Richard North, 14/04/2019  

Any hope that the political-media nexus will take advantage of the six-month reprieve and actually focus of the technical issues of Brexit is fast dissipating. Media attention, evidently with the enthusiastic support of the politicians, is focused almost entirely on elections and leadership challenges, while the public seems to be retreating from the issue at warp speed.

The public response hardly seems surprising. The term "groundhog day" seems too weak a description for what is happening in a debate where we seem to be going round in circles. No issue ever seems to be settled and no claim is so crass that its advocates cannot repeat it, ad nauseum at every opportunity, no matter how many times it has been rebutted.

A classic example of this "cracked record" phenomenon came in Saturday's Telegraph, effectively pushing Sajid Javid's plan for a "digital border", which is said to be able to dispense with the Irish backstop.

In the narrative offered by the newspaper, the doughty home secretary commissioned his Border Force officials to work up a plan using Swiss-style technology to manage trade and tariffs and so avoid a hard border in Ireland. But, when the work was submitted to HMRC, allies of Mr Javid claimed, officials were "incredibly dismissive of it and were not interested".

It turns out that this is another resuscitation of the failed "Max Fac" idea, the so-called "zombie plan" – reflecting the number of times it has been put down, yet still rises from the dead. That it has been rejected by the grown-ups is hardly surprising. No other country in the world has managed to develop a technological solution to its border management, which avoids the need for checks at the border.

However, no one should be under any illusions that this is a serious or even genuine plan. With Matthew Elliott, former chief executive of Vote Leave, backing him, this is an opening shot for the as-yet undeclared Tory leadership campaign which is now the main concern of the parliamentary party. Brexit is now far down the list of priorities, as the battle to take over No. 10 gets under way.

On the other hand, the May/Corbyn talks seem to be going nowhere – although they are not officially dead yet. But, since the only substantive thing to come out of them seems to be a customs union – which solves nothing – we can no more look to them for our salvation than we can expect Mr Javid to ride to our rescue.

With that, and the substantial number of leavers committed to a no-deal Brexit, there seems to be no workable Brexit scenario on the horizon which has major backers in the political system. Effectively, at the heart of the Brexit debate is a huge vacuum, with nothing to grab the imagination of the public. We either have Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement, served cold, or nothing very much at all.

Under such circumstances, it is easy to get caught up in the speculation about a new Tory leader, the possibility of a general election or the line-up for the European elections – which still might not happen. Few people have studied the Withdrawal Agreement (all 585 pages of it), so there is next to no informed debate about how to fashion our future relationship with the EU, so as to avoid the backstop kicking in.

To all intents and purposes, with parliament having closed down for the holidays, Brexit has been abandoned, now serving only as a backdrop to our domestic politics. Even the European elections, if they happen, will be seen more as an opinion poll on the state of the parties, rather than any expression of choice as to who we want to represent us in Brussels.

On that basis, not only has Mrs May failed to deliver Brexit, she has sucked all the energy and life out of it, leaving us tired, dispirited and enervated. There is no enthusiasm for Brexit, not least because none of us knows what the final outcome is likely to be or where it will take us.

Whatever else, when I voted to leave the European Union, I certainly did not vote for a scenario that would have us bound to the Union by membership of the Single Market and the Customs Union.

Continuation of the EEA Agreement would, of course, have been perfectly acceptable, as this agreement was devised as an alternative to membership of the EU, for Efta states which wanted a close trading relationship with the EU but wanted to avoid political integration.

Not the least of the attractions of the EEA Agreement is that membership can be ended, with little formality, with one year's notice. It was always my intention that we should then work towards improving the agreement, turning it into a genuine trade partnership rather than the current, subordinate relationship, where the EU holds the high ground in framing new laws (even if they are of international origin).

Personally, I think that the arguments for this arrangement have been so badly handled, most recently by the advocates of the Common Market 2.0 plan, that there is very little chance of us being able to adopt the Efta/EEA option.

Even to this day, advocates fail to understand that there is no single EEA Agreement which covers all Efta States, but a series of adaptations to suit each Efta member – adaptations which have grown over the years. Nor have they understood that the Agreement covers limited ground and would leave many gaps in our relationship with the EU, which would either have to be filled by sectoral adaptations or bilateral treaties, or both.

If only we had some grown-ups in the political system, and the media, that could point up the complexity of such a task, and the obvious inference that it would take many years to conclude a comprehensive, workable agreement with the EU.

As my own understanding of this has grown, I have also concluded that the arrangement we would be looking for would be so advanced – in relation to anything the EU had agreed with any other third country - that we could not assume that the EU would even consider such an arrangement.

Three potential sticking points, of immediate concern, would be the need for a deep and comprehensive treaty on VAT, a comprehensive data protection agreement, and a level of participation in the EU's agencies which goes far beyond anything granted to an existing third country.

It is my view, therefore, that before we could even begin to get down to detailed negotiations with the EU, we would need a series of scoping meetings, with periods for reflection and debate. That process alone might take years.

Currently, with the debate totally stalled, unable to progress beyond the Withdrawal Agreement, the lack of forward-looking discussion gives rise to immense pessimism. It has taken us nearly three years to get to the stage of not finalising a withdrawal agreement. How much longer might it take to reach a national consensus on our future relationship?

There are those, as a result, who would see in this an argument for revoking the Article 50 notification and calling the whole thing off. But since the EU is already thinking about launching a new treaty process, this would solve nothing. It would only be a matter of time before we would be confronting another referendum, this one to ratify the new treaty. And if the nation refused to allow it, where would this place the UK?

By far the better solution is to recognise that the genie is out of the bottle, and then to acknowledge that we are totally unprepared for leaving. In the absence of the Efta/EEA option, all we can do is ask for an extended transitional period, to take the pressure off those who are looking for an acceptable resolution.

Right at the beginning, I was estimating that the Brexit process might take twenty years. Given how little we have achieved in three years, who is to say that that is wrong, or in any way exaggerated? To accept that we were in this for the long-haul would do much to re-frame the debate.

As it is, with the politicians and media taking every opportunity to avoid an adult debate, Brexit looks increasingly like a stricken ship whose captain has given the order to abandon ship. Unless Brexit is then to assume the status of a new age Flying Dutchman, doomed forever to sail the oceans of political discontent, we need to do something pretty radical. Manning the lifeboats is not a solution.

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