Brexit: the moment of truth

Wednesday 19 September 2018  

Can it really be the case that our prime minister believes that Efta/EEA States are part of the customs union? Yet that's what she tells us in a promotion film for her Chequers plan, asserting that a relationship built on the one Norway has with the EU "would also involve membership of the customs union which means we couldn't strike our own trade deals".

If the woman isn't telling a deliberate, unconscionable lie, then she is more ignorant than we could possibly have imagined. Bluntly, I don't know which is worse. Possibly, it is the latter. We expect politicians – even prime ministers – to be economical with the réalité, but to have one who doesn't know even the basics of something like the Norway Option is quite shocking.

But, if Mrs May really is that ignorant, it she is in good company. Her cabinet secretary Dominic Raab seems to display that same lack of grip of the essentials in arguing that the it was the EU's turn to move on its red lines. Interviewed by a group of continental newspapers, he told them, "We have shown a lot of flexibility and we have been very pragmatic", adding: "So I think this is the moment to see that matched… The ball is a little bit in the other court now".

This is another of those wondrous moments, where it is difficult to believe that a man in his position could be so far adrift from his brief. But if he needs to get back on track, all he needs to do is read the latest report from the select committee on exiting the European Union.

"The European Commission", it says, "has now indicated that the Chequers proposals for a Facilitated Customs Arrangement and a common rulebook are not viable and if this remains the position then the Government will need to adapt its approach to the future EU-UK economic relationship".

For this, therefore, we don't need any secret squirrel briefings from anonymous "EU diplomats", or messages in a bottle floated up the Thames. And, if anything, the select committee is late to the party, articulating what we have known for an awful long time.

But if you did want any conformation, the Evening Standard is the place to be, with Ann Linde, Sweden's acting Europe minister. Speaking to the paper, she adopts an emollient tone, telling us that the EU leaders "could see Chequers positively", but there are some "problematic big areas". She is not prepared to be so undiplomatic as to say it is a "non-starter" but observes that "some of the things give rise to difficulties because it goes against EU principles". In other words, it's a non-starter.

As to any likelihood of "flexibility" – the crucial issue remains the Irish border. And, in setting out the programme for Salzburg, Donald Tusk is being less than supportive of British fantasies.

As regards Brexit, the EU leaders a seeking to reach "a common view on the nature and overall shape of the joint political declaration about our future partnership with the UK". They will then discuss how to organise the final phase of the Brexit talks, "including the possibility of calling another European Council in November".

Finally, they will be asked to "reconfirm the need for a legally operational backstop on Ireland, so as to be sure that there will be no hard border in the future". Limiting the damage caused by Brexit is our shared interest, Tusk says, but, "unfortunately, a no deal scenario is still quite possible".

Interestingly, the European Council president goes on to talk of acting "responsibly" in order to "avoid a catastrophe", but he needs to direct that sentiment directly to Mrs May. Whether deliberately, with malice of forethought, or through a profound ignorance that she has no business allowing, hers is not responsible behaviour. Not under any circumstances can it lead to a happy outcome.

At least, though, if the EU leaders agree to the extension of the deadline, they have given the UK another month to settle an agreement. But, if Mrs May and her ministers are effectively in denial, no amount of extra time will be to any avail.

The point, of course, is that the EU cannot deliver the flexibility that Mr Raab wants, and there was never any likelihood that it could. Thus, if at this late stage, it is still being expected by the UK team, led by a prime minister spouting error-strewn propaganda about he Chequers plan, we must consider the possibility that we are dealing with people so ignorant that they haven't the competence to see the Brexit talks to a successful conclusion.

Mrs May certainly shares Raab's fantasy. According to Reuters, she has been writing in Die Welt, arguing that both sides needed to show goodwill to avoid a disorderly UK exit from the EU.

"We are near to achieving the orderly withdrawal that is the essential basis for building a close future partnership", she wrote, adding: "To come to a successful conclusion, just as the UK has evolved its position, the EU will need to do the same. Neither side can demand the unacceptable of the other, such as an external customs border between different parts of the United Kingdom".

Taking a break from her literary endeavours, the prime minister will be at Salzburg today and she will get a chance to address the EU-27 over dinner. What she will say to them won't be recorded, and there will be no journalists present. The media will have to rely on statements from No.10 and leaks from the meeting where, one presumes, Ireland will be discussed.

But, if Mrs May thinks she is going to drive a wedge between the Commission and the Member States, we already have one of those helpful senior EU officials to deflate expectations. EU leaders will show their "strong support for Michel Barnier and strong support for the position of Ireland", he says.

Mrs May won't be there to hear this. She gets to speak today, but there is no discussion on Brexit until tomorrow, by which time she will have left. And the substance of those talks won't be recorded either. There may not even be much by way of an official communiqué.

Meanwhile, Michel Barnier has been preparing the ground with a press statement following yesterday's General Affairs Council in Brussels. Emphasising the need to "move decisively forward" on the Irish question, he reminded us that the formal proposal for the backstop had been on the table since February.

Using slightly different words from Tusk in his written statement, we see talks of the need for a functional rather than legally operational backstop, although when delivered, Barnier was fully on-message using exactly the same words.

Once again we heard of the need to "de-dramatise the checks that "are required and that are caused by the UK's decision to leave the EU, its Single Market and Customs Union", while in what has been hailed as a "boost" for Mrs May, Barnier stated that: "We are ready to improve this proposal".

"Work on the EU side is ongoing", the chief negotiator said, "We are clarifying which goods arriving in northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would need to be checked and where, when and by whom these checks could be performed. We can also clarify that most checks can take place away from the border, at company premises or in the markets" – adding words in his oral delivery.

Sky News seems to have an even fuller account, with quotes that are not on the Commission recording. These have Barnier saying: "What we are talking about here is not a border - not a land border, not a sea border. It is a set of technical checks and controls".

That leaves, says Barnier, the October European Council, which he says, "will be the moment of truth". He adds: "This is the moment when we will see if an agreement is within our reach, as I hope and as we are working on it".

This clarification on the border issue is helpful, not least because it is clear that Barnier is referring to checks carried out between the mainland and Northern Ireland – something which Sky News doesn't seem to understand, and where the Independent seems confused. This is not the ERG solution.

The original BBC rendition was similarly flawed, the website wrongly claiming: "The EU's negotiator said he wanted most new physical checks to be carried out away from the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a key demand of Conservative MPs". It has now been corrected.

Necessarily, the Commission's proposal still pre-supposes that there will be regulatory and customs harmonisation between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The only thing that changes is that the putative "wet border" between Northern Ireland and the mainland becomes a fuzzy transition where checks are not tied to a particular location. But checks there will be, to ensure the UK does not sidestep EU controls on British goods. Once again, the Guardian gets close.

Whether this is the fudge, or part of it, that will get Mrs May off the hook remains to be seen. But there may be some greater significance to her Die Welt piece, where she specifically highlights the "external customs border between different parts of the United Kingdom". The "fuzzy border" could be presented as the concession that lubricates a deal.

At the very least, this may add some dynamism to talks on the margins at Salzburg, from which more could emerge at the Tory conference when the prime minister gives her speech. Then, we could even see the fat lady preparing to think about whether she should consider singing – or not.

Richard North 19/09/2018 link

Brexit: a sense of irritation

Tuesday 18 September 2018  

Why is Mrs May trying to sell us her "Chequers plan", arguing that if parliament doesn't support it, "the alternative to that will be having no deal"?

Even Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC understands that the plan, in its current form, has not the slightest chance of being accepted in Brussels. And since, if the MPs do get to decide, they will voting on the agreed plan, it follows that she's wasting her time (and everybody else's) by calling for the support of something that won't ever be put to the vote.

On the other hand, if she persists in pushing it, unchanged, in Brussels – and goes right to the wire - the automatic outcome will be a "no deal" Brexit. Again, it will never be put to a vote.

In order to get it past the EU, there is only one credible scenario – that Mrs May heavily modifies her Chequers plan, bringing it closer to what Mr Barnier can recommend to the European Council. But with that treatment, what would emerge would be so different that it would have no chance whatsoever of getting approval from her "ultras" – not that there is really any chance with the plan as it stands.

Thus, Mrs May is at an impasse. What she's got pleases no one. If she modifies it to keep the "ultras" happy, Brussels won't accept it. If she changes it to accommodate Brussels, her "ultras" will throw it out.

That leaves the possibility of a fudge – a non-agreement so vague that all it does is kick the cannery down the road, leaving the hard issues to be battled out during the transition period against the cliff-edge deadline of the end of December 2020.

But since that's a ploy so transparent that every pundit under the sun has now worked it out – long after Sir Ivan Rogers sniffed the wind and pointed in that direction – it might have a hard time getting through parliament. It could even be something that unites the Tory party, in total opposition to it.

That, though, is the reality. It's not going to be "my way" or "no deal", as Mrs May proclaimed to Nick Robinson on Panorama last night. It's going to be fudge or no deal, with a strong bias towards "no deal" unless parliament finally wakes up to the peril of leaving the EU without an agreement, and votes for the option which defers self-immolation.

The thing is that this is a static position – and has been for some while, even if the pundits have only just realised. It hasn't changed for months and it isn't going to change. The only thing we can look forward to is seeing the precise wording of the fudge, whence we can marvel at the creativity deployed in the service of constructive ambiguity.

In the meantime, the rest is theatre, with the legacy media assuming we are all so stupid that we can't work it out for ourselves what is happening and have to be guided by their "brilliant" analyses.

Thus, they think we're going to be content with a diet of quotes from anonymous sources, and "leaks" from unpublished documents which only they have seen – when they pontificate from a world in which the internet doesn't exist so that they can write contradictory stories in different newspapers and they think we won't notice.

That's been the case with the Salzburg "summit", where we've been regaled with "breakthrough" stories, only to be treated to rebuttals, then to have the Telegraph loftily declare that Mrs May is to attend "a two-day EU summit that starts on Wednesday in Salzburg, Austria, where she hopes to make a breakthrough in the Brexit negotiations by selling her Chequers plan directly to fellow leaders".

It's bad enough the politicians treating us as if we were congenital morons, but when the media address us as if we were gullible children, it's time to call it a day.

Sadly, though, this stance undoubtedly pleases some, those who prefer to leave the intellectual challenges to half-wits, rather than expend any cerebral energy themselves, but for those of us who have learned to think for ourselves, the media coverage of Brexit is nothing short of insulting.

Just yesterday, we noted Michael Gove's assertion that any relationship settled between the UK and the EU could always be altered in the future. That, I ventured, was an idea that might mystify EU negotiators. In their reality, an agreement reached will be locked in by way of a formal treaty, unchangeable without the agreement of both parties.

So blindingly obvious is this that only a Tory politician could be ignorant enough to believe otherwise – a speciality successive Conservative MPs have honed and developed over the generations.

This, however, does not account for the self-regarding pomposity of The Times which, in all seriousness, intones that it "has learnt that" Brussels is "preparing to demand that Theresa May makes 'credible' assurances that any deal will not be unpicked by her successor".

This is as if the whole corpus of international treaty law didn't exist, and the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties – embodying as it does, customary law – simply had no effect. We are supposed to be entertained by the mouthings of a flatulent minister, and a follow-up that would hardly challenge the intellect of a five-year-old.

There is perhaps nothing quite so absurd as the media's solemn insistence on telling us what they have "learnt", matched only in fatuity by their constant use of the phrase "we can reveal". Thus it was that the self-important Faisal Islam "revealed" his error-ridden story on pilots' licenses, when the details were already in the public domain.

Fortunately for most journalists and their peace of mind, the Dunning-Kruger effect kicks in. Defined as a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is, this fits most of them to a tee.

The cognitive bias of illusory superiority, we are told, comes from the inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence.

Thus do these people churn out their low-grade product, their own stupidity insulating from criticism and preventing them recognising their own errors. Buoyed by the easily-pleased, who are quick to award them with gushing compliments – and happily distributing awards between themselves – these are the people who have taken it upon themselves to keep us informed about Brexit.

The monument to their failure stands with their inability to convey objectively and clearly the devastating effects of a "no deal" Brexit, arising in part from their lack of research skills and, in the main, because they treat this as an issue where the juxtaposition of conflicting opinions is sufficient to tell the story.

This ends up with the ignorance (and mendacity) of Rees-Mogg being given a greater airing than the fact-based Notices to Stakeholders produced by the European Commission, and where the oaf Johnson is allowed to parade his own ignorance, without challenge, when knowledgeable commentators struggle to gain a hearing.

There can be no better example of the lack of self-awareness than the headline in the Telegraph which declares: "Voters prefer no deal to Theresa May's Brexit. Project Fear won't change their minds".

Having failed in its duty to inform its readers about the consequences of a "no deal", falsely labelling valid concerns as "project fear", the paper has its own correspondent Asa Bennet actually applaud its own failure, unable to distinguish between the circumstances of the referendum campaign and the process of planning for Brexit.

This inability comes over in yesterday's treatment of Christine Lagarde and the IMF's annual report on the health of the UK economy.

The evident support of the IMF for the "remain" proposition during the campaign is thus unfavourably compared with the now valid prediction that a "no deal" exit would cause "serious disruptions" to UK growth, so much so that Lagarde's warnings are treated as a continuation of "project fear".

We are lucky, I suppose, that the media can even bring themselves to report such things, when it would be happier with its fare of court gossip, speculating about leadership contests. That much, Mrs May has in common with the rest of us. She too gets "irritated" by the constant speculation about her future.

But our sense of irritation is far wider. The media is an industry which makes it its business to criticise government, and anyone else which incurs its disapproval, yet which can't get its own house in order – or even acknowledge its manifest failures. The Dunning-Kruger Times continues to set the agenda and no one is allowed to tell it is wrong.

Richard North 18/09/2018 link

Brexit: closing the loop

Monday 17 September 2018  

So, speculation which lifted off in The Times in the earlier part of this month has died a death in the same newspaper ten days later. Thus, no more are the extravagant claims that the heads of state and governments were preparing to dump Barnier, rip up the draft Withdrawal Agreement and lay down a carpet of flowers to welcome Mrs May to Salzburg, where a sweetheart deal awaited her, decorated with a pretty ribbon bow. 

Sadly, there will be no flower-strewn paths for Mrs May. Rumours "swirling in Brussels" that EU leaders would agree a new mandate for Barnier at Salzburg have been scotched. "This expectation is totally wrong", says one of those ubiquitous, anonymous EU diplomats.

Instead, a new narrative awaits. EU leaders are now expected to offer the UK prime minister "little more than kind words". Hopes of a Brexit "breakthrough" at Salzburg are gone, leaving the prospect of meeting the "looming autumn deadline" somewhat hanging in the air.

The Times picks up Midair Bacon's claims that UK negotiators were "closing in on workable solutions to the outstanding issues" – already denied by Brussels - wrongly linking this with Barnier's supposed claim that a deal was "possible" within six to eight weeks, omitting to add the "realistic" qualification.

But, having given some credence to the hope that things were getting close, it then shoots that hope down in flames, restating what we already know – that the talks have made no progress on the most difficult issue - the Northern Ireland "backstop".

As expected, attempts to seek what is loosely termed as a "breakthrough" have been deferred until after the Tory conference. Seemingly, our "EU diplomats" are now so "wary" about any initiative they propose being twisted and used against May by "ultra" MPs that they have decided to hold off on new proposals until she gets through her annual jamboree.

In fact, there never was the slightest chance of a "breakthrough". The bubble of the Brussels hothouse is every bit as prone to fantasising as the Westminster equivalent. This still has Peter Oborne in the Mail on Sunday, earnestly declaring that he has spoken to "well-informed sources" close to the British and European sides of the Brexit negotiating teams, on which basis he detects "signs of a breakthrough". There's a mood of optimism, of friendship even, he says.

You pays yer money and makes yer choice on that one, as Oborne has Mrs May bypassing Barnier and dealing directly with Macron and Merkel. Otherwise, it looks very much as if the European Council meeting at Salzburg – once the focus of endless speculation – has reverted to its original status as a mere "stock-taking exercise". Another helpful but anonymous diplomat has been roped in to declare: "The less that comes out of this summit, the better for everyone".

With any expectations of progress at the October Council having already been discounted, the next milestone is a possible emergency meeting in November, yet to be agreed. A date may be the only substantive thing to come out of Salzburg, and even that may not be agreed.

All this puts the talks right at the edge. Barnier initially set October as the deadline and any extension cuts into the time set aside for ratification. The time allowance, however, undoubtedly had some inbuilt flexibility which means a delay is unlikely to be fatal.

The question then arises as to what might happen if the parties fail to reach a new agreement in November. We are led to expect that this will be the end of the process, but it beggars belief that everyone will sit tight, twiddling their thumbs until the time runs out in March and we leave without a deal.

Before we even get to November, though, Mrs May's plans have to run the gauntlet of Tory activism, with the oaf Johnson doing his level best to sabotage Chequers and undermine the negotiations from the London end.

His latest stunt is to mount a full-frontal attack on it in today's Telegraph column, asserting that it is a "constitutional abomination". If Chequers were adopted, he writes, "it would mean that for the first time since 1066 our leaders were deliberately acquiescing in foreign rule".

Launching such lurid hyperbole in the run-up to conference effectively amounts to Johnson declaring war on his own leader. There is no way back from this. The battle lines have been drawn and only one contestant is going to come out alive.

If Mrs May backs away from her Chequers plan, even her residual authority will be torn to shreds and she will have no option but to resign. On the other hand, Johnson needs to show he has the support of a sizeable number of Tory MPs if he is to force the issue – something which is by no means certain.

Yet, what makes this contest bizarre to the point of being unreal is that, even if Mrs May wins the day and emerges to take the Chequers plan to Brussels intact, she has no chance of it being accepted by the EU. The issue, therefore, will be whether she comes away feeling strong enough to offer concessions which will make the plan more acceptable to Mr Barnier and the European Council.

But here, one wonders if she has any intention of offering any concession, in any circumstances. According to a Sunday Times report, in a Panorama programme to be broadcast this week, she is to re-emphasise herself as a "bloody difficult woman". On that basis, she could still be negotiating in the expectation of a last-minute cave-in by Brussels – something that is unlikely to happen.

Even then, there is a further complication, arising from comments made by Michael Gove. He asserts that any relationship settled between the UK and the EU could always be altered in the future, an idea that might mystify EU negotiators. In their reality, an agreement reached will be locked in by way of a formal treaty, unchangeable without the agreement of both parties.

Nevertheless, unlike Johnson, Gove publicly supports Mrs May. "The Chequers approach is the right one for now" he says, adding that the responsibility rested with the EU to compromise, "because we've shown flexibility".

If this represents the settled view of Mrs May's government – and there is no way of telling for certain – then the negotiations are in serious trouble. There is little if any possibility of a compromise, if it involves the EU having to weaken its stance on the integrity of the Single Market.

Of course, that doesn't rule out the possibility of the Roger's "fudge", whereby some formula is found which enables both sides to save face and preserve their essential interests. But it is going to need a great deal of creative thinking to resolve the "backstop" and there are no obvious solutions on the horizon, unless you accept today's Times report.

From the same journalist who had it that the Salzburg European Council was set to consider new guidelines for M. Barnier, we now have it that the EU is "secretly preparing" a new plan for the Irish border.

This is drawn from an unpublished "diplomatic note", recording talks between EU ambassadors last Wednesday, where it suggested that "technological solutions" could be used to minimise customs checks at the border, while "goods could be tracked using barcodes on shipping containers under 'trusted-trader' schemes administered by registered companies".

Even though this looks suspiciously like the already rejected "Max Fac" solution, the new plan is supposed to remove the need for new border infrastructure. The proposals, it is claimed, are to be circulated to European governments after the Conservative Party conference on 3 October.

As we have seen in the recent past, such reports have a habit of springing up out of nowhere, and disappearing just as fast, while the news overhang means that people such as Oborne can be recycling speculation which has long been replaced by new, "washes whiter" fantasies.

In terms of the Irish border, we may actually be seeing attempts of what Barnier calls the process of "de-dramatising" the issue, emphasising the role of technical controls and highlighting the fact that some checks on the movement of animals and other goods between the UK and Northern Ireland already exist – with nothing of substance changing.

For all that, the only bankable certainty is that we are no further forward than the last time I wrote that we were no further forward. And with the media closing the circle on its Salzburg speculation, bringing us back to the starting point, the chances are that we will be no further forward next week.

Richard North 17/09/2018 link

Brexit: dealing with the dregs

Sunday 16 September 2018  

If you want a measure of the way the Brexit debate is being played out, read this week's Booker column, where he writes under the headline, "At last someone is talking sense on our post-Brexit trade nightmare. But is anybody listening?".

This is about Sir Ivan Roger's speech in Dublin last week, to which Booker says, remarkably little attention has been paid, despite it being "easily the best-informed and weightiest speech yet made by any senior public figure on why we are making such an unholy mess of Brexit".

But what one should then do is read some of the comments. Peter Barnes, for instance, tells us that "Rogers is an ineffectual twerp that has had a cushy government job that got difficult because of our excellent decision to leave the eu (sic) nightmare and quite frankly he wasn't up to it".

Martin Jenner's comment has the merit, at least, of being more succinct: "Rogers has got a face like a smacked arrs. Petulant little man", he writes. And, of Booker's article as a whole, John Condon helpfully opines: "Crumbs what hopeless article. Everything is 'delusional' and bereft of any solutions. Absolutely pointless reading this drivel".

We've been getting a lot of this sort of thing – and much worse. It's stuff that has no place on the website of a national newspaper. Yet the Telegraph permits it, and even encourages it – its moderators never intervene as the bile pours out, week after week, month after month, without stopping.

Of course, those sort of comments on this blog would last about as long as it would take to delete them, with the authors banned from making further contributions. But then, we're only an irresponsible blog, without the credibility and gravitas of the mighty Telegraph which seeks to set the moral tone for the nation.

In a world which still had values, the paper's owners and its managers would be ashamed of themselves, and staff would be instructed properly to police their own website. But, if the world does have some residual values, the Telegraph doesn't. It is content to be represented by the filth that some of its readers deem fit for public consumption. It has no shame.

As to the Booker column, his analysis of the Rogers speech is something that needed doing and deserves better treatment than afforded by some of its more obnoxious readers.

The speech itself – as readers here will know - was given last week in Dublin by a man who resigned as UK ambassador to the EU in January 2017, warning of the "muddled and ill-informed thinking" that, in his view, was about to send the British Government's Brexit strategy in a wholly disastrous direction.

This warning came after he learnt that Theresa May was about to abandon her earlier indications that she wanted Britain to continue enjoying "frictionless" trade with the EU by remaining "within" its single market – something she executed in her infamous Lancaster House speech.

At the start of his detailed lecture in Dublin, Rogers opined that this now seems likely to bring about a "severe political crisis between the UK and the EU", and domestic "political turmoil on a scale we have not seen since the war".

He forensically dismissed all the various bubbles of make-believe that look increasingly likely to see us, in his words, "sleepwalking into a major crisis". Chequers is "a non-starter"; as is any idea that we could somehow rely on a WTO "rule book" that doesn't exist ("there is no such animal"). As is the fantasy that "smart technology" could somehow solve the impossible Irish border problem.

The fact is that, by Mrs May's insistence on our stepping outside the entire legal system that allows "frictionless" trade inside the EU, as Sir Ivan points out, "the British have brought this on themselves". It is delusional to think that, even with any amount of last-minute "mini-deals", the UK can hope to reach any settlement that would give it more advantageous trading terms than could legally be allowed to any other third country.

Whatever happens, Sir Ivan said, we cannot avoid "very major dislocation to the UK economy". And, while there was a time two years ago when we might have resolved most of these problems by going for the Norway option and thus remaining in the wider EEA, it is now too late for that.

The best we could hope for is some version of a Canada-type free trade agreement, but that could never give us terms of trade with our largest export market remotely as favourable as those we currently enjoy.

As for suggestions that, without a deal, we could withhold the money we owe the EU for past commitments, it might well respond by unilaterally imposing its own conditions on any further UK trade, entirely to suit the interests of its own members. "That is not taking back control. That is giving it up".

As he starkly concluded, we may "look back from 2038, wondering why the rupture became so much deeper than was desired by any of the main players".

Thus concludes Booker's "take" on the speech. It is shorter than my precis but brings his words to a wider audience, where more people can appreciate what is at stake as we go into the final stages of the Brexit talks.

If the Telegraph was half the newspaper it once was, it would already have done the job, rather than leaving it to Booker in his ghetto, then to be insulted for his efforts.

The dereliction of this newspaper, though, is just part of the continuum about which I've been writing for so long. With the media industry which is entirely self-referential, impervious to criticism and unresponsive to the need to change, it falls to this blog to point out where it is going wrong.

One of their more egregious tricks we've been recording it its tendency to produce crap stories which, for them, is a win-win situation. Not only do they fill space with the duff stories, they then get to print follow-up stories modifying or debunking the original copy.

We're now seeing this yet again. With the past fortnight taken up with speculation of great things happening at the Salzburg informal European Council, we now have the Independent regaling us with the headline: "Why next week's Salzburg meeting could be a false summit on Theresa May's climb to Brexit".

Reflecting exactly what I've been saying right from the start, part of the legacy media is coming to the same conclusion, that – as far as Brexit goes – this is going to be a non-event.

That it was ever going to be a significant meeting, though, is entirely an invention of the legacy media, which has devoted many thousands of words to speculation which has encompassed wild predictions that we might even see a "breakthrough" engineered by the Member States taking over the negotiations from Michel Barnier.

Never in a million years was anything like this going to happen, yet the media will give space to its pathetic little fantasies, leaving the heavy lifting to the likes of Booker, whom it then ignores. His column, with my help, has had any number of exclusive "scoops" which have been disregarded, only to appear in the main news pages months after he has reported them.

The same, of course, goes for the Government's "technical notices" which – as I remarked yesterday, have disappeared from the media agenda, and then there is the perpetual stain of the media ignoring the Commission's Notices to Stakeholders.

What gets me though is the smug, self-congratulatory tone of so many of the media's favoured commentators, who are either trawling over the obvious, or missing the point entirely as they indulge themselves in trivia or outright invention.

But, if that leaves Booker marginalised, and this blog out on the edges, at least we are in good company, with Sir Ivan Rogers getting the same treatment. As for the dregs who comment on the Telegraph, that's clearly where they belong. They have found their spiritual home in a newspaper that matches their values.

Richard North 16/09/2018 link

Brexit: DIY news

Saturday 15 September 2018  

There is an odd feature which emerges when reading internet-based news. In the traditional news cycle, you would get news reports and then, only days later, could you read credible rebuttals which effectively killed the original stories. Yet, on the internet, such is the speed with which initial reports are posted, with the rebuttals coming just as fast, that we're seeing the laggards still putting up the original story long after it is dead and buried.

This seems to have been happening with the latest adventures of Midair Bacon, aka Dominic Raab or, occasionally, Rabid Manioc. The sequence starts with a Reuters report published yesterday declaring: "Britain and EU 'closing in' on a Brexit agreement, Raab says".

Initially, Midair Bacon was scheduled to be in Brussels talking to Michel Barnier but, for reasons unspecified, this did not go ahead. Instead, the pair discussed matters by telephone for about 30 minutes, following which the Reuters report had Raab say:
While there remain some substantive differences we need to resolve, it is clear our teams are closing in on workable solutions to the outstanding issues in the Withdrawal Agreement, and are having productive discussions in the right spirit on the future relationship.
The pair were reported to have reiterated their willingness "to devote the necessary time and energy to bring these negotiations to a successful conclusion", and both have agreed to take stock again following the Salzburg informal European Council.

This report was then picked up by numerous media organs, and was popping up all day in different guises on Google News and, even as I write in the wee small hours of this morning, it is still being repeated, the latest iteration via Hellenic Shipping News.

Around 4pm yesterday, though, the Guardian - which is occasionally a trusted source and is without paywall restrictions – came up with the headline: "EU diplomats reject Raab claim that Brexit talks are 'closing in' on deal".

The Secretary's comments on negotiations over the Irish border problem, it appears, are seen as "optimistic", thus surprising EU officials and diplomats. In reality, EU diplomats suggest that there was a "complete impasse" on the most difficult issue of finding a solution to the Irish border question.

This was essentially confirmed by a tweet from Michel Barnier, which had been posted about 3pm yesterday. It declared:
Useful dialogue w/ @DominicRaab this morning on the progress our teams have made this week on the #Brexit WA. But substantive differences remain on the Protocol for IE/NI, governance and GIs. We are also continuing our discussions to find common ground on the future relationship.
With a reasonable level of confidence, one can now take it that the original claim, made in the name of Raab, does not accurately represent the current state of the negotiations. So, despite the continuing reports, the situation has not changed, and we are exactly where we were – and have been since the beginning of the negotiations.

This episode, therefore, provides an adequate illustration of the febrile nature of the media, and a warning against relying on any single report or source. As far as is possible one needs to "triangulate" – cross-referring to multiple sources - and to get as close to primary source as possible, maintaining a high level of healthy scepticism at all times.

That much can be said of the multiple reports, popping up for over a week now, suggesting that the European Council was going to consider giving Barnier a new (or modified) mandate at the Salzburg meeting. One doesn't even need a rebuttal here: to anyone with a knowledge of EU procedures, such a development looks improbable, and we have not been alone in considering many of the reports "overblown".

Once again though, the Guardian comes to the rescue, putting the story further to bed. Under the headline, "EU leaders will not give Michel Barnier new Brexit instructions", we get confirmation of our suspicions from "a senior diplomat".

This is one of those anonymous sources and it is not possible either to refer to a primary source or to triangulate. But the report has the ring of truth, something the previous reports lack – having also been based on anonymous sources. Despite the prevalence of the claims, not a single named official or politician have put their names to it.

The "scuttlebutt" – as American servicemen used to call it – stems from an almost obsessive determination on the part of UK politicians, encouraged by sections of the media, to believe that they can bypass Michel Barnier, as the official negotiator, and appeal above his head directly to Member States.

The current narrative rests on the idea that the Member States will take a direct part in the negotiations at Salzburg next week, allowing Mrs May to hijack the European Council and thrash out the deal that has so far evaded the "inflexible" M. Barnier.

We had a not-dissimilar dynamic played out prior to the Gothenburg informal Council, with exaggerated expectations, brought to a fever-pitch by the media before the event – only to be deflated afterwards, in a massive anti-climax.

Then, of course, Barnier was in the process of formally proposing new guidelines – which had been signalled well in advance. But now, in an inversion of the usual procedure, we are led to expect that the European Council itself will, effectively, impose a new mandate on Barnier, more favourable to the UK.

Winding down the expectations for Salzburg, all that is going is happen there is that Mrs May will be allowed to give a short presentation to the other Heads of State and Government during lunch on the first day.

Taking a precedent from the previous occasion in Gothenburg, there will be no questions or discussion at the time. Only on the next day, when Mrs May has left, will the EU-27 consider whether to agree a special meeting of the European Council in November.

If there are any new guidelines required, it will be up to M. Barnier himself to make formal proposals – and none are expected. One of those ever-helpful anonymous diplomats tells the Guardian: "I don't see a situation where Michel Barnier says 'I'm fine with the mandate’ and the heads of state give him another one. If we should give additional guidance, and that is a big if, it would only be done in concerted discussion with the Commission".

This, of course, means that the considerable effort expended by the UK government in touring the capitals of Europe, schmoozing other Member State leaders, has been a complete waste of time and effort. It has achieved nothing constructive and, if anything, has irritated other Members, who have long been telling the UK that such approaches are futile.

It might have helped if the media had been more forthcoming in pointing this out, but most of the legacy media has been quite happy to go along with the theatre, and take the UK initiatives at face value, as if they had any relevance to the talks.

In the meantime, though, the UK media has other fish to fry. To its delight and preference, the domestic political agenda has re-asserted itself, with Emily Thornberry all but ruling out Labour backing a Chequers-style Brexit deal. According to The Times, the shadow foreign secretary savaged Theresa May’s attempts to find a compromise with the EU, saying a workable deal was "just not going to happen".

We can add to that the intervention by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney who has warned that house prices would fall by 35 percent over three years after a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

He has also voiced the opinion that Brexit had been bad for wage growth. It has had an "additional dampening effect" by causing uncertainty and putting businesses off investing in technology that could improve productivity.

Whether right or wrong, that gave the media quite enough Brexit fuel for yesterday, with the 28 "technical notices" having slid almost completely off the agenda. Far too complicated for the average hack, editors must have been delighted to have had plenty of alternative news.

The one thing of which we can be assured, however, is that they are not going to tell us anything worthwhile about the Brexit negotiations and the current state of play. If we want to obtain the detail there, we have to do it ourselves.

Richard North 15/09/2018 link

Brexit: more secrets needed

Friday 14 September 2018  

If the government had wanted to maximise the publicity for its latest batch of "technical notices" on a "no deal" Brexit, I suppose, it should have marked them "secret" and leaked them to the media. I'm sure the intrepid Faisal Islam would have rushed to "reveal" his treasure, yet more evidence of how brilliantly clever he is.

As it stands, however, the government hasn't done too badly, with the media homing in on the "news" – as the BBC put it – that the "UK driving licence 'may not be valid in EU' after no-deal Brexit".

Never mind that I published this on 14 January 2017 – 20 months ago - based on information gleaned from looking up the relevant EU law. By far the best way to keep a secret is to "reveal" it on Your average hack would prefer to poke out his eyeballs with a bent screwdriver rather than admit he read the blog. They prefer stale news, 20 months old, spoon fed from government releases - unless it's "secret".

Now the current "secrets" are out, real journalists like Andrew Sparrow can write about them. "Ostensibly", he opines, in his afternoon news summary (posted yesterday on the Guardian website), these additional 28 papers "are supposed to show that, although the government does not want or expect to leave the EU with no deal, it could cope".

But, he added, "it may also be the case that ministers would be happy for people to conclude that the documents show how unacceptable this option would be". Sparrow cites as supporting evidence the morning's Today programme where Dominic Raab said that MPs would ultimately have to choose between a Brexit deal modelled on Chequers and a "no deal" exit. Faced with this binary choice, he expected the potential Tory rebels to swallow their reservations and embrace Chequers.

Personally, I don't entirely buy the first theory. Digging into the detail of the notices produced to date, it is easy to paint multiple scenarios that the government simply could not mitigate. How, for instance, do you deal with the cancellation of "mutual recognition" rights on the export of goods to the EU?

On the other hand, if the government really wanted to spook potential rebels, it is doing a seriously bad job. If one takes the driving document, for instance, its main thrust is to advise readers that, after March 2019: "Your driving licence may no longer be valid by itself when driving in the EU". If there is no deal, "you may need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) to drive in the EU".

Bluntly, though, the fact that large number of private motorists may have to acquire IDPs before venturing into the EU Member States is the least of our problems, when EU Member States no longer recognise our driving licenses.

By far the bigger problem is the commercial sector. As I wrote in my piece 20 months ago, truck and coach drivers will no longer be able to demonstrate that they have undergone the additional "periodic training" required under EU rules, because the "certificates of professional competence" (CPC) issued by the UK authorities will no longer be considered valid in EU Member State territories.

Furthermore, before most commercial vehicles can be used on the roads, the firms (or individuals) running them must have an operator's license, granted in accordance with Regulation 1071/2009/EC. After Brexit, UK-issued licences will go the same way as the CPC – worthless for operation on EU Member State roads.

The upshot of this is that no UK licensed commercial driver (in the band of vehicles covered) will be able to drive outside the UK, and no UK registered trucks can be taken into mainland Europe or be allowed to cross the Northern Ireland border.

Obviously, the practical and economic consequences of this are immense. But there is no refence to the problems in the government's technical notice, and not a single hack in the popular media has had the wit to make up for the omissions.

The Times attempts to up the "scare" quotient, writing that, despite their "neutral tone", the notices "do not mask the profound effect such a scenario would have on everyone living in Britain - and arguably the continent as well".

"From selling a car, to getting on a plane to Paris, to buying or selling any kind of good or service, life will not be the same in a very profound way", the paper says, going on to give a brief summary of some of the notices.

If from the 28, however, I was to pick the issue which had the potential to cause the greatest economic harm to the UK, I would perhaps go for the notice headed: "Trading under the mutual recognition principle if there's no Brexit deal". Yet, such is the determination of The Times to bring home the effect of a "no deal" exit that it doesn't even mention this notice.

The issue is important in several respects, but not least because mutual recognition of standards is one of the favoured components of a post-Brexit free trade deal between the UK and the EU.

The principle itself applies to manufactured goods traded in the EU's internal market. Where no harmonised standard exists, goods can circulate under the mutual recognition principle. This prevents EU Member States prohibiting the sale of goods that have already been legally sold in another EU State - even where there are different national requirements covering the same good.

As an example, the government's notice states that a bicycle made to comply with French national requirements and sold in France can then lawfully be marketed in other EU countries – even though those countries may have different national requirements for bicycles.

It is difficult to get data on the scale of application of the principle, but I have seen figures which suggest that anything from 20-50 percent of all manufactured goods traded in the internal market rely on mutual recognition.

When, after Brexit, UK exporters are no longer able to invoke mutual recognition, their products will have to conform with local standards. A bicycle manufactured in Britain intended for sale in Germany, will have to comply with any relevant German law. If it is shipped to France, it will have to comply with French law; in Italy, Italian laws will apply – and so on.

Theoretically, this could apply to as much as 50 percent of UK manufactured goods intended for export to EU customers. And, in businesses where economies of scale so often dictate whether a product is price-competitive, the costs of producing to multiple, different standards could be crippling.

That much would be known to only a very few specialists and, for the peril to register with the average hack, the government would have to spell out the implications, where possibly exports worth billions of pounds are potentially at risk. Noticeably, such detail is absent from the government document.

Regardless of the government's actual intentions, though, the media just cannot help itself when writing about regulation – obsessively trivialising it by labelling it "red tape". This is how the Mirror treats the subject of vehicle (and component) type approval, which is addressed in other technical notice.

"British carmakers and firms supplying car parts from the UK would face more red tape to sell their vehicles and components on the continent" as "EC type-approvals issued outside of the UK, would no longer be automatically accepted on the UK market".

By way of analysis, we get a quote from the Best for Britain anti-Brexit group. It claims this could be "another blow to the motor industry" - which employs thousands of hard-working Brits. Yet, that "blow" could prove the last straw which makes it no longer viable to produce cars in the UK for the export market.

Of course, one can't expect much from a tabloid, but the Telegraph doesn't fare much better. It reports that "British businesses will be hit by a 'sledgehammer' of red tape that will increase costs for companies and damage trade", relying on the CBI for that description.

Industry really doesn't help itself here. The paper cites Stephen Phipson, chief executive of the manufacturers' organisation EEF. "Clearly a 'no deal' Brexit would increase the burden of red tape on business", he says, wrongly going on to state: "Firms that manufacture products in the UK under the basis of mutual recognition will be required to have that product certified in both the UK and the EU in the event of a no deal Brexit".

Not only is this wrong – it doesn't even begin to capture the nature of the handicaps confronting British firms seeking to export to the EU, which could face the nightmare of producing goods to meet 27 different sets of standards.

To an extent, though, we can have a little sympathy with the media. Comprehensive reviews of 28 documents, each covering issues of some complexity, is far more than most newspapers can deal with. The BBC tries to provide an overview on its website, but a precis alone can't possibly capture the flavour of a "no deal" event.

When you think about it, Mrs May declared that "no deal" was better than a bad deal in her Lancaster House speech of January 2017. She has had 20 months to prove the point, but only now is her government attempting to explain what is involved in a "no deal" scenario.

Then to bring out all these documents in a rush is not an exercise in communication, but one of obfuscation. And in giving the media a task which it cannot do adequately, it doesn't improve the public's understanding of the dynamics of the Brexit process.

Most of all, as Phipson points out, this instalment of technical notices has still not addressed some of the critical issues for business: "trade continuity, borders and customs arrangements, mobility of workers, services, aviation and energy". In ducking these crucial issues, one wonders what the government's real agenda really is.

Like as not – to judge from recent performance – it doesn't know itself. My guess is that, even in the anodyne form presented in these notices, much of the information will come as a rude shock to ministers and MPs, those that take the trouble to read them. If they rely on the media, though, they will be no better off.

Obviously, we need more secret documents before the media can do its job.

Richard North 14/09/2018 link

Brexit: the fourth division

Thursday 13 September 2018  

Four recent examples of groups trying to come to terms with the complexities of EU law and Brexit indicate how primitive is the collective understanding, suggesting that in matters relating to the EU, British players are stuck firmly in the fourth division. The first example comes with a Sky News broadcast on Tuesday on pilot's licenses.

As it happens, I've been writing about aviation issues in relation to UK withdrawal from the EU since July 2014. I wrote an index piece in January 2017 and specifically referred to the loss of recognition of UK-issued pilots' licenses in November 2017. Then, in April 2018, the European Commission published its Notice to Stakeholders pointing out specifically what we'd already written about, confirming that UK-issued licenses would no longer be recognised in the EU in the event of a "no deal" Brexit.

Yet, despite the information being in the public domain all this time, it has taken until now for Sky News to "discover" what we already knew. Via Faisal Islam, political editor, and Zach Brown, political producer, in their self-important way of which the legacy media are so fond, the news channel "reveals" this information, not from the publicly-accessible Commission website but from a "leaked Civil Aviation Authority document".

Needless to say, this intrepid duo don't really understand the detail of what they are reporting, nor the devastating impact where upwards of 35,000 license-holders will no longer be able to fly aircraft registered by EU Member States, nor fly any aircraft at all in EU Member State airspace.

Instead, they launch off at a tangent, wrongly stating that licenses would have to be reissued by the UK's Civil Aviation Authority "which would cost millions" – making this the thrust of their story – with the unstated implication that the reissued licenses would be recognised by the EU.

This error paved the way for a huffy "rebuttal" issued by the CAA, claiming: "It is misleading for Sky News to say that pilots would need to renew their pilot's licence in a 'no-deal' Brexit scenario".

The CAA goes on to say that both commercial and private UK pilot licences would remain valid for use on UK-registered aircraft "as the United Kingdom is a signatory to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Chicago Convention". Our licences, they say, "are internationally recognised - including by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) - both now and after 29 March 2019".

These weasel words, however, omit some important information. Firstly, as I've already pointed out, while (most) holders of UK-issued licences are currently permitted to fly aircraft registered anywhere in the EU, after Brexit they will no longer be allowed to do so. Secondly, no UK-license holder may fly in EU airspace and, because recognition with other countries is often agreed via the EU, these pilots will be excluded from most territorial airspace, including that of the United States.

Compounding the confusion and misinformation, we then get other media stories, highlighting the "rebuttal", including the Mail which runs with: "British aviation chiefs deny report that the UK will have to spend millions of pounds reissuing thousands of pilot licences after Brexit if the country crashes out of the EU without a deal".

Thus we see illustrated the almost complete inability of the legacy media to report coherently on Brexit, leaving industry up in the air as the uncertainties multiply and the time gets shorter.

But if we go higher up the tree, so to speak, into the upper echelons of government, things are no better. Only recently, we saw an extraordinary report that transport secretary Chris Grayling was planning to negotiate 27 separate aviation deals with individual EU Member States in the event of a "no deal" Brexit, supposedly so that civil aviation operations could continue uninterrupted.

My immediate response was that Member States no longer had the freedom to negotiate bilateral deals with third countries, making one wonder why on earth Grayling thought such deals were possible. Why, for instance, hadn't his own civil servants warned against such an ill-advised move?

Within days of this second example of the fourth division at work, however, we learn that Barnier has "reprimanded" Dominic Raab over this action, whence we also learned that Grayling had been told less than two weeks ago by the European Commission's "most senior trade official, Violeta Bulc", that "without a deal this autumn, there would be no other agreements made to protect the UK economy".

On the ball as always, Sky News then moved in to "reveal" that Grayling had sent the letters - six days after the same news had been reported by the Mail.

Still we have not plumbed the depths. Such inept moves – from politicians and media - are easily matched by the ERG proposals for the Brexit settlement of Irish border question, published at a press conference yesterday, with David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg in the chair, supported by former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson. It provides our third example of the fourth division at work.

Quickly dismissed by the Irish government's Brexit committee chairman, Neale Richmond, as "simplistic and ignorant", the ERG believe they can solve the issue of animal and animal product export to the EU by agreeing "equivalence" between UK and EU regulations, with "conformity assessment" based on "mutual trust".

By this means, they argue that we could sell such goods to the EU (via the Irish border) without having to submit for veterinary inspection at Border Inspection Posts (BIPs), the need for which makes a hard border inevitable.

As Michel Barnier has consistently pointed out though, the only way such frictionless trade could happen is within the context of a strict treaty framework which encompasses the full "regulatory ecosystem". This goes far beyond mere "equivalence", which rests on allowing differences between laws as long as the regulatory objectives are the same.

Before even the ERG press conference had been held, Jean-Claude Juncker had delivered his State of the Union address in Strasbourg, reminding the British Government that someone who leaves the Union cannot be in the same privileged position as a Member State. "If you leave the Union", he said, "you are of course no longer part of our single market, and certainly not only in the parts of it you choose".

To enable us to avoid BIPs, the UK would have to commit to dynamic regulatory conformity – where we not only adopt existing EU law but future law as well - common enforcement systems and strategies, common surveillance system and data sharing, technical and legal supervision from the Commission and European Food Safety Agency, and judicial oversight.

Basically, the only countries outside the EU which enjoy such frictionless trade are Efta/EEA states and Switzerland. No other country in the world is exempted from the BIP/official controls regime. Not even New Zealand, which has special arrangements with the EU, is able to avoid directing products to BIPs before they can be even submitted for customs clearance.

No one with the slightest understanding of how the EU "official control" system works would even think of proposing a madcap scheme where goods are allowed through on the tenuous grounds of regulatory equivalence. Their proposal firmly cements the ERG as members of the fourth division.

Yet, for all that, UK produce – initially, at least – will not even cross the border. Until the British Government has successfully convinced the EU to list the UK as an approved exporter, with separate entries required for each range of products, all exports of animals and products of animal origin will be prohibited. This is not an academic issue, but is clearly stated in relevant EU law and set out in a European Commission Notice to Stakeholders published on 1 February of this year.

Despite this, the very real prospect of the export trade collapsing has been almost completely ignored, whether by select committee, the Commons Library or, in the latest example, by the National Audit Office (NAO). This puts our research and information capability very much in the fourth division, marked down by the inability to process important facts, even when they are easily accessible.

Across the board, encompassing politics, the media, industry, think tanks and academia, the collective failure is creating a perfect storm in terms of the information deficit. Add to that an indifferent and untutored voting population, many of whom are more concerned to have their prejudices reinforced than they are to acquire information, and we have a nation which is largely unable to cope with the challenges of Brexit.

It is said that we get the governments we deserve. Even more worrying, there is an increasing risk that we might get the Brexit we deserve. We've put ourselves in the fourth division and there we will remain.

Richard North 13/09/2018 link

Brexit: "ultras" on the back foot

Wednesday 12 September 2018  

Yesterday should have been a big day for the "ultras". Despite the 140-page "alternative" to Mrs May's Chequers plan, produced by the European Research Group (ERG), having been dumped, they had managed to find another three-letter acronym to produce a plan, ready to show the world that they mean business.

This last-minute substitution was the Economists for Free Trade (EFT), led by Patrick Minford who gave a presentation to the House of Commons, in a press launch fronted by Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Their task was to launch the EFT's latest report, this one termed the "World Trade Deal: The Complete Guide by the Economists for Free Trade", a 27-page guide which purported to be a "major new academic study" aimed at demonstrating that the UK would be better off trading with the EU under WTO rules, the so-called "no deal" option.

Outside the "ultras" Holy Trinity of the Express, Mail and Telegraph, the media tends to ignore material produced by the EFT, but this was not to be the case yesterday – and rather to their disadvantage.

Normally, the absence of widespread publicity does not particularly bother the "ultras". Generally, they are not looking for a debate: the case for their form of Brexit that they have managed to concoct is based on a limited set of lies, repeated at intervals by themselves and their allies.

Their technique is the one adopted by the propagandists through the ages. Having told the lies, they repeat them consistently, over and over again, in the certain belief that their supporters and the weak-minded (if there is a difference) will imbibe their doctrines and accept them as the truth.

That aside, their purpose is not to inform or educate. It is simply to create noise, in this case giving that all-important impression that there is a genuine counter to Mrs May's Chequers "plan". And although their "plan" is on their website, few will read it. Most journalists – those that are interested - will work off the shorter press release.

And despite claims of the report being a "new" study, it should come as no surprise that there is precious little new in the 27-page document. Mostly the claims are a rehash of arguments already aired and long-since challenged and discredited.

But then this doesn't normally matter. Even where their claims are so fantastic so as to stretch belief almost to breaking point, the purpose is served. The propaganda aims to muddy the waters and, most times, when their assertions are given an airing by a media schooled in binary narratives based on adversarial politics, they will convey the appearance of a two-sided debate over arguments of equal merit.

Doubtless, that's what Rees-Mogg and his allies hoped for yesterday, reheating the same hackneyed lies in the expectation that the repetition would cement the lies. And in this case, those lies are given added force by the personal intervention of Rees-Mogg, conferring to them his acquired prestige.

To add media appeal, the EFT had invented a publicity "hook" for him, a claimed "boost" to the UK economy of £1.1 trillion over fifteen years that supposedly would come in the wake of a "no deal" Brexit.

Here though, madness is to the fore. Although this headline figure is a dramatic claim, running contrary to every other estimate one can imagine, it isn't actually mentioned in the press release on the website. And in the main report, there is only one mention to the £1.1 trillion.

When one explores the provenance of this sum, however, it emerges as a composite of £650 billion gains to the UK economy, when measured into the "distant future", as against a loss of about £500 billion to the EU (presumably over the same indefinite period). The two added together makes £1.1 trillion. That is their idea of a boost to the UK economy.

And if that is a taste of what the EFT have to offer, not a few journalists have got the message. With Minford the only economist in the room, the Independent remarked that: "Jacob Rees-Mogg's Economists for Free Trade event had only one economist, and that was the least ridiculous thing about it".

As a sub-heading, it offered: "There is no one in the the (sic) Treasury, the Bank of England or on the economics desk at any major bank or investment firm who would consider Jacob Rees-Mogg's analysis to be anything other than deranged", making it fairly plain as to what it thought of the EFT's report.

If any more was needed, it was helpfully supplied. The report, demoted to the status of a "leaflet" was deemed "such bizarre jibberish" that it was "difficult to know where to begin". "This was", said writer Tom Peck, "even within the dire context of the present day, a truly low point of post-shame politics. Absolutely nobody thinks this stuff is true".

To Peck, this went "some way to explaining why Mr Rees-Mogg stared into the middle distance throughout, then launched a sixth-form style attack on 'Project Fear', and how things have not turned out as badly as was foreseen two-and-a-half years ago, chiefly because of a great international economic boom on which Britain missed out".

But, if the work to the Independent was "deranged", to John Crace of the Guardian calls the work "the Brexiters' theatre of the absurd".

"Every other economist", said Crace, "had predicted a no-deal Brexit would lead to a seven percent decline per year in GDP over the next 15 years. But Minford had news for them: they had all been looking at their graphs the wrong way up. If you turned them all upside down then the UK would see an unprecedented seven percent year-on-year increase in GDP. It was simple, if only you knew how. Far from being broke, we were going to have an extra £1.1 trillion to spend".

When it comes to analysis, one might expect the Financial Times to be less colourful, but columnist Chris Giles is only marginally so. "The latest pro-Brexit analysis has got its sums badly wrong", is the headline under which he writes, with the sub-heading: "Assumptions used for the Economists for Free Trade paper are absurd".

He spoils it with his reference to a "pro-Brexit" analysis. There is nothing favourable to Brexit in the "ultra" pitch. But there is little to argue with his assertion that the Economists for Free Trade "achieve their positive results simply because they assume leaving the EU has no trade costs and only potential benefits". There are also no costs associated with deregulation and only benefits.

While there are other commentators who also pitch in with various shades of condemnation – and even the BBC says that the EFT's claims "are based on a number of calculations and assumptions, not all of which stand up to scrutiny" - what makes the difference this time is that the natural supporters afford little comfort. The Telegraph for instance, obsessed as it is with its own man, hijacks Rees-Mogg's "show" to turn it into Johnson launching "a fresh attack on the Prime Minister's 'humiliating' Chequers plan", after he made a surprise appearance at the launch.

Half of the Telegraph's report is written before it breaks away from personality politics, but then only to repeat one of the EFT's more egregious lies. "The EFT report argued", says the paper, "that leaving the EU on World Trade Organisation terms would not be a leap in the dark but rather a 'leap into the normal' because Britain already trades with more than 100 countries under WTO rules".

Nevertheless, the paper does allow Michael Deacon to remark that Rees-Mogg had previously dismissed Treasury economics forecasting as "absurd", saying: "To think you have any idea where the economy will be in 15 years is erroneous".

This Deacon contrasted with what appeared to be "a change of heart", where Rees Mogg was now presenting "a group of economists" which, he assured the public, "had forecast that a no-deal Brexit 'would result in a £1.1 trillion boost to the economy over 15 years…'".

For Rees-Mogg, there must at least be some consolation from The Times, which describes him (and not Johnson) as "leader of the rebels".

Today, he is to hold a press conference on Northern Ireland where he will insist that a hard border is unnecessary. Yet, we are told, "he understates the seriousness of the border question and overstates the capacity of a Canada-style free trade deal to preserve the just-in-time supply chains on which British manufacturing and the British food industry depend".

According to this newspaper, Rees-Mogg would do well to recognise the flaws in his own argument. And, "if that means ending up with a version of Brexit that is not his preferred one, that is democracy at work".

Irritating, mendacious, slovenly and intellectually derelict the "ultras" most certainly are. But, despite their obvious and repeated faults, this might have been their finest hour. As it is, they have come away more than a little bruised. And if Mrs May isn't winning the argument, she is perhaps losing it less badly, while the "ultras" seem to be on the back foot.

Richard North 12/09/2018 link

Brexit: mixed messages

Tuesday 11 September 2018  

Noted on the blog comments yesterday, before I got to it, we have yet another example of the media and the markets getting it wrong. Led (or typified) by Reuters, we see reports that the euro and sterling rose against the dollar on Monday "after the EU's top negotiator said an agreement for Britain to leave the economic bloc might be reached in the coming weeks".

The Times is amongst those that runs the story, telling us that the pound surged to a five-week high after Michel Barnier said that a deal was "possible" within six to eight weeks. And then we have the Independent headlining: "Michel Barnier says Brexit deal still 'realistic' as deadline looms".

But there is an enormous difference between how the story is being presented and what Mr Barnier actually said. Speaking at the Bled Strategic Forum conference in Slovenia, he told his audience that, "If we are realistic, I want to reach an agreement on the first stage of the negotiation, which is the Brexit treaty, within six or eight weeks".

Barnier added: "The treaty is clear, we have two years to reach an agreement before they leave... in March 2019", going on to say, "That means that taking into account the time necessary for the ratification process in the House of Commons on one side, the European Parliament and the Council on the other side, we need, we must reach an agreement before the beginning of November. I think it is possible".

The crucial qualifier, of course, is that "If we are realistic", in a process where realism has been in short supply. Barnier is saying nothing of any great significance and certainly nothing that could give rise to any great optimism. It is thus more of a sign of the times that the markets are so jittery, reacting to rumours and these half-baked reports.

However, as time drains away into the sands with no clear sign that the government has a grip on events, the rumour mill is in full spate, mostly based on assumptions of what may (or may not) happen at the upcoming informal European Council at Salzburg next week.

Reports are focusing on suggestions that the European Council will be asked to consider a revision to Barnier's negotiating guidelines, aimed at making it easier for Mrs May to present a compromise to her party and parliament.

On this, it is difficult to see how it could be managed. Some reports seem to be suggesting that the Council at Salzburg could issue ad hoc instructions to Barnier, for him to go away and continue negotiations with a revised mandate.

On the face of it, this would appear to be somewhat unrealistic – the system simply doesn't work that way. All that can happen is that the Council will "invite" the Commission to prepare a draft setting out proposed revisions. These first go to the General Affairs Council and then to a full European Council meeting, where they must be formally approved.

On that basis, revised guidelines could not be in force until after the October Council. Until then, effectively, the negotiations would be on hold, especially if there are substantial changes to be made. Only once the approval is confirmed will they be able to resume. If there is then to be a special European Council in November to resolve the deal, time for talks under the new mandate will be perilously short.

Unsurprisingly, according to the Guardian, both EU and UK sources are saying that the likelihood at this stage of such a formal move has been overblown. The ever-willing coterie of anonymous "senior diplomats" representing the member states in the negotiations, are saying that while there would be warm words at Salzburg, "there were no plans as yet to offer up a new set of guidelines to Barnier, or for them to be discussed by the leaders".

Nevertheless, one commentator in particular has been suggesting that the Heads of States and Governments will not only produce a new mandate, but become directly involved in the talks, making the final deal a European Council "product".

As I have written earlier on this, though, it is difficult to see how this could come about while conforming with the treaty requirements of Article 218. It also goes against the spirit of the Article which is so arranged that the deal is not approved by those involved in the front-line negotiations, giving an element of separation.

And irrespective of the strength of the rumours and the number of times they are repeated, we do not need anonymous sources – senior, or otherwise – to know that Brexit is not formally on the Salzburg agenda, which means that it is not scheduled for discussion. And, even if it is discussed at some time, it is extremely rare for formal decisions to be taken at an informal European Council.

There is, however, some logic in suggesting that those involved in the negotiations on the European Union side will be concerned at the politicking going on in the UK and the prospect – even if it is remote – of Mr Johnson making a bid to become prime minister.

It follows, therefore, that they will be favourably disposed towards giving Mrs May such assistance as they can, to strengthen her position. What this can amount to remains to be seen but the indications are that any change in approach by Mr Barnier will be more in terms of tone than of substance.

None of this in any way helps deal with the crucial sticking point of the Irish border, and the "backstop", or that the central elements of the Chequers plans cannot be accepted by the EU. No amount of "warm words" will make the difference.

In the meantime, we are getting mixed messages on the domestic political scene, with uncertainty mounting as to Johnson's precise intentions – whether or not he intends to make a leadership bid.

One scenario being offered is that he has "no plans to launch an immediate leadership bid" but "will continue to 'throw rocks' at Theresa May's Chequers plan in the weeks running up to Tory conference", but with a "tub-thumping" Brexit speech to be delivered to a fringe event the day before Mrs May speaks.

News of these machinations comes at a time when Jacob Rees-Mogg's European Research Group (ERG) has decided to delay producing its own plan, amid reports that a draft contained ideas for a "star wars" anti-missile defence shield and the establishment of an expeditionary force for the protection of the Falklands.

This opens Johnson and the "ultras" generally to the "all mouth and no trousers" charge – particularly apposite in the case of Johnson. They are full of it when it comes to knocking down Mrs May's plan, but have no constructive ideas of their own.

This, of course, has been the position right from the start, when in 2015, Cummings actively decided not to adopt an exit plan, on the basis that rival factions in the Eurosceptic movement could never coalesce around a single plan.

This is very much at odds with the received wisdom that the "Brexiteers" didn't have a plan. In Flexcit, there was a plan, known and acknowledged by the key players but rejected by both Vote Leave and – even after Arron Banks had initially agreed to adopt it.

The idea that there was a plan, which the major groups rejected, is very different from the narrative that there never was a plan. Flexcit, after successive updates, still exists and offers a far more realistic solution than the ERG could produce, especially if Sanker "Snake Oil" Singham is involved in the latter, with the absurd suggestions he is prone to make.

That the media now runs with a new version of its narrative, that the "brexiteers" have somehow seen the light and are ready to produce a plan, runs counter to the reality – that the "ultras" are no closer to producing a coherent plan than they ever were. And without their own plan, they have expended their energies on denigrating the only worked-up plan which had the slightest chance of working – with the active complicity of the legacy media.

In parallel, Rees-Mogg and his allies are still talking up the "no deal" scenario as a realistic proposition, resorting to more and more absurd claims to justify their untenable position, seasoned with transparent dishonesty on an industrial scale.

What the EU negotiators must make of this is anybody's guess and it is not even certain that a clear picture will emerge after the Tory conference. But if this nation and its media are taking figures such as Johnson and Rees-Mogg seriously, then they must be wondering whether it is even possible to cut through the noise and conclude any deal at all.

Richard North 11/09/2018 link

Brexit: clash of the pygmies

Monday 10 September 2018  

There is no Brexit debate in this country, at least not in the legacy media. We merely have opposing sides parading their ignorance. The role of the media is to provide an uncritical platform, the effect of which is to block the flow of information with a cascade of never-ending noise.

A classic example of this we saw yesterday in the Mail on Sunday with a "he says, she says" confrontation between the oaf Johnson and Jeremy Hunt, the current holder of the office of foreign secretary.

The oaf's contribution quickly gained for the Mail a desirable level of notoriety with an ill-judged assertion that Mrs May's Chequers plan has "wrapped a suicide vest around the British constitution", with the "detonator" handed to Michel Barnier. 

Apart from anything else, the analogy is muddled. If Barnier activated the detonator, it wouldn't be suicide. Literally, it would be murder. And that's what Johnson is arguing that Mrs May is giving him the means to do. 

The theme is typical Telegraph/"ultra" rhetoric, with Johnson demanding: "Why are they bullying us?", and "How can they get away with it?" "It is", he goes on to write, "one of the mysteries of the current Brexit negotiations that the UK is so utterly feeble".

He argues that we have a massive economy; the sixth largest in the world. We ought to be able to do that giant and generous free trade deal the Prime Minister originally spoke of. Yet, the oaf complains, "And yet it's, 'yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir'". And so continues the litany:
At every stage in the talks so far, Brussels gets what Brussels wants. We have agreed to the EU's timetable; we have agreed to hand over £39 billion, for nothing in return. Now under the Chequers proposal, we are set to agree to accept their rules – forever – with no say on the making of those rules.

To this man, "It is a humiliation. We look like a seven-stone weakling being comically bent out of shape by a 500 lb gorilla. And the reason is simple: Northern Ireland, and the insanity of the so-called 'backstop'".
And there's the crunch. According to the oaf, this has opened us to "perpetual political blackmail", whence we get the "suicide vest" jibe which then becomes a "jemmy with which Brussels can choose - at any time - to crack apart the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland".

Johnson interprets the "backstop" as Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union and the Single Market, in other words part of the EU, with a border down the Irish Sea and then sees the Chequers plan as "our own version of the backstop". If we can't find ways of solving the Irish border problem, then the whole of the UK must remain in the customs union and Single Market".

This then is what the Mail calls a "blistering denunciation of our Brexit strategy", but if we're to evaluate it, we have to start from the basics – of which Johnson has never shown any grasp.

Starting with point one: when we leave the EU, the UK becomes a "third country". Point two: the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland becomes part of the external border of the European Union. Point three: at the EU's external border, extensive border controls automatically apply to goods imported from third countries, making for what is known as a "hard border". Point four: under normal circumstances, the EU cannot vary these controls for any one third country without falling foul of the WTO's non-discrimination rules, potentially damaging the integrity of the Single Market.

However, because of the special situation and history of Northern Ireland, neither the UK nor the EU wants to establish a "hard border", to which effect the EU has asked the UK to come up with a plan which can allow existing border arrangements to continue, in the absence of which it want a formal commitment to a "backstop" which will enable a "soft" border without the potential to damage the Single Market.

By any measure, this is an extremely difficult situation, where there are very limited technical options - made even more difficult by Mrs May's insistence on leaving the Single Market. And since the very beginning of the talks, the parties have been struggling to find a mutually acceptable solution, with the UK yet to make a formal proposal while rejecting the EU's current text for the "backstop".

Not in any sense could any rational person thus describe the EU's stance as "bullying", and neither could this be construed as an intention to break open the United Kingdom and detach Northern Ireland from it.

The problem could be solved by what one might call Norway-plus, the Efta/EEA option with additional deals to cover areas which are not part of the EEA Agreement. But since Mrs May has ruled this out – as have Mr Johnson and his "ultra" colleagues – it is hard to see what other way might achieve the desired end.

In an attempt to square the circle, Mrs May has come up with her "Chequers plan" which, bizarrely, doesn't solve the problem. For all Johnson's squealing about suicide vests, it is a weak shadow of the Single Market which cannot be accepted by the EU.

Thus, we have Johnson going over the top in his characterisation of the EU, while complaining about a "solution" from Mrs May which is never going to fly, leaving us with an impasse, where the risks of a "no deal" exit are very high and increasing.

His complaint thus stands that: "we have managed to reduce the great British Brexit to two appalling options: either we must divide the Union, or the whole country must accept EU law forever". Both options are exaggerations, and he fails to acknowledges his own role in preventing a solution from being found.

Instead, Johnson dwells in the land of unicorns, asserting that, since "we live in a world of smartphone apps and electronic forms and Authorised Economic Operator schemes", there "is no need for any kind of friction at the border at all".

This leaves us with his catch-all solution, which is to "scrap the backstop, fix the borders for frictionless trade, and get back to the open and dynamic approach outlined in Theresa May's original Lancaster House speech - with a big Canada-style free trade deal". Failing that, he asserts, "we should tell our friends they won’t get a penny".

That then leaves Jeremy Hunt to counter – something he should never have done. The very fact that he engages with the stupidity gives it a level of credibility it does not warrant. But, since the government holds an untenable position, he can only offer a lame defence which lack conviction.

"The Government's overarching aim", he says, "is to restore Britain's sovereign control over our borders, laws and money, while protecting jobs by ensuring our exporters can trade as freely as possible with the EU". He then claims: "We will also protect the peace in Northern Ireland and firmly resist attempts by some in Europe to divide our United Kingdom with customs posts down the Irish Sea".

As for an objective (or any) defence of the specifics of the Chequers plan, we search in vain. There is none. All we actually get from Hunt is an assertion that Mrs May is "better than anyone I know at holding the line in the face of intense pressure", with an appeal for unity.

As a country we can help, too, because her efforts to achieve the best outcome for Britain will be greatly strengthened if we are united behind her", the man says. And Parliament will have the chance to debate and vote on any agreement. Thus, the message is "we should not rush to judgment on a deal that is still under negotiation".

Looking at these contributions together, we have to ask what the Mail has achieved. It has juxtaposed a wildly exaggerated, distorted account of the current state of negotiations with what amounts to an uninspiring call for unity. The paper has filled space and given it the controversy it so loves, but what constructive purpose has it served? Does anyone walk away from these articles better informed, or any more capable of understanding the issues?

Then as the Independent points out, this is not really about Brexit. These are the opening shots in the developing Tory civil war, in which we have become unwilling bystanders.

And at the margins, we are treated to a discussion on Brexit which is so uninformed and uninspiring as to be excruciatingly tedious. In what is for the UK the most important political development of the century so far, the paper has managed to turn it into something unspeakably banal.

Richard North 10/09/2018 link

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