in countering it, we are not helped by what the French themselves call a certain serenity about the consequences of Brexit.

There is some of the same make-believe that we are seeing in the UK, tied up in the belief that the UK will still need to import even after Brexit, so things will work out. The concern has been more about whether the Dutch and Belgians will capture some of the business currently going to France.

Gradually, though, the French media and politicians are getting the point. In a recent article in the French Three Regions press, we saw the headline "France lacks veterinarians to carry out border health checks at the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union".

This had been "revealed" by none other than Minister of Agriculture Didier Guillaume, who also gave some unwelcome information to the Brexit special commission of the National Assembly, chaired by the MP of Hauts-de-Seine Jean-Louis Bourlanges. "Today", he said, " 40 full-time equivalent positions are budgeted for 2019", then admitting that he did not think this was enough.

Furthermore, he said, "there is no infrastructure dedicated to the veterinary and phytosanitary inspection service at Calais, Dieppe, Caen-Ouistreham, Cherbourg, Saint Malo or Roscoff". The Minister also warned that the existing control infrastructures at Dunkirk, Le Havre and Brest would have to be expanded.

As to preparation, the Ministry was only conducting an "internal investigation" to " prepare " a Brexit scenario for these nine entry points, in the event of there being a no-deal. But the investigation had only covered an "assessment" of the temporary infrastructure that will need to be put in place by 30 March.

When asked to quantify the needs of the nine sites in the longer term, the Minister "remained evasive", telling "worried MPs" that in the Hauts-de-France region alone, there were three million lorries entering France from the UK, with 3.5 million overall - of which 100,000 would have to be checked. Yet, he said, "We are not sure how many resources will be needed, and I have no way of estimating how many".

The one thing he had worked out though was that controls took between 15 to 45 minutes per consignment. Work was underway with the three regions concerned, Hauts-de-France, Normandy and Brittany and with the managers of ports and the Channel Tunnel, to prepare the ground. But 80 percent of products of animal or vegetable origin shipped from the UK went through either Calais or Dunkirk. This was where the focus would be.

Once again, therefore, we are getting intimations of a serious lack of preparedness on the part of the French authorities, who have now left it so late that neither infrastructure nor personnel will be ready for a no-deal Brexit at the end of March.

Needless to say, this completely contradicts much of what the likes of Lilley has to say, but then if the noble Lord is on the case, who are these French persons to say any different? The only thing is that his little red bus is beginning to look a little ragged – and the wheels on the bus may not be going round.



Richard North 06/01/2019 link

Brexit: political variables

04/01/2019  


It took us very little time after the publication of the draft withdrawal agreement to decide that it was a very poor result and not one we would like to have seen adopted. It was almost so bad that even a no-deal Brexit looked preferable.

But, despite some prevarication, the key word was almost. What is being styled as Mrs May's deal has many undesirable features, but the potential consequences of leaving the EU without an agreement are not those that any sensible person would willingly entertain. Reluctantly, we conclude that, if presented with a choice between Mrs May's deal and a no-deal, we have to go with Mrs May.

That selection would stand in the event that the choice was made as between Mrs May's deal and revoking Article 50, and there is not really a valid comparison between accepting Mrs May's deal and opting for another referendum.

However, if we were to be given the choice of either an Article 50 revocation or a no-deal, that is probably the one situation where I would feel compelled to opt for a no-deal. That would be my personal choice, on the basis that rejoining is simply not an option. The schism with the EU is already permanent – I can't see the UK ever again being a functional member of the Union.

However, if the ESRC-funded party members project is to be believed, I am at odds with the majority of the Tory rank and file.

The study, run from Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, gives some support to my antipathy towards remaining in the EU, with only 15 percent of the membership wanting to stay in, but when it comes to Mrs May's deal, just 23 percent are prepared to back it. This compares with a massive 57 percent who would choose to leave the EU without a deal.

How valid these findings are is difficult to tell and the survey posits a three-way referendum giving the choice between the two options. However, I recall a You Gov poll back in mid-November where 28 percent of Conservative voters supported Mrs May's deal, with 41 percent opposing it.

Although the structure of this ESRC study is different, it might suggest that opinion against the deal has actually hardened, and more Tory voters are prepared to break ranks with the prime minister than before, even with the confounding option of leaving the EU.

But this rather contradicts my assertion made just before Christmas, that there was far more support for Mrs May and her deal in the country at large than there was in the frenzied hothouse of Westminster. This, I then hazarded, would have a number of Tory MPs returning to London after the break, with the words of angry constituents ringing in their ears – enough to change their views on how to vote.

If, however, MPs have been getting a message which supports opposition to the deal, then we may see the opposite effect, with many more resolved to vote against it on 15 January. Mrs May will then be hard put to make up the numbers from the ranks of the opposition parties.

Beyond what will undoubtedly be the first of several votes, I don't think anyone sensible is prepared to predict what might happen. What might be called received wisdom allows for the possibility that there might be a vote of confidence that Mrs May might win.

With the prime minister proving to be a master of political stratagems, having outflanked the ERG in the leadership stakes, she may well have several other rabbits which she is preparing to pull out of the hat. But there can be no dispute that every time we see sentiment firming up against the deal, it brings us that bit closer to a no-deal scenario, whence we crash out of the EU.

At the time I was writing in the pre-Christmas period, we were seeing in the The Sunday Times a report of speculation "swirling" about a possible move by the EU, with the belief that we would see the Commission coming up with a form of words that made it look as if concessions had been given on the Irish backstop.

For all that, we get news from that other impeccable political source, The Sun, which tells us that EU leaders "insist" that Brexit negotiations are over, "despite Theresa May pleading for more concessions".

Mrs May is understood to have spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel since Christmas, and "is also said to have reached out to other leaders including Spanish PM Pedro Sanchez and Dutch Premier Mark Rutte". Yet she has come away empty-handed, with not even a face-saver to put to her electorate.

To make matters worse, Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar and Angela Merkel have got together to pledge to "stand by" the Withdrawal Agreement.

Separately, Varadkar had declared that Ireland will not accept any change to the deal that renders the backstop inoperable. The threat of a no-deal scenario, he adds, was not of Ireland or the EU's making, and that he was looking to the UK to propose a viable solution that we (the Irish) can accept.

Perhaps anticipating a hardening of sentiment against the deal, the government is to launch a publicity blitz on the dangers of a no-deal, with adverts set to warn of "disruption" to travel and the supply of medicines, as Defra Secretary Gove warns of "grim" consequences for farming.

Gove's intervention has brought Owen Paterson into play, with paean of praise for the genetically modified foods that we can spread throughout the land in the deregulated, post-Brexit UK – as long as we have the sense to ditch the Withdrawal Agreement.

Mr Paterson's enthusiasm for GMOs is well known, but I sense that this is not exactly the issue that is going to turn the hearts and minds of the UK population against the "rule of Brussels" – given that the job hasn't already been done. But, nonetheless, Paterson stands by his view that the Withdrawal Agreement "would leave UK farming in a potentially dire situation, remaining bound to the EU".

Despite that, what happens to our food exports to EU Member States, Paterson doesn't say. But it is a fairly good bet that, if we adopt the sort of deregulated nirvana that he so desires, our growers and farmers will have considerable difficulty selling their wares to our continental neighbours.

Paterson, though, is not on his own in "dissing" the Withdrawal Agreement. Predictably, the Telegraph throws its weight into the fray, with an article and a cartoon lampooning the "scaredy-cats" and their "exaggerated fear of no deal".

The egregious Steve Baker chips in to tell us that: "There will be legitimate reasons for the Government to run a public information campaign in the event of no deal. But any campaign must be exquisitely calibrated to ensure it is legitimate public information and not an attempt to scare the public to lobby their MPs to vote for [Mrs May's] unacceptable deal".

The odd thing about this, though, is that with the government preparing to talk up the threat of a no-deal, Transport Secretary Chris is playing it down, with his reassurances about the post-Brexit performance of the ports.

But even now, he's very far from out of the woods with Seaborne Freight. News is reaching the media of the "chequered business past" of Seaborne Freight's chief executive, Ben Sharp, raising further questions "about the government’s vetting of the company, which has no ferries at present".

Mr Sharp, The Times tells us, was managing director of Mercator, a chartering company, that was forced into liquidation by HM Revenue & Customs in 2014 over a significant tax bill. He is now managing director of Albany Shipping, which is technically insolvent and does not appear to be operating. Mercator International’s accounts for 2013 show that it owed all of its creditors a total £1.78 million.

If one was to be logical about this, then the accumulation of criticism over "ferrygate" should raise concerns about the capability of the government to manage a no-deal scenario, nudging people into Mrs May's camp. But politics doesn't work that way, and there are too many variables for any sound predictions to be made.

This could be a question of head over heart, and if people are reacting emotionally, then they seem more inclined to accept a no-deal scenario. To borrow a phrase though, if they are now ringing the bell over the advent of a no-deal, soon they will be wringing their hands.



Richard North 04/01/2019 link

Brexit: the straw clutchers

22/12/2018  


I don't have a lot of time for ITV's Robert Peston – not that that will come as any surprise to my regular readers. But even he has his uses occasionally, in this case having published a short piece headed: "Whitehall's no-deal Brexit naïveté".

In this, Peston identifies what he calls "considerable straw-clutching in Whitehall and Westminster about the impact of a 'no-deal' Brexit". He gives as an example a "respected and experienced" minister who took from the Commission's contingency plan the idea that, in the event of a no-deal, the ports of Dover and Folkestone would be kept open "for nine months with no checks".

It turns out that the minister had misunderstood the concession allowing road hauliers to continue operating for nine months, reading it as a waiver on customs checks. But, as confirmed by a Commission official, there will be no such softening or sweetening of a no-deal. This simple concession would not avert crippling bottlenecks at Dover, and the transformation of Kent - in the words of a more realistic official - into the "world's largest lorry park".

The trouble is, though, that the straw-clutching is not by any means confined to "respected and experienced" ministers. Even yesterday we had the pompous Fraser Nelson asserting in the Spectator and the Telegraph that a no-deal Brexit "would be a risk, but it's the best option we have left".

For sure, the prospect of accepting Mrs May's deal is singularly unattractive, but if one is to argue for rejecting in in favour of a "no deal", as Nelson would have us do, then it should be on the basis of the best possible evidence.

Yet, in the minuscule growth that qualifies as Mr Nelson's mind, he has convinced himself that, while a no-deal would bring disruption, "it'd be temporary". Furthermore, says the straw-clutcher, "talk of chaos at Calais needs to be put in the context of French officials saying they'd need to stop no more than one in every 100 lorries".

It would seem, therefore, that Fraser Nelson is prepared to gamble the economic well-being of the entire nation on a single, slender factoid, comprising speculation by a single French regional politician. This was Xavier Bertrand, president of the Northern Hauts-de-France region, who back in November was suggesting that "we could ask for exemptions from the European Commission to reduce customs and regulatory controls based on risk analysis".

With the publication of the EU's contingency plan, though, any prospect of such "flexibility" surely evaporated when the Commission stated that: "All relevant EU legislation on imported goods and exported goods will apply as of the withdrawal date".

Mr Nelson, however, likes to pretend that there is uncertainty about the disruption, asserting that "it's hard to tell" what the scale might be, "because of hysteria, claim and counter-claim".

The one thing you can be absolutely sure about, though, is that Mr Nelson has not visited this remarkably hysteria-free blog. Had he done so, back in February 2017, where I attempted to quantify the scale of the disruption which he finds so uncertain.

There, I estimated that there would be about 260,000 truck-loads of UK-produced foodstuffs per annum entering the mainland via France, with a typical requirement for a 20 percent inspection rate, mandated by EU law. That amounts to over 50,000 inspections per annum, when the nearest inspection facility is in Dunkirk and its annual capacity is limited to 5,000 consignments.

As it happens, my estimates were remarkably close to those in an official report produced for Defra in 2012 entitled: "Resilience of the food supply to port disruption". Although published four years before the referendum, this gives a remarkably clear insight into the effects of disruption in the nation's ports, with several detailed annexes, including one on Dover and the Channel Tunnel.

In terms of statistical data, the report estimates that about a third of the trucks taking the Dover Calais route are carrying foodstuffs. Given an inspection rate of 20 percent, on my reckoning that alone would account for one in every 15 trucks being stopped for a contents inspection. Then, there are a huge range of checks that would be applied to non-food consignments.

The point at issue here is that, while Dover port and the Channel Tunnel account for only seven percent of inbound traffic coming through the country's major ports, it is estimated that 26 percent of the UK's total food imports from EU sources move through the Dover Port/Tunnel corridor.

Crucially, though, these two routes have specialised in handling accompanied trailers – the so-called ro-ro traffic – accounting for 75 percent of all the accompanied trailers carrying freight between the UK and the Continent, Scandinavia and Ireland.

But what is so startling about the report is the way it illustrates how specialised the Dover/Tunnel corridor is, and how difficult it would be to divert freight from them to other ports. If disruption through one, or the other route (or both) occurs over an extended period, the report says, solutions are not easily found. For the purpose built Dover ferries and for the Freight Shuttle trains there are effectively no alternative options.

The reasons why this should be the case are not difficult to discern. Firstly, and most obviously, this is the shortest of all the routes from the UK, allowing maximum utilisation of the ships on the run. But it does not stop there.

Dover port is equipped with seven, expensive, double-deck ramps which facilitate loading or unloading simultaneously from two decks (pictured). These are "male" ramps, which means that they connect with the ships, which themselves do not need to be equipped with their own ramps. That allows the ships to be fitted for stern and bow access, affording "straight through" loading and unloading, further speeding up port handling.

As a result, while there are 41 UK mainland ports, equipped with a total of 151 ro-ro berths, these manage only 675 sailings a week, or 43 percent of the market. Dover, by contrast, managed 365 sailings (at the time the report was prepared), that one port accounting for a 23 percent share of the market. The Tunnel adds a further 536 departures, taking a 34 percent market share.

This frequency of departures makes the corridor extremely attractive for just-in-time deliveries, permitting a "turn up and go" operation. This eliminates the need for transport operators to factor in additional time to ensure that fixed bookings are met in the event of traffic delays.

Furthermore, the extent of the facilities renders them less prone to the sort of disruption that can occur when facilities are limited, while the port and tunnel are complementary in being able to absorb traffic from each other in the event the either are disrupted.

Therefore, should the corridor become inoperable because of Brexit, there are no other ports which could accommodate the traffic and nor could they handle the specialist ships which are used on the route. There would have to be a modal shift, from accompanied loads to "lo-lo" container traffic, taking far longer and with considerably less flexibility. And immediately, shippers would be confronted with the global shortage of reefers (refrigerated containers), which could not be easily resolved.

In terms of Brexit, therefore, as long as ports such as Calais lack inspection facilities for foodstuffs (and other goods), it will not be possible for them to handle traffic from the Dover corridor. But, it would not be possible to transfer the traffic to other EU ports with inspection facilities, even if they existed.

Allowing for the scale of likely inspections, it is extremely unlikely that the infrastructure and staff could be ready inside 2-3 years and then there will be inbuilt delays in the system, as inspections are carried out. Route capacities will be drastically reduced, accompanied by substantial cost increases.

The alarming thing about all this, though, is that this information is already known to government, which commissioned the research for other reasons, but has the data it needs to predict the likely outcome of a "no deal" Brexit – at least as far as short sea shipping goes.  

When it comes to people such as Fraser Nelson, and his fellow straw clutcher, Mark Wallace, their superficial approach to their subject makes them truly despicable. Wallace, for instance, in a recent edition of The Sun argued that: "We must take Brexit doomsayers' claims that No Deal Brexit means our food exports will rot in trucks at Dover with a hefty fistful of salt".

"Most countries are quite practical", this fool asserts, which means that they "agree to trust each other's safety tests on goods rather than hold them up for costly extra testing at their ports". Thus, he tells us, a "no deal" Brexit "should not stop us from shaking hands on hundreds of other side deals that both sides could agree quite simply, and which would help both sides to square away". That, he writes, is what's called a "managed no deal".

Perhaps to encourage these facile commentators to perform better, we might think of adopting the Admiral Byng gambit. At the very least, it would reduce the number of straw-clutchers.



Richard North 22/12/2018 link

Brexit: studied vagueness from the Irish

21/12/2018  


It was well past midnight yesterday when I first looked at the Irish contingency action plan - then only just published. And already it has the feeling of old news, having scarcely left an impact on the UK political scene.

Looking in detail at the 131 pages, though, it is not surprising that the plan has left so slight a mark. Despite its well-earned reputation for its robust handling of Brexit, the Irish government has produced a rather limp document, lacking in detail and evading contentious issues such as the management of the land border with Northern Ireland.

Even the ever-loyal Irish Times has been less than enthusiastic, headlining its report from Simon Carswell: "Government must produce more detailed no-deal Brexit plans". Although this is a quote attributed to Ibec, the Irish equivalent of the CBI, it is easy to discern the newspaper's line as it gives pride of place to Fergal O'Brien, the group's director of policy and public affairs.

The main criticism, however, is directed at London, as O'Brien declares that: "Reckless time-wasting by the UK government is now forcing businesses to activate costly 'no deal' contingency plans". "A comprehensive Brexit deal has been agreed and signed off by the UK Cabinet", he says, adding: "If the UK government is unable to ratify it, it should defer or cancel Brexit".

In like vein, O'Brien continues: "Adjusting to a radically new trading relationship with the UK at the end of March is not possible and not realistic. Acute trade bottlenecks would be created overnight. Jobs and businesses would be immediately on the line".

And, making his concerns abundantly clear, he states unequivocally that: "Companies are preparing insofar as they can, but the economy is simply not in a position to deal with such an unprecedented and profound shock. An extended transition period would be required, including in the case of 'no deal'".

But while the group then sets out some specific support measures it would like to see, including measures to reduce the impact of the UK dropping out of the EU's VAT system, it is less emphatic about the lack of detail offered by the Irish government.

If we actually look at the report, and turn to the crucial section on agri-food and fisheries, we are told that a "key priority" in this area is "to minimise disruption to Irish exports and imports to and from the UK and to ensure the current ease of access to the Single Market is maintained".

Yet, in a startlingly thin section, it tells us absolutely nothing about measures that will be taken to minimise the disruption, other than stating the intent to spend €7 million "for the recruitment of additional staff and the provision of ICT hardware and software to carry out the greatly increased volumes of import controls and export certification arising from Brexit".

Quite evidently, that does rather more than hint at the imposition of border controls, but that is as far as the report goes.

Bearing in mind that this is supposed to be dealing with the fallout from a "no deal" Brexit, in the main body, the document actually addresses what it calls a "central case scenario". This assumes that the Withdrawal Agreement will be ratified, along with the approval of the Political Declaration. This, it says, "remains a valid basis for future planning and action to deal with Brexit".

The plan nevertheless, acknowledges the possibility of a "no deal" Brexit. This, it says, "would require an immediate focus on crisis management and possible temporary solutions (political, economic, administrative, legislative and communication), which would be rapidly implemented until the necessary longer-term adjustments are in place".

In avoiding the detail though, the plan resorts to generic waffle. "For Ireland", it declares, "a 'no deal' Brexit would potentially involve severe macroeconomic, trade and sectoral impacts. Grappling with the enormous range of impacts both in the immediate short term and in the longer term will involve difficult and significant choices of a practical, strategic and political nature".

Almost laughably, what it comes down to is that a "no deal" Brexit "would be an exceptional economic event which would be met with exceptional measures to support the continued operation of the Irish economy and our international trading links".

Without putting too fine a point on it, I think we could have guessed that, without having to wade through 131 pages of text. But as to the actual " exceptional measures" that will be taken, there is not a clue, other than that the response "would be executed in close co-operation with our EU partners, other Member States and the EU institutions".

Obviously, this studied vagueness has to be a matter of considered policy, but it put Irish premier Leo Varadkar in something of a difficult position when he faced reporters to discuss the plan.

Despite the minimal detail in his plan stating otherwise, he "insisted" that the Irish government is not making any preparations for a hard border, "despite EU warnings that checks on animals and food will be necessary if a disorderly Brexit occurs".

The Irish Independent thus notes that Ireland's contingency plans for a no-deal scenario restate the Government’s commitment to maintain an open border – but give no detail on how this would be possible if the UK crashes out of the EU. All Mr Varadkar could do was to admit that "real difficulties" lie ahead if the UK parliament does not approve the Withdrawal Agreement.

Although it is very difficult to identify anything specific in the way of measures that will be taken, the DUP's Nigel Dodds is taking a somewhat tendentious line. Picking up on the statement from Mr Varadkar, he asserts that, because the Irish government is not "preparing" for a hard border – even though it is – there is no need for what Dodds calls "the backup trap".

As always, though, the devil is in the detail. What Varadkar is saying is that if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, it would still be aligned to EU customs and regulations as things currently stand. Problems would then only arise if the UK decided to make changes.

You get a sense of his caution by his diffident phrasing as he explained to reporters: "In the event of a no deal Brexit - I am nearly always loathe (sic) to speculate on because it is speculation, and a lot of it raises more questions than I can give answers. If the UK crashed out of the European Union at the end of March they would still be aligned on customs and regulations".

If the UK did "change their customs and regulations", "that's where it could get difficult", he added, then stating:
But that is something obviously we are going to have to talk to them about in a no-deal scenario. There is a real understanding across the EU that this isn't a typical border, that this is a border that goes through villages, goes through farms, goes through businesses and of course is a border that people fought and killed other people over.
Only then do we get a flash of insight as to why we are being treated to this level of vagueness. "To speak of planning for a return of a border with Northern Ireland could easily make that happen", Varadkar warns. Thus, he says:
We are not preparing for a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We have made no preparations whatsoever for physical infrastructure or anything like that. We certainly do not want it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It takes nothing at all to work out that the Irish really do not want a "no deal", but they are very much in the hands of the UK government on this. And until or unless they are confronted with the actuality, Leo Varadkar is evidently determined to keep his powder dry. That is about the only clarity we are getting.

Of course, there is nothing to stop mischievous commentators misrepresenting this caution – as indeed Dodds is doing. And we've had an interesting intervention from the UK government , which has said it will not impose additional checks on imports of animals and animal products on day one of a "no-deal" Brexit.

The government is saying that it would take a "risk-based approach" to import checks and to do otherwise would be "disproportionate" to the risk posed. But it also warns that the position is "time-limited" and could change.

Even then, the government is sailing close to the wind, as the basic level of inspection for animals and products of animal origin is not set on the basis of risk assessment. The UK, therefore, could thus find itself falling foul of WTO non-discrimination rules, if it adopts a softer approach to EU produce than it does for goods from the rest of the world.

Furthermore, while the UK is in a position unilaterally to determine its inspection frequencies (subject to WTO rules), we have already seen the Commission instruct Member States that "All relevant EU legislation on imported goods and exported goods will apply as of the withdrawal date".

On that basis, there is very little that we can infer from the Irish contingency plan, when the government is politically committed to vagueness. The "no deal" scenario is primarily a matter for the UK government to address. Only if it happens will other authorities be able to set out their detailed responses.



Richard North 21/12/2018 link

Brexit: panto politics

20/12/2018  


Either of two major events yesterday should have led the news agenda: the UK government's White Paper on immigration, and the publication of the European Commission's contingency plan to deal with a "no deal" Brexit.

That, however, is to reckon without the British media. Rather than deal with the hard stuff, the political media have chosen to lead on an incident during PMQs, when Jeremy Corbyn is said to have called Mrs May a "stupid woman" – a claim which he denies.

With this given front-page treatment, the politicians are in the frame for what is described as "panto politics", but no one has forced the media to give such extensive space to this charade.

As to the substantive issues, the immigration White Paper is of little immediate concern. It is predicated on the UK agreeing a deal with the EU, and is not intended to take effect until after the transition period at the end of 2020.

Between then and now, all manner of things might happen to prevent it coming to fruition, not least a "no deal" Brexit which would wreck all the assumptions on which the White Paper is based. And since a no-deal is beginning to look to be the most likely option, that puts the Commission plan on top of the list for attention.

One can see why our media might fight shy of it though. It is not one document but a series. It starts with a press release, moves on to COM(2018) 890 final, which is the plan itself, and then to Memo on questions and answers. 

It doesn't stop there, though, as the plan links with a list of legislative initiatives and other legal acts needed to implement the plan, 14 of which were published yesterday alongside the plan, to add to the eight already in place.

The Commission makes no concessions to the triviality of the UK media and its love of all things superficial, and it offers only limited personality quotes on which reporters prefer to hang their stories and base their headlines. If you want the detail, you have to work at it, which means that reports, such as that which the Telegraph has to offer, are extremely limited.

Typically, as in The Times piece, Jean-Claude Juncker gets pride of place, saying that no deal would be a disaster and that "British MPs" needed to back the withdrawal agreement to avoid it. "The risks of a disorderly exit of Great Britain from the EU are obvious", he is cited as saying. "It will be an absolute catastrophe". He adds: "The Commission is trying, as well as the Member States, to prevent this disorderly exit from the union, but it takes two to tango decently".

Thus, according to the press release, the measures will deal only with areas where a "no-deal" scenario would create major disruption for citizens and businesses in the EU27. These include financial services, air transport, customs, and climate policy, amongst others. But they will not mitigate the overall impact of a "no-deal" scenario, nor will they compensate for the lack of stakeholder preparedness or replicate the full benefits of EU membership.

Turning to the COM final for the detail, this sets out the basic parameters governing the plan, stating that measures should not replicate the benefits of membership of the Union, nor the terms of any transition period. They have to be temporary in nature and, crucially, they are to be adopted unilaterally.

With this, there is to be no "managed" no-deal exit, and what the EU gives unilaterally it can take away when it so pleases. Measures will remain in place only to suit EU interests, and then only as long as needed – by the EU.

For all that, one has the idiot tendency in politics, with Tory MP Michael Fabricant claiming that the EU has "blinked", making a "managed no deal" workable. Yet, Fabricant is not on his own, with The Sun sharing the sentiment, calling the contingency plan a "boost for Brexiteers as EU blinks and launches plans to make No Deal work". The report then cites Jacob Rees-Mogg, who declares: "This fits in with the idea of a managed No Deal".

A more sensible view comes from the Irish Times, which sums up by saying that the Commission has made it clear that it "will take some unilateral steps to limit the damage – making sure planes can fly and banks can continue to clear some transactions in London". But it says it will not collude with the UK in coming up with some kind of managed agreement to try to take the pain out of a no-deal.

Just visiting the four headline issues should disabuse anyone of the Fabricant fantasy. Financial services leads with some interesting provisions, which illustrates the Commission's thinking.

In order to mitigate financial stability risks, temporary and conditional equivalence will be afforded for 12 months, to ensure that there will be no disruption in central clearing of derivatives. But that isn't doing the UK any favours. Simply, the Commission has concluded that EU-27 companies need this time to put in place fully viable alternatives to UK operators.

For services provided by UK central securities depositories, there is also a "temporary and conditional equivalence" afforded, but this is to last 24 months. Again, it is to allow EU-27 operatives time to find alternatives. And then there are certain technical adjustments, allowing contracts to be transferred to Union holders without falling foul of the European Market Infrastructures Regulation.

As to aviation, the Commission has tabled a proposed regulation which will maintain "basic air connectivity" with the UK, extending to the UK only the basic four of the nine freedoms.

What this means is that UK registered airlines will be able to overfly the airspace of EU Member States, make landings for technical purposes and fly passengers from the UK directly to destinations within the EU, and pick up passengers headed back to the UK. Intermediate pick-ups and all forms of cabotage are gone – with freight as well as passenger traffic.UK carriers will no longer enjoy the right to provide intra-Union air services.

There are also extremely limited waivers on safety provisions, extending the validity of certain licences and certification for a period of nine months.

All the Commission has done here is take the action necessary to "avoid the abrupt interruption of activities in the area of air transport", and it does not make pretty reading. UK air carriers, for instance, will be required to obtain an operating authorisation from each Member State in which they wish to operate – potentially 27 separate authorisations to enable EU-wide operations.

Another point to take on board is that this is most definitely a unilateral arrangement. It requires from the UK a commitment to reciprocity, which makes it another example of coordinated unilateralism, thereby not qualifying as a bilateral deal.

Furthermore, the Commission's regulation explicitly prevents Member States from negotiating or enter into any bilateral air services agreements with the UK, and they must not otherwise grant UK carriers any rights other than those granted in its Regulation.

And, down on the ground, there are basic concessions on road haulage for a period of nine months. These will allow UK operators temporarily to carry goods into the Union, provided the UK confers equivalent rights to Union road haulage operators.

When it comes to customs, however, there are effectively no concessions. This is where the full force of the "no deal" scenario is going to hit hardest. Says the Commission: "All relevant EU legislation on imported goods and exported goods will apply as of the withdrawal date. This includes the levying of duties and taxes and the respect of the formalities and controls required by the current legal framework".

As befits the UK's status as a third country, Member States are enjoined to "take all necessary steps" to apply the Union Customs Code. This makes a nonsense of Raab's supposition that, if we hit procedural blocks in Calais, we can simply transfer business to Rotterdam or Zeebrugge. The Member States will be applying the Union code and what applies to one port applies to them all.

Additionally, all the relevant rules on indirect taxation to all imports from and exports to the United Kingdom will apply. That means VAT, from which a whole load of grief will descend.

Then, to top off the misery, the time-limits for lodging entry and pre-departure declarations will apply, with the Union Customs Code delegated regulation amended to require goods to be notified to the customs authorities at least two hours before arrival at the port of entry. That should ensure a good measure of chaos at Dover.

The technical changes to climate policy complete the headline list, but it is in the customs area that the hardship will be seen. The official controls on live animals and products of animal origin will apply, which will prevent any UK exports until the appropriate listing formalities are complete.

Mutual recognition of conformity assessments will no longer apply, which means that conformity with EU standards of goods sent to EU destinations will have to be verified at the border – with extensive and expensive checks when deemed necessary.

And then, of course, there are the technical provisions for medicines, medical devices, car manufacture, chemicals and cosmetics – to name but a few sectors. Each will have their own problems, and their own hurdles to surmount.

And then there is the Irish contingency action plan - all 131 pages of it. Don't expect any significant media attention though. The fourth estate is no longer in the business of doing news. We are in the world of panto journalism to match the politics of the madhouse.

And we really can't afford this. If there is to be a sensible response in parliament to the ratification vote, then MPs above all else must be informed about the consequences of a "no-deal" Brexit. Bizarrely, for all their resources, a large number of MPs still rely on the media for their information and here, once again, the media has ducked its responsibility to inform.

We are headed for the most important vote of the century and the memory of the moment when the EU set out its stall will be of whether the leader of the opposition called the prime minister a "stupid woman". When future historians come to write this up, will anyone believe them?



Richard North 20/12/2018 link

Brexit: a taste of chaos

19/12/2018  


If anything makes sense of Brexit at the moment, it is the sudden focus on preparations for a "no deal" exit. Whether intended or not – and I rather think it was intended – this has had the effect of raising its profile on the media agenda, to the extent that it is being talked about as never before.

Not least, with the headline figure of £2 billion being allocated to the preparations, the public is being presented with the spectre of much-needed domestic policies being abandoned to make the funding available.

Something, though, must give if we are to break out of the stalemate that's been gripping the Brexit process. For a long time, I've been saying that it is not until people have a better understanding of the dangers will they realise that a "no deal" Brexit is to be avoided at all costs. And only then will they start looking at Mrs May's deal in a new light.

But, as long as they believe a "no deal" scenario to be a tenable option, there will never be the pressure needed to ensure it won't happen. If, on the other hand, people begin to realise that "no deal" comes with an unacceptable cost, then that could be enough to tilt sentiment in favour of doing a deal.

However, the idea that the UK government can make any meaningful preparations for a "no deal" Brexit, with the expenditure of a mere £2 billion is absurd. Apart from anything else, there are 320 workstreams across Whitehall on "no-deal" with each workstream likely containing numerous plans. In government terms, the amounts are trivial.

That amount of money, therefore, is likely to be only a down-payment – with no top limit. And government expenditure will doubtless be only a fraction of the amount borne by businesses and the population at large, in lost opportunities and additional costs.

With 100 days left before Brexit day, businesses are having to commit huge sums to executing contingency plans. These will move into high gear as HM Revenue & Customs email 80,000 businesses this week to explain the impact, providing 100 pages of updated advice online on possible changes at borders.

But the crucial point that seems to be missing from current discourse is that much of what is needed to prepare lies not only in the UK but with the governments of the Member States and the EU institutions. And it is today that we are to hear from the Commission big time about its latest plans.

Further, it cannot be a coincidence that we see a push from both sides of the Channel on precisely the same issue, augmented by the Irish government, which is also preparing its own report on "no deal" preparations. By the end of the week, the consequences of a "no deal" Brexit will have been well and truly aired – just as we break for Christmas.

On the domestic front, the media highlight is 3,500 troops earmarked for Brexit duties, so it doesn't take much imagination to work out Mrs May's game plan – if that's what it is. Troops in the streets sends a special message and nothing is more calculated to raise public concerns.

If this stratagem works, and Mrs May manages to stoke up enough public concern at the prospect of a no-deal, and that concern gets communicated to MPs during the break, then there is a better chance of getting parliament to accept her plan.

But, if that's the theory, there is an awful lot resting on it – and much that can go wrong. The "project fear" meme is so embedded in the psyche of the "ultras" that even (or especially) copper-bottomed information on the devastating impact of a "no deal" Brexit is simply not being believed.

This is not helped by issue-illiterate pieces in the legacy media, such as this from the likes of Shanker "Snake Oil" Singham which rehearses the same tired canard that European Union "has more to lose from a 'no deal' Brexit than a well-prepared UK".

Typical of the fare that we get from this source is the dismissal of food vanishing from supermarket shelves as "nonsense". It is ludicrous, he writes, "to suggest food will vanish from supermarket shelves following a 'no deal'".

But, examining the rhetoric – or its absence – Singham offers no support whatsoever for his claim. Yet, for all that, it is not a given that there will be food shortages following a "no deal" exit.

There are several possible scenarios, but the most likely is a logjam at the ferry ports, specifically the Channel ports at the European end. The way this works is that UK goods exported to EU Member State destinations will leave this country with relatively little delay (assuming the paperwork systems work).

In this scenario, the hang-up comes when goods are presented to the authorities prior to entering into circulation in the Member States. Statutory checks will so delay the trucks that the build-up at the ports will prevent the ferries being offloaded. And, if they can't be offloaded, they can't return to be loaded with new goods, and the whole system seizes up.

Already on this blog, we have suggested mitigation: by limiting the entry of trucks to those which are guaranteed clearance, using a permit system, blockages at the ports could be avoided. But, of course, there is a cost – there always is. The penalty is the loss of exports and the concomitant economic damage.

And this is the thing with these purveyors of false tidings. They never do detail – it is always high-flown rhetoric and generalisations, combined with denigration and refusal to engage.

This is fed by the likes of the Telegraph offering fantasy solutions such as the latest from ex-Brexit secretary Dominic Raab. And here, the other dynamic comes into play – the willful ignorance of people who should know better.

Raab argues that we could manage the risk of EU border checks adding costs to UK businesses if the UK adopts a "continuity" approach, recognising EU regulatory standards on day one of Brexit, and taking an intelligence-led approach to enforcement rather than checking every truck from Europe.

Likewise, he says, on exit, UK goods will comply with EU standards, which means that checks would take two minutes per lorry, not the ten minutes as Whitehall planners (inexplicably) assume. And, if President Macron sought to choke the flow of UK goods entering via Calais, ports like Zeebrugge and Rotterdam would hoover up the business.

Ministers, says Raab, need to work with operators and port authorities, so we have capacity to divert supply routes via Belgium and the Netherlands as swiftly as possible.

I have lost track of the number of times I've explained that regulatory conformity is on the starter for ten, and no less than Michel Barnier has expanded on this by referring to the regulatory "ecosystem", conformity with which is required before there can be frictionless trade.

There is not the slightest chance that the UK is going to experience the same free movement of goods (or services) that we enjoyed while we were members of the EU and participated in the Single Market. Yet Raab, contrary to all explanations and warnings, is assuming that we can.

But the saddest of all of his suggestions is that we should support businesses most at risk from a departure on WTO terms, using the £39 billion the UK would have paid the EU to cut business taxes to boost them as they transition, and offset their costs.

Then he thinks that we "would inevitably return to negotiations with the EU", but as an independent nation, having demonstrated there is no need for extra infrastructure at the border in Northern Ireland, and no need for the backstop. The path, he says, would be cleared to negotiate a best-in-class free trade agreement, and arrangements for security and other areas of close cooperation.

The worst that might happen, he avers, is the risk of "up to six months of significant - but manageable – disruption", whence – doubtless – the sunlit uplands beckon, and we enter a golden era of free trade with a chastened European Union, only too willing to give us what we demand.

The trouble is that there is no rational way of countering this stupidity, as Raab – like many of his "ultra" fellow travellers – is not acting on a rational level. This is unicorn farming at its highest level, an article of faith that requires none of the inconvenient things like reality to make it happen.

In times gone past, one would like to believe that newspapers would not print such fantasy offers in lieu of serious policy suggestions, but I'm not so sure that is the case. But, if policy is to be driven by such fantasies we are doomed to the chaos, of which we are currently being given a taste.



Richard North 19/12/2018 link
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