Richard North, 31/08/2019  

It was not so very long ago that I wrote a piece on negativity, one of several I've written on this general theme. This one concluded that, when it came to Brexit, it wasn't only parliament that was clear on what it didn't want, but without ideas of what it did want. The whole nation seemed stricken by that same, overpowering sense of negativity.

I was minded of this when reading some of the comments to yesterday's piece. There is nothing so certain to bring out the naysayers than offering a solution (or solutions) to an intractable problem.

Here, there is an interesting dynamic at play. Generally speaking, we tend to respond (with more intensity and length) to matters with which we disagree. I'm as bad as the rest, where my longer posts on this blog's comment section tend to be devoted to disagreeing with other comments (although mainly because they disagree with mine).

Posts with which we agree, and especially in areas where we have little personal commitment, we tend (and I am talking about tendencies) to let pass by. And nobody wants to be seen a toady or sycophant. Some of the more disgustingly vitriolic posts that I have had to delete from this site have been those which make quite explicit attacks on readers who have committed the mortal offence of agreeing with me.

On balance, therefore, there is a bias in favour of critical comment. If I write a piece which is critical of either people or things, I can be pretty well assured of some support on the blog. When I promote something, the naysayers come out in force while supporters tend to be silent.

This is not a tendency confined to this blog – not by any means. Most of the newspaper and political sites host huge volumes of hostile comment, so much so that one ventures a contrary opinion with the greatest of trepidation. Comment sites have become the domain of mob rule and the death of reasoned discourse.

If one is to attempt to apply reason to Brexit, therefore, there are likely to be many people who agree with the findings, but say nothing. On a day when my hit-rate might exceed 60,000, the views of maybe 200 commenters (at most) may dominate the post-publication discussion – the majority of their comments may well be contrarian, painting a completely false picture of reader sentiment.

Many of them will struggle to remain on-topic and will seek any excuse to depart from the issues at hand. With some responses, one sometimes wonders whether they've read the posts to which they are linking. In some cases, one wonders whether they've ever read the blog at all.

Nevertheless, in the final analysis – to use that dreadful cliché – reason must eventually prevail. A real world requires real solutions to practical problems and, while the politicians may beat about the bushes for ages before coming to a conclusion, even they eventually have to concede to reality or be replaced by people who will.

When it comes to the Irish backstop, therefore, reason will eventually have to prevail – simply because it must. There is no point at which an unsound doctrine can survive for all time, without something having to give. Mind you, when it comes to Ireland, what might be seen by outsiders as fairly simple matters to deal with have taken centuries to remain unresolved.

However, the backstop is not about Ireland – per se. The trouble is that explaining this gets repetitive and, after a while, one gets tired of repeating the same things. Those pushing the errors, with a wider constituency, thus start to dominate what passes for the debate – simply by dint of greater perseverance.

But right at the heart of this issue is the simple, unalterable fact that, with Brexit, what was once an internal land border in the European Union now becomes the external border between the EU and the newly defined "third country" state of the United Kingdom.

Under any normal circumstances – if there could ever be such a thing in what is a unique situation – there would be no discussion about border controls. They would apply automatically. The analogy I offered, some time ago, still stands.

You must imagine, I wrote, a medieval walled city, inside which the traders happily do business – with the public and between themselves – secure within the fortifications. When a trader (unhappy with the rules and regulations) decides to move his stall outside the walls, he cannot then complain that he is no longer able to trade freely with the people still inside.

It is not as if the authorities of the walled city have decided to impose new barriers between the unhappy trader and the rest. The walls already existed. Our unhappy trader has moved outside them.

Less easy to understand is the fact that we are not dealing with physical barriers but with tariffs and the far more important non-tariff barriers (NTBs) – mostly regulatory barriers.

In the latter event, the only way of restoring trading equilibrium is to ensure not only regulatory alignment but also full conformity with what is now referred to as the "regulatory ecosystem". As again I've pointed out earlier, regulatory alignment is only the starter for ten. We need the full package, which extends way past mere "equivalence" or "mutual recognition".

Now we come to the particular situation of Northern Ireland. If the full EU package must remain in place for there to be frictionless trade, this potentially creates trading barriers between the province and the rest of the United Kingdom – something which is politically unacceptable to a significant and influential Unionist constituency.

Thus, to avoid the creation of what amount to an external border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, the rest of the UK must then adopt the full regulatory package – unless "alternative arrangements" to like effect can be agreed. And if they can't, within the time – that's where the backstop comes in.

Now, when one looks at the situation rationally, it is self-evident that there are very few workable solutions to this impasse. We are not spoilt for choice here and it is certainly the case that the fraudulent "alternative arrangements" worked up by Shanker Singham and espoused by prime-minister-in office Johnson are not a solution.

One thing that would work is the Efta/EEA option, with new, bolt-on protocols covering such matters as customs, VAT and data protection. The UK, with its past history of integration as a member of the EU, would also have to agree protocols which kept policies akin to the CAP and CFP in place. There is too much water under the bridge – so to speak – for us to walk away from these core EU policies. At the very least, we would need a prolonged transition.

Perversely – and certainly unintended – Johnson's prorogation of parliament, thus creating a new parliamentary session, has opened a new window of opportunity for the Efta/EEA option. It allows the Withdrawal Agreement to be represented to parliament as is, and allows for a workable solution to ensure that the backstop never comes into effect.

And that is why the so-called "Norway Option" must be revisited – and urgently. It is the only credible option which will resolve the Brexit impasse. And that's why it will always bring out the naysayers in force – especially those who don't want a solution at any price.

Irrespective of the chance of success - which is slight - it would be remiss of us if we didn't go the last mile to bring to the attention of politicians the one remaining prospect of a successful Brexit, avoiding the economic trauma of a no-deal. The politicians will probably ignore us – as they usually do – but they can't say they haven't been told.

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