Brexit: a scene of utter confusion

Saturday 19 January 2019  

After such an event-filled week, it is unsurprising that Friday was an anti-climax. For all the drama that has swamped the broadcast media, the newspapers and the internet, nothing has actually been resolved, so all we saw yesterday was a lot more of things not being resolved, but without the drama.

That which was of any real significance was negative, with the Independent reporting that Theresa May's pledge to reach a cross-party consensus to solve the Brexit crisis "appears to have fizzled out with no further talks planned".

A spokesman for Downing Street then said that the prime minister would instead be meeting with "a large number" of her cabinet, both in small groups and in one-to-one conversations. But there were "no plans" for cabinet members Michael Gove and David Lidington – who have met senior back benchers from other parties – to hold further talks.

Apart from the non-event of the non-talks, there was another non-event – a speech by a former foreign secretary, where nothing of any significance was said. Everything is now on hold for Monday, when Mrs May must deliver her so-called "plan B" to parliament. Then the fun starts all over again as MPs table their amendments – speaker permitting.

Filling the gap between then and now will be a torrent of media speculation, limited only by the constraints of imagination and intellect of the contributing journalists. Generally, this means we must suffer pretty pedestrian fare, with guesses as to whether we are poised for another general election, and similar matters. It is unlikely that we will be treated to any serious analyses of Brexit-related issues.

Problematically, virtually everything worth saying has probably already been said – mostly not by the legacy media. And that leaves an unlikely hero in the figure of the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, to dismiss Mrs May's latest efforts by telling journalists: "I don't see how the current deal can be tweaked", then adding: "She is really expecting Brexit to go ahead on 29 March".

From one version of our prime minister's conversations with Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, we get even less. A spokesperson for the European Commission is said to have described Junker as having had "an exchange of information on both sides", with the promise that: "The two agreed to stay in touch". All Tusk would do is resort to Twitter with the cryptic comment that he had discussed with Mrs May "the next steps on the UK side".

Behind the scenes, though, it seems that sweetness and light is not the dominant sentiment. Apparently, Mrs May left European diplomats "in a state of disbelief" after her telephone conversations with EU leaders.

Despite the parliamentary defeat, she seems to have made no changes to her demands. She is calling for either a legally binding time-limit for the Irish backstop, a right for the UK to withdraw unilaterally, or a hard commitment to finalising a trade deal before 2021 to avoid the backstop coming into force. Nothing new is being proposed.

Predictably, the Guardian takes a dim view of all this. But it is devoting its main Brexit story to a warning by "soft-Brexit" cabinet ministers that Mrs May is "appeasing hard-Brexit Tories".

Rather than reaching out across the House of Commons, Mrs May is focusing on updating cabinet ministers about her talks with MPs, which included her allies in the Democratic Unionist party, and ERG members such as Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson and Steve Baker.

The paper has one cabinet source questioning why the prime minister was prioritising the views of those who had done so much to damage her. "The ERG spent two years conjuring up every violent image they could think of in order to discredit the PM", the source says. "Then they tried to bring her down. And then when that failed, they tossed her carefully crafted Brexit plan in the bin. Remind me why we are inching towards this mob?"

Cabinet ministers who have so far met with Mrs May say they have been "reassured" that she is not seeking a customs union compromise in order to get her deal through parliament. Nor is she prepared to entertain a referendum. But, as to what the next steps are, one said, "we are none the wiser".

Another cabinet source, we are told, says – without apparent irony - that Mrs May was urged not to pursue a route that could see a Tory split. But, the source says, "The only way forward that doesn't split the party is to bring the DUP and the ERG on board".

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that people are "none the wiser". The convoluted mess that hovers around Mrs May, like a cloud of flies over rotting meat, is quite beyond the scope of understanding for us mere humans.

If there is any sense at all to be made of this, it is that we are firmly on the path to an unmitigated no-deal, with the prime minister at the helm. Nothing in any of the reports we have seen suggests that she is making any serious attempts to avoid that outcome.

This, however, is totally at odds with more lurid assertions that we are on the receiving end of an "establishment plot" to rob the people of their Brexit. Oddly enough, Nick Boles is seen as an establishment stooge, with his Norway-style deal being seen as a plot to keep us in the EU.

In that context, the no-deal is seen as the antidote to "remain", polarising the debate by defining it in terms of two extremes – craven surrender or no-deal – and nothing else.

Yet, even that is too straightforward for The Times. It wants to introduce the third element of delaying Brexit if no deal can be reached in the immediate future. But, just to keep us all entertained, it is also having the ERG looking to force Mrs May to prorogue parliament, thereby stopping the Commons from blocking a no-deal Brexit.

At this point, we see the gibberish taking over, leaving Matthew Parris to step in with a cunning plan which would ensure that the Conservative Party never governed again, except as part of a coalition.

It is just as well, I suppose, that we have a saviour at hand, in the form of Keir Starmer who has popped up out of nowhere to call for an "open and frank debate" to break the Commons deadlock. After all, MPs must be feeling extremely neglected, having been deprived of any opportunities to discuss Brexit in the House.

Then, as, icing on the cake, we learn that the pound rallied by 1.3 percent against the euro as business confidence grew that a no-deal Brexit would be avoided. One is not sure what currency traders know that we don't, but if they are convinced we're out of the woods, they must have a special line to the Almighty.

The business community aside, anyone looking in depth at the state of play of Brexit, they can only come away with a scene of utter confusion. And for some, that has to make it the EU's fault. When they have spent a lifetime blaming everything on the EU, it is difficult to get out of the groove.

Richard North 19/01/2019 link

Brexit: displacement activity

Friday 18 January 2019  

With just ten weeks to go before Brexit day, one might have thought that our MPs could bring themselves to focus on the issues at hand, and get down to sorting out the exit process.

Clearly, though, Jeremy Corbyn hasn't got the memo. Occupying the trivial post of leader of the (main) opposition, it doesn't seem to have occurred to him that he might have a role to play in working with the prime minister and other opposition leaders to resolve the political crisis of the century. Instead, our revered leader has decided to throw a wobbly, demanding that Mrs May takes no-deal "off the table" as his price for cooperating with her.

Of all the various explanations for this behaviour, it would be comforting to think that Mr Corbyn really doesn't want to play and this is his way of breaking the news. The alternative – that he really doesn't have the first idea of what he is talking about - is simply too shocking to contemplate.

However, that is the line Mrs May has decided to take, giving him the Janet & John treatment in a letter which sets out the reasons why ruling out a no-deal is an "impossible condition". It is, she writes, "not within the Government's power to rule out...". Then, in a deliciously patronising tone, she goes on to say: "Let me explain why".

Under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and the Withdrawal Act 2018, "we will leave the EU without a deal on 29 March unless Parliament either agrees a deal with the EU or the UK revokes article 50 and chooses to stay in the EU permanently".

This might be a little more convincing if Mrs May was slightly more precise with her terminology. Parliament is not in a position to agree a deal with the EU. That is the UK government's function. Its task is to ratify the deal. And then, being a treaty provision, the UK cannot revoke Article 50. Rather, the government might unilaterally revoke the Article 50 notification, thereby rendering null and void the intention to leave the EU.

Nevertheless, we get the drift of what she is saying, which she helpfully summarises by saying that there are two ways to avoid a no-deal: "either to vote for a deal … or to revoke Article 50 and overturn the referendum result".

With that, Mrs May tells us she believes "it would be wrong to overturn the referendum result". It follows, therefore, that Parliament needs to be able to reach a consensus in support of an agreement with the EU, "which would avoid a no deal outcome" – the very thing Mr Corbyn seems reluctant to do.

And, while Mrs May's door "remains open to a meeting without precondition", Corbyn's follow-up move was to write to his MPs urging them to "refrain from engagement with government until 'no deal' is taken off the table".

Earlier, speaking to Labour supporters in Hastings (pictured), Corbyn dismissed Mrs May's initiative as a "stunt", declaring: "I am quite happy to talk. But the starting point for any talks about Brexit must be that the threat of a disastrous no-deal outcome is ruled out". He added: "If she won't accept the will of parliament and take no-deal off the table, it will show that she simply isn’t serious about reaching a deal".

Looking at this exchange in the round, I suppose we could take it as yet more evidence of the infantilisation of politics, although we have a way to go yet before we reach rock bottom.

Helping us on the way is Nick Boles, who joins with the Guardian in a staggering display of political naivety, compounded by the art of the headline writer in highlighting the accumulated absurdities.

The headline itself takes us straight to the depths, as it declares: "Tory MP plans bill to make no-deal Brexit legally impossible", with the sub-heading: "Pro-remain cabinet ministers back bid to block EU departure without deal, Nick Boles says".

To an extent this clarifies my piece yesterday – in the sense that we can better see quite how far sanity has been left behind, aided by sight of an unamended version of the Bill that Boles is tabling.

The essence is that, should the Withdrawal Agreement not be ratified on or before 11 February, the prime minister will be required to seek an extension of the Article 50 negotiating period, having it terminate on 31 December 2019.

Assuming that the EU would then be able to pull together the unanimous agreement of all 27 Member States, not in any ordinary use of the English language could this be taken as rendering a no-deal Brexit "legally impossible". All it does is kick the can down the road a further nine months. And after that, in the absence of any deal being ratified, the no-deal would kick in then.

Normally, of course, Private Member Bills get short shrift in the Commons, but, to force the government to grant time for his Bill, Boles is planning to table an amendment to the government's Brexit motion set for 29 January. This, if adopted, would give Boles's Bill the necessary time, allowing it to take precedence over government business.

From this, it is evident that Boles has a significant hurdle to overcome, just on getting the time for his Bill to be processed. And even if he claims the support of cabinet ministers, that in itself doesn't buy him a majority in the House.

But supposing, by some miracle, he managed to get his Bill passed, and then prevailed upon the EU to grant a nine-month extension, his purpose is to facilitate the negotiation of a "Norway-style" agreement, which in a previous iteration had him wanting the existing Withdrawal Agreement ratified.

But, amongst the other problems he is glossing over, Boles is taking on the Efta/EEA option which, if addressed sensibly, would probably take at least two years to negotiate, on top of which there are the supplementary bilaterals which would need to be agreed before we have an effective working relationship with the EU.

In other words, even if everything went swimmingly for Mr Boles, it doesn't even begin to provide a solution to Brexit. It is simply a time-wasting distraction to add to all the distractions which are taking MPs' eyes off the ball.

One wonders, therefore, whether this is not so much distraction as displacement – a variation on bicycle shed syndrome. MPs, unable to address the relevant issues, are devoting their time and energies to irrelevant matters, simply to give the impression of purposeful activity.

However, one could perhaps not accuse the French of this sin, its government having yesterday "triggered" its contingency plan to deal with a no-deal Brexit. This comprises "legislative and legal measures" aimed at ensuring that there is no interruption of rights and that the rights of citizens and businesses are effectively protected.

Five ordinances will now be presented to the French cabinet next Wednesday and published in the next three weeks, "providing a legal framework that meets the challenges of a no-deal Brexit". This will include measures to restore border controls and a plan to invest about €50 million in French ports and airports.

In the coming weeks, 600 additional "state agents" will be recruited, amongst them customs officers and veterinary officials. A plan to support the fisheries sector, which is "most likely to be hit hard" is also under consideration.

One should note here that this merely creates the legislative framework, and authorises spending. Implementation is another matter, and it will take considerably longer than ten weeks to get systems in place.

Then we should recall the evidence given by Jacques Gounon, President and CEO of GetLink to the Special Committee of the French National Assembly and Senate on 16 October 2018. Since there are nine seaports to cover, a number of inland ports and the international airports such as Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle, the recruitment of 700 customs officers "will certainly be insufficient given the flows - 24 hours a day".

For example, Gounon says, the control centre at Boulogne-sur-Mer is closed between midnight and five o'clock in the morning. But the Channel Tunnel concession requires it to operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year: goods reception facilities cannot close at night. For public services, this is a considerable challenge.

He also goes on to point out that ports which handle shipping containers use the Cargo Community System (CCS), a pre-declaration system which allows the containers to be tracked. But, he says, this system is for containers for which you have reasonable notice, not for trucks.

For example, when containers come from North Africa, there is 48 hours notice. Trucks loaded in a logistics centre outside Paris arrive at the Channel Tunnel or the port of Calais 2-3 hours later. To date, says Gounon, there is no computer system capable of handling these extremely short pre-declaration periods.

Thus, for all the fanfare of yesterday's announcement - which even merited a BBC report - if it isn't displacement activity, it certainly is gesture politics. There is little chance that France will be ready to meet the challenge of a no-deal Brexit.

Thus, even the ingenuity of Mr Boles seems hardly necessary. Day after day, we are getting indications that the continentals are no more prepared for a no-deal than we are. At some time, therefore, we might expect there to be serious proposals for running Brexit into injury time.

But, if our MPs can't grow up, and treat Brexit seriously, freed from party political games, there is one action which most definitely is not displacement activity, with the Ministry of Defence calling out the reserve.

Reserve Forces "will be on standby to deliver a range of Defence outputs", which doesn't rule out the possibility of there being troops on the streets after Brexit day. And something tells me that, if they are called upon, they will not be there for a Brexit Day parade.

Richard North 18/01/2019 link

Brexit: the noes to the left

Thursday 17 January 2019  

To no one's surprise at all, Mrs May has survived her ordeal by confidence motion. she has emerged with 325 votes in her pocket, as against the 306 who would have her consigned to outer darkness. This effectively removes any immediate threat of a general election and let the prime minister live to fight another day.

However, whether Mrs May has staved off a crisis or merely deferred it remains to be seen. She is now required on Monday formally to present to the House an amendable motion that sets out the details of how her government plans to proceed with Brexit.

And it is at this point when, we are told, backbench plotters aim to introduce a Bill which would force the Government to take the threat of a no-deal Brexit off the table within a matter of days.

The precise mechanism for this is unclear. One version has it that the plotters are seeking to give parliament the power to revoke the Article 50 notice. This could then be used as leverage, in the first instance to prevent the government going down the no-deal road.

While this is being put in place, supposedly the plan over the next few days is to work up a series of proposals "with senior parliamentarians in other parties" to put to government as a basis for renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement with Brussels – to which effect the government will be "forced" to ask for an extension to the Article 50 period, to give time for the negotiations to take place.

These are the bare bones, as culled from a series of "exclusive" reports in the Telegraph. Such details as are available emerged from a conference call on Tuesday between Chancellor Philip Hammond and a number of business leaders. Nothing is known of the precise nature of the Bill, which – according to the newspaper - is not due to be tabled until Monday.

Nevertheless, there are several reasons for questioning whether this is a realistic – or even practical stratagem. Not least, the right unilaterally to revoke an Article 50 notification, conferred by The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, in Articles 65, 67 and 68, as amplified by the ECJ, is one reserved for States.

Under normal circumstances, the instrument communicating the revocation to the other parties must be signed by the Head of State, Head of Government or Minister for Foreign Affairs. Parliament simply has no locus in this matter and any Act promulgated by Parliament could only be addressed to Government. Its writ does not extend beyond these shores, and it has no jurisdiction over the EU.

As to whether Parliament could then force Mrs May to revoke the Article 50 notification is moot. While it has been established that its approval is needed to invoke Article 50 in the first place – on the grounds that it affects citizens' rights - no such proviso applies in reverse. Thus, the Government would be exercising Crown prerogative, over which Parliament has no direct control.

Much the same would apply to seeking an extension of the Article 50 period. But, in any event, the Government could easily sabotage any forced application by making it known through back channels that it was not desirous of a positive outcome. It would only take one of the 27 EU Member States to exercise its veto and the matter would go no further.

However, prominent in the reports of this stratagem is the name of Nick Boles - an MP who, in the past, has shown a lamentably tenuous understanding of EU-related law, and little capacity to learn. And, in the Daily Mail we see a report that he has "abandoned his plot" to take control of the negotiation process.

This report also seems to introduce another version of his Bill. It says that if the prime minister has not secured a compromise Bill and got it through Parliament by the end of the first week of March, then she would be legally mandated to write to the EU and ask for a nine month extension to Article 50. That, we are told, "would stop no deal Brexit happening".

Since this has been abandoned, though, Boles seems to have been reduced to squeaking for a nine-month extension to the Article 50 process, to allow him to pursue his ill-founded "Norway-style" deal – something that would have no chance of being implemented in its current form.

That then leaves Mrs May to do her own thing, which includes her speaking to other party members, but only to discuss ideas "that are genuinely negotiable and have sufficient support in this House". Thus, we are not much further forward than we were yesterday.

In fact, things could be taking a turn for the worse. Mrs May yesterday specifically invited Mr Corbyn – with the leaders of Westminster's other main opposition parties - to talks at No 10 immediately after the confidence vote.

In his usual churlish style, however, the Labour leader "resisted the overture", insisting that Mrs May abandon a no-deal exit before the start of any "positive talks". His spokesman, we are told, later accused the prime minister of "blackmailing" the country with the threat of a chaotic departure.

Corbyn then is yet another MP who doesn't seem to understand the meaning of the term "default". If the UK fails to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, then on 29 March, we drop out of the treaties automatically and assume third country status. Unless Mrs May decides to revoke the Article 50 notification, or asks for a delay, that timing is fixed.

While Mrs May has already made it clear that she has no intention of pursuing either option, she might find that if she does seek an extension, she will be pushing at an open door. To this I alluded yesterday, suggesting that EU Member States were largely unprepared for a no-deal Brexit and would welcome more time.

More confirmation of that comes with a report from Belgium telling of the "great concern" triggered among West Flemish businesses and in the Port of Zeebrugge by the UK Parliament's rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Zeebrugge CEO Joachim Coens says a major share of UK bound traffic passes through the port: "As a result of the vote it's 'all hands on deck'". If there's no accord by the time the UK leaves the EU on 29 March, he adds, "we're looking at a hard Brexit with strict customs checks at Zeebrugge".

Coens then observes that: "It's completely unclear what will happen. The chance of a no deal Brexit has increased. The best we can hope for is for more time to be taken. We need a transition period in which efforts are made to strike a deal".

Oddly, last September, when the Independent was reporting that European shipping firms were beginning to panic about no-deal Brexit, it had a fairly relaxed Mr Coens saying: "We are preparing for a Brexit-proof port", suggesting that new digital technologies could be used to smoothen out border controls somewhat.

Still relatively buoyant, he is nevertheless concerned about the possibility of congestion at Zeebrugge and regrets the increased uncertainty. "With a deal we had a soft transition of two years", he says. Despite the investment of a million euros, he fears that, "if we go to a no-deal scenario, then effectively it is chaos on 1 April".

Over the next few weeks, we may see more of such reports, as continental operators begin to take in the implications of a no-deal Brexit. And with Pete on Sky Television openly accusing named "ultra" politicians of lying, we also see Jenni Russell in The Times making similar accusations, writing of David Davis and Bernard Jenkin queuing up for the TV cameras on College Green "to parade their wilful denial of the damage of no-deal Brexit".

"We know about the lies and deliberate half-truths of the Brexit campaign", she says, "but even now many MPs are chillingly indifferent to basic facts" – right down to Liz Truss, chief secretary to the Treasury, claiming that "being in the single market means being in the EU".

As the penny at last begins to drop and even the legacy media realises that they're being sold a crock of lies, the understanding of the consequences of a no-deal Brexit can only improve. And while the damage to the UK would be substantial, there is some mileage to be had from the fact that EU-based operations will also suffer.

It is here, perhaps, that there is room for compromise. Brexit should not be the trading equivalent of mutually assured destruction and if Mrs May can capitalise on that when she next goes to Brussels – maybe there are the makings of a better deal.

For Barnier to declare that it is now for the British government to clarify how the UK "wishes to proceed in organising the orderly withdrawal which it requested", is all very well. But it is as much in the interest of the EU to help us out as it is in the interests of the UK to avoid falling over the cliff. It is to no one's advantage if this becomes synchronised falling.

Richard North 17/01/2019 link

Brexit: the ayes to the right

Wednesday 16 January 2019  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Richard North 16/01/2019 link

Brexit: gridlock reprised

Tuesday 15 January 2019  

There is an air of desperation in the way "ultras" are attempting to make the case for Calais being ready for a no-deal Brexit, the latest recruit to their cause being James Rothwell, the Telegraph Brexit correspondent. 

In a report headed: "'More efficient than clockwork'? How Calais is gearing up for a no-deal Brexit", he seeks to convey the impression that the Channel port will be ready for business on 29 March, even though it is clearly the case that it will not.

Amongst other things, we are told that "around 200 veterinary inspectors are being hired to carry out checks on food and plants at both the tunnel and the port of Calais", and that they "will begin their training next week".

This, however, is not supported by the documentary evidence. The French Agriculture Ministry has deliberately not specified numbers, not knowing at this stage how many vets will be needed. And recruitment interviews have only just been carried out, with a view to starting up training in February.

The plans, necessarily, are tentative because arrangements are very far from being complete and, as we left the story, the French government was awaiting the final word from Brussels as to whether it could undertake remote inspection, having already been told by a Commission official that this was not permissible.

The site in question is indeed La Zone Turquerie, and Rothwell tells us that "diggers are laying the groundwork for a warehouse complex for inspectors and a lorry park, where those lacking the correct paperwork will be diverted after Brexit".

If all goes to plan, Rothwell says, the complex – which spans 40 hectares and costs around €20 million to build – "will insulate the port and tunnel areas from delays, averting the nightmare scenario of trucks being trapped in long tailbacks around the town".

To put this to bed, Rothwell relies on Jean-Paul Mulot, a spokesman for the president of the Hauts-de-France region, who says he was "confident the new complex would be ready within 11 weeks".

That, to put it bluntly, is an absurd claim. A Border Control Post is a complex building, with multiple refrigeration requirements, which must be finished to full food safety standards. It is not within the realms of possibility that such a building could be commissioned within such a short period.

But then, if we go to the same Jean-Paul Mulot, he was on record on 9 November. But then he was saying that "We are ready to go with pre-built temporary installations, which would cost around €20 million, but permanent structures would cost much more".

This meant it was unlikely that Calais would be able to start building the infrastructure until December, meaning some aspects of controls and new administrative sites "won't be in place for March 29th, the day the UK is scheduled to officially become a non-EU state".

If a deal is agreed, a transition phase will effectively extend the departure date until December 2020 and give French officials more time but, said Mulot, "In the case of a no-deal, we will not necessarily be ready, but we will not close the ports".

This then fits with the Statement of Pierre-Henri Dumont, a deputy of the 7th district of the Pas-de-Calais, who in a report published by the French Senate on 21 December, told us that the customs infrastructure "will not be ready in time for a no-deal Brexit on 30 March 2019".

Against that, of course, we have Jean Marc Puissesseau, President/Chairman of the ports of Boulogne and Calais. Revisiting his interview when he told the Today programme that, "for the 29 March, we will be ready", if we go further into the interview, we find him being asked whether the absence of delays applies in all scenarios – a deal or a no-deal.

Intriguingly, Puissesseau responds by saying it will not make any difference, "because there will not be a no-deal". Therefore, he can easily say that the port will be ready on 29 March because he does not believe it will ever be called upon to put the claim to the test.

He does admit, however, that there will be "veterinary and phytosanitary control", for which he claims, "we have already been building infrastructure and parking". What he doesn't say, though, is that this is only at the groundwork stage, and the government has yet to get approval from Brussels on the siting.

Nothing of this is mentioned by Rothwell, who has spent his paper's money on going to France, where on a "chilly, raining evening in Calais hundreds of lorries are feeling their way through the dark into awaiting freight containers and ferries".

He might have done better had he consulted evidence in the public domain, but that isn't what the Telegraph is about these days. It has an agenda and, for the purpose of this evening's vote in the House of Commons, it wants to project the view that a no-deal Brexit is a safe option.

Interestingly, the BBC is on the case with its irritatingly smug Reality Check, asking: "Could leaving with no deal cause traffic jams?"

This is a fair enough question, and I've already suggested several times on this blog that there is no intrinsic reason why we should see traffic stacking up. It all depends on the advice given to transport operators by the government, the nature of the traffic management plans adopted, and the view taken by the transport operators themselves.

A huge amount will depend on the advice given by our own government. If it takes a cavalier attitude and misleads transport operators as to the severity of the checks they will experience, we could find transport flows heavily disrupted very soon after 29 March.

However, one might expect shippers to have a good idea of what will and will not be acceptable for export to EU Member States. In anticipation of certain goods being rejected, they might ensure that these were not consigned in the first place. Rather than finding traffic building up at the ports, therefore, we might find that traffic is untypically light, with few delays and no resort to traffic management schemes.

In these circumstances, the penalty will not be time lost in queues. It will manifest itself in a severe curtailment of the volume of goods exported to EEA states, with consequential financial losses. And, with the inability of UK suppliers to meet continental demand, some of the losses may be ongoing.

As for goods coming into the UK, we have already been led to expect that there will be no additional controls imposed on goods coming from EEA states, in which case there are unlikely to be any delays to inbound traffic, or to vehicles clearing Channel ports. In terms of spectacle, Brexit day and the few days thereafter may prove to be non-events.

If this is the case, we are unlikely to see any shortages of food or other essential supplies – at least in the short-term. But there will be plenty of news, as the media is forced to record the cries of anguish of companies suffering financially, with substantial job losses as a high number go out of business.

The one thing transport operators would be unwise to rely on is assurances from local politicians in the port regions – especially French politicians such as Jean Marc Puissesseau, who are desperately anxious to prevent loss of trade to perhaps better-prepared ports in Belgium and Holland.

Specifically, when it comes to the nature of the checks that will be carried out, their conditions and frequency, these are determined by central governments in accordance with EU law. Neither port operators nor local or region government have any say in the matters. And then, if the facilities are not ready, there will be no throughput at all.

Having regard to the multiple uncertainties, those who trade with Europe might be advised to emulate some of the car manufacturers and plan to shut down international transport operations on Brexit day and for the weeks immediately afterwards.

There are, in fact, indications that this is what might happen. Many firms are stockpiling goods both sides of the Channel, and slowing down or diverting production to reduce the dependence on internationally-traded goods. The immediate impact of Brexit, therefore, will be largely invisible, the "hit" confined to business balance sheets.

And, with imports largely uninterrupted, and export flows curtailed, we might even see some consumer prices drop as produce originally intended for export is diverted to the UK domestic market.

To that extent, some of the claims of the "ultras" about "project fear" and overblown scare stories might appear justified – even if the queues don't materialise for reasons entirely different from their projections. But what they will not be able to conceal is the massive economic damage that this nation would suffer.

Whatever the "ultras" might want us to believe therefore – with or without the assistance of their fellow travellers in the media – there is no possible way that no-deal is a penalty-free option. In truth, we cannot even know for sure whether it is survivable.

Richard North 15/01/2019 link

Brexit: the price of indecision

Monday 14 January 2019  

Relying on that trusted journalistic device, the anonymous EU official, the Guardian is telling us that the EU is expecting Tuesday's vote to fail and is thus preparing to delay Brexit until at least July.

According to this narrative, the EU is expecting a request from Mrs May to extend the two-year Article 50 period and will convene a special European Council to consider the matter.

We are then told that the extension period offered will depend on the reason given for the delay. Initially, a "technical" extension until July might be the first step, set to give Mrs May breathing space "to revise and ratify the current deal once Downing Street has a clear idea as to what will command a majority in the Commons".

Then we get the fabled "senior EU sources" who say that a further, lengthier extension could be offered at a later date should a general election or second referendum be called, notwithstanding that the May elections for the European Parliament would create complications.

All this, though, is unsupported speculation and only one variation of the many different strains that are swirling around Westminster, keeping the hacks entertained while they wait for the vote of the century.

However, while no one can know what Mrs May's intentions might be in the event of parliament refusing to ratify the withdrawal deal, there is a certain amount of logic in the EU being prepared to consider an Article 50 extension. Despite what the likes of Jean Marc Puissesseau have said most recently, it is very clear that the continentals (and the Irish) are not ready for a no-deal Brexit, and they could always use the extra time.

That is not to say that the European Parliament would necessarily be keen on the idea. The very last thing they want is a new contingent of Ukip MEPs showing up, and they thought they had got rid of Farage for good.

But since the parliament doesn't really get going until late August, after the elections, a July cut-off might be tolerable. Any longer might have MEPs throwing a strop, themselves threatening to refuse to ratify the withdrawal treaty and thus precipitating a "no deal" departure when the Article 50 end point is finally reached.

In the meantime, Mrs May is swanning up to Stoke-on-Trent today to deliver a speech to the bemused workers of some factory or another. There, she will warn that parliament is more likely to block Brexit than to allow the UK to crash out of the EU without a deal.

That is the meme that seems to be circulating, relying on the premise that there will be an attempt made to repeal the Withdrawal Act, thus removing the formal reference to the departure date from the statute book.

Why, as some think, this could block the UK from leaving the EU is hard to imagine. The UK's departure, as we reminded readers yesterday, is mandated by EU law, to which UK law is subordinate. It is seriously worrying that so many MPs still seem to have so little understanding of EU mechanisms that they believe that their actions can have any direct (or even indirect) impact on Brexit.

Nevertheless, it seems that the pitch that Mrs May wants to sell the nation is one of do or die: her way or no way at all. This perhaps is more scary than the idea of a no-deal which is just what the "ultras" want and a goodly proportion of the population is yearning for.

There is a possibility here that Mrs May is on her way to sidelining the ERG once again, having already neutralised their threat to her premiership. If the "ultras" so desperately want this to be a contest between her deal and no deal, in the expectation that the no-deal is the winning hand.

Certainly, they are still pushing their nostrums for all they are worth, the latest iteration being a tawdry, multi-author pamphlet asserting that: "No Deal is the Best Deal for Britain".

Predictably, their usual techniques are at play, with copious use of the same lies on which they have been relying for so long. For instance, we see repeated the false claim about sanitary and phytosanitary inspections "at facilities physically separate from ports to avoid congestion".

The example of Rotterdam is cited, where the distance of the Border Inspection Post has increased from the original claim of "up to 20 km from the docks themselves" to a more convenient "40 km away at Rotterdam". And, while EU law mandates that 50 percent of consignments comprising foods of animal origin should be physically inspected, the ERG asserts that less than ten percent of such shipments are actually inspected.

Despite their lies (or, perhaps, because of them), they have the support of a dozen former cabinet ministers, including Johnson, David Davis and Dominic Raab. These are urging Tory MPs to vote down Mrs May's deal and leave the EU on WTO terms.

Unsurprisingly, they are not getting it all their own way. According to the Telegraph, "pro-EU MPs" are planning to raise the stakes by publishing draft legislation to force a second referendum, the intention being – as it always has been - to reverse the result of the 2016 vote.

This is a cross-party group of MPs, with Dominic Grieve prominent amongst them, which apparently wants Mrs May to give parliament "a greater say" in deciding how Britain leaves the EU. With Lib-Dem leader Sir Vince Cable and Lord Lisvane, the former clerk of the House of Commons, supporting them, they want Mrs May to respond to her failure to them rather than the "ultras".

The outcome of their endeavours, they hope, is another referendum where voters are given the choice between Mrs May's deal or staying in the EU. That would put us back in the realm of seeking an Article 50 extension, the purpose being to give the time to hold the referendum.

So, we are descending into a complex realm where we have a three-way punt: Mrs May's negotiated withdrawal agreement, a no-deal withdrawal on "WTO terms" and an option of returning to the fold via a referendum.

Somewhere in all that is also the "Norway group" which is pushing for a "Norway-style" solution of its own making, which actually solves nothing and has nowhere to go. This was the one solution that could have had a chance in intelligent hands, if introduced at the right time. But it has been so compromised by weak minds that it is no longer a viable proposition.

At the start of the Brexit process, way back in June 2016, I could not have begun to imagine that we would end up more than 30 months later with not one choice but three, and with no majority for any of them. And with none of the three anywhere close to optimum, we might be better off throwing dice to determine the outcome. Certainly, we've given up any expectations of our MPs making a coherent decision.

Nor, I fear, does it look likely that the issue will be resolved with the vote on Tuesday. This looks to be just an opening gambit, from which as yet unidentified plays could emerge.

Unfortunately, not enough MPs seem to realise that we are playing with fire. As Pete remarks, the only really coherent choice is for Mrs May's deal, "like it or lump it", and it is the measure of how far our politics have deteriorated that our MPs will turn it down.

It is another measure that, when I wrote Flexcit, I devoted minimal space to the WTO option because I thought I didn't need to. It was so self-evidently flawed that I thought that no sensible person could even think of opting for it. Yet here we have a bunch of Tories pushing for it, floating their arguments on a raft of lies.

What is appropriate in all this though is that, for all the posturing and prancing, the EU will probably have the last word – but not the EU of today. It will be the EU of 2003 which dreamt up the European Constitution that morphed into the Lisbon Treaty containing Article 50. It ensured that the price of indecision would be written into that Article, with the automatic departure from the EU in the event that the withdrawal agreement is not ratified.

Thus, whatever the aspirations of the protagonists, when the vote goes the way expected on Tuesday, one certainty we will be able to confront is that we are now closer to a no-deal withdrawal.

Relying on another referendum is a huge gamble that could lead us to the same destination, so the one thing that should happen is the parliamentary ratification of the withdrawal agreement – the one thing that we can be sure that won't happen.

Richard North 14/01/2019 link

Brexit: politicians at their lowest ebb in history

Sunday 13 January 2019  

Booker is in reflective mood in his column this week, writing under the headline: "If the Brexit negotiations are a game of chess, Theresa May is dangerously close to checkmate".

Two years ago, after Theresa May's fateful decision that she wanted us not just to leave the EU but to shut ourselves off from "frictionless" access to the export market which provides one pound in every eight we earn as a nation, he tells us that he wrote that we seemed to be embarking on a game of snakes and ladders.

But in this game we were determined to avoid every ladder that might help us to climb the board towards the desired goal, and to seek out every snake which would slide us back down again to square one.

Another sporting analogy since used by others has been that which chess players call zugzwang. This is where a player reaches a position where any subsequent move will be disastrous for him. Such is the position we have boxed ourselves into today, where MPs are this week faced with a choice between the devil and the raging sea.

On one hand our MPs can vote for a deal imposed on us by the EU, which would leave us much worse off than we are now. On the other, we can drop out of the EU with "no deal" for what Mrs May only coyly calls "uncharted territory" although she must now realise this would be a far greater disaster than her own "bad deal".

The real problem, of course, says Booker, is that our politicians have got themselves into such a hopelessly ill-informed muddle that there is no longer a Commons majority in support of any next move we might make. The various vociferous factions all know what they are against, but they cannot agree on any positive move that might dig us out of the gaping hole they have all unwittingly conspired to get us into.

We still hear one lunatic fringe claiming that, if we leave without a deal, we can somehow just rely on those fabled "WTO rules". This is an option that simply doesn't exist, Booker says, because the WTO merely provides principles, which can only take force when used to shape a formal trade agreement.

And while we have to put up with the endless propaganda from this source, another bunch clamours ever more loudly for a second referendum, which would take months to set up and plunge the country into an even more toxic state of chaos than it is in already.

For the best part of two years, and with increasing intensity, these groups have been tearing themselves apart over one little bubble of make-believe after another, to the point where we now seem to be sliding by default towards the worst possible option of all: an economic, social and political catastrophe far greater than most people have yet begun to imagine, as we shall only discover when it hits us.

In Booker's view – one with which I am in complete agreement - the fault for this lies squarely with our entire political class. Locked away with the media in their Westminster bubble, they never began to understand the reality of what we were up against, and how much of this mess could sensibly have been avoided.

One cannot think of any time in history, he concludes, when the standing of British politicians, either with the public at large or in the eyes of the outside world, has ever – quite deservedly – been lower.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to be getting through to them in any material way. The bubble which they inhabit may allow them brief glimpses of the loathing which we have for them, but their bubble insulates them so effectively that they are barely, if at all, influenced by it. They carry on regardless, apparently heedless of the damage they are doing.

This points up the role of this blog, doing what has to be done in what passes for a free society – recording the events that the media fail to note and providing an alternative narrative for those who are interested. Most of all though, it provides a record of what passes, one that is outside the grip of the bubble, which neither media nor politicians can control. Their influence stops at the gate.

In my view, it is just as well someone is doing it, as we seem to be entering new realms of fantasy. Today's Sunday Times, for instance, has an over-excited headline declaring "a very British coup", outlining what it reports to be a "Commons plot" to seize control of the Brexit "negotiations" and sideline Mrs May.

This, apparently, relies on an assertion, that the UK will leave the EU on 29 March "unless there is a new act of parliament overturning existing legislation", whence Nick Boles and others are seeking to make it "illegal" to leave the EU without a deal.

This, on the face of it, is gibberish. A no-deal Brexit is the default outcome, in the event of the withdrawal agreement not being ratified. This is mandated by EU law to which UK law is subordinate. Parliament can no more make a no-deal scenario "illegal" than Canute could have held back the tide back in the day.

As to taking over control of the negotiations, there are none. They have ended and both the Commission and European Council have made it abundantly clear that there is no possibility of their being re-opened.

According to the ST story, though, Downing Street believes that the "coup" would enable MPs to suspend Article 50, putting Brexit on hold, and could even lead to the referendum result being overturned — a move that would plunge the country into a constitutional crisis.

Yet, this is just as much gibberish. There is no provision, as such, for putting the Article "on hold". For sure, the UK government (but not parliament) could seek a time extension, but this requires the unanimous assent of the EU-27. And as for overturning the referendum result, again this is for the government, in revoking the Article 50 notification.

The story, as written, is not internally consistent, nor consistent with reality, any more than is the Sunday Telegraph story which has the Tory Party on the brink of an "historic split", occasioned by the government offering incentives to Labour to get its backing for the withdrawal agreement.

Needless to say, this obsession with domestic politics neglects the core issue: unless parliament votes for the withdrawal agreement, the default outcome is a no-deal Brexit. The government doesn't have to do anything – it does not have to declare it as a policy objective. It will happen automatically.

The turmoil in parliament, however, does point to Mrs May losing control, but there is no guessing as to whether rival Tory MPs will drive us to a general election. But even if that is the eventual outcome of Tuesday's vote, it could still leave Mrs May in charge and, should the Tories be returned, we are back where we started.

What people should be focusing on, therefore, is the dominant choice which is still the only serious offer on the table: the withdrawal agreement or a no-deal. It is not possible to give any guarantees that the necessary outcome of a vote against Mrs May won't be a no-deal scenario.

Here, the lack of preparedness is an issue – not here but in France. Earlier in the week, we saw transmission of comments from Jean-Marc Puissesseau declaring that Calais would be "ready" for Brexit on 29 March, despite copious evidence to the contrary.

To add to this, we also have a committee report from the French Senate published on 21 December. It has Pierre-Henri Dumont, a deputy of the 7th district of the Pas-de-Calais - which includes the Channel Tunnel and the port of Calais – who unequivocally states that the customs infrastructure will not be ready in time for a no-deal Brexit on 30 March 2019.

There is also an important intervention by president of the committee, Jean-Louis Bourlanges. He addresses the question of whether the import controls will have to be applied at the border or whether they may be exercised further from the border in order to avoid bottlenecks.

According to rapporteur Alexandre Holroyd, the French government (as of the end of December) was waiting for the Commission's answer on whether the controls can be several kilometres from the border, connected to the ports by "maritime corridors". And at that point, Bourlanges refers to the "unacceptability" of proposals published in the summer, when a remote customs area was mooted.

In this context, we can refer to yet another French Parliament Committee, this one on 16 October 2018. It took evidence from Jacques Gounon, President and CEO of GetLink SE (Eurotunnel), who complained that there was no symmetry between France and the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom, Gounon said, planned to carry out physical checks up to twenty-five kilometres inland. France, on the other hand - due to Community rules – could not exercise controls on goods outside the entry points. They had to be stationed in the "secure corridors" of the ports and tunnel terminal areas.

From this, it appears that the Tunnel operator is well aware of the constraints of EU law, far more so than Jean-Marc Puissesseau. As it stands for Calais, therefore, not only is the infrastructure not going to be ready, the French government has not even got the clearance from Brussels as to where import controls might be exercised.

Inescapably, this means that chaos is going to be the result of a no-deal, yet nothing of this has found its way into the UK media. It is thus not only the standing of British politicians which has never been lower, as Booker avers. It is also the media, which is constantly demonstrating its inability to report coherently on Brexit – something that Booker is not allowed to say, bearing in mind his own newspaper is one of the worst offenders.

Richard North 13/01/2019 link

Brexit: one problem at a time

Saturday 12 January 2019  

David Davis has been talking to Spiegel, repeating the same nostrums he has been pushing through the UK media: we should not be afraid of a no-deal.

Dismissing fears of food shortages and other "scare stories", he also asserted that it is unlikely that (the ferry traffic between) Calais and Dover will "choke up", arguing that "the head of French customs has already said they could change the inspection regime to make sure that business runs smoothly".

If that is not possible, he says, "we can move 40 percent of the trade from Dover-Calais to other ports". Practical concerns are "real" but "limited" and there "may well be lorry queues". We "may even see some hostile action by European states" but within a year, "everything will be ironed out".

For that, we can at least thank Mr Davis for setting out what amounts to the ERG position – an incurable, unsupported optimism that brooks no argument: there may be limited problems with a no-deal Brexit but, after a year, everything will be fine.

And even though nothing of what Davis says is true, in the final analysis, the only certain way to challenge this thesis is to let it happen. Nevertheless, we can bring forward more refined predictions, using a far better standard of evidence, which would suggest that Davis is wrong – very wrong. That, in fact, we've already done, but against the torrent of misinformation and indifference, it is not enough.

But this is not just our failure. Such is the febrile nature of the debate that there is no one who could turn the tide. There are those with far greater ranking and influence than we enjoy, who also complain that they are not being given a hearing.

With a prime minister notorious for her secretive behaviour and her lack of responsiveness, there is no hope of influencing events from the outside. Not even parliament is capable of making the lady turn. Most likely, the die is cast and we will end up with the accidental no-deal scenario.

There is always a chance, however, that MPs will bottle out and realise that a no-deal is not a credible option. While that may not change the outcome of next Tuesday's vote, I don't think many people expect this to be the last word. By whatever means, Mrs May is expected to manoeuvre parliament into another vote, which may or may not deliver the negotiated withdrawal agreement.

If parliament ends up ratifying the agreement, then we will have the benefit of the transitional period, which will buy us some time – and then open the debate to embrace our future relationship with the EU. That should keep us occupied for a few years, while the talks are in progress.

The no-deal, on the other hand, will also keep us busy but in a different way. Initially, we will be charting the growing disaster, interspersed with some judicious expressions of "I told you so", and an amount of synchronised gloating.

Nevertheless, there is no point at which a no-deal is the end game. It will create an unsustainable situation that will require remedy. In the short-term, there will have to be a series of emergency fixes, to keep some sort of a show on the road, and a measure of retrenching as all parties struggle to get used to what in some respects will become the new normal.

The situation is not aided by the European Parliament elections, the end of this Commission's mandate and the appointment of a new Commission president. It will be November, or even later, before the EU is in a position to entertain serious negotiations with the UK, by which time we could be living in a world that has changed irrevocably.

Possibly, at that stage, the UK will be engaged in the process of rebuilding a shattered economy, and be looking for something not dissimilar to the post-war Marshall Plan. Or perhaps David Davis will be proved right: after a short period of perturbation, we shall be on the way to the sunlit uplands, with the rest of the world flocking to our door, anxious to negotiate new trade deals with us.

Frankly, I would love to be wrong and have my pessimism swept aside. But, if I'm not, I will have a great deal to write about how so many people got it wrong, and what we need to do to salvage something from the wreckage.

For the moment, though – with the situation so uncertain and with 76 days to go before we can be certain that we have left the EU – it is too early to start setting out plans for the future. To do so might even presuppose we have a future as a nation, other than one of a slow decline into national penury.

Yet, for all that, there are many areas where attention to detail would yield dividends, and provide answers to pressing problems identified by the Brexit process. Had the likes of David Davis, IDS and others in the ERG focused on such details, they might have been able to offer solutions which did not involve outright lies or require distorting the evidence.

For instance, having to confront the inconvenience of sanitary and phytosanitary border inspections, the group has been tearing itself apart, trying to find ways of circumventing requirements or reducing the impact of what is a make-or-break issue.

In their desperation, they are seeking to bend EU law, pretending that inspections can be carried out away from the ports, as a means of easing the congestion that will inevitably arise once the controls are applied.

Yet, as I remarked yesterday, there is a partial answer in Regulation (EC) No 882/2004, which currently sets out the "official controls" on foods imported from third countries, as will be the UK when it leaves the EU.

The Regulation (Article 23) makes provision for pre-export controls in the country of origin, in which event the UK could perhaps build a giant inspection facility outside Dover, to be operated under EU supervision. It might look rather like the unit in Bilbao (pictured), and perhaps situated outside Ashford. After loads had been inspected, I wrote, vehicles could be sealed and then directed by a supervised transit corridor (under continuous CCTV observation) direct to the ferries or shuttle.

As the law stands, this would not remove EU import controls applied at the border, or the requirement to present consignments comprising foods of animal origin to Border Inspection Posts. But, on the basis of an agreement with the Commission, it can substantially reduce the frequency of inspection.

And, just for once, things are set to get better. On 14 December 2019, a replacement law, Regulation (EU) 2017/625 (Article 73), takes effect. Similar in nature to its predecessor, there is an important difference in that it allows under certain circumstances the pre-export controls to replace the official controls applied on entry.

The nature and extent of the pre-export controls would have to be negotiated with the Commission but, potentially, an agreement could resolve a major problem that comes with Brexit.

And, as this one example demonstrates, even when problems seem intractable, there are often solutions if you know where to find them. An inspection centre for pre-export controls would cost only a fraction of the money that Mr Grayling wants to spend on additional ferry capacity, and would do far more to reduce port congestion than his meagre efforts.

One wonders why the government's lavishly-paid consultants haven't come up with this idea for their £75 million, or why the government hasn't spent the money on such an eminently practical solution rather than frittering it away on over-priced consultants.

And taking this approach is the way we might have to tackle the post-Brexit no-deal scenario. The "big bang" solution was perhaps too much to ask of this government. We will find ourselves solving one problem at a time.

Richard North 12/01/2019 link

Brexit: project reality

Friday 11 January 2019  

The car industry is making headlines again, and although some are talking of "carmageddon" it is easily possible to overstate the impact of Brexit in the reported events. A fair analysis would suggest that Brexit is only one factor in a long-overdue industry adjustment. And even the Guardian manages to host a commentary telling us not to blame job losses at Jaguar Land Rover and Ford on Brexit.

However, the news on Honda is rather different. The company plans to halt production at its UK plant for six days after Brexit, enabling the group to stockpile parts in the days immediately following Britain's departure from the EU, and to ride out any short-term interruptions in supplies.

Honda, of course, is not on its own. The BMW-owned Mini plant is shutting down for its four-week maintenance period in April instead of the summer and Toyota is prepared temporarily to cease production in the event of any disruption to its supply chain following Brexit.

This puts clothes on the predictions of disruption. Hard-headed businesses are not given to attacks of the vapours, their plans driven by "project fear" to the extent that they drop millions from their bottom lines. These are real concerns, based on the best evidence available.

Evidence, though, is not something which our revered government seems to understand. Nor does it even seem to have the capability to acquire it, sufficient to enable it to make sensible decisions – even despite spending around £75 million on consultants.

This brings us neatly back to "ferrygate", whence we learn that Seaborne Freight were "vetted" by lawyers Slaughter & May, accountants Deloitte and consultants Mott MacDonald. With their focus on the potential ferry-provider and the port of Ramsgate, these geniuses, alongside their minders in the DfT, failed to realise that it would be "impossible" for Ostend to be ready in time for Brexit.

This made the media a couple of days ago, after the BBC interviewed the mayor of Ostend who told the broadcaster that the port needed guarantees from the ferry line, in view of concerns about their solvency. The mayor also pointed out that spending was needed for security measures to contain migrants, adding: "If the ferry line is getting millions of pounds [from] the government, I think they have to do some investments in the harbour".

But this, it seems, turns out to be only just another of the growing list of problems. Although a deal between Ramsgate port and Seaborne Freight is expected to be confirmed "imminently", the trade journal Loadstar is telling us that any ferry service will not be "fit for purpose".

It has been speaking to a former "seafarer", with 45 years’ experience, 25 of them on Dover-Calais ferries, who has outlined multiple reservations. "The Ostend to Ramsgate is undoubtedly a route that will interest drivers", he says, "but I cannot see it gaining that much interest, largely due to the times involved".

Ramsgate's claim that it can cater for 24 sailings a day, he says, "is nothing more than a pipe-dream, when you consider the port's facilities". Both Ramsgate and Seaborne claim a sailing to Ostend can be completed in four hours, but actual sea journey represents just part of the time taken.

It ignores turnaround times, which, based on similar vessels trading in Dover, average around three hours at each port. Then, bearing in mind that the mile-long approach at Ramsgate is too narrow for two-way traffic, it doesn't account for pilotage in – another half hour – and the same for pilotage out at both ports.

What this amounts to is a 16-hour rotation, which rules out any possibility of operating 24 sailings a day. And the 16-hour rotation will not be popular with truckers. It means different sailing times each day.

Furthermore, says the seafarer, parties seem to be ignoring the limitations imposed by Ramsgate's third berth. Unlike berths one and two, it operates under a linkspan system, which is only capable of handling a certain type of vessel, of which the numbers available are limited.

"So", he says, "number three berth will be left open, unless they can persuade DFDS or P&O to lend one of their ships. And you can't use a traditional stern-loading vessel as it would damage, or even destroy, the linkspan equipment". However, without linkspan equipment, and particularly the double-deck ramps available at Dover and Calais, high speed loading and unloading cannot be achieved. And while Ostend is equipped with three ferry berths, these can only handle the conventional stern loaders (pictured).

As if that was not enough, questions have also been raised about the limited number of pilots available, leaving larger-scale operations reliant on exemption certification.

But exemption certificates can only be obtained by masters and first mates on completion of an examination process, which requires the applicant to complete eight inward and eight outward movements, 50 percent conducted in darkness, on a vessel of similar characteristics to the one they will be sailing. These movements must be made within a 12-month period prior to the application, with at least half conducted within a six-month window.

For this to happen, the process needs to be under way now, but there is an obvious hurdle. Seaborne don't have the ships, nor do they know what ships they will have, so they cannot be lodging applications for the exemptions. Without exemption certificates, Ramsgate would, at a minimum, need to provide four harbour pilots. It is not clear that the post has that number. Thus, the more that emerges about the DfT ferry contract, the more ill-considered it appears to be. 

And, adding still more to the pain, we have Getlink, operator of the Eurostar Shuttle, complaining about the anti-competitive nature of the contract. This is from chief executive Jacques Gounon who has written to Chris Grayling, stating that the Le Shuttle is the most efficient way of supplying vital goods to the UK, which will "remain the case" even if border controls are introduced between the states. Getlink would be prepared to mount additional "missions" under equivalent contracts to those signed with the ferry operators.

With the threat of further action, possibly in the courts, Gounon makes good points but the DfT seems to be determined to add insult to injury. A source has confirmed that it is talking with German-owned DB Cargo and Swedish-run GB Railfreight about running extra trains through the night from April to guarantee the flow of food and medicines.

As the situation thus gets more complex and absurd, perhaps Jean-Marc Puissesseau was on the ball when he suggested that a better way to spend £100 million might be to invest in facilities at Calais. Even the £75 million spent on consultants would go a long way.

Considering that the Pif-Pec at Le Havre cost €3 million, the sum Mr Grayling is prepared to spend on extra ferries, much less the consultant fees, would cover the installation of substantial facilities and even provide a dowry to keep them operating. In terms of speeding trade flows, this would seem at first sight a far better option.

There is even provision in EU law for pre-export inspection in the country of origin (see discussion here), in which event the UK could perhaps build a giant inspection facility outside Dover, to be operated under EU supervision. After their loads had been inspected, vehicles could be sealed and then directed by a supervised transit corridor (under continuous CCTV observation) direct to the ferries or shuttle (see Article 23 - this would not remove EU import controls but it could reduce their frequency).

As regards Calais and generally, there is no provision in EU law for the inspection to be anything other than in the "immediate vicinity" of the point of entry. In the run up to the Puissesseau interview, Iain Duncan-Smith spoke of facilities being supplied at Calais 12 kilometres from the port.

That seems to fit with provision being made at the Turquerie site. But, while Commission official Ms Gauer spoke of being able to defer inspection of low risk products, those which were not of animal origin, it is not possible under EU law that a Border Control Post in the "veterinary domain" can be operated there. Any site must be within the port perimeter.

As regards the Tunnel, Getlink does run trains directly to Dunkirk port, where it owns some land. Here, the law might be stretched and it be argued that the "point of entry" for these trains was Dunkirk rather than Calais, provided there was no intermediate stop.

Even then, deferring inspection does not really solve anything. Observation of the Le Havre Pif-Pec indicates that it has parking, at a pinch, for about 40 lorries. And, with a maximum inspection capacity of about 100 lorries a day, this is hardly going to make a dent in the UK traffic, which might account for 2-3 thousand lorries a day requiring inspection.

On that basis, a modestly sized inspection centre will still have the traffic backing up all the way to the port and clogging the flows. Positioning it a few kilometres from the terminals would only buy a few hours. Thus, the only answer in the long-term is either the investment in massive, high-throughput facilities, or permanent reductions in trade – or both.

This, however, happens whether we have a no-deal scenario or, eventually, a free trade agreement. In either event, the UK becomes a third country and full border controls apply. What approving the withdrawal agreement gives us is more time to prepare, in the form of a transition period. It also allows new regulations to apply, which may give us a way out. 

Small wonder, therefore, that the CBI is warning that a no-deal Brexit would have profound economic consequences with GDP shrinking by up to eight percent, putting thousands of jobs at risk. But having cried "wolf" so often, its intervention will be dismissed by many as simply another instalment of "project fear".

From CBI director general Carolyn Fairbairn, who will be speaking today on the subject, all we will get is generalised whiffle, with no detail to support the eight percent claim. What we need, therefore, is "project reality" – a determined effort to put factual evidence before the public, setting out costs and detailed information of what mitigation measures might be needed.

Facts are a great antidote, but so far no one seems to be prepared to put them on the table. They can only be built up from painstaking evaluation of the evidence, which puts us back where we started. In an evidence-free environment, reality is being forced to take a back seat.

Richard North 11/01/2019 link

Brexit: politicians play while business bleeds

Thursday 10 January 2019  

I have absolutely no interest in the pathetic prancing of Westminster politicians, and the games they are playing on Brexit. Like it or not, Mrs May is right. There are only two choices on the table: her deal or no deal. And the way these blustering fools are going, they are driving straight down the road to a no-deal, with potentially devastating results.

Even more irresponsible, if that was possible, is that rag-tag contingent that exploits every opportunity it can find to support its ongoing campaign to present the no-deal scenario as an acceptable option – and even one to be welcomed.

Their opportunity came again yesterday when BBC Radio 4's Today programme aired a squib from Jean-Marc Puissesseau (pictured), styled as the Deputy Calais Mayor. Triumphantly repeated on Twitter, it had him saying that the Calais authorities were preparing for a no-deal Brexit and "we will be ready".

This version of Puissesseau said, "No more trucks will be stopped crossing the Channel than at present". Adding that the UK Government's efforts to move trade away from Calais to other ports were "shocking" and "disrespectful".

This was immediately seized upon by Bernard Jenkin, who chortled: "This interview is big news. Well done for carrying this". The comment addressed to the BBC, he added: "But why is this not now in the hourly news bulletins? It completely spikes the fear campaign about WTO Brexit causing queues at Dover".

The likes of the Guido Fawkes website quickly followed, identifying the man as "President Chairman of the ports of Boulogne-Calais". The customs at his port would only be checking for veterinary and sanitary controls,  he said, "for which we have already been building infrastructure and parking, but that will not influence the traffic in Dover".

"We will not control the exports, only asking the papers already, the custom declaration, that’s all! The import, as you won't control [restrict], there will not be a queue in Dover because there will not be control, so where is the problem?!"

Said Guido on the basis of these claims, echoing Jenkin, "Maybe it's time that scaremongering Remainers started to listen to the experts".

Oddly enough, though, the likes of Jenkin were not so quick to retail the views of Puissesseau in March when he said that there could be tailbacks up to 30 miles in all directions and potential food shortages in Britain if a Brexit deal involves mandatory customs and sanitary checks at the French ferry terminal.

This was the very same Jean-Marc Puissesseau, making "an impassioned plea" to Theresa May and Michel Barnier to put plans in place immediately to avert congestion in Calais and Dover, where bosses had "already warned of permanent 20-mile tailbacks".

And that's what typifies this rag-tag contingent. When people say something of which they approve, which helps their cause, they talk them up and spread the word. But if they dare to say anything else, they are ignored.

When it comes to Puissesseau, though, we are dealing with something of a mixed bag. Born on 13 August, 1940, he is – to English eyes at least – one of those strange French mixes of businessman and politician, for which there is no real equivalent in the UK.

President of the Strait Ports Operating Company (SEPD) which was created in 2014, he was previously President of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCI) of Calais, followed by a term as President of the Côte d'Opale CCI, representing Calais, Boulogne and Dunkirk, before standing down in December 2015 to avoid "conflict of interest" in his current position.

Politician rather than "expert", he has business interests in the Calais football club, in a household appliance wholesaler, publishing and housing rentals. Through his links with the port, he has been a high-profile spokesman for its interests, a voluble critic of the French government for not dealing effectively with the migrant problem, and equally critical of the European Commission when it sought to exclude Calais from its "Motorway of the Sea" project once the UK had left the EU.

As such, he is something of a "hired gun", ready to defend the interests of the port whenever necessary. But in this last intervention, apparently contradicting his claims made in March, there is more to this than meets the eye – much more.

In what is and remains a murky picture, we have to go back to early October of last year, when Gérald Darmanin, Minister of Action and Public Accounts came up from Paris to meet 50 or so customs officers from Dunkirk, Boulogne and Calais.

Brexit was discussed but only in private, but what came out of a subsequent meeting with the mayor and Natacha Bouchart, vice-president of the Region in charge of port issues, about forty guests, was more than interesting.

The Minister announced the creation of a customs office in Calais and then Natacha Bouchart proposed the creation of a central control centre that would bring together the customs office and the Veterinary and Phytosanitary Service at the borders (SIVEP) at a site known as the Turquerie.

This is a proposed logistics park, part of an ill-fated regeneration programme dreamed up in 2011 and more or less abandoned after an incomplete phase one, although the politicians, Natacha Bouchart amongst them, are reluctant to give up on their pet project, which they regard as a strategic necessity in the post-Brexit trading environment.

Situated along the Calais-Dunkirk railway line and between Calais Port and the Channel Tunnel, it is some distance from both terminals. But this was at a time when the French government wrongly believed that there could be derogations to the EU law requiring border inspection posts to be "located in the immediate vicinity of the point of entry".

When in early December, Ms Céline Gauer, Deputy Secretary General of the European Commission, told the National Assembly that there would be no derogations, that must have thrown the plans for Calais into complete disarray, completely scotching the idea of using the Turquerie site. Not only could there not be a combined facility to service both port and tunnel, separate installations would have to be built in both terminals.

Since then, while there has been some discussion in the French press about inspection facilities for the Normandy ports, there has been an almost complete absence of references to provisions at Calais. Despite intensive trawling, I can find no further references since October. It seems that the local politicians, having found they could not use Brexit to reactivate their pet scheme, had no alternative to fall back on.

Yesterday's Guardian, however, referred to the French authorities in Calais building temporary border inspection posts near the port "for the mandatory checks on food and live animals that will be required after Brexit in a no-deal scenario", but that is either old news or incorrect.

The article itself had Cabinet Office minister, David Lidington, responding to Puissesseau's claims that the port had already been building infrastructure and parking. Lidington reminded us that "European law says all food exports and livestock exports from a third country to the EU have to be inspected 100 percent [and] checked at a designated border inspection post", stating that Calais did not have infrastructure in place to carry out all the necessary checks in the event of a no-deal exit.

Given the "radio silence", one can take it that this is more likely to be true. If there was any progress at all, it seems hardly likely that there would have been no mention at all of it in the French media. Thus, Puissesseau's protestations seem more like bluster to cover up the lack of any progress, representing an opportunity to protect the interests of his beloved port, trying to stave off the prospect of business going elsewhere.

As to the details of his claims, we have since seen a detailed rebuttal from the Road Haulage Association (RHA), affirming that there would be "significant delays" at the port.

This is the crunch. The very fact that the "no deal" contingent is so keen to play down the likelihood of delays tells you how important this issue really is. Yet nothing of this is being addressed by the prattling MPs in Westminster, nor indeed assisted by the self-interest of French politicians.

While Brexit has now become a crisis, and business bleeds, all we have is the unedifying sight of politicians playing their games - on both sides of the Channel. As the wealth of the nation drains into the sand, there must surely be a reckoning.

Richard North 10/01/2019 link

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