Richard North, 22/08/2019  

Laid out unequivocally in the European Council (Art. 50) guidelines for Brexit negotiations is one of the core principles which set the tone for the talks.

Any agreement, the guidelines say, "must ensure a level playing field, notably in terms of competition and state aid, and in this regard encompass safeguards against unfair competitive advantages through, inter alia, tax, social, environmental and regulatory measures and practices".

In short, that means that the UK will not be allowed to negotiate an agreement which puts it in a better position after Brexit than it would have had as a full EU member, and neither can it be allowed to have greater influence over EU affairs than it had previously.

When it comes to the Single Market, these guidelines readily translate into certain unalterable requirements which would, in effect, amount to the EU's own "red lines".

Specifically, a dominant feature of the Single Market is the body of harmonised regulatory standards, and it is an absolute requirement that Member States should conform fully with those standards. Not only that – except under the most exceptional circumstances – traders wishing to export goods to EU Member States must also conform fully with those same standards.

This is the very basis of the Single Market, where huge effort is devoted to ensuring conformity, and any divergence from set standards is rigorously discouraged.

Yet, in his letter to Donald Tusk this week, the man occupying the post of prime minister blithely stated that he was seeking to ditch the backstop, with its commitment to "full alignment" with wide areas of the single market and the customs union. That, said Johnson, "cannot be the basis for the future relationship and it is not a basis for the sound governance of Northern Ireland".

Instead, Johnson has been making reference to "alternative arrangements", which he re-emphasised in Berlin yesterday, saying: "We do think there are alternative arrangements that could readily be used to address the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border and you'll have heard them before, whether it is trusted trader schemes or electronic pre-clearing. All that type of solution and more besides is what we will be wanting to discuss".

Doubtless, he has in mind "Snake Oil" Singham's Alternative Arrangements Commission and his ideas on mutual recognition – the adoption of which is the only way that frictionless trade across the border could be maintained without regulatory alignment.

And sure enough, no sooner has Mrs Merkel told the prime minister in office that she would be prepared to listen to his proposals for an alternative to the backstop – ostensibly giving him 30 days to come forward with a "practical and workable" scheme – up pops the egregious Singham in the Telegraph.

With a level of hubris which is probably only exceeded by the second Cummings, he blithely declares that the EU leaders "have got it wrong" and that there are plenty of solutions to the Irish border problem.

Then, in an extraordinary statement – even for him – Singham asserts that "it is now recognised that there will be regulatory divergence", going on to say that: "If there is any alignment to be had, it will be alignment of goals. If our aims are aligned and the regulations put in place objectively achieve them then differences in regulation should not prevent mutual recognition".

Of course, it is very far from being recognised that there will be regulatory divergence. This is wishful thinking to a very advanced degree. The essential feature of the backstop is regulatory alignment and the EU has not moved one iota from this principle.

Furthermore, if you stand back from this and consider what is being proposed, Singham is expecting the EU Member States (and the rest of the world) to conform with the Single Market's harmonised standards, while uniquely allowing the UK to set its own standards. It should then enjoy "frictionless" access to the Market which, to everyone else, is conditional on regulatory alignment.

Not only does this give the UK an unfair competitive advantage, it also puts us in a far better position than we enjoyed as an EU member. Inside the EU, we were bound to comply with EU law. Outside, Singham expects us to enjoy all the benefits of the Single Market without having to trouble ourselves with conformity with its most fundamental precept.

And should the EU actually allow such a situation, not only would it be in breach of its own principles, it would be driving a cart and horse through EU rules, and in particular the requirement to apply the same rules to all its trading partners.

Thus, should the EU allow the UK to work on the basis of mutual recognition, it would be under enormous pressure to open that concession to all its other partners. The Single Market, as we know it, would cease to exist.

Clearly, there is not the slightest chance that the EU is going to accept Singham's idiot proposal and it is to the eternal shame of the Telegraph that they give space to such a lamentable absence of realism.

Nor indeed does it stop there. Where currently the UK enjoys the benefit if mutual recognition, where there are no harmonised standards, that provision ceases on Brexit – deal or no deal. Mutual recognition of standards applies only to fully-fledged participants in the Single Market.

While variously estimated as accounting for as much as a fifth of our trade in goods with EU Member States, I cannot recall seeing any serious discussion in the media or by politicians about this loss, yet there can be little dispute that it will represent a severe body-blow to the UK.

The inability to address such points does, of course, reflect poorly on both media and politicians but there seems to be no limit to the degree to which the likes of Singham are given undisputed platforms to perpetrate his disinformation.

Despite his assertions being demonstrably false, Singham is still allowed to claim that the challenge of sanitary and phytosanitary measures, as well as the requirements for veterinary checks at Border Inspection Posts, " could be solved by moving facilities away from the border and utilising mobile units wherever possible to carry out checks".

Not anyone, it seems, in either a select committee or on the editorial staff of a national newspaper – nor even in critical trade groups – is capable of looking up the relevant EU law to show that these claims are entirely fabricated. And, as long as your lies are bold enough, the Telegraph will print them.

But where this fantasy takes us is anyone's guess. If Johnson is relying on Singham's "alternative arrangements", then he is going to come a cropper. A scheme based on lies and misinterpretations is not a sound basis for public policy, but it appears that Johnson doesn't have the wit to realise this.

Nor does he seem to understand that Merkel is not talking about reopening the negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement. All that is on offer is another massage of the political declaration, which can hardly deliver more than we have already seen with the Strasbourg Agreement. Johnson is not going to get the backstop removed.

If there was even the slightest doubt about that, today he meets Macron over lunch in Paris, where officials warn that a no-deal Brexit is now regarded as "the most likely outcome", while Macron is taking pains to emphasise that a renegotiation at this point "is not an option".

Scrapping the backstop, he says, is "impossible", presenting the EU an unacceptable choice between protecting its internal market by reintroducing border controls at the Irish border, or preserving peace on the island.

A French official puts the issue nicely in context, saying that: "If the UK considers that having a backstop is absolutely excluded, that is its right, but in that case it limits the possibility of reaching an agreement". And it was supposed to be the British who were masters of understatement.

Macron, though, is even more forthright, pointing to a "British democratic crisis" over Brexit. "The British were asked to choose, in perhaps a simplistic way, without the government telling them how it would be done" he says.

"Many lied about how it would be done, and democracy couldn't find a majority to apply what people decided. It's unheard of, but that's what we're living. We have to help the British deal with this internal democratic crisis, but we mustn't be hostage to it nor export it".

It comes to something when we have a French president lecturing us on a "democratic crisis", but before Brexit is over, I guess we'll be seeing a lot stranger things. Fantasy politics are fast becoming the new norm.

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