Richard North, 01/09/2017  

It was on Tuesday week last that I wrote of David Davis being afflicted with "a form of madness for which there is no easy explanation". All one can suggest, I wrote, is that Mr Davis (and his close advisers) simply cannot come to terms with the concept of the UK as a "third country".

Now – to nobody's surprise – that the Brexit negotiations are going nowhere, we see the Guardian write that, at the heart of the standoff is Barnier's conviction that, despite all the warnings at the start of the Brexit process, Britain still aims to have its cake and eat it.

As one can see from yesterday's press conference, Barnier could not be more emphatic on this issue. He saw a "sort of nostalgia" in the line taken in the UK government's position papers, having observed: "specific requests that would amount to continuing to enjoy the benefits of the single market and EU membership, without actually being part of it".

The Guardian calls in aid France's EU ambassador, Pierre Sellal. He made clear this week that the EU27 respect the UK's decision to leave the single market and customs union. But they have the distinct impression the its Government is now reluctant to accept the consequences.

And that is just a different way of saying the same thing. You don't have to be a French diplomat, or even be quoted in the Guardian to know this. But just in case there is still any doubt in the UK camp (and doubt there must be), Barnier reiterated the principles defining his stance in what amounted to a "Single Market 101".

Breaking out from the French in which he had been addressing the press conference, he said:
Protecting the EU legal order and protecting the integrity of the single Market are core principles of my mandate. The UK decided to leave the European Union. The UK Government decided to leave the Single Market and customs union. One thing is clear: the Single Market, the EU capacity to regulate, to supervise, to enforce our laws, must not and will not be undermined by Brexit.

The European Union will preserve its autonomy of decision-making. The UK wants to take back control, wants to adopt its own standards and regulations, but it also wants to have these standards recognised automatically in the EU – that is what (the) UK papers ask for. This is simply impossible. You cannot be outside the Single Market and shape its legal order.
At this stage in the proceedings, it should not be necessary for the Union's chief negotiator to be restating these Janet and John principles, but the fact that he feels the need to do so says volumes for the state of the negotiations and the capabilities of the UK negotiating team.

Further into his address, Barnier found it necessary to remind the UK that there were "a lot of consequences for citizens, for consumers, for businesses" to leaving the Single Market. "Perhaps not all have been debated in sufficient depth in the United Kingdom", he said, "but now is the time to explain what no longer being a member of the EU and the single market entails".

It was then that he archly noted that, "When I read some of the papers David [Davis] has sent me on behalf of the British Government, in some proposals I see a sort of nostalgia in the form of specific requests that would amount to continuing to enjoy the benefits of the EU and the single market without being a part of it".

And then, almost parodying Mrs May, he concluded: "Brexit means Brexit. Leaving the single market means leaving the single market. If that is what has been decided, there will be consequences".

What he is addressing is a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the UK Government, which I picked up in July, the wrong-headed belief that because we already have "regulatory convergence" or "equivalence" with the EU (having adopted and implemented its acquis), concluding a free trade agreement will be a simple matter.

I explained at length why this was a fallacy yet, such is the impenetrable nature of the Brexit team that my warnings went unheeded. They are warnings I gave to Owen Paterson when I worked with him, and they are warnings I have repeated many times on this blog.

Yet, here we are, months down the line, no further forward with the Secretary of State and his highly-paid officials and consultants unable to focus on such core principles to the extent that they must be lectured on the basics by a senior EU official in circumstances that should have been regarded as humiliating.

But if these dismal people have not yet grasped these basics then they are doomed, again and again in the manner of Groundhog Day, to repeat the humiliation of being told again and again that they cannot have their cakes and eat them.

Specifically, since the UK Government has decided to leave the Single Market, when we leave the EU, we will acquire the status of "third country" and all the rules pertaining to third countries will automatically apply to us. And until that lesson is learned, there can be no progress. There will be no progress, not even at one minute to midnight on 29 March 2019.

Recently, I was much taken by a quote from Mark Twain which I hadn't seen before, but the truth of which I instantly recognised. "It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble", he said. "It's what you know for sure that just ain't so".

This, I think, gets to the real heart of the malaise affecting the UK team. Full of bright, well-educated people, they have nonetheless missed out on the basics of the European Union – as so many have. That's why Booker and I wrote The Great Deception. However, in their elevated, important positions, they think they know it all but, crucially, much of what they know for sure "just ain't so".

Many, many years ago, I was attempting to pass my driving test in order to get my very necessary driver's license. Much to my chagrin, I had taken the test three times and failed.

Yet, I had been driving for over ten years, starting as a teenage staff cadet, driving Land Rovers and Austin one-tonners (with crash gear boxes) on Hendon Aerodrome every weekend. I had driven cars, three-tonners, many tractors, with combinations of trailers and agricultural implements, and Caterpillar tractors under extraordinarily challenging conditions.

On top of that, I had gained my private pilot's license just after my eighteenth birthday, I had flown solo in jet aircraft and in a number of propeller types, and (then) held a current glider pilot's licence. And still, I couldn't pass my driving test in a poxy saloon car.

What I did was go to a driving school and explain my predicament. I asked to take a full driving course, starting at the most basic level, with the instructors treating me as if I was a complete novice. To their credit, they did just that, and I sailed effortlessly through my next test.

It seems to me that this is what our Brexit negotiating team needs to do. Having failed their test three times, from the Secretary of State downwards, they need to take a crash course in EU-101, relearning (or learning from scratch in some cases) the basics of what the EU is, how it works and what it can and cannot do.

The trouble is that, once they begin to know more of the situation they have got us into, they will begin to understand the predicament facing the UK. They will learn the true meaning of being a "third country", how difficult it is going to be to trade, and the enormous amount of work that will be necessary to conclude a workable agreement with the EU.

In short, they will find they are confronting a test they cannot possibly pass. To have "frictionless trade" with the EU, from outside the Single Market is, as Michel Barnier puts it, "simply impossible".

Yet, even at the eleventh hour, and with heroic effort and an extension of time, we could just turn it round. Stephen Kinnock, in a piece in Labour List shows it is still possible – one of the few politicians who has the courage and prescience to quote my work.

False modesty is a form of vanity in its own right. I know that some of my work is cutting edge and still, to this day, there is nothing to rival Flexcit in scope and depth. It is not the last word, and was never intended to be, but it offers some sound ideas on the way forward.

Crucial to that plan is the use of the Efta/EEA option in a creative way, adopting it as a means of swiftly transitioning from the EU, but then in allowing us to work with Efta and other EEA partners to convert the Brussels-centric, politically dominated EU Single Market into a genuine European Single Market, with equality of decision-making between all its members.

Nothing on offer gets close to that. The world is full of people who can pour scorn on my ideas or give me endless reasons why they might not work. But nowhere do I see any of the critics offer anything of equal status which might have the slightest chance of working.

To that extent, we still have choices. We can fail, and continue to fail. Or we can admit that the path we have chosen is a journey to nowhere, and change tack. For the life of me, though, I don't see that our present administration has the capacity (or the humility) to do that, in which case it will fail again and continue to fail.

But if that is our immediate destiny, then I find myself in the amazing position of rooting for the speedy collapse of this Conservative government and the replacement of David Davis by Stephen Kinnock.

There, I've said it. I am now going to lie down in a darkened room, with a damp towel round my head. I may be gone for some time.

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