Richard North, 02/01/2018  

It may or may not be significant, but I rather think it is. When Michel Barnier makes a speech or an official statement, we can be more or less assured that a transcript will appear shortly thereafter on the Commission's Europa website.

By contrast, when we need to see what David Davis has to say, our own chief Brexit negotiator, like as not we have to read The Daily Telegraph as premium content.

However, those who have paid their subscriptions in the hope of being better informed will be disappointed. But then that is the general experience when exposed to anything Mr Davis has to say. Invariably, one is better off reading M. Barnier – with the added advantage of not having to pay extra just to read his words.

Nevertheless, those who have access to premium content might remind themselves of the futility of relying on Davis, or they might use this paywall-free access to his current authored piece, headed: "How we will deliver the best Brexit in 2018".

Following what he calls an "important milestone in Britain's negotiations to leave the EU" which we supposedly reached in December, Davis purports to inform us of what comes next. And right from the first few lines, we're in trouble.

Says Davis, "Donald Tusk has approved an immediate start to initial discussions on the future relationship", although he concedes that the "EU guidelines will not be agreed until March, when Michel Barnier and his team will be able to confirm their positions".

But if Tusk did approve immediate talks on the future relationship, he failed to mention it in his remarks following the European Council meeting on 15 December. What in fact he did say was that it was "time for internal EU27 preparations" and also "exploratory contacts with the UK, to get more clarity on their vision". This has been a recurring theme, with EU negotiators consistently asking for the UK to state its position.

Then, in direct contradiction of Mr Davis's assertion, the newly approved guidelines state that:
… the Union will be ready to engage in preliminary and preparatory discussions with the aim of identifying an overall understanding of the framework for the future relationship, once additional guidelines have been adopted to this effect".
In other words, there cannot be and will not be any talks on future relationships until after that March European Council. Until then, most emphatically, there has been no approval to conduct talks on this matter.

Nor, as Davis further asserts, will "talks about the implementation period begin early in the New Year". To the EU, there is no "implementation period". It talks about a transition period, and spells out in detail what that should entail.

It says a great deal about the state of mind of our chief negotiator, therefore, that he not only refers to discussions on the implementation period but also claims that: "at the same time we will begin a deep and open exploratory dialogue to discover a new, mutually acceptable point of balance in our relationship with the EU".

You can immediately see the problem with the none-too-subtle differences in language. The EU talks of "exploratory contacts with the UK, to get more clarity on their vision" while Davis tells us he is expecting "a deep and open exploratory dialogue to discover a new, mutually acceptable point of balance in our relationship with the EU".

Whatever planet Davis is on, it is not the same one inhabited by the denizens of Brussels. There is not the glimmering of a common position here.

And it gets worse. It is clearly Davis's view that we will not only be discussing with Barnier the new relationship, but that firm arrangements will emerge from the talks he thinks will be conducted. Thus, he asserts: "The process for transitioning into the new arrangements should be agreed early on, given that each side's positions are well known".

Returning to the EU's guidelines, though, they state unequivocally that "a future relationship can only be finalised and concluded once the United Kingdom has become a third country". The EU thus will only commit to an "understanding" which "should be elaborated in a political declaration accompanying and referred to in the Withdrawal Agreement".

From this, it could not be more clear that the EU has no intention of agreeing "new arrangements" until after the UK has left the EU. Mr Davis might expect something more when he next goes to Brussels, but he is not going to get it.

As to the "future relationship" – the one that will emerge after we leave the EU – Davis says it would be inconsistent to have a situation where we are outside the EU but bound by its every rule and regulation. Instead, he says, "we will work to create an economic relationship that delivers for the whole of Europe and is right for the unique circumstances of the UK".

This sort of polemic, though, is entirely meaningless, even when Davis starts to add detail. "We start", he avers, "from the uniquely trusted position, closer than Canada or Japan, bigger than Norway, and more deeply integrated, from energy networks to services, than any other trade partner".

Thus, "our approach is simple". Supposedly, "we are looking at the full sweep of economic cooperation that currently exists and determining how that can be maintained with the minimum additional barriers or friction, while returning control to the UK Parliament".

The final deal should, amongst other things, cover goods, agriculture and services, including financial services, and be supported by continued intelligent cooperation in highly-regulated areas such as transportation, energy and data.

But then, when it comes to the barrier-free goods trade we currently enjoy, Davis tells us that "our guiding principle should be the maintenance of what we already have, and nowhere is that more important than on the island of Ireland".

Even in his own statements, therefore, there is an internal inconsistency. On the one hand, he seeks "minimum additional barriers or friction" but then asserts that "our guiding principle should be the maintenance of what we already have".

In an attempt to illustrate his point, Davis looks at the car industry. "Currently a car produced in Europe for sale in the UK" he says, requires "one series of approvals, in one country, to show that it meets the required regulatory standards". From there, he states:
For decades we have been happy to let European bodies carry out the assessments that ensure products like these - from cars to medical devices — are fit to go to market in the United Kingdom. Given the level of trust we place in each other's institutions I see no reason why, with the right relationship, such mutual recognition should not continue after we leave.
And there we can see the problem. Free movement of goods such as cars and medical devices within the Single Market is achieved by virtue of harmonisation of standards and systems, all under the same supervisory and judicial umbrellas. Only through this is conformity assured at the point of production. And only by the fullest integration of standards and systems across the board can border checks be eliminated.

This is far more than the "mutual recognition" that Davis thinks it is. In the EU context, only in the absence of harmonised standards do members instead apply the standards prevailing in the country of manufacture, which is the meaning of "mutual recognition" within the Single Market.

But that situation does not apply to cars, or medical devices and a host of other products, and nor does it apply to goods produced by non-EEA members. Outside the Single Market, third countries exporting to EU Member States must apply EU standards or, in the absence of a harmonised standard, they must conform with the local standards in the countries to which the goods are delivered.

There is the possibility, of course, of concluding mutual recognition agreements (MRAs) on conformity assessment, but that does not exempt the UK from conformity with end user standards. It simply means that, for a limited range of products, the EU will accept third party testing which has not been conducted by test houses within the territories of EU Member States.

Davis, therefore, is living in a fantasy world. He sort of understands that there will be extra barriers, but then completely fails to understand how they will apply, and how limited our scope is for circumventing them.

Much the same goes for services, where Davis seems to think we are going to enjoy much the same freedom as we do now. Amazingly, he is "encouraged" by Barnier telling him that "he is ready to offer their most ambitious Free Trade approach". But considering that that is simply Canada without the plusses, there is nothing there to feel happy about.

Davis, in essence, is grasping at straws. He believes the negotiations "will be successful, because the future of the Europe (sic) continent is best served by strong and successful relationships". Beliefs, though, are for religions, and are sustained by prayer.

Given that, I guess Mr Davis needs to get on his knees and start praying. He doesn't seem to have much else to offer.

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