Richard North, 04/02/2020  

I don't think I've ever read such a disjointed, badly drafted speech from any prime minister as the one delivered by Johnson yesterday. Totally lacking in gravitas, the whole thing was an embarrassing muddle.

Or, as Graham Lithgow put it, "Not to call Boris Johnson incoherent, but you'd get more sense out of a lethally intoxicated acid casualty attempting to recite the Gettysburg Address with a swarm of locusts in his mouth".

It is perhaps unsurprising that Downing Street excluded the Guardian's John Crace from the venue in the Greenwich Old Royal Naval College. A speech on the eve of vitally important trade talks with the EU, that opened with a description of James Thornhill's ceiling decorations in the Painted Hall as "gorgeous and slightly bonkers", is beyond parody.

And what can one make of the description of the UK as a "country ready to take off its Clark Kent spectacles and leap into the phone booth and emerge with its cloak flowing as the supercharged champion, of the right of the populations of the earth to buy and sell freely among each other"?

Not so very much better is the written statement to parliament, although it is written in a more sober fashion, setting out the government's proposed approach to the negotiations with the EU about our future relationship.

These contrast with the European Commission's press release, and a measured statement from Michel Barnier to introduce the Commission's recommendations on the EU's negotiating mandate.

Not hours after the delivery of Johnson's speech, we had the "take" from the Mail, headlined: "Boris Johnson slaps down Michel Barnier saying Britain will NOT obey Brussels rules to get a trade deal - after EU negotiator demands the UK commits to a 'level playing field' and gives access to fishing waters".

In a taste of things to come, the paper told us that Johnson had "brutally slapped down Michel Barnier after the EU negotiator demanded Britain signs up to EU rules to get a trade deal". The prime minister, it continued, "insisted" that there was "no need to tie the UK to Brussels regulations, or vice versa, as he condemned growing protectionism around the world".

Thus, says the Mail, "the two sides are on a collision course again, with Mr Johnson vowing he will never accept Brussels regulations as the price for a trade deal". And this after a speech in which the prime minister pointedly omitted the word "Brexit".

As to the details of both side's pitches, evaluation is probably beyond the scope of the legacy media as we know it. Instant Twitter reaction from favoured "experts" on live feeds simply doesn't cut it, and nor does the off-the-cuff reaction from a "a quick glance at both texts".

By the time the information has been absorbed and properly analysed (if ever), the media will have moved on to its next hystérie du jour, leaving behind a simplistic narrative that will probably miss most of the main points.

One thing which is unarguable, though, is Barnier's assertion in his statement that even if we do achieve a "best-in-class" free trade agreement, it will not be "business as usual". All imports of goods, or services supplied in the EU, he tells us:
… will need to comply with EU rules, be it on safety, health or other standards protecting our public policy objectives. As a result, goods entering the Union will, for example, be subject to regulatory checks. These are the automatic, mechanical consequences of the UK's choices.
We are finally getting to the point, therefore, that I made almost exactly three years ago when I asked my readers to imagine 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, I argued, he cannot then complain that he is no longer able to trade freely with the people still inside.

We will have two separate markets instead of one single market, says Barnier: rules of origin and customs formalities will apply between the UK and the EU; access to the EU market will be subject to certification and market authorisation and supervision activities. Specifically – despite the babbling of Shanker "Snake Oil" Singham (so popular with the legacy media), and others, "there will be no harmonisation or mutual recognition of rules".

One needs to repeat that latter point for emphasis: "there will be no … mutual recognition of rules". This means, Barnier reminds us, "that UK financial services suppliers will no longer have the passporting rights they used to enjoy under Union legislation". And it will mean a whole lot more.

Another crucial issue, which is being heavily rehearsed is the so-called "level playing field", or the "flanking policies" as I prefer to call them. Johnson in his speech declares that: "There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment, or anything similar".

This, on the face of it, is the deal breaker, as the EU's recommended negotiating position states that the envisaged agreement should "uphold the common high standards in the areas of State aid, competition, state-owned enterprises, social and employment standards, environmental standards, climate change, and relevant tax matters". In so doing, it adds, "the agreement should rely on appropriate and relevant Union and international standards".

Nothing, however, is quite as it seems. In respect of competition policy, subsidies, environment and climate, labour and tax, the government's written statement is more precise than the prime minister. It asserts that "the government will not agree to measures in these areas which go beyond those typically included in a comprehensive free trade agreement".

Yet, the most favoured "comprehensive free trade agreement" is the 1,598-page Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), which Johnson insists that he wants. On close inspection, however,this yields provisions on competition policy (Article 17.2), while the parties also:
…recognise that economic development, social development and environmental protection are interdependent and mutually reinforcing components of sustainable development, and reaffirm their commitment to promoting the development of international trade in such a way as to contribute to the objective of sustainable development, for the welfare of present and future generations.
To that effect, the parties agree to promote sustainable development through the enhanced coordination and integration of their respective labour, environmental and trade policies and measures. They also commit to:
…promote dialogue and cooperation between the Parties with a view to developing their trade and economic relations in a manner that supports their respective labour and environmental protection measures and standards, and to upholding their environmental and labour protection objectives in a context of trade relations that are free, open and transparent.
There is, in fact, very little difference between the scenario set out in the EU's recommended negotiating position and the fully-fledged Canada-EU trade deal. And, if it is tolerable in CETA, then the UK can surely have no objection to much the same provisions in any coming trade agreement – unless Johnson is really angling for an Australian-type deal.

The latter relies on a joint declaration rather than a treaty, augmented by a Mutual Recognition Agreement on conformity assessment and a few other instruments.

Predictably, the BBC's celebrity know-all thinks "there is no Australian free trade deal with the EU", although she is by no means the first to make this mistake. However, this supposedly non-existent agreement actually commits the parties "to pursue policies aimed at achieving a sound world economy marked by sustained economic growth with low inflation, a high level of employment, environmental protection, equitable social conditions and a stable international financial system".

For this to work for the UK, though (as we set out in Flexcit as early as 2015), the government would have to make an additional commitment, by way of the declaration, to continued regulatory harmonisation. It would also need to negotiate an agreement on tariffs plus a series of bilateral agreements on programme participation. Thus, even an Australian-style trading relationship is not an easy option.

Nevertheless, the government's "pick 'n' mix" approach has the makings of an epic spat with the EU – a gift to idle hacks who can project a biff-bam soap opera instead of dealing with the real issues. It has all the ingredients of a classic media-fest, with the evil EU and its gang of foreign villains lined up to take the fall.

Somewhere in between though, there is a need to cut through the noise and work out what actually is going on. The upside is that, when it comes to the Brexit that dare not speak its name, we are unlikely to be short of things to write about.

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