Richard North, 11/06/2018  

So we prepare for the tedium of wasted days in Parliament as MPs gather to debate and vote on a series of amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill. The waste is evident as, whatever the outcome(s), they will have no impact whatsoever on the Brexit talks.

Pride of place – if that's the right term – is a fatuous amendment tabled by Labour, under the aegis of Kier Starmer, which seeks to add to the Bill the following:
It shall be a negotiating objective of Her Majesty's Government to ensure the United Kingdom has full access to the internal market of the European Union, underpinned by shared institutions and regulations, with no new impediments to trade and common rights, standards and protections as a minimum.
We've been through this, of course. You can't have access, full or otherwise, to the internal market – aka Single Market. As a regulatory union, you can either be in it, participating fully, or you're out. There is nothing in the middle.

This is why terminology, and its precise use, is important – presupposing that there is a basic understanding of the underlying concepts which give rise to the terminology.

It would have helped if the European Union itself had avoided the term "internal market" and used the more graphic "regulatory union". That would have avoided a lot of confusion and, perhaps, allowed us to avoid a few of the more obvious conceptual pitfalls.

Nevertheless, the concept is not that hard to understand. The "regulatory union" means that its members adopt common rules, common administrative, surveillance and enforcement systems, and common dispute resolution. They must also accept the jurisdiction of a governing body which has to power to monitor and enforce compliance with the rules and systems which bind its members.

But then, just supposing the Starmer amendment was passed, and adopted by the government. Mr Davis would toddle off to Brussels and knock on M. Barnier's door and ask him if we could have "full access to the Single Market".

The Commission is just as capable of imprecise language as the best of us but, if Michel was on the ball, he would say, "Mais oui Monsieur, you can 'aff access to the markets of our members. But, he will tell us, that means you must stay in the regulatory union, with all that that entails – including the four freedoms, most notably freedom of movement.

But, it's there, via the very mouth of Keir Starmer, that we find ourselves entering a whole new world of Alice in Wonderland.

Marr does suggest the EEA as an option but this is dismissed by Starmer. Not too well up on his history, he tells Marr that the EEA was the agreement hatched out in 1992 by Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. In fact, there were seven Efta countries originally party to the Final Act: Austria, Finland, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.

It may be a minor point but it goes to the man's concern for accuracy and his powers of observation. In the EEA, Starmer goes on to say, you are not in a customs union with the EU. To test that proposition, he went to Norway and then to the Norway-Sweden border to see for himself what an EEA border looked like.

All he learns from the experience, though, is that "there is infrastructure there, there are checks there, you have to hand in your papers". On that basis, he asserts, "it is totally incompatible with a solemn commitment to no hard border in Northern Ireland".

One has to say that if Starmer was really committed to a solution, he would have dug a little deeper. The border between Norway and Sweden is as "hard" as the two countries want it to be, or will tolerate. Within the framework of the EEA, cross-border checks are limited but the countries have come to an acceptable solution. Given the political will, the investment in more sophisticated system would follow and the hard elements of the border would disappear.

Outwith the EEA, however, he falls back on his amendment, declaring that we should "step back" and "accept the challenge about the single market" - set out "in a way that makes sense for the 21st century for the UK".

This, he recognises, means that "there are going to have to be shared regulations and shared institutions". In Northern Ireland, he says, "you can't have standards one side of the border with different standards the other side of the border. Everybody, I think, knows and understands that".

But, on the "indivisible" question of freedom of movement, he says, "that's going to have to be part of the negotiations". He reminds Marr that, in the Labour manifesto , it was made clear that freedom of movement would end when we leave the EU.

Marr, not unsurprisingly, observes that Labour wants "all the advantages" plus "no freedom of movement", to which Starmer asserts that the obligations of the single market are that "you share regulations, you have common standards and that you have shared institutions".

For once, Marr sticks to his guns and insists that this means "you're part of the four freedoms, which includes freedom of movement", leaving Starmer to tell us that "we're facing up to that". If you talk to the EU 27, he says, "there is lots of shared concern about what the future of freedom of movement is. That's the debate that ought to be going on. That's the debate that ought to have happened over the last 18 months".

"We would", Starmer adds, "have to negotiate on the four freedoms, freedom of movement. We need to set out what we want, because this conversation is in a vacuum at the moment".

OK. So, despite Barnier having said again and again that the four freedoms are "indivisible", making it perfectly plain any variation is non-negotiable, Starmer wants to send the UK government back to Brussels to, er … negotiate away freedom of movement.

But it doesn't stop there. In Starmer's brave new Europe, we would also have a customs union with the EU. "We're going to have to have a new agreement", he says, declaring:
We need a single market deal. At the moment both the customs union arrangements and the single market arrangements are hardwired into the membership agreement. We’re leaving that, we need to recreate the right agreement for the UK, which will be a new agreement. And that really is – that should've been the focus of what we're discussing.
What Starmer is proposing, though, is utter moonshine. It is so crass that one can scarcely believe that he could propose it with a straight face. Yet, in so doing, he rejects the one option – supported by MPs in his own party, which could deliver a solution.

As I observed yesterday, within the context of the EEA Agreement, the four freedoms are not "indivisible". But, rather than a possibility, he goes for an Alice in Wonderland fantasy that has not the slightest chance of being accepted by the EU – and none of getting through the Commons.

However, it seems that the real drama is being reserved for the demand for a "meaningful vote", which is said to be a "deciding factor" in Mrs May's future, allowing parliament to reject the any withdrawal agreement that the government finally settles with Brussels.

Yet this is another fatuous exercise. If the agreement was rejected, there is no provision for the negotiations to be re-opened and there is no time anyway. The outcome would, inevitably mean that we ended up with no deal.

But the real issue is that we're headed for a "no deal" scenario. The logjam over Ireland has not been resolved and there are no indications that it will be. And, on that basis, it might be more appropriate for parliament to be pressing for the government to secure an agreement, rather than indulging in party games that makes its job even harder.

That said, given the government's current form, it really doesn't matter one way or the other. If the government can't reach an equitable exit agreement with the EU, the Withdrawal Bill is of secondary importance. A "no deal" exit will precipitate economic disaster.

Sadly though, the media (and the politicians) are in their comfort zone. This is "biff-bam" personality politics centred on Westminster, where the "lobby" can play to its heart's content. But when the action is over and the noise abates, we will be no further forward than we are now.

Having done nothing but go round in circles, we'll be a little bit more bored and perhaps even more disillusioned, but no further forward.

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