Richard North, 02/09/2017  

David Davis was in Washington DC yesterday addressing the US-UK Business Council, an organisation formed under the aegis of the US Chamber of Commerce. What he was doing there has not been properly explained and, with the Brussels talks in crisis, one might have thought he would be closeted with his officials in London, debriefing and working on future strategy.

Huffpost was on the case, displaying its usual skill for getting to the really important issues (not), describing the speech as "cringeworthy", after he responded to a question from a journalist who asked him, "Do you feel more a lot welcome in Washington than you do in Brussels?"

The issue at large was whether at some time he had been called a "charming bastard", an appellation which supposedly found its way onto the front page of the Financial Times, or he had applied the label to himself, for it then to appear on page 19 of the august journal.

But if this adequately illustrates the legacy media's addiction to trivia, with the Mail telling us of Davis warning Brussels he is a "charming b**stard" – suddenly coy over using the word "bastard" despite the pics of tits and bums all over the page - it is left to Politico to come up with the most misleading headline covering the Davis event, as it claimed: "Norway model is one option for UK after Brexit".

"Britain", the Politico story went, "is considering joining Norway and Switzerland as a temporary member of the European Free Trade Association to avoid a potential economic cliff edge after Brexit, the UK's Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis said Friday".

In fact, courtesy of Bloomberg we have the video recording of the event and, just over forty minutes in we find the episode which tells us just how wrong that claim is. What happened was that Gier Haarde, currently Icelandic Ambassador to the US – and former prime minister of Iceland - put a question to David Davis. "I'm wondering", he said:
… how seriously you've thought about using the European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Area Agreement between Efta and the EU as a transitory mechanism. In other words for the period where you have to work out all the details for your completely leaving the internal market.
I exchanged e-mails with a reader on this and his "take" was that Haarde's question was (as close as he dare) inviting David Davis to join Efta/EEA – everything short of actually saying: "Please come and join us in Efta/EEA". He was also saying, as close as he dares, my reader ventured: "Look, we know it'll be a temporary thing, but please use Efta/EEA to help you through your difficulty. You'll be welcome".

To convey the exact flavour of Davis's response, thought, there can be no short-cuts. To summarise it would not do it justice. Here it is in full:
Well, we honestly thought about it. The … one of the great arguments for … none of you would have followed it in the detail I have to, but … one of the great arguments that takes place in the United Kingdom is how much transition will we have … how will we avoid a cliff edge is the term of art … sudden change … and this is, this transition period, people think, tend to think of as a single thing, actually it's not. It is a different thing if you are a bank or you're in financial services than if you are producing agri-products, or if you are working in a regime which is heavily regulated, maybe cars or whatever, or indeed whether you got cross-border traffic going backwards and forwards – perhaps you got a just in time manufacturing operation with your suppliers in many countries and customs in many countries.

So the first thing to say is that the nature of the implementation period or the transition period, we agree such a thing, is not as clear-cut as people say, or people think at the beginning. In terms of the idea of using Efta and EEA - again for those of you who are not familiar with it, the countries like Norway and Switzerland have different relationships through an EEA arrangement , erm, the … it has its own burdens. It has its own negotiating issue to get over, so it doesn't necessarily save us much time and the issue in this thing, as you can possibly imagine, this is probably the most complicated negotiation in history actually – er, and our enemy in a way is time.

We've got two years, we've got to conclude it in two years, we've got to conclude the negotiation in two years, and the reason for transition is to give us a bit more time for the practicalities, which will allow other countries to put customs arrangements in, to allow us to build a regulatory regime, to allow businesses to change their way of doing business to cope with the outcome and so on. So those are the sorts of reasons and it's not at this stage clear enough to know how … what the transition will look like, but adding in another phase of the negotiation wouldn't necessarily help that, so it's not, it's not at the top of our list. We've thought about it, but it's not, it's not at the top of the list.
One thing which immediately stands out is Davis's assertion that, "countries like Norway and Switzerland have different relationships through an EEA arrangement", one of those absolutely rookie mistakes that, when it comes from a Secretary of State, drives one to despair. Can he be that stupid? Can he be that ignorant? Let his own words be his judge.

Something which does not come out that clearly – but is referred to in other comments made by Davis in response to another question, is his confusion between the "transition" and "implementation". Davis say he prefers the latter, although he uses the words interchangeably.

The confusion – or lack of differentiation – is revealing, because it tells us how narrowly drawn is Davis's thinking. He sees it is a limited technical device to assist in easing in the final settlement, which actually suggests that he is confident (which, he says, he is) that he will get a deal.

But a man who lumps Norway in with Switzerland in having an "EEA arrangement" is not someone who knows a great deal about the EEA. But he cannot possibly be displaying either knowledge or rationality if he believes that the Efta/EEA option would not save us time – when this is the primary purpose of adopting it.

For sure, the best way of handing it would have been for the UK government to have started negotiations with members to re-join Efta immediately Mrs May had been appointed prime minister, then holding back the Article 50 notification until we had had a clear indication of whether we were going to be accepted back in that club.

But, even now, the time it would take to conduct negotiations with Efta can be only a tiny proportion of the time it would take to negotiate a "bespoke" transitional agreement, and would not affect the overall timetable, as the talks are still bogged down with Phase 1, and look like going nowhere for 4-5 months.

Nothing that Davis says, therefore, makes any sense. He drowns a simple, intelligent question in a sea of waffle, splats out irrelevances with the force of projectile vomiting and then dismisses what is probably our only life-saver with a thoroughly unconvincing argument.

At least, though, there wasn't the usual waffle about "pay, no say", or the canard about having to accept freedom of movement, but to argue that we should not consider the option because it won't necessarily save any time is something else. Mr Davis is breaking new ground here.

As for the media, well Politico confuses itself by talking only about Efta membership. It doesn't refer to the EEA at all its story – another own goal for the legacy media. But then, despite what is the first admission that the Efta/EEA option had been considered, the greatest lapse comes from the rest of the media, with none of them picking up the story at all.

With coverage elsewhere of Liam Fox's outburst about not giving into blackmail – given preference over the Davis admission on the EEA, we also see the Mail with an extraordinary piece recording a "leaked briefing documents" which purports to have British airlines treated as "third country citizens" when we leave the EU.

It is not only the politicians, therefore, who cannot come to terms with fact that the UK will automatically assume "third country" status, when we leave. The legacy media is similarly finding it difficult to get to grips with the concept. This is not the case in Ireland (as much as it was), of which we are starting to see stories which are beginning to give a hint as to trauma that is on its way if we don't get a deal.

But with Davis at the helm of the negotiations, there cannot be any confidence at all that we are dealing with a man who is on top of the game – or even very far from the bottom. Between him, his team, and the almost total inability of the media properly (or at all) to report the issues, we seemingly have an unfillable vacuum.

Sky News, at least ventures the view that, from what we have seen from the three rounds of talks so far, "the negotiations cannot succeed. "If they go on as they are", says correspondent Lewis Goodall, "Britain will fall out of the EU without a deal".

They catch up eventually – or some do – but it won't be the media which records its own role in the failure. And then you have to go to Germany, to see the May, Johnson, Davis and Fox Quartet dismissed as "the clueless" who will one day be just "a total serene footnote" in the eventful history of the United Kingdom.

That day cannot come too soon.

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