Brexit: sending a message

Tuesday 13 November 2018  

There is a chance, of course, that we're being played. The negotiators from both sides, when they meet in Brussels, could be sitting at their screens playing video games. The final press release is already printed with just the date to add.

But there again, we could be looking at the biggest mess since we left the cat in the living room for 48 hours and forget to let it out. At least the product of that little disaster could be spread on the garden (not that there's been any shortage lately), which is more than can be said for what is actually being delivered by the combined efforts of Teams EU and UK.

Apparently, they were still talking at 2.45 on Sunday morning, packing up fifteen minutes before I posted on the blog. These part-timers do so feel they're hard done-by.

But so it came to pass that, at the General Affairs Council, Michel Barnier explained that "intense negotiating efforts continue", but "an agreement has not been reached yet". To no one's surprise, key issues remain under discussion, "in particular a solution to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland".

According to The Times, although no deal has been agreed, we do have the "architecture of a deal. It is clear to both sides what the political trade-offs are that will have to be made for an agreement to be reached.

Others are more blunt about what went on, asserting that the Brussels talks actually broke down after Olly Robbins told his opposite number that he could not "go back to the cabinet" with what the Commission was proposing.

So that's what it comes to. The two sides know what they need to agree, but do not yet know whether they can – but most likely they can't. And if that really is the case, we're up the proverbial creek and so far away from a paddle that even if we were holding an illustrated book on the history of paddles, we'd still be wondering what they were.

Nevertheless, it seems that there could be some movement. If The Times is to be believed, Mrs May is intending today to brief her cabinet on the state of play with the idea of "unlocking" a deal by Wednesday. Hope, as they say, springs eternal.

For all that, confusion abounds as the same newspaper has Michel Barnier angering Downing Street by claiming that today's meeting of the cabinet would be shown the parameters of an agreement.

What we should make of this is anybody's guess. But the Independent more or less confirms that there are problems. Yesterday lunchtime, it was reporting that Downing Street had dismissed any idea that a Brexit deal was close, saying any suggestion of an imminent agreement should be taken with "a bucket of salt".

As the story was updated, the same paper told us that "hopes are fading" for the November Council as Downing Street admitted "substantial issues" are still to be overcome between London and Brussels – as indicated by the General Affairs Council.

I guess the timelines are important here because the story has been developing with such speed that things could have changed, leaving The Times on the money. Or it could be that the Independent has got the real story and Mrs May has an empty slot in her diary for Wednesday.

There again, its updated story, The Times also had the "bucket of salt" quote, so it would appear that we really don't have a deal in the offing. At least, with that, we're back in familiar territory.

That is a territory all too familiar to the Guardian. It is telling us that Britain has all but given up on a special "Brexit summit" at the end of November. There remain, it says, too many sticking points to complete the talks in the time "originally hoped for".

This paper also confirms what is already evident from multiple sources, that there has been "no breakthrough at the moment". And that inevitably means that today's scheduled cabinet meeting could not possibly have been the substantive discussion allowing ministers to sign off the UK's Brexit negotiating position. The best that can happen is that the cabinet will note developments and discuss no-deal planning.

Just supposing, against all the odds, a Brexit deal could be signed off by the EU at the European Council on 13-14 December, that in any case would leave little time to squeeze in a parliamentary vote to ratify the agreement before Christmas.

This brings the Guardian into the fray with an editorial declaring that that Mrs May is looking for a deal "so vacuous that it will be meaningless". It is significant, the paper then remarks, that three out of four living former prime ministers – Mr Brown, Tony Blair and John Major – alight on a national plebiscite to solve the Brexit conundrum.

Since the Tories have spent months saying no deal is better than a bad deal, it goes on to say, the British public might, given the chance, take them at their word. If MPs were to refuse to support a Brexit plan, or to ask for more time to get a better deal or to vote for a general election, there would be chaos.

Under those "foreseeable circumstances", the Guardian thus declares, it would be foolish to rule out another referendum. And there we have another recruit to the referendum cause, even though there is no acknowledgement that more time would be needed for that purpose alone.

This is an interesting development where the only way out of the impasse is seen as a surrender to the forces of populism that supposedly got us into the mess in the first place – a referendum to catch a referendum, so to speak.

However, this may be all too late. Several sources, such as the this and this, have it that Dominic Raab, at the head of a group of "senior cabinet ministers" is ready to tell Mrs May that the current deal on offer from the EU is unacceptable. They want her to prepare the UK to leave with "no deal", unless she can secure further concessions.

This cabal apparently has the backing of former foreign secretary William Hague, arguing that the prime minister and her cabinet must start "fully preparing the country to leave without a deal".

Faced with serious cabinet opposition, and little chance of getting the current deal past the Westminster Parliament – and even less chance of getting any concessions out of Brussels - this may leave the prime minister with no option but to give way to the pressure.

In many respects, Mrs May is already halfway there, telling her audience at the Lord Mayor's Banquet in the City that she would not push for an agreement "at any cost". And at this stage, it would be very easy to engineer a "no deal" scenario by default.

All that has to happen is that Mrs May does exactly what she is doing at the moment – stalling. A succession of missed deadlines and inconclusive talks can bring her inexorably to the 29 March, when we drop out of the EU automatically.

The advantage for Mrs May is that the default option bypasses parliament and, to an extent, marginalises the cabinet. The automaticity means that no one has to decide anything. We just leave – something the "ultras" have always wanted.

The irony of all this is that, despite the number players in the field, all pushing their own agendas, no one is actually in control. Once Mrs May pressed the button to start the Article 50 countdown, having already closed down her options, it was almost pre-ordained that we were going to end up with a "no deal" Brexit.

What is so utterly bizarre about all this though is the idea that we can "full prepare" for this eventuality. Leaving without a deal essentially hands the initiative to Brussels and the Member States, with limited potential for reducing what will inevitably be major damage to the economy.

It is only because the government has played down the consequences of a "no deal" and the media has not joined all the dots, that this can even be contemplated. But far from an outside chance, it now has to be said that "no deal" looks to be the most likely outcome of the negotiations.

If then the government spends the next four months of so preparing, there is a possibility that we could end up with a "crypto deal", as a series of bridging deals – on issues such as aviation – are pencilled in for implementation shortly after we leave.

But, in all this uncertainty, there is one near-certainty: we are likely to see massive business flight as every operation that can jump ship looks for safer quarters on the continent. Responding to the oaf's "fuck business" remark earlier this year, somebody might even invest in some skywriting (pictured) to send a message, as they depart these shores.

Unfortunately, they may well be too late.

Richard North 13/11/2018 link

Brexit: walking the plank

Monday 12 November 2018  

While we are seeing an orgy of introspection amongst (some) remainers, obsessed with their second referendum and the unfairness of life, the universe and everything, the tragi-comedy of the Brexit soap opera continues apace.

As we left it yesterday, Mrs May had been told that EU Ambassadors had refused to accept her Schrödinger's backstop. EU negotiators, we learn, want the ECJ to have an automatic role in ruling on whether Britain could dump this mystical beast, something that bumps right up against the UK's red lines.

One report has EU officials and diplomats fearing that divisions within Mrs May's cabinet and wider splits in her party mean that she is unable to give her chief negotiator, Olly Robbins, a clear mandate allowing him to seal a deal over the next 48 hours.

But, if the Independent is to be believed, the situation is far worse than that. Confronted with the prospect of having absolutely nothing to offer, she has cancelled a cabinet meeting planned for today, simply because there is no longer a deal for her colleagues to approve – not that they would approve it even if there was a deal, which there isn't.

Actually, the Monday meeting was originally set for last Thursday – or even Wednesday. Then it became Friday and then it became today. And now it isn't any day soon, if ever.

Effectively, this means that the already slender chances of securing a November agreement with the EU have all but vanished. Although there is still the possibility of something happening at the routine Tuesday cabinet, the problems haven't gone away. Another day, or even another month, isn't enough to magic up an alternative.

Furthermore, the failure of the cabinet to deliver means that HMG will miss out on the General Affairs Council meeting today, when Michel Barnier will be updating the EU-27 foreign ministers on the state of play on the Brexit talks.

Missing this slot could prove to be the last straw which ensures there will be no November meeting. It would have been at the General Affairs Council that Barnier would have made his recommendations which would then have been conveyed to the European Council.

What this says that, after all this time – nearly 900 days from the referendum – we're basically no further forward. One could say that we're back where we started, except that, on reflection, Mrs May's plan never really got off the ground. The uncomprehending stupidity of her Lancaster House speech saw to that.

On the face of it, that leaves only one destination – a nice shiny "no deal" awaits us for 29 March, the "accidental Brexit" that we've long feared, arising simply because the players didn't know what else to do, or how to deliver it.

Even if the December Council then agrees to look at Brexit, that isn't going to be much help. After all this time, Mrs May hasn't been able to stitch up anything that will keep her own side and the EU negotiators happy. It seems hardly possible that another month is going to make the difference.

One assumes, though, that something has to break – if only because it must. But at this stage, looking down the tunnel into the unremitting darkness, there is not even that slight relief of a light in the distance that may or may not be a train coming in the other direction. The cupboard marked "deals" is bare – and so is the tunnel.

Still, though, the rhetoric spills out. One of those ever-helpful anonymous sources "close to the government" acknowledges the delay but says: "The fact is that we have got to get something that's right. We are not going to accept an outline deal at all costs and we are still working on it".

Optimistic that might sound to some, but it feels closer to a death knell. Mrs May has run out of options. If she can get anything past Brussels, she won't keep her own people on-side. The only chance is a miracle in the near future, where the ERG suddenly go all soft and cuddly, roll over and let Mrs May tickle their tummies.

And with that extremely unlikely to happen, as Brussels is giving her nothing she can use as leverage. Confirming this is yet another anonymous source. This one is a "senior UK government aide", who says he is "increasingly pessimistic" about the chances of the deal given the demands from Brussels in recent days. "They are pushing and pushing on everything", he says.

That would seem to suggest that, far from relaxing its grip, to give Mrs May a break, the EU is making no concessions. Whether this is last-minute game playing, or something more sinister, is difficult to tell. But with the talks going to the wire, they are leaving it perilously close if they do intend to broker a deal.

In fact – according to the Financial Times - Brussels is ramping up the pressure, demanding that that the UK concedes tough environmental targets and EU oversight of state aid rules as part of the "backstop". It's almost as if they can smell the blood in the water.

Add to that demands from Brussels on EU access to UK fishing waters – very much a dog-whistle issue for the "Ultras" – and it is almost as if the EU is deliberately trying to engineer a breakdown in Westminster.

Already, there are more threats of resignations from pro-EU ministers, in the wake of Jo Johnson, while Andrea Leadsom, Commons Leader, is flatly stating that Parliament would reject any attempt to give the EU control over the backstop. And since that is already a deal-breaker, there would appear to be no possible way of making progress.

Anywhere we look, therefore, there is negativity. It doesn't matter which source you look at, there is no comfort to be had, while the oaf writes that the government seems to be on the verge of total surrender and is calling for a "cabinet mutiny".

Needless to say, he is spewing out his usual gibberish, arguing that "we get rid of the backstop; we agree with the EU, the Irish and the commission that there is no need for a hard border in Ireland; and we get on with a SuperCanada free trade deal".

It is difficult to believe that anybody could be quite so stupid, ignoring the fact that the EU's central requirement is for a "backstop", without which nothing else can be agreed. One wonders how many times the EU has to say it before it finally sinks in to the "Ultra" tendency.

However, that has not stopped Nick boles disinterring his failed "Norway for Now " proposal, relying on the prestige of "leading lawyers" to come up with something just as inane as the original.

Still wrongly calling Art 112 an "emergency brake" – thereby illustrating his lack of grasp of the subject - he also fails once again to understand that the EEA Agreement is an adaptive framework and, to make it work will require a comprehensive skein of amendments to the EEA Agreement.

Instead, he seems to think that retaining existing EU arrangements (despite being outside the EU) can bridge the gap between leaving the EU and setting up a "new set of agreements" with the EU, inside his "Canada" option. In other words, he now wants to be in the EEA but not ruled by the EEA.

At least Mr Boles is not challenging the general presumption that the very last thing you can rely on from Conservative Party MPs is intellectual coherence. His "Norway for Now" idea has even less chance of being adopted than Mrs May's own rejected "backstop" proposals.

More prominent though is the talk of mutiny, and with that in the air, one has a mental picture of Mrs May at the point of a cutlass, walking the plank, ready to take the dive into shark-infested waters.

This is much more than just a bad day at the office. But, if the alternative is following the path set by Johnson (or Boles for that matter), one can almost imagine her doing it willingly.

Richard North 12/11/2018 link

Brexit: casting free from the shadow

Sunday 11 November 2018  

After making a complete fool of itself last week, with its faux story of an impending deal, The Sunday Times has returned to the fray this weekend with a mirror opposite. Without admitting that there was no actual deal last week, the paper has picked up on the manoeuvring of the May team as it struggles to find a form of words that will keep all sides happy.

In this instance "Team UK" has happened on a sort of "Schrödinger's backstop", a permanent backstop that doesn't really exist because it isn't ever going to be used. And it isn't permanent because, even though it doesn't exist, it can be ended by a fiendish device called independent arbitration, when a third part body decides it's safe to abolish.

This was going to be the magic wand that was going to get Mrs May off the hook and allow her to sign up to a withdrawal agreement which incorporated a legal commitment to a backstop. The EU would be happy and, in theory, the ERG-fodder would also be happy because, simultaneously, this would be a non-backstop.

However, there has since emerged, one very slight problem with this cunning plan – the EU won't buy it. This means that Schrödinger's backstop has rematerialised and dropped dead in Mrs May's lap. She has nowhere to go but to bury the corpse.

And it is that which has given The Sunday Times its story for today with a front page headline for its print edition, declaring: "May's Brexit deal crashes as EU 'turns off life support'". For all its busy-bee activity though, it was actually beaten to the draw almost 24 hours ago by HuffPost which yesterday was running the headline: "May's Brexit Deal Suffers Major Setback After EU 'Rejects' UK Arbitration Mechanism".

Needless to say, we also had it on the blog which had me suggesting that Mrs May should be planning to leave the country under an assumed name. But also joining with us is the Independent. Not quite as dramatic as The Sunday Times, the paper merely talks of a "fresh blow" for Theresa May. Ambassadors, we learn, have been told that there has been "no significant progress" on the Irish border.

Oddly, the text is tougher than the headline, talking of a Brexit deal being thrown into "fresh jeopardy". Crucially, it refers to an "optimistic" timetable, one floated by Downing Street after Dominic Raab had been presented with a legal text agreed by officials last Tuesday.

From there, is seems, false hopes had been raised and it is those hopes which have now been dashed. The ambassadors have been told by Barnier's deputy, Sabine Weyand, that there was no agreement on the "Schrödinger's backstop", the infamous "joint review mechanism".

Notwithstanding any of the longer-term effects, the immediate consequences of this "setback" is that there is next to no chance of agreeing an outline deal by the middle of next week. And, as the Independent helpfully points out, if that deadline is missed, it is unlikely that there will be a European Council in November.

If December is now the earliest we can see a deal – and nothing is assured – the UK will be forced to put serious money into "no deal" preparations. Even then, to make that work, a huge rump of legislation has to be passed through Parliament. There is barely time.

That, though, is the least of Mrs May's worries. The Observer is stealing the Telegraph's clothes by focusing on the turmoil in the Tory ranks, retailing accusations from former education secretary, Justine Greening, that the prime minister is planning the "biggest giveaway of sovereignty in modern times".

This, we are told, represents part of a "potentially devastating pincer movement" from Tory remainers and leavers, uniting for the first time to condemn her plans. Greening has told the paper: "The parliamentary deadlock has been clear for some time. It's crucial now for parliament to vote down this plan".

Typically, for an intellectually bankrupt Commons, they are throwing their weight behind the so-called "people's vote", which is anything but. And, if this actually got anywhere and the 2016 result was overturned, it would – as Pete notes - be the end of democracy.

Leaving, he writes, did not have to be an economic calamity. There are ways to do it safely but in the end we lacked the political coherence and competence, not least because those responsible for doing this to us never any intention of respecting the vote.

When you stand back from this, Leave voters have no reason to trust in our politics and that, to a considerable extent, explains why so many are uncompromising. The consequences of ignoring the 2016 verdict would be long-lasting and dangerous.

The whole point of a having a voting system is to achieve regime change without bloodshed. While other nations riot, we go to the polls. Staying in the EU would send a signal to millions of people that change cannot be secured in this country without violence. The compact between the people and their government will be broken.

That said, the one thing on which Mrs May has been entirely consistent is on her refusal to allow a second vote. And, in that matter she has the whip hand as so many MPs seem unable to understand that "no deal" is the default mode. All Mrs May has to do is stall and, on 29 May we are out of the EU.

From then on, re-admission to the EU would be via Article 49, with terms yet to be stated, much less agreed. And if anyone wants to contemplate serious, nation-wide riots, all that has to happen is for a government to attempt to rejoin without a referendum.

Basically, whichever way we look at it, Brexit is a political fixture. The terms of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 preclude a snap referendum and, without an extension to the Art 50 period, there is no time for that contest. And, given the UK's deteriorating relationship with the EU, it would be a brave man who assumed that we would get more time.

Assuming we do get some sort of a Brexit deal though – if got no other reason than the EU institutions and the EU Member States need more time to prepare – that it is pretty obvious that we are looking at an unholy mess. And such is the careless and inaccurate use of terminology that it's not even possible to work out, with any certainty, what might or might not be on the agenda.

At the very least, we might see a tariff-free deal, but the weight of non-tariff barriers that are set to descend on us have the potential to crush the like out of the UK economy.

When we start seeing reports that hospital food is at risk from a "no deal" Brexit and the Department of Health is writing to health trusts advising them to make contingency plans to deal with a shortage of imported ingredients, then it is time to start taking this very seriously indeed.

I've already noted several times that, with advanced planning, there is no need for there to be food shortages after Brexit, but keeping imports moving comes at the cost of shutting down much of our export trade. And, as I've also pointed out, if the Channel routes are disrupted, we cannot expect other ports to pick up the slack.

Understandably, the focus today in on the 100th Anniversary of the end of the First World War – a war which, incidentally, was the intellectual cradle for the European Union.

That war was supposed to be the war to end all wars but, after the second, we saw the belated emergence of the structures which were to become the EU, supposedly aimed at preventing another European war that could no longer happen in the traditional mould.

A construct which has since submerged the very democracy that its founders supposedly sought to protect, a hundred years on we are facing a new fight to repair what is left of our democracy and bring life back into our politics. And, while we no longer have to confront the wholesale slaughter of trench warfare, it would be wrong to suppose that mankind has altogether forsaken violence.

While rightly we celebrate the peace the 1918 brought us, and mourn the needless loss of millions of lives, we also need to recognise that, in its own ways, each generation has to fight for its liberties anew.

And it fair to say that, given the intellectual genesis of the EU – born on the battlefield of Verdun - we will not be free of the shadow of the First World War until we have restored our own independence, and learnt to live harmoniously with our neighbours without the supervision of Monnet's Platonic guardians.

Richard North 11/11/2018 link

Brexit: getting ahead?

Saturday 10 November 2018  

I have it on very good authority from somebody who has met him several times, that Jo Johnson, erstwhile transport minister, is as stupid as his brother – stupid in the way that only intelligent men can be.

This is a man who, until yesterday, most of us didn't even know existed – much less that he was a minister. And now he has resigned in protest at Mrs May's handling of Brexit, declaring her approach to Brexit to be "a failure on a scale not seen since Suez".

His parting shot is to demand a referendum in which the people would be asked to confirm their decision to leave the EU. If they chose to do that, they would then be asked to give them the final say on whether we leave with the prime minister's deal or without it.

Apart from anything else, this is a complex, conditional question sequence which could not give a clear-cut result. It could thus not pass the "intelligibility" test so the Electoral Commission could never agree it, even if a referendum was possible – which it isn't.

One really does weary of this. For there to be a referendum, at the very least six months would be needed, although probably longer. David Cameron's Brexit referendum took just over a year to get to the ballot box.

With less then five months to go and a deal unlikely now to be agreed by December – if then – the EU would have to agree an extension to the Article 50 period. We cannot assume that would happen. And if there is no agreement, then we would end up having a referendum on whether to leave, after we had already left.

What I think would be particularly significant is this context is a another matter, which has hardly been discussed. That is the question of which groups would be selected to lead the official campaigns. And, with two questions (if allowed), there would be two campaigns.

You could, for instance, have people who wanted to remain in the EU but, if the majority wanted to leave, they would then vote for Mrs May's deal. You could have remainers who would vote against both but you could also have leavers with similar mixed motives – those who could be either for or against the deal.

As a result, there would have to be one campaign on whether to leave the EU, and another on whether to support the deal. Specifically, you could not expect those who wanted to leave necessarily to support the deal,

The official campaigns for the 2016 referendum have, of course, been disbanded. The "peoples' vote" group might be turned into a remainer campaign, but who would represent the leavers? Vote Leave has been disbanded and, in any case, is discredited. It could not take up the cudgels. "Leave means Leave" might qualify, but might not since it is largely a faction within the Conservative Party.

Without official campaign groups, though, could there be a free and fair referendum? Yet, how long would it take to get the groups up and running, and then for them to prepare their submissions?

All this though is entirely academic. If nothing else, Mrs May is known for her stubbornness. And her office's response to Jo Johnson's demands has been unequivocal. " Britain will not have a second referendum on its membership of the European Union under any circumstances", it says.

Nor can referendum supporters expect any succour from Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. He was interviewed yesterday by Der Spiegel, when he was asked: "If you could stop Brexit, would you?" The terse response was as unequivocal as you can get: "We can't stop it. The referendum took place. Article 50 has been triggered. What we can do is recognise the reasons why people voted Leave".

Basically, the idea of another referendum is dead in the water. Even if it could happen, the two leaders of the major parties aren't going to lift a finger to make it happen. The "Peoples' Vote" people are wasting their time and money.

In fact, though, this isn't anything to do with the "people". Asked in a poll to choose between options, only nine percent of respondents went for a new vote on UK membership. When asked a straight question on whether they want another referendum once the Brexit negotiations are over, 43 percent said yes, 35 percent no and 22 percent didn't know. There is no clear margin to support action.

That, therefore, puts us back where we've always been – waiting for Mrs May to come up with a proposal which will be acceptable to the EU. And here we’re still marching up and down those hills to the tune of the Grand Old Duke of York.

On the way up the hill, we heard from Leo Varadkar who considered that a deal was possible "within weeks", even if it did not amount to a "clean break". Talks, he said, would have to continue. The less said about the detail the better. 

The main event, though, has been Mrs May caught out admitting in a leaked letter that there would have to be a "wet" border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, something she had always said would be completely unacceptable. Predictably, this has precipitated a showdown as DUP leader Arlene Foster accuses the prime minister of breaking her promises.

She has made it clear that the DUP could not support a deal which annexes Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. "We will have a different regulatory regime from the rest of the United Kingdom and essentially there is going to be a border down the Irish sea and no unionist would be able to support that", she said.

That now puts any vote on the deal in parliament at risk, which means that even if the prime minister could get something past the EU, it may not survive a mauling in Westminster.

But getting it past the EU has just got harder as Ambassadors for the EU27, including France and Germany, have told the Commission that they want of look at the text of any deal reached with the UK, before it can be made public and a special European Council is called.

That is reckoned to add another week to the process, making it even less likely that the Heads of State and Governments can get together by 25 November, this being the last date considered practical for the extra Council.

If it was at all possible, the plot gets thicker, with telling us that cabinet ministers have drawn up a secret no deal "Plan B" for adoption if Westminster votes down the May deal – if we ever get that far. Sky News also has the story (which The Sun claims as an "exclusive"), which amounts to the UK buying a two-year transition period off the EU for the princely sum of £18 billion.

This, however, has not been put to Brussels, and since there is no proposal to make up the rest of the dosh which was expected, there seems little prospect of it going ahead. One wonders whether the authors of this scheme have ever heard M. Barnier say that there could be no transition period without a withdrawal agreement, which in turn requires agreement on the backstop.

And even there, the dark clouds are gathering over No.10 as it is reported that the EU-27 are to reject Mrs May's idea for independent arbitration, to enable the "non-permanent" backstop to be ended non-unilaterally.

We are thus left with the same old, same old impasse with no one really knowing what on earth is going on, and nobody ably to tell whether a super-king-size rabbit is suddenly going to be extracted from a hat. If I was Mrs May, I'd definitely be planning to leave the country under an assumed name.

But then, perhaps that's what we're supposed to think. A far too candid senior EU source suggests that "divergent and possibly contradictory narratives" about a deal are probably deliberate. "If the British want to deceive their public about what it means, that's up to them", he says. "Maybe that's what it takes".

The things people will do to get ahead. Maybe it's a good idea to keep a few spare in case of emergencies.

Richard North 10/11/2018 link

Brexit: ferries across the Channel

Friday 9 November 2018  

The only thing remarkable about the asinine comments from Brexit secretary Dominic Raab about the importance of the Dover-Calais route to UK trade is that anyone should have been surprised. 
On this blog, we've long been reconciled to the fact that ignorance compounded by stupidity is a common accompaniment to senior ministerial rank, going right to the very top.

Brexit, if nothing else, has disabused us of the myth that ministers are on top of their briefs, while the internet has given us access to material which enables us mere mortals to stay abreast of developments. That put us on a par with politicians who previously had privileged access to information and could thus always claim they were privy to details which were denied to us.

It is also the case that the media – or many of its journalists – display the same levels of ignorance as their political contemporaries whom they feed, which means that we have something of the dynamic where the blind are leading the blind.

Both parties, however – and their fellow travellers – seem to react to the emergence of information-rich plebs by retreating into their bubbles and ignoring them, almost completely. Instead, they doggedly reinforce and repeat their error-strewn dogmas, in the hope that their prestige and privileged access to the many organs of distribution can carry the day.

The result is that information-rich individuals and groups acquire the character of an underclass, distributing their knowledge though minority channels such as blogs, watched by a small and relatively stable group of followers who profit from this new source of information, but who are rarely able to do much with it.

However, the situation is not quite as clear-cut as this. Some of the legacy media commentators are occasionally able to deliver product of value, while many of the information underclass are just as capable of producing dross as the legacy media. And sometimes error is so subtle, or so pervasive, that even the discerning reader will have difficulty in deciding where to place their trust.

Muddying the waters still further, we find that the deterioration of academic rigour over the last decades has produced a generation of academics who can't think, and insist on a form of expression characterised by its prolixity and lack of clarity.

When my own PhD studies took me into research written up in the 1950s, I not infrequently found long-forgotten scientific material that answered some of the questions we confront today. But what marked out so many of the papers was that they were written in lucid, economic style, in plain English which was a pleasure to read and a huge aid to comprehension.

We could make similar observations of the growing ranks of think-tanks which, without even doffing their caps to academic discipline, are churning out endless dross which serves only to fill space for the media which is unwilling or unable to invest in its own research and analysis.

Therefore, when we had Mr Raab admitting that he had failed to understand the full extent of how much our trade relied on the Dover-Calais route, no one should have been surprised. His failing is simply part of the continuum of ignorance that pervades the upper echelons of our society.

This is the same disease which prevents both media and politicians understanding the differences between a (or the) customs union and the Single Market, and keeps them in almost complete ignorance of the Efta/EEA option, to the extent that they still trot out the same errors that they were hawking around two or three years ago.

That, of course, is another classic characteristic of the ignorati. Not only do they bask in the glow of their own inadequacies, they have lost the ability to learn – even from their own mistakes.

Some, like Nick Boles, who famously remarked that he would sooner cut off his arm than learn about the intricacies of the Single Market, revel in their own ignorance and wear it as a badge of honour. Any sense of shame or embarrassment has long disappeared.

Now, however, the failings of our political masters (and their media cheerleaders) are beginning to catch up with us. According to the Financial Times (itself no mean purveyor of ignorance), the "dawning realisation" in the cabinet that a no-deal exit could block Britain's vital trade artery in the Strait of Dover "has changed the political equation as Mrs May prepares to present her ministers with a final Brexit deal".

The prime minister's allies, we are told, "say that since a no-deal exit would be too grim to countenance, the cabinet must act in the national interest and sign up to an agreement aimed at preserving free trade with the EU".

Yet this is something that was quite evident in January 2017 when Mrs May made her infamously stupid declaration that "no deal" was better than a bad deal. It should have been evident to the prime minister and her advisers, to the extent that it should already have been a firm element of public policy, that a "no deal" scenario had to be avoided at all costs.

Instead, up to press, all the instruments of state seem to have been dedicated to downplaying the consequences of a "no deal", and keeping it on the table as a tenable option – a line still being perpetrated by David Davis. The fool dismissed fears about shortages of food and medical supplies and queues at the channel ports as "proven nonsense" and "scare stories".

We have also seen Mrs May repeating her mantra at every opportunity – with an incompetent media entirely unable to discern the dangerous fatuity of her position.

Now, almost at the eleventh hour, we get this glimmering of understanding which, if allowed to mature, should bring even the prime minister to the understanding that one of her central policy planks is so suicidally stupid that she should be looking to leave the country under a false name.

Sadly, not only is this unlikely, it is hardly able to influence the course of the Brexit negotiations. In being so insistent that a "no deal" was better than a bad deal – and overly influenced by the need to control freedom of movement (without understanding the role of Article 112) – she has trapped herself (and us) in an exit scenario that is unattainable.

Had the cabinet team, at the beginning, had at least the basic understanding of how the Single Market worked, and a clear idea of the consequences of dropping out of it, then things might have been different.

But we now have to come to terms with the fact that one of the most important policy decisions of this century – if not the most important – has not been made on the basis of a calculated consideration of the facts, but in a fog of ignorance where basic information was either unknown or misunderstood.

In terms of the broader sweep of politics, this presents us with an entirely new paradigm – one where a significant part of the population is better informed than the government, and where senior ministers are so badly advised – and so determinedly ignorant – that they are not only making the wrong decisions, but ones which are obviously wrong to a large number of people.

As long as the governing classes could rely on monopoly access to information and perpetrate the myth that they were all-knowing, bolstered by a media that actually knew what it was talking about, then high-level ignorance was a sustainable basis for policy-making. Nobody knew enough to call out the government for its stupidity. That role was left to the historians, by which time it was too late.

Now, though, we are experiencing – and recognising – stupidity in real time, without waiting to have it explained to us years after the event. And in such circumstances, it is very hard to regard our politicians with anything other than the most profound contempt – a sentiment which easily stretches to the opposition which is no better than the government it aspires to be.

Where this leaves us is hard to say, but it is probably true to say that this change has been brought about by Brexit, which has forced the government to make difficult choices in the goldfish bowl of the Article 50 negotiations, where the final outcome had to be accepted by Brussels and could not be fudged.

In this sense, although people are constantly dismissing the idea that there are any gains to be had from Brexit, this is one of the benefits that is already in place. The incompetence of our government did not suddenly develop. It has been with us for a long time. But the unique stresses incumbent on Brexit have served to expose it in a way that hasn't happened with other policies.

Whatever else one might say of Brexit, therefore, it can be fairly confidently asserted that things will never be the same again. I will never again be able to look at those ferries across the Channel in the same light. Whether we will even see the ferries again, after Brexit, is a matter for conjecture.

Richard North 09/11/2018 link

Brexit: retreat to the bunker?

Thursday 8 November 2018  

Of late, as I sit down to write the post for my morning readers, I wonder to myself whether it is even possible to write another post on Brexit, or whether tonight is the night when I leave a blank space, having given up the struggle to make sense of what is going on.

The trick, I find, is to write the same way you build a Bailey Bridge. You start with a "launching nose" attached to the bridge, which is run across to the other side to stop the whole assembly dropping onto the gap. Only when the bridge is firmly anchored on both sides is the "nose" removed and traffic allowed to pass.

Thus, just to get going, I can find myself writing any old thing in the knowledge that, once the piece is complete I can chop off the beginning – my "nose" – and post the completed piece in the hope that the rest is relatively coherent.

However, when one confronts the wreckage of Mrs May's Brexit strategy – if that's what it is – I am gripped by the overpowering urge to close down the computer and walk away, returning only after 29 March out of a sense of curiosity, to see what actually happened.

To explain why this urge should suddenly be so overpowering, one must reach into the box of well-worn clichés – so heavily used to the point where they must now be completely worn out. With this aid, one has to remark of yesterday's events that you simply couldn't make it up. Bizarre has become the new normal.

As we left it with yesterday's overnight post, Mrs May was preparing her normal weekly cabinet meeting, but one about which there had been much speculation on whether she was about to "bounce" her colleagues with a new plan.

This, as it turned out, was pure speculation (as was pretty obvious at the time) but, as the story developed through yesterday, the idea emerged that the race was on to get a final agreement with the EU at a special European Council which had been pencilled in for 17 November.

To that effect, the narrative had it that Mrs May had to clear her proposals with the cabinet by the end of the week, this being the last possible moment before it had to be submitted to M. Barnier's team so that a recommendation (via the General Affairs Council) could go to the Council for its deliberations.

Thus, with nothing settled at yesterday's cabinet, we were warned to expect an "emergency" meeting on either the Thursday (today) or Friday – or Monday at the very latest - at which a proposal would be "signed off" in preparation for its urgent dispatch to Brussels.

So it came to pass that it was being reported by yesterday afternoon that e-mails had been sent to all cabinet members with copies of a draft Brexit withdrawal agreement. This news came from "Whitehall" sources, and the drama was set in place.

However, only shortly afterwards we were appraised of "No.10 sources" which told us that the new draft did not include any details on the Irish backstop. This, apparently, had not yet been agreed – although by whom it was not said. For all that, the e-mail to Cabinet ministers had not made this clear, but it was enough to put back the "emergency" meeting to next week.

Then, coming in from left field was another little sub-plot: a "row" had developed over the disclosure of legal advice given to the government over the backstop, on the basis that, if legal advice was referred to in cabinet papers, the full text should be attached.

This seems to centre on the view of Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general. He had been telling fellow ministers that a UK insistence on unilateral termination of the backstop would put the whole deal at risk, as the EU would most likely reject it – something the Irish in particular have been keen to emphasise.

With this unresolved, the chances of a November Council were fading like an autumn mist, leading Leo Varadkar to observe that, with every day that passes, "the possibility of having a special summit in November becomes less likely".

The Irish prime minister nevertheless reminded us that there was a Council scheduled for 13-14 December, which meant a deal could be settled in the first two weeks of the month. "But I think beyond that you're into the New Year, which I think wouldn't be a good thing", Varadkar added – in what must qualify for "statement of the bleedin' obvious" of the week.

Enter now the famous anonymous "EU sources" in Brussels. The Guardian has it that they are "deeply sceptical" of the notion that negotiations are on the brink of a breakthrough. Putting the situation in perspective, one senior official said it would be a mistake to "underestimate the incompatibility of the views" of the two negotiating teams.

And there it is – round and round we go, with each day bringing us no further forward after acres of text and hourly alarums. At least the popular media has the US mid-term elections to entertain their journos, but for Brexit watchers, the cupboard is bare.

Although I have no view on the coverage of US events by the UK media, one can only hope (without any great expectations) that it is more coherent than the stuff we are getting on Brexit.

The current "take" of The Times, for instance, has Brexiteers fearing a "single market by the backdoor", with ministers "increasingly concerned" that Mrs May is about to announce that Britain will be forced to stick with EU rules on state aid, workers' rights and the environment.

According to the paper, Whitehall sources are saying that this was the price the EU was understood to be seeking "to allow a customs agreement as part of the Northern Ireland backstop".

The words to focus on here are "customs agreement" as we then learn that cabinet ministers are pushing Mrs May to clarify the position. Some EU countries, we are told, are demanding the changes because they want to maintain a "level playing field" with the UK after Brexit to ensure that Britain cannot benefit from a customs union without the obligations the rest of the 27 must follow.

Now, with a "customs union" added to the narrative, we get input from transport secretary Chris Grayling. He is understood to have told Mrs May he was concerned that this "would mean a single market through the backdoor".

Thus, in a mere three paragraphs of a media report, we have "customs agreement", "customs union" and "single market", all being used more or less interchangeably, with neither definitions nor distinctions made between the terms.

The Guardian is no better, with a self-important editorial. Here, the paper dribbles about the "sticking point", which it rightly observes "has not changed for months", defined as "how to ensure a frictionless Irish border when the UK wants to leave the single market and the customs union". The solution, the paper then says - as was long ago apparent – "is to stay in a customs union after all".

So, it seems, in the Guardian's considered view, the answer to securing frictionless trade across the Irish border is "to stay in a customs union". And by such means is the whole sweep of history ignored. The EU's customs union opened up all the border and there was no reason to create a Single Market. The customs union did it all.

With this level of comprehension, poisoning the entire political food chain, it is hardly surprising that there is an "incompatibility of the views" between the UK and EU negotiators. Even if they were all speaking the same language, the words would have different meanings. The divide must be unbridgeable – even with a "launching nose".

In that sense, it will take far more than a Bailey Bridge, or any other sort of bridge, to bring the two sides together – they are barely on the same planet. We need to go back and write a common dictionary, where all the words have meanings and they mean the same things to the different players in this drama.

Only then can there be meaningful negotiations and media reports that make any sense. At the moment, we are still getting noise – which gets louder by the day. It soon must be time to don the ear defenders and retreat to the bunker. Meanwhile, the Commission is stepping up preparations for a "no deal" Brexit.

Richard North 08/11/2018 link

Brexit: alphabet soup

Wednesday 7 November 2018  

As we work our way wearily into the week, the single theme with which we started the week has solidified: there is no deal in the offing, no breakthrough – no magic wand.

But as the hours and days pass, not even the agenda is clear any more (if it ever was). Media chatter has clustered around the question of a review clause - in much the same way bluebottles are drawn to a fresh dropping – while Mrs May's cabinet has woken to a new-found determination that a deal must be found by the end of the week.

In yesterday's piece, though, there emerged not one key issue but two. The longevity of the backstop is one – which the review clause is supposed to resolve – but the other is the nature of the regulatory checks on goods passing between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Clearly, this is highly contentious. Following yesterday's cabinet meeting No 10 said the main sticking point remained how to guarantee no new checks on goods at the Irish border. Talks on how to guarantee this, it is said, have been "constructive".

That there is an ongoing discussion about the checks pre-supposes that the border issue is halfway settled. We assume that there will be some form of regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU, allowing for frictionless trade, while the Single Market is protected by those regulatory checks, the nature of which has yet to be agreed.

Quite where the customs union comes in is difficult to discern, especially when we get sundry politicians talking about its role in ensuring frictionless trade – which, as Turkish experience illustrates, is hardly complete.

Given the level of confusion, it is not even clear whether we expect to be dealing with the or a customs union or even whether we're dealing with a totally different animal called a "temporary customs arrangement" (TCA), the nature of which has yet to be defined, much less agreed.

Beset by a lack of coherence, it is very easy to fall into the trap of over-analysing such data as are available, simply because some sort of narrative is expected. But the danger is that you come up with conclusions which are not supportable. On the other hand, to declare that one doesn't have the first idea what is going on – in common with just about everybody else – is not very satisfactory.

One thing that does seem to be clear, though, is that Mrs May seems to be on the way to repeating the error she made with the notorious Chequers plan, drawing up a new proposal which will satisfy (she hopes) her domestic critics, without reference to Brussels.

You would have though that Mrs May might have learnt her lesson by now, and sought agreement (in principle at least) from Brussels before putting it to her cabinet colleagues – instead of the other way round. That she has not is illustrated by the proverbial tale of two cities.

In the Brussels corner, we have Barnier speaking to the Belgian broadcaster RTBF. He then declared: "I am not able to tell you that we are close to an agreement because there is a real point of divergence".

Later, in Bratislava, he tweeted that we need an "all-weather backstop" and an "ambitious future relationship", followed by the almost plaintive lament: "We are not there yet". In a fuller version delivered to reporters, he also cautioned against believing everything you read, adding: "We have more work to do".

This is counterbalanced by London, where the mood seems entirely different. From there we are told that: "Hopes for Brexit deal grow with 'major step' over border issue", with Mrs May's aides believing that Brexiters might accept a plan to replace Northern Ireland-only backstop with UK-wide one.

On that basis, despite the lament from Barnier, we are supposed to accept that Mrs May's hopes of securing a Brexit withdrawal agreement took "a step forward" after it emerged that ministers were working up proposals for a "review mechanism" for the Irish backstop - a "major step" in removing the final major sticking point in the Brexit negotiations.

Such is the level of optimism that Mrs May has told senior ministers to clear their diaries for an emergency cabinet meeting "within days" after she won partial backing for a compromise proposal on Ireland. She has promised to give ministers a chance to sign-off any further concessions before they are offered to Brussels.

Notwithstanding that there is more than one "major sticking point", it is very clear that M. Barnier is not in the loop, but neither does London seem to be listening to the EU's chief negotiator. Instead, we get meaningless jargon leavened by a glorious alphabet soup serving up yet more three-letter acronyms to play with, over which there is absolutely no agreement as to their meaning.

This, of course, allows knowing commentators to talk from an apparently elevated level of consciousness, to dispense their wisdom on events yet to happen, of which no one can possibly have a grasp.

In this context, we have discussion on the more-or-less new phrasing describing a "temporary customs arrangement" when, in truth, there is hardly a man (or woman) alive who can confidently assert they know what it means, while no two people could actually accept a single definition, much less define its scope.

Yet somehow, with the deadline for a November European Council closing in, we are supposed to accept that complex and as-yet undefined issues can be resolved in a matter of moments, all so the parties can gleefully assemble to rubber stamp another great victory for common sense.

The reality is though, that when parties start throwing vague concepts into the ring at this late stage of a negotiation, we are not looking at answers but at the diplomatic equivalent of a smokescreen, all to conceal the lack of progress and to deflect blame for the consequences.

With that, there is no need for, or value in, hair-splitting analyses – especially those based on Secret Squirrel sources. Sometimes the big picture can tell you all you need to know – that which we've known for some time: the Brexit talks are going nowhere.

This, of course, has been the case since Mrs May's Lancaster House speech in January 2017. Only now are we beginning to confront the consequences, but the die was cast all that time ago.

Despite that, Simon Coveney thinks that a "no deal" scenario is unlikely. "No one wants a no deal endgame. Everyone loses", he said last night. This, however, was not the view of DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson. He has said that we appear to be heading for a "no-deal", and warns that such an outcome "will have serious consequences for economy of Irish Republic".

However, those (on both sides of the Irish Sea) who are resting their hopes on the UK government revoking its Article 50 notice may be disappointed.

With a test case due to be heard before the ECJ at the end of this month, as to whether the UK is entitled to take unilateral action, the government has released its observations which it intends to place before the court.

In short, the government intends to contest the admissibility of these questions put to the court, on the grounds that they amount to a request for an "advisory opinion", on the basis that the ECJ has long refused to answer hypothetical questions or to provide advisory opinions.

The questions are regarded as hypothetical for two reasons. First – and damningly - the UK does not intend to revoke the notice, so any such revocation is not in any sense meaningfully in prospect. Secondly, even if the EU-27 did take the view that their consent was required, they might agree to it. Thus, says the government, the terms of any "dispute" are theoretical without the full facts and context.

With Mrs May equally adamant that she is not going to allow a referendum on any deal reached – and there cannot be a referendum (or a parliamentary vote) on a "no deal", it looks as if the opt-outs could be on their way to being shut down.

There may even come a point when the continuity remainers realise the futility of trying to reverse the vote and start concentrating – far too late – on options for a managed Brexit.

The one thing in our favour is that the consequences of a "no deal" are so awful that when, faced with the prospect of it actually happening, the parties might find the compromises necessary to agree a deal. As long as it is not then sabotaged by either the European or the Westminster parliaments, there would be a chance of avoiding the worst.

But, as M. Barnier says, "we are not there yet".

Richard North 07/11/2018 link

Brexit: marching up to the top of the hill…

Tuesday 6 November 2018  

It must be pretty clear by now that The Sunday Times claim that Mrs May had secured a "breakthrough" deal on Brexit simply wasn't true – further underscoring the unreliability of the media on this issue.

One cannot say that the paper was lying as such but, it over-interpreted very thin, secondary source material to come up with a speculative conclusion which it then presented as a done deal. As such, we're looking at the sort of shoddy work which typifies the legacy media and has characterised the entire Brexit debate.

Now, in the manner of the grand old Duke of York, having been marched up to the top of the hill of speculation, the rest of the media is now marching us back down again, as it rushes to present us with the accumulation of denials and other events which make it clear that there isn't and never was a deal in the offing.

Even in supporting the denials, however, there is not much in the way of coherence from the media, with much chatter still focused on the UK being tied to a "customs union" as the outcome of some putative future deal.

This is the line taken by the Guardian, which re-affirms the unchanging Irish position that a "backstop" must be permanent and, therefore, cannot be called off unilaterally by the UK.

Somehow, though, this gets translated into a scenario where the UK is locked in a customs union in order to avoid a hard border, heedless of the fact that a customs union is not sufficient to give us frictionless trade and, in these days of beyond border checks of such things as rules of origin, isn't even necessary.

For all that, there is no mention of regulatory alignment in the Guardian story and even to get a mention of "regulatory checks", one has to go to The Times.

Here, we learn that European diplomats have made clear that there has been no breakthrough on the key issue of regulatory checks between Britain and Northern Ireland. And this is one of two issues that remain sticking points, the other being the longevity of the backstop.

Elsewhere, we are getting the legend that the longevity of the backstop is the only outstanding issue, yet The Times puts us back in regulatory territory and the need to avoid a "wet border" between Northern Ireland and the UK – exactly back where we started.

Thus, for all the torrent of speculation, when you drill back down into the issues, we see that there really hasn't been any progress. The UK is confronted with the same-old, same-old dilemma: there must either be regulatory alignment between the EU and Northern Ireland and a "wet border" with the rest of the UK, or there must be an all-UK solution where EU-UK alignment is secured.

The point where we must emphasise once again is the "regulatory alignment" begets conformity with Single Market legislation, and with the "regulatory ecosystem" which must include the four freedoms.

I have lost count of the number of times Mrs May has rejected this option yet the media still cannot cope with it. In the Sky News website, for instance, we get Theresa May stating "repeatedly" she will not accept any formulation of the insurance policy to maintain an invisible Irish border if it means Northern Ireland alone remaining in the EU's customs union.

So here we go again. The issue is actually about Northern Ireland remaining in the Single Market (or certain parts of it). Yet this has been translated unequivocally into "the EU's customs union".

Even that is incoherent, as it is difficult (if not impossible) to see how Northern Ireland can remain in the customs union. Amongst other things, this would mean the Northern Ireland administration having to collect tariffs on goods imported from the rest of the UK (and from the rest of the world), and remitting 80 percent of the proceeds to Brussels.

Therein lies an illustration of what happens when you start messing about with terminology – something which completely bypasses the media as it pours out its babble.

The confusion even infects the Irish broadcaster RTÉ which is returning to well-worn phrasing that we've seen before. "London", it says, "is pushing for a single UK-wide customs arrangement, with additional measures for Northern Ireland to cover regulatory controls, as the single entity that will avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland".

Again, this does not compute – any more than the first time we saw it. In the first instance, a "customs arrangement", taken to be a UK-wide customs union (if that is what is planned), plus limited "additional measures" for Northern Ireland, does not seems to be an adequate formula to secure frictionless trade across the border with the Irish Republic. But as importantly, with the UK apparently avoiding regulatory alignment, it cannot escape checks on mainland goods sent to Northern Ireland.

Nevertheless, RTÉ is telling us that – according to "several sources" - the EU has conceded that there can be a "bare bones" customs union outline that would be inserted into the Irish Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement, or divorce treaty.

This, it says, would be a UK-wide arrangement, meaning there would be no differentiation between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK when it came to customs controls. But then comes the "killer" line: "A customs union alone", it adds, "will not remove the need for all checks and controls".

There we have the point confirmed, leaving the situation completely unresolved. We really are back where we started – yet the background chatter is completely obscuring the reality. There is no sense of the crisis that should be attending such a lack of progress.

Instead, having come down to earth with a bump, we are set to be marched up another hill, with a story in The Times which asserts that "Brussels [is] to offer compromise in Brexit boost for Theresa May". From the same source which had Mrs May making a breakthrough at Salzburg, this seems contrary to everything we've been reading over the last 24 hours. 

Central to this is that Dublin and Brussels are at one. Simon Coveney has stated that the Irish position remains consistent and "very clear" that a "time-limited backstop" or a backstop that could be ended by UK unilaterally would never be agreed to by Ireland or the EU – a position endorsed by Barnier's deputy, Sabine Weyand.

Nevertheless, The Times is convinced that Brussels is preparing to back a compromise proposal to resolve what it calls the "last big sticking point" in the Brexit negotiations. As so often, it comes from anonymous "senior EU figures" and in this case they have "indicated" that the EU is prepared to offer Mrs May an "independent mechanism" by which Britain could end a temporary customs arrangement with the EU.

The Times further asserts that Leo Varadkar had told Mrs May he was "open" to the idea of a review mechanism for the backstop, in a telephone call between the two leaders. What the paper did not say though was that the openness was conditional. Any such review "could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop". The Irish prime minister had also "recalled" the prior commitments made that the backstop must apply "unless and until" alternative arrangements are agreed.

There is no possible doubt that we are looking at conflicting statements here, although the attempt to square the circle comes with a fudge on the wording. "The essence of a backstop is that it is not time-limited", an EU source is cited as saying. "If the idea was a review mechanism, then that would imply mutual decision-making on the future. In that case it is a revision clause, not a termination clause", he adds.

As we get to the top of that hill, though, we anticipate that by some time today – or perhaps tomorrow – we will be marching down it again. And between now and 29 March, there will be a lot more hills to climb.

Richard North 06/11/2018 link

Brexit: confusion reigns

Monday 5 November 2018  

There is a clear split in emphasis in the legacy media at the moment – between those who are obsessed with the Arron Banks drama and those who are still interested in the progress of Brexit.

The utility of Banks is clearly evident from Matthew d'Ancona who sees in the affair the opportunity to call a halt to the entire Brexit process – notwithstanding that nothing has yet been proved. It says a great deal of such people that they seem almost entirely unconcerned about what is actually happening to the most important political event of the century. With the UK poised on the brink, the machinations of a second-rate chancer somehow takes precedence.

The fact is though that Banks is a sideshow. Even if he is as guilty as Hell, it is too late for the NCA investigation to affect the outcome of the Brexit process, even if it was relevant – which it isn't. The die is already cast.

Of far more importance then is the fate of the elusive deal that got The Sunday Times so excited yesterday, a narrative which is unravelling as we speak. And if any confirmation of that was needed, the Irish Times puts it to bed with its story headlined "Report of secret deal to keep UK in customs union after Brexit is 'speculation'".

This is not just the prime minister's office any more. That view is shared by Irish minister for justice Charlie Flanagan. This he told RTÉ's This Week programme, reminding us that there was a "rapidly ticking clock" with just five months to go until Britain exits the EU.

Following this up is Patrick Smyth, the Irish Times Brussels correspondent with another story, this one headed, "Backstop agreement may be close but Brexit deal is far from certain". In a delightful contradiction, the sub-heading tell us that "British and EU negotiators [are] prepared to re-enter 'tunnel' amid talk of legal 'bridge'", inviting the question as to why the negotiators are heading for a tunnel if they want to build a bridge. But of such contradictions is life made.

In actuality, the "tunnel" is where the Brexit negotiators from both sides have consented to a mutually-agreed shutdown of external comment and spin. That this is in force rather puts the mockers on the speculation of The Sunday Times. It has to be relying on secondary sources, distant from the coalface, with an inevitable loss of fidelity.

Talks, apparently, are due to resume today, back in the "tunnel" but they will do so against the background of the weekend speculation, which will have elevated expectations of tomorrow's cabinet meeting. This, incidentally, is the day before the Commons goes into recess and EU ambassadors meet again to assess progress.

Reporting, however, has been thoroughly confused with references to a "customs union", although Smyth writes of a "customs arrangement" which may or may not be the same thing, especially as he also refers to a customs union. As Pete points out, understanding is being hampered by this never-ending confusion of terms.

If we add the Northern Irish political dimension, it then gets worse. Smyth is writing of imposing on the DUP a "less-than-perfect but necessary solution" to avoid a no-deal Brexit. This, he says, is a confrontation that everyone bar the DUP now believes will be necessary.

Smyth has it that the outcome then involve the UK's membership of a customs union and participation in "most single-market regulations", but this is something Mrs May's government continues to insist will not happen.

There is also talk of enforceability and third party arbitration, but if the UK has not conceded the basic point of regulatory alignment, with provisions to ensure that this is maintained in the future, then the talks are not past first base.

And when we also get to hear that Dominic Raab has privately demanded the right to pull the UK out of any "backstop" agreement after three months, one can see how little progress has actually been made. This is from a report in the Telegraph which has the report in The Sunday Times that Mrs May had already concluded a "secret deal" being dismissed by negotiators from both sides on Sunday night. "If anything, things are now going backwards", says one source.

The Guardian tends to reinforce this, telling us that the chances of Theresa May striking a deal with Brussels that she can sell to the cabinet and parliament are said by EU officials to be 50-50. Competing red lines in key areas remain "incompatible", we are told.

As I can demonstrate from my Sunday blogpost though, you don't need Secret Squirrel sources to be able to detect that there are problems. The inherent inconsistencies in the Times report, and its speculative nature, were enough to be going on with.

And such is the nature of these negotiations that we can be reasonably confident that, when details have been agreed, they will be openly published. To that extent, all this Secret Squirrel stuff simply reinforces the strengthening impression that there is nothing bankable on the table.

Nevertheless, there is obviously something in the wind and things could change very quickly. The indefatigable Irish times is offering a late entry which asserts that a final deal is set to include a backstop that will apply to the entire UK, but will have additional measures for Northern Ireland to ensure there is no hard border.

The understanding of this paper is that there is a common view emerging in Dublin, London and Brussels, where the Northern Ireland "backstop" would effectively give way to one that would apply across the entirety of Britain for customs only. But it would also contain additional measures that would apply on the Irish Border, taking in some extra customs rules as well as rules to ensure the North's regulations remain in alignment with EU standards.

To a certain extent, this contradicts earlier reports, although this story is datelined Dublin rather than Brussels, coming from Fiach Kelly, the deputy political editor. He has a "government source" saying that the single backstop has as its main element a UK-wide customs union – to be extended with additional measures for Northern Ireland.

Perhaps hedging his bets, Kelly warns that sources in Dublin and Brussels are still cautious about the prospect of a European Council being convened later this month. However, he says, although there is "some scepticism" that a legally tight customs arrangement between the EU and the UK can be finalised in a short time, Dublin believes it is possible with "political will".

With that, we are enjoined to believe that the key stumbling block to a deal is now when the provisions of the backstop will end – which puts it back in Midair Bacon's court, and his demands for a three-month cut off. The situation is further confused by the Telegraph calling this a "guillotine" clause when surely it must mean a sunset clause.

Either way, not a lot of anything makes sense, and can't do unless the whole of the UK maintains regulatory alignment with the EU, with a commitment to continued alignment in the future. With the talk of customs unions only applying to the whole of the UK, that doesn't seem to be on the agenda.

The test, it seems, is whether Mr Raab makes it to Brussels this week. He is on standby to go, with Barnier ready to meet him – as long as there is a real prospect of a deal. Brussels, we are told, is saying it doesn't want a repeat of last months "botched" visit, when everyone was fired up and nothing happened.

But if that occurs later in the week, it will be after the cabinet meeting, so one presumes that Raab – if he goes – will be carrying with him the united assent of Mrs May's government, giving some weight to whatever deal is on offer. And with parliament on its hols, there is none of the inconvenience of having to deliver a statement to a hostile Commons.

That is perhaps just as well for, at the moment, we are getting anything but clarity – and more than a few contradictions. If we are any the wiser by the end of the week, it will be a major development but, until it's in the bag (if at all) confusion reigns.

Richard North 05/11/2018 link

Brexit: the pivoting May

Sunday 4 November 2018  

According to recent press reports, we're supposed to be days from Mrs May triumphantly delivering a Brexit deal to her cabinet colleagues and demanding their approval. Despite that, the Observer is picking up on the Arron Banks drama.

But never mind, The Sunday Times is on the case with a dramatic, front-page story bearing the headline "May's secret Brexit deal". This tells us that the prime minister has secured "private concessions" from Brussels that will allow her to keep the whole of Britain in a customs union, thus avoiding a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

In this respect, when I recorded yesterday that this deal might be in the offing, I also expressed the usual reservations about the media, noting its chronic inability to report detail accurately. And it's here that we seem to have a problem.

If all Mrs May has got is an agreement on a customs union then she hasn't got anything at all: a customs union alone will not provide for the regulatory alignment that is needed to ensure a frictionless border. A deal involving just a customs union is no deal at all. Either there is something more or The Sunday Times has got it wrong.

The interesting thing here is that the ST isn't basing its story on any hard evidence. Rather, it says it has pieced together "the plan" after speaking to "a dozen ministers, advisers, civil servants and EU officials".

What it also says is that a close aide to Michel Barnier "revealed" a major concession at a private meeting last week. The EU, it appears, is now prepared to accept the regulatory checks can take place "in the market" by British officials, meaning that they can be conducted at factories and shops rather than at the border.

If that is the case, there is clearly an inconsistency in the report, as such checks are related to Single Market administration. Mrs May would have to be conceding a level of regulatory alignment commensurate with full participation in the Single Market. There is no way the EU could allow regulatory checks on the basis described without that concession.

Yet this goes way beyond anything that she could possibly get past the "ultra" faction of her party as it would go back on her commitment to take the UK out of the Single Market. If Mrs May is intending to put this to her colleagues on Tuesday, she is going to have a hard time of it.

In the unlikely event that she did manage to get it past the cabinet, the chance of her getting it through Parliament is not much better than the proverbial snowball surviving a journey through Hell.

However, it doesn't even stop there. According to the ST, the EU is willing to write this "all-UK customs deal" into the legally binding withdrawal agreement, on which basis a "backstop" treating Northern Ireland differently from the UK mainland is not required.

Here, the detail is rather vague, and in a rather important respect. There is no word as to whether the EU is prepared to waive the requirement for a "backstop" altogether, or simply hold it over against an assurance that it will not be needed.

This puts us slap-bang at the heart of the current controversy, where the EU has been insistent all along that a "backstop" must be a formal part of the withdrawal agreement. And the Irish government would accept nothing less.

The situation becomes even muddier, when we are told that there will also be an "exit clause" to this notional customs union, supposedly "to convince Eurosceptics the UK will not be in it for ever". Yet this is also at the heart of the standoff, where the "backstop" has been required by the EU to guard against the eventuality that the UK dilutes its regulatory alignment.

Putting this together, one has to say that there are huge gaps in The Sunday Times story. Despite its confident tone and high profile, it simply doesn't hang together. For it to be the basis of the deal, the EU would have to have conceded most of the points on which it has held firm throughout the entire negotiation period.

On the other hand, given the sources cited, what we could be looking at is something completely different. Rather than an agreed plan, The Sunday Times could simply have picked up a last-ditch attempt by Mrs May to cobble together something that she thinks might be accepted by the cabinet.

As such, it looks unlikely that this "plan" has been formally presented to the EU. More likely, Mrs May is hoping that, if she can get it past the cabinet, the EU might be prepared to accept it as the basis for a formal UK offer which can then, with the blessing of Michel Barnier, be presented to the European Council later this month.

Even then, this remains speculation on speculation, with The Sunday Times on its own. No other paper has carried a "deal" story of its own, although some are beginning to repeat it. Reuters, though,is conveying a statement from Mrs May's office stating that it is indeed speculation.

Needless to say, one wouldn't expect the office of the prime minister to say anything different, even if the report was well-founded. In this case, it looks to have so little substance that the official denial will stand. Perhaps the real give-away is the paper's confusion over the customs union and its belief that this could constitute the basis of an agreement. And, by coincidence, it is precisely that confusion which Booker addresses in today's column.

For too long in discussing Brexit, he says, many politicians and commentators have made basic mistakes which reveal that they do not really know what they are talking about. One is when they discuss whether, on leaving the EU, we should still try to remain in "the customs union". A mere ten seconds on Wikipedia could tell them that belonging to the customs union is open only to members of the EU.

Sadly though, confusions abound. Another suggestion, recently heard more frequently, is that we should apply to "rejoin" the EEA, to which of course we still belong as members of the EU.

The prime minister may have insisted that leaving the EU means that we must also leave the EEA, as if one automatically follows the other. But what she has never shown publicly she is aware of is that to leave the EEA in fact requires a quite separate legal procedure, under Article 127 of the 1994 EEA Agreement, an international treaty between the EEA states and the EU.

In theory at least, in order to leave the EEA, we should have to conduct quite separate negotiations with the EEA itself. Says Booker, how ironic it would be if, on leaving the EU, we were to find ourselves still, by default, members of something Mrs May had insisted we must be out of.

So many of the problems on these technical issues, Booker observes, arise because Mrs May has little grasp of the details of what she is up against. And, even if The Sunday Times is only half correct, and has picked up the early stages Mrs May's latest iteration of a plan, she is again indicating her lack of grasp.

The one development of note, the reports of which are possibly reliable, is that Mrs May is, de facto abandoning her Chequers plan, even if she is not prepared to admit this openly. Instead, in a retreat behind impenetrable jargon, she will signal that she will "pivot" towards a different "landing zone" for the final deal.

For all that, we seem to be no further forward than we have ever been, and will still be stuck on exactly the same issues that have been holding up the talks since they started.

It is small wonder, therefore, that we are seeing more than 70 business figures writing to The Sunday Times calling for a public vote on the final terms of Brexit, warning that the country faces "either a blindfold or a destructive hard Brexit".

Even though they are the usual suspects, and largely the same that campaigned on the "remain" ticket, they are not wrong. Nothing we are being told over the weekend seems to make the prospect of a well-founded deal any more likely.

Richard North 04/11/2018 link

Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
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