Richard North, 04/02/2017  

I do so hate finding myself agreeing with people I loathe. But, despite it being written by Alastair Campbell, I'm not going to disagree in principle with this:
Even accepting that the Brexit White Paper (sic) was an amateurish, detail-light, intellectually vacuous, cobbled together version of Theresa May's historic (sic) Lancaster House speech, it defies belief that any self-respecting Prime Minister, minister or civil servant would allow it to go out in the name of Her Majesty's Government.
That said, I've barely looked at the legacy media over the last few days – or the last few weeks, for that matter – preferring my own brand of ignorance to the pre-packaged pap on offer. I've also drastically cut down my Twitter viewing, as the torrent of Trumphoidal comment has driven out the last vestige of sense.

Before I resume what has become a series on the complications of Brexit (once I've run with this Sunday's Booker column), I've decided to write one last commentary on the White Paper, by way of a wrap-up, before consigning the thing to the bottomless pit where it truly belongs.

The last thing I looked at was Part 8, but in the interests of brevity, it's probably best to leap directly to the end of this dire production. This is the twelfth part, one which sets the seal on this doomed enterprise, offering to deliver a "smooth, orderly exit from the EU".

"Delivering a smooth, mutually beneficial exit will require a coherent and coordinated approach on both sides", says the White Paper. "We want to avoid a disruptive cliff-edge, and we should consider the need for phasing in any new arrangements we require as the UK and the EU move towards a new partnership".

Even while this piece was being written, however, the wheels were falling off the wagon. Mrs May was in Valetta, Malta, attending an informal European council, where the other heads of state and government were feigning indifference to Brexit by putting at the head of their agenda the migration crisis.

In what is also being regarded as a political snub, German chancellor Angela Merkel has cancelled a post-lunch bilateral meeting with Mrs May, who had to make to with a short chat during an informal walkabout.

Any idea that we can expect a "coherent and coordinated approach" from the European Union looks distinctly forlorn. It seems unlikely that the "colleagues" will be prepared to abandon their crowded legislative and policy programme in order to accommodate the United Kingdom in setting up a brand new relationship structure, just for its own convenience.

Nevertheless, the White Paper asserts that it is "in no one's interests for there to be a cliff-edge for business or a threat to stability, as we change from our existing relationship to a new partnership with the EU". Thus, it tells us, "we want to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two year Article 50 process has concluded".

From that point onwards, the Government believes that "a phased process of implementation, in which the UK, the EU institutions and Member States prepare for the new arrangements that will exist between us, will be in our mutual interest".

We looked at this when Mrs May first suggested it in her speech, at which point the proposal was more than a little opaque. More space allocated to it, however, does not bring clarity.

During the Article 50 negotiations (after the money question and the housekeeping arrangements have been settled), we have been led to expect the UK to set its stall out for its "new comprehensive, bold and ambitious free trade agreement". The phrasing of the White Paper, although open to several interpretations, does not preclude the idea that the free trade agreement must be concluded.

Clearly, it cannot take effect immediately. As the White Paper acknowledges, businesses need time to plan and prepare for new arrangements. Therefore, there must be formal transitional agreements.

The point here – which should hardly need saying – is that this is not just a simple free trade agreement, where entirely new arrangements are being introduced and where businesses need to phase them in. We are dropping out of a pre-existing agreement (the EU Treaties) into an entirely different treaty structure, the aim of which is to replicate as far as is possible, existing trading arrangements.

If these are to be phased in without interruption, then some provisions of the treaties – and the EU laws which rely for their authority on these provisions – must be kept in force.

For each issue, the White Paper says, the time we need to phase in the new arrangements may differ; some might be introduced very quickly, some might take longer. Thus, with the hundreds of different issues, there will need to be line-by-line modifications to the treaties, ending some provisions as they apply to the UK and keeping others in force for varying periods.

Looking at the Article 50 agreement, we see that the treaties continue to apply to the UK until the date on which the agreement takes effect. But this is an all-or-nothing scenario, implemented by QMV. There is no provision within Article 50 for modification of the actual treaties, and nor can these be modified by QMV. The unanimity provisions of Article 48 apply.

Any modifications to the treaties cannot be initiated in the free trade agreement, as this device cannot be used to modify the founding treaties. Only Article 48 affords that authority.

To my mind, therefore, the sequence has to be the settlement of the Article 50 agreement, the conclusion of a free trade agreement, and then the conclusion of a separate transitional treaty, which for convenience we have been calling the secession treaty.

Correctly, the White Paper asserts that the interim arrangements we rely upon are likely to be a matter of negotiation. They could hardly be otherwise. But it is a matter of logic that one cannot negotiate interim arrangements, with defined termination dates, without first having the detailed final arrangements in place. That means we are committed to not one, but three separate agreements.

And this is where Mrs May has boxed herself into a corner. The White Paper says the UK "will not seek some form of unlimited transitional status". Thus, we are committed to defining limits, with different dates for different issues. This creates a huge burden, forcing both the UK and the Member States to define a complex and detailed transition agreement, before we can initiate Brexit.

With none of the details spelt out, though, this leaves EU diplomats to warn that the UK will not be able to leave the jurisdiction of the ECJ during the transition period, while elements of the treaties still apply. With transition lasting as long as five years, this means that we might not be clear of the EU 2024, well after the general election.

Yet, despite all this, the Government is "confident" that the UK and the EU can reach a positive deal on our future partnership – once again the rationale being that "this would be to the mutual benefit of both the UK and the EU".

But the prospect of failure remains, as does the threat that Mrs May lodged on 17 January. The Government is clear, says the White Paper, "that no deal for the UK is better than a bad deal for the UK". The fact is, though, that "no deal" is the worst of all possible deals. This is not a souk and we are not buying a carpet, for which there are many alternative sellers.

Furthermore, this should not be an adversarial exercise. With the EU Member States, we are engaged in a complex administrative de-merger, at the end of which we will still have to work together on a myriad of issues, from which we cannot possibly walk away.

Tagged on, at the very end of the White Paper, though, is the chilling sentence which declares: "In any eventuality we will ensure that our economic and other functions can continue, including by passing legislation as necessary to mitigate the effects of failing to reach a deal".

Apart from anything else, this is delusional. We have provided good evidence that, in the event of UK walking away without a deal, trade with the EU – and much else – will effectively come to a halt. I think we've done more work on this than anyone, and have certainly more evidence to support that assertion than anyone. No one sensible is in a position to contradict it.

No UK government can pass legislation which will mitigate the effect of this. With the UK supplying only 60 percent of its own food requirements, and with the supermarkets only carrying very limited stock, we are looking at the prospect, within days of Brexit of empty shelves, panic buying, and real shortages of basic foods.

Eight years ago, I wrote a piece which had me quoting science fiction authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle who wrote in their 1977 cult book, Lucifer's Hammer, that civilisation is "only three meals removed from savagery".

This, I wrote, has morphed into the phrase: "no government is more than three meals from a revolution", which is variously attributed to Mao, Marx and sundry others – without any reliable source. But the message conveyed is clear enough.

Those people looking for revolution may find it coming faster than they think. A botched Brexit, which empties the shops of food, could well be the cause.

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