Richard North, 03/10/2016  
 


Yesterday, Mrs May told the Conservative conference (and thereby the nation) that we are going to leave the EU. "We are", she said, "going to be a fully-independent, sovereign country, a country that is no longer part of a political union with supranational institutions that can override national parliaments and courts".

She then went on to say that this means: "we are going, once more, to have the freedom to make our own decisions on a whole host of different matters, from how we label our food to the way in which we choose to control immigration".

How interesting it was that she had so very specifically singled out food labelling. Within the EU, this issue is mandated by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, specifically the General Code on Food Labelling, by which means it and the Member States meet their obligations under the World Trade Organisation Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement).

Outside the EU, the UK would still be a WTO member and subscribe to the SPS Agreement. In that event, we would still not be free to make our own decisions on how we label our food. We would be as much bound by Codex as we are now – unless of course Mrs May is going to take us out of the WTO as well, which I somehow doubt. And nor would we be free to make our own decisions on a host of other things – not if the UK is to uphold our international obligations across a whole range of issues.

One would have thought, therefore, Mrs May's advisors might have cautioned her to avoid giving such a blatant hostage to fortune – especially as most people are probably not terribly concerned with the precise origins of our food labelling code. They would probably not be too bothered about global standardisation in the interests of free trade across the planet.

From this apparent error, though, it is perhaps too early to draw conclusions apart from observing that, if the ignorance of how we are governed extends into Downing Street, we are in for an interesting time.

That much is all too evident, ironically, from Mrs May's complaint about "muddled thinking" in respect of the Government's vision of Britain after Brexit. Mrs May has a vision of a truly Global Britain, so one assumes that this includes the Codex Alimentarius Commission.

As much to the point, she tells us she wants to lay to rest the idea that there is a choice between "soft Brexit" and "hard Brexit". This line of argument, she says, in which "soft Brexit" amounts to some form of continued EU membership and "hard Brexit" is a conscious decision to reject trade with Europe – is simply a false dichotomy. And it is one that is too often propagated by people who, I am afraid to say, have still not accepted the result of the referendum.

One senses here something of a straw man. Any "soft Brexit" we have been talking about most definitely does not encompass continued EU membership. Have the same people who have been advising Mrs May about food labelling also been telling her what "soft Brexit" means, one wonders. Hers is the Brexit where we have the freedom to make our own decisions on a whole host of different matters, from how we label our food to the way in which we choose to control immigration.

The process we are about to begin, she says, is not about negotiating all of our sovereignty away again. She continues:
It is not going to be about any of those matters over which the country has just voted to regain control. It is not, therefore, a negotiation to establish a relationship anything like the one we have had for the last forty years or more. So it is not going to a "Norway model". It's not going to be a "Switzerland model". It is going to be an agreement between an independent, sovereign United Kingdom and the European Union.
Now this is really interesting. Earlier, Mrs May has told us about her "Great Repeal Bill", which will remove from the statute book – once and for all – the European Communities Act. But that is timed to take effect from the date upon which we formally leave the European Union - which we would expect anyway, as part of the Article 50 process.

On that date, she also commits the Government to converting the "acquis" into British law. Effectively, that means Mrs May is rejecting the WTO option. And then, in rejecting the "Norway model" and the "Switzerland model", she is apparently rejecting the idea of a multilateral and a bilateral agreement. In other words, she has closed down all possible options.

Then there appears to be a further contradiction. Mrs May comes up with the "small print", saying that, "When the Great Repeal Bill is given Royal Assent, Parliament will be free – subject to international agreements and treaties with other countries and the EU on matters such as trade – to amend, repeal and improve any law it chooses".

Please note this "small print" and remember it well: "Parliament will be free – subject to international agreements and treaties with other countries and the EU on matters such as trade – to amend, repeal and improve any law it chooses". In other words, we are not going to have the freedom to make our own decisions on a whole host of different matters, such as how we label our food. Perhaps Mrs May is getting some good advice after all.

By converting the acquis into British law, she says, we will give businesses and workers maximum certainty as we leave the European Union. "The same rules and laws will apply to them after Brexit as they did before". If this is not EEA membership, it's something very close to it.

Moving on, she refers to the "trade-off" between controlling immigration and trading with Europe. But that, she tells us, "is the wrong way of looking at things". We have voted to leave the European Union and become a fully-independent, sovereign country. We will do what independent, sovereign countries do. We will decide for ourselves how we control immigration.

With that, Mrs May tells us, "we will seek the best deal possible as we negotiate a new agreement with the European Union". She wants that deal "to reflect the kind of mature, cooperative relationship that close friends and allies enjoy". And she wants it "to include cooperation on law enforcement and counter-terrorism work". Then, crucially, she wants it "to involve free trade, in goods and services".

This again is interesting – a nuanced use of words. Her deal should "involve" free trade. That could mean a lot, or a whole lot of nothing.

Some clarification comes next, when we are told that the Prime Minister wants "to give British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the Single Market – and let European businesses do the same here". And how do we do that, one wonders. If this is not EEA membership, it's something very close to it.

Then comes another nuanced statement: "We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice". The rhetoric on "controlling borders" is missing - she does not use the "b" word once in her speech. Instead, Mrs May talks about controlling immigration – an altogether different thing, and much more achievable.

As ever with international talks, Mrs May then concludes, "it will be a negotiation, it will require some give and take" but "this is going to be a deal that works for Britain".

To me, that is definitely not the WTO option. As to ruling out the "Norway model", well that isn't the EEA option. It was always a mistake to characterise this Brexit plan as the "Norway option". Used as a template, a suitably modified multilateral agreement under the aegis of the EEA Agreement could so easily become a "United Kingdom model". And if that is the case, it cannot possibly be the "Switzerland model".

This is either a very clever speech, or a very stupid one - or one that was fulfilling two conflicting roles. It had to send a message to the wider world, but it also had to press the right buttons for the faithful. The applause tells you it worked in that latter respect. Time will tell us what the message really was.

If it was a clever speech, it soared over the heads of the media and most of the pundits, distracting them from the actual agenda. And if that's what it's done, it might turn out to have been a very clever speech indeed.





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