Richard North, 07/03/2019  

I wish it could come as some surprise, but it doesn't. One remains distinctly underwhelmed by the legacy media reports retailing the entirely predictable failure of the non-negotiations being carried out in Brussels.

Not untypical of the genre is the Mail which chortles to itself with the headline, "Europe says NON! Brexit talks in deadlock as UK walks away empty-handed", which it then follows up with the entirely predictable question: "is the PM running out of time before crunch Commons vote?"

The narrative here is that there was a "heated stand-off" between EU negotiators and attorney general Geoffrey Cox, whence the EU refused to grant the UK "very reasonable" assurances over the Irish border backstop.

Michel Barnier is said to be "still determined" and EU officials are reported as preparing to work round the clock this weekend, even though they are saying that it is "unlikely" an agreement will be reached before then and that talks will go down to the wire.

Even if they were able to pencil-in a provisional agreement by the end of the weekend, that would only leave Mrs May just 24 hours to travel to Brussels to endorse the new text on the Monday, before taking it back to be voted on by MPs the next day. And this is in the context where some of the more bolshie MPs are saying they want two days to study any new draft.

Still, at least this sort of report gives the media something to be reporting on in what would otherwise be a news vacuum as we while away the hours to the Tuesday vote, ready for another session of the eternal soap opera. And, even if no one can predict the outcome with any certainty, the general expectation is that parliament will, once again, refuse to ratify the withdrawal agreement.

To an extent, one can sympathise with the political hacks who have to keep the story moving despite there being nothing much of interest to report. At least most of them have a knife crime "epidemic" to keep them occupied, or even antisemitism in the Labour Party.

Those who have drawn the short straw can always fall back on the old faithful, predicting voting numbers to come up with a figure for how much Mrs May will lose. The Telegraph is heavily into this, setting the expected defeat at 100 votes. But, it says, Downing Street is already making plans for a third attempt, and Mrs May is considering making a major speech on Friday to plead for support from MPs.

At least a hundred down will not be quite as devastating as the 230 majority against the first attempt to ratify. One supposes that if Mrs May can cut that figure by more than a half, if she keeps repeating the vote she may eventually get the majority she needs. There is talk even of another vote in the week commencing 18 March.

The Times on the other hand seems to have given up on Brexit, devoting its attention to British billionaires and tax havens, while the Financial Times comes up with the startling news that the Brexit impasse is raising fears in Downing Street that Mrs May is losing control. We'd never have guessed that one.

To add to the entertainment, though, some media sources are reporting on how the government has set up "expert" panels to develop alternatives to the backstop. It is intended that these panels will help influence the UK's position in the talks, including looking at how other borders operate and the use of "cutting-edge" technology, all with a view of avoiding a hard border.

This comes on the back of £20 million funding to support the development of ideas which emerge from the work, although it has still not been explained how any of these alternatives will be able to deal with the full range of checks needed, in the absence of cross border cooperation agreements.

It is all very well arguing that, in the fullness of time, a combination of political agreements and technological trade facilitation measures may be able to reduce border checks to a minimum, but nothing is going to take the place of the Withdrawal Agreement in the short-term.

Before we can ever get to the stage where we can explore facilitation measures, MPs will have to bite the bullet and ratify the WA, otherwise the full range of border controls kicks in automatically.

Then, of course, there will never be frictionless trade unless there is a firm commitment on the part of the UK to retain regulatory harmonisation with the EU, while also keeping common surveillance and enforcement systems in place.

Setting up the arrangements outside the framework of the Efta/EEA systems would be theoretically possible, but complex and time consuming. We would struggle to do it within the 21-month implementation period, and would most likely have to look for a time extension in order to get everything in place, especially if we intended to rely on innovative technology.

There is also the issue which we all failed to address during the referendum campaign – VAT harmonisation. Even the systems prevailing in Efta/EEA states, and with Switzerland, would not ensure a soft border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. We would need to sign up to a comprehensive VAT treaty with the EU, the extent of which currently does not exist outside the EU.

Those who seem to take delight in picking holes in the thinking that has emerged on this, through the blog and in the different editions of Flexcit, need to remember that we recommended settling our post-Brexit relationship with the EU before making our Article 50 notification.

I also suggested that it might be necessary to apply for a time extension before we even got down to the negotiations, with the suggestion that it could take as long as 20 years for us to finalise our trading relations.

In other words, if we were going to come up with our own ideas for the trading relationship with the EU, we needed to have started work immediately after the referendum. Leaving it to the last minute, after an agreement had already been signed off, is hardly a sensible approach.

As it now stands, we need to hope that there is plenty of scope for innovative systems, as the so-called Norway option is now all but dead in the water. Certainly, the much vaunted Common Market 2.0 is no answer, and with Jeremy Corbyn reaching out to its Tory MP supporters, one can take it that the idea has no future.

To an extent, there has been far too much emphasis on structures and labels – even if the various supporters rarely seem to understand the implications of the systems they favour. The important thing to realise is that, given goodwill on all sides, the eventual structures adopted are perhaps of less importance than the guiding frameworks.

A crucial determinant of success – whatever the structure chosen - will be the UK commitment to maintain the harmonisation of regulation, surveillance and enforcement in matters concerning cross-border trade with the EU.

As a taster for what things might look like in the shorter term, we've being hearing reports of long queues of lorries outside Calais, as customs officials took industrial action in a bid for more resources – seeking to show what pressures would apply after Brexit.

Yesterday, saw reports of delays spreading to Eurostar services as French customs staff replicated the sorts of checks which may be required once we have left the EU.

Train services between Paris and London suffered long delays, with trains leaving up to two hours late as thousands of passengers were forced to queue up through passport controls (pictured), with customs officials taking longer to question travellers and running baggage checks.

Vincent Thomazo, of France's UNSA customs union, said, "We are making sure controls are very strict", adding that the "delays and long queues" proved how customs and security staff were not equipped to cope. Trade union leaders are insisting that they "don't have the resources to cope adequately" with Brexit and wanted management to see how incredibly difficult the job was going to become.

Whether in fact this really represents what might happen in the immediate aftermath of Brexit no one really knows. But when it comes to France there is always a possibility of industrial action, which may slow down or halt goods or passenger processing. One might even see French farmers (or fishermen) blockade ports such as Calais, seeking to prevent UK goods being landed.

Therefore, one might look upon the last few days as training days, preparing people for the chaos to come – or not. For such a long time now, it has been impossible to predict the outcome of Brexit, and things don't seem to be getting any better.

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