Brexit: all you need to know (not)

Saturday 3 December 2016  

Sky News is telling us that the EU’s customs union "covers the 28 EU states, as well as Turkey, Monaco, San Marino, Andorra and non-EU UK territories such as the Channel Islands".

There is, however, a problem with that assertion: it's wrong. Furthermore, it is very easy to ascertain that it is wrong – not least because the European commission helpfully provides the necessary details.

On customs unions, the Commission is especially helpful, providing a web page which gives a strong clue as to its content, with the give-away title of "EU Customs Union".

There, it tells us that the 28 member countries of the EU form a single territory for customs purposes – known as "the customs territory". That includes some (but not all) dependent territories, so it brings in the French colonies of Guadeloupe, French Guyana, Martinique and Reunion Island. It also includes the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.

Also, Monaco is considered to be part of the EU's customs territory, specifically because of its special relationship with France. It does not, as yet, participate in the Single Market (in common with the Channel Islands).

Incidentally, the UK Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus are also deemed part of the EU customs territory, but three areas which are decidedly not part of that territory are Turkey, San Marino and Andorra.

These, the Commission informs us have between them negotiated three entirely separate customs unions with the EU, each of them standing alone as separate agreements, such as this with Andorra.

A point to make here is that if I can look this up on the Europa website, so can Sky News. And that organisation has vastly more staff, resource and money than I do, and has no excuse for getting such detail wrong. It is wholly irresponsible for it to allow such basic errors through the net, as it will be used as a source of information by others.

But this is all part of the sloppy, low-grade attitude to facts displayed by the legacy media in general – which drove Pete to point out that the state broadcaster is just as bad, unable even to distinguish properly between the Single Market and the customs union. Lost Leonardo notes their confusion over the EU and EEA, observing that they were barely able to play catch-up.

And such details are important. With Brexit, more than in virtually anything else in the public domain, the devil is in the detail and if the media are not up to speed on the fundamentals, then they won't be able to pick up ministers and other politicos when they get it wrong.

A case in point came yesterday when trade minister Greg Hands spoke to Bloomberg, telling the news agency that it was possible for the UK to seek a deal which would allow sections of the economy to remain within the EU's customs union after Brexit.

Officials, Hands said, would be able to choose the type of products to be covered by agreements. "You can choose which markets, which products the customs unions affect and which they don't, so there isn't a binary thing of being inside the customs union or outside of the customs union," he said.

In the Bloomberg report, he elaborates, saying that there were many models of customs union, where states group together to agree common tariffs for trading with external partners.

The minister gave the example of the Zollverein, a grouping of German states formed in the 1830s to organize economic policies and trade within the region. The Zollverein was never "stuck in one place"” as to which goods were covered and which weren't, he asserted. "These things can be multifaceted and dynamic".

Yet the man is, of course, talking nonsense. In the 1830s, there was no WTO and currently, under its rules bilateral sector-specific deals (as between the EU and UK) would be considered to be discriminatory under WTO rules.

That is not to say that sectoral deals cannot be made. They can – as in the 1997 WTO Ministerial Declaration on Trade in Information Technology Products (ITA). This had a group of 40 governments, including the US, Canada and the (then) EU Member States, cutting customs duties on computer and telecommunications products beginning on 1 July 1997, with the intention of eliminating them altogether by the year 2000.

The point is that such limited agreements must be concluded under the aegis of the WTO and be open to all comers, as in this and other plurilateral agreements such as the 1980 Agreement on trade in civil aircraft.

The only other get-out is where any individual sectoral agreement is one of a sequence, with a defined timetable, leading up to a comprehensive trade deal (including customs unions). This was how Switzerland managed its bilateral agreements with the EU, relying on the exemptions allowed with preferential trade agreements.

The essential element of these agreements, though, is that they must cover "substantially all the trade between the constituent territories" of an agreement, thereby preventing precisely the scenario claimed by Hands, where: "You can choose which markets, which products the customs unions affect and which they don't".

Basically, you can't do that. Hands should know that. His department should know that, and the media should know it. Instead, we get the BBC repeating the Sky News error, saying: "The customs union includes all 28 EU nations, but also Turkey, Monaco, San Marino, Andorra and non-EU UK territories such as the Channel Islands" – also repeating the canard that they are (by virtue of the customs union) barred from doing bilateral trade deals with other countries.

What is particularly ironic is that the BBC, in all its arrogance, runs a series headed: "Brexit: All you need to know" – yet the very last thing you will get from the media is reliable information. For all its resource and noise-making capabilities, the media is a disgrace. As Lost Leonardo says, it doesn't have what it takes.

Richard North 03/12/2016 link

Brexit: reality takes a seat

Friday 2 December 2016  

Reuters have picked up and embellished the story that most of the media were running with all day yesterday, reporting that Chancellor Philip Hammond says that Britain needs to keep open the possibility of continuing to pay fees to the EU even after it leaves. 

This was after Brexit minister David Davis, in answer to an oral question in Parliament, had said that Britain would consider making payments to the EU after it leaves, if that was necessary to achieve the best possible access to the Single Market.

Hammond is cited as saying: "We have to look at any deal in the round ... and I think David Davis is absolutely right not to rule out the possibility that we might want to contribute in some way to some form of mechanism".

Despite a sharp reaction from the likes of Peter Bone and the squealing of anguish from the Brexit morons, this was always going to be a possibility – verging on certainty.

Needless to say, the loudest squeals have come from Ukip, with their new Brexit spokesman, Gerald Batten, saying: "David is already going weak at the knees. It is ridiculous to offer to pay to trade with the EU. Every country in the world has access to the single market".

But there is a lot more to this than Batten's simplistic nostrums – the man who wants to ignore Article 50 and go straight to the repeal of the European Communities Act.

As it stands, none of the Efta/EEA countries pay for market access. They pay grants in aid to help the emerging economies of Eastern and Central Europe and they pay for participation in decentralised agencies and programmes.

But there is also the question of what might be termed "legacy payments". These we deal with in Monograph 3, pointing out that, at the very least, we will have to honour the MFF commitments, which means that we will be paying a sum equivalent to our net annual payments until the end of 2020.

For that, we can barter participation in the decentralised agencies and programmes, so the net effect on expenditure will probably be neutral.

It is the next MFF programme that is going to be really interesting, when the RAL kick in and the "colleagues" demand the UK "share" of repayments, on top of agency and programme contributions. As Booker observed, with our own payments to farmers and others we could end up paying more overall than we are now.

The media far and wide, however, are casting this as a "concession", as if there was any choice in the matter. Short of a cold, hard Brexit, though, we are going to have to pay something to the EU. The only question will be how much we will have to pay.

What we are seeing in the responses is the media and politicians playing catch-up, as they are right across the board.

Only now are pundits getting to grips with the idea of a transitional deal, and the need for an end game, while many remainers, having rejected the idea of the "Norway option" before the referendum are now embracing it with zeal.

The payments issue, though, is likely to be particularly sensitive, given the rash claims made by Vote Leave and their fellow travellers. Arron Banks has called Davis's words "incredibly foolish".

Yet, the foolishness comes in failing to recognise and acknowledge that the UK cannot expect a cost free exit from the EU, and walk away from long-standing treaty commitments without offering something in the way of compensation. To refuse to accept this simply isn't practical politics.

Over the next few months, even running to years, we are going to see a lot of this – silly, shallow people like Banks, who have no grasp of the realities of international relations, making their facile statements. Meanwhile, the business of grown-up politics will have to continue, simply because it must.

That, in the end, is going to drive the outcome of the Brexit talks. The government is going to have to "concede" certain issues because, unless it does, there simply won't be a workable settlement. The pundits will just have to catch up as best they can.

But the same reality will have to drive the "colleagues". With the latest immigration figures just in, they will have to recognise that the UK government will not be able to agree a settlement that does not involve some real concessions on freedom of movement.

But then, there are no constants in this ever-changing political kaleidoscope. We heard yesterday, for instance, that Hollande was not going to stand for a second term as French president. This comes as no particular surprise but it confirms that there will be at least one new face at the table when the negotiations start.

When those talks do finally start, there will be something else at the table – something which is currently missing – a sense of reality. The parties will agree because they must agree. Meanwhile, the noisemakers will do what they do best – make noise.

Richard North 02/12/2016 link

Brexit: a crisis of competence

Thursday 1 December 2016  

Recently, and many times on his blog, Pete has been writing of what amounts to a crisis of competence amongst MPs.

Although there has to have been a time when they weren't wall-to-wall drooling imbeciles, in his latest piece, Pete surmises that – possibly as a consequence of having handed over so many functions of government to the EU – our representatives no longer have the mental capacity to perform their functions.

One MP (or many) determined to demonstrate that this is the case is Peter Lilley who, last Sunday had published in The Sunday Times a piece on how we should leave the EU. 

His conclusion was that "our main objective should be a speedy conclusion", to which effect his idea for Brexit was straight out of the Redwood school. Aiming to bring the issue to a head before the French, German and Dutch elections, we should, Lilley wrote:
… simply announce that we will continue to give EU imports tariff-free access - unless it chooses to impose WTO tariffs on us, in which case we will reciprocate. The onus would then be on the EU 27 to continue free trade or take the blame for triggering tariffs on their exports to their biggest market. Continental governments threatening this would face the wrath of German car makers and unions, French wine growers, Dutch horticulturalists and so on for initiating an unnecessary tariff battle in which they lose more than we do.
The stupidity of this – for a man who is reckoned to be one of our brighter MPs – is beyond measure. If we leave the EU without a trade settlement, we will afford ourselves the status of a "third country" in relation to the EU.

This means that we place ourselves outside the tariff wall, whence goods exported to the EU Member States will automatically attract the prevailing duties. This is not something the EU does. It is something we will do by virtue of turning ourselves into a third country.

Furthermore, under WTO rules, the EU must levy MFN rates on all third countries without discrimination. If it gave preferential access to the UK outside the framework of a formal trade agreement, it would have to concede the same to all other third countries. This, it would be unlikely to do, as it would damage its trade policy.

On the other hand, if the UK opens up its markets, tariff-free, to the EU – outside the framework of a trade deal – under WTO rules, it must remove tariffs completely for all other countries – thereby removing any incentive any country might have to sign a free trade deal with us.

The point about all these matters, though is that we've explained them many times – not least in our Monograph series, which Mr Lilley claims to have read. It is not something special or made up. This is basic WTO law. But Mr Lilley thinks he knows better. And he has no need of evidence. As one of the chosen ones, he evidently feels he has a right to make wild assertions and be believed.

What is particularly tiresome about such people is that they all tend to adopt the same polemical strategy. For instance, when John Mills was confronted with the prospect of negotiations taking a long time, he argued that, after Norway rejected EU membership in 1972, the Norwegians negotiated a trade deal with the EU in just under eight months.

Never mind that this agreement was 113 pages long, including schedules. The substantive treaty was six pages. It was a very basic treaty, dealing with a very limited range of products, concerning tariff reductions. And never mind that the treaty was replaced in 1994 by the EEA Agreement – which took from 1984 to 1992 to agree.

Thus we have Lilley argue that the government's claim that the process would take 10 years should be consigned to history. The two years laid down in article 50 is a maximum. It need not take that long, he writes.

He goes on to tell us that negotiating to join the European Economic Community took barely two years. That was far more complex than leaving: we had to introduce VAT, implement existing European law, replace Commonwealth preference and much else. Furthermore, he adds, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took only 14 months to negotiate.

The thing is, it doesn't actually take very much to show how dishonest this strain of argument is. For instance, the UK accession negotiations were carried out in two tranches, 1961-63 and then 1970-72. Much of the ground-breaking work was completed in the 1961-63 period, dusted off and carried over.

In between, as we now know, President Pompidou had decided as early as the Hague Summit in 1969, long before the second phase of the negotiations had begun, that Britain's accession could no longer be resisted by France. Thus, when the second phase began, it was already pre-ordained that they would succeed.

Not only is this hardly the case with the Brexit negotiations, we also know of the '70-72 period that our chief negotiator Con O'Neil famously took the line "swallow the lot, swallow it now", as the approach to the negotiations, in order to expedite proceedings.

As for VAT, this was introduced in the 1971 Budget by Anthony Barber. It did not impinge upon the negotiations. We were then negotiating a treaty which, with all the protocols and additions eventually came to 200 pages. By contrast, the current consolidated treaty runs to 410 pages – more then twice the length.

As to NAFTA taking "only 14 months to negotiate", this is misleading. Such agreements do not come out of the blue – there is always a lead-up to them, which is an essential part of the process.

In this case the impetus for NAFTA actually began with President Ronald Reagan who in 1984 gained Congress approval for the Trade and Tariff Act. That gave the President "fast-track" authority to negotiate free trade agreements more freely.

The Act led directly to negotiations with Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney, culminating in the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement, signed in 1988. Meanwhile, Mexican President Salinas and President Bush began negotiations for a trade agreement between the two countries. Into this, the Canadian agreement was folded, making it a trilateral agreement which then became NAFTA.

NAFTA was finally signed into law by President Bill Clinton on 8 December 1993, effectively taking nine years for the entire process to come to fruition.

Part of the game-playing by people such as Lilley, though, is to make the Article 50 negotiations appear much less problematic than they actually are, and this is one of the techniques.

Another technique is the "straw man", misrepresenting the nature of the options available. Thus, according to Lilley, "three options" have already been ruled out by government: remaining in the single market; remaining in the EEA like Norway or staying in the customs union. Never mind that the EEA option is an EU-free Single Market option. He doesn't want you to know that. 

In his assessment that leaves "only two realistic outcomes for Britain's future trading relationship with the EU". Either, he writes, the UK and EU 27 continue trading freely with each other without tariffs. Or we both apply to imports from each other the same World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs that we currently apply to the EU's biggest trading partners. Both options, he asserts, "are pretty simple and better than our present situation".

And there speaks a man only of tariffs. Like so many of his ilk, non-tariff barriers simply do not exist. They are not mentioned at all in Lilley's dissertation.

It is here that Pete's crisis of competence kicks in. Lilley spends a goodly proportion of his piece writing about financial services passporting, and a little about services, but nothing about non-tariff barriers.

Yet it is not possible to talk sensibly about Brexit options without discussing how this issue is going to be addressed. Trying to do so is like acting as if the Single European Act, the "completion of the single market" by 1992 didn't exist.

That, albeit unspoken in Lilley's current piece, is actually part of his scenario. He would have it that other countries can trade with the EU without being members of the Single Market, so there is no reason for us to remain in it.

The point he evades is that most other countries have some form of trade agreement with the EU, agreements that suit their own trading situations. The UK is in the Single Market – that is our "trade agreement" with the EU. If we leave it, we need to negotiate an alternative, and one that gives us access to Member State markets on much the same terms.

But that is not in the Lilley scenario. He would have us, in his own words, bring the issue to a head before the French, German and Dutch elections. That means concluding our exit settlement by April next year – one month after Mrs May plans to invoke Article 50.

His whole scenario isn't just unrealistic. It's plain stupid. And this is from an MP who sits on the Brexit Select Committee, supposedly scrutinising the Government's plans. On this form, he isn't even qualified to scrub the floors in the committee room. For that, you need an NVQ – more of a qualification than is necessary to become an MP.

Richard North 01/12/2016 link

Brexit: Monograph 16 – leaving the customs union

Wednesday 30 November 2016  

After the Second World War, as national boundaries were restored in Europe, customs posts sprung up at the borders (like the one illustrated at Saarbrücken, between France and Germany). Tariffs were levied on much of the cross-border trade.

Then in 1957, for the Six, along came the EEC. Its founding document, the Treaty of Rome, established the mechanisms to create a customs union. This was to abolish tariffs at internal borders and set a common external tariff, where goods coming into the Community all attracted the same rate of duty.

The customs union was complete by 1968, two years ahead of schedule. But that did not mean the abolition of customs controls – not by any means.

By the early 1980s, however, customs checks were still common at internal borders, despite the completion of the customs union in 1968. By 1984, the European Commission was despairingly reporting thus:
Last year a Belgian journalist rented a van and loaded it up with some old furniture that he wanted to take to a holiday house that he had just bought in the South of France. He drove to the frontier and was eventually allowed to cross an hour and a half, 15 signatures and half-a-dozen forms later. The import of second-hand furniture into France for a holiday home ('Do you have proof of ownership, sir?') is perfectly legal, and not subject to any tax or duty. But all the old French customs procedures still exist. The red tape involved in transporting an old wardrobe is the same as for a load of computers or fifty barrels of poisonous dioxin waste from Seveso.
Customs formalities were taking an average of 80 minutes per lorry. Each hour's delay cost between £2.50 and £3.25. The overall cost of customs controls was therefore in the region of £1.7 billion (at 1980 prices) – between 5-10 percent of the value of the goods transported across frontiers.

In the February that year, a go-slow by customs officials on the Franco-Italian border brought the system to crisis point, when French lorry drivers mounted a strike in protest, blockading roads and paralysing commerce. After two weeks, riot police and soldiers had to be mobilised to clear the roads.

At Community level, the response in June 1984 was for the Fontainebleau European Council to agree in principle to abolish customs and police formalities at the Community's internal borders.

On 13 July 1984, the French and German governments took the step towards attaining this objective, signing the Saarbrücken Agreement at the Saarbrücken-Forbach border crossing point in symbolic Goldene-Bremm area. This bilateral treaty – completely outside the framework of the Treaty of Rome and its customs union - committed the two nations to reducing checks and establishing joint control points.

The following year, on 14 June 1985: Belgium Luxembourg and the Netherlands joined with France and Germany to build on this initiative, signing the Schengen Agreement. The five countries committed themselves to the gradual abolition of checks at shared borders and to facilitate the transport and movement of goods at those borders.

The theme was further developed in the White Paper on the completion of the internal market, also published on 14 June 1985, when complete abolition of frontiers was proposed.

This was adopted in the Single European Act on 9 September 1985. Article 13 added measures to establish the internal market - "an area without internal frontiers in which the free movement of goods, persons, services and capital is ensured in accordance with the provisions of this Treaty".

With the target of eliminating internal frontiers by 1992, in the interim, exit checks at Community internal frontiers were to be abolished when goods were transported between two Member States. Formalities were to be confined to the office at the point of entry, avoiding much of the duplication and delays that were still occurring.

Amongst other things, this report furnishes evidence that border controls were still an issue in the late 1980s, 30 years after the signing of the Treaty of Rome. It also demonstrates that the abolition of frontier controls came with the creation of the internal market, rather than with the customs union.

Despite this, if we fast forward to April of this year and we can see the Treasury Report which assessed the impact of leaving the EU.

Amazingly, this report asserted that the Single Market had created a customs union within the EU – a gross historical inaccuracy, then wrongly claiming that the customs union, "means that there are no customs checks on trade within the EU".

Not content with just these errors, the Treasury went on to assert that: "a common external trade policy is an inherent and inseparable part of a customs union", allowing the false claim that membership of the EU's custom union would prevent the UK making its own trade deals.

Post-referendum, these errors were repeated by the Financial Times on 26 July, creating a narrative which supposedly revealed internal conflict in the heart of government.

It had Dr Fox, the current international trade secretary, wanting to pull out of the customs union, to give him "maximum freedom to negotiate new trade deals around the world", while the Treasury wanted to stay in, to avoid businesses being faced with customs controls and mandatory paperwork when exporting to the EU.

Such conflict is loved by the media, which has picked up the false narrative and run with it to this day, with not even a hint of critical analysis or any attempt to check the veracity of the claims.

Thus, we have produced Monograph 16 on leaving the customs union. And what emerges from this is that the conflict is not real. The restriction on negotiating trade deals stems not from the customs union but from the EU's common commercial policy and its exclusive competence over international trade agreements.

On the other hand, while the removal of physical barriers to the free movement of goods within the Community is an adjunct to the customs union, it is not dependent on it. The abolition of frontiers came with the Single European Act in pursuit of developing the internal market, so the customs union is an irrelevance in this respect.

To that extent, the customs union issue, and Britain's membership of it, is a red herring. The media conflict is spurious and has nothing to do with the substantive issues relating to Brexit. The question of membership should never have arisen. It should be a given that we leave the customs union when we leave the EU.

However, it seems that the capacity of the media to chase down red herrings is unlimited. But this one really should be given a decent burial.

Richard North 30/11/2016 link

Brexit: a Damascene conversion

Tuesday 29 November 2016  

So opposed to the "Norway option" was Peter Wilding, director of British Influence, that in February of this year – well before the referendum - he invited the Norwegian Europe minister, Vidar Helgesen, over to the UK to tell us how awful it was.

We got the usual low-grade BS from Helgesen, with him telling us that British Eurosceptics often say the Norwegian experience is evidence of how a country outside the EU, but enjoying the benefits of the single market through membership of the EEA, can prosper without having to commit itself to full membership.

Helgesen, on the other hand, said that this arrangement often created frustrations and difficulties, which meant Norwegian ministers and officials spent a lot of time – sometimes without success – trying to find out what was going on in EU meetings that would affect their country directly.

"We [Norway] are fully integrated into the EU single market as members of the EEA, but what we don't have is the right to vote on those regulations that are incorporated into our law when they are made by the council of ministers", he added.

On occasion, Brussels has sprung surprises that the Norwegians could not predict. The same kind of frustrations could well face the UK. "You would not have all those Brits staffing the commission where the decisions are made", said Helgesen. "Britain being on the outside would obviously not have that amount of people on the inside. You would find it more difficult, as a result, to affect the regulations".

On the back of this, Wilding roundly declared: "Eurosceptics who peddle the myth that Norway is the best [model] for a non-EU Britain are deceiving the British public. They say leaving leads to more democracy and security. This is nonsense".

In full spate, Wilding then said: "We now have the Norwegian Europe minister himself telling us to get a grip, get real and get involved in shaping Europe. Little England cannot be an option".

But now, a mere eight months later, this same Mr Wilding is so convinced of the merits of belonging to the EEA that he is preparing a legal challenge to the government to decide whether it can withdraw from it.

Wilding's rabidly "remainer" campaigning platform has now morphed into a "pro-single market think-tank" and has hired lawyers to argue that leaving the EU does not automatically take Britain out of the European Economic Area (EAA), in which the single market operates.

They will claim that the decision to take the additional step must be decided by parliament separately from any vote to trigger Article 50, the mechanism for exiting the EU.

British Influence has written to David Davis informing him it is seeking a judicial review of that position. It warns that the government may be in breach of the law if it seeks to take Britain out of the EEA along with the EU without clear legal justification.

"We believe the government has not understood how we leave the EEA, and has not understood that we do not need to leave the EEA in order to respect the red lines the 23 June referendum established", Wilding says. "This is not about stopping, thwarting or delaying Brexit, but getting a smarter Brexit that delivers for the UK and doesn’t destabilise the continent of Europe".

Interestingly, British Influence invokes Liechtenstein, saying that it has used some provisions of its EEA membership to limit free movement of people. Its lawyers will argue that Britain could also use these provisions to satisfy the demands of those who voted for Brexit to limit immigration.

The argument hinges on whether Britain joined the EEA as a member of the EU or in its own right. Lawyers are focusing on the case of Croatia, which acceded to the EEA nine months after joining the EU, to prove that the two entities are separate.

They will argue that to leave the EEA, Britain must separately trigger Article 127 of the EEA agreement, in addition to Article 50. Article 127, which Wilding calls "a game changer", requires members to give 12 months' notification to leave without reference to Article 50, while Article 128 says that countries acceding to the EU "may" apply to join the EEA but are not compelled to.

Actually, this argument is very thin indeed, making this a false move by Wilding. We dealt with it at length in October, arguing that the EEA Agreement was quite evidently a treaty between EU Member States and Efta States. To be a party to the Agreement, the UK must either be a member of the EU or Efta.

Failing this, the other members can invoke Article 60 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, and eject the UK. Article 60(2) entitles, in the event of a material breach of a multilateral treaty by one of the parties, entitles the other parties by unanimous agreement to terminate the treaty in the relations between themselves and the defaulting State.

In practice, it would be very hard for any state to participate in the EEA unless it was either a member of the EU or Efta, as the management of the Agreement is conducted via the institutional frameworks of both organisations. That would allow the parties to terminate the Agreement on the grounds of "the impossibility of performing a treaty" (Article 61), or the parties may prefer Article 62, citing "a fundamental change of circumstances".

For once, though, we're not on our own on this. The media's all-purpose "leading authority on European law has also poured cold water on Wilding's thesis. This is Jean-Claude Piris, a former head of the European council's legal service.

"The UK's withdrawal from EU will mean an automatic cessation of its membership of EEA as an EEA-EU member", he says. "In order to become an EEA member you have either to be an EU member or an Efta member". Thus, the UK would not be able to remain in the EEA unless, on withdrawal from the EU, it rejoined Efta.

The crucial point then, which would be much more interesting for Wilding to explore, is whether the UK participation in the EEA Agreement would then automatically lapse, requiring the government to re-apply, or whether we could claim continuity.

In the latter event, this could be very helpful as the UK could then unilaterally invoke Article 112 (safeguard measures) to impose restrictions on the free movement of persons – without requiring the assent of any other party.

Needless to say, a Government spokesman dismissed the challenge, saying: "As the UK is party to the EEA Agreement only in its capacity as an EU Member State, once we leave the European Union we will automatically cease to be a member of the EEA".

Nevertheless, continued EEA participation is possibly the best option for a trouble-free extraction from the EU, which makes it all the more perverse that the lunatic fringe is objecting to it, and absolutely bizarre that those who most strenuously opposed it are now supporting the idea.

Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of Brexit were, as Booker ventured over the weekend, the most serious barriers to a smooth exit from the EU comes from the Tory eurosceptics – as well as their fellow travellers in Ukip.

Richard North 29/11/2016 link

Brexit: the worst possible option

Monday 28 November 2016  

The advantages of adopting the Efta/EEA option are that it gives us the much-needed transitional breathing space by keeping us in the Single Market, yet takes us fully out of the EU and the remit of the ECJ.

When the time is right, and we want to upgrade to a different arrangement, leaving the EEA could not be simpler. We simply give one year's notice.

These make attempts to block the option particularly obtuse as, if we reject the idea of staying in the EEA, the only other alternative which keeps us in the Single Market is to stay in the EU, with a phased withdrawal over a number of years. Come the end of the Article 50 negotiating period, we would arrange to stay in the EU, and only several years later (if at all) would we be fully clear of the EU and the embrace of the ECJ.

Unattractive though this is (and one can quite accept any true Brexiteer objecting to it), this seems to be what the governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, has in mind. According to the Sunday Times yesterday, he is working on a secret plan to keep British businesses in the single market for at least two years after the country leaves the EU.

Carney has held a number of private meetings and dinners in the past two weeks at which he has appealed to business leaders to set aside their differences over Brexit and focus on a common goal. Whether or not Britain remains in the single market over the longer term, business will need time to adapt to the new arrangements, he has argued.

What he is after has acquired the standing of the "continuity option", which kicks in after the Brexit negotiations conclude, in order to prepare for the terms of whatever deal the government can strike with Brussels. In the City though, just to be different, they are calling it the "Brexit buffer" and, dangerous though it is, being thought of as "an elegant solution" to a political stalemate building between business and the government.

As one might expect, the CBI is backing this "continuity option" which is claimed to allow the government to offer a degree of comfort about the future without revealing its broader strategy - if one exists. It would also cushion the financial sector, and broader economy, from post-Brexit turbulence.

The plan, according to the ST went into high gear Monday last, when Carney addressed 50 senior investment bankers at Chatham House and a group of finance directors of the high street banks on Wednesday.

"Carney knows there needs to be a two to three-year extension to allow Britain to adjust from the old rules under Europe to the new order. His key word is continuity", a banker who attended the Chatham House dinner is reported to have said. The governor is now to make an appeal for a smooth transition in Europe, via the G20's Financial Stability Board – of which he just happens to be chair.

And, of absolutely no surprise at all, the ECB is also said to be concerned about the spectre of a "hard Brexit". The ST notes that London is Europe's dominant financial centre and a departure from the single market could choke off the flow of capital for companies across the EU.

Furthermore, the Germans are said to want a handover period but don't want to be seen asking for one. Carney is thus offering what appears to be "a diplomatic solution that works for everyone".

What none of these geniuses seem to have put together though is that this "continuity option" would most certainly need a treaty change for the UK to operate within the Single Market, outside the Efta/EEA framework, on anything like current terms.

That will most likely amount to a succession treaty which presents its own set of problems, not least in requiring ratification of all 28 Member States, including the UK. But what amounts to a fudged exit would, most certainly, trigger uproar which could put parliament on the spot when it comes to ratification.

Then, if it is not ratified, we're into a WTO option, which is the worst of all possible options – but one which would be politically sustainable, while Carney's "continuity option" wouldn't be.

Meanwhile, in a move which is probably not entirely unrelated, Lord Kerr is predicting that the government has a less than 50 percent chance of securing an orderly exit from the European Union within two years.

In his view, the UK will potentially have to accept a phased departure lasting much longer, prompting "a decade of uncertainty".

Predicting a crunch point in the Article 50 talks in the autumn 2018, he argues that the Government is likely to table proposals next spring, whence they would be immediately rejected by the "colleagues", leading to "an extremely nasty bout of xenophobia in the Daily Mail and Sun in the summer, far worse than the recent attacks on the judges as enemies of the people".

According to Kerr, "the fog in the channel is getting thicker all the time", adding even if an agreement was reached by spring 2019 there was a chance "a demob happy European parliament" in its final months before elections in 2019 would refuse to ratify the deal. Hence his prediction that the chances of a deal within two years is now lower than 50 percent.

Kerr challenged those who claimed an interim deal would be easier to negotiate, saying even an interim deal would require an agreement on the long-term destination.

On that point, he cannot be faulted. After all, an interim deal cannot be an interim deal unless you have an end game in mind. And if continued membership of the Single Market within the matrix of the EU is your aiming point, one can see up being trapped there when business objects to dropping out into something that does not offer better terms.

However, Kerr clearly hasn't thought through to the end game. "No one concedes something in an interim agreement that they would not be prepared to concede for a permanent agreement", he says. "In a transition or a bridge, you have to know where you are going, and have a second pillar on the other side of the river, and that is just as hard to negotiate".

This is not actually the case, if your interim is the Efta/EEA option and the end game is to relocate the management of the Single Market to Geneva. But then Kerr – as well as Carney – probably have their own end game, which is called keeping us in the EU by stealth.

The crucial element here is that, at the end of the Article 50 negotiations, we really must leave. We cannot accept a succession treaty which effectively keeps us in the EU, disguised as a transitional agreement, with an option to reverse course and bring us fully back into the EU maw.

Perversely, the best of all defences against such a ploy is the Efta/EEA option and those blocking this are in fact exposing us to the greater danger of getting trapped in the EU. Some people need to do some hard thinking, because the way we are going is looking more than a little dangerous.

Richard North 28/11/2016 link

Brexit: Labour to save a Tory Prime Minister?

Sunday 27 November 2016  

How ironic, Booker writes, that possibly the greatest obstacle to Britain achieving a sensible exit from the EU is that group of 60 Tory MPs who last week ganged up to oppose Theresa May's repeated insistence that we must remain "within" the EU Single Market.

According to a report on Channel 4 News, they believe that to stay in the single market would be "virtually the same as remaining in the EU", still subject to "virtually all its laws".

So blind are these hardline Brexiteers to the practical realities of what we are up against that they seem not to realise that, by leaving the EU but remaining free to trade in the Single Market as members of the wider European Economic Area (EEA), we would in fact be subject to only 5,288 of the 19,868 EU laws in force.

Far from having to obey "virtually all" the EU's laws, we would escape almost three quarters of them, leaving only those that would give us the right to continue trading within the Single Market much as we do now.

In this short piece – subject to the Sunday Telegraph's space limits Booker can't take this to the next level, point out that many of those laws – and increasingly so – originate at regional or global level and are simply handed down to the EU. In or out of the EU, we would be adopting them any way.

And yet, this is no secret. In his 2014 speech, Owen Paterson discusses these influences. He said:
As DEFRA Secretary, I was only too well aware of how these changes affect us. Many of the Single Market food standards my former department has to implement are no longer made in Brussels.

They have gone up a level and are now made by Codex Alimentarius, which reports to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), in Rome. Yet we would often learn of them only after they had been handed down to Brussels and when it was too late to change anything.

This is no small matter. As well as Codex, the FAO hosts two other standard-making organisations, the Office International des Epizooties (OIE), which deals with animal health, and the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC).

Both fix standards which are adopted by the EU as Single Market legislation, only then for it to be passed back down to us. Once they are set at international level, Brussels does not have the power to change them.

I was particularly struck on a visit to New Zealand 18 months ago how my counterparts saw how vital it was to build alliances and work with like-minded nations to promote legislation or amend other countries' proposals.

At that time they were particularly exercised about a specific proposal on the OIE affecting the sheep industry crucial to NZ farmers. They were particularly pleased to have got the Australians on side and believed that gaining the support of Canada and the US would see a key amendment through.

When I asked why they had not asked for the UK's influence on this matter, they said that the UK's position was entirely represented by the EU: even though we have one of the largest sheep flocks in the world.

I left feeling stung by these comments and totally disheartened by our lack of influence but also galvanised by the belief that we could serve our own industries so much better if we, as a sovereign nation, retook our rightful place on these various global regulatory bodies.

Similarly, Norway's position is abusively dismissed as simply submitting to EU law by fax machine. Norway is a member of the EEA, the area of the 28 EU member states and the three EFTA states. Norway has a huge fishing industry and plays an enormously important role in promoting regulations concerning fish in Codex.

The fact that when a regulation is finally agreed, it is formally disseminated to all members of the EEA including Norway, is wholly irrelevant to their key role in negotiating the detail alongside the EU.

Once the regulation is agreed at international level by Norway and the EU it cannot be changed by the EU. Norway makes representation to Codex by itself, and the UK could do the same. These are regulations we will need to submit to either way, so why not submit to them having had a decent chance to influence them as Norway does?

The range of international standards shaping the Single Market acquis is staggering. In the all-important car industry, for instance, the regulatory focus has moved from Brussels to Geneva. There, the EU's Single Market standards start as "UN Regulations" produced by the World Forum for the Harmonisation of Vehicle Regulations. Known as WP.29, it is hosted by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE).

European vehicle production is extraordinarily integrated; the UK produces 1.6 million cars but produces 2.6 million engines. Most of these engines are exported to Europe. As we move to world standards of vehicle production we would be at a massive advantage if we were directly represented, on the body influencing standards, in our industry's interest.

Then there is the regulation affecting the financial services industry - which is of such great importance to the City of London. In the past, much of this was made in Brussels. Now, most of the important rules come from the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision.

As important is the Paris-based Financial Stability Board (FSB), chaired by Mark Carney. Founded in April 2009 by the G20 and working with the OECD, it has a mandate to coordinate national financial authorities and international standard-setting bodies. It is also tasked with developing and promoting the implementation of effective regulatory, supervisory and other financial sector policies.

In the past, Ministers had to travel to Brussels to make their case, and to keep an eye on new laws, but with the advance of globalisation we now need to be represented in Geneva, Paris, Berne, Rome and elsewhere.

Outside the EU, we would be working directly with these organisations, building alliances with likeminded nations, deciding the rules the EU is obliged to adopt – as do Norway, New Zealand and the United States.
This is an optimistic and realistic view, but it says much of the "Tory 60" that they wilfully ignore what comes from their own kind.

Yet, as Booker writes, any of their suggested alternatives would in one way or another be an economic disaster. Furthermore, we could hope to gain other advantages, including the right to exercise some control over immigration and no longer being subject to the European Court of Justice.

A further irony is that, if Parliament is given a vote and those 60 Tory MPs choose to oppose Mrs May's wish to remain in the single market, she might be saved by all those Labour MPs, led by Jeremy Corbyn, who want us to stay in it.

On October 28 1972, also faced with a backbench rebellion by Eurosceptic Tories, Edward Heath only won his crucial vote to take us into Europe with the aid of 69 Labour MPs, led by Roy Jenkins, who rebelled against their own party to support him.

After Labour MPs helped overcome a rebellion to take us into Europe, it could be Labour MPs enabling Mrs May to survive a Tory rebellion over the best way to take us out.

Richard North 27/11/2016 link

Brexit: not your property

Saturday 26 November 2016  

An excellent piece by Bruno Waterfield in The Times hides behind the paywall, where it's no business being.

Headed "British politicians can no longer hide behind EU’s veil of secrecy", Bruno tells us that "Brexit has not changed the default position for Whitehall's conduct of European Union negotiations: concealment, obfuscation and control freaky".

His tale starts with a press release from the Department for Exiting the EU, telling the press corps: "Davis travels to Brussels and Strasbourg", sent out just as the train alarm sounded and the TGV's doors closed on the last direct train to Strasbourg.

Unhelpfully for those of us who report here in the capital of the EU, Bruno writes, David Davis was already leaving Brussels, where he had been all morning, and was now on his way to Strasbourg.

Despite many requests for details of the visit, officials from both his department and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had refused to confirm when the secretary of state for Brexit would be in either city.

As press officers and special advisers refused to answer telephones and emails the aim of the operation became clear: to hide details of whom Mr Davis was meeting, where or when he was meeting them.

But, like all such operations, this one ended in farce. As the train left the station, The Times and Daily Mail were also on it; we had not believed the denials or paid heed to refusals to confirm his visit and had made our own plans.

The press release, timed to prevent any coverage on Monday, stated that in Brussels "the secretary of state paid a visit to the UK Representation to the European Union", Britain's embassy to the EU. Mr Davis’s officials stuck to that story but the truth was rather different.

He had in fact met Michel Barnier, the man the Commission likes to call the EU's "lead Brexit negotiator". And although talks had lasted 40 minutes on Monday morning, Mr Davis's officials had no intention of revealing this.

A couple of hours into the train journey Mr Barnier tweeted that he had met Mr Davis. The Whitehall spin doctors were aghast.

They were even more horrified to find that the Brussels correspondents they were trying to avoid were on the train with them. The expressions of horror on the faces of Mr Davis's minders, including a former political editor of the Daily Mail and a former director of Open Europe, were highly satisfying.

Mr Davis, of course, was highly relaxed about it all. The talks had been a "courtesy" and were in terms of substance "banal" – or so he told the insolent press who now confronted him en route to Strasbourg. An experienced politician and parliamentarian, he effortlessly turned the conversation elsewhere before reporters were asked to leave his first-class train carriage.

In Strasbourg it was little different. MEPs, like Mr Barnier, had nothing to hide when it came to meetings. Requests by British officials for the number of journalists to be restricted outside the meeting room to the BBC and two agency reporters were cheerfully ignored.

After the talks Mr Davis restricted himself to more banalities. Manfred Weber, one of Germany's most senior politicians, was less obliging.

Writes Bruno: "There are two morals to this story, which reminded this Brussels correspondent of almost 14 years standing of the most egregious stupidities of Gordon Brown's attempts to conceal or manipulate his EU negotiations".

The first is that other parties will not necessarily share the same desire to conceal or mislead the press (and thus the public), leaving Mr Davis, or any other British minister, looking foolish and, much worse, dishonest.

The second moral is much more important: after the Brexit referendum it cannot be business as usual. EU negotiations are no longer the property of a tiny circle of technocrats and civil service control freaks obsessed with secrecy and keeping the public out of it.

Business as usual is the traditional EU statecraft of taking decisions in a public-free zone, with consensus arrived at through bureaucratic procedures derived from the secretive world of diplomacy. The aim is to avoid the unwelcome introduction of public opinion and judgment into a closed process conducted in secrecy and between officials.

But things have changed. Brexit is now a topic of conversation in every pub and cafe, on every bus and tube, in every workplace and home. One of the most gratifying aspects of the referendum is this: everyone is now an expert on the EU; the public have taken ownership by taking the decision to leave.

Mr Davis and the Whitehall machine, Bruno concludes, need to take note. If they want to take the public with them on Brexit this negotiation can not be a secret diplomatic stitch-up that is business as usual.

And just to prove the point, we have an Irish politician – none other than Enda Kenny, the Republic's Prime Minister, declaring that Brexit is "impossible" within two years. He is thus calling for an extended transition period.

To anyone with more than two brain cells, this is so obvious that it's hardly worth repeating. We've been saying it for more than two years – nearly three now – in the pages of Flexcit and on this blog. It has defined the shape of our exit plan as we have concluded that we'll never get a "big bang" settlement in the time.

But, as well as being sneered at by the bubble dwellers and ignored by the legacy media, we have been confronted by an indifferent Government that, in the manner of David Davis, is practising mushroom management. The silence on the Government's intentions is now deafening.

Initially, we could accept that Mrs May needed some catch-up time, but as the months have progressed, we're not even getting the crumbs from the table. That tiny circle of technocrats and civil service control freaks quite obviously believe that Brexit is their property and they're not about to let us in on it.

The media is just as bad. Together with the Westminster politicians, they comprise that self-referential claque of ignoramuses who believe that they are soooooo superior to us plebs that their shit doesn't stink.

Enda Kenny, though, is just making a statement of the bleedin' obvious and, even though we've being saying it for all those years, that doesn't stop arsewipes such as Simon Nixon claiming that he's just invented the wheel, telling us the need for a transition deal has "been obvious to every business group and European Union policy expert since 24 June".

And now Enda Kenny has joined the know-all club, with the stunning observation that: "there's a growing feeling in Europe that there should be a transition period, and that the transition period will be longer than those two years". And then, with a prescience at which we can only marvel, he tells us: "I think it will be".

So, five months down the line since the referendum, these geniuses are finally coming to a conclusion we reach on page 13 of Flexcit, with nearly 400 more pages to go. And we're the ones who are supposed to sit back and watch in awe as our politicians stumble around in the dark, trying to catch up with us, waiting for the applause like performing seals, every time they fart.

Well, Bruno has said it. EU negotiations are no longer the property of a tiny circle of technocrats and civil service control freaks obsessed with secrecy and keeping the public out of it. They are not the property of the media, nor the self-serving claque of big-ego academics, lawyers and think-tankers, and they sure as hell don't belong to the ranks of prattling, terminally ignorant MPs.

This was the people's referendum and the outcome also belongs to the people. And if we are continually kept out of the loop, the growing irritation is going to transform into something much more aggressive and harder to contain. The warnings are there – they should be heeded.

Richard North 26/11/2016 link

Brexit: compounding the lies

Friday 25 November 2016  

No more egregious a lie exists than the Vote Leave claim that Brexit would bring us a dividend of £350 million a week, which could be spent on the NHS.

But like most liars, the perpetrators don't know when to give up. In the Mail today is the wholly spurious claim that the "Brexit dividend" does exist after all and, over the course of three years from 2020, the UK stands to save £31.9billion from not making EU transfers, which can be used for domestic purposes.

The claim is repeated in several other media sources, including The Sun and Guido Fawkes, the latter apparently relying on figures "tucked away in the back of this week's Autumn Statement" which, the site claims, "forecast that "Britain is expected to stop tipping any money into the Brussels coffers in 2019-20".

On this basis thirteen "leading Leave campaigners" including Michael Gove and Gisela Stuart are urging the Government to spend the money on the NHS. Tory ex-health secretary Andrew Lansley is critical of the "disappointing" decision not to hand over extra money. He says: "The next two years are going to be incredibly difficult and I think the time is now for trying to put some measures in place to try and help health and social care through those next two years".

According to Guido, in an open letter to the Government, Gove, Gisela, Steve Baker and others say:
When we leave the EU we will be able to take back control of the billions of pounds of taxpayers' money we send to Brussels each year. We will be able to decide how we spend that money rather than EU bureaucrats. The OBR has revealed that the British people will get back over £10 billion net a year once we leave the EU. We believe that this Brexit dividend should be spent on our priorities – the most important of which is our NHS.
Thus we see, the "revelations" concerning the supposed savings come variously from the Autumn Statement or the Office of Budget Responsibility. Referring to the latter, we need to turn to page 160 for the relevant detail, which we see in Box 4.4. Headed: "External views on the possible scope of Brexit negotiations", this says:
The UK currently makes a substantial net financial contribution to the activities of the European Union. This contribution may not be eliminated entirely when we leave the EU, as some non-member countries choose to contribute to the EU financially in exchange – for example – for preferential access to the single market or funding for university research. Commentators also expect the EU to argue that the UK will have an ongoing responsibility for some EU liabilities.

The size and scope of any ongoing financial flows between the UK and EU will depend on the outcome of the negotiations over our future relationship. Neither the UK Government nor the EU have set out their negotiating positions.

As we know neither the Government's negotiating stance, nor its chances of success, we have not attempted to predict what the outcome of the negotiations will be and therefore what the financial flows will look like after we leave. As described in paragraphs 4.130 to 4.131, we have instead made the fiscally neutral assumption that any reduction in the net expenditure transfers that we would make to the EU if we remained a member will be recycled into other domestic spending – either to compensate private or public sector recipients for the loss of EU funding or to meet other spending priorities.
Alongside paragraphs 4.130 to 4.131, we see Table 4.27, reproduced here:

This has the actual "non-forecast", with the three financial years from 2019-2020 showing: "Assumed domestic spending in lieu of EU transfers”. The sums amount respectively to £13.0, £13.4 and £13.9 billion.

Turning to the Autumn Statement, we can go to page 59 for exactly the same figures, with the accompanying footnote, which states:
As we do not have sufficient detail about the Government's negotiation preferences, or the chances of achieving them, we are not able to make forecast how spending will be affected after the UK leaves the EU. We therefore make the fiscally neutral assumption that any reduction in transfers to the EU would be recycled into extra domestic spending.
In other words, both sources, in very similar terms, explicitly refrain from making any forecasts on savings or otherwise, and adopt the "fiscally neutral assumption" that there will be no savings – purely for accountancy purposes.

The savings thus claimed by Gove et al are, therefore, fictitious. No credible assessment of the Autumn Statement of the OBR report could in any way sustain the claims that, as the Express puts it: "Britain set for £32 billion bonus after quitting the EU". In fact, using either source to assert this in such a bald fashion is an outright lie.

Claims of this nature make liars of Mr Gove – who is now pocketing £150,000 a year from The Times - and his colleagues. They also reflect a dismal media which is content to feed its readers with a diet of lies. And yet – to judge by the Guido comments - there are plenty of gullible souls willing to believe this guff, despite the ready availability of the original reports on the internet.

By the end of the day, though, one can almost guarantee that other media sources will have climbed on the coprophagic bandwagon, compounding the lies of Mr Gove and his fellow travellers, misleading the public as they so often do. That is the nature of our media, on which our democracy is supposed to rely. We need better than this.

Richard North 25/11/2016 link

Brexit: is Blair leaving it too late?

Friday 25 November 2016  

The reincarnation of Tony Blair is much heralded, but with mixed feelings. If he thinks his second coming is going to save the nation for Europhilia, others are taking the view that his presence will strengthen our determination to leave the EU.

Blair himself tells us he is "dismayed by the state of Western politics". But, he adds, he is also incredibly motivated by it. "I think in Britain today, you've got millions of effectively politically homeless people", he says.

He believes Brexit "can be stopped" if British voters decide the "cost-benefit analysis doesn't stack up". Such a turnaround could arise in one of two ways, both of them hinging on negotiations over access to the EU's Single Market, he thinks.

"Either you get maximum access to the single market, in which case you'll end up accepting a significant number of the rules on immigration, on payment into the budget, on the European court's jurisdiction". In this case, people may then say: "Well, hang on, why are we leaving then?"

"alternatively, you’ll be out of the single market and the economic pain may be very great because, beyond doubt, if you do that you'll have years, maybe a decade, of economic restructuring".

Brexit, he says, was 'like agreeing to a house swap without having seen the other house'. And while the referendum campaign was won by the leave side, even those voters would eventually look at this in a practical way, not an "ideological way".

However, while he is launching a defence of the "muscular centre", he says that the "right-wing media" would not allow him to return to front-line politics. "There are elements of the media who would literally move to destroy mode if I tried to do that," he claims.

Instead, he says he is interested in providing "a service" to political leaders, in the form of a technologically-inspired platform. Quite what that means is not yet clear but we do know that he has held private talks with non-leader Nick Clegg, after having had discussions with former Chancellor George Osborne.

Yet, when he approached the current Tim Farron, he was rebuffed, the current Lib-Dem leader, rejecting the offer of a face-to-face meeting with Mr Blair. Mr Farron gave him "short-shrift" and is not interested in a closer political relationship.

Perhaps Mr Farron believes that Blair is planning a break-away party on the lines of the Social Democratic Party of 1981, when four senior Labour Party "moderates", dubbed the "Gang of Four" broke away to form a new party – only to merge with the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats.

Should this happen, Farron's lacklustre leadership would doubtless be challenged, as one can envisage Blair looking to splinter off Corbyn refugees from the Labour Party, to form a new grouping using the Liberal Democrats as it hub. Tory Europhiles might also be expected to join this new "centre party", ready to challenge the Conservatives in the 2020 election.

All this is an ironic inversion of expectations. Amongst others, Farage always anticipated the Tories splitting and, with a rampant Ukip taking dozens of seats in the Commons, he expected the "Right" to combine with his Ukip MPs to form a new centre right party to take us out of the EU.

Instead, the Ukip electoral ambitions were never realised, the Conservative Party has stayed intact (for the moment) and it is the disillusioned Europhiles who are potentially looking to form a centre-left or "progressive" party to keep us in the EU – or take us back in.

Nothing of this, though, has been declared openly by Mr Blair, whose new organisation launches in the spring. He says it merely intends to analyse why British voters chose Brexit and the populist forces that led to the election of Donald Trump in the United States.

On the other hand, Blair is pushing the thesis that there is a global political vacuum, and his moves to get senior Lib-Dems on side are definitely seen by some as an attempt to galvanise centre ground politics and restore New Labour thinking in the UK.

One wonders whether the recent Branson initiative might also be connected. Although there is no declared connection, the timing is deeply suspicious.

For all that, though, it may be that Blair has left it too late. If he is not intending to launch until the spring, Mrs May will by then be ready to start the Article 50 negotiations and the opportunity to block the notification will have passed (assuming Mrs May wins her Supreme Court appeal).

That leaves the alternative possibility that Blair is playing a longer game, ready to target the 2020 election, when he could present a party which stood on a pro-EU platform, arguing for rejoining the EU. If that is the case, and he really believes the referendum result can be overturned, then Mrs May could be facing a more serious challenge than anything Corbyn has to offer.

The upside is that a robust challenge could have the effect of uniting the Conservative Party, and aligning pro-anti EU politics with left and right. A win for Mrs May under those circumstances could become an affirmation of Brexit, leaving the pro-EU forces completely defeated.

If he is not too late to the party, therefore, Blair could be doing us a favour. Aligning his unpopularity with the EU, he could ensure that there is no chance whatsoever of us returning to the embrace of the EU.

Richard North 25/11/2016 link

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