Richard North, 08/02/2020  

An Ipsos MORI poll commissioned by the Evening Standard is telling us that, despite Johnson asserting that Brexit is already "receding in the past behind us", most people think there is unfinished business.

Only 15 percent thought he had "completely" fulfilled his promise to get Brexit done, while 29 percent felt he had "mostly" met the pledge. Around 36 percent accepted that Brexit had been "to some extent" completed and nine percent thought he had "hardly" achieved anything, That left a disconsolate rump of eight percent who believed that Johnson had "not fulfilled his promise at all".

In some senses, this poll illustrates is the difficulty of getting coherent answers from a highly subjective question. The response must surely depend on how individuals define Brexit. And then there is also the political bias, with Conservatives exhibiting more positivity. Some 68 percent said that the prime minister had mostly fulfilled his promise and 25 percent were prepared to say that he had completely fulfilled it.

On the other hand – brainwashed Tories apart – this poll provides some evidence to suggest that most people are not taken in by Johnson's rhetoric. This presents him with an ongoing challenge as he tries to make getting Brexit "done" a fait accompli, so that he can move on to new glories.

That. however, has not stopped Jonathan Lis, deputy director of British Influence, complaining about the government's attempts to control the political vocabulary, arguing in the Guardian that the Foreign Office's "contorted language" of Brexit is a smokescreen.

Unfortunately for him, and the understanding of the general public, he has chosen to major on Johnson's alternative to a Canadian-style deal, his so-called Australian model. Like so much of the media, and others, he takes the Canadian option as a "hard Brexit" and chooses to cast "Australia" as "trading on WTO terms", or, more succinctly, "no deal".

"It doesn't matter that Australia is negotiating a free trade deal with the EU and is in any case a relatively minor trade partner on the other side of the world", says Lis. "This friendly-sounding euphemism for 'no deal' helps the government cover up what it has already done and obscures the reality of what it is about to do next".

In a burst of rhetoric, he then asks why the government thinks it can get away with promising something sunny and open such as "Australia" when the reality – he claims – "will mean a self-imposed commercial blockade".

What strikes one about this is the ignorance and lack of curiosity of the man. Although one might expect the media to drop into the easy assumption that the Australian model means no-deal, this man has less excuse, claiming as he does to be deputy director of a think-tank (not that that means too much these days).

However, it really doesn't take much effort to look up the history of trading relations between Australia and the EU, and a fairly straightforward search will readily illustrate that, while no formal free trade agreement (FTA) – as defined by WTO – exists between the parties, there is an extensive web of agreements between the parties aimed at facilitating trade.

A good source (one of many) is a report by the University of Melbourne entitled "Australia and the European Union: trends and current synergies" – financed, incidentally, under the EU's Erasmus programme.

The EU and Australia, the report says, have a longstanding relationship of over 50 years. They have had annual official dialogues for some decades and a history of sectoral agreements, with official diplomatic relationship starting in 1962.

The relationship has evolved from earlier decades of disagreements and perceptions of "a tyranny of distance", where engagement has been challenged by difficult relations at times. For some time, bilateral relations were characterised by tensions and what has been termed "Antipodean antipathy".

There were frequent disagreements particularly regarding agricultural trade and also climate policy but, the report says, in recent years the EU-Australia relationship has reached a level of unprecedented cooperation that is characterised by a multi-policy, all-of-EU and all-of-Australian government approach.

Formal trade agreements have been in place since 1994 with an Agreement on Scientific and Technical Cooperation and the European Community-Australia Wine Agreement.

Then, in 1997, the EU-Australia relationship reached a new chapter with the signing of the Australia-European Joint Declaration (DFAT 1997). This had initially been expected to have a treaty level status but concerns from the Australian government about the EU's human rights conditionality clauses resulted in a decision to downgrade the agreement to a political declaration.

A year later saw a Mutual Recognition Agreement on Conformity Assessment and further technical agreements were to follow, including further agreements on trade in wine.

The Joint Declaration was succeeded in April 2003 by an Agenda for Cooperation, which identified priorities for a partnership over the subsequent five years, including security and stability issues; education, science and technology, transport; and migration and asylum.

The year 2008 saw a new Partnership Framework, which updated and replaced the previous two major bilateral agreements. It sought to encourage closer practical cooperation in five areas: foreign and security policy; trade and investment; the Asia-Pacific; climate change, environment, and energy security; and science, research, technology and innovation.

This was followed by a Framework Agreement, which was concluded in 2017 and has been applied on a provisional basis since 4 October 2018. This Agreement has for the first time brought the relationship to a treaty level.

Bringing the chronology up-to-date, in November 2015, the EU and Australia agreed to commence a scoping process prior to the launch of negotiations for an FTA. Negotiations were formally launched on 18 June 2018.

We are told that both Australia and the EU have a strong desire to demonstrate their commitment to the international rules-based trading system and the negotiations form part of the EU's strategy to "shift…trade policy towards the negotiations of what the EU terms 'new generation free trade agreements'".

Looking at the current Partnership Framework, one already sees many of the aspects that are to be found in EU trade agreements, and especially a commitment, where appropriate, to coordinating positions in international and regional organisations and fora, including the UN and its specialised agencies, the WTO, G20, the FSB, the OECD, the World Bank Group, and several regional organisations.

We also see the parties agreeing to cooperate within the framework of the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade and through the Agreement on mutual recognition in relation to conformity assessments, certificates and markings between the European Community and Australia.

Already, therefore, the EU is pulling Australia into its network of global and regional operations and, with the talks currently in progress between willing partners, this relationship can only intensify.

If Johnson feels that "Australia" represents a light touch relationship with the EU, he is sadly mistaken and, contrary to the view of Lis and others, even now it cannot be taken to constitute a no-deal approach. The Framework Agreement is a fully-fledged treaty which covers many of the areas that an EU-UK future relationship agreement would cover.

Nonetheless, Lis is convinced that the government is trying to control people's attitudes by exerting control over their lexicon. This, he says, is not simply an attempt to reframe voters' opinions but their minds.

It is, he asserts, seeking to confuse us with jargon, misinformation and contradictory statements, deploying slogans to anaesthetise us from its actions. We will, he believes, eventually become so exhausted that we believe the government when it tells us to blame someone else, or else stop caring altogether. This, he argues is the real meaning of taking control – but of the people, not for them.

What might be more useful, though is if Lis and his fellow travellers toned down the rhetoric and addressed the issues. At a strictly practical level, Johnson's idea of an "Australia" type of deal is fatuous and ill-considered. And since it can hardly be taken as to represent no-deal, his critics should be devoting their energies to demanding clarification.

Those who oppose Johnson's agenda should not be taking his statements at face value, or attributing unsupportable meanings, and get down to the detail. This is where the debate should be taking us.

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