Richard North, 09/10/2018  

It's getting to the point where the reporting on Brexit isn't making any sense. For sure, journalists are trying to second-guess what may or may not be agreed as part of the withdrawal settlement, but we seem to be dealing with people who don't understand how the current system works.

For instance, the ever diligent Guardian is writing about a "new concept" of a veterinary deal between the EU and the UK to cover essential health checks on food produce between the UK mainland and Northern Ireland.

Under present EU law, the Guardian writers say, all products of animal origin ranging from cheese to frozen chicken coming from non-EU countries are required to undergo health and safety checks. Sometimes these involve laboratory tests and often require containers to be fully unloaded at special border inspection posts, they say.

Referring to "health and safety checks" is such amateur stuff, but we can let that pass. But what really jars is their claim that "one of the new suggestions" on the table in Brussels is that the scale of checks could be reduced from 100 percent to 30 percent trade talks go well up to 2020.

The thing is here that the normal rate of inspection is 20 percent. Concessionary rates, as with New Zealand, can drop to as low one percent. A 30 percent inspection rate is no concession at all. 

Making more sense is the assertion that "market surveillance" procedures will continue for goods destined for Ireland. Making no sense at all though, is the next apparent concession. Up until now, we are told, it has been reported that these checks would take place in British ports such as Holyhead and Liverpool. Now, it is understood that under the EU proposals, the checks would be done on premises, distribution centres and ports across the UK.

The point here, though, is that "market surveillance" means what it says – monitoring the performance of a product or system in its marketing environment. Largely, this involves the collection of information from a wide range of sources – from consumer complaints to the results of routine testing by official bodies. Not in any normal context can "surveillance" be interpreted as spot checks at any particular location.

The interpretation of what might be, therefore, is so wide of the mark that there is nothing we can learn from it. It looks as if we'll have to wait until we get some official documentation, where we can see what is really intended (if anything).

The same goes for what might or might not transpire at the October European Council - what people insist on calling the "summit". So far, the consensus from diverse media reports is that nothing formal is going to be submitted, while the Dominic Raab is not even going to Brussels this week.

Mrs May, on the other hand, is insisting that the apparent optimism coming out of Brussels is over-egged, a way of heaping pressure on the UK. She is warning that there are still "big issues" to settle and is demanding concessions on the Irish border issue.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the truth has a habit of leaking out from the most unexpected of quarters. Via an independent Cornish councillor, we learn that Brittany Ferries are concerned about the impact of Brexit could have on the ferry service between Plymouth and Roscoff.

Brittany Ferries have been warned that every vessel carrying refrigerated goods, food and other natural products may face inspections upon arrival in France after Brexit, with around a third of the 210,000 freight units carried by Brittany Ferries every year affected.

The firm said this would need infrastructure such as huge warehouses to carry out the task and those do not exist in Roscoff and other French ports and it is unlikely to be in place by March next year.

According to this report, Brittany Ferries also said there was a risk that some ports could be excluded from post-Brexit preparations entirely, which would mean there would be fewer entry points into France for hauliers.

The company’s CEO Christophe Mathieu said: "The British may take a pragmatic approach and wave lorries through upon arrival into the UK, but cross-Channel trade works both ways".

"In a worst case scenario", he said, " British hauliers carrying refrigerated goods could face the prospect of far longer journeys – perhaps hundreds of additional miles – to find a French port equipped to process their consignment. When they finally get there they could encounter further delays waiting for checks to take place".

How interesting it is that we haven't had such clarity from other ferry operators, but all Mr Mathieu is doing is stating the obvious, facts already known to readers of this blog for a considerable time. And nothing so far has happened to prevent this becoming the inevitable outcome.

In some respects, though, the situation is worse than is painted. Once we leave the EU, we cannot simply revert to pre-EEC days and pick up where we left off. Some of the systems and procedures which sustained us before we joined no longer exist and cannot easily be restored – if at all.

Before the "completion" of the Single Market, for instance, this country operated a system of meat inspection based on local authority environmental health officers (EHOs), working within a traditional framework of a public health system dominated by medical professionals.

For reasons lost in the sands of time, meat inspections on the continent have developed as centralised services under veterinary control, the basis of which has been used as a model for the EU, leading to the dismantling of the established UK system.

With little in the way of a veterinary public health resource in the UK, however, to run the service in a way alien to the UK has required the import of cheap vets from EU Member States, contracted out by entrepreneurs to the state inspection service to act as "official veterinary surgeons" (OVSs) in UK slaughterhouses. But now that we are leaving the EU, many of those vets are going home and replacements are not forthcoming.

One of those entrepreneurs has become exceedingly rich by exploiting foreign vets, (very often young, recently qualified and inexperienced) and selling their services at top dollar rates, with UK abattoirs forced under EU law to pay for their presence. And now he is whingeing that Brexit "has the potential to decimate the United Kingdom's veterinary, food and agricultural sectors".

This is Dr Jason Aldiss, managing director of the well-named Eville & Jones, who claims that the UK will be "in deep peril" if a post-Brexit deal with Brussels does not include "guaranteed access to properly-qualified vets from other EU states and mutual recognition of professional veterinary qualifications".

There is, he says, already a veterinary recruitment and retention crisis in the UK, and that problem is getting worse. Currently, 45 percent of UK government vet posts are filled by vets from other EU member states and 95 percent of OVSs are non-UK EU vets. With less than six months to go until Brexit, there is still no guarantee than these individuals will be allowed to remain in post.

In the absence of these cheap vets, there are not enough UK vets to do the work. And not only don't they want to do it, they are too expensive. The additional costs would bankrupt the meat industry. However, the EHOs who once did the work are no longer trained for it, and also don't want to do the work.

What we should have done, of course, is sought recognition of our EHOs under EU law, which would have enabled us to maintain traditional (and more cost-effective) services. But now the system is broken, like Humpty Dumpty, it's not going to be possible to put all the pieces back together again.

That will leave the UK struggling to maintain EU export standards, which we've allowed to become based on veterinary inspection, which means that the meat industry will find it increasingly difficult to keep up current export volumes – with operating margins also under pressure.

Nothing of this, though, is understood by the media pundits, and our own government negotiators seem to be unaware of the implications of breaking with the EU. Short of staying in the EEA, nothing is going to fix this in a hurry. Certainly, a free trade agreement is not going to afford any relief.

And this brings us back to where we started with this piece. So few people understand in detail how systems work that they are unaware of what happens when you break them. And then they don't have the first idea of how to fix them.

We thus have negotiators circling round the margins of complex agreements, trying to find political fixes which simply will not deliver the goods. Small wonder the over-riding impression is one of confusion, as the Mrs May's men confront the impossible task of putting Humpty together again.

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