Brexit: of blathering Brexiteers

Thursday 24 May 2018  

Three events yesterday are of interest – some more than others. Firstly, and of least importance is the sanctimonious poseur, Dominic Cunnings, writing a blogpost on the "Brexit shambles", in which he complains about the failure of government to plan for Brexit.

This is the man who consciously rejected the idea of the leave campaign having a plan on the spurious assertion that the "no" campaign (as it was then) "is neither a political party nor a government. It has no locus to negotiate a new deal". Because of the complexity, he argued: "There is much to be gained by swerving the whole issue".

That was back in June 2015, when I was working with the man, and Owen Paterson, setting up a campaign planning group for the expected referendum. (I answered his points line-by-line and, in particular, argued that an exit plan should be produced independently by the "no" campaign, so that:
… in the event of success and the Government is forced to negotiate our exit, the plan can be used as the yardstick against which its performance can be measured. If it delivers a less advantageous deal than we suggest is possible, we have reason to ask why.
It is typical of this man that he never answered my points – not then or even. For all his bluster, he's actually a coward, never standing up to argue his points. Like the creature of the dark that he truly is, he will go behind your back to wield the assassin's knife.

But, of course, he has now left the "leave" movement without the moral authority that would have come on campaigning on a specific plan, which would have given us the ability to hold the government's feet to the fire. In no small measure, Cummings himself is responsible for the "shambles" of which he complains.

Even back in June 2015, though, he had already decided to take the route of highlighting the money spent on contributions to the EU, suggesting that we could instead be "putting it into the NHS" – a decision which led directly to the £350 million a week lie on the side of the battle bus.

That brings us to the second event, a claim by a far more substantial figure than Cummings – none other than Jon Thompson, chief executive of HM Revenue and Customs – made to the Treasury select committee.

Thompson has it that the so-called "max fac" customs plan being touted by the lunatic fringe as the sole solution to the Irish question, Brexit and the price of land on Mars (slight exaggeration there), could cost the nation something like £20 billion a year. Rather pointedly, this comes to more that the £350 million a week that we would supposedly save from leaving the EU (£385 million, rounded up).

This is a sum that No.10 argues is "speculation", but it nevertheless points up the inconvenient fact that resumption of border controls once we leave the EU is not a cost-free exercise.

This comes on top of Carney's little escapade the day before yesterday, when he argued that we had lost two percent of GDP since the referendum – equivalent to £40 billion. That represents a loss in tax to the Treasury of about £15 billion – roughly equivalent to £300 million a week.

However much people may chose to dispute any individual set of figures, it must be fairly clear by now that the Cummings fantasy of saving money to give to the NHS ain't going to happen. If anything, the government is going to have serious difficulties maintaining current expenditure levels – particularly if it continues to make such a mess of Brexit.

And, with that, we arrive at the third event - a lecture delivered by Ivan Rogers (pictured) at the University of Glasgow, entitled: "The real post-Brexit options".

This is by far the most important of the events and one that has even attracted the attention of the failing Telegraph which gives its report on the lecture the headline: "Brexiteers' dreams of a golden age are buccaneering blather, says UK's former top EU diplomat".

The lecture itself is very long and best read in its entirety from the link provided. Any summary can hardly do it justice, as illustrated by the Telegraph's "take" in recording that Sir Ivan is calling "for a debate based on a clear-eyed evaluation of pros and cons, 'not on fantasies, or incoherent and muddled thinking'". 

This misses the bluntness of the message where Sir Ivan actually states: "… if we are to avoid miss-selling the British people on our post Brexit options, we need a far more honest debate based on clear, accurate, realistic accounts of the pros and cons of each of the options. Not on fantasies, or incoherent and muddled thinking". 

Never in a million years could the Telegraph even hint that the debate has been less than honest, especially given its own performance, which means there is also no reference to this gem, straight from the master himself on the way the chatterati have become obsessed with the customs union.

Just as we begin to see glimmerings of sense, Rogers says: "It is simply absurd",
… the extent to which the debate about whether to stay in some form of Customs Union with the EU after Brexit has now become, with the Irish border issue, the only apparent subject for discussion. We spent several decades in the Customs Union, with the political class evidently largely failing to understand what it was, how it worked, and what the linkage was to the Single Market. Now, suddenly, on leaving all manner of people who have never previously had a thought about it, opine as if experts on what the consequences of staying in a Customs Union are.
On Norway and Switzerland, the paper focuses Sir Ivan's criticism on Mrs May, stating that she had "erred in ruling out flexible relationships" of the nature provided by these countries. But in fact, the criticism was much more widely cast, as he stated:
People note, with justice, that neither Norway nor Switzerland took the Customs Union route. Though they say much less – or indeed nothing – about why the Norwegians took an EEA route – which as I say, they think the British political debate grossly distorts – or why the Swiss took the route of voluntary complete regulatory alignment across the full range of industrial goods: thus forfeiting sovereignty completely in that – huge – area, as one senior Swiss negotiator put it to me, when I was examining the Swiss option.

Ruling out these options before truly understanding what either meant, or whether variants on them might be viable, was, in my view, simply an act of folly.
Not anywhere does the paper see fit to discuss regulation, or the vexed subject of regulatory alignment, yet Sir Ivan frames the issue beautifully when he says:
The correct way to think of the EU in economic terms is as a “regulatory union”, with the appetite and ability to extend its rules extraterritorially: the so-called Brussels effect. The EU is a superpower in no other respect. But in this critical one, it is. And the idea that, on its own, the UK, can compete with massive regional trading blocs – the EU, the US, China – as a standard setter, on industrial goods to data, is an illusion.
Then, on regulatory alignment, he says:
... beyond tariffs as we have seen, the overwhelming bulk of industrial sectors with any export market interest, want, on standards, to remain convergent on EU ones, and within the EU's regulatory orbit. Indeed, outside both the EU and EEA, they are alarmed at the prospect of being excluded from the key private sector standard setting bodies, which sit outside the EU structures, but only have national members from within the EU and EEA.

This is, quite simply, a loss of control and sovereignty, not a gain. The company CEOs to whom I talk on post Brexit options sometimes wonder which planet Westminster inhabits, as it obsesses about theoretical sovereignty and abandons real sovereignty.
And, to conclude, Sir Ivan offers us a choice:
Domestically, we can have a 21st century thirty years war in which true path Leavers resume the campaign for the hardest possible clean break Brexit and reject any economic deal the EU could ever conceivably sign; and the hard Remainers say that everything bar remaining or reapplying for full membership is an unacceptable loss from the status quo. We can have two different "stab in the back" legends running concurrently. Given that, as the Swiss always correctly observe, no negotiation with the EU ever ends, and there is no permanent, completely stable end state, we could indeed actually have this sterile debate for ever…

But the sooner we realise there are no perfect choices, that there are serious trade-offs between sovereignty and market access interests and that we are best off if we make stone cold sober judgments of where sovereignty at the national level can be real and effective, and where it is purely notional and actually a material loss of control, the better for the UK.
Before he even gets there, though, Rogers has a few words, from which the Telegraph draws its headline, which could be directed personally to Shanker "Snake Oil" Singham, noting that there will be winners and losers from any Brexit settlement. "In a post Brexit UK trade policy debate", he says, "we need to think hard, rigorously and honestly about this, and not produce buccaneering blather ".

In all, Rogers uses the word "honesty" (or its variations) eight times in his lecture, highlighting exactly what is missing from the Brexit debate. Like as not, it will stay missing but, yesterday at least, it was given an airing.

Richard North 24/05/2018 link

Brexit: churning

Wednesday 23 May 2018  

In November 2016, I was writing about the lack of vision in the Brexit plans, observing that this would not go away.

The referendum, I wrote, was only a means to an end and the exit campaign, which started in the 1970s, will not be over until we are fully out of the EU. We want more than a fudged exit, leaving us enmeshed in the Union with no clear direction for the future.

Eighteen months later, we are treated to a report from Tony Blair's Institute of Global Change, under the title "Customs and Exiting the European Union".

This is an evaluation carried out by Blair's team on the various options which supposedly present us in leaving the European Union. The report, we are told, makes clear that the options available to the UK for its future trading relationship with the EU all come with compromises.

On the one hand, it says, remaining in the single market and customs union would minimise friction, minimise the impact to the UK economy and avoid a hard border in Ireland. On the other hand, it would mean the UK could not strike its own trade deals.

The report then concludes that: "All the other options come with varying levels of friction and implications for the UK's ability to make trade agreements with other countries". What characterises the report in its detail though, is that there isn't a single idea in the entire tome which, we are advised, is a one hour three minute read. 

It is a turgid reiteration of a litany of establishment voices and reports, even down to churning out the same Mini crankshaft mythology that I rebutted in February.

This small example typifies the way the Brexit "debate" has been played, with the word "churning" serving as the motif. We are bogged down in minutia, assessing a succession of narrow options for withdrawal, none of which can possibly deliver the "sunlit uplands" that was the initial promise of the leave campaign.

Even the best of the best is a "least worst" option while the rabid, "Ultra" Brexiteers can only offer a tired vision of third country trade deals that cannot begin to replace what we have already, much less lead to an economic renaissance.

Brexit has become a tired, tedious, repetitious restatement of positions that is going nowhere and, if we let the likes of Mr Blair set the agenda, it will never deliver anything that anybody wants. But then, that is the purpose – to show that there is nothing to gain from Brexit, so we might just as well slide back into the EU.

We would, of course, not expect the "remainers" – former or current – to construct a vision of a post-Brexit UK. That is something for the leavers to do – something the official leave campaign should have done but didn't, beyond the manic, Minfordian vision of unrestricted free trade.

And when we see the EU showboating with the announcement of trade talks with Australia and New Zealand – that could give it better terms than we could achieve – we have to recognise that the free-trade ambitions of the "Brexiteers" are as empty as their rhetoric.

At least, in Flexcit, the Leave Alliance had a coherent vision. But, as we've seen again and again, the establishment is determined to monopolise the debate (and thereby exclude any non-conformist opinion. As I have remarked before, we are the "invisible man" of Brexit. We simply do not exist.

As long as you are in the loop, you can produce the most unutterable tosh, with scant attention to reality and without needing to get your facts right. And the zombie media will uncritically publish it, oblivious to its errors and not making the slightest attempt to correct them.

Accuracy, attention to detail, imagination and all the other attributes which are necessary for good policy, are no longer valued in this closed society, which puts its own interests before the health and wealth of the nation. It would see Brexit descend into disaster before it will open itself to outsiders and their heresies.

Thus, day after day, characters from the same limited cast of actors, their activities peppered with the language of conflict, as they "slam" each other, or "skewer" each other's arguments, against a background of "anger", where one side "infuriates" another, leading to the inevitable "backlash" and even the occasional "rebellion", all of which leads absolutely nowhere.

The protagonist stay firmly locked in their respective bubbles, talking mainly to each other, united only in rejecting outsiders with new or different ideas. They know nothing of the detail and contribute nothing, yet demand constant attention from an equally unknowing zombie media.

This is broken politics – a system which has failed to rise to the challenge of determining a new future for the UK outside the European Union. And lacking any ideas or the ability to develop them, we see an increase in the number of people retreating to their comfort zone, refighting the referendum campaign – and making as bad a job of it the second time around.

That leaves us wondering what to do next. When you have a dog-in-the manger political system which is incapable of doing its job, yet refuses to let any one in, the only short-term option tends to be one of damage limitation – at a personal level and, if possible, on a national scale.

It is said that politicians are more amenable to change when confronted with a crisis. That was the essence of Jean Monnet's technique, preparing his solutions and then waiting for the "beneficial crisis" when he could get them accepted.

Possibly, to undo the effects of our membership of the EU and to come up with a new paradigm for the future, we too need a crisis. Maybe we need Brexit to go badly wrong before the politicians start to listen and act in a sensible way. The English psyche needs its "Dunkirk", before it will concentrate on winning.

Meanwhile, there is only so much blathering any normal person can tolerate, and only so much churning of the same-old, same-old set of factoids before one is driven quietly mad.

The only consolation is that the UK's negotiating counterparts in Brussels must be feeling much the same. Their latest contribution shows how limited an effect the customs union has in securing a frictionless border, an input which is likely to be ignored as much as their previous contributions in the Notice to Stakeholders series.

I wish it could be said that we are suffering from information fatigue, where everyone is switching off because they can't cope with the overload. But, if anything, the nation is suffering from "underload" – if that is a word – as the necessary information with which to judge our options is quite deliberately withheld from the public.

If we need a crisis to change this – and that is the only thing that can do it – then all we can say is "bring it on". At some point, the churning has to stop and new ideas have to be allowed into the debate. For us, of course, they will not be new – the ideas in Flexcit go back to 2014 - but there is nothing so "new" as something the zombie media has discovered all for itself.

In an unusual burst of optimism, Pete at least concedes: "We may there yet". It would be nice, though, to know where "there" actually is.

Richard North 23/05/2018 link

Brexit: invisible borders still exist

Tuesday 22 May 2018  

Predictably – and not just because there is very little else to write about on Brexit – the Irish question is still prominent in the media coverage on matters related to our withdrawal from the European Union.

One of the stranger contributions, though, comes in the Telegraph carrying yesterday's date, written jointly by Owen Paterson as a former Northern Ireland Secretary, and Sammy Wilson, the DUP's Brexit spokesman.

Ostensibly, the pair are seeking to demythologise the Irish border, with the assertion that there is still a border: it hasn’t gone away. It is, the pair say, "a tax, immigration, currency, political, international, excise and security border".

To a very great extent, though, this is a straw man argument. No one sensible (that I know of) is arguing that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland doesn't exists.

The issue is that, for the purposes of free movement of people and goods, it is an invisible border. There are no border controls located on the border, and there is no requirement to submit to checks at the border in order to gain passage from one jurisdiction to another. No law is broken if any person crosses the border at any point, with or without goods which they may or may not intend to sell.

That, however, does not mean that there are no border checks. Unintentionally (for this is not his purpose), a Unionist Councillor, Henry Reilly, is demonstrating this in a series of Twitter posts.

Recently, he has posted two pictures (reproduced above), one showing a mobile checkpoint just across the border from Co Fermanagh, looking for cheap red diesel used (illegally) in private cars and the other a car-load of cigarettes and spirits seized by Irish customs.

Reilly also points out that 1,000 litres of heating oil cost £460 in Northern Ireland while the same quantity costs €710 (or £621.43) in the Republic. An Irish householder bringing in oil from the North would therefore, save £160 but, says Reilly, if Irish customs catch you, "it's big trouble".

The Unionist Councillor uses this to argue that, contrary (he asserts) to the claims that there is no border from of Barnier, Coveney and Varadkar et al, there is in fact a border.

Interestingly, if you go to the former border city of Strasbourg you can see remnants of the border post but in accordance with Union law, there are no longer and borders check between Germany and France – on the border. But one can hardly miss the profusion of cars, almost identical to police cars, but with the substitution of the title Douane.

These are often seen out and about in the interior, their crews setting up mobile check points in lay-bys and motorway service stations, inspecting lorries, mobile homes and the like for contraband. As between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, there is a "soft" (i.e., invisible) border between France and Germany but there are also checks carried out in the interior.

That is the situation as it currently stands, and it is how all the parties want it to remain. And even where there are visible checks at the borders – as between France and Germany – there is still a lot going on behind the scenes. A great deal is achieved by cross-border cooperation between enforcement systems – something that doesn't, incidentally, require direct EU participation. Swiss-French cooperation, we are told, is "an envied tool throughout Europe".

Back with Paterson and Wilson, they make the point that the Irish border is "not one of Europe’s weightier ones". Sixty-five percent of Ulster's trade, they say, is internal to the province, 20 percent goes to the rest of the UK, and merely percent goes to the Republic. A miserly 1.6 percent of the Republic's exports go north, and only 1.6 percent of its imports come from Northern Ireland.

On this basis, they argue, "vintage border posts from a Tintin illustration aren't needed", asserting that there are "no insurmountable technological problems, only, thus far, political ones". They add: "Not one new, untried technology is required to make this work".

But, as always, they miss the point. Upon Brexit, the Irish land border with Northern Ireland becomes part of the EU's external border. A huge body of EU law, including the Union Customs Code (UCC) and the "official controls" on the movement of animals and products of animal origin, automatically apply.

However, it is not just EU law that is the issue here. As a member of the WTO (along with its Member States), the EU is obliged to apply its border controls equally to all third countries, otherwise it falls foul of the "no-discrimination" rule. And, should it make concessions to the UK – as it is under pressure to in order to maintain an invisible border – it will come under huge press to grant similar concessions to its other trading partners.

It is this point that consistently escapes the understanding of British politicians. Any solution found for the Irish borders must be unique to Ireland, in such a way that it cannot be used as a precedent by the EU's other trading partners. It cannot be rolled into the general trading agreement with the UK or it becomes leverage for all the other countries which would like to see EU border controls reduced.

And here we see, at last, an intervention from the Freight Trade Association in Northern Ireland. During a hastily arranged visit to Northern Ireland by Brexit secretary David Davis, they have told him that the high tech "max-fac" proposal, which would include the use of tracking devices on lorries crossing the Irish border, would be "pointless".

Knowing when a lorry crossed the border would serve no purpose. "A haulier could lift a full trailer in Birmingham but it could contain 40 different consignments from 40 different producers. Then it comes to Northern Ireland and is broken down with mixed loads on different trucks going to different places, so a tracking device telling you the original truck had crossed a border doesn't tell you anything", says Seamus Lehany, head of the Freight Trade Association in Northern Ireland.

He also told Davis that "customs was only the tip of the iceberg and the biggest problem was sanitary and phytosanitary checks on agrifood. Twenty percent of meat has to be checked and 50 percent of chicken". In fact, every vehicle carrying foods of animal origin has to be presented to a Border Inspection Post for a documentation check, and the level of inspection of cargoes could be increased if suggested by a risk assessment.

Intriguingly, the FTA also pointed out that an invisible border raised the prospect of Northern Ireland becoming a smuggler's paradise for goods that were cheaper in the UK – exactly the reason for the checks to which Councillor, Henry Reilly drew our attention.

"If TVs are cheaper in the UK, for example, they can come over to Northern Ireland [and] next thing they are in Dublin and in no time at all in France. The EU won't tolerate that", says Lehany.

Preventing smuggling can be achieved by beyond the border measures, as we see currently, but that requires a high level of police and customs cooperation. But if the Swiss feel the need to use fixed customs posts at their borders, augmented by mobile patrols, the Irish on both sides of the land border will need to make an extremely robust case if the EU is to accept that the border can remain invisible.

And this leaves Paterson and Wilson in the land of the fayries. They invoke the Good Friday Agreement, asserting that its point "was to respect the border, and leave the choice about its future solely, democratically and peacefully to the people of Northern Ireland".

That can only apply as long as the line was an internal border between EU Member States. But once the UK leaves and it becomes part of the EU's external border, the full EU regime must apply unless the UK is prepared to accept that a "special status" must apply to Northern Ireland.

How the UK handles that is its business but the EU's stance does not in any way, as the pair assert, disrespect the Good Friday Agreement. Rather, as Alex Massie, in The Times writes, "Brexiteers are treating Ireland with contempt".

There is a perception widely felt in Ireland that there is a whiff of "Know your place, Paddy" to these complaints about the Irish, he says. "Forelocks are there for the tugging since the Irish are only a tiny people, after all, and a country as important as the United Kingdom cannot reasonably be expected to truckle to Dublin. On the contrary, it should be the other way round".

That Ireland, with the support of the EU, is calling the shots, and the UK is having to tailor its own plans to this reality, is not something with which the likes of Paterson and his ERG colleagues have come to terms.

Instead, we get the utterly moronic John Longworth arguing for the crash and burn WTO option, then suggesting that "we would leave the border in Ireland as it is now, soft and sensible".

He adds: "If the Republic of Ireland is fool enough to put a hard border on its side, that is its choice and it bears the consequences. Under WTO, Irish beef will have to compete at world prices. The Irish economy would be the loser, sadly and totally unnecessarily".

The Longworth view is that if the UK takes such a robust stance, "the chances are that the EU would come running for a quick Canada-style trade deal". And even if it didn't, he says, "it would still constitute a better outcome than the one we are currently heading for. There would be some short-term disruption but after that there would be a massive gain".

So, on the gamble that the EU would "come running" and that the disruption would only be limited, and "short-term", he would have us desert the negotiations and trust that things work out.

If this goes on, it would seem that trying for an invisible border will be the least of our problems.

Richard North 22/05/2018 link

Brexit: up the creek

Monday 21 May 2018  

There is a certain amount of wibble going on about Emma Barnett's interview with Barry Gardiner yesterday on the Marr Show, with Barnett standing in for the witless hack who is apparently indisposed.

Gardiner, of course, is Labour's shadow international trade secretary, and he was charged by Barnett to explain Labour's policy on the single market. All she managed to do, though, was conform something we already knew- that Labour's policy is so far lacking in coherence that it gives incoherence a bad name.

Perversely, on the list of transcripts, the date given for the interview is 13 May – last week. This is when Nick Robinson stood in for Andrew Marr, the list thus making it appear as if Barnett and Robinson were co-hosting the show.

I missed the Robinson spectacular last week, which is perhaps just as well. The only thing consistent about him is that every time he opens his mouth, he confirms himself to be a vacuous fool.

Thus, when it was his turn to stand in for Andrew Marr, he interviewed Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney. But there was no intellect at play, We simply had an automaton mouthing questions at an Irish politician, only to demonstrate that he was almost incapable of understanding the answers.

In the early stages of the interview, Coveney reminded the egregious Robinson that Mrs May had agreed there would be no border infrastructure of any kind on the island of Ireland, no related checks or controls.

"That means", said Coveney, "we're not talking about cameras and scanning system and drones here. It means we're talking about a political solution that allows for regulatory alignment in a way that prevents the need for border infrastructure".

One was almost sense the rusty cogs, creaking and whirring in the Robinson brain – a masterpiece of microscopic engineering. The mere utterance of "regulatory alignment" triggers a semi-automatic diatribe, straight out of the BBC Today playbook.

"That", burbles Robinson, "would sound to many people like you're merely restating the hope. Hope one we hope the UK doesn't leave at all. Hope two we hope they stay in the single market. Hope three we hope they stay in the customs union. But the government are not doing any of those things".

One wonders how long the script advisors worked on that one, and how long Robinson had to rehearse the precise wording, but however long it took, the BBC collective spent exactly no time at all on devising anything sensible.

This is, in fact, the first and only mention of the single market in the entire interview, and a clear aberration. But it is only one of three mentions of the term "customs union".

The second comes later in the interview when Robinson accuses Coveney of a lack of flexibility, telling the Irish foreign minister that he sounds "awfully like a man who's saying let's hope the British parliament votes for the customs union which we've always wanted".

However, when Coveney returns to repeat that he wants "the outcome of there being no physical infrastructure on the island of Ireland and no related checks or controls, Robinson leaps on this to imply that he would be happy if parliament voted for a customs union.

At this, Coveney gives up, telling the fool that he's said from the start that we believe if we had a shared customs space or shared customs territory, which would need to be negotiated, that would help to solve a lot of the issues that are stalling these negotiations right now".

And that's enough for Robinson. He's got precisely nothing out of Coveney that we didn't already know, and reinforced in less-educated viewers' minds that the customs union is the issue of consequence.

Now, with a week gone by since Robinson put his oar in, we're no further forward. In fact, we're steadily regressing as the imbecile collective that masquerades as the British media has steady converted the Irish question into one of the UK adopting the customs union.

This culminates in a fatuous piece in the Guardian which has the vile Johnson blathering about he and "his fellow Brexiters" still expect Mrs May to deliver a deal that avoids triggering the "backstop" that would keep Britain aligned to the customs union beyond 2020.

From an issue about "regulatory alignment", which the media never understood – and was far too complicated for their little brains – the "backstop" has now become in the words of Johnson, the "customs backstop" – putting it firmly in the comfort zone of the zombie media.

As copy writers dig themselves in deeper, not understanding the basics, they produce endless gibberish that harbours so many contradictions and infelicities that it can only be a meaningless jumble of words. It is very difficult for the hacks to explain things clearly if they themselves have little understanding of the things about which they write.

Someone who should know different – but doesn't – is Daniel Hannan, now usurping Booker's spot in The Sunday Telegraph, to deliver his own brand of gibberish.

Totally lacking in self-awareness, he complains of Tribal MPs, accusing them of "doing the EU's dirty work". This is an odd charge, given Hannan's attachment to the "Ultras" who are doing more than any other group (apart from the government) to prevent the UK reaching a sensible Brexit settlement.

Never having been slow to parade his ignorance, Hannan generously offers his "take" on what he calls "the preposterous row" about the Irish frontier.

A confident British government, with a united Parliament behind it, he says, could have been both firm and friendly, saying to the EU: "We won't put any hard infrastructure on our side of the line, and we will work with you on any reasonable proposal that will allow you to do the same on your side".

You would have thought that someone who has been an MEP as long as he has might know something about the EU and the way it works. As long as I've known him, though,. he has only ever swanned into Brussels to stay in the most expensive hotel in town, then to have dinner with his Tory chums and collect his expenses, ready to return with his mind as clear of any troubling detail as it has ever been.

This idiot's idea of a "reasonable proposal" is a "comprehensive UK-EU trade deal based on the mutual recognition of standards", something which he takes straight out of the Legatum/IEA playbook. He doesn't have the wit to understand that mutual recognition – in the sense that he describes it – works in the EU only within the framework of the Single Market. This is the very thing he would now have us leave.

The sheer arrogance of this is underwritten by Hannan's closing remarks, where he transfers the blame to parliament for the UK not seeking to implement something that even Mrs May knows is a non-starter. And, having rather taken a shine to the word "preposterous", he uses it again (a sure sign of a sloppy writer), to assert that we have "ended up in the preposterous position of making what happens on the Irish side of the line our responsibility".

At least in this piece, Hannan is not blathering on about "trusted traders" – which is perhaps just as well. The Irish Independent has hired Carol Lynch, a partner in BDO Customs and International Trade, to tell us about the difficulties in acquiring that status.

It is, she says, "a very comprehensive and time-consuming process", taking "six months to prepare an application and put in place the required procedures". Following the application, she says, "it can take another six months to actually obtain authorisation. Due to this you would need to start this process a year before you require authorisation".

This is addressed to Irish readers but, for the UK there is the added fun of trying to get mutual recognition of any UK AEO scheme. This is where the term "mutual recognition" really does bite. For the UK scheme to work in respect of exports to EU Member States, the EU must accept our systems, all of which depend on the exchange of electronic data.

For that to happen, the UK must gain the status of "data adequacy", under the EU's General Data Protection Regulation, something which is by no means automatic and is far from being assured.

In other words, we are still up the creek without a paddle, yet all we get is the prattle of our zombie media, and the inane mouthings of our ignorant politicians. And, to cap it all, a Tory donor is asking us to believe that Mrs May's "incompetence" is deliberate.

I could almost wish that was true.

Richard North 21/05/2018 link

Brexit: betting the farm

Sunday 20 May 2018  

It is instructive to see Tony Connelly revisit last December's Joint Report, produced by the UK and EU Commission negotiators.

In particular, he asserts, the text of Paragraph 49 is coming back to haunt us, the wording apparently committing the UK to maintaining "full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South Cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement".

Connelly has it that UK negotiators are now taking the text as meaning that the whole of the UK would align with the rules of the single market and customs union, precisely so that there would be no difference between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. And, as this sits on the table for the next round of talks, he argues that the implications are enormous.

The big problem with that, however, is that the text is inherently contradictory and, at the time, was never intended as a basis for serious negotiations. The report was merely a device to keep the EU-UK talks moving when, without some form of agreement, they would have collapsed.

Through roundabout reports sometime later, we got the backstory. Essentially, the "colleagues" were concerned that a breakdown would fatally weaken an already weak Mrs May, and perhaps precipitate a change of government, putting Corbyn in the hot seat. On the basis of preferring to work with "the devil you know", Mrs May was given a much-needed "victory" to keep her in office a little while longer.

With the ink not even dry on the Joint Report, we got from an official in the Department of Brexit – via the Irish Times - a savage qualification of what was being termed the "full alignment" Brexit pledge.

The commitment, we were told, applied only to the six areas of North-South economic co-operation identified in the Belfast Agreement. These are transport, agriculture, education, health, environment and tourism.

As opposed to 142 cross-border policy areas identified by Barnier's task force. The official claimed that these were merely subsets of the original six, and insisted that the commitment did not undermine Britain's declaration that it would leave the single market and the customs union.

"It's the six areas. The 142 are a deeper dive across those six areas. The ambition at the moment clearly is to get cross-border trading arrangements to maintain the status quo as much as we can", the official said, adding: "There are a very unique set of circumstances that apply to Ireland that don't apply to anywhere else in the UK. But in terms of customs union and single market membership, the UK as a whole will be leaving".

Nevertheless, the Joint Report paved the way for the Draft Agreement and the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

This offered a legal text which would give form to the Northern Ireland "backstop" which would come into force in the absence of a suitable proposal from the UK government. But, since Mrs May never had intention of adopting this solution, it had her rushing to the barricades declaring that "no British prime minister could ever agree" to it.

With the cabinet unable to agree an alternative, however, and with the proposal discussed already having been rejected by the Commission, this has created a fantasy island situation where the idea of staying in the customs union has been seriously discussed as part of a "third way" solution – even though it cannot make any practical contribution to the Irish border question.

Now, in an attempt to break the logjam and end the attendant uncertainty, later today during its annual dinner, CBI president Paul Drechsler is weighing in with what is styled as a "major speech", declaring that "the current Brexit impasse is a handbrake on our economy that can and must be released".

But so fixated with the non-solution is even the CBI that Drechsler is to "call on both sides" to focus on "a pragmatic decision for the UK to remain in a customs union, unless and until an alternative is ready and workable".

Firmly embedded in the fantasy island alongside the government, the CBI wants any solution to meet four customs tests. It should: maintain friction-free trade at the UK-EU border; ensure no extra burdens are incurred behind the border; guarantee there are no border barriers for Northern Ireland and; boost export growth with countries both inside and outside the EU.

However, doffing his cap in the approximate direction of reality, Drechsler will argue that even sorting out customs will only solve 40 percent of the problem. The other 60 percent, he states, "depends on securing a deep relationship with the single market with urgent attention needed to find a solution for services, which makes up 80 percent of our economy".

Where this 40-60 split comes from isn't disclosed and the idea of having a "deep relationship" with the single market harps back to the days of having our cake and eating it, where the May government was talking glibly of enjoying the benefits of the Single Market without being part of it – something Mr Corbyn is still doing.

At least, though, we're getting some sense that there is more to Brexit than just customs arrangements, something which Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar has been keen to emphasise. This refers back to last week's meeting with Mrs May in Bulgaria. We now learn that Mrs May offered a "verbal, conceptual" proposal on the UK staying within Europe's customs structure, but "no clear shape of how that would operate was presented". And. as always, Varadkar is saying: "We need details in black and white".

What the Irish prime minister also says is that, crucially, consideration for the Single Market that deals with standards and regulations, was missing from Mrs May's proposal. Varadkar was particularly concerned about the "large quantities of animal produce that criss-cross between the two jurisdictions every day".

"Any move on customs would be welcome", he says, "but I think I need to be very clear - that avoiding a hard Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is about more than customs".

This, he adds, he emphasised to Mrs May, giving her the same message, that resolving the issue of avoiding a hard Border requires more than customs. As to a customs deal, he states that, "if the UK is going to make a move in that space then it's something we're willing to examine, but we haven't seen anything yet, nothing in writing".

Despite that, he was unwilling to disclose exactly what the British prime minister had proposed, but he made clear it fell short of Irish objectives on the Border and would not work in a place of the "backstop".

The reluctance of Mrs May to offer any detail, though, has typified her whole approach to the negotiations. Long on rhetoric and generalities, she has never set out in detail what the UK expects of its negotiating partners – although we are now told to expect a White Paper in June, before the European Council.

For all that, one cannot avoid observing that, behind Mrs May's silence is a strong element of deliberation. She has had plenty of opportunities to set out the detail of what she wants, but has never taken advantage of them – other than to talk of the aspiration of a "deep and comprehensive" trading agreement with the EU after Brexit.

One wonders if her real strategy is to run the talks to the wire in the hope (or expectation) that the EU will cave in and give UK traders unrestricted access to Member State markets, with no political strings attached.

To say that this would be a high risk strategy is no exaggeration but, in the absence of anything else from Mrs May, it seems more and more likely that this is the game she is playing – relying on the oft' repeated Tory mantra that "they need us more then we need them".

Yet, even now we have run out of time when it comes to providing the infrastructure required to make a hard border work. Thus, if Mrs May is gambling on an EU cave-in, she is taking a huge risk because there is no fall back on which she can usefully rely.

Here, Mrs May might be wise to take note of the old adage about gambling: never stake more than you can afford to lose. Betting the farm on one wild spin of the wheel doesn't seem the brightest thing she can do.

Richard North 20/05/2018 link

Brexit: the price of ignorance

Saturday 19 May 2018  

A propos
yesterday's post, I was entertained to see an article in The Times yesterday, informing us that BBC listeners "are ditching politics for classical music in the morning", with the flagship Radio 4 Today having shed 65,000 listeners in a year. But I was especially taken by this observation in the paper, which told us:
The Today programme's audience slip comes amid a debate about the show's direction under Sarah Sands, who took over the editorship last May. Ms Sands sought to refocus the programme on "revelation and illumination" with more in-depth features. Some staff have expressed doubts about the prominence given to what she has described as "girls' stuff".
Given the irritating propensity of the BBC of having its journalists interviewing each other (very often repeating what the presenter has just said), and the exponential increase in high-pitched ladies giving their all, we live in expectation of seeing the BBC motto changed and simplified from its current: "Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation". In future, it will read: "Girlie Shall Shriek Unto Girlie".

Back in what passes for the real world, we see a press release from the Department of Transport, announcing "new plans to keep Kent moving during Channel disruption".

In a nutshell, this is an upgrade of the standing plan for "Operation Stack". It will allow traffic to travel in both directions between junctions 8 and 9 while lorries are being queued for the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel. This means drivers can access these junctions, rather than being diverted onto smaller local roads.

There is also to be a contraflow on the northbound carriageway, which will be available for use by early 2019, if there is ever disruption to cross-Channel traffic and lorries have to be queued. Highways England will start work soon on improving the northbound hard shoulder of the M20, to allow for two-way traffic to be contained within one carriageway, enabling the road to remain open.

The Department for Transport is also setting out plans to improve overnight lorry parking, so that fewer lorries will be left on local roads or parked in lay-bys overnight. There are plans from private developers for an extra 1,000 additional lorry parking spaces across the country, which will provide benefits across the UK, particularly in the south-east.

Missing completely from the press release is any mention of Brexit, and it might be sheer coincidence that the news should appear at this stage. But it could be taken as a belated recognition by government that disruption at the ports will occur, and especially at Dover and the Channel Tunnel.

The DfT, however, is not the only organisation making plans. We have also seen reports that a multi-million-pound upgrade to the Port of Grangemouth in east Stirlingshire is on schedule to be finished later this year. This, it is said, should "Brexit-proof" its operations.

The project includes container terminal surfacing work, a new terminal operating system, warehouse development and investment in ship-to-shore cranes. On completion, the port will be able to cater for any additional demands on container storage times as a result of border controls necessitated by Brexit.

Significantly, Grangemouth is Scotland's largest reefer port – handling temperature-controlled containers, principally from the country's fresh food exporters. The use of refrigerated containers has expanded the season for shipping of produce such as potatoes, cheese, fish and seafood to markets across the world.

And it is in terms of imports that we can anticipate substantial growth, post Brexit. As Ro-Ro traffic hits the buffers, it is likely that container traffic will take up the slack but, with the increased handling time, refrigerated capacity will be essential.

Usefully, there is already a Border Inspection Post in Grangemouth, as well as a Designated Point of Entry for some cargoes, both operated by Falkirk Council. These are facilities which are not available at the main Channel ports.

However, if there are moves to deal with surface transport issues – even if they may be inadequate – huge uncertainty remains in the aviation sector, despite the attempts of some pundits to play down the problems.

The latest broadside comes from Henrik Hololei, director general for Mobility and Transport at the European Commission, via Reuters.

Hololei was speaking at the CAPA Centre for Aviation conference in Dublin and told his audience that the clock was ticking and that the effects of Brexit on aviation "could be significant" after 29 March 2019. He added: "The possibility still exists that on day one no flights operate. It hasn’t disappeared".

One of the key problems here, he explained, is that before any negotiations could be done specifically on aviation, or any other sector, the overall framework of Britain’s departure had to first be agreed. The only thing clear, he said, "is that this is a very sad chapter currently being written".

Nevertheless, this candid approach is at odds with the delusional "it'll be alright on the night" stance taken by ministers and many others. There is a strong tendency to believe that, because the consequences of an uncontrolled Brexit are so devastating, that the UK government (or even the EU) will take action to stop them happening.

Doubtless, the UK, the European Commission and Member State governments will be implementing mitigating measures right up to and beyond B-Day, but unlike the appliance, not everything can be washed away at the touch of a button.

Ministers, officials, the media and the public in general will need to come to terms with a unalterable truth that the EU is a rules-bound organisation. This limits its flexibility to respond to Brexit problems, especially as its other trading partners will be watching closely and demanding equal treatment in the event that concession are made to the UK.

There is no point in protesting, therefore – as Willie Walsh, CEO of British-Airways owner IAG, has been doing that some measures will be just as damaging to European interests. In such a high-profile, high-visibility event, we must expect EU institutions and Member States to stick to the letter of the EU law.

Nevertheless, one can quite understand why so many people are having difficulty with this. The cumulative effects on the movement of goods to and from EEA member states, after B-Day, are such that it is very hard for me to suggest anything other than complete stoppage.

The natural reaction to that is denial, but it is not until you deconstruct all the different elements that it is possible fully to appreciate what we're letting ourselves in for.

Re-reading the Notice to Stakeholders on EU Food Law, for instance, it is easy for me with direct professional experience of dealing with food imports, and the broad sweep of EU law, to see the implications of what the Commission is writing. For the BBC "girlies" and the Telegraph or Mail hacks, though, it is a different matter.

Here, one reads that, "as of the withdrawal date, the importation of food of animal origin from the United Kingdom into the EU-27 is prohibited, unless certain requirements are met". The first of those requirements is that the United Kingdom is "listed" by the Commission for public and animal health purposes.

And, as we all know, for the "listing" of a third country, Article 6(1)(a) of Regulation (EC) No 853/200438, Article 11 of Regulation (EC) No 854/2004 and Article 8 of Council Directive 2002/99/EC apply.

Specifically, these provisions set out the procedures required for a third country to obtain a "listing", something which cannot be done until the UK is a third country – which will not happen until we have left. And until we apply for listing and the Commission is formally able to list the UK, " the importation of food of animal origin from the United Kingdom into the EU-27 is prohibited". You cannot get clearer than that.

Furthermore, this does not kick in just in the event of a "no deal". It applies equally in the event that we secure a free trade agreement, and anything short of full application of Single Market measures, through EEA participation.

These are the sort of things that the prattling Today programme should be telling us, rather than Ms Sands giving prominence to "girls' stuff". I would like to think that this is why people are deserting the programme – and the legacy media in general.

Either way, the public is not being told the things it needs to be told, and our idle politicians – even those enjoying the resources of parliamentary select committees – are failing to acquaint themselves with the details. And for that, there will be a price to pay – the price of ignorance.

Richard North 19/05/2018 link

Brexit: shaping up for the fight?

Friday 18 May 2018  

I've got to the stage now where I'm drastically limiting my access to UK media websites. I've completely stopped watching television news and current affairs output and I can't remember when I last listened to the radio. Even in the car, I prefer silence.

The atmosphere is akin to the leaden stillness just before a thunderstorm, when the heaviness of the air is stifling. Everything is on hold, waiting for the absurd political charade to end and the Brexit crisis to break.

And crisis there must be. We cannot continue like this, with the cabinet indulging in endless arguments about fantasy solutions to problems ministers scarcely seem to understand, against a backdrop of idiot politicians who's only contribution to the debate is to share their ignorance and add to the confusion, all egged on by the clamour of white noise from a media which has long demonstrated its almost total inability to report Brexit coherently.

Interestingly, I'm far from alone in deserting the media. Newspaper circulation figures just released present a picture of unremitting gloom, with all but one of the national titles showing a year-on-year decline.

Particularly prominent in the list is the Telegraph. For technical reasons it is showing a drop of 19 percent – nearly a fifth of its entire readership – bringing its average daily circulation to 377,159. This is a newspaper which, as recently as 2002, topped a million copies a day.

Its sister paper, The Sunday Telegraph, which in 1980 topped a million copies for each day sold, crawls in under the wire with a current average of 298,720, down nearly 18 percent on the year. And, although online figures are not published, even these are said to be declining.

It is a truism in the industry, however, that when the political temperature rises (as during general election campaigns), daily sales also rise. With Brexit verging on crisis, the temperature could hardly be higher. But, if people want information on the issue, they are not turning to the legacy media for it. And, if my attitude is any guide, a goodly number who visit their websites are only there to mock, or to remind themselves of how ghastly the coverage is.

That is not to say that the media are entirely useless, but mainly they act as a noticeboard, warning us of developments that need investigation. With stories showing up on a heavily customised Google News, the displayed links, augmented by Twitter and with the invaluable help of readers on this blog's comment facility, we are able to keep track of the ongoing saga, with a modicum of efficiency.

One thing is for certain, we would not have been able to perform as well without access to the Irish media which, despite its limitations, is streets ahead of its UK counterparts. Thus we have the Irish Times from yesterday warning us that patience is running out on the other side of the Irish Sea, with foreign minister Simon Coveney telling his fellow politicians that it would be far better to have a crisis next month, at the June European Council, rather than leave it to October for the big bust-up which, we all know, must come sooner or later.

Coveney, though, is actually striking an optimistic note, arguing that it would be better to address the issues of contention now, which would "give time for any damage to be repaired". On the face of that, it would seem that he still believes that the situation is reparable – something about which I would not be so sure.

That comment came ahead of a meeting between Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar and Theresa May at the margins of an EU western Balkans summit in Sofia, Bulgaria. The meeting, though, does not seem to have produced much for public consumption, other than a picture of stilted figures smiling for the camera (above).

The exact "take" on the meeting, however, rather depends on the media source from which you care to take your opinions. The Irish Post, for instance, offers the line that Leo Varadkar is warning that there is a "serious" chance that the UK will crash out of the EU without a Brexit deal.

This is the man being quoted before the meeting took place though. After the meeting, we have the village idiots' journal, the Express, wibbling about Mrs May giving Varadkar "fresh insight" into what it dignified with the title of "Britain's Brexit strategy".

Varadkar was treated to "new thinking" from British negotiators and the suggestion that they could even offer "new customs proposals" within the next two weeks. This allowed the paper to headline: "Varadkar hints May is ready to accept FULL ALIGNMENT to EU on customs".

A day before this fluff hit the web, we had Denis Staunton, London editor of the Irish Times offer his analysis, telling us that the internal debate (in Whitehall) over customs "bears little relation to existing negotiations with EU".

Much of his piece though attends to the sort of court gossip that journalists seem to find so fascinating, but which bores the average reader witless, contributing exactly nothing to our understanding of the issues.

For all that, Staunton does manage to point out the simple truth that seems to be evading the bulk of UK commenters – that "remaining in the customs union but leaving the single market will not allow for frictionless trade because border checks would still be required to deal with issues such as phytosanitary standards".

Here we have an interesting test. Very often, when a journalist is halfway there (beyond the stage of calling Spitfires "jet" fighters), but hasn't really mastered the subject, he will refer to "phytosanitary standards", not realising that the full group embraces the rather more clumsy "sanitary and phytosanitary standards", the one applying to animals and products of animal origin, the other to plants and products of plant origin.

For this, though, though Mr Staunton has an "elegant solution". He would have us extend the proposed backstop - which would allow Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union and parts of the single market after Brexit - to the whole of the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, we are told, Brussels "will resist such a move", on the basis that Northern Ireland is only being allowed to cherry-pick the single market because of its special circumstances. The UK as a whole would be expected to adopt the whole of the Single Market, or nothing.

All this depends, of course, on which bits of the Single Market is being considered, but even Staunton fails to understand that there is far more to the Single Market than simply regulatory alignment. But then, anyone who suggests that suggests, as he does, that the EU enjoys "seamless trade" with Switzerland, really hasn't got a grip. Denis has been in London too long. He needs to come home.

Despite that, if we stay in London (spiritually), one can hardly avoid bumping into the Guardian, which has Mrs May denying the claims made in yesterday's Telegraph that she is preparing for Britain to remain in the customs union after 2021. We are not climbing down, she says. The UK will be leaving the customs union, we are leaving the EU. Of course, she adds, "we will be negotiating future customs arrangements with the European Union".

But what really keeps the paper hard in the fray is a trenchant editorial. Like Varadkar – and so many of us – it is losing patience, remarking that there was a time, perhaps, when the government's ineptitude over Brexit was almost funny. But, it observes, there is nothing funny about it now. It continues:
For 15 months Theresa May has groped her way towards an approach that could reconcile her party's Europe-loathers with her party's Europe-pragmatists. All too predictably, none of her efforts have succeeded. Mrs May now has a month before the June European council at which the UK and the EU are due to review progress. She has five months before some kind of deal is struck. Progress? Deal? These words have lost all meaning. Getting two pandas to mate in captivity turns out to be a cinch compared with getting the Conservative party to agree what it wants.
Lefty rhetoric aside, the tone of this piece is getting perilously close to real journalism – not at all what we expect from the legacy media. But then, if one ignores the entire Guardian commentariat, we might have to concede that, occasionally, the paper stumbles on old-fashioned journalistic values, even if it is only as a last resort.

It's current offering is enough to underscore what has been blindingly obvious for some long time – that Brexit has become so much of a plaything between warring Tory tribes, that the protagonists have completely lost their (always slender) grip on reality, and have launched into stratospheric fantasy. Having exceeded escape velocity, there is no certainty that they can ever get back down to earth.

The same, however, goes for the media. Shorn of the high-flown headline rhetoric, The Times report of the Varadkar-May meeting differs little in substance to that of the Express. Supposedly, a "breakthough" is in the air.

Giving the game away, though, Varadkar says of May's "new thinking", "We haven't been able to get any detail". Clearly, May is no Thatcher, a prime minister who was always conscious of the fact that the devil was in the detail. And it is the detail in Brexit that we have always lacked.

Without this detail, we have nowhere to go. There is nothing yet to relieve that leaden feeling of an overcharged atmosphere. But when the fight finally comes, it will be a relief.

Richard North 18/05/2018 link

Brexit: not even at the starting gate

Thursday 17 May 2018  

The purpose of the current Brexit talks being conducted within the Cabinet are, we are told, mainly concerned with how the UK is to avoid a "hard" border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

So far, the entirely fruitless discussions have been focused on two options, the so-called "customs partnership" and the "maximum facilitation" plan, neither of which would secure free movement of goods across the border, or be acceptable to Brussels.

But, in her desperation to avoid the "backstop", which would inevitably involve a "wet" border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, it seems Mrs May has come up with a stunning "third way" alternative.

In order to keep the goods flowing, the prime minister - we are told - is ready to tell Brussels that the UK is prepared to stay in the customs union beyond 2021.

By such means, the UK will stay aligned to the customs union, to allow the "highly complex technology needed to operate borders after Brexit" to be procured and installed, processes which are said to take until 2023 to complete.

What is absolutely staggering here – if the report is correct – is the belief that continued membership of the customs union will in any way facilitate the free movement of goods across the Irish border and thereby avoid the need to set up a "hard" border.

This appears to rest on the continued perpetration of error of confusing the "customs union" with "customs cooperation ", two entirely separate concepts which rest for their authority on distinct parts of the Treaty of the European Union (Chapters 1 & 2, respectively, of Title II).

Confirmation that this error is at the heart of this initiative would seem to rest with Telegraph claiming that remaining in a customs union would keep the whole of the UK within the EU "customs territory" for a temporary period, avoiding Northern Ireland being under a separate regime.

This in itself is a mistake. For a start, the European Union itself is based upon a customs union. That much is written into the treaty, so the only way the UK can remain in the customs union is to stay in the EU. In fact, the UK will leave the EU on 29 March 2019 and, in so doing, will leave the customs union.

Thus, what is actually meant is that the UK will adopt all the regulations pertaining to the customs union, but without actually being in it. But this is largely what the UK has said it intended to do through what was originally known as the Great Repeal Bill.

As to the "customs territory", this is not defined by the customs union, per se. Rather, this is defined by Regulation (EU) No 952/2013 (Article 4) - the Union Customs Code Regulation. As a formally defined area, this embraces much more than just the customs union – it also takes in the internal market.

As such, the "customs territory" does not define the customs union, any more than the customs union defines the customs territory. It actually defines the area to which the Union Customs Code (UCC) applies. That is the common administrative code which defines customs procedures applicable to the Union as a whole, administering the application of the customs union and the import and export of goods to and from the internal market.

Thus, for the UK to remain within the customs territory, the EU would have to amend or extend the application of Regulation 952/2013 (and all the related regulations) to ensure continuity of application. But, the UK would no longer be in the EU and therefore outside its jurisdiction. One can only imagine therefore, that the provisions would be carried through in the formal Withdrawal Agreement.

If this looks complicated, that's because it is. One has to recall that no country has ever left the EU under the Article 50 process so everything is being tried out for the first time. And there will be plenty of work here for the lawyers to define the precise legal structures. Even then, that will not necessarily guarantee that they will withstand scrutiny if the ECJ comes calling.

The upshot of all this though is that the best we can get from the application of customs union rules, and the relevant parts of the UCC, is that we will have a tariff-free border, with no rules of origin (ROO). But that in no way ensures free movement of goods. As we know, that only comes with full participation in the Single Market, requiring regulatory alignment and much else.

In other words, conformity with customs union rules do not solve the "hard" border problem. We need much, much more.

Right up front is our old friend, conformity assessment. When we drop out of the EU, none of our Notified Bodies will be recognised and any goods requiring third party testing will no longer have valid certification.

Unless by the time we leave, there are Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRA) on conformity assessment in place, any goods requiring third party certification will require re-testing before they are permitted to circulate freely within the Single Market.

There is no point in asserting that this testing can be done "beyond the border". In the immediate aftermath of Brexit day, Union customs officials will need to be in their guard for a torrent of goods which previously was entitled to free passage and will then be prohibited access until complex formalities have been complied with.

Not only will this include the general range of manufactured goods, but also chemicals, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics, vehicles and their components, aircraft and their components, and much else. Even waste which we export to some EU countries for treatment or recycling will be caught in the net.

This will necessarily mean an enhanced level of document scrutiny, a massive rise in load inspections and huge quantities of goods detained for testing and certification. All of this is untouched by customs union provisions, as are the sanitary and phytosanitary checks, which must be carried out in approved facilities which, at present, do not exist.

Where Mrs May thinks she is going with this, therefore, is beyond understanding. Nothing on the table, now or previously, addresses the "hard" border issue.

Yet, perversely, if Mrs May took the time out to look at the EEA Agreement, she would see that Article 10 makes provision for the prohibition of "customs duties on imports and exports, and any charges having equivalent effect" – exactly what be achieved through application of customs union rules.

With the adoption of the EU's WTO schedules of tariffs, and continuity arrangements on third country trade agreements, that has the effect of maintaining the common external tariff, while we are only limited on making deals with other countries of we adopt the common commercial policy (which is not part of the customs union.

If ROO issues arise, there is provision for dealing with these in the 34-page Protocol 4 of the EEA Agreement, which could be amended to suit specific UK requirements.

Customs cooperation is arranged through Protocol 10 and Protocol 11 of the EEA Agreement, and conformity assessment is dealt with in Protocol 12.

Together with the Annexes, and especially Annex I on veterinary and phytosanitary matters, there is in the EEA Agreement much of what is needed to ensure free movement of goods. Add to that your "maximum facilitation" and you have the makings of a plan which would give us an invisible border.

And in all that, the customs union is a complete irrelevance. If Mrs May genuinely thinks that adopting customs union rules is going to get her out of the hole she has dug for herself, then she has reached the nadir of comprehension. In all her period in office, she has learned nothing and knows nothing.

We are not even at the starting gate.

Richard North 17/05/2018 link

Brexit: EEA lies

Wednesday 16 May 2018  

Not content with the ignorance-driven confusion driving discussions about the EEA, we now have the likes of Brexit Central (aka "Ultra" Central) resorting to the lie direct.

In this endeavour, they rely on Hjörtur J. Guðmundsson, an Icelandic citizen who calls himself a historian, to assert that being in the EEA through membership of Efta is an "arrangement" which was "originally designed by Brussels to prepare countries for becoming part of the EU".

Guðmundsson thus claims that The EEA Agreement was "in fact the predecessor to the pre-accession program which Brussels later mainly designed for countries in Eastern and Southern Europe". He further claims that "the EU floated the idea in the 90s to use the EEA Agreement not only to prepare EFTA/EEA countries for joining the bloc but those countries as well". But, according to Guðmundsson, this was rejected by the Efta countries.

What is seriously disconcerting about the way that these claims are presented is that Guðmundsson does not trouble us with anything like evidence, even though the medium of online publishing provides ample opportunities to reference supporting material through the use of hyperlinks.

However, resort to real evidence adequately demonstrates that what became the EEA originated from an initiative taken by the Efta member states. The starting point is generally taken to be the summit in Vienna of 13 May 1977, where the members expressed a need to develop trade and economic co-operation with then EC on a "pragmatic and practical basis". The text of the communiqué can be read here (from p.51), with the key paragraph 4 starting at the bottom of page 53. 

This much was set out in an admirable paper published in 1993 by the Directorate General for Research in the European Parliament, with Niels Kristoffersen as the lead author. The document, as with many others, is easily accessible on the internet and an excellent starting point for any serious student of the EEA, not least because it references and thereby identifies what are clearly the key documents relating to the establishment of this organisation.

The Vienna Summit communiqué, almost by itself is sufficient to demonstrate that the EEA was an Efta initiative, but the more one reads, the clearer this becomes. But from the European Parliament report (more than adequately referenced to primary sources), we learn that, following the Summit, there was a series of bilateral talks between the EC and each of the then Efta countries, through which cooperation was extended in many fields not directly within the scope of free trade agreements (FTAs) already in existence.

However, although several arrangements were concluded, "the EC and the Efta countries were not fully satisfied with the way in which cooperation was unfolding". During celebrations of the tenth anniversary of the FTAs, this led to a joint declaration the EC Council, the European Commission and the Efta Council that there was between them the political will for strengthening the cooperation between the parties.

This culminated in the Luxembourg Declaration of 1984, the text of which is available on the Efta website. It is not exactly difficult to find.

The declaration arose from a meeting at ministerial level between the EC and its Member States and the Efta states, held on Monday 9 April 1984 at the Kirchberg European Centre, Luxembourg (pictured). Stressing the very special importance the participants attached to relations between the Community and the EFTA countries, Ministers sought to "lay down orientations to continue, deepen and extend cooperation within the framework of, and beyond the Free Trade Agreements".

While the Commission responded positively in May 1985, it had reservations on what was to become the core issue, noting that: "Community integration and the Community's independent powers of decision must under no circumstances be affected".

Nowhere in the documentation, therefore, does one get any sense that the then EC is coercing the Efta states to join, or that the ground is being prepared for them to join the then EC. The publication of the Commission's response, in COM(85) 206 final, not only confirms that what was to become the EEA was an Efta initiative, but it also shows a cautious Commission, hedging the enthusiasm with a series of caveats.

Not least of these, the Commission stated that: "It will only be possible to progress towards achievement of a wider European market if the costs and benefits involved are shared equally". It then declared: "Measures taken in parallel must involve real reciprocity".

A month later, however, the Commission published its White Paper on the completion of the internal market. And it was this that set the tone for the subsequent talks for it was this, more than anything else, which had Efta states worried about marginalisation and trade diversion effects from a more developed EC market.

Despite this, progress was not rapid, again indicative of a certain of caution on the part of the Commission. Even the establishment of a High Level Group. To negotiate and manage further cooperation, by 1988 the Efta states were expressing "disappointment" at the incomplete progress, with the observation that the EC has become "more and more sceptical about bilateral cooperation with the Efta states".

The breakthrough, however, was not long in coming when, on 17 January 1989, Commission President Jacques Delors gave what was described as a "visionary speech " to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

Referring to "our close Efta friends", he suggested "a new, more structured partnership with common decision-making and administrative institutions to make our activities more effective and to highlight the political dimension of our cooperation in the economic, social, financial and cultural spheres".

Then, "not forgetting the others who are knocking at our door", he referred to Mikhail Gorbachev's notion of a "common European house", which had been articulated as early as 1987. As an alternative, Delors offered a "European village", in which he saw a house called the "European Community". "We are its sole architects; we are the keepers of its keys", he said, "but we are prepared to open its doors to talk with our neighbours".

This was exactly what the Efta states wanted to hear. On 14-15 March 1989, they responded with the "Oslo Declaration", declaring their readiness "to explore together with the EC ways and means to achieve a more structured partnership".

What then intervened in a series of meeting was the cataclysmic and unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 – to be followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the newly liberated Soviet satellites of central and eastern Europe in flux, their relationship with the EU yet to be defined, Delors changed the shape of his original offer to the Efta states, removing the prospect of joint decision-making.

My personal view is that the EES structure was so attractive that the former Soviet satellites would find this more attractive than full membership of what was to become the European Union. And Delors, with his eye on his own legacy, wanted the "big bang" – the largest of the successive enlargements in the history of the Community.

This untested theory begs a very logical question. Why, if Delors had in mind the EEA as institution "to prepare countries for becoming part of the EU" did he not bring in the former satellites at this stage, rather than submit the EU to the most traumatic enlargement it has ever experienced? In my view, had he done so, they might never have joined the EU, the alternative – as it clearly was – providing those former satellites with everything they needed.

Either way, the point is that the development of the EEA is extremely well-documented, with most of the primary sources easily accessible on the internet. There is no need to make unsupported assertions and, on an issue so important, there is no excuse for it.

Any dispassionate review of that evidence could only allow the conclusion that Guðmundsson, in asserting that the EEA is a pre-accession "ante-room", is wholly wrong. Yet this man calls himself a "historian". He has no business commenting on the history of the EEA without knowing that history.

Nevertheless, a gentle interpretation of Guðmundsson's efforts might allow for the conclusion that he is simply mistaken in his assertion. But this is also a man who has written a lengthy report on why "the EEA is not the way" for the UK, in which he devotes 1,500 words to the thesis that the EEA was "designed as a waiting room for EU accession".

Yet, in this lengthy treatise (about the same length as this piece), not once does he refer to or rely on any of the primary sources to which I refer. His main official reference is to a neutral European Parliament briefing note which provides no support for his thesis.

One could be charitable and suggest that the work (and its "mistaken" conclusion") is simply the fruit of shoddy scholarship. But Mr Guðmundsson only seems write for outlets with a particular agenda, and his work always supports that agenda.

In such circumstances, shoddy work lends support to the lie. And, if one takes the Jesuit concept of the lie, as encompassing the act, default or omission, one can only conclude that Mr Guðmundsson is a liar. And that is the way the "Ultras" seem to work – by perpetrating the lie, and repeating it at every opportunity, they make their case. 

We should have none of it.

Richard North 16/05/2018 link

Brexit: EEA myths

Tuesday 15 May 2018  

Today, at an Open Reason event in Essex, writes Simon Jenkins in the Guardian, a tri-party trio of Miliband, Nick Clegg and Nicky Morgan (pictured) "are seeking to advance the cause of a version of the customs union/single market called the European Economic Area (EEA), as enjoyed by Norway".

This surely has to represent the nadir of legacy media reporting when an former editor of The Times can blithely make such a huge mistake in writing for a national newspaper. But it represents not only alarming ignorance on the part of the man but also the system - which supposedly includes fact-checking sub-editors - which allowed the error through unchecked.

Had Jenkin wanted to check, he could always have read the paper he used to edit, which has an article about the EEA. It manages to get one thing right, in declaring that Efta members (of the EEA) are not in the customs union.

That said, The Times piece's arrogance represents much that is objectionable about the legacy media as its title asserts: "Brexit: everything you need to know about the European Economic Area" - a cover for trotting out the usual quota of errors and misunderstandings, telling us very little of what we actually need to know.

For instance, the paper asserts that EEA membership would enable the UK to continue to participate in the single market and "this would allow, for example, a chocolate manufacturer in Birmingham to continue selling its goods across Europe with no new checks on its produce".

It is interesting that – doubtless unwittingly – the paper has picked on a product which may be based on a food of animal origin (milk) and is certainly of plant origin. Imported from the UK with the status of a third country, this would be problematical, requiring checks to be made either a Border Inspection Post (BIP) or a Designated Point of Entry.

As it stands, Norway (and to an extent Iceland) is exempt from these checks, but this exemption does not come automatically by virtue of EEA participation. It requires additional sectoral agreements incorporated in Annex 1 of the EEA Agreement. Liechtenstein does not share the exemptions and it has adopted the Swiss legislative code.

Thus, for The Times assertion to be true, the UK would need to trawl through the hundreds of provisions in Annex I, making amendments as necessary, to ensure that we fully participated in the single market for animals, products (including foods) of animal origin, plants and products (including foods and things such as timber) of plant origin.

This underscores something that I doubt any single paper has picked up – and has passed by most of the EEA enthusiasts – that the EEA Agreement is not a single homogenous treaty but a series of detailed bespoke agreements tailored to the three Efta members.

This has advantages and disadvantages. The obvious advantage is that (potentially) we end up with a bespoke agreement, tailored specifically to UK requirements. It will not be the "Norway option" that we adopt but the "UK option", a subset of the Efta/EEA option.

Furthermore, unlike the EU treaties, the EEA Agreement is extraordinarily flexible and can be amended with ease. This is because of the remarkable structure of the Agreement which takes on board EU law by amending the treaty and incorporating it into the treaty text via the annexes. As such, the treaty is amended as many as ten times a year, the changes agreed respectively by the EEAS on behalf of the EU and the individual Efta/EEA states.

Thus, there is no question (or need for) a "once and for all" agreement, as will be the case with the Withdrawal Agreement under the Article 50 provisions being discussed in Brussels. We can keep going back for as long as the EEA Agreement is in force, adding specifics to it via the protocols and the annexes.

As to the downside, this means that the Efta/EEA Agreement is no quick fix. Apart from the need to rejoin Efta – which is by no means certain and will take some time – we then will have to do a line-by-line analysis of the EEA Annexes, making sectoral and country-specific adjustments as necessary.

We will also need to negotiate country-specific protocols, most definitely on mutual agreement of conformity assessment, on customs cooperation (which would include mutual recognition of Authorised Economic Operators), on rules of origin and on agriculture and fisheries. We might also tuck into Protocol 15, adding our name alongside Liechtenstein, to extend control of freedom of movement to the UK on its own negotiated terms. That would remove the need to invoke Art 112.

This, though, is not the end of it. As with the decision in the EU-US Air Transport Agreement, which allowed Norway and Iceland to join EU-US open skies deal, we see provisions for the EU to fold Efta/EEA countries into international agreements, without having to negotiate separate agreements.

Such provision have their own upside. Much of what is currently being negotiated for inclusion in the Withdrawal Agreement and would also have to be the subject of further negotiations, can be managed through the far less demanding process of the EEA Agreement, using the existing institutions of the EEA Council and the Joint Committee.

Such subtleties, however, are way beyond the scope of a legacy media which has yet to understand the difference between the customs union and customs cooperation.

As far as The Times and its "everything you need to know about the European Economic Area". All it can cope with is the Janet & John version of EEA, telling us that, "if the UK were to remain in the EEA it would have no power to control EU migration, a key reason why many people voted to leave in the first place".

In addition, it says, "while countries such as Norway are obliged to follow new EU laws that relate to the single market they have no formal say in setting those rules. This, critics argue, would make the UK a rule-taker and warn that in the end it would only be a matter of time before the EU proposed a rule that was unacceptable to UK national interests".

What is entertaining about The Times, though, is that it opens its piece with the claim that, "Before June 2016 even European political afficiados (sic) only had a hazy idea about what the European Economic Area was but Brexit has changed that". Bearing in mind that Flexcit was first published in 2014, and we are nothing if not political aficionados, this is the classic arrogance of the beast, where nothing exists until it has discovered it.

Between them all, though, the legacy media seems to have learned nothing about the EEA, remaining locked into the same tired clichés that they have been trotting out for years. To its overweening ignorance, however, the Financial Times adds irony as it calls on its readers to "make informed decisions" and "become an FT subscriber".

It then cheerfully tells us that "EEA membership would mean the UK retaining full access to the EU's single market but making financial contributions and accepting most EU laws. Free movement would also continue to apply". Not only has this paper learned nothing, it seems incapable of learning anything.

Pete has had a go on Twitter - a vain attempt to educate the ignorati. But we are largely dealing with a community which is convinced it already knows everything and needs to learn nothing. It is beyond redemption.

That's the worry of it all. We have an option here which solves most of the immediate problems of Brexit, and would set us fair for a longer-term solution. But it is a solution about which most the media know terrifyingly little, and most of what they think they know is wrong.

It is also a solution where even most of its advocates don't fully understand it, and where some of its supporters have ulterior motives, wrongly believing that EEA participation keeps us closer to the EU and would make it easier for us to rejoin at some later date.

That encapsulates another pernicious myth – that the EEA is the "ante-room" for aspiring EU members. Like so many, this myth persists even when the reality is the exact opposite. The EEA was devised for those European counties which wanted strong trading relations with the EC (as it was then), but did not want to buy into the full political integration package.

From the original proposal of a European Economic Space, it emerged as the EEA, complete with safeguard measures to compensate for the lack of voting rights, and serves to this day as an alternative to EU membership – offering precisely what so many Eurosceptics sought.

If we leave the EEA, that means deserting the Single Market. And as, I point out in Monograph 15 we have nothing to gain from leaving it. We have even less to gain from leaving the EEA.

And yet, there is still room for optimism. Says Peter Hitchens, s tiny gleam of light in the endless, swirling, flatulent fog of the European debate: The possibility that Britain may remain in the European Economic Area, so getting rid of three quarters of the EU's laws, while not madly damaging its trade with EU countries, is still just about alive.

One day, he concludes, people will realise what a good idea this is.

Richard North 15/05/2018 link

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