Brexit: chicken or egg?

Tuesday 2 March 2021  

A survey carried out by ICM for the think-tank British Future, part of the "Talk Together" consortium, has suggested that Brexit is gradually receding in the nation's consciousness.

On the basis of the results, the think-tank suggests that as an "inter-group identity conflict", Brexit is likely to gradually receive less prominence as UK society goes through a process of acceptance and reconciliation.

Only a quarter of people (25 percent), it finds, are still emotionally invested in the politics of Brexit. Just 12 percent identify as "leavers", slightly outnumbered by the 13 percent who identify as "remainers".

For 53 percent of people, we are told, their primary political identity now lies elsewhere, with traditional tribal politics reasserting themselves, pushing them mainly into the Conservative or Labour camps. Another 21 percent do not identify with any political party or cause.

What might give some insight into this process, though, is an observation the Brexit was a salient issue in the discussions held by the think-tank in November and December 2020. That, they concede, was when the UK-EU trade negotiations featured more prominently in the news.

It was also a prominent theme of the discussions held in Northern Ireland, where people were fearful about its economic impact and that the Irish border might become a flashpoint for violence.

Thus, while British Future thinks that we might be "getting over" Brexit, what the think-tank might be seeing is a reflection of the loss of media focus. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that there is a correlation between lack of media interest and receding public consciousness. The question is which came first – the chicken or the egg – the lack of public interest or the fall-off in media attention.

Possibly, where it all went wrong was the media expectation of queues stretching from Dover to Aberdeen, and empty shelves in the supermarkets. But when the lorry-watchers were frustrated, and Brexit got complicated, the journos began to lose interest. As the politicians also retreated, thus refusing to provide the essential biff-bam dynamics, it was inevitable that coverage would diminish.

Then, for all their protestations, it is fair to say that most people are easily led. Despite the substantial fall-off in their print circulation, the legacy media and broadcasters still largely set the news agenda. And in this they can rely on the responses of the politicians, as they feed off each other.

Thus, if a subject is ignored by the politicians and media, it will struggle for attention. Many an issue suffers that fate and, for the moment, it is Brexit's turn to be sidelined.

However, it is almost certain that the corollary applies. If the politicians re-engage with the subject, and the media start taking an interest again, one can expect public interest to recover, and the same old partisan passions to revive.

And here we can be certain that Brexit hasn't gone away. From the speciality magazines, the trade bodies and, to an extent, the local media, there is no shortage of tales of woe.

A casualty recently in the frame was the pet food industry, picked up by the Financial Times after a press release from the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (PRMA) reporting that the industry was "struggling to export to the EU".

The UK pet food industry is valued at £3 billion and in 2019 exported £285 million-worth of goods to the EU versus £45 million to the rest of the world. With exports being hugely important to the industry, businesses are being harmed.

Three things are adversely affecting the industry, articulated by Michael Bellingham, PFMA chief executive. These are the familiar litany of red tape, vet shortages and hauliers refusing to accept animal-based products in case they are stopped at the border. "Two-thirds of members are not getting their product through. It's a big issue", Bellingham says.

The "vetnary" problem has an interesting twist. Many official veterinarians are unwilling to take on the extra work of certifying animal by-product consignments because they are not confident about what is required – another graphic example of the fatuity of the EU (and other administrations) in elevating the profession to its God-like status, when so many of its practitioners are out of their depth.

On Twitter the industry woes are amplified by the Canagan Group, which illustrates the paperwork required to send one order to the EU (above). It also complains that it faces £100,000 year on veterinary inspection fees, when the previous cost was zero.

Despite the brief interest from the Financial Times though, and marginal interest on Twitter, the story hasn't taken off in the rest of the national media. It is unlikely to do so now.

Similarly, a Welsh story on the experiences of the Archwood Group - a leading manufacturer of timber products, based in Chirk, near Wrexham - is staying in Wales.

Josh Burbidge, Managing Director of the group, explains that his company's exports to Ireland "have caused the most challenges, with our goods being held up at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for around three weeks".

"Initially", he says. "the issue concerned what information was required and in what format for the customs declarations. For example, the HMRC system needed to be updated because our goods had been incorrectly flagged as needing phytosanitary documentation". This resulted in products being held at the border for around three weeks until the orders were reclassified.

Nevertheless, he says, "We continue to face delays of our products reaching the Republic of Ireland because the customs paperwork is taking a long time to process, which adds to our costs".

The company is also having to bear the cost of using special heat-treated ISPM pallets to transport products over the border, with the prices for these rising significantly. And the rules of origin have complicated matters further because Archwood Group's customers now face import duty for products the company buys from outside the UK, such as plastic mouldings.

David Hopkins, chief executive at the Timber Trade Federation comments that Archwood's problems "are indicative of those faced by hundreds, if not thousands, of small to medium sized businesses across the UK".

The costs, he says, can be carried and spread more easily by larger firms delivering larger orders. But, the costs are the same for each one of the multiple smaller deliveries that companies like Archwood are making across borders. They obviously want to keep their customers in those countries so face a choice between increased costs and lower margins or losing business altogether. This is not a recipe for business growth.

For those prepared to trawl though the undergrowth, there is no shortage of material to report. But as Pete observes, our interest in the EU as an entity is on the wane, and the debates of technical substance are no longer fashionable. Brexit's self-appointed experts are scrabbling for a fading limelight.

Despite that, it really won't go away. Says Pete, when the next big kick off happens, it won't be over tariffs or food export rules. But there is a running sore that won't be put to bed until it's out in the open. With so much damage and disruption, it is only a matter of time before the issue is capturing the headlines again.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 02/03/2021 link

Brexit: that petty and vindictive EU

Monday 1 March 2021  

I missed a couple of "Brexit" pieces in the legacy media yesterday, not least one in the Mail on Sunday. This was a classic Mail rant, with one of those long headlines which tell enough of the story without their readers having to dip into the main copy. It read:
How Brussels has launched a spiteful war on our glorious snowdrops and rhododendrons: Petty and vindictive even by EU standards, they're banning the import of plants that have touched British soil - putting jobs at risk and raising prices in garden centres.
When I first looked at this, I thought that this might be another instance where the UK was taking a "hit" from leaving the Single Market, in which case the paper would be partly author of our misfortunes.

After all, at a time when it really mattered, one of the key cheerleaders for the anti-EEA brigade has been the Mail, publishing in December 2018 an issue-illiterate diatribe from Dominic Lawson against the Norway option.

But, looking at the EU law, two things emerge. Firstly, the legislation is not part of the Single Market acquis. Two main laws apply: the 101-page Regulation (EU) 2016/2031 of 26 October 2016 on protective measures against pests of plants; and the very much longer Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/2072 of 28 November 2019, establishing uniform conditions for the implementation of Regulation (EU) 2016/2031, running to 279 pages. Neither are EEA relevant.

The second thing to emerge is how recent these laws are, both of them having taken effect on 14 December 2019 – only shortly before the UK left the EU. The timing is such that these laws, amounting to a major revision of the EU's plant health laws, would have had no formal input from the UK, which ceased to have any formal legislative role in the EU, the moment the Article 50 papers were lodged on 29 March 2017.

As to the Mail on Sunday's assertion that the EU is "banning" British soil, this is essentially true. The prohibition is set out in Annex VII of Regulation (EU) 2019/2072, which lists "plants, plant products and other objects whose introduction into the Union from certain third countries is prohibited".

Point 19 refers, where "soil as such consisting in part of solid organic substances" from "third countries other than Switzerland" is specifically prohibited. According to Point 20, the import of all organic growing media - apart from peat or coconut fibre, previously not used for growing of plants or for any agricultural purposes – is prohibited.

Nevertheless, we were warned about what would happen in the event of the transition period ending, without a covering agreement on phytosanitary issues, the latest advice published by the Commission in a revised Notice to Stakeholders on 13 March 2020 – the original having been published on 21 March 2018.

What could then have happened during the TCA negotiations was that Frost and his merry men could have sought an equivalence agreement. There is specific provision for that in of Regulation (EU) 2016/2031, Annex II, Section 2, which states:
Measures taken to manage the risk of a pest shall not be applied in such a way as to constitute either a means of arbitrary or unjustified discrimination or a disguised restriction, particularly on international trade. They shall be no more stringent for third countries than measures applied to that same pest if present within the Union territory, if third countries can demonstrate that they have the same phytosanitary status and apply identical or equivalent phytosanitary measures.
This is essentially a copy-out of the WTO SPS Agreement and could have provided the foundations on which border controls between the UK and the EU were relaxed, in respect of plant health provisions. However, when it came to the TCA text, there was no mention of equivalence, and the die was cast.

Thus is opened the way for the Mail on Sunday report, which starts off by telling us that this period should be peak season for Joe Sharman (pictured), a man known as "Mr Snowdrop" and one of the biggest growers in the country. Sharman, whose customers include the Queen, sells thousands of bulbs from his Cambridgeshire nursery to buyers in the EU and beyond. He also drives vanloads to sell at snowdrop festivals in Germany. But, says the MoS, not this year. "At a stroke, draconian EU regulations have wiped out half of his business".
The punitive new rules, which treat British growers as if they were located thousands of miles away in China or Brazil, have all but ended his export business. They have even prevented deliveries of snowdrops and other plants to homes and garden centres in Northern Ireland, which, following the Brexit agreement, remains under EU trade rules.

So extraordinary are the regulations that a plant that has so much as touched the soil of Great Britain can never be exported to the EU or any part of Ireland. No one has calculated the total cost of the regulatory assault, but what is certain is that British horticulture has seen millions of pounds wiped from its profits overnight.
Here, the paper is conflating separate issues, but the essence of what it conveys is correct. The tolerance for the presence of propagating material entrained with Snowdrop bulbs is set at zero. Joe Sharman is well and truly stymied.

But, says the MoS, to him it's an act of spite, particularly as British plants have been grown to exactly the same standards as those in the EU for many years. "I've had German customers in tears. These people have been buying from me since 1988 – they're my friends", Sharman says. "I've shed tears, too. I never thought I'd have to deal with this. I’m now hoping the EU leaders get off their high horse and let us trade".

On top of this, we are told that "the sheer weight of regulation and the stringent detail – some of it bizarre – make it all but impossible for British growers to turn a profit".

Under what the MoS insists are "new" post-Brexit rules, Britain is treated as a "third country" for horticulture, which means that for every consignment of plants – be it one bulb or one million – an expensive "phytosanitary" safety certificate is required, stating that the goods are soil- and pest-free.

These are issued by an inspector from the government's Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) at a cost of £127.60 per every half-hour spent on the consignment. The certificate itself then costs a further £25.52.

Species such as snowdrops are more tightly regulated. Controlled by CITES – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – snowdrop bulbs require additional permits at a cost of £74 per order.

Then come the rules about soil, says the paper. Plants that have been grown in, or have ever touched, British earth can no longer be sent either to the 27 EU countries or to Northern Ireland because of the supposed potential risk of pests and disease. Even pots that have been placed on or touched the ground are deemed unsafe.

With words such as "infuriating", and references to "harsh rules" and their "sheer complexity", especially in relation to the rules applying to Northern Ireland, we are left in no doubt that this is the "spiteful" EU at its worst – although none of the growers cited actually make that charge.

However, the rules are regarded as "impossible to comply with", although it is also claimed that the UK is treating plant imports from the EU under the same rules as before. This seems to suggest that there are different rules in force, which is not the case. The EU regulations have been adopted by the UK and are part of the statute book. They are simply not being applied.

But, while one can sympathise with the growers who are caught up in this nightmare, it has to be said that these rules apply to all other third countries. If they were to be any different, Frost should have sought equivalence for the UK, and many of the problems could have been avoided.

Clearly, the rush to get a deal left little time for such considerations – another aspect of Boris's botched Brexit, that is so damaging British business. But such is that "take" from the MoS that "Boris" gets a free pass. This is a "spiteful" action by a "petty and vindictive" EU, the only Tory-approved way that Brexit can be reported.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 01/03/2021 link

Brexit: the invisible story

Sunday 28 February 2021  

It's taken less than two months, but this weekend effectively marks the point at which the legacy media lost interest in Brexit. Trawl through the nationals and the main broadcast media websites and you will struggle to find the references to the UK's biggest political story of the century.

This in itself is an interesting, if not important phenomenon which deserves an explanation. Probably, it owes much to the refusal of the two main party leaders to engage.

The Brexit story is a difficult one for our media to cover. Elements are highly technical, demanding more of most journalists than they are capable of offering, and they get bored with the detail.

To sustain what is in essence a political story, therefore, they need that personal tension between party leaders. Without it, they lack their standard fallback biff-bam personality politics and the story struggles to survive.

As to the silence of the party leaders – we know this is deliberate policy on the part of Starmer, but it is more likely a matter of convenience for Johnson. Doubtless, he sees political salvation in the vaccination programme – currently buying him a seven percent "bounce" in the polls. By contrast, there nothing but grief for him in Brexit.

With coronavirus and plenty of other "human interest" stories to keep them entertained, it is quite evident that the media are happy to collude in downgrading Brexit, especially as Covid-19 stories offer endless opportunities for the "social workers' gazette" tendency which tends to dominate the contemporary media.

That is not to say that we have seen the end of Brexit reportage. Once the interest in Covid-19 slackens – which is likely as long as the vaccination programme succeeds – the issue may well re-emerge with a political edge. But, for the time being, there is a hiatus of indeterminate length.

Perversely, just as media interest subsides, the Sunday Times picks up an intensely political dimension to the saga, telling us that, just as Michael Gove moves on to pastures new, he finally "gets" the impact that Brexit is having on small and medium-sized business owners.

It is a mark of the topsy-turvy state of politics, the paper says, that Gove, one of the leading campaigners for Brexit, is increasingly regarded as an ally by those with concerns. According to one attendee of a final meeting between him and affected firms, the Cabinet Office minister, there was "a shift from saying there were teething problems to recognising that there are real issues here".

With him moving on, though, little is expected of his successor, David Frost, who is more likely to devote his energies to renegotiating the Irish protocol. This issue, at least, has enough political traction to give it a soap opera dimension and keep it in the headlines, albeit away from the front pages.

If Frost listens to the Brexit zealots, he will be invoking (or threatening to invoke) the Article 16 safeguards, and abandoning border checks on goods from GB destined for Norther Ireland.

According to Martin Howe in the Sunday Telegraph, this "unilateral action" would provide a firm basis for negotiating the Protocol's replacement with "sensible cooperative procedures for controlling the flow of goods across the Irish land border through away-from-the-border means".

Of course, this, away-from-the-border idea is nothing new, having been variously promoted by Peter Lilley and Shanker Singham. Yet with the EU having recently revised its Customs Code and its "official controls", it is unlikely that they will be keen on entertaining more changes just to suit the UK.

What the likes of Howe - and the others who have advocated this solution – do not seem to understand is that, if the EU makes significant concessions to ease the Irish land border problem, they will come under pressure from their other trading partners to adopt the same regimes.

A particular sticking point will be the location in Border Control Posts which, with a very few, limited exemptions, must be located "in the immediate vicinity of the point of entry into the Union", set out in Regulation (EU) 2017/625. So firm is the EU on that principle that supplementary regulations in March 2019, setting out the detail of the limited exemptions, or "derogations", giving very little scope for deviation.

The regulations were produced after the UK government and the likes of Shanker Singham had made their pitches for away-from-the-border facilities, which means that they can be taken as a definitive statement of the Commission view. It will not change its rules.

The trouble is, of course, that if the Howe line is followed, the only remedies will either be the reversion to a hard border between NI and the Republic, or checks on Irish goods when they enter other EU countries, as I suggested yesterday.

Something will certainly have to give, not least as there is a very significant cross-border movement of bulk milk, with around one billion litres of milk produced in Northern Ireland going over the border for processing every year, for processing in the Republic. This is worth €2-300 million each year.

If Whitehall is intent on a confrontation over the Protocol, there could be very rapid and harmful impacts on the Northern Ireland economy, precipitating a noisy political crisis which could keep the media entertained for as long as it lasts.

The only possible way out is a bilateral veterinary agreement, which could make special concessions for bulk fresh milk exports, which is a trade which is already highly regulated. Meat and other foods of animal origin, might be a different matter.

Meanwhile, as the media retreats from the more general coverage of Brexit, the Metro is carrying sponsored copy from the "UK government", declaring: "How British business is going from strength to strength under the new trade rules".

The piece features a number of traders (one pictured) who, miraculously, have experienced no delays at all in their shipments from European countries, the happy collective claiming that "planning is the reason for our Brexit success".

This naked propaganda hardly fits with the tales of woe we have been hearing, with the single "Brexit woes" story in the Sunday Times telling us that parcels posted to and from Europe are taking as long as two months to arrive, with delivery companies blaming Brexit.

British customers have described waiting up to eight weeks to receive items from countries such as Germany or Holland. And, once deliveries arrive, many are hit with unexpected fees to cover customs charges, additional taxes and courier costs, which can run to more than £100.

Against this, the very existence of government-funded propaganda, disguised as news stories, cannot help but raise suspicions that there is an additional reason for the current paucity of Brexit stories in the media.

Whatever the actual reasons, there is no question that Johnson is getting something of a free pass, and is not being brought to account for his failures on Brexit. If he does get away with it, this will in no small measure be due to the inadequacies of the media. But there again, we cannot argue that this is news.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 28/02/2021 link

Brexit: stronger than we think

Saturday 27 February 2021  

In what could be a major development, RTÉ News is reporting that unnamed "senior EU figures" are contemplating a "major reset" in relations with the UK.

The trigger, apparently, is the appointment of David Frost, due to take over as the UK's relationship supremo on 1 March. Some pundits are expecting his role to be more about confrontation than co-operation, hence moves are being made to head off trouble at the pass.

RTÉ News suggests that senior EU officials fear among is that unless there is a clear reset, the relationship between the EU and the UK could become one of perpetual tension.

The idea being floated is a formal, set-piece event marking the TCA ratification, set for the end of April. This could be built round a "handshake" moment between Johnson and EU leaders, symbolising a new, more harmonious era in relations.

This would ideally coincide with both sides signing off on a package of solutions to the most contentious outstanding issues, especially the Northern Ireland Protocol and the London embassy issue.

In the interim, RTÉ News reports that both sides could work towards a package of solutions around the outstanding issues of the Irish Protocol, as well as other areas of tension, such as the status of the EU's delegation to the UK.

However, it is understood that only "very tentative discussions" have been broached, and then only between officials. Whether there is any political commitment to the idea cannot be said. But there would have to be hard negotiations in the coming weeks for anything to materialise.

From the outset, though, things do not look particularly promising. Northern Ireland's agriculture minister, Gordon Lyons, has ordered work to be halted on the construction of border control points, an end to charges levied at ports on traders bringing goods into North and a halt to further recruitment of inspection staff.

Predictably, the rival SDLP are not impressed. It is called for an emergency meeting of the Stormont Executive to address the "unilateral action" taken by the Minister.

Deputy First Minister, Michelle O’Neill, describes the move as a stunt. "The DUP cannot pick and choose which duties and obligations of Executive leadership it wants to adhere to", party leader, Colum Eastwood said. "This decision is controversial, cross cutting and cannot be put into effect without Executive agreement", Nichola Mallon, the Minister for Infrastructure, adds.

So much of this, then, seems typical Northern Irish politics, the old saw being that, if you thing you understand it, you haven't been listening. Clearly, there is no agreement as to what should be done, and no obvious way forward.

That the situation is unstable and, in the longer term, unsustainable, is highlighted by comments from Esmond Birnie, a senior economist at Ulster University's Business School.

He says that Brexit has "hamstrung" Northern Ireland, with its unfettered access to Great Britain reduced and a fix potentially months away as business waits on the UK government to supply accurate data.

"We've no official quarterly data for Northern Ireland, but we've Ulster Bank's purchasing index and case study evidence", Birnie says, on which basis he warns that costs in the province are rising "far more rapidly" than in the other three parts of the UK.

"This", Birnie adds, "is telling us that it is easier to trade with Europe, that prices for businesses in the region are increasing far more rapidly than for GB counterparts and that Brexit resulted in a reduction in our unfettered access to the UK, of which we are a part".

GB access, we are told, is pivotal for many businesses in Northern Ireland, which routinely import some £10.4 billion in goods, compared with £2.4 billion of imports through the Republic of Ireland.

Concerns are growing that Brexit will substantially reduce the quality of life in Northern Ireland, with Mr Birnie noting that food is one of the sectors worst affected by new border controls, and increased business costs will likely translate into higher consumer prices. "Margins for coping with higher grocery prices this side of the Irish Sea are much lower than for the other UK nations", he says.

And yet, confirming what we've known for some time – which seems to be the role of the BBC - there is evidence of a reorientation of trade on the island, which shows no sign of stabilising.

Nearly two months after the end of the transition period, the volume of freight being shipped across the Irish Sea from the Republic of Ireland to GB is still down significantly, with companies trying to avoid the complications and potential delays of using the landbridge.

While the number of weekly ferry crossings from Irish ports to France has risen sharply by 102 percent, with more likely to be added, in the week to 22 February, freight volumes on Stena Line ferries from the Republic of Ireland to GB were down 49 percent compared to the same week last year.

What we have yet to see, though, is the imposition of full border controls on goods from EU member states to the UK, which will not come into force until 1 July – or possibly even later. But what we might see then is a further development of the direct route from Ireland to the continent.

As horse owners are already finding, from Ireland, it is easier to travel to GB via Northern Ireland, EU exporters in future might find it easier to send goods to Ireland, using the land border into Northern Ireland as the back door into the UK. That might even see a revival of Holyhead's fortunes as shippers seek to avoid Calais-Dover and other more direct Channel routes.

It could even become the case that Northern Ireland develops into a manufacturing and distribution hub for the rest of the UK, as well as servicing operations in the Republic.

This, in itself, might explain some of the thinking behind the EU seeking its "reset", as reported by RTÉ. One alternative might be a return to the sort of political instability which gave rise to the Troubles, even if we don't see violence on the same scale.

But, as Pete points out, the UK is not entirely without leverage, should other scenarios emerge, not least of which is the possibility of us invoking the Article 16 safeguards.

With that, the UK has a stronger position than at might first appear. If London refuses to play ball, and implement rigorous checks on goods travelling from GB to Northern Ireland, the EU's options are to insist that the Republic sets up border checks on good from NI, or imposes border checks in Irish goods entering the rest of the EU.

Neither of those options would be welcomed by the EU, or the Irish Republic, with the risk of damaging its precious solidarity. If the EU is to keep Ireland on board, it actually needs to do a deal with London.

That leaves the possibility of a move towards Irish unity, but that is not going to happen any time soon – and one does wonder whether Dublin would want to take on the financial liabilities of supporting Northern Ireland.

All in all, as long as the London government holds its nerve, it might find it easier to reach a resolution than is generally thought. And, if that means transferring economic activity to Northern Ireland, that is no bad thing, It will be a happy day when one can say that Brexit has brought prosperity to the province.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 27/02/2021 link

Brexit: not all bad news

Friday 26 February 2021  

I suppose, if we keep at it long enough, we'll end up with a complete A-Z of enterprises stuffed by Boris's botched Brexit. On Wednesday, we had the architects voicing their complaints and today we have the yachtsmen, who are complaining about the 80-day visa rule.

Sadly, it seems that superyacht crews are also caught up in this, although their problems may evoke little sympathy from Covid-struck Britain.

Nevertheless, many British crew who, until 1 January 2021, had the luxury of being able to travel freely around the EU without many immigration considerations. But Brexit now means that they fall into the same category as other non-EU crew.

With the UK having become a third country, this groups British nationals in with the rest of the world. However, captains seem to be managing. Captains are used to dealing with American, Australian and Kiwi crew coming into Europe – they can enter without a visa but are only allowed to stay in the EU for 90 days within a rolling 180-day period – and the same now applies to British crew.

Essentially British crew, as with any other British or non-EU member state nationals, will now get a stamp in their passport when they arrive in any EU member state, which will start the clock on their 90-day limit within the EU zone (not just in that particular country). When they join a boat, they may then request to get stamped out of the EU and stamped back in when they disembark, meaning the period they are on a crew list does not count towards the 90-day limit.

Despite that, we have Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and the Cruising Association campaigning for sailors to be given a 180-day cruising visa for EU countries. They believe that the future of Britain's cruising sailors is threatened.

Also problematic is a VAT and tariff issue threatening a valuable market in second-hand boats to Ireland, highlighted by the Afloat magazine.

In a somewhat caustic turn of phrase, the magazine reports that, when the greatest trade deal, either in the EU or UK, was being done, "somebody forgot about the minuscule boat market". The resulting fallout from this lack of determination, it says, means brokers and buyers navigating the now choppy waters say there is little official advice to go on, and boats are being lumped in with cars for the official tax treatment.

Thus, a rich pool of well-kept boats at attractive prices, the handy UK market for second-hand boats now has 33 percent in taxes slapped on top since 1 January. Yacht brokers say there are lots of "verbal" discussions going on but very little being put in writing as buyers, sellers along with both Her Majesty’s customs and their EU counterparts, get to grips with some complex new arrangements.

Since the end of the transition period, all boats moved between the EU and UK now require customs declarations at the border and face paying import VAT, although, for many, a ten-month window still exists in which to get boats home without facing this charge.

The rules state that UK VAT-paid yachts must return to the UK within three years of having left the UK or EU and not have changed ownership in the meanwhile to qualify for Returned Goods Relief on VAT. There is a final deadline in place of 31st December 2021 for yachts to return if they departed more than three years ago.

However, when two British owners contacted HM Customs before bringing boats back from the Mediterranean to the Solent, they were told they faced 20 percent in VAT on return. The haulier was cancelled in this instance while the boat owners work out what to do next.

After "y" for yachting, of course, comes "z", but I haven't yet found any zebra importers or exporters who are having particular problems, but there is plenty of time yet.

Back in "a" territory, though, the UK aerospace industry is complaining that it is "in limbo" over how the UK's new aviation regulations interact with those of the EU and global counterparts.

Chief executive of aerospace trade body ADS Group, Paul Everett, explains that getting to grips with the new regulatory environment would not be achieved without filling in gaps in the post-Brexit regime.

"We've identified four key problems, including issues surrounding borders and paperwork, Northern Ireland and chemicals", he says. "But with the UK now operating under a separate aviation safety regime – some of which works okay – it is vital that we get a fix on the detail surrounding how this interacts with the EU regime, as the finer details on this are missing.

"In the absence of these details, some of the key parts of the industry are unable to work and therefore are losing business". Left left unattended, Everett adds. "the additional complexities and all-round Brexit uncertainty would hit the competitiveness of the UK’s aerospace business, which presently ranks fourth in the world behind the US, France and Germany".

"There are fundamental systemic issues" bound to the terms of the TCA that need to be addressed, Everett says. And then there is the way the UK has responded to the deal and the associated requirements".

"A maintenance annex and a change in the relationship surrounding design and approvals would help", he argues, "as would making the new regime understandable both here and internationally".

Everett also thinks that the government needs to foot part of the bill for the UK's new safety regulator, which is within the Civil Aviation Authority. Unlike in Europe, where industry covers 70 percent of the cost tied to its aviation regulatory regime, the new UK rules force businesses to cover 100 percent of the cost.

When it comes to a level playing field, therefore, the UK government is going to the other extreme, burdening British industry with greater cost that their European counterparts have to bear. In "taking back control" it seems a little perverse to use that freedom to disadvantage our own industry.

And that freedom, when it comes to signing up new trade deals, also looks set to yield disappointments. We learn, for instance, that the US has "dashed" British hopes of a speedy agreement, having announced a "review" of the negotiations so far.

This comes with Joe Biden's choice of Katherine Tai as his new trade envoy, who has told a confirmation hearing that there was a need to "review the discussions and the negotiations so far", in the light of all of the "developments" since talks began in 2018.

In the last days of Trump's presidency, the UK unilaterally dropped tariffs against the US over subsidies for aerospace firms, in the hope that the US would respond favourably, but Tai is evidently unimpressed.

She notes that it is almost two-and-a-half years since the Trump administration set out its aims for a trade agreement with the UK, since when the UK has signed "two agreements" with the EU, the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and the TCA.

"It will be important to me to review the progress in the conversations so far, to review the objectives" in light of all the changes, Tai says. In a sign of things to come,. she adds: "We have all been going through a pandemic reality for the last year – we are still in the midst of it, working to get out of it".

In a scenario full of ironies, one has to recall that Biden's home state is Delaware – one of the US's largest chicken producers. The UK opposition to "chlorinated chicken" is not exactly going to help here. Nick Clegg once insisted that the Democrats had told him "we are not going to sign anything that the chicken farmers of Delaware don’t like". Looks like there isn't going to be any Tai chicken.

However, the news isn't all bad. Johnson has called an "eat British fish campaign", to help the industry combat post-Brexit disruption. Others fear, though, that to Johnson "fish" is just another "f-word", and we all know where that takes us.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 26/02/2021 link

Brexit: taking its turn

Thursday 25 February 2021  

You have to enjoy the irony, because there's very little else to enjoy. Here we have Johnson's "oven-ready" deal, the draft Withdrawal Agreement, on which he won the 2019 general election. And now the accompanying Irish Protocol, which has been steadily implemented since I January, is already unravelling.

Yesterday was supposed to be the big day, a meeting of the UK-EU Joint Committee, at which the UK was to propose an extension of the "grace period" due to end on 1 April when all retail agri-food products will require EU Export Health Certificates (EHCs) to move from Britain in to Northern Ireland.

Tensions, we are told, "were high", and although Northern Ireland's first minister, Arlene Foster, went into the meeting without "high expectations" – "given the attitude of the European Commission thus far" - she came out shocked by Brussels' "stubborn and inflexible response", blasting European officials as "tone deaf".

Meanwhile, a junior DUP minister, Gary Middleton, warned that the Irish Sea checking processes could become “overwhelmed” when the first grace period ends, telling a Stormont committee, "We can't have a situation where the internal market of the United Kingdom is disrupted so much to the point where it's effectively crippling our businesses".

While the Committee co-chairs, Michael Gove and the EU vice-president, Maroš Šefcovic, churned out an anodyne joint statement, reiterated their commitment to the Northern Ireland protocol, vowing to find solutions to problems, Foster declared that it was up to Johnson, whose train-wreck this Protocol is , "to step up and protect the United Kingdom internal market".

This, of course, is only one element of the creaking post-Brexit system, with the legacy media pausing briefly from their wall-to-wall coverage of Covid-19 to give an overview of the near two-months (lack of) progress since the end of the transition period.

Typical of the output is a piece by Channel 4 News which tots up some of the aggrieved sectors, "fish, fashion, fun, finance and flowers" to make up a string of F-words.

I guess architects, chemicals, cyclists, equestrians, famers, gin and whisky distillers, the meat industry, motor sport, pharmaceutical industries, and many more, simply didn't make the cut. But then, you can only expect so much of the attention span of TV reporters.

Adding to the ever-growing list is a sector I would never have thought of, the UK guitar buyers, with one prominent retailer describing the situation as "a car crash", which makes a change from the more usual train wreck.

A motorbike racing writer is also pitching in, explaining what Brexit means for British teams and riders. There are, we are told, only two major British teams competing in world championship racing, both of them in World Superbike: the factory BMW squad of Shaun Muir Racing and the factory Yamaha outfit of Crescent Racing.

SMR and Crescent are big enough to have the resources to work at addressing any issues created by Brexit, but these same issues will also affect smaller, less well-financed teams and riders who want to go racing or testing in Europe.

SMR and Crescent say costs will rise and both are considering moving their racing operations to Europe, to avoid the border complications of regularly taking staff, trucks, race bikes and equipment into and out of the EU. Crescent is already setting up a company in the Republic of Ireland to give itself an EU base.

We get some detail on carnets – nothing new to this blog's readers – with concerns about the financial impact. Basic cost of a carnet is around £300, plus a refundable deposit of 40 percent of the value of the van/truck and everything inside it, or a non-refundable insurance premium to cover the 40 percent.

Shaun Muir Racing puts the cost of an annual EU carnet for a race truck at between £4000 and £5000. Muir takes four trucks onto the Continent, Crescent takes two. And although the carnets are valid for 12 months and multiple trips, if the items listed change significantly, new carnets are needed.

"Carnet fees and agency fees are quite painful", says Paul Denning, boss of Crescent, which runs the Pata Yamaha operation with riders Toprak Razgatlioglu and Andrea Locatelli. "We are a well-established team and company so we can put time, money and human resources into doing that. Does all this make it unattractive for smaller teams running out of the UK on shoestring budgets in World Supersport 300 or 600? Yes. Does it make it impossible? Maybe. Either way it's a massive pain".

Getting people into Europe is the next issue. We are told that there is currently a lot of confusion regarding the status of UK race staff that need to make work visits in EU states, due to glaring ambiguities in official documents. No one seems quite sure of whether British riders and team staff will need work visas and permits for each EU country they visit.

"Visas are a whole other nightmare", adds Denning. "The real problem is that for every regulation there seems to be something else that contradicts that regulation. Some people say we don't need visas or work permits, others say we do. If we have to go down that road we’re told the estimate for an all-singing, all-dancing Italian work visa is anywhere between £1,500 and £3,000 per person. And that's just one country".

I'm surprised that the national media haven't picked this up yet. As so often, the details are confined to trade magazines, leaving the big titles to chunter away at generalities and the easy-picking of ready-packaged think-tank reports and industry surveys.

The latter is the fare on offer from the Guardian which has filleted a press release from Chartered Institute of Procurement & Supply (CIPS), to tell us that a survey of 350 supply chain managers found that two out of three had experienced delays of "at least two to three days" getting goods into the UK, compared with 38 percent who reported delays in a similar survey in January.

A third of this group said the delays were "significantly longer" than in January, 28 percent said "slightly longer" and 15 percent reported delays of a similar length to January. Just 18 percent of those surveyed by the said they had experienced no delays or fewer delays. The situation was only slightly better for exports, with 44 percent experiencing delays of at least two to three days getting goods into the EU.

Interestingly, the paper also notes that the UK's largest chemical producers, BASF, has revealed that it has experienced "substantial friction" from the new trade barriers caused by withdrawal from the EU, although we get no detail.

This firm we profiled last October, where the company's Neil Hollis warned that the chemical industry could suffer losses of £1 billion, through new registration costs, a loss of innovation and some chemicals no longer being available.

"There's no positive spin on this", Hollis said at the time. as the UK prepared to pull out of REACH, in favour of its own regulation. "To put it bluntly, chemicals available now will remain on the EU market, but will disappear from the UK market", he warned.

Although the Guardian can only grudgingly award one short paragraph to the company – against dozens of pieces about the thespians and wandering minstrels - the New York Times devoted a whole piece to the British chemical industry last month.

It wrote of the firm of Teal & Mackrill in Hull, which makes paints for special applications, like fishing trawlers and factory floors. In a "little-noticed consequence of the new Brexit trade deal", this paper said, "the company is facing real concerns about its future".

Owner Geoff Mackril said that growing British regulatory burdens on chemicals may mean that eventually he would not be able to obtain some of the additives that make his paints distinctive. "The worry is that some of those materials that we use", he said, "may become unavailable because of those costs".

This was a concern that is spread across Britain's £33 billion a year chemical industry, with BASF estimating that UK REACH could cost the company £70 million. "If the costs of bringing products to the UK market rise to make them uneconomic, we are not going to do it and make a loss", said Geoff Mackey, director of communications and sustainability at BASF in Britain.

Nothing of this, however, seems important enough for the British legacy media, even though plant closures are being reported. Schools, more than hospitals, are today's media fare. Brexit has to take its turn, while "inveterate liar" Johnson can blame everything on Covid.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 25/02/2021 link

Brexit: architectural woes

Wednesday 24 February 2021  

Rafael Behr seems to be the latest commentator to accept that Keir Starmer has abandoned the fight on Brexit terrain.

Doing so, Behr writes, gets him no affection in constituencies that were lost by Labour in 2019. Thus (in England, at least), with Johnson also avoiding a fight, what Behr calls "the folly of Brexit" is being buried for excavation some time in the future, perhaps by a different political generation.

That, at least, is what Behr thinks, and what our political leaders hope – the tactics of timorous children hiding their eyes behind their hands in similar hope that the bogeyman will go away. But at least the bogeyman is fiction. Brexit isn't.

And latest in the long list of aggrieved groups to voice their concerns about the way they have been treated, thereby ensuring Brexit is not going to go away, are the architects. Typically, they make themselves heard not in the national media but in their own Architects' Journal.

In an authored piece, Patrick Richard, principal director of the architectural practice, Stanton Williams, writes under the title: "Brexit is closing doors for UK architects working in Europe", declaring that architects need to make their voices heard about the impact of Brexit. It is, he says, threatening London’s position as the global hub for international architectural services.

We were expecting something like this – one or other of the service sectors making its presence felt, other than the wandering minstrels. And here we have the architects, front and centre, complaining that the government "seems to have ignored the effect of Brexit on the creative industries, which contribute more than a quarter of the UK’s economy".

Richard makes no bones about labelling Johnson's deal as a "de facto imposed hard Brexit", as far as his industry is concerned, saying that it is "creating major challenges for architects" – and the creative sector in general – "as 40 years of complex agreements unravel into a vacuum".

As of 31 December last year, Richard writes, we have lost important freedoms, and we no longer have reciprocity of recognition for our qualifications in the EU. What was a simple administrative application is now turning into a much more complex process, with more paperwork and proofs of compliance required.

However, he seems to be under the illusion – shared by many – that this government cares enough to do something about it, or is even capable of achieving anything better than we already have.

He argues that the RIBA and ARB "need to lobby government to ensure the agreements between the UK and the EU allow architects to export their services as well as to continue to employ EU talent". Fishermen and performing artists, he notes, have rightly been vocal in fighting for their rights. We as architects should also add our voices to defend the creative industries' right to continue working seamlessly within the EU.

Working in Europe, Richard says, is in his firm's DNA. "A lot of us started our careers on the Continent", he says. Alan Stanton, the firm's founder, was part of the team on the Pompidou Centre before setting up a practice in Paris. Richard has worked in Switzerland and France prior to settling in the UK.

A significant part of the firm's "talented team comes" from the EU – bringing diversity of thought and culture that expands our horizons and enriches the debate in the studio and our work.

Thus, he says, "Europe is not just an important market for us, it is an opportunity to enrich our partnerships and experience and promote British design abroad, while bringing back home the lessons learnt".

France is a country that really values investing in culture, he avers. His firm currently has two major projects under way there – a library for the city of Clermont-Ferrand and a large housing project in Nantes, which follows our successful completion of the Museum of Art for the same city – in addition to an ongoing competition for a high-profile cultural project.

At present, the firm has no plans to open an office in Paris, although Richard says this could change. For the moment, though, they are in the process of registering the firm's principals in France. Before Brexit, that was a straightforward matter of doing it locally. Now it has to be done centrally for every project in whichever country the firm is working in. And it's a lot more complex and lengthy process.

But Richard thinks that Brexit's impact goes much further than this. London's position as the global hub for international architectural services and the city with the greatest concentration of international and UK architects in the world, is now under threat. He fears it will be a lot harder to hire European architects post-Brexit. Nor will London be as attractive to European architects as it once was.

Oddly, he is complaining about a deal which hasn't even been ratified yet, with the UK now agreeing to allow an extension to 30 April to allow the European Parliament more time to scrutinise the treaty document.

Unwittingly, the government is making a statement about its own actions in this respect, having forced through the implementing Bill in one day – an obscenely rapid process requiring the approval of MPs of a document that they cannot have possibly read properly and some of them will never understand.

However, there cannot be many instances of multiple calls for a treaty to be revised before it is even ratified, but that is the position, with the architects joining a lengthening queue.

Already in that queue is the meat industry, hoping the European Commission will look at the idea of a "bilateral EU-UK veterinary agreement", something Eustice has raised and now is raising hopes elsewhere of a New Zealand style deal.

This, we've already explored, and the best thing we can hope for is some form of "equivalence" recognition on CETA lines, which has proved of very little value to the Canadian meat industry.

Meanwhile, Pete has written a powerful piece acknowledging that we're unlikely to surmount the regulatory hurdles that stand between us and the EU's market. Therefore, he suggests that we don't even try. Instead, we should dump the corpus of EU regulation and start again.

Here, it is fascinating to see the usual dynamic take over. The slightest suggestion of walking away from EU regulation evokes immediate squeals of "lowering standards", as if EU standards were necessarily the best on offer. Yet the reason we ever suggested that we continued in the Single Market was not because we had fallen in love with EU regulation. Simply, we wanted a long transition, to enable us to create a more acceptable alternative.

Now that our politicians have ejected us from the Single Market (prematurely, in my view), we have little option but to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in. And, if the shellfish "non-ban" shows us anything, it is that we are not going to get very far playing by the EU's rules.

In seeking different (and even better) standards, that does not mean that we abandon any attempt to work with international bodies, although Covid and other influences suggest that the globalisation movement is heading for a pause – if not already there.

Should we seek to reactivate the globalisation process – and I think there are advantages in so doing – the best thing we can do is lead by example. Slavishly following down the Commission's tramlines does not seem to be the way forward.

Taking such a path will, undoubtedly, be difficult, but since we seem to be set down a difficult path already, we might as well get something positive out of it. And, as Pete points out, food production is a good place to start, with a view in the first instance of improving our own food security.

This is far from an optimal position, and there may well be a time when we can look forward to closer cooperation with our European neighbours. But, as we are out in the cold, we might as well put on an overcoat.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 24/02/2021 link

Brexit: good for the gander

Tuesday 23 February 2021  

It is difficult to avoid a wry smile when comparing the reports from two different newspapers of Salmonella food poisoning from chicken products in Poland.

The po-faced Guardian headlines its report with "Deadly salmonella outbreak in UK linked to chicken products", and you have to get well into the story before being told that it had been "confirmed that the salmonella originated in Poland", and efforts were being made to identify the farm or farms involved.

In the Mail, by contrast, one is regaled by the headline: "REVEALED: Five people are feared to have died and hundreds more including many children made ill after eating chicken imported from Poland that was contaminated with salmonella in the past year".

As to the detail, we learn that five people are suspected to have died and hundreds more, including children, became seriously ill after eating the contaminated chicken, which has been imported from Poland.

The meat was turned into cheap frozen nuggets and breaded chicken products sold by major supermarkets across the UK over the past year. Some 480 people are known to have fallen ill with salmonella poisoning, with more than one in three becoming so sick they needed hospital treatment.

Although the Mail headline points out that this has been going on for a year, in fact, there have been a rash of salmonella reports in Polish poultry since January 2016 with what is described as a "staggering" uptick in 2019, when the level in that year was close to the total for the previous three years.

Some readers may also be aware that Poland is currently a member of the European Union, which means that the produce is subject to the fabled EU food safety law, including Commission Regulation (EC) No 2073/2005 of 15 November 2005 on microbiological criteria for foodstuffs (as amended).

Interestingly, the EU standard for "meat products made from poultry meat intended to be eaten cooked" is an absence of Salmonella in 25 grams, when sampled in accordance with the specified sampling programme.

Critics of the EU might suggest that this is a bullshit standard as it is unachievable without treating finished products with high concentrations of chlorine – which is, of course, not permitted. Predictably, therefore, the latest report from the European Food Safety Authority shows that Salmonella in poultry is very far from having been eliminated, rendering the microbiological criteria aspirational rather than realistic targets.

Needless to say though, the microbiological criteria apply to imported foods so that, while the limits are observed more in the breach than the observance for intra-Union trade, they can be applied to imported food, whence they become a useful tool for excluding supplies from third countries – such as the UK.

As for the UK, owing to the epic incompetence of the British government which has failed to prepare for the end of the transition period, there are no facilities for inspecting (or sampling) incoming Polish chicken, which is allowed entry unchecked. Not until 1 July of this year will routine checks be carried out, assuming the necessary border control posts have been built, and the staff are available.

Despite the lack of checks, though, the UK import requirements mirror EU law which means that Polish vets at the point of origin should be signing off export health certificates (with their coloured crayons), attesting to, amongst other things, conformity with Regulation (EC) No 2073/2005.

The huge irony of this is that, since accession to the EU, Poland has adopted the EU's antiquated system of veterinary-based food control, whence EU official inspections by the Commission's Food & Veterinary Office have found substandard conditions in multiple poultry production sites. In two plants visited, there were serious structural and hygiene requirements which had not been detected or corrected by any level of authority controls.

The EU's audit team was told the number of official veterinarians involved in official controls of meat establishments was 3,318 in 2018 and had remained constant between 2016 and 2018. However, in the same period the number of permanent official veterinarians had decreased by 141, most of them (90) in the districts, from 2,172 in 2016 to 2,031 in 2018.

As a result, one food safety official had to supervise 45 approved establishments with minimum frequency of controls from one to four times a year and one approved for export to the US requiring one monthly audit/two days and 262 food entities. The official also has to participate in regional level audits of two days every three months and to supervise 30 assistants assigned in the district.

Yet, official veterinarians were paid based on the number of animals inspected or the amount of meat introduced to the cutting plant they supervise. If the establishment is closed down for any reason, they were not paid for this period. That system, it was said, undermined their independence in situations where the required enforcement measures to be taken on the spot would include stopping slaughter operations.

This crass system is the same which prevails in the UK, where contract vets perform as official veterinarians. There are perverse incentives built into the system, where a poor inspection report leads to an increase in supervisory hours, while a very poor score leads to plant closure, depriving the vets (and their employers) of their incomes.

Clearly, the independent, local authority-based system in the UK, which the EU system replaced, would not suffer from these defects.

But, despite the problems report, there are no indications that things are getting at all better. According to the USDA which clears plants for US exports (where chlorine is used in liberal quantities), the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the Polish poultry industry to the brink of crisis.

Although Poland remains the EU's largest single poultry producer, processing 2.5 million tons of poultry meat annually, compared with the EU total of 15.2 million tons, demand from Western European hotels, restaurants and institutions has dropped sharply in the wake of the pandemic, precipitating an across the board price cut, from which the industry has yet to recover.

In addition, Poland has struggled to contain outbreaks of highly pathogenic avian influenza, with an OIE report of a million birds having been slaughtered in one farm by the end of 2020, adding to the nine outbreaks to be reported up to January 2020.

Yet, despite an obviously uncontained situation in Poland, the Commission is excluding for no good reason unpurified Class B live bivalve molluscs from the UK – although treated oysters have been successfully shipped.

This has led Defra secretary George Eustice to consider tit-for-tat restrictions on the import of European mineral water and several other food products. Such an action, on its own, would probably be unwise, as it would lose the UK the moral high ground over the Commission exclusion which is almost certainly in breach of the TCA and the WTO SPS Agreement.

However, if Eustice was looking for an entirely legitimate response, he could bring forward import controls to apply to Polish poultry products – entirely justified by the rash of food poisoning reports. The application of Regulation 2073/2005 criteria would, most likely bring imports to a crashing halt – to the delight of UK producers - leaving Eustice with clean hands, and some serious leverage.

And for those looking for Brexit benefits, inside the EU, it would not be possible to apply import checks to contaminated EU produce and nor could we legitimately ban produce which has been so lovingly inspected by underpaid vets working to EU food laws. What's good for the EU goose, the Commission needs to learn, should be good for the UK gander.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 23/02/2021 link

Brexit: poking the elephant

Monday 22 February 2021  

Concern over post-Brexit policy implementation necessarily demands that stress points and failures are closely examined, better to enable policy weakness to be understood, and remedies offered in order to strengthen our position.

Alternatively there are those who highlight stress points and failures for entirely different reasons. They wish to use them to prove a need to rejoin the EU, and the more failures they can record, the better.

While the motivations of the two groups is very different, the commonality of interest in acquiring similar data might confuse weak-minded observers as to what precisely the motives of information gatherers are.

For this reason one can see why Starmer and his Labour Party are reluctant to attack the Johnson administration's performance on Brexit. In the "Red Wall" constituencies where Starmer needs to recover seats, such actions might be seen as favouring the "rejoin" tendency yet, if it is made clear that the critical role is being adopted in order to strengthen Brexit, the Europhilic core of the Labour Party might take umbrage.

Caught between irreconcilable sentiments, it must be much easier for Labour strategists to adopt the omerta regime, leaving Johnson to self-destruct in his own time, allowing Labour candidates to reap the electoral dividend without getting their hands dirty.

Since Labour's policies on Brexit over time have hardly been consistent, exposing them to possible counter-attack if they are too strident in the criticism of Johnson, there is a further incentive for the Party to counsel silence, keeping the political narrative on safer territory.

Nevertheless, this strategy could backfire. The aftermath of Brexit is going to be with us for a long time and, long before we see any tangible benefits from leaving, we will be seeing adverse effects stacking up, threatening any post-Covid economic recovery.

In a rational political environment, therefore, there would be merit in Starmer setting out detailed policies for making good the many flaws in Johnson's deals – the TCA and the Withdrawal Agreement, with special reference to the Irish Protocol – by which means we could judge the suitability of Labour for government.

Where this idea falls down, of course, is that we do not occupy a rational political environment. If we did, neither Johnson nor Corbyn would have been presented as the alternatives for prime minister at the last general election.

When it comes to the next election, Johnson must be hoping that the afterglow from conquering Covid-19 – in the happy event that this has happened – will translate into electoral support – the equivalent of Maggie's "Falklands effect".

Timing here is not in Johnson's favour. Assuming that the UK epidemic is largely under control by late summer, and we are more-or-less back to normal by the end of the year, much of the hardship and trauma will be a distant memory by the time we go to the polls in 2024.

And nor, taking the cue from war leader Winston Churchill – with whom Johnson would like to be compared – can the glow of "victory" necessarily be translated into electoral success. After all, despite his heroic performance during the war years, Churchill lost the 1945 general election by a landslide.

If memories of Covid-19 have faded by 2024, though, that will not necessarily be the case with Brexit. Many pundits believe that there is much suppressed demand within the economy and, once the restrictions are lifted, we will see a surge in spending which will drive a consumer-led recovery. But the adverse effects of Brexit could delay of even block a recovery.

Thus, on the basis of "it's the economy stupid", letting Johnson run with his flawed version of Brexit could be an astute political move – provided that, at the last minute, Starmer was able to come up with some plausible options for improving our economic prospects.

Such calculations, though, could come to naught if Covid-19 defies expectations and comes roaring back in the form of a new variant that its resistant to the current range of vaccinations. A resurgent epidemic over the winter could create community stresses which could be hard to contain, and damage Johnson's political standing.

What would make that especially difficult for him is that the hard core Brexiteers also tend to oppose lockdowns. They are also more likely to be anti-vaxxers and, supposedly on civil liberty grounds, oppose vaccination certificates – even though these have been compulsory for entry into some countries since 1959.

With Brexit supposedly "done", and therefore discounted, Johnson could end up being judged by his Brexit support group on his performance – or lack of it – on Covid. This again, is another factor which could influence Starmer, who is on stronger ground with Covid and can attack there without reviving enmities over Brexit.

Delving deeper into the toxic mess which British politics has become, the battle over the NHS and education, making up the classic "schools 'n' hospitals" agenda will continue to drive the political debate, and we will see Johnson anxious to capture the high ground here.

With the legacy media unable or unwilling to address Brexit issues, having already largely lost interest in them, we might see the 2024 general election campaign dominated by the traditional battleground with Brexit not getting a look in. Starmer's previous performance on the issue, therefore, many have little electoral impact.

So far, it would thus seem, most of the political calculus stacks up in favour of Starmer keeping schtum about Brexit – but for that one possibility that the adverse effects will have a serious and highly visible impact on our economic recovery.

Mere damage will not be enough as there are so many ways of burying bad news in official statistics that even a moderate hit will be easy to disguise and hard to pin down. In the run-up to the election, the economic damage much be so serious and so incontrovertible that it must be splattered all over the media and on everyone's lips.

The difficulty in this case will be trying to unravel the relative effects of Covid and Brexit. But the evaluation will not only be carried out in absolute terms. Relative performances will also be taken into account, with comparisons between the UK and EU Member States of special relevance.

Here, perversely, the EU may come to Johnson's rescue. Its botched and delayed vaccination programme may allow Covid-19 to proliferate on the continent, prolonging the pandemic, increasing the costs and delaying the economic recovery. Some believe it could even trigger another euro crisis.

Struggling EU Member States would certainly help Johnson electorally, as any economic stresses in the UK can be played down if our European "partners" are suffering more. Deft political spinning can present their difficulties as justifying Brexit.

On the other hand, if Europe does not get to grips with Covid and becomes an incubator for new strains which then spread throughout the UK, anti-EU rhetoric- already ramping up to uncomfortable levels – could play in Johnson's favour, especially with a little help from the right-wing press. In that event, hostility from Starmer on Brexit issues could be counterproductive.

When all is said and done, though, there is one overpowering reason why Starmer and his team should keep quiet. Basically, in what is a complex and contentious issue, where there are no clear or easy solutions, he and his people are out of their depths. They simply have neither the knowledge nor the capability to make a worthwhile contribution to the debate.

Probably, therefore, we will see a continued lack of engagement from Labour, aided and abetted by the legacy media and a complicit Conservative Party. But that doesn't mean the debate will disappear. We have been used to "Europe" being the political elephant-in-the-room, so this is more of the same – although we have a lot of experience at poking that elephant.

And if there is one thing the 2016 referendum should have taught the politicians – assuming they are capable of learning anything – is that ignoring a subject doesn't make it go away. Whatever political rationale there may be for Starmer keeping his head down on Brexit, it will still be likely to rear up and bite him when he least expects it.

That reason, and that reason alone, suggests that Starmer's current stance is unwise – the political equivalent of penny-wise, pound foolish. Despite any short-term benefits, it will cost him in the end.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 22/02/2021 link

Brexit: a politics-free zone

Sunday 21 February 2021  

As so often with the legacy media, more effort is being devoted to palace gossip than factual reporting of any number of important issues, much of it centred on the apparent influence of Carrie Symonds and her allies, as they bid for Johnson's attention and patronage.

On the other hand, it seems to be a while since Johnson had anything to say about Brexit, so there is little high political drama to report in that respect. Presumably, he is devoting his political energies to Covid-19, possibly in the hope that he will be able to bask in the halo effect stemming from a successful vaccination programme.

Nevertheless, the rise and rise of David Frost, the relative decline of Michael Gove, and the waning influence of Vote Leave remnants, suggest a recognition in Number 10 that a crisis is building, which needs to be more forcefully addressed.

Whether it means that Johnson feels more vulnerable about Brexit is anyone's guess – but it is not delivering much good news for him. That, potentially, leaves him wide open to attacks on the subject, reinforcing the view that Starmer should be making it one of his key policy areas.

And, it seems, we are by no means alone in being disturbed by his behaviour. Labour MPs are actually "dismayed", and it's not just because of Starmer's refusal to engage. It seems that Labour high command has ordered the troops to maintain "radio silence" on Brexit for fear that criticising Johnson's flawed deal would be damaging for the party.

So far, the omerta is working. Since 1 January Starmer has not raised Brexit or problems caused by it once at PMQs. Interventions on the issue from backbenchers have been rare and none of the shadow cabinet or frontbench team have made a speech in parliament on the issues affecting UK businesses.

But this goes way beyond parliament. Not only are Labour MPs are being "asked" by the party not to focus on problems caused by Brexit when asking questions in parliament, the omerta extends to dealing with the media and posting on social media.

However, Starmer's stance is causing some unease amongst "senior party figures", with one member of his frontbench team said that attempts to "brush the problems under the carpet just because we wrongly voted for Johnson’s deal in December is pretty close to negligence". He added that Starmer was "terrified" of offending voters in red wall seats in the Midlands and north where pro-Brexit voters deserted Labour at the 2019 election.

Former cabinet member and Europe minister Peter Hain says that Brexit has become the "elephant in the room" for Labour. It's almost as if he had been reading this blog.

Undoubtedly, this is contributing to the bizarre lack of focus in the legacy media. Schooled in "biff-bam" personality politics, without Westminster politicians engaging on the issues, this leaves journalists having to resort to old-fashioned reporting on their own account – something for which they seem singularly ill-equipped.

It is not as if they are short of material though. Latest in the long list of groups adversely affected by Johnson's "triumphs" are professional cycle racers. But, for news of their fate, once more, we must turn to the speciality press, in this case Cycling Weekly.

This has "British pros" urging the government to negotiate visa-free permits to race in EU, to get round the current 90-day limit in 180 days. Many British professional racers are either based in Europe or, with European-centric racing schedules coming up, have been left in limbo.

Countries such as Belgium, for instance, require riders to earn €80,000 in order to be classed as a professional sportsperson and be granted a special athlete visa. This leaves racer Olly Moors in the lurch, having lived and raced in Belgium for the past five years.

He currently finds himself stuck in the UK while his girlfriend, also a racing pro, has set off for Belgium ahead of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad next weekend, her 90 allocated travel days ticking down with every passing day.

"So we're basically both on the 90 days and this would have been my fifth year living in Belgium and obviously now that there's Brexit I can't do that", Moors says. " Because of the 90-day rule it's kind of screwed all of that up really".

He would like something like extended tourist visas to be given to athletes, to allow them to go to the country and just stay put. Moors adds: "There's no UK racing scene for me as a domestic UK rider. I'm better off in Belgium because we've got a really good solid French and Belgian and Dutch summer calendar coming up".

If the fashion and other industries. Are any guide, Moors and his fellow racers will be waiting a long time before they get any response from government. The fashion industry, in fact, are at odds with culture secretary Oliver Dowden, who is accused of a "patronising" response to pleas for help.

Rather than offer anything constructive, Dowden has told industry leaders to use their "star power" to persuade Brussels and EU member states to relax post-Brexit restrictions. The leaders question whether other industries would be urged to use their "star power".

They note that while the government was prepared to pursue a no-deal strategy in order to help the fishing industry, it had offered their sector comparatively little help, despite the size of the contribution to the GDP.

Designer Alice Temperley says, "For the government to come back with this, they are hiding, they are cowards", adding: "The government likes to entertain us during fashion week when we are all invited to 10 Downing Street to meet the prime minister. But now the government isn't here to help, there is no voice, there is no guidance and there is no clarity on the situation. No one is talking about the fashion industry".

Yasmin Le Bon, the fashion model, says: "We rarely speak up for ourselves for fear of seeming uncool, but this is about more, it's about hundreds of thousands of jobs that may potentially be lost. For once we need to be listened to and for the government to work with us before it is too late".

The meat industry, though, seems to be having better luck. According to the Grocer - another example of the trade press making the running – the government is in talks with the EU over a veterinary agreement that – potentially - could dramatically reduce the number of SPS checks on animal origin goods moving into the EU.

Eustice has publicly backed the plan and the UK is thought to be seeking a New Zealand-style agreement which would recognise each other's standards as equivalent while not demanding any further alignment.

This idea has been floated before, in the hope that UK traders can benefit from the same concessions that are afforded to New Zealand, with identity checks reduced to verifying that container seals are intact and identity information corresponds with the documentation, while physical checks are limited to one percent, as opposed to the 15-30 percent applied to UK product.

It is unlikely, though, that the UK will get anything like the same concessions. New Zealand export standards are exceptionally high and the trade is in prime quality meats, with pork excluded. By far the greater proportion of exports is lamb, where animal disease incidence is low.

Very few UK slaughterhouses match NZ processing standards, while we also trade in the "rubbish" end of the market, selling older breeding animals, which are more prone to disease. The best that could be hoped for is to trim inspection frequencies to Canadian levels, of 20 percent – which has proved of little benefit to Canadian exporters.

In any case at the time of reporting, Gove was apparently leading the discussions with European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic. Frost's appointment as "Europe" supremo may set back any talks or even remove the prospect of any agreement.

A sign of things to come, though, is the robust response to the Commission's refusal to admit live bivalve molluscs from Class B waters, intended for depuration before consumption.

In what is being dubbed "Water Wars", ministers are looking at proposals to restrict the import of European mineral water and several food products, comprising direct retaliatory measures in response to Brussels' action on UK shellfish.

Meanwhile, elements of the equestrian industry are taking matters into their own hands, evading expensive fees and paperwork by transporting high-value mares from Ireland to the UK via Northern Ireland, instead of shipping them direct.

This was picked up by the Horse & Hound magazine on 6 February, but two weeks later is being "revealed" by the Sunday Telegraph. The paper also claims an exclusive, telling us that ministers are looking at a new "UK creative industries export office" which could help assist artists with international gigs. This, however, does not seem to be directed specifically at problems related to the EU.

Add the troubles at the ports, and fishermen in fear of losing their homes, and there is more than enough material for Starmer and his merry men to work on. But if Brexit is to remain a politics-free zone, the sense of betrayal can only build.

And if politics is no longer working, the denizens of Westminster can hardly be surprised if people start looking elsewhere for their relief.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

Richard North 21/02/2021 link

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