Brexit: getting absolutely nowhere

Wednesday 21 March 2018  

"You pays your money and you takes your choice". The saying, incidentally, was used by Mark Twain in 1884, at the end of chapter 28 of ''Huckleberry Finn".

Applying it to the modern day, you can read the BBC and it will tell you: "Swedish expert offers post-Brexit Irish border solution". The gist of the story is that, according to customs expert Dr Lars Karlsson, there is a technical solution to keeping an open border in Ireland after Brexit.

Go to the Belfast Telegraph and you will get much the same story: "No physical border possible, customs expert tells MPs". This is a reference to Karlsson's evidence to the European Union Committee yesterday. It is possible to have no physical infrastructure on the Irish border after Brexit, he says, but only if the political will exists in a best-case scenario.

But, if you end up with the Irish Times, you get a different spin. The headline declares: "Post-Brexit Border unlikely to be frictionless, Swedish expert says". And this time we have Karlsson conceding that "crossing registration and CCTV" – required for some versions of his border scheme – are "too much" for some.

For the sake of completeness, though, this is the option preferred by Snake Oil Singham, who endorses Karlsson's report written for the European Parliament in November 2017, with the somewhat wordy title: "Smart Border 2.0 Avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland for Customs control and the free movement of persons".

Says Singham: "It will be hugely beneficial to have a bilateral border process in operation, as is the case in the Norway/Sweden border, and as described in the 'Smart Border 2.0' report for the European Parliament by customs specialist Lars Karlsson".

And, of course, Karlsson, president of KGH Border Services; Former Director of the World Customs Organization and Deputy Director General of Swedish Customs, is the expert. He has that perfect combination of a gold-plated cv, years of experience and all the prestige you could ever ask for.

But he is also the classic example of the narrow subject specialist, so constrained by his own discipline that he is totally blinkered, knowing nothing of the world outside his domain. As a result, although he delivers his evidence with enthusiasm, confidence and enormous authority, when it comes the Northern Irish border, his report is of next to no value.

What is extremely unhelpful about his work is that it looks at the customs issues, reflecting his blinkered approach to the subject. He is, after all, a customs specialist. But, despite the manifest inability of so many to appreciate the reality, there is a great deal more to border controls than just customs.

Not least, and by no means exclusively, there are the all-important "official controls" covering the movement of animals and foods of animal origin – the so-called sanitary controls, requiring veterinary inspection at Border Inspection Posts (BIPs). Fish and fish products also come under the official controls, requiring a separate breed of food inspector to monitor them.

Separately, there is the huge raft of phytosanitary controls, from plant health certification, to the monitoring and certification of timber products – including the ubiquitous pallets used to transport goods – and foods of plant origin: fruit and vegetables, but also nuts, spices, cereals and much else. Throw in animal feed and you have a huge range of goods, most of which must go through what are called designated points of entry.

Yet, in Karlsson's report, you will see is only one, incidental reference to phytosanitary requirements, no reference to sanitary controls, not a single reference to border inspection posts or designated points of entry, no reference to the EU's "official controls" and no mention of veterinary inspections.

As we well know, by far the greater proportion of vehicle inspections are required for sanitary and phytosanitary purposes, respectively in Border Inspection Posts and Designated Points of Entry, where presentation is mandatory before the goods can be submitted for customs clearance. The system is entirely separate from customs, and their officials take no part in the process.

In his report, Karlsson takes a special look at the Sweden-Norway border, offering the border control system as the starting point for a more comprehensive system. Using the best of available technology and systems, grafted on to the Sweden-Norway system - he believes we would provide a frictionless border between the two Irelands.

But, with the focus entirely on customs, he fails to take into account that both countries are in the single market, one in the EU and the other and Efta/EEA state. Both adopt internally the "official controls". Therefore, neither country treats the other as a "third country" and there is no application of official controls at the border, and no requirement for phytosanitary controls.

Nor are these minor or incidental omissions. Karlsson is clearly out of his depth. In his evidence to the select committee yesterday, he talked about "trusted trader" schemes to deal with agriculture. In slightly more detail, he tells the Irish Times that: "Checks under sanitary rules, a key regulatory area for agricultural trade, could be covered under the trusted trader arrangements".

Clearly, the man has no knowledge of non-customs systems. The AEO "trusted trader" certification is a customs system and has no bearing on sanitary or phytosanitary issues. The EU does not operate a preferential access system to BIPs and DPsE and, under WTO rules, they are required to give access on the same terms, in a non-discriminatory manner, to all third country users.

Then, crucially, this does not get past the central problem that the facilities do not exist at present and, should they be provided, they would constitute hard border infrastructure, confounding the pledge to avoid this. The very requirement means that there will be a hard border.

Mind, if Karlsson gets it wrong, he is not alone. Shanker Singham, the self-appointed expert in all things to do with trade, goes spectacularly off the rails, drivelling about mutual recognition (of both regulations and conformity assessment) for meat products and animals, ignoring completely the existence of official controls.

At the stroke of a pen, so to speak, Singham invents his own private, unique world where over fifty years of community legislation and the entire food control acquis disappears in a puff of smoke, miraculously paving the way to a frictionless border.

Failing this, he asserts that that the EU "has a formal Mutual Recognition Agreement with New Zealand that lists a number of sanitary measures in animal health and animal derived products where the parties have agreed recognition of equivalence, and associated reductions in border checks".

He also assets that "CETA also includes a protocol in similar terms". In Singham's miraculous little world, therefore, for the UK and EU "it would be reasonable to expect, at least while the respective regulations are still harmonised, to recognise not just the regulations but also the testing and enforcement regimes and thus avoid the need for controls at BIPs".

Here, for a start, Singham confuses the entirely separate concepts of "mutual recognition" and "equivalence". In terms of errors, this is akin to a car mechanic looking for the carburettor in a car fitted with fuel injection. It is a rookie mistake which rules out any claim to expertise. This is a man who simply has no idea what he's talking about.

For sure, the EU and New Zealand have an agreement which allows for "the progressive recognition of the equivalence of sanitary measures", but that in no way exempts imports of New Zealand produce from being presented at BIPs. They must go through the system just like produce from any other third country.

For sure, New Zealand enjoys a reduced inspection rate, as low as one percent for physical inspection of lamb carcases. But, as I explain here, that is a special situation.

Lamb is considered to be low risk, and a "high purity" inspection system apples to New Zealand produce, something that few UK abattoirs could replicate. And, with their more complex disease patterns and involvement in a wider range of zoonoses, such low inspection rates would never apply to cattle and pigs.

Thus, when Singham asserts that "CETA also includes a protocol in similar terms", he is just plain wrong. Canada "enjoys" inspection rates of 10-15 percent, against the normal requirement of 20 percent. And all produce has to go through BIPs.

But, God help us, this is what represents state of the art knowledge amongst the chatterati. Whether Karlsson or Singham, you have the blind leading the blind, spectacularly misleading spoon-fed MPs who haven't the wit to find out for themselves that they are being led astray.

And it doesn't even stop there. Even in Karlsson's specialist area, he gets it wrong. In assessing customs requirements, he takes no account of the fact that inspection frequency is based on risk assessment - a legal requirement under the UCC. He only makes one reference in his entire report to risk assessment. But what needs to be considered is that the Swedish/Norway border is a very stable, longstanding system, where the parameters are well understood.

With a new border between the north and south in Ireland, in the absence of experience and a lot of new systems in place - with plenty of people prepared to exploit any gaps - the border might be considered high risk - and for some years. Therefore, assessments of rates of customs inspections might be grossly under-represented, as is the resource requirement.

But if we can't get past these basics, there is no hope us. In the hands of the ignorant, any idea of sensible planning goes out of the window. We are looking at fantasy worlds that simply don't exist, with the debate going round and round in circles – getting absolutely nowhere.

Richard North 21/03/2018 link

Brexit: what you see is green

Tuesday 20 March 2018  

If, for my first stage of Flexcit, I had written up the transitional agreement currently on offer to the UK government, it would no doubt have elicited exactly the same responses we're now getting from the "sell out" merchants.

They've been squeaking all over the internet, and for very much the same reasons for which they were originally complaining – the vassal state schtick they said was the problem with the "Norway option".

Now they are getting the "pay-no say" scenario that they thought they were getting but were not. And they haven't a leg to stand on. Having sabotaged any attempt to get a sensible resolution, they're lumbered with their own worst nightmare. If it was just them getting what they deserved, the current mess would be worth it.

As it is, when Jacob Rees-Mogg and others board a boat and pass by Parliament throwing fish into the Thames in protest at the alleged "sellout", as they are promising to do, we might pray for a nautical disaster which has him following them into the Thames.

Ironically, the price we will have to pay for the "transition" that Rees-Mogg has done so much to bring about is a settlement of the Irish question. That bill remains unpaid. The cannery has been kicked down the road again, with no proposals forthcoming from the UK government.

The best the "ultras" can offer is stunningly ill-informed drivel from Snake Oil Singham (now of the IEA), technically illiterate, strewn with errors and false assumptions. Needless to say, it is given pride of place on the "ultra" noticeboard CapX - but as long as this sort of stupidity is given house room by the chatterati, there is little hope for us.

Inevitably, nothing of Mr Singham's stupidity will have slightest impact on the Commission. And, in the absence of anything sensible there looms the infamous "backstop" whence, "the negotiators agree that a legally operative version of the 'backstop' solution for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, in line with paragraph 49 of the Joint Report, should be agreed as part of the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, to apply unless and until another solution is found".

This is the 'backstop" that a certain Mrs May dismissed as "completely unacceptable", saying that "no UK prime minister could ever agree to it". It could, she said, undermine the UK common market and threaten the "constitutional integrity" of the country by creating a new customs barrier in the Irish Sea.

But, not only has she caved in and is dumping Northern Ireland by apparently accepting something unacceptable, fishing also gets the "sell out" treatment. Had this travesty been proposed the day after the referendum, it would have been rejected out of hand. But now, it is been lauded as a "success" by our Brexit minister.

We have got there by a process of attrition. A totally unprepared UK government has fed its negotiators into the Brussels grinder, the outcome of which was as predictable as sending raw troops over the top to face German machine guns in the first battle of the Somme.

However, even the BBC in its TV news bulletins noted that M. Barnier had gone out of his way to point out that, "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". The General Affairs Committee gets its bite today and then there is the European Council on Friday, which will probably rubber stamp the draft agreement. And then we're back on the treadmill.

Despite that, the idiot Davis is drooling that we've taken a "decisive step" towards a Brexit settlement. Yet, can it really have escaped his attention that the Irish question was there at the beginning, and is still there?

That reality is not going to conceal the drama of M. Barnier's presentation yesterday, where he stood in front of a backdrop and proudly declared: "What you see is green". From where he stood, you could hardly see the white – the areas where agreement has not been reached. And white, for this day, was Ireland.

If it's reality, you're after, though, cut to the Independent. It has Jonathan Powell asserting that Mrs May's handling of the border question could bring the entire Brexit negotiation "crashing down". He accuses her of committing "the worst possible sin" of having "boxed herself in". Her Mansion House speech had "not solved the substantive problems" and, in his view, "her problems on Brexit may only just have begun".

Right on cue, the Belfast Telegraph reports UUP's Nicholson saying that the backstop option for Brexit is "unacceptable", a position that will never change as long there is one Unionist MP left standing.

The Scots, on the other hand, are wound up about fishing rights. Reuters tells us that the SNP has called the current deal "a sell-out" and a Conservative MP has warned that it would be easier "to drink a pint of cold sick" than sell it as a success.

That is where it is going to get interesting. Mrs May will come back from her "triumph" in Brussels on Friday but, on the following Monday, will have to face the Commons with her report. It is unlikely to be a "frictionless" passage.

Yet, the delusions persist – and doubtless will continue. From the very start of her tenure, Mrs May has evaded reality, made worse by being surrounded by second-raters who are trapped by their own stupidity. It seems impossible for her to break out.

When it comes to the crunch, that has been the problem all along. This is not a society that can handle expertise, or one that has any respect for knowledge. And when a snake-oil salesman of the calibre of Shanker Singham can be taken seriously, his influence reaching to the the very heart of government, we are in very serious trouble.

Even now, though, there is still time to take a different route. It is unlikely that it could work under this prime minister, though, so it is time for her to go. She has already secured her position as the worst premier this nation has had to suffer in living memory, so has nothing to gain by staying on.

If by some miracle she was deposed before the current deal is separated, a new prime minister could perhaps go to Brussels and ask for an extension of time, sufficient for us to set a new course in the direction of Efta/EEA. But for that to happen, much of the dead intellectual wood surrounding the government needs to be put to the torch.

Therein lies the real problem. If the prime minister is the pinnacle of stupidity, she rests on a huge base which will be almost impossible to shift. The rent-seekers have lodged their positions and are not going to give them up easily.

Nevertheless, reality will eventually have its day. Whether on 29 March 2019 or some time later, the UK will become a fully fledged third country, whence all the stupidity will be exposed for what it is. A shock to the system is inevitable and it can hardly be less than profound.

Out of the wreckage, perhaps, we might be able to salvage something, and start again. But until the stables are cleansed, we'll not be seeing much more of the "green" of which M. Barnier was so proud.

Richard North 20/03/2018 link

Brexit: descent into chaos

Monday 19 March 2018  

If it is fair to say that few in industry and commerce have any real idea what will happen on the borders with EU Member States on day one of Brexit. And if uncertainty prevails in the private sector, one can be pretty certain that most government agencies will also be in the dark.

Quite what the situation will be, in terms of what can be exported to the EU, and what can't, no one at this stage actually knows, and there is no means of knowing. Much will depend in the first instance on whether a transitional period is agreed, and the nature of any agreement - with the devil very much in the detail.

The best case scenario, from the viewpoint of exporters, is a status quo transition where we carry on much as before. This basically kicks the can down the road, turning Brexit day into a non-event as far as the export of goods goes. Only when the transition period expires will we have to deal with a new set of rules to deal.

As to the worst case scenario, that will arise in the event of "no deal". Either by accident or design, we will go into Brexit day with no administrative agreements between the UK and EU Member States, relying on what is called the "WTO option".

Here, there is something of a definition problem as a "no deal" can be graduated. We could, for instance, have a basic agreement on tariffs – and possibly one on VAT – but not very much else. But, until we're faced with the details, there is no way of defining the precise impact on our exporters.

A similar pall of uncertainty hangs over our importers. Ironically, the self-same WTO rules on which the "ultras" are so keen to rely will require that goods coming into the UK from EU Member States are treated in exactly the same manner as goods from third countries. Grayling's idea of a check-free border on the UK side is fantasy.

What is being given far less attention than it should, though, is what is going to happen on the other side of the Channel (and the Irish Border) on Brexit day, in the event of a no deal. And there, if possible, there is as much uncertainty as there is over here.

But if that is an issue in its own right, there is a further complication arising from the unique situation where neither side is fully aware of what the rules are. With very few exceptions, border rules have been built up between nations over a long period, with major changes phased in gradually, sometimes over a period of years.

It is that, more than anything, which keeps the system working – the fact that it is populated by people on all sides of the fence who know the rules, know what they are doing and are used to working with each other.

Now, take a day-one scenario where the UK, literally overnight, becomes a third country. As far as officials in EU Member States go, in the absence of a deal between the UK and the EU, the UK will suddenly cease to exist. The UK as an EU Member State, accessible on all the EU databases, will no longer be there. And inclusion on third country databases is not automatic – nor uniform in respect of different sectors and products.

For certain products, such as medicines, there are very rigorous rules relating to market authorisation, and UK pharmaceutical manufacturers have been warned (by the EU) to transfer their authorisations to EU-based entities in order to keep trading on or after Brexit day.

But, in the nature of things – and not least because there will be some delays before the European Medicines Agency can sort out all the transfers – by Brexit day, some UK exporters will have acquired EU-based market authorisations, and some won't.

Now put yourself in the position of an official in Calais on Brexit day, confronted with a truck carrying several different types of medicines, packaged for retail distribution. What would the previous day have gone through unchecked will now have to be stopped. The paperwork will have to be checked to determine to the products carried and whether the market authorisations are valid.

The trouble is that the documentation may or may not have been updated. In a stable, long-standing system, officials might rely on everything being correct but, where such huge changes have been made, it is possible that not all the details will be correct. Documents, therefore, will have to be carefully scrutinised for errors.

Obviously, medicines which are not correctly authorised will not be admitted. In a mixed load, they will have to be removed and returned to the UK – or the whole load must be rejected.

However, the complications are only just starting. Permission to market medicines rests not only on the authorisation. The manufacturing plant has to be officially inspected and certified as conforming with the guidelines for good manufacturing practice (GMP). Then, each batch must be certified by a Qualified Person (QP) as conforming with statutory requirements, before it can be released for sale.

In the absence of mutual recognition agreements (MRAs) on GMP and conformity assessment – which would be the case in the "no deal" scenario – then any products manufactured in the UK would have to be rejected, even if they carried a valid market authorisation, current in an EU Member State.

The complication now is that many medicines are produced in bulk in one plant and then shipped to others for various levels of packaging. Tablets, for instance, may be blister packed in one plant and then inserted into retail outers in another. Thus, our hapless official will have to check further to see whether the product was made in the EU and just packaged in the UK. And even then, if GMP requirements apply, the medicines will have to be rejected.

Probably, to be on the safe side, all medicines coming over from the UK will have to be rejected. That, at least simplifies the jobs of the officials. They will just need to keep a look out for any vehicles carrying medicines. They will have to be intercepted and returned to the UK. That will also apply to vehicles seeking to cross into the Republic of Ireland.

The worst of it is, though, though, that the complications not stop there. For a considerable number of medicines, the market authorisation holder is in the UK, while the product is manufactured in a number of sites elsewhere.

The authorisation for the beta-blocker Bisoprolol, for instance, is held by Sandoz Ltd, in Frimley, Surrey, but it is manufactured only in Germany, Ireland, Slovenia and Poland. Many other medicines have a similar profile. For many of these, even though they cross no borders, it will not be legal to sell them in EU countries.

And all this is just one sector. One presumes that a company marketing nuts and bolts for general engineering use will be able to market their goods in the EU. But if they are intended for use in vehicles, and (especially) in aviation, export may not be permitted. Vigilant border officials will have to check loads to ascertain the intended use of multi-use parts.

Any number of manufactured goods, which require third party certification, will also have to be intercepted and rejected, and it goes without saying that animals and foods of animal origin will not be permitted entry. Even the pallets on which goods are shipped may be rejected if they have not undergone the correct timber treatment.

What we are dealing with here, therefore, is potential chaos. Thousands of vehicles each day, crossing over to EU states will have to be checked, and possibly thousands returned to the UK until shippers get used to the new rules, and know what to avoid.

And this is the reason why we cannot countenance the so-called WTO option. The WTO only sets the frameworks – the detailed rules are made by the EU and they also have to be obeyed, or the products will be rejected. And your customs systems can be as "streamlined" as you like. If products don't conform, all that means is that they are sent back quicker.

Yet, nothing of this is getting through. We see recently the Brexit Committee report on the progress of the UK's negotiations on EU withdrawal. It paints a gloomy enough picture, but it's only scratching the surface, calling the wrong witnesses and asking them the wrong questions.

Even worse, we get to hear of a secret report from government that says our customs system will not be ready in time for the start of the new relationship with the European Union at the end of 2020. That assumes we get a transition deal.

The longer we leave it, of course, the better prepared in some respects we shall be. But such is the volume of change that its sheer extent will defeat any measures to prepare for them – always accepting that the resources are available. EU member states may be reluctant to commit those resources. The chances of them being ready on time are virtually nil.

Gradually, therefore, we are descending into chaos. This is unavoidable. The only thing we can influence is the degree.

Richard North 19/03/2018 link

Brexit: a respite from Putin

Sunday 18 March 2018  

Of all the things that the UK might want to do as an independent nation, freed from the obligation to shadow EU foreign policy, picking a fight with Russia was probably not at the top of the list. But if we are going to take on Russia, it would be best if we understand what we're taking on.

Some interesting insight into this comes in Booker's column today when he recalls his visit to the Soviet Union in 1980 to cover the Olympic Games.

Sitting in Moscow, as the capital of the largest country on earth, at a time of high Cold War tension over the invasion of Afghanistan, it became obvious that Russia saw itself ringed on all sides by enemies, all along its thousands of miles of frontier from Nato Norway in the west to China in the east. It was a country gripped by an intense sense of paranoia.

The charge sheet against Russia in recent years may be long, from Putin's ruthless suppression of dissent to saving the Assad regime in Syria. But the one disaster the West has never understood was one entirely of its own making.

On this, there is a public figure who correctly read the crisis erupting over Ukraine in 2014. That was Tony Brenton, our ambassador to Moscow from 2004 to 2008. He recognised only too clearly that the trigger for that shambles was the hubristic desire of the West to see Ukraine, the historic cradle of Russian national identity, absorbed into the EU and Nato.

The crisis was set off by the coup whereby one corrupt but pro-Russian ruler of Ukraine was replaced by another willing to sign the agreement leading to Ukraine's EU membership.

Thus, the response of the Russian-speakers of eastern Ukraine and Crimea was wholly predictable. They wished to be ruled by their fellow Russians in Moscow rather than by some mysterious, alien bureaucracy in faraway Brussels, and were prepared both to vote and to fight for it.

They were, after all, confronting the question of why people with such a fierce sense of national identity should want to become part of an empire deliberately set up to eliminate national identity. Yet, to this day, the West remains powerless to do anything about it except make indignant noises of protest at the ineluctable consequences of its own actions.

Some understanding of this psychology might have helped inform our response to the poisoning incident in Salisbury, where finger-wagging condemnations were only going to elicit one, very predictable response.

That we are now in a confrontational situation, with the wall-to-wall coverage given to President Putin, is doubly unfortunate. Says Booker, it is diverting attention from the possibility that this week may see the near-breakdown of what have been billed as "the most important international negotiations Britain has been involved in since the Second World War".

It is now four months since David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, assured MPs that all our difficulties with the EU would be happily resolved at "the 59th minute of the 11th hour". That moment has now arrived.

The European Council meets this week to consider its "draft withdrawal agreement", still without any sign of resolution to the impasse that could prevent negotiations continuing.

The key as ever is the Irish border, which, for trading purposes, the EU insists will have to move to the Irish Sea, to protect the "integrity" of its single market, but which Theresa May insists no British prime minister could possibly accept.

To narrow it down still further, as Booker explained in February last year, just after Mrs May announced that we were to leave both the single market and the European Economic Area (EEA).

Following this blog, he reported on the disaster looming over the arrangements whereby the multi-billion-pound racing industries of Ireland, Britain and France can move racehorses between their countries to race or for sale without any hindrance.

The moment we leave, as the EU again warned on 27 February of this year, these arrangements, mandated by directive 2009/156, will lapse. As with so much else facing Britain's trade with our largest export market, up will go complex (and in the case of racehorses, prohibitive) border controls.

Last week's Cheltenham Festival, the highlight of our racing calendar, could be the last but one where those all-conquering Irish horses can appear (although "transition" might allow one more in 2020).

At least in that respect people will finally see the kind of thing we are letting ourselves in for by choosing to become a "third country", not just outside the EU but also the wider EEA (where, to avoid all these difficulties, we could have chosen to remain).

But this of course is only a small part of the story. This week seems likely to mark the moment when the "irresistible force" of Brexiteer wishful thinking collides with the "immovable object" of those implacable EU rules. And, by the way we have chosen to play it, this could be the moment when any further meaningful talks with the EU are at an end.

That, at least, was the situation when Booker left it, his column going to press on the Friday. But since then, we've had further talks in Brussels at official level and there are to be face-to-face discussions between M. Barnier and David Davis on the Monday. The leaves open the possibility that there will be a last-minute compromise that will keep the show on the road.

Perversely, one factor which could work in the UK's favour is precisely the situation which has been dominating the headlines for nearly two weeks – the Salisbury poisoning. More or less obliged to show solidarity with the UK, to avoid a public rift with a Nato ally, the Europeans may be disposed to apply temporary patches to the cracks in the Brexit agreement, and kick the cannery down the road to the June European Council.

According to The Times, what may be on the cards is the device of a political declaration on the transition. This will be provisional and still dependent on full implementation of the "Irish protocol" in the draft withdrawal agreement. Sources suggest that both sides are confident that a deal will be brokered.

As it stands, if there is no closure on the withdrawal agreement there will be no transition agreement. There cannot be a transition agreement on its own. But is some sort of accommodation isn't reached, then the Brexit negotiations come screeching to a halt on Friday.

However, the "colleagues" have far too much invested in their current stance to give much away on a permanent basis. Not least, there is Mr Tusk's credibility. If they give ground on the transition period without settling the Irish question, they will seriously weaken his authority. And in the EU, such things matter.

What could get everyone off the hook, for the time being is the one being mooted in London – the possibility of extending the negotiations past the two-year period, and then adding to the transition period. This is being suggested by the Brexit select committee, to the chagrin of committee member Rees Mogg, which itself is sufficient to commend it.

Without a fundamental shift in the UK's position, though, this can only be seen as an attempt to stall. It does not solve anything in its own right. Either Mrs May's government will have to solve the problem of how to ensure Ireland has a "soft" border, or it's game over. And if that is to be the case, many would prefer it to be sooner rather than later.

But in all this, there is something we've never really factored in. If it is going to take time for the UK to prepare for Brexit – which indeed it is – the same will apply to the remaining EU Member States and the institutions. There may be less political opposition to the idea of an extension than we first thought.

That notwithstanding, to my mind it was touch and go as to whether the talks collapsed this coming Friday. It will be hugely ironic if Putin's Russia is the immediate factor which takes the heat off. But if the respite is only temporary – then it must be, then all we've managed is to stay in the frying pan, while toasting our feet in the fire.

And maybe it will be too much to expect the headlines to recognise the real reason for any delay in execution, but I will be looking for that single line on the coming Saturday which declares: "from Russia with love".

Richard North 18/03/2018 link

Brexit: a gap too great to bridge

Saturday 17 March 2018  

As he was incautious enough to say it to camera, we saw our foreign secretary on TV last night declare that it was "overwhelmingly likely" that the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, personally took the decision to use a nerve agent to attempt to kill the former double agent Sergei Skripal on UK soil.

"We think it overwhelmingly likely that it was his [Putin's] decision to direct the use of a nerve agent on the streets of the UK, on the streets of Europe, for the first time since the second world war. That is why we are at odds with Russia", Johnson said.

This means that a UK cabinet minister has personally accused the president of another sovereign state of attempted murder, "attempted" only in the sense that no one has yet died.

It is not in any way possible that Johnson can have any evidence to support such a claim and, should he have had it, the place to make such a charge was not in the centre of a Battle of Britain museum display, as he played with the artefacts.

This lacked the necessary gravitas and was wholly inappropriate. Should good evidence exist, then the proper place to air it would have been the despatch box in the House of Commons. A far better person to have made any charges would have been the prime minister.

In that Mrs May has not moved swiftly to disown her foreign minister's statement, we must assume she supports his action, demonstrating that, with Mr Johnson, she is not fit for office. One need not refer to the Russian response. Such an action on the part of senior officers of the Crown displays an unacceptable lack of judgement.

Yet, not only will these people remain in office – without the stinging rebukes that their action (and inaction) deserves - they are at the heart of our Brexit planning and delivery, and demonstrating the same dismal level of judgement in the execution of these tasks.

And to add to Mrs May's dereliction – which goes far beyond the normal level of incompetence to which we have become accustomed – is yet another sin of omission, this one to remain silent after yesterday's absurd statement by Chris Grayling, another of her cabinet ministers.

As we recorded yesterday, he told a BBC Question Time audience that: "We will maintain a free-flowing border at Dover, we will not impose checks at the port, it is utterly unrealistic to do so. We don't check lorries now, we're not going to be checking lorries in the future".

In a situation which is difficult enough for businesses which have to plan for Brexit, this is equivalent to smacking a ten-ton boulder into a quiet boating lake on a balmy Sunday afternoon. In its own specific area, it points to a lack of judgement of the same order of magnitude as we got from Johnson.

Unsurprisingly, Grayling's intervention has triggered a response from a number of MPs. In a letter to Mrs May, they have observed that the comments were "not a serious solution to how to manage the border post-Brexit".

In all, 29 MPs have signed the letter, including former shadow cabinet ministers Chuka Umunna, Heidi Alexander and Chris Leslie, as well as fellow Labour MPs Rushanara Ali, Stella Creasy, Tulip Siddiq and Liz Kendall. But, in so doing, they display a not much better grasp of the issues than the minister they criticise.

For instance, they declare: "It is extraordinary that a government that says it aims to ‘take back control’ now admits it is not even going to try to control the transfer of goods across our borders, in the event we leave the customs union", thereby demonstrating that they have no clear understanding of the role of a customs union, or the function of the Single Market.

The worst of it though is that the letter carried the letterhead of the Freight Transport Association (FTA), with the principal signatory deputy chief executive, James Hookham.

Rightly, he says that Grayling would have us "open up the UK's borders to potential abuse and breaches" and that the UK government would be unable to stop any new checks being imposed on the French side. He then avers that Grayling "seems to have forgotten that borders have two sides, and the UK cannot dictate what happens to freight when it reaches French customs".

But, in a subject where the devil is in the detail, he then goes on to say that: "Mr Grayling cannot speak for the French customs authorities, which will be required by EU law to undertake a percentage of physical checks on cargo such as fresh produce or medicines from a nation outside the EU, which is what the UK will become".

The correct term is "third country" and one wonders why it isn't used. And in asserting that a percentage of physical checks is required by EU law on cargo such as fresh produce or medicines, Hookham has got it wrong. He is conflating the "official controls" on animals and products of animal origin with other measures where there are no specific requirements. Generally, the frequency of inspection is decided by Member States on the basis of risk assessment.

And, of course, the official controls are not the responsibility of customs. Once again, we see a failure to distinguish between different parts of the system – crucially important in this case, as the inspection of foodstuffs will require the infrastructure of Border Inspection Posts, with a lead time of many years.

One would expect people such as Hookham, on the front line, to get such things right. But like so many in industry, as in politics, their knowledge is skin deep. Worryingly, they seem unconcerned by their own ignorance and show no willingness to remedy it.

But when we have yet to see a single journalist display anything like an adequate grasp of the issues, it is unsurprising that there is no effort to get things right. A media which is content with any old tosh will get precisely what it expects. Every time a journalist dips in to the subject, we see woolly, incomplete and superficial attempts to describe the problem, but none of them ever get near.

So we had yesterday the self-important Faisal Islam, flooding us with factoids to the extent that he ends up confusing himself and any readers incautious enough to rely on him.

The SOP for journalists – typified by the likes of Islam – is to interview a number of talking heads and aggregate their ignorance to provide a narrative which will fill the allotted space. They (the journalists) have no means of judging the veracity of that they are told because they have no knowledge of their own or understanding of the issues.

In this case, Islam relies on Christopher Snelling, also of the Freight Transport Association – the "go to" source with sufficient prestige for Channel 4's needs. Describing the "no deal" scenario, he tells us: "any goods going through will have to have checks, anything that is food or livestock or medicine will have even more checks on standards and health and all of that will be massively disruptive to businesses and consumers in Britain".

To know that this is not wholly correct, all you have to do though is read the EU law or, to make it simpler, there are now 47 Notices to Stakeholders which set out the position. And, as we have written so many times, the immediate problem won't be inspections but marketing authorisation.

As with meat and meat products (and animals), until the UK is formally approved and listed for export, there will be no movement of product at all. Any which is attempted will be returned or destroyed.

One really has to ask what it is going to take to get this through to politicians and the media. But an insider view of the government system is not at all encouraging.

The entire mandarin system, we are told, does not understand the law or ever read it. Even (or especially) senior civil servants do not understand the primacy of process in the way the EU does business - internally and with third countries - and we are being treated as a "soon-to-be third country".

Not only are these critical mistakes, with potentially dire consequences, we have a class of mandarins that do not even know what they don't know. They neither know where to look nor how the thing really works from the inside, and do not have anyone left who does. The other side is, as a consequence, shredding them.

Dominating the Whitehall tree of ignorance, is an overwhelming arrogance, imbued with an untouchable confidence that "we know best". They will not know they have been taken apart until it's too late, putting us in a bad state, politically and bureaucratically. We need some serious people. But they are in perilously short supply.

As for the media, we have a more complex dynamic. Because they've all started out on the wrong foot, they don't want to admit their errors or the paucity of their earlier reports. And if they start now flagging up BIPs as a major issue, that opens them up to questions as to why others haven't been flagging up the problem (as in the trade or select committees). No one wants to be first.

I've spoken myself to a lot of the trade people and their knowledge is distressingly limited. They have never experienced the regime pre-EEC/Single Market and have no conception of it. And they don't know the law. Everybody glibly talks about EU rules, but nobody actually reads them. Asked by journalists to describe the system, they convey not information but ignorance, And if they have sufficient prestige, the journalists lap it up uncritically.

Another problem is conceptual. The journalists (as well as the rest) equate border controls with customs controls. They simply don't get it that customs are only a tiny part of the system. But knowledge of the rest of the system is minuscule, Their ignorance is profound and the knowledge gap is too great to bridge. They will have to find out the hard way.

But, for their ignorance (and lack of judgement) – be it Russia or Brexit - it is us who will have to pay.

Richard North 17/03/2018 link

Brexit: the poison chalice

Friday 16 March 2018  

I do hope that the people who so approve of Mrs May's new brand of justice are never in front of a jury where the rules that seem to apply to Russia also apply to them.

Meanwhile, the distraction has paid off. Brexit has almost disappeared from the media, leaving a rump of disjointed stories and not a hint of a unifying theme. The low-key negotiations between officials in Brussels have scarcely been reported and the latest version of the draft withdrawal agreement has slid into the public domain with minimal comment.

This is an upgrade to the document we reviewed on 1 March – the one that had proposals on Ireland that had Mrs May declaring that no prime minister could ever accept them.

And while, apparently, there has been a little bit of give and take on the transition period, the blue touch paper issue of Ireland is essentially unchanged. It still remains for Mrs May to deliver up her alternative to the Commission or put up with a "wet" border. But, as Mr Putin has just found, our prime minister doesn't do alternatives.

Thus, on the basis that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, two weeks have achieved precisely nothing. The new draft has been issued in time for it to be circulated to the 27 Member States, so we can take it that this is the version which will go to the European Council.

But when Mrs May goes to Brussels in a week's time, in order to attend the first day of the Council, you can bet that Russia will be on top of her agenda. And, if the media take their cue from her, Brexit will barely get a look in. That will leave the Council meeting as 27 to spend the next day on the issue. They will probably spend more time on it in that one day than Mrs May has in the last month.

As well at the withdrawal agreement, though, they will have the latest set of draft guidelines on the framework for a future relationship with the UK to approve. These haven't been formally published yet, so we might get some media interest when copies are officially available. But there again, they might not.

David Davis himself is due to go over to Brussels on Monday – his first visit since Christmas – but there seems little he can do, and there is nothing specific on the table for him to approve. And his boss has already ruled out any movement on Ireland. However, there will be a press conference with Mr Barnier, so we may glean something of the situation from their comments.

This will be the same day as the meeting of the General Affairs Council. Assembling in EU27 format, it will discuss the draft guidelines. This is effectively, the formal approval, preparatory to the European Council meeting which will rubber stamp the GAC decision.

The Salisbury poisoning aside – which has given Mrs May the perfect excuse to ditch Brexit for a while – there seems to be a new tone to the mood music. The UK government as a whole is giving every indication of having lost interest in the negotiations. There is a smell of fatalism, where everybody seems to be waiting for the outcome, powerless to affect it.

On the other hand it could be that cabinet members have no idea what is waiting for them. Even last night, we had Chris Grayling, Transport Secretary, asserting that there would be no post-Brexit lorry checks at Dover. Under no circumstances, he said, would the UK create a hard border.

This was on that grave of souls, the BBC's Question Time, where he roundly declared that "We will maintain a free-flowing border at Dover, we will not impose checks in the port. We don't check lorries now, we're not going to be checking lorries in Dover in the future. Absolutely clear, it cannot happen.

Nearly two years since the referendum, it is hard to believe that a cabinet minister could be so blithely ignorant of the realities – but then Grayling is a Tory. Since Mrs May has ruled out continued participation in the Single Market, a hard border is inevitable. But if the man thinks we can get away without one, then there is no surprise that he is not concerned about the lack of progress.

We see the same litany being churned out by other ministers, and a pervasive belief that the EU will open its borders at the last minute and let the goods flow. This "eleventh hour" resolution is certainly one to which David Davis has referred, and perhaps he genuinely thinks that Mrs Merkel will come to our rescue, just to keep German cars rolling towards Britain.

Strongly bolstering that fantasy is the assertion that since the UK is already fully compliant with EU law, there should be no new barriers to trade once we leave. The nuances of EU requirements, such as the obligation in so many cases for businesses to be established in the EU, and the requirement to meld with the entire EU "ecosystem" simply passes these people by.

Likewise, Tory ministers have convinced themselves that their "frictionless" border in Ireland will be a practical proposition. Thus, whatever anyone says, there is no real expectation that there will be any problems. Everything will be alright on the night.

Currently, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee is warning that Mrs May's pledge of no hard border can only be achieved if the UK "remains aligned with EU rules" for the foreseeable future. There is "no evidence", it says, of a technical solution to allow Northern Ireland to break free from the customs union and single market without the return of border posts and checks.

However, there is very little likelihood that this report will be taken seriously. Select committee reports come and go. Most are hardly worth reading. None seem to have any lasting impact.

With a strong strain of delusion, which reaches right to the top, you can see why Barnier and other EU officials are struggling to get their message though. Their warnings are dismissed as "project fear" or simply not believed. We may get another taste of that from Davis on Monday as he radiates complacency when he should be in a state of panic.

Everything, however, still hinges on the Irish border question. At the European Council, Mrs May is expecting to put the transition agreement to bed and Davis is confident that a deal will be struck. One of the key lubricants is that the EU is to drop its opposition to Britain signing trade deals during the period.

He seems to be forgetting Tusk's ultimatum though – that there can be no progress until the Irish question is settled. And it's there that the Irish Times injects a note of caution.

The paper retails that UK optimism that the Council will endorse an agreement on the transition period "may be premature". This comes from the famously anonymous "EU diplomatic sources" who are raising questions on the details and also on the broader issues of the withdrawal agreement. Crucially, the Tusk doctrine seems to be prevailing in that there is reluctance to separate out discussion of the transition deal from the withdrawal agreement.

As long as the EU insists on linkage, the UK is actually going nowhere. And while UK ministers may choose to ignore the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee report, the Commission will almost certainly take note of its views that technical solutions are not feasible.

That leaves an increasingly edgy business community that is finally beginning to realise that the government may not be able to deliver on a smooth transition. Thus does Sir Charlie Mayfield warn of "Brexit inertia" within companies that is "undermining efforts to improve British business performance".

"Undoubtedly, one of the great issues with what we're facing with Brexit is that it is causing a further sense of [inertia] and causing an impact on productivity — at least on confident investment in the future", he says. "There are good reasons why businesses are hesitating".

Not very much longer, one suspects, and hesitation will be translated into action as those companies that can will bail out and look to solutions outside the United Kingdom. That in itself may force Mrs May to focus on something more than Mr Putin, and fracture the delusional state within the Tory ranks.

While there is still the "Salisbury obsession", Mrs May can play, but soon enough there will be another poison chalice waiting for her, and it will not be filled with Novichok.

Richard North 16/03/2018 link

Salisbury: alternatives galore

Thursday 15 March 2018  

With eight days to go before the make-or-break European Council, which could seal the fate of the Brexit negotiations, the issue has virtually disappeared from the media and the politicians have spiralled off into their own fantasy over the Salisbury incident.

As we try to make sense of this, we see the issue attracting its own quota of conspiracy theorists, polluting the pool of information on which we must rely.

But, it is an ironic thought that, when it comes to conspiracy theories, the most pervasive and damaging of these, perhaps of all time, was perpetrated by the UK and US governments. This was the one that had Saddam Hussein's forces equipped with WMD, and the means to deliver them outside Iraq.

Since that time, it would be a very naïve person who would uncritically believe either government on claims relating to WMD and, before sanctioning or accepting the need for any action in respect of them, one would expect to see a high standard of evidence.

In this case, however, Mrs May has not delivered anything like good evidence to support a claim that the Russian state was behind the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter. Furthermore, the case she has made is flawed, with demonstrable errors.

To assert this is not to "defend Russia", as some have accused me of doing. As to whether there was Russian state involvement is a question I cannot address and have not attempted to answer. But then, that is not the issue.

The key question is whether Mrs May has made in public a credible case for taking action against Russia. Clearly, she has not. Furthermore, she does not claim to rely on information that has yet to be revealed. She has stated her grounds in public and it is on these that she relies.

Latterly, her government asserts that the attack fits into a pattern of behaviour "in which Russia disregards the international rule-based order, undermines the sovereignty and security of countries worldwide and attempts to subvert and discredit Western democratic institutions and processes".

That, however, seems perilously close to a "usual suspects" doctrine, relying entirely on circumstantial evidence. This is not something that a prosecutor would rely on in a court of law. And why, one might ask, when there is so much as stake, should anything less be required of the UK government?

Thus, the most rational thing we seem to have heard yesterday was from Mr Corbyn's spokesman, who said the history of information from UK intelligence agencies was "problematic" and refused to say that the Labour leader accepted the Russian state was at fault.

The spokesman told reporters: "The government has access to information and intelligence on this matter which others don't. However, also there is a history in relation to weapons of mass destruction and intelligence which is problematic, to put it mildly. So, I think the right approach is to seek the evidence to follow international treaties, particularly in relation to prohibitive chemical weapons".

The Labour leader had been given security briefings on the incident. Asked if Mr Corbyn believed Russia was responsible for the attack, the spokesman said Mrs May continued to leave open the possibility that Russia had lost control of the nerve agent.

When it came to Mrs May's statement to the House, however, the prime minister took the view that the Russian government had provided "no credible explanation that could suggest that they lost control of their nerve agent" and "no explanation as to how this agent came to be used in the United Kingdom".

Further, she said, there was no explanation as to why Russia has an undeclared chemical weapons programme in contravention of international law. Instead, she declared, "it has treated the use of a military-grade nerve agent in Europe with sarcasm, contempt and defiance".

What came then was the death of logic. There is extremely good and undisputed evidence to suggest that Novochok was produced at the Uzbek plant, in an area where the Soviet Union lost control in the early 90s. It is also the case that we are dealing with a binary agent, where the precursors can survive lengthy storage.

It is an entirely tenable scenario, therefore, that tradable quantities of the agent have been on the market for decades, accessible to non-state actors without the knowledge or intervention of the Russian (or any other) state.

As an a priori hypothesis, this is just about as credible as any, allowing for any one of a number of diverse nefarious groups to acquire and use the this agent for their own purposes – and inexpertly at that. This did not have the hallmarks of a professional "hit".

Yet, for Mrs May, there was "no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable for the attempted murder of Mr Skripal and his daughter, and for threatening the lives of other British citizens in Salisbury, including Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey". This, she said, "represents an unlawful use of force by the Russian state against the United Kingdom".

What in fact, her statement represented was either a failure of imagination or a determination to close down her options before even starting to evaluate them. And, as an intellectual exercise, if you play this game, it is inevitable that you end up with "no alternative conclusion".

Nevertheless, there are other views as to whether a Russian state attack on the Skripals was credible. From Peter Hitchins, for instance, rehearsed reasons to doubt the obvious explanation, citing Ben Macintyre of The Times.

"Various aspects of the supposed attack on Sergei Skripal are distinctly odd and refuse to fit into an accepted pattern of Russian espionage activity", Macintyre wrote, pointing out that no power has ever before killed a spy that it has swapped. To do so was dangerous, probably fatal, for future exchanges. Why would anyone do such a deal with you, if the exchanged spy was then likely to be killed?

A similar exposition can be found from Séamus Martin in the Irish Times, while Estonian MEP Yana Toom tells us that Russia obviously had no operational interest in Skripal, who was convicted in 2006 and deprived of his military rank, who was pardoned in 2010 and then exchanged. She added:
Even if we presume that the Russians have gone irreversibly crazy - which specifically is what one is attempting to convince Europeans of - and are an embodiment of irrational evil, a demonstrative poisoning with Russian poison a week before the Russian presidential election would be idiocy.
If Special Services wanted to kill someone, they would leave no trace, Toom said. "And a task like this is more than accomplishable in London - it is not the most peaceful city in the world", she noted. "Leaving so many traces was possible only when done for a specific purpose. And I can't think of any that would be beneficial for Russia".

The idea of the Russian Special services descending to that level of incompetence is perhaps beyond imagination, but clearly, it does take precisely that – imagination – to help us through the maze.

That was what was so stunning about yesterday. We saw a House of Commons, braying and bleating, with perilously few exceptions, united in its conviction of Russian guilt. It not only lacked imagination, barring Corbyn, there was hardly a sentient thought to share between the MPs. It wasn't a legislature we were watching. It was a lynch mob.

And this is the body that feels qualified to decide on Brexit. We are living in truly desperate times.

Richard North 15/03/2018 link

Brexit: the lion, the witch and the wardrobe

Wednesday 14 March 2018  

With UK tanks poised to roll over the Russian border (not), European Commission president Jean-Paul Juncker has been in Strasbourg, talking about that all-but-forgotten subject, Brexit – and future EU-UK relations.

By way of a reminder, he told us that, 349 days ago (as of yesterday), on 29 March 2017, the UK notified the European Council of its intention to leave the EU. In 381 days, on 29 March 2019 at midnight, the UK will have left the EU.

From the earliest days of these "unique and difficult negotiations", he said, "our objective has always been, and will remain, to achieve an orderly withdrawal from the United Kingdom, in its own interest and that of the European Union".

Although you would not think it from the level of media coverage in the UK, or even the activities of our politicians, Juncker went on to say that, with "every day that passes the urgency to meet all the conditions necessary for such withdrawal is greater". This urgency, he added, should inspire us all, the European Union and the United Kingdom, to act with method, pragmatism and transparency.

In a way, though, this is a rather generous appraisal. Give that David Davis hasn't visited Brussels at all this year, the greater urgency is to get the UK to act at all.

As it stands, the proposed text of the withdrawal agreement is with the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. Once agreed, the final draft will be transmitted to the UK as a basis for negotiation, reflecting "the unity of the 27 Member States of the European Union and its institutions".

Said Mr Juncker, "I would have preferred that the British had not decided to quit. But those who leave the European Union must honestly say what that means. If you want to leave four decades of joint agreements and solutions behind you, you have to accept the responsibility that everything cannot stay as it is".

It was obvious, therefore, Juncker told MEPs, " that we need more clarity from the UK if we are to reach an understanding on our future relationship". With one year to go, he said, "it is now time to translate speeches into treaties; to turn commitments into agreements; broad suggestions and wishes on the future relationship to specific, workable solutions".

And then it came to Ireland. Both the UK and the EU had agreed that the Good Friday Agreement must be preserved in all its dimensions. And life for citizens on both sides of the border should be the same as it is today.

Juncker then went through the options, remarking that the "backstop" solution would only apply if the other options did not materialise.

Therefore, he said, the Draft Protocol on Ireland should not be surprised or a shock. It translates faithfully last December's agreement into a legal text. And on this, the EU, the Parliament and 27 Member States stood "firm and united when it comes to Ireland". For us, he said, "this is not an Irish issue. It is a European issue".

Echoing Mr Juncker was Monika Panayotova, the minister representing Bulgaria as holder of the rotating presidency of the Council of Ministers. "Even though in the last fourteen months there has been a succession of speeches outlining the UK view on the future of our relations, we still need more concrete and more operational proposals", she told MEPs.

"At the same time", she added, "there are no indications that the UK red lines have changed since last year". To Panayotova, this explained why the draft guidelines due to be adopted by the European Council were not more detailed. But she was hopeful that the lack of detail would "provide the political space for broader dynamics in the negotiations with the United Kingdom".

As far as I recall, that's where we left it last week – or was it the week before that? In Brexitland, even though the clock is ticking, time has stood still. Revisiting what the "colleagues" have to say is like walking through the wardrobe to spell-bound Narnia, the land of perpetual winter.

The only slight glimmer of progress come from The Sun. In what it calls an "exclusive", it is telling us that Mrs May's "war committee" has agreed to climb down on its position on Britain's borders closing in 2019. It is now agreeing to extend unconditional free movement with the EU until 2021.

However, in the hard world of Brussels, the place to which David Davis never goes, it appears that nothing else has changed. The "colleagues" are refusing to make any concessions on the Irish border. There may be a quid, but no pro quo.

And just to rub it in, the Commission has published two more in its "Notice to Stakeholder" series. One relates to rules in the field of electronic communications, which currently allow providers established in at least one EU Member State the right to provide electronic communications networks and services in all other Member States without being required to have an establishment there.

They can start providing networks and services without any formal licensing process and are subject only to a "general authorisation" in each Member State where they provide networks or services. Member States may only request a simple notification, without any standstill obligation.

As of the withdrawal date, providers established in the United Kingdom will cease to benefit from the general authorisation regime. EU-27 Member States will be able to impose additional authorisation requirements on providers established in the UK.

Furthermore, with the UK becoming a third country for the purposes of EU rules on roaming, providers of roaming services will no longer benefit from the obligation of mobile network operators operating in the United Kingdom to meet all reasonable requests for providing wholesale roaming access.

The other Notice deals with rules affecting network security and information systems, which will impact on providers of digital services not established in the Union. They will be required to establish representatives in the European Union.

Slowly, inexorably, the grip of Brexit tightens. Yet, back in media land, the focus is still on Moscow, via Salisbury. Few other things are registering apart from the short-term distraction of Mr Hammond's spring statement. Journalists and their editors are determined to play out their single-issue obsessions. And in their land, Brexit isn't Brexit any more. Brexit is boring – yesterday's news that can't compete with the mystery and intrigue of Putin's Russia.

The effect of this is incalculable. Here we have the most important political event since the war and the negotiations have been sidelined by a temporary crisis, leaving the public uninformed and unprepared for what it to come.

The situation is then compounded by the Commission putting the onus on the UK government to come up with proposals for the next steps. For a short time, this hands it the publicity initiative – there is nothing new to entertain the media until the UK delivers.

This hiatus can only last for a short time – until the European Council on 22-23 March, when things have to come to a head. This gives ten days to play with Russia before reality hits. Then, Mrs May will either come up with a solution for the Irish question or, if Donald Tusk is to be believed, the talks are in crisis and Narnia comes to town.

At that point, the media is will have to deal with its single-issue obsession. If the talks are in trouble they will have to bite the reality pill. For the moment, though, it's play time. And the "sons of Adam" are still being turned to stone.

Richard North 14/03/2018 link

Salisbury: slander from May

Tuesday 13 March 2018  

According to Theresa May, speaking in the Commons yesterday, it is "highly likely" that Russia was responsible for the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, with a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. It is part of a group of nerve agents known as Novichok.

This was, Mrs May said, a Government conclusion, based on "the positive identification of this chemical agent by world-leading experts at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, our knowledge that Russia has previously produced this agent and would still be capable of doing so, Russia's record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and our assessment that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations".

The Prime Minister went on to say that there were, therefore, "only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March". It was either "a direct act by the Russian state against our country", or "the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others".

That said, I really didn't want to get stuck into the Salisbury poisoning. We've been distracted enough already from the serious business of Brexit. And while the poisoning is indeed a serious affair, nothing excuses yet another round of media incontinence, where they seem incapable of reporting in any depth more than one issue at a time.

But what makes comment appropriate is a certain similarity with Brexit – the baseless assumptions and the loose use of language to make an unsupported case.

Crucially, contrary to Mrs May's assertion, the group of military-grade nerve agents known as Novichok, were not originally developed by Russia. Rather, they were part of a programme initiated by the Soviet Union, said to be in the late 1970s to early '80s.

The particular variant said to have been used in this incident is Novichok 5. This was developed, according to a number of reports, in the earlier stage of the programme - before the break-up of the Soviet Union. Any accurate description of the product would have it attributed to the Soviet Union.

Another crucial issue is the most likely place of manufacture. As a Soviet Union Cold War weapon, it was almost certainly produced in what is now the Republic of Uzbekistan - more specifically, the site of initial production would have been the Nukus Chemical Research Institute, in Karakalpakstan province.

The point here is that it is a matter of undisputed record that after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and during the collapse of the Soviet Union, a state of anarchy existed in many of the former Soviet provinces, including Uzbekistan. For a time, control was lost of formerly secure Soviet facilities, including Nukus Institute, which seems to have been abandoned in 1992/3, after the Russian Federation came into being.

At that point, it would appear, any amount of agent could have been sold or dispersed, its destination and purchasers unknown. So desperate was the situation that the facility was, on the invitation of the Uzbek government, taken over by the United States - which, we must now assume, could have acquired samples of the agent.

Latterly, a senior defector from the Soviet chemical weapons program, Vil S Mirzayanov, who worked for more than 25 years in the Soviet chemical weapons programme, said publicly that the plant was built to produce batches of Novichock. US involvement was still being reported in 1999.

Putting this in the context of Mrs May's statement to the House yesterday, it would not appear possible for the Prime Minister reliably to ascertain that the poison used on Sergei and Yulia Skripal was produced in or by Russia. On the basis of what we know, it could just as well have been produced by the Soviet Union in Uzbekistan.

Nevertheless, there is no reason to dispute Mrs May's assertion that Russia is still capable of producing the agent. Nor could anyone sensibly deny that Russia has a record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations. Furthermore, we would not argue that Russia views some defectors as legitimate targets for assassinations.

When it comes to "plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March", Mrs May would seem to be lacking any good evidence that the poisoning of the Skripals was "a direct act by the Russian state against our country". We can't rule it out, but there is self-evidently no proof of that assertion.

As to the second assertion, "the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others", that opens the way to a third possibility - that the Soviets lost control of the agent over two decades ago. And, given that that is a possibility, it could since then have been in the hands any number of ill-intentioned people.

This, therefore, does not allow one to rule out the possibility that the Salisbury poisoning was the work of rogue factions within Russia, outside Putin's control and there are no doubt conspiracy theorists out there happy to asset that this was a false flag operation.

This is mentioned in a level piece by the Christian Science Monitor. Predictably, it says, some Russian analysts are claiming the attack on Mr. Skripal might have been a false flag operation by Western interests:
They suggest the aim was to worsen the crisis of East-West mistrust and prompt tough measures, such as new sanctions against the huge numbers of wealthy Russians – including both pro-and-anti-Kremlin figures – who've parked their assets in Britain in recent years, or perhaps even more sweeping steps like a Western boycott of the upcoming soccer World Cup in Russia this summer. All that, and more, is already under active discussion in Britain.
Other experts, says the CSM, seem less certain:
Contrary to widespread Western belief, Mr. Putin's Russia is not under tight one-man control. Rather than the direct result of Kremlin diktat, experts say, a good deal of lawless behaviour – from the murder of opposition leader Boris Nemtsov three years ago to the recent cyber-shenanigans of Russia's "troll farm" – seems more plausibly explained by factions within Russia's sprawling establishment freelancing in their own interests, perhaps even aiming to please Putin.
On that basis, leaving her options open would be a sensible move for Mrs May. Not least, with Brexit negotiations coming to a head, the British government really doesn't need an another international crisis.

British retaliation, says the CSM could play into Putin's hands. Proposals to force rich Russians residing in Britain to explain the sources of their wealth, or risk having it seized, could force them to bring it back to Russia – something the Kremlin has been trying in vain to convince them to do for almost five years.

But then, leaving her options open is not something that Mrs May does. On 17 January 2017, at Lancaster House, she closed down our options on the Single Market. And now she has made another mistake.

For all we know, Putin ordered the poisoning personally. But until Mrs May has more evidence, she really needs to be careful what she says. Accusing Putin without good evidence is not such a good idea and, without good evidence, is closer to slander than any Prime Minister should ever be.

Richard North 13/03/2018 link

Brexit: late to the party

Monday 12 March 2018  

One of the most remarkable things about the Brexit debate (and there is very stiff competition) is the relative quiescence of commerce and industry, and the low-key behaviour of their representative bodies, even where vital interests are threatened and whole sectors are at risk.

Of the enterprises most at risk from Brexit, there can be few to compare with horse racing which, as we pointed out on 1 February 2017, stood to be hit rather badly from the loss of special concessions which allowed the unrestricted movement of bloodstock between the major racing centres.

The particularly troublesome issue is the lapse of the 2014 Tripartite Agreement on Racehorses, mandated by Council Directive 2009/156/EC on animal health conditions governing the movement and importation from third countries of equidae.

This is an agreement between France, Ireland and the United Kingdom, originally established in the 1970s, in order to regulate the movement of race horses between the three countries without formal veterinary inspections taking place.

Currently, it simplifies the process and reduces costs of moving horses between the three countries, allowing racehorses to be shipped without pre-movement veterinary checks and certification, and without the requirement for isolation and quarantine periods at their destinations.

Given anything short of continued EEA participation – which Mrs May had ruled out from 17 January 2017 – and these concessions would no longer apply. And since the UK would be outside the EU, to reinstate the free movement afforded will almost certainly require new legislation from the EU, made under the aegis of Commission Decision 92/260/EEC (as amended).

This requires complex procedural steps and is unlikely to be high on the priorities of either the Commission or the UK government. But the failure to reach a timely agreement on this would have a devastating effect on the industry. One would have thought, therefore, that the affected enterprises and their representative bodies would have been quick to sound the alarm and highly voluble in calling for a fix.

However, even when Booker publicised the problem in his column in the Sunday Telegraph a few days after my piece, only the Guardian followed up, with a story on 9 February. The rest of the legacy media was silent – not even Booker's paper, which had been given a scoop on a plate, did a piece. As so often, it ignored its own columnist.

As for the Guardian report,we saw something of the complacency afflicting the industry. The paper quoted Will Lambe, director of corporate affairs at the British Horseracing Authority. He said he had made representations to the government that they need to protect the industry during the coming negotiations, adding: "The tripartite agreement pre-dates the formation of the European Union and there is no reason it should not remain in place following Brexit".  

Confronted with such a low-key response (and a media unable to work the facts out for itself), it is perhaps unsurprising that it took until August before there was any more significant publicity. This was in the Irish press and even then it was fairly muted. Nonetheless, publicity there was, in a number of Irish papers, highlighting a potential disaster that had huge implications for the UK.

As before though – and in common with so many other issues – this was ignored by the UK legacy media. Clearly, it thought the fate of an industry worth annually nearly £4 billion (eight times the value of the fishing industry), employing directly and indirectly 85,000 people, was of little significance.

Bizarrely, even when the Commission issued a Notice to Stakeholders on the movement of animals, post-Brexit, nothing was reported. Yet, on 27 February 2018, the Commission declared that the "Tripartite Agreement" concluded in accordance with Article 6 of Directive 2009/156/EC between France, Ireland and the United Kingdom "no longer applies to the United Kingdom as of the withdrawal date". 

And so the silence prevailed until last Saturday, 10 March, well over a year since I reported the story. Then, in the run-up to next week's Cheltenham festival, we saw a short report in the Financial Times, retailing a call for "free movement" of racehorses after Brexit. The industry, we were told, wanted free cross-border travel for British, Irish and French thoroughbreds.

At last, in the UK legacy media (apart from Booker and the Guardian) we see it acknowledged that "restricted horse movements would have a devastating impact on the Irish breeding industry and hit the whole way UK racing is financed". But, from comments of Brian Kavanagh, chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland, there is no indication that the nature of the problem is fully understood – or that there is any clear idea of the remedy needed.

Kavanagh, for instance, refers to problems arising in the event of a "hard", evidently not appreciating that the Tripartite Agreement will lapse once Brexit takes force (after any transition period). And, if the impasse on the Irish question isn't resolved, that could be in just over a year's time, on 30 March 2019.

The Financial Times then has horseracing officials saying they want "to build on the tripartite agreement". Apparently Kavanagh, Nick Rust - chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority - and Olivier Delloye - his counterpart at France Galop, the governing body of flat and steeplechase racing in France - met senior officials representing Michel Barnier in September.

Via the FT, Mr Kavanagh says: "At that time the Commission line was Brexit is a binary thing. You're either in or out. But they also made clear they were ready to look at reasonable solutions for our industry". He then refers to the agreement on the Common Travel Area for Irish citizens (north and south) and thus believes that, "there must be some imaginative way so that can expanded to include racehorses".

Actually, this is delusional, not least as it ignores the Notice to Stakeholders. And as the procedure for dealing with third countries is already established, it will be used, to avoid charges of discrimination with other third countries. With the UK outside the EU Single Market framework, this will have to be followed before free movement of racehorses between EU Member States and the UK can be permitted.

Needless to say, the procedure cannot be initiated until the UK has left the EU which, in the absence of a transition period, could mean a period when free movement is suspended.

For the horseracing industry, therefore, this must be a nervous time and finally, in yesterday's Mail on Sunday we at last saw reference to this in a popular national newspaper. Under the headline, "British racing festivals 'face ruin from a hard Brexit'", came the news that no provision had been made for the free movement of horses once the UK leaves the EU.

In what was an obvious copy-out from the Financial Times, the same Mr Kavanagh was quoted. With considerably less detail, the only thing added was a statement from a government spokesman, who offered the anodyne and largely uninformative comment that: "We are working with Ireland and France on developing new arrangements for after we leave the EU".

For us mere mortals, this illustrates yet again how badly the legacy media are performing when it comes to the progress of Brexit. Ironically, we saw another example in the same edition of the Mail on Sunday, which covered some of the latest developments on the Legatum Institute.

Although I broke the original story in July 2017, it wasn't picked up by the Mail on Sunday until November, with a botched report that had the paper shoehorning in an irrelevant Russian dimension which confused the issue and distracted attention from the important matters of concern.

But now, updating its own story, we see the paper preening itself with the claim that it had "revealed" Legatum's "influence on the Government’s EU agenda" back in November, implying that its action had led to a Charity Commission investigation which had somehow led to Snake Oil Singham and his colleagues moving to the IEA.

Such hubris is so typical of the legacy media. Often late to the party, they will "liberate" material whenever it suits them, rarely acknowledging sources. In the style of beast, nothing exists until they have "discovered" it, whence they will claim the credit for their "revelations". We even see the papers claiming to "reveal" information when their sources are published website pages.

For all their resources and self-importance, though, they have not covered a fraction of the technical issues relating to Brexit and, even now, have almost completely lost the plot when it comes to reporting what might be an imminent breakdown in the negotiations.

When the history of this tumultuous period comes to be written, no doubt writers – many of them journalists – will be quick to criticise the politicians and campaigners. Yet, somehow, I suspect, the manifest and continued failings of the media will scarcely if at all be mentioned.

The victors, they say, write the history. And the first draft of history is often regarded as the contemporary media reports. Between the two, it is no surprise that our history is often so badly written.

Richard North 12/03/2018 link

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