Brexit: fantasy politics

Thursday 22 August 2019  



Laid out unequivocally in the European Council (Art. 50) guidelines for Brexit negotiations is one of the core principles which set the tone for the talks.

Any agreement, the guidelines say, "must ensure a level playing field, notably in terms of competition and state aid, and in this regard encompass safeguards against unfair competitive advantages through, inter alia, tax, social, environmental and regulatory measures and practices".

In short, that means that the UK will not be allowed to negotiate an agreement which puts it in a better position after Brexit than it would have had as a full EU member, and neither can it be allowed to have greater influence over EU affairs than it had previously.

When it comes to the Single Market, these guidelines readily translate into certain unalterable requirements which would, in effect, amount to the EU's own "red lines".

Specifically, a dominant feature of the Single Market is the body of harmonised regulatory standards, and it is an absolute requirement that Member States should conform fully with those standards. Not only that – except under the most exceptional circumstances – traders wishing to export goods to EU Member States must also conform fully with those same standards.

This is the very basis of the Single Market, where huge effort is devoted to ensuring conformity, and any divergence from set standards is rigorously discouraged.

Yet, in his letter to Donald Tusk this week, the man occupying the post of prime minister blithely stated that he was seeking to ditch the backstop, with its commitment to "full alignment" with wide areas of the single market and the customs union. That, said Johnson, "cannot be the basis for the future relationship and it is not a basis for the sound governance of Northern Ireland".

Instead, Johnson has been making reference to "alternative arrangements", which he re-emphasised in Berlin yesterday, saying: "We do think there are alternative arrangements that could readily be used to address the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border and you'll have heard them before, whether it is trusted trader schemes or electronic pre-clearing. All that type of solution and more besides is what we will be wanting to discuss".

Doubtless, he has in mind "Snake Oil" Singham's Alternative Arrangements Commission and his ideas on mutual recognition – the adoption of which is the only way that frictionless trade across the border could be maintained without regulatory alignment.

And sure enough, no sooner has Mrs Merkel told the prime minister in office that should would be prepared to listen to his proposals for an alternative to the backstop – ostensibly giving him 30 days come forward with a "practical and workable" scheme – up pops the egregious Singham in the Telegraph.

With a level hubris which is probably only exceeded by the second Cummings, he blithely declares that that the EU leaders "have got it wrong" and that there are plenty of solutions to the Irish border problem.

Then, in an extraordinary statement – even for him – Singham asserts that "it is now recognised that there will be regulatory divergence", going on to say that: "If there is any alignment to be had, it will be alignment of goals. If our aims are aligned and the regulations put in place objectively achieve them then differences in regulation should not prevent mutual recognition".

Of course, it is very far from being recognised that there will be regulatory divergence. This is wishful thinking to a very advanced degree. The essential feature of the backstop is regulatory alignment and the EU has not moved one iota from this principle.

Furthermore, if you stand back from this and consider what is being proposed, Singham is expecting the EU Member States (and the rest of the world) to conform with the Single Market's harmonised standards, while uniquely allowing the UK to set its own standards. It should then enjoy "frictionless" access to the Market which, to everyone else, is conditional on regulatory alignment.

Not only does this give the UK an unfair competitive advantage, it also puts us in a far better position than we enjoyed as an EU member. Inside the EU, we were bound to comply with EU law. Outside, Singham expects us to enjoy all the benefits of the Single Market without having to trouble ourselves with conformity with its most fundamental precept.

And should the EU actually allow such a situation, not only would it be in breach of its own principles, it would be driving a cart and horse through EU rules, and in particular the requirement to apply the same rules to all its trading partners.

Thus, should the EU allow the UK to work on the basis of mutual recognition, it would be under enormous pressure to open that concession to all its other partners. The Single Market, as we know it, would cease to exist.

Clearly, there is not the slightest chance that the EU is going to accept Singham's idiot proposal and it is to the eternal shame of the Telegraph that they give space to such a lamentable absence of realism.

Nor indeed does it stop there. Where currently the UK enjoys the benefit if mutual recognition, where there are no harmonised standards, that provision ceases on Brexit – deal or no deal. Mutual recognition of standards allies only to fully-fledged participants in the Single Market.

While variously estimated at accounting for as much as a fifth of our trade in goods with EU Member States, I cannot recall seeing any serious discussion in the media or by politicians about this loss, yet there can be little dispute that it will represent a severe body-blow to the UK.

The inability to address such points does, of course, reflect poorly on both media and politicians but there seems to be no limit to the degree to which the likes of Singham are given undisputed platforms to perpetrate his disinformation.

Despite his assertions being demonstrably false, Singham is still allowed to claim that the challenge of sanitary and phytosanitary measures, as well as the requirements for veterinary checks at Border Inspection Posts, " could be solved by moving facilities away from the border and utilising mobile units wherever possible to carry out checks".

Not anyone, it seems, in either a select committee or on the editorial staff of a national newspapers – nor even in critical trade groups – is capable of looking up the relevant EU law to show that these claims are entirely fabricated. And, as long as your lies are bold enough, the Telegraph will print them.

But where this fantasy takes us is anyone's guess. If Johnson is relying on Singham's "alternative arrangements", then he is going to come a cropper. A scheme based on lies and misinterpretations is not a sound basis for public policy, but it appears that Johnson doesn't have the wit to realise this.

Nor does he seem to understand that Merkel is not talking about reopening the negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement. All that is on offer is another massage of the political declaration, which can hardly deliver more than we have already seen with the Strasbourg Agreement. Johnson is not going to get the backstop removed.

If there was even the slightest doubt about that, today be meets Macron over lunch in Paris, where officials warn that a no-deal Brexit is now regarded as "the most likely outcome", while Macron is taking pains to emphasise that a renegotiation at this point "is not an option".

Scrapping the backstop, he says, is "impossible", presenting the EU an unacceptable choice between protecting its internal market by reintroducing border controls at the Irish border, or preserving peace on the island.

A French official puts the issue nicely in context, saying that: "If the UK considers that having a backstop is absolutely excluded, that is its right, but in that case it limits the possibility of reaching an agreement". And it was supposed to be the British who were masters of understatement.

Macron, though, is even more forthright, pointing to a "British democratic crisis" over Brexit. "The British were asked to choose, in perhaps a simplistic way, without the government telling them how it would be done" he says.

"Many lied about how it would be done, and democracy couldn't find a majority to apply what people decided. It's unheard of, but that's what we're living. We have to help the British deal with this internal democratic crisis, but we mustn't be hostage to it nor export it".

It comes to something when we have a French president lecturing us on a "democratic crisis", but before Brexit is over, I guess we'll be seeing a lot stranger things. Fantasy politics are fast becoming the new norm.



Richard North 22/08/2019 link

Brexit: ours is but to do or [panic] buy

Wednesday 21 August 2019  



The BBC seems to have joined Project Fear big time, running a story revealed unto the sainted Faisal Islam about how a no-deal Brexit is going to run us out of fuel and we're all going to die – or something like that.

This was something touched upon in the "Yellowhammer" dossier, where it was reported that tariffs applied to UK refined petroleum products would make their export to EU Member States uncompetitive.

Industry, the dossier says, had plans to mitigate the impact on refinery margins and profitability, but UK government policy to set petrol import tariffs at zero percent inadvertently undermines these plans.

This, we are told, will lead to big financial losses and the closure of two refineries (which are converted to import terminals) with about 2,000 direct job losses. It is then hypothesised that resulting strike action at refineries would lead to disruptions to fuel availability for 1-2 weeks in the regions they directly supply.

I have a little difficulty with this as the EU provides us with its Market Access Database which lists the tariffs for thousands of product codes. And, as far as I can make out, refined petroleum gets the code 27090010, which gives us a zero tariff.

The BBC knows different, of course, and it is reporting that the current EU tariff on fuel imports from third countries is 4.7 percent, which will be applied to our exports to Ireland and other EU Member States, once we have left with a no-deal Brexit.

On the other hand, since the UK government has decided to apply a zero tariff on our imports, that means the UK market will be open to a flood of cheaper imports from Russia and other major exporters, while we lose out on exports to the EU states, which become "uneconomical".

The theory is that the resultant closure of UK refineries would lead to a long-term increase in consumer prices. Somehow, though, this has been elided into the general rhetoric on fuel shortages, which are supposed to arise in the first instance from congestion around the Channel ports, which disrupt the distribution of supplies.

When we add hypothesised strike action, this obviously makes the situation worse and, should that ever happen, it's pretty certain that panic buying will kick in and there will be empty tanks at the garages, long queues and rationing.

To beef up their story, the BBC has "seen" some of the contingency plans for local authorities. And, although Aberdeen City Council lists as a low risk "reduced/lack of fuel affecting waste disposal, school transportation etc", the state broadcaster still manages to work in its name alongside suggestions that "fuel supply could be an issue".

The thing is that, typically, the national transport fleet averages half-empty (or half-full) tanks so, if collectively, the bulk of owner/operators decide to keep their tanks full, that in itself is enough to trigger a shortage at the pumps, even without any downturn in production.

With that, it is difficult to avoid the impression that the tariff issue is being overstated. Petrol is subject to massive duties plus VAT. This is charged on the duty-inclusive price, so we have a situation where customers are paying tax on a tax.

In Ireland, for instance, some 60 percent of the pump price goes to the government in duty and VAT, making a 4.7 percent tariff rather small beer.

One also suspects that Ireland, with established supply arrangements, could compensate for any tariffs by reducing slightly the duty payable, so that the net effect would be revenue-neutral, with no increase in the pump price either.

Altogether, therefore, it would look as if Aberdeen City Council has got it right, listing as a low risk "reduced/lack of fuel". And so far, only the BBC has been running the shortage story big – as lead item on the main evening TV news.

The rest of the media seems to be holding off, although the likes of Sky News is making the most of the "Yellowhammer" story.

Three days into that story, since the Sunday Times broke it over the weekend, we're getting a taste of how the media will be playing Brexit as we get closer to the 31 October deadline. Throughout the decades, the media has never needed an excuse to run headline stories on scares, and has never been troubled by minor things such as facts.

I think my favourite was at the height of the 1988-9 Salmonella and eggs scare, when the Observer gave its front-page lead to the graphic tale of a man who had eaten a fried egg for his breakfast, and was being hospitalised with salmonella food poisoning by lunch-time.

Given that the typical incubation period of Salmonellosis is 18 hours, and less than eight hours is unheard of, a period of just over four hours rates as extremely improbable – and demonstrably so. But that didn't stop the Observer running with the story.

Over the next couple of months, I rather suspect that we are going to see an increasing flow of Brexit-related scare stories, rising to a flood as the day of our departure draws closer. This will not be Project Fear, as such, but the natural tendency of the media to exploit bad news for its own commercial purposes.

In terms of supplies – whether food, medicines or fuel – such stories can very easily trigger panic buying, turning predictions into self-fulfilling prophesies. Largely random and unpredictable, these could frustrate planners' attempts to maintain the flow of key products.

And this is not helped by the lack of certainty as to the outcome of the Brexit process. Although I have little doubt that we are facing a no-deal exit on 31 October – especially after the response of Donald Tusk to Johnson's letter – at this late stage the possibility of a last-minute deal cannot be ruled out, even if that is extremely unlikely.

If, as some suspect, Johnson is indulging in a devious blame-shifting strategy, where he wants to pin the responsibility firmly on the EU – thus clearing the way for a general election – then we can expect the uncertainty to continue to the last minute. It will be necessary to maintain the charade of "talks" right up to the eleventh hour, to give the impression that serious attempts are being made to reach an orderly settlement.

Where the European Commission is relying on a form of words - as it did in yesterday's response to Johnson – to the effect that it stands "ready to work constructively with the UK and within our mandate", hope will forever spring eternal that something can be fixed – right up to the moment when it can't.

And when Angela Merkel is also talking in terms of the EU being "ready to find a solution to the backstop issue" – although she is confining the prospect of any talks to the political declaration – this would appear to leave the door open in a way that can be exploited by Johnson and his advisers.

All of this creates a febrile atmosphere, where rumour and misinformation can thrive, and where the media – as with the BBC and its petrol story – can build on slender threads to start multiple scares running.

The lack of information then feeds on itself, intensifying the uncertainty and making it very difficult for non-government actors to do any serious planning without incurring what may turn out to be unnecessary expense.

Unable to take considered action, we are all reduced to the role of spectators where, in terms of action we have little available to us but to respond to the ebb and flow of [often baseless] media scares. It might be said that the only things now open to us are to do or [panic] buy.



Richard North 21/08/2019 link

Brexit: a suicide note from Number 10

Tuesday 20 August 2019  



Yesterday, the man occupying the post of prime minister sent a letter to the president of the European Council, with copies to each of the 27 heads of states and governments, plus a further copy to the president of the European Commission.

The content was nothing new – simply Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson reiterating the points previously made. He condemns the backstop as "anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK as a state" and then proposes that it should be replaced with a commitment to put in place alternative arrangements as far as possible before the end of the transition period, as part of the future relationship.

He also deigns to "recognise" that there will need to be "a degree of confidence about what would happen if these arrangements were not all fully in place at the end of that period". And, out of the goodness of his heart, he tells Donald Tusk that "we" (presumably, the UK government) "are ready to look constructively and flexibly at what commitment might help", consistent with the principles set out in his letter.

So transparent is this ploy that, within hours, the Guardian was writing that the initiative "appears intended to portray Johnson as willing to negotiate with Brussels, even though he is making a demand for the abolition of the backstop that they have repeatedly rebuffed".

By last night "Brussels sources" were once again ruling out any renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop. "There was a two and a half year negotiating process in which the EU compromised, including on the question of the backstop", someone described as "a well-informed source" was telling the Guardian.
The withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation and the backstop is not open for change. A legally operable backstop to avoid a hard border remains central to the withdrawal agreement for the EU27.
And, as the momentum built up, others joined the fray, stating that the letter was a "clear attempt" to kill off any prospect of renegotiating the Brexit deal, which leaves no "room for compromise".

Another of those wondrously anonymous EU diplomats said Johnson had failed to put forward any "realistic alternatives", adding that "hope and imagination" would not prevent a hard border. By calling for the backstop to be abolished in its entirety, Johnson was effectively ruling out any prospect of the EU offering any concessions.

Earlier in the day, however, Johnson had been insisting that he was "confident" the EU would buckle and give into his Brexit demands, agreeing to renegotiate the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Said Johnson, it was "fine" that Brussels was currently opposed to changing the Withdrawal Agreement as he outlined his belief that the EU will drop its "reluctance" to shift its stance when it comes to the crunch.

And with that, nothing has changed since the very start, when it has been an article of faith amongst the hard core leavers that the EU will give in at the 59th minute of the eleventh hour, as long as we threaten a no-deal and stand firm, intimating that we are fully prepared to deal with the consequences.

That, of course, is the other half of the crass stupidity emanating from Number 10 with Johnson burbling about preparations for a no-deal, saying: "I'm not pretending that there won't be bumps on the road […] but if everybody puts their minds to it, I have absolutely no doubt that we can get ready" – even though the leader of the CBI said it was impossible for companies to be fully prepared for the disruption that would happen if the UK crashed out of the EU without a deal.

The essence of his stupidity, though, is expressed in Johnson's letter, where he re-affirms that the UK is "unconditionally committed to the spirit and letter" of our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, whether there is a deal with the EU or not.

One assumes that this necessarily means the maintenance of a "soft" border. Although we don't see Johnson make specific reference to this, he does say that his government "will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland", stating that "we would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect", hoping that "the EU would do likewise".

Unfortunately, what he then says has the effect of making this impossible, by declaring:
Although we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.
The point he then acknowledges is that the "backstop is inconsistent with this ambition", misinterpreting its requirement in asserting that it required "continued membership of the customs union" and the application of "many single market rules in Northern Ireland".

A careful reading of the protocol, however, will not reveal any specific requirement from Northern Ireland to stay in the EU's customs union. Rather, it requires "full alignment with those rules of the Union's … customs union", which is actually a different thing.

By shadowing the EU's schedules of tariffs agreed with the WTO – which we already intend to do – and by committing (by way of a political declaration) to conforming with the EU's common external tariff, we would be able to maintain "full alignment" with the rules of the customs union, without formal membership of the customs union.

Nevertheless, Johnson's letter declares that we cannot "continue to endorse the specific commitment, in paragraph 49 of the December 2017 Joint Report, to 'full alignment' with wide areas of the single market and the customs union. That, says Johnson, "cannot be the basis for the future relationship and it is not a basis for the sound governance of Northern Ireland".

Yet again, reference to the offending paragraph of the Joint Report shows the commitment, in the absence of agreed solutions, "to maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union" – which is not the same as membership.

But at the heart of the problem here is Johnson wanting to reserve the right for UK standards to "diverge from those of the EU". It is that, in his view, which makes the Withdrawal Agreement, and the embedded Protocol untenable, notwithstanding that the ability to secure "frictionless" trade demands full regulatory alignment.

Undoubtedly, in making reference to "alternative arrangements", Johnson has in mind "Snake Oil" Singham's ideas on mutual recognition – the adoption of which is the only way that frictionless trade across the border could be maintained without regulatory alignment.

If that is what he has in mind, then his initiative is doomed, illustrated by an air of unreality as Johnson blathers, "Now of course our friends and partners on the other side of the Channel are showing a little bit of reluctance at the moment to change their position".

There is simply no prospect of the EU moving away from an absolute requirement for regulatory alignment, not least because any deviation from that principle would prejudice the integrity of the Single Market. Concessions would create precedents, and require similar treatment to be afforded to all the EU's other trading partners.

The net effect of Johnson's letter, therefore, is to set in stone a determination to force the EU into setting up a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

There can be no other outcome and it is thoroughly disingenuous for him to "hope" that the EU will be able to avoid "infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border". There is absolutely no way the EU can allow an unguarded back door into the Single Market.

It is, therefore, completely unsurprising that Johnson should have spent almost an hour on a phone call to the Irish premier, Leo Varadkar, only for the conversation to end in stalemate. A joint statement was released, acknowledging no progress over the issue of the backstop.

The prime minister in office has agreed to go to Dublin for talks with Varadkar in early September but, before that – this week - he is to see Merkel (in Berlin for dinner on Wednesday), before moving to have lunch with Macron in Paris on Thursday, ending up at the close of the week with a meeting of world leaders at the G7 summit.

Predictably, Downing Street sources are saying that they are not expecting any end to the deadlock this week, and nor should they. There will be no end to it. Johnson has just written the suicide note for the UK, ensuring that no-deal is our only destination on 31 October.



Richard North 20/08/2019 link

Brexit: crying wolf?

Monday 19 August 2019  



The Sunday Times's leakage of the government's "Yellowhammer" dossier certainly seems to have set the cat amongst the pigeons – which perhaps was the intention.

Predictably, the media are piling in, which is hardly surprising given a slow news day at the fag end of the silly season. There's hardly an outfit in the country (or world, even) which could pass up on such a juicy story.

Equally predictable was the response of No 10, which is apparently "furious" at the leak, although they would convey that view, come what may. In all probability though, that fury is genuine – it has that feel about it. The Johnson administration didn't want this.

The Guardian has Downing Street putting the timing down to a determination of a hostile former minister to spike the trips the prime minister in office intends to make in the coming week to see the two "M"s, Merkel and Macron.

However, the timing is probably a coincidence, as the leak probably pre-dates the public announcements of Johnson's visits and anyone with inside knowledge would doubtless not bother trying to sabotage them. Seeing Merkel and Macron was exactly what Mrs May did and it was a complete waste of time.

If Johnson has a purpose at all, it must be purely cosmetic, as no one serious could believe that even these two pre-eminent heads of state can achieve anything on Brexit outside the formal context of the European Council.

As for dealing with the fallout of the leak, the brunt of the rebuttal effort was borne yesterday by Michael Gove, the minister in charge of Brexit preparations, who has been insisting that the dossier was an "old document" that did not reflect significant steps taken by Johnson’s administration over the last four weeks. He also argues that the dossier shows "the worst-case scenario".

This, from a reading of the document, is actually a given, with Gove promising that "very significant steps" had been taken in the last three weeks to accelerate Brexit planning. And together with the action taken by Continental authorities, it is hard to dispute that measures have been taken to mitigate the worst effects of Brexit.

Nevertheless, the leak has been a godsend for the considerable constituency who want to believe the worst, and soonest. There are no nuances here. Those who want to see Brexit fail will take anything they can get and make the most of it.

One of those is the former head of the civil service, Lord Kerslake. Despite its obvious flaws, he describes the dossier as "credible", claiming that it "lays bare the scale of the risks we are facing with a no-deal Brexit in almost every area". In his view, the risks "are completely insane for this country to be taking and we have to explore every avenue to avoid them".

One of the projected outcomes of the "Yellowhammer" dossier is a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Although HMG intends to activate the "no new checks with limited exceptions", the dossier argues that this model "is likely to prove unsustainable because of economic, legal and biosecurity risks".

With the UK becoming a third [non-EU] country, the automatic application of EU tariffs and regulatory requirements for goods entering Ireland will severely disrupt trade. The expectation is that some businesses will stop trading or relocate to avoid either paying tariffs that will make them uncompetitive or trading illegally.

Others will continue to trade but will experience higher costs that may be passed on to consumers. The agri-food sector will be hardest hit, given its reliance on complicated cross-border supply chains and the high tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade.

In terms of detail, "Yellowhammer" suggests that disruption to key sectors and job losses are likely to result in protests and direct action with road blockades. Price and other differentials are likely to lead to the growth of the illegitimate economy.

This, we are told, will be particularly severe in border communities where criminal and dissident groups already operate with greater freedom. Given the tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade, there will be pressure to agree new arrangements to supersede the Day 1 model within days or weeks.

This brings Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney into the fray, tweeting that Dublin had "always been clear" a hard border in Ireland "must be avoided". On the other hand, Michelle O'Neill, Sinn Fein's deputy leader, accused Johnson of treating the Northern Ireland peace process as a "commodity" in Brexit negotiations. She said Ireland as a whole had been voicing concerns about a no-deal Brexit for months.

Scottish MPs weren't silent either. SNP's Stephen Gethins pitched in to say that the dossier laid bare the "sheer havoc Scotland and the UK are hurtling towards". And back home, Lib-Dem MP Tom Brake said it showed the effects of a no-deal Brexit should be taken more seriously. "The government", he says, "has simply, I think, pretended that this wasn't an issue", arguing that the dossier revealed "the truth" that no-deal would "have wartime implications, in peacetime, all of them self-inflicted".

This brings in the US dimension where Brake is saying that ministers are in "a real pickle" since the "the US has said that if that border is jeopardised, we're not going to get a trade deal with them". This alludes to US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi who said on Wednesday that a US-UK trade deal would not get through Congress if Brexit undermined the Good Friday Agreement.

The Freight Transport Association (FTA) also reacted with alarm to the idea of fuel shortages in particular, saying these possibilities had not been conveyed to them by the government.

"This", a spokeswoman says, "is the first time the industry is learning of any threat to fuel supplies – a particularly worrying situation, as this would affect the movement of goods across the country, not just to and from Europe, and could put jobs at risk throughout the sector which keeps Britain trading".

Gove, however, received some considerable support from the government of Gibraltar.

"Yellowhammer" says that, because of the imposition of checks at its border with Spain (and the knock-on effect of delays from the UK to the EU), Gibraltar will see disruption to the supply of goods (including food and medicines) and to shipments of waste, plus delays of four-plus hours for at least a few months in the movement of frontier workers, residents and tourists across the border.

It also suggests that prolonged border delays over the longer term are likely to harm Gibraltar's economy, noting that - as on the UK mainland - cross-border services and data flow will be disrupted.

Yet, a dusty response from the government of Gibraltar states that the reports in the Sunday Times as they applied to Gibraltar were "out of date and were based on planning for worst case scenarios which the Government of Gibraltar has already dealt with".

According to this statement, the government of Gibraltar has been working closely with the UK on Yellowhammer "for many months". They have already commissioned all necessary works at the port in Gibraltar in order to have even further contingency capacity in maritime traffic.

Thus does the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, the Hon Fabian Picardo QC MP, say "We do not want a no-deal Brexit. We think it is bad for Gibraltar. We are, nonetheless, now ready for it. The matters raised in the outdated Yellow Hammer leak have already been responsibly addressed in detail".

Now, while Johnson, himself is blaming former ministers, his administration is being urged to bring forward the planned no-deal campaign in order to counter what is now being termed as "scaremongering".

In that context, ministers are described as being "forced onto the backfoot" by "Yellowhammer" , an additional indication that there is a sabotage effort in progress. But, with the fight-back in progress, the leak may now be seen as rather counterproductive.

The thing is that we may well be facing considerable disruption, but not on the timescale and of the nature suggested by "Yellowhammer". The leakers may have been crying "wolf" which, as we all know, doesn't end well.



Richard North 19/08/2019 link

Brexit: predictions set to panic?

Sunday 18 August 2019  



When at the very beginning of August, Sky News published details of a leaked government document on the potential impact of Brexit, I wrote at the time that I was not very impressed by some of the predictions, which seemed way off the mark.

Now, The Sunday Times is having a go, releasing more details of what it says is the government's classified "Yellowhammer" report. This, in a relatively short document sets out the government's no-deal Brexit planning assumptions.

Apparently compiled this month by the Cabinet Office, we are told, offers a "rare glimpse into the covert planning being carried out by the government to avert a catastrophic collapse in the nation's infrastructure", with the leak laying bare "the gaps in contingency planning".

The document, marked "official-sensitive", states that the government expects the return of a hard border in Ireland as current plans to avoid widespread checks will prove "unsustainable". This, it says, "may spark protests, road blockages and 'direct action'".

It also expects that logjams caused by months of border delays could "affect fuel distribution", potentially disrupting the fuel supply in London and the southeast of England, while up to 85 percent of lorries using the main Channel crossings "may not be ready" for French customs and could face delays of up to 2½ days.

Significant disruption at ports is expected, likely to last up to three months before the flow of traffic "improves" to 50-70 percent of the current rate. The petrol import tariffs, which the government has set at zero, will "inadvertently" lead to the closure of two oil refineries, 2,000 job losses, widespread strike action and disruptions to fuel availability, while there will be passenger delays at EU airports, St Pancras, Eurotunnel and Dover.

As to medical supplies, these will "be vulnerable to severe extended delays" as three-quarters of the UK's medicines enter the country via the main Channel crossings. Furthermore, the availability of fresh food will be reduced and prices will rise. This could hit "vulnerable groups".

The government also expects potential clashes between UK and European Economic Area fishing vessels amid predictions that 282 ships will sail in British waters illegally on Brexit day. And, back home, there may be protests across the UK, which may "require significant amounts of police resource[s]".

Then, rising costs will hit social care, with "smaller providers impacted within 2-3 months and larger providers 4-6 months after exit", while Gibraltar will face delays of more than four hours at the border with Spain "for at least a few months", which are likely to "adversely impact" its economy.

With these things and much more, however, one wonders why Johnson and his government are so keen to pursue a no-deal. The situation without a deal looks to be a distinctly poor proposition.

Looking in detail at one aspect of the planning scenario, it is assumed that, in respect of the Channel ports, France will impose EU mandatory controls on UK goods on day one, having built the infrastructure and IT systems to manage and process customs declarations and to support a risk-based control regime.

It is then anticipated that 50-85 percent of HGVs travelling via the short straits may not be ready for French customs, which could reduce the flow of HGVs to 40-60 percent of current levels within one day.

Furthermore, the worst disruption to the short Channel crossings might last three months before flow rates rise to about 50-70 percent of current flow rates (as more traders get prepared), although disruption could continue much longer. In the event of serious disruption, however, it is anticipated that the French might act to improve the flow.

Nevertheless, it is expected that disruption to Channel flow would cause significant queues in Kent and delays to HGVs attempting to use the routes to travel to France. In a reasonable worst-case scenario, we are told, HGVs could face a maximum delay of 1½-2½ days before being able to cross the border. HGVs caught up in congestion in the UK will be unable to return to the EU to collect another load and some logistics firms may decide to avoid the route.

We then learn that "analysis to date" has suggested a low risk of significant sustained queues at ports outside Kent that have high volumes of EU traffic. But we are assured that the Border Delivery Group will continue to work directly with stakeholders at those ports to support planning readiness.

From the way this evaluation is couched, it appears to be a fuller version of what we were seeing in a presentation slide in early August, with great similarity in the outcome. However, it is also very clear that we are being schooled to look at a worse-case scenario, the nature of which the planners are seeking to avoid.

Lacking here are any details of the mitigation measures that have been and are being implemented on both sides of the Channel. And, on that basis, one might expect that the authors of the "Yellowhammer" report are setting out a scenario that they do not (or no longer) expect to happen.

Much of what we've been told in recent weeks goes toward ensuring that, whatever customs, etc., measures are imposed on the border, every effort will be made to ensure that the traffic continues to flow, and that queues (on either side of the Channel) are avoided.

The scenario posited also neglects to allow for action taken by shippers and carriers in the first few days and weeks, voluntarily to hold back goods until the situation is clearer, and the clearance procedures are better understood. Should that happen, with the implementation of mitigation measures, there is no reason to believe that there will be significant congestion on the Channel route – certainly in the first few weeks.

One wonders, therefore, what the motivation might be of the person or persons who have leaked the report. One possibility is that they are trying to fuel enhanced concern about the effects of a no-deal, in the hope that MPs focus harder on trying to avoid crashing out without a deal.

On the other hand, we could be looking at an elaborate double bluff, in anticipation that Johnson's supporters will dismiss the planning assumptions and the scenario projections as "Project Fear", and discount them. When they fail to materialise in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, this will be taken as confirmation, leaving the way free for Johnson to hold his election without losing the support of his target voters.

Those who have a pessimistic bent, and the many hard-line remainers who oppose Brexit, will readily believe any worst case scenario that is fed to them. Many leavers. on the other hand, are imbued with a blind optimism which will allow them to reject such scenarios. They simply will not believe them.

As a result, the release of uncomfortable predictions will have little effect on the current level of Johnson's support. But if they then turn out to have been exaggerated – even in the short-term – this could play to Johnson's advantage.

In some respects, though – as we saw in early August – one might also suspect that the civil servants engaged in compiling predictions do not have a very good grip of the situation.

In the section on "food and water", for instance, they tell us that certain types of fresh food supply will decrease. Critical elements of the food supply chain (such as ingredients, chemicals and packaging), they also say, may be in short supply.

Yet, they tell us, in combination, these two factors will not cause an overall shortage of food in the UK. They will simply "reduce availability and choice and increase the price", an effect which will be felt greatest by "vulnerable groups".

Then, however, they effectively contradict themselves. The UK growing season will have come to an end, they say, so the agri-food supply chain will be under increased pressure for food retailers. Government will not be able to fully anticipate all effects on the agri-food supply chain and there is a risk that panic buying will disrupt food supplies.

An issue here is that panic buying does not merely "disrupt" food supplies. It strips supermarket shelves bare, more certainly than if a plague of locusts had descended on the land. And the scenario we are being presented with is one set to trigger precisely the panic buying that could do this.

That also applies to fuel supplies where we are told that traffic disruption caused by border delays could affect fuel distribution in the local area, particularly if traffic queues in Kent block the Dartford crossing. This would disrupt fuel supply in London and the southeast and, we are advised, "customer behaviour could lead to shortages in other parts of the country".

Not only that, we are being told that supply chains for medicines and medical products rely heavily on the short straits, which makes them particularly vulnerable to severe delays: three-quarters of medicines come via the short straits – another trigger for panic buying.

To see panic buying of both food and fuel, and medicines as well, would have a devastating and immediate effect on the economy and create a crisis atmosphere in the country at large. This would possibly ruin any chance Johnson might have of winning a snap election in the immediate aftermath of Brexit.

Perhaps this is the real motivation – or perhaps not. In these febrile times, anything goes and the more we learn the less we know.



Richard North 18/08/2019 link

Brexit: a loss of respect

Saturday 17 August 2019  



I do so hate it when Guardian columnists seem to be making the most sense out of the increasingly surreal Brexit soap opera, but after Rafael Behr yesterday, we have Marina Hyde today with much the same message.

For Hyde's piece, the headline says nearly all: "'National Unity': the fantasy flick that will never make it out of development", with a sub-heading putting the verbal boot in: "Everyone has a pitch – but whether it's Caroline Lucas’s all-female reboot or Jo Swinson's Ken Clarke vehicle, they're duds".

With that, I can't even bring myself to write about or analyse the comings and goings of our increasingly irrelevant bunch of MPs. We're headed pell-mell for a no-deal Brexit and none of these Muppets seem to be able to put together a package which will both protect the nation from unnecessary damage and respect the result of the referendum.

Of course it's actually too late. Mrs May blew it up-front by not committing to stay in the Single Market (which should have meant Efta/EEA) and then, after she had salvaged what little she could from the wreckage of her own policy, parliament screwed the pooch by not ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement.

Dire though the Agreement was, it was the best of a bad job, brought to us by an incompetent prime minister, surrounded by incompetent (and largely gutless) Cabinet colleagues. But then, I suppose, to have expected competence from parliament, when it functions as the ministerial gene pool, is asking too much. Paddling in those shallow waters would scarcely wet the soles of a journeyman's boots.

Not any of them who voted against the Agreement seems to have understood that voting against the deal doesn't stop Brexit. It gets you Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and a one-way ticket to a no-deal on 31 October. Funny that, but there you go. Voting against the deal gets you no-deal. And they still haven't really worked that one out.

Another thing the MPs don't seem to have worked out is that they are no longer a sovereign legislature. Parliament gave that up when it allowed us in 1972 to join the EEC and has lost more of its power with every passing treaty, right up to the Lisbon Treaty which came into force in 2009.

Although some of them occasionally mouth the words, they haven't really sussed the fact that, if EU law is supreme, their laws ain't any more. And when they ratified the Lisbon Treaty, they allowed into force Article 50 which set the default criteria for a departing nation to leave the EU.

Thus, while they continue to prattle about taking a no-deal "off the table", or otherwise blocking it, they clearly haven't come to terms with the fact that they blew their best chance when they blocked the ratification of the deal. Now, apart from deposing the man occupying the post of prime minister – which they're not going to do – they've run out of options.

Short of a witch riding into the House of Commons on a broomstick and waving her magic wand, Johnson is going to let the clock run down and we'll be out on 31 October with no-deal. And since Harriet Harman didn't complete her witch-school diploma (perhaps Kings Cross was closed again), the MPs are fresh out of luck.

Yet another thing they're not getting is that Johnson wants and needs a vote of no confidence. That's his best and surest route to a general election, and puts him in the driving seat to recommend a post-Brexit contest, which he is sure to win if he gets the timing right.

The very last thing he wants to do is to be stuck with a minuscule majority, having to ride out the storm when his no-deal Brexit finally goes belly-up. That will leave him to face a general election that he cannot possibly win. If Corbyn – or the people around him - had any tactical acumen, he would make sure he loses any vote of no confidence (without making it too obvious), leaving Johnson to hold the baby.

Matthew Parris writes that this week's "half-hearted intervention" by Corbyn suggests "he's happy to watch Britain crash out of the EU", but perhaps the opposition leader has at last understood that his best bet for long-term office as prime minister rests on keeping Johnson in-place for as long as possible.

Looking at the broader picture though, one is minded of a number of recent news stories asserting that criminals are no longer afraid of the police. But, when scruffy, loutish constables hit the streets – where the dustbin men are better-dressed – it is not so much fear that is the issue, but lack of respect.

And when ordinary, law-abiding citizens find that the main outcome of any contact with the police is either a shed-load of grief or a severely depleted wallet (arising, for instance, from predatory speed camera fines), and when they are needed, they are as much use as the proverbial chocolate fireguard, they are in danger of losing public support just when they need it most.

The point of making this point is that public bodies, including (or especially) parliament, rely on the respect of the people they supposedly serve in order to function in an effective manner. Yet, in the Marina Hyde piece, we see her referring to politicians indulging in "weapons-grade wankery".

This may only be a straw in the wind, but such disrespect – amusing though it is – also illustrates that parliament perhaps has a bigger problem than it cares to acknowledge. And when MPs complain of thousands of abusive e-mails, tweets and other communications, this seems to be an institution which is suffering exactly the same problem that the police are confronting.

There are those who will make a direct link between the increase in violent offences against the police and the erosion of respect, in which case MPs need to be asking themselves whether their rougher handling is a symptom of the same thing. And, given that, how long will it be before MPs are needing police protection in order to go out canvassing during election campaigns?

Never in my long career, which has kept me close to Westminster politicians for many decades, have I known such a mood abroad. And three years ago, Pete would not have dreamt of writing this piece which asserts that the [political] "system has failed", with him concluding that:
If MPs had been sincere about wanting to avoid a no deal Brexit they'd have voted for the withdrawal agreement, but every time I catch an MP wailing about no deal, it's usually the ones who voted it down all three times. They've had every opportunity to organise and shape the process but since 2016 their whole runtime has been devoted to nullifying my vote. That situation is far more serious than a no deal Brexit. This is now a constitutional matter and we have to put these people back in their place - whatever the cost.
Interestingly, yesterday saw the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre, where British soldiers slaughtered and maimed peaceful protesters gathered to demand political reform. The efforts of those protesters paved the way for the Chartists who were responsible, directly and indirectly, for the universal suffrage – and in whose footsteps The Harrogate Agenda follows.

But even with that, democracy in this country has always been work in progress, and while the direction of travel for the last two centuries has been encouraging, of late we seem to be regressing. Not only do we have an unelected prime minister, we have a cabal in parliament plotting to replace him, again without an election, to frustrate the democratic outcome of the 2016 referendum. And neither the prime minister in office nor his putative replacement(s) have any popular mandate for what they propose to do. Says Pete on this:
This we cannot afford any longer. We need the decision making back where we can see it and we need to re-engage the public. We need the public in charge because our politics is incapable of delivering. Of course there will be those who fight tooth and nail to avoid having to take up this responsibility, who don't want their self-indulgence and privilege disturbed - usually the liberal middle classes, but they're the ones who did this to us in the first place so we don't owe them anything.
The one thing we certainly don't owe this motley lot is respect. Over the last three years, our ruling elites – in government and in parliament – have forfeited both the respect and the trust of the population at large.

To be honest, I don't see them getting it back. Without realising it, they've crossed the Rubicon, headed for a destination from which there is no return. Some commentators would even suggest that this opens the way for a repeat of Peterloo, but the élites need to ponder over whether, this time, they might be the target.

Once respect is lost, what follows is not easy to control, if indeed control is possible.



Richard North 17/08/2019 link

Brexit: informed debate?

Friday 16 August 2019  



If I thought there was any mileage in Corbyn's "caretaker" proposal, in order to block a no-deal Brexit, it might actually be worth writing about it. But, as Rafael Behr points out, it ain't going to happen. So we're back in bored to tears territory: I just wish they would get on with it and let me know when it's over.

Meanwhile, circulating Twitter and other internet spots like a bad smell that won't go away, is a paper written by Martin Howe QC and others, bearing the title: "Avoiding the Trap - How to Move on from the Withdrawal Agreement".

What is particularly vexing about this is that it supports the canard that the political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom (for short: the Political Declaration, or PD), linked to but separate from the Withdrawal Agreement, has somehow become legally binding – in whole or in part.

This is particularly said to be the case in respect of Defence capabilities development, contradicting the almost universal understanding that political declarations are not legally binding. And it is this false representation that I intend to address in this piece.

Before going any further, however, I need to make a point about the principal author of the paper, Martin Howe. Because he is a QC, he is often assumed to have a special authority when writing about treaty law and related matters. But, although he styles himself as a barrister in the fields of intellectual property and EU law, this is not in itself a qualification on treaty law, which is a very specialist field.

Additionally, even if he was knowledgeable in the field, in a strictly legal sense, he could never pass muster as an expert. In a court scenario, the requirement – established in case law - is that an expert should provide independent assistance to the court by way of objective unbiased opinion in relation to matters within his expertise. "An expert witness", says the guide, "should never assume the role of advocate".

This, I believe, should also cover the wider field. You can be an advocate for a point of view, or you can be an expert. You can't be both: if you are not unbiased, you can't claim to be an expert. And Martin Howe most certainly isn't unbiased. He is closely allied to the ERG and part of the "ultra" tendency, determined to sabotage Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement. His paper can be seen as part of that process.

Then, there is an additional hurdle. The making of treaties and political declarations is part law but to a very great extent a political process. Especially in the case of political declarations, interpretation is determined as much or more by the politics as the law. And, in that area, a lawyer is not necessarily any more qualified to pronounce than any other knowledgeable person.

It is rather tiresome, therefore, to find that Howe – amongst those who value his point of view – is treated as some sort of minor deity, the supreme arbiter of all things relating to EU treaties. But, as we will see, he is very far from that.

Returning to the issue then, the central point (or assertion) is whether the Political Declaration is legally binding. And while the answer is well-known (no), it is difficult to find an authoritative source which confirms the principle. It's actually easier to define what is legally binding: a treaty. If it isn't a treaty registered with the United Nations, then it is not legally binding. A political declaration is not a treaty, so it's not legally binding. QED.

However - and as I remarked earlier, there is always a "however" in grown-up stuff – the test of whether something is a treaty is whether it creates legal obligations. The form and title doesn't matter. It's what it does that turns a document into a treaty.

On that basis, it is possible to have a political declaration, or elements of it, which creates legal obligations. In that case, although it may be called a political declaration, it will be a treaty – whence it becomes binding. The title "joint declaration", for instance, may be equally used for a legally binding agreement or non-binding statement of political intent.

Howe's endeavours, therefore, should have been directed at asking whether the Political Declaration, despite its title, is actually a treaty. But here, another point intervenes. If it is a treaty, then it is most certainly mixed, in which case it requires ratification by the UK and the 27 remaining Member States. Thus, it could never come into force because there are no plans to ratify it.

Stepping back from this, we need to take a brief look at the nature of the obligations which turn a mere document into a treaty. The key here, it seems, is enforceability in the courts. For that, one needs precision. If the "obligations" are of a general nature or simply aspirations or statements of intent, they cannot be enforced and cannot be legally binding.

On its website, Veterans for Britain nevertheless cite several instances where they believe the PD is legally binding. One such states:
… the Parties agree to enable to the extent possible under the conditions of Union law: a) the United Kingdom's collaboration in relevant existing and future projects of the European Defence Agency (EDA) through an Administrative Arrangement…
Applying the "precision" test, it seems to me that we would need: chapter and verse on "to the extent possible under the conditions of Union law"; a clear, unequivocal definition of what made a project "relevant"; and very specific details of what constituted an "Administrative Arrangement".

Without these points being established, the passage is too vague to be enforceable and cannot possibly be legally binding. Furthermore, the differences between the general principles and the detail can be many months of hard negotiation.

Needless to say, there are no absolutes. This website puts it in context. Whether an instrument imposes legal obligations, it says, "is a delicate issue of legal interpretation".

It goes on to say: "An imprecise or unclear formulation of the commitment in question often raises doubts as to its legally binding character, and an ambiguous or indeterminate clause may be construed only to reflect the parties' common understanding on joint political goals".

Predictably, this sails over the heads of Veterans for Britain, who have invented their own test. The provisions, they say, "are made functionally binding by the presence of the backstop in the WA (Withdrawal Agreement), which is legally-binding and that's all the EU needs". But that proposition, unknown in law, is absurd.

And yet Howe, in his paper, goes even further. "It is widely believed", he says, "that because the Political Declaration (PD) is 'not legally binding', therefore it does not really matter what it says. But this belief is utterly wrong". Actually, I don't believe that. In some circumstances, a political commitment can trump a legal obligation – it all depends.

In Howe's view, the PD "matters" because it is binding, by virtue of its links to the WA – which is a binding treaty (tautology). They are brought together by Article 184 of the WA. This, says Howe, "imposes an obligation on both the UK as well as the EU to use 'best endeavours in good faith' to negotiate an agreement which conforms to the PD".

Perceptive readers, however, might notice a slight problem with that assertion. This is what the PD actually says:
The Union and the United Kingdom shall use their best endeavours, in good faith and in full respect of their respective legal orders, to take the necessary steps to negotiate expeditiously the agreements governing their future relationship referred to in the political declaration … and to conduct the relevant procedures for the ratification or conclusion of those agreements…
As I recall it, this was inserted largely at the behest of the UK as a reassurance that the EU would not sit on its hands and take its time about agreeing the future relationship. There is no requirement that the final agreement should necessarily conform (in whole or part) with the PD. But Howe has other ideas. 

"The PD is vague in many areas, but where it is prescriptive, the EU will be legally entitled to insist on the UK seeking an agreement which complies with it. If the UK asks for something different, the EU will be fully entitled to say that the UK has not met the 'best endeavours in good faith' requirement in Art.184 and, thus, will be able to withhold agreement of the terms that we propose for the future UK-EU relationship".

Earlier, we had discussed the need for precision. Howe, on the other hand, has invented something entirely new to treaty law: "prescription". Where the PD is prescriptive, "the EU will be legally entitled to insist on the UK seeking an agreement which complies with it". Once again, though, this is a proposition unknown in law, in the context in which Howe seeks to place it.

Howe's turnkey is "good faith", but it is not as if there is not plenty of background to this in its legal context. In this website, linked to the other I cited, we see the concept explored in very great detail. It concludes:
Bona fides is a broad and value oriented concept. Due to its abstractness, it may inevitably contain the risk of an all too ambitious judicial activism. However, the predictability of a case's outcome might not be that much at risk if the decision-making body keeps in mind that bona fides is about legitimate expectations of the parties. Moreover, the mutual duties and obligations of international actors … cannot be determined in a purely formalistic way.
The take-home phrase, here, is "legitimate expectations" of [both] parties. Nothing here – nor in the entire exposition – can be taken as allowing this principle to turn a political declaration into a legally binding instrument. If you really want to get stuck in, read the entire tract.

The trouble is that Howe (undoubtedly deliberately) wants to make an obligation to negotiate the PD into an obligation to agree the text without departing in any way from it. That can't be done. The House of Commons Library researchers understand as much, even if Howe doesn't. They say:
The Political Declaration (PD) is not a binding legal document and it is unlikely that it will bind the parties to anything beyond a commitment to negotiate for a future relationship in good faith, which is set out in Article 184 of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Never mind, though. Howe has spoken on Brexit Central, the Telegraph and others have regurgitated his mewling. Another scripture has been added to the Brexiteer mantra, to be repeated ad nauseam. And that, in this country, is what passes for informed debate.



Richard North 16/08/2019 link

Brexit: sowing the wind

Thursday 15 August 2019  



In a low-key sort of way, history was made yesterday when Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson sought deliberately to by-pass the legacy media and engage with Facebook members in what he called the first ever People's PMQs.

Apparently watched live by only 7,000 people, and recording 50,000 views in the first half hour, they nonetheless attracted a lot of attention from the legacy media, followed by extensive comment. The likes of the Mail online, for instance, piled in with a long critique.

Wrote Jan Moir for the Mail, the People's PMQs was beamed out across the nation on laptops, PC screens and smartphones and, "for worker bee Boris it was live, it was real". It was, she said, "reaching out to the electorate instead of soft soaping enemy armpits within the Westminster bubble".

According to the pre-publicity, it was also supposed to be "edgy and spontaneous", but Moir was not impressed. The man occupying the post of prime minister, she asserted, had promised that the twelve minute Facebook session would be "unpasteurised and unmediated", which suggested "great squirts of raw milk hosed straight from the teat of truth".

Instead, she wrote, "all we got was the usual true blue-veined cheese spread on some really nutty crackers, with questions pre-selected by his aides".

To that, she added: "there is very little accountability or rigour in answering hand-picked softball questions in this manner without comeback or query, then seamlessly moving on to the next". It was not really a Q&A session, she said, more of a monologue, although she conceded that Johnson "did it very well indeed".

It is perhaps this "success" which brought into play Jim Waterson, media editor for the Guardian. Taking a dim view of the whole affair, he was worried that it showed how political parties were increasingly able to bypass journalists' scrutiny – confident that traditional media outlets would, in any eventuality, still report on sanitised official broadcasts.

Waterson's thesis is not without merit, notwithstanding that the Telegraph has long-since given up even a pretence of scrutiny, as it relentlessly promotes its favourite son.

The Guardian journalist argues that the attraction of Johnson's approach for Downing Street is clear. "Why bother", Waterson posits, "holding a regular prime ministerial press conference for Westminster journalists who will ask about tricky subjects if you can select the questions yourself?"

"Why bother", he continues, "trying to influence traditional media outlets by submitting the prime minister to a tough one-on-one interview that could backfire – as Johnson found out during an excruciating encounter with Eddie Mair in 2013 – when you can cut out the middleman and reach the audience directly?"

"And why bother inviting cameras from the BBC or ITV to Downing Street", he asks when No 10 officials can frame the camera shot themselves? This way they can portray Johnson exactly as they wish".

More importantly, we are told, Downing Street is confident that broadcasters and news outlets starved of their own access to politicians will end up using the footage and quotes regardless".

If No 10 wants to provoke an argument, it can do so. If it wants to avoid scrutiny, it can equally do so. And it can accuse opposition to such an online-first approach as coming from a jealous anti-Brexit media who wouldn't give Johnson a fair crack of the whip in any case.

Yet, for all the outrage, there is also a strong element of special pleading from a member of a discredited trade which might be more concerned about its own loss of influence than it is any real determination to put politicians under the spotlight.

Having for many years watched the antics of the fourth estate, one finds that most of the time, in press conferences, the trivial and superficial questions asked by the media are embarrassing. Largely, their questioning is a waste of time and space - massively lost opportunities when, as is so often, they don't even know the right questions to ask and, even if they did, they would not be interested in asking them.

For me, this came to a head as long ago as August 2008 when, at great expense, a substantial part of the Westminster press corps was flown out to Afghanistan, accompanying the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, who was to meet the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, to discuss future cooperation.

Amongst the journalists was the BBC's then political correspondent Jo Coburn, who filed a report on her experiences. But, as I noted at the time, when it came to the press conference in the presidential palace in Kabul, with Brown and Karzai, the media was at its loathsome worst.

The two men, wrote Coburn, "appeared before a packed room of journalists, mainly Afghan and there were warm words of friendship for the prime minister from President Hamid Karzai". But, she continued:
… if Gordon Brown had thought he would be asked about the future cooperation between the two countries then he was sorely disappointed. All of us wanted to press him on the future of his leadership. Did he accept his strategy up until now had been wrong? What were his relations like with his foreign secretary, David Miliband, amid tales of political plotting?
Shortly afterwards, I spoke to a very senior official who had been present at the press conference, and the disgusting display of venality had not escaped attention.

It was behaviour like this, repeated many times down the years, which has driven governments to look for alternative means of spreading their messages. Johnson, in this sense, is only at the end of a long line of politicians who have lost faith in the media – ironic given his own part in its descent into trivia and misrepresentation.

Elsewhere, on his blog, Pete discusses the role of the media and "the dominance of legacy titles deliberately feeding misinformation into the debate through regular channels".

BBC apart, it has always been the case, he says, that newspapers are answerable to their corporate owners and advertisers. But now we are subjected to no holds barred propaganda that has strongly influenced public perceptions. There has, for instance, been an ongoing campaign to mislead the public in respect of the viability of WTO rules as a basis for Brexit, with numerous allied vessels promoting the same messages. Adds Pete:
This is nothing at all to do with the potency of internet advertising, rather it has to do with nepotistic, incestuous nature of the politico-media bubble and the prevailing groupthinks therein. This is as much to do with the tribalism within Westminster and the propensity to evaluate sources on the basis of prestige and proximity to power. Much is taken on trust on the basis of its adherence to tribal scripture. You can get followers to believe virtually anything provided it carries institutional prestige or recognition from a gatekeeper within the tribal hierarchy.
It is quite understandable, therefore, that if the politicians want to mislead the electorate, they should want to go direct and cut out the middle-men with their own spin and their own agendas.

Pete argues that, to get round this, we need to break the Westminster system – and I would not disagree. From within the bubble, though, the Guardian's Waterson calls on the entire media industry to refuse to run quotes from this sanitised version of a press conference. Otherwise, he fears, "Downing Street and other political parties are likely to increasingly pursue this route".

What he doesn't understand, though, is that having sown the wind, the media is about to reap the whirlwind as politicians increasingly realise that they have the means to communicate directly with their voters, without the intermediate filter, using in-house news creation.

And it truly is ironic that it should be one of their own who leads the way.



Richard North 15/08/2019 link

Brexit: trading confusion

Wednesday 14 August 2019  



I've been taking a back seat on the John Bolton controversy, where president Trump's national security adviser has said the UK is "first in line" for a trade deal with the US and, what is more, claimed deals could be done on a "sector-by-sector" basis, with an agreement on manufacturing made first.

According to Bolton, a bilateral agreement or "series of agreements" could be carved out "very quickly, very straight-forwardly". A trade deal for financial services and agriculture would not be the first to be agreed, he added, then declaring that "doing it in pieces" was not unprecedented.

Predictably, this reference to "doing it in pieces" has brought the pundits out in force, with the likes of BBC economics correspondent, Andrew Walker, telling us that "there is a problem with sector-by-sector trade agreements". They are not, he avers, "compatible with WTO rules", which say free trade agreements for goods should cover "substantially all the trade".

And while he concedes that there is no formal definition of that latter term, he will have us believe that a figure of 90 percent "has often been suggested". Thus does Walker maintain that, "It is unlikely a deal covering a few sectors would qualify. Other WTO members could start a dispute and would, on the face of it, have every chance of winning".

Needless to say though, in matters of trade and WTO rules, things are never quite as simple as the Janet & John pundits make out. For instance, two Sussex University academics at the UK Trade Policy Observatory, Emily Lydgate and Alan Winters, recently offered an analysis of what they thought the WTO might or might not permit in respect of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the UK and the EU – a scenario that might reasonably be expected to have some application to a UK-US deal.

As one might expect, they concede the Janet & John point that, "WTO rules prohibit Free Trade Areas (FTAs) that provide tariff-free access or services liberalization in only one or a few sectors". In this sense, they say, "a narrow, sectoral approach to concluding an FTA between the EU and the UK would contravene WTO law".

However, in grown-up dealings there is always a "however". Assuming the EU and the UK were able to agree a substantially broad tariff-free FTA, our Sussex academics write, WTO rules would not prevent them from moving further to maintain the bulk of the benefits of the Customs Union and the Single Market in a few key sectors. In the abstract to their 29-page paper, they go on to say:
They could establish customs union-like conditions by coordinating external tariffs in some sectors and agreeing on relaxed Rules of Origin (RoO) administered lightly and Single Market-like access could be approximated through sectoral Mutual Recognition Agreements. Such an approach would enable continued deep integration, whose desirability has been signalled on both sides. It would fall short of current market access levels even in the selected sectors, and, in the case of tariff coordination, re-create some of the limits to an independent trade policy that Brexit aimed to remove. If the trade-off were deemed desirable, however, the approach could be reconciled with WTO rules including the 'Most Favoured Nation' requirement that equal treatment be awarded to all WTO Member States.
Without putting too fine a point on it, therefore, it would be more correct to say that, as a general rule sectoral agreements between developed countries are not permitted. But there are circumstances where parties can pursue such agreements. And even where the precursor might be the agreement of a "substantially broad tariff-free FTA", any tariff reductions required can be phased in over a number of years.

Despite this, in the popular media (even the supposedly "quality" end), Janet & John prevails. Thus we have Jeremy Warner in the Telegraph - who seems to have assumed the role of the paper's licensed Cassandra – writing that, "Post-Brexit trade policies are in danger of becoming an incoherent desperate mess".

He concedes that Mr Bolton "presumably knows his stuff when it comes to national security" but, says Warner, "he plainly has very little idea about trade". Sadly, though, in seeking as explanation as to why his "sector by sector" suggestion "falls at the first hurdle" under WTO rules, our licensed Cassandra relies on Lorand Bartels, lecturer in international trade at Cambridge University. He sternly instructs us that "you cannot normally discriminate between trading partners".

Thus we are enjoined, in relentlessly Janet & John terms:
Offer a special favour to one nation, and you have to offer it to all other WTO members. This so-called "Most Favoured Nation" principle is there to ensure that trade remains as open and free as possible.

There are, however, exceptions, one of which is a bilateral free trade agreement. But here’s the problem. The rules stipulate that such FTAs must cover substantially all trade between the two nations, usually defined as about 90 percent of it. If partial arrangements were allowed, it would open the door to precisely the sort of discrimination the rules are meant to outlaw. On the face of it, then, Mr Bolton's suggestion is a non-starter.
Lorand Bartels, of course, is the man who told us that, "the customs union is essentially what you do in order to get rid of customs border posts", despite the EEC's customs union (CU) having been completed in 1968 yet internal Community borders not being finally abolished until 1992.

Challenged on this, Bartels turned out to be a somewhat sensitive soul, eventually telling me that, "When I said the point of a CU is to get rid of border checks I meant CUs are necessary, not sufficient for this. You misunderstood".

Thus this "leading academic" was incapable of error. When he wrote: "The customs union is essentially what you do in order to get rid of customs border posts", we should have known that he actually meant: in order to get rid of them, it is necessary to have a customs union, but not sufficient.

And then there is the reality of the Single Market which, if it was extended to all products and services, could also allow the elimination of customs border posts without the need for a customs union. Things such as rules of origin could be dealt with administratively, without border inspections.

I suppose his reappearance as Warner's guru proves that you can never keep a bad man down. But what he and most – if not all - the other pundits seem to have missed is an EU press release in April of this year announcing that the European Commission had been authorised to open negotiations with the United States on two agreements.

The first was a trade agreement limited to the elimination of tariffs for industrial goods only, excluding agricultural products, while the second was an agreement on conformity assessment. This would remove non-tariff barriers, by making it easier for companies to prove their products meet technical requirements both in the EU and the US "while maintaining a high level of protection in the EU".

As I pointed out in my own piece, reporting this development, this new initiative had followed on from the failure of TTIP, while discussions on the elimination of tariffs was being confined to industrial goods – excluding automobiles - thus avoiding the contentious agricultural chapter which brought the Doha Round to a premature halt.

This is in addition to the joint ventures between the EU and the US on International Regulatory Cooperation (IRC), all pointing to the development of extensive trade cooperation between the parties – highly discriminatory yet short of a Free Trade Agreement which would conform with the WTO's definition.

One might also note that Turkey has agreed a Customs Union (a type of FTA within WTO law) with the EU which excludes both agriculture and services, thus embodying exactly the same exclusions to which Bolton was referring in respect of a UK-US deal.

Whether one can be optimistic or pessimistic about the outcome of post-Brexit trade negotiations between the UK and the US, the problems the parties will encounter do not seem to be entirely (or at all) in the area that the self-appointed pundits would have us believe.

Perhaps the more serious obstacle is the question of whether Congress will ratify any deal agreed by the Trump administration, especially in the context of reservations expressed in the US legislature about the impact of the Irish backstop.

But then, the bigger problem yet is the absence of a trade deal between the EU and the UK, where our exports are currently more than twice the level of US trade, 40 percent of which are services. The US, for all its apparent willingness to do a deal with the UK, may be a dangerous distraction.



Richard North 14/08/2019 link

Brexit: bored to tears

Tuesday 13 August 2019  



West Yorkshire police have basically given up on burglary – although they spent some hours, with three visits to my house (in pairs) and a formal interview at the police station, when I was falsely accused by my deaf neighbour of spraying water from a hosepipe on her. I had used the hose to quieten her "hearing" dog which was insisting in waking up the street at 7.30 every morning, when she left it in her yard unattended.

As to real crime, we've had three thefts in the last couple of months – the house and car keys were stolen on a hot summer day when we left the back door open, (which necessitated changing the locks in the house and reprogramming the car locks), the shed was raided and most of the tools taken, and some youths (I was later informed) made off with one of my expensive cat deterrents, smashing it up and leaving the bits littered on a grass area on top of the road.

Yesterday, therefore, rather than being glued to the ongoing drama of Brexit, I spent most of the day installing an external security camera to cover the back entrance to our garden – the route most often taken by the thieves. A wrought iron security gate comes later in the month, which will be kept locked most of the time.

Now that the camera is up and running, I have a feed to my desktop computer and can watch the back entrance on a separate screen, while I'm in my office working in the front of the house (pictured).

And, although it may not be obvious, there is some valuable property there: Amazingly, the Yorkshire stone flags, in place for some 30 years, now fetch something like £65 each. Twice we've had gangs with pickaxes and spade, attempting to steal them. They even tried to take the stone seat on the right, which must now be worth a couple of hundred pounds. Fortunately, it was too heavy for them.

But the thing is that, for the rest of the day yesterday, I found a largely static picture, with just a few plant fronds waving in the breeze, far more interesting than anything that was happening on the Brexit front. And, I suspect, my crime prevention measure will probably be far more effective than anything the man occupying the post of prime minister has to offer.

The trouble is that so much of the Brexit agenda is completely predictable and boringly repetitive. I really don't want to know any more about the "will they, won't they" saga of the vote of no confidence, and the speculation on whether Johnson will resign if the vote goes against him (answer: no). I just wish they would get on with it and let me know when it's over.

One report that did grab my attention though, was a piece in the Guardian, claimed to be an "exclusive", which told us that Britons had "spent £4 billion stockpiling goods in case of no-deal Brexit", with research suggesting that one in five people had a food, drinks and medicine hoard worth £380.

I've forgotten when I first mentioned that it would be a good idea to invest in a personal stockpile. Initially, I mentioned it in the comments section rather than in a blogpost, which makes it quite hard to find. But Mrs EUReferendum has been buying up extra food and other essentials in a small way ever since Mrs May's Lancaster House speech in January 2017.

I suppose, by now, our accumulated stockpile (if we include medicines and the high intensity, LED lanterns that we've bought in the event of a power cut) must be worth about £380, making us one of the one-in-five.

The important thing to realise, of course, is that even canned goods have expiry dates, so people who have large stocks need to integrate them into their normal menu planning, just to make sure that the food will be usable if needed. And even dry goods, such as rice and pasta, need rotation. They are prone to insect infestation if stored for prolonged periods, especially if the atmosphere is slightly damp.

Something we don't have to worry about, though, is what to do with the luxury cars in the driveway. But some people apparently have that problem, as they have been buying these vehicles ahead of the Brexit deadline in order to avoid tariffs that might be introduced. More than 3,800 luxury cars were imported in the past year, a 16 percent increase on the previous 12 months, according to the law firm Boodle Hatfield.

"A no-deal Brexit could mean luxury car imports become 32 percent more expensive overnight", Fred Clark of Boodle Hatfield tells the Guardian. "There is a possibility that moving cars into and out of the UK will become more difficult if the UK leaves the EU with no deal. More individuals are now taking that risk seriously and bringing vehicles into the UK from the EU".

Mind you, I have been stocking up on imported construction kits, some of which might be rather hard to find after Brexit. At least if the lights go out and the computers go down, with my high intensity lanterns, I won't be short of anything to do.

Even at the moment, though, it is hard to concentrate on Brexit, and one is even temporarily distracted by a Times headline which is telling us that BBC staff are picking up 20 percent pay rises while the over-75s are lose their free licences. In four years' time, that'll be me. Come the revolution, they'll be the first for the tumbrels.

Nevertheless, I'm almost forced to pay attention to the Telegraph announcing that the man occupying the post of prime minister "has [the] public's support to shut down Parliament to get Brexit over [the] line".

This is an "exclusive" ComRes survey which finds that 54 percent of British adults think parliament should be prorogued to prevent MPs stopping a no-deal Brexit. The poll is thus taken to suggest that Johnson is more in tune with the public's views on Brexit than MPs, following his promise to deliver Brexit by 31 October "do or die".

This compares with those who disagree, coming in at 46 percent (with the "don't knows" excluded), which the paper interprets as demonstrating support for Johnson. If "don't knows" are included, though, the figures are actually 44 percent for suspension, 37 against, with 19 percent "don't know". See Table 83.

On the other hand, though, considering that a third of Labour voters and a quarter of Lib-Dems go for this proposition, this may not be support, per se, so much as a reflection of how bored people are with Brexit, to the extent that they just want it over and done with – at any price.

But there is also another element, illustrated by the response to a question on whether parliament is more in tune than Johnson with the British public. Only 38 percent agreed, amounting to 21 percent of Tories and just half of Labour voters.

On top of that, 88 percent believed that parliament was out of touch with the public, while 89 percent believed most MPs were ignoring the wishes of voters to pursue their own agenda on Brexit.

In effect, we are seeing a widespread disillusionment with parliament, of which Johnson is the primary beneficiary. And that is hardly surprising. The conduct of the Commons since the referendum has seriously diminished the authority and popularity of the institution, to the extent that it no longer holds the respect or the support of the electorate.

With that, we seem to be getting indications that a number of Tory rebels are privately admitted that their attempts to overturn the referendum result have failed. One is reported to have said: "I have to admit it. It's over. I don't want to be part of it all".

Additionally, a group of independent and Labour MPs are also saying that they are unlikely to back a confidence vote against Johnson, for fear of putting Corbyn in Downing Street. A senior Labour MP is also said to have claimed that "at least 10" of their colleagues would also vote with the government.

This somewhat changes the calculus, indicating that Johnson could go through to 31 October with his current majority of one, taking us out of the EU without a deal and without having gone for a general election.

Ironically, this is possibly the worst possible outcome for Johnson. He needs to go to the country before the adverse effects of a no-deal become apparent, and losing a vote of no confidence is the best chance he has of doing this. The very last thing the man wants is to be stuck in office with his slender majority while the economy starts to crumble around him.

It is too much to expect that the opposition parties see a vote of no confidence as a trap, especially as Labour MPs are said to have been told to cancel September travel plans in anticipation of Corbyn tabling a no confidence vote.

But the very fact that the opposition parties are unable to unite delivers the very outcome that should be their objective. Given that no-deal is effectively unstoppable, their best bet is to keep Johnson in office under the current conditions, knowing that he will never last until the next election.

One way or the other, though, there is that feeling abroad that we are at the end of our collective tethers. Even the perils of a no-deal are preferable to the purgatory of uncertainty. Let Johnson do the deed, seems to be the sentiment – and let him suffer the consequences.



Richard North 13/08/2019 link
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