Richard North, 12/01/2019  

David Davis has been talking to Spiegel, repeating the same nostrums he has been pushing through the UK media: we should not be afraid of a no-deal.

Dismissing fears of food shortages and other "scare stories", he also asserted that it is unlikely that (the ferry traffic between) Calais and Dover will "choke up", arguing that "the head of French customs has already said they could change the inspection regime to make sure that business runs smoothly".

If that is not possible, he says, "we can move 40 percent of the trade from Dover-Calais to other ports". Practical concerns are "real" but "limited" and there "may well be lorry queues". We "may even see some hostile action by European states" but within a year, "everything will be ironed out".

For that, we can at least thank Mr Davis for setting out what amounts to the ERG position – an incurable, unsupported optimism that brooks no argument: there may be limited problems with a no-deal Brexit but, after a year, everything will be fine.

And even though nothing of what Davis says is true, in the final analysis, the only certain way to challenge this thesis is to let it happen. Nevertheless, we can bring forward more refined predictions, using a far better standard of evidence, which would suggest that Davis is wrong – very wrong. That, in fact, we've already done, but against the torrent of misinformation and indifference, it is not enough.

But this is not just our failure. Such is the febrile nature of the debate that there is no one who could turn the tide. There are those with far greater ranking and influence than we enjoy, who also complain that they are not being given a hearing.

With a prime minister notorious for her secretive behaviour and her lack of responsiveness, there is no hope of influencing events from the outside. Not even parliament is capable of making the lady turn. Most likely, the die is cast and we will end up with the accidental no-deal scenario.

There is always a chance, however, that MPs will bottle out and realise that a no-deal is not a credible option. While that may not change the outcome of next Tuesday's vote, I don't think many people expect this to be the last word. By whatever means, Mrs May is expected to manoeuvre parliament into another vote, which may or may not deliver the negotiated withdrawal agreement.

If parliament ends up ratifying the agreement, then we will have the benefit of the transitional period, which will buy us some time – and then open the debate to embrace our future relationship with the EU. That should keep us occupied for a few years, while the talks are in progress.

The no-deal, on the other hand, will also keep us busy but in a different way. Initially, we will be charting the growing disaster, interspersed with some judicious expressions of "I told you so", and an amount of synchronised gloating.

Nevertheless, there is no point at which a no-deal is the end game. It will create an unsustainable situation that will require remedy. In the short-term, there will have to be a series of emergency fixes, to keep some sort of a show on the road, and a measure of retrenching as all parties struggle to get used to what in some respects will become the new normal.

The situation is not aided by the European Parliament elections, the end of this Commission's mandate and the appointment of a new Commission president. It will be November, or even later, before the EU is in a position to entertain serious negotiations with the UK, by which time we could be living in a world that has changed irrevocably.

Possibly, at that stage, the UK will be engaged in the process of rebuilding a shattered economy, and be looking for something not dissimilar to the post-war Marshall Plan. Or perhaps David Davis will be proved right: after a short period of perturbation, we shall be on the way to the sunlit uplands, with the rest of the world flocking to our door, anxious to negotiate new trade deals with us.

Frankly, I would love to be wrong and have my pessimism swept aside. But, if I'm not, I will have a great deal to write about how so many people got it wrong, and what we need to do to salvage something from the wreckage.

For the moment, though – with the situation so uncertain and with 76 days to go before we can be certain that we have left the EU – it is too early to start setting out plans for the future. To do so might even presuppose we have a future as a nation, other than one of a slow decline into national penury.

Yet, for all that, there are many areas where attention to detail would yield dividends, and provide answers to pressing problems identified by the Brexit process. Had the likes of David Davis, IDS and others in the ERG focused on such details, they might have been able to offer solutions which did not involve outright lies or require distorting the evidence.

For instance, having to confront the inconvenience of sanitary and phytosanitary border inspections, the group has been tearing itself apart, trying to find ways of circumventing requirements or reducing the impact of what is a make-or-break issue.

In their desperation, they are seeking to bend EU law, pretending that inspections can be carried out away from the ports, as a means of easing the congestion that will inevitably arise once the controls are applied.

Yet, as I remarked yesterday, there is a partial answer in Regulation (EC) No 882/2004, which currently sets out the "official controls" on foods imported from third countries, as will be the UK when it leaves the EU.

The Regulation (Article 23) makes provision for pre-export controls in the country of origin, in which event the UK could perhaps build a giant inspection facility outside Dover, to be operated under EU supervision. It might look rather like the unit in Bilbao (pictured), and perhaps situated outside Ashford. After loads had been inspected, I wrote, vehicles could be sealed and then directed by a supervised transit corridor (under continuous CCTV observation) direct to the ferries or shuttle.

As the law stands, this would not remove EU import controls applied at the border, or the requirement to present consignments comprising foods of animal origin to Border Inspection Posts. But, on the basis of an agreement with the Commission, it can substantially reduce the frequency of inspection.

And, just for once, things are set to get better. On 14 December 2019, a replacement law, Regulation (EU) 2017/625 (Article 73), takes effect. Similar in nature to its predecessor, there is an important difference in that it allows under certain circumstances the pre-export controls to replace the official controls applied on entry.

The nature and extent of the pre-export controls would have to be negotiated with the Commission but, potentially, an agreement could resolve a major problem that comes with Brexit.

And, as this one example demonstrates, even when problems seem intractable, there are often solutions if you know where to find them. An inspection centre for pre-export controls would cost only a fraction of the money that Mr Grayling wants to spend on additional ferry capacity, and would do far more to reduce port congestion than his meagre efforts.

One wonders why the government's lavishly-paid consultants haven't come up with this idea for their £75 million, or why the government hasn't spent the money on such an eminently practical solution rather than frittering it away on over-priced consultants.

And taking this approach is the way we might have to tackle the post-Brexit no-deal scenario. The "big bang" solution was perhaps too much to ask of this government. We will find ourselves solving one problem at a time.

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