Richard North, 08/06/2018  

I can't for the life of me remember where I saw it, so I apologise for the lack of acknowledgement (Now identified as one of our own: edoep – thank you). But the best analogy I've seen for the political shenanigans of the last few days is that of a couple having a heated argument in their front room as to which one of them is going to book half a day off work to take their cat to the vet, when the unfortunate creature lies stretched out, dead, on the lawn outside.

For "cat", read "backstop", as in HM Government's technical note on its "temporary customs arrangement", intended to provide an alternative solution to the EU's version which Mrs May had so peremptorily rejected last February.

It says something for the febrile nature of the media chatter that this new version is already dead in the water but this has had no effect whatsoever in attenuating the volume of traffic. But, when regulatory alignment is such an important part of the "backstop", who cares whether there is a time limit? As the Guardian put it:
The date in question was the one at which a backstop provision that has not been agreed, which is attached to a transitional customs deal that has not yet been negotiated, which is part of a post-Brexit economic relationship that has yet to be settled, may come to an end. Or, as it turned out on closer reading of the text, may not come to an end at all, since this depends not just on whether the UK's "expectation" that all this would happen by December 2021 (the date in question) is the same thing as a commitment to the fact that it would do so, but also on the small matter of whether the EU will agree anyway.
All the Government's paper can manage in respect of regulation is to observe that "an approach on regulatory standards" will "also need to be addressed". And without this issue being addressed, there is not the slightest chance that the Commission can accept the proposal. It won't even get past Barnier.

The very best we can hope for from the EU's chief negotiator is something close to the statement issued yesterday by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which declared: "Clearly, a great deal of work remains to be done…". And, with three weeks to go before the June European Council, to say that this is cutting it fine is something of an understatement.

In fact, for something that was supposedly agreed in principle last December, for the detail still to be unresolved more than five months later says more than any number of words could convey about the state of the Brexit negotiations. Like the Escher drawing (above), we are lost in the surreal architecture of an impossible scenario which defies rational analysis.

Meanwhile, the vacuous fool Johnson has been on his hind legs, spouting his usual quotient of nonsense. The "prophecies of doom" about customs problems, he burbled, were "pure millennium bug stuff" - then going on to parade his ignorance with the assertion that: "The idea that we can't track movement of goods, it's just nonsense".

We're getting the same sterile declarations from the likes of Owen Paterson, all in support of the "maximum facilitation" thesis which has it that cross-border vehicles can be electronically tracked to their destinations where goods can be inspected and necessary checks made.

Notwithstanding that sanitary and phytosanitary checks require intervention at the border, there is then the slight problem of groupage: multiple consignments addressed to different destinations, carried in the same vehicle. With this accounting for around 30 percent of traffic, with an average of 20 consignments per vehicle, short of tagging every consignment, there is no way any tracking system is going to work.

The real world, however, doesn't trouble Mr Johnson or his fellow travellers. As I observed earlier, they simply reply on repeating the same nostrums – discredited or not – to the point where critics are driven into insensibility by dint of the tedium of repetition.

According to Johnson, we have to throw caution to the wind. "Unless you make the change", he says, "unless you have the guts to go for the independent policy, you're never going to get the economic benefits of Brexit. You’ll never get the political benefits of Brexit".

This, or course, is pure Minfordism. We're supposed to take an unspecified short-term hit to the economy in return for unspecified gains that may or may not transpire in the medium- to long-term.

Nothing is ever qualified and Mr Johnson would never be so uncouth as to spell anything out in detail. We are supposed to accept fundamental changes to the nature of our trading relationships with our closest partners, purely on the basis of blind faith, ignoring the rational analysis tells us that there is nothing even in the longer term that can compensate us for the loss of £270bn-worth of EU trade.

As it thus stands, for the price of days of media excitement, we are no further forward than we were last December, and can only await for the non-committal response from M. Barnier that signals that not all is well in Brussels. The turgid traipse round Mr Escher's staircases can then continue, bringing us back to the point where we started, the only change being the expenditure of energy.

At this point, it is perhaps unsurprising that the media are making such a mess of reporting Brexit. But underlying this is an essential lack of honesty and a certain diffidence which prevents the headline articles calling out Mrs May's absence of strategy for what it is – an empty sham that is going nowhere.

For sure, columnists for the Guardian, writing at the margins, can indulge themselves in lightweight flights of rhetoric, describing Davis as "a fantasist in charge of a fantasy Brexit". But none of the big-hitters – such as they are – are prepared to call a halt to the fantasy.

And, while the Conservatives are making such a mess of things, Labour are not even trying to put up credible arguments on anything at all. The website LabourList, for instance, offers an article from Richard Corbett MEP, telling us why, "The EEA option is not the answer to Brexit".

"The EEA is often presented as the best way of remaining in the single market short of staying in the whole EU", says Corbett, "but the EEA as it is now does not cover agricultural or fisheries products, where our trade with Europe is of vital importance to the sectors concerned".

Corbett, a long-serving MEP and leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, should know better. The EEA Agreement does not (currently) cover the CAP or the CFP – although it could deal with these policies through the medium of country-specific protocols – but it does cover the cross-border treatment of agricultural and fishery products.

Not content with this error, the man goes on to say that, "the EEA is not in a customs union with the EU, meaning that goods may face a tariff (border tax)". But there again, there is Article 10 of the Agreement, which states that: "Customs duties on imports and exports, and any charges having equivalent effect, shall be prohibited between the Contracting Parties".

Clearly, Corbett has never read the EEA Agreement and, in order to write his misleading piece, he can't even be bothered to acquaint himself with the details. Despite that, though, Keir Starmer adds insult to injury by tweeting of the "clear analysis" from Corbett.

These grubby politicians now have such little respect for the electorate that they don't even go through the motions of working up a convincing case. Heedless of the fact that many readers have online access to the EEA Agreement and are familiar with its contents, they are prepared to deliver or endorse any tosh that will serve their purpose.

What I don't know and cannot estimate is how long it will take for us to reach critical mass, when we rise up in protest at the politicians who so easily treat us with utter contempt, and take direct action to end their insults.

Before that happens, though, the government may have to deal with the equivalent response from Brussels, as it too rebels (if that's the right word) at being treated with contempt.

We see the UK attitude writ large in its latest communication to the Commission, this one setting out a "framework for the UK-EU partnership on transport". Gone are the days of sober, well-crafted typescript reports. HMG now speaks in soundbites, in slide format with Janet and John graphics, taking a mere 19 pages to deal with policy issues which could (and should) easily run to a hundred pages or more.

In a mere eight, ludicrously truncated proposals for the aviation sector, HMG instructs the Commission that it is seeking a "comprehensive agreement on air transport, providing continuity of services and opportunities, supporting growth and innovation in the future".

The "wish list" includes the maintenance of arrangements for UK and EU licensed air carriers to operate air services to, from, and wholly within the territory of both the UK and EU on an equal basis(the so-called 7th and 9th freedoms), as well as "EASA participation" and cooperation on Air Traffic Management, without the slightest attempt to set out the details of any arrangements.

Compared with the serious tone of the relevant Notice to Stakeholders, this is an extraordinarily trivial production which should have no place in international diplomacy.

From such evidence, rather than listening to empty rattle of court gossip, one gets the impression that, like Corbett and Starmer, HMG has also given up trying. With no longer even the vaguest semblance of a plan, it is going through the motions, trudging up endless flights of stairs to get absolutely nowhere, hoping against hope that, one day, the pain will stop.

And sooner or later, the pain must stop. But it is then that the suffering will begin.

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