Richard North, 26/12/2020  

There is that incredibly old joke where a man goes to Hell, and is shown round the place so that he can choose his work detail for eternity. In the first room, the occupants are busy working, up to their waists in shit. In the second, the scene is repeated only the workers are up to their chests.

The third room, though, is very different. Everybody is sitting round drinking tea, and they are only up to their ankles in the brown stuff. "Ah!", says the man. "I'll have this room". Just at that point, the overseer stomps in and barks to the denizens: "Right! Tea break's over. Back on your heads!".

Well, I guess the tea break is over, and an analysis of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement beckons. But, although the Commission said on Christmas Eve that it would be published "shortly", it now seems to have re-defined "shortly". As I wrote this blogpost, I had seen no sign of the document.

Clearly, though, it does exist, and it is now posted. This is after Barnier and EU Ambassadors spent some time yesterday discussing it and, if the Guardian is to be believed, Member States are quite happy with it.

Up to then, us mere plebs were way down the food chain just now. Although the BBC claimed to have a copy, there was through yesterday no indication of when the treaty was going to be openly published. One trusts that our MPs were also amongst the privileged few as they are supposed to be passing the implementation Bill on the 30th, having been recalled from their Christmas breaks for the day.

There is an interesting reflection here. The European Parliament, in the heart of the thoroughly undemocratic European Union, is refusing to ratify the treaty because MEPs say that there is insufficient time to scrutinise it. Thus, the Council is planning a "provisional application" lasting to the end of January, to enable proper scrutiny.

The Westminster parliament, on the other hand, is willing to approve the whole thing next week, in less than a day – a timescale that, to say the very least, is somewhat optimistic.

Anyhow, the MPs will do what they do, and they will be accountable for what they do, or don't do. But, for my part, I'm reluctant to pontificate about the treaty until I've seen it – and even then it will certainly take more than a few days to get fully to grips with it.

Mind you, I suspect that it wouldn't matter how long some of the MPs were given, they still wouldn't understand it – with the idiot Johnson in the lead. This is the man who, in his speech on Christmas Eve actually clamed, of the treaty that, "there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade".

Personally, I would put this down to lying – this, after all, is what Johnson does. But the man does have a history of having a very slender grip of the details, so it might be possible to concede that the prime minister has made a mistake.

Frankly, though, I would sooner he was lying. The idea that we have a prime minister, supposedly masterminding our future relationship with the EU, who does not understand the concept of non-tariff barriers is more than a little bit worrisome.

But there is difficulty in accepting the "mistake" thesis. Even Johnson doesn't write his speeches solo and, with a speech of the importance that he has just given, one would have thought that it would have been checked by Frost and high-level civil servants. And, while Johnson is pig ignorant, it cannot be the case that his senior staff share that ignorance.

If we widen the scope of our inquiry, and look at how the treaty is described elsewhere in official terms we see the UK's official summary which has some interesting observations to make about the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures.

This Agreement, it tells us, "includes an SPS Chapter which ensures that the UK and the EU can maintain fully independent SPS rules to protect human, animal and plant life and health, preserving each Party’s right to independently regulate, while not creating unjustified barriers to trade. This is standard practice in free trade agreements".

This is all very anodyne and reassuring, with the comforting idea that the treaty is "not creating unjustified barriers to trade". It's not quite the same as saying "no non-tariff barriers to trade", but it's close to it.

Now compare and contrast the EU version which tells us in respect of the SPS regime, "UK food exports must have valid health certificates, and (phyto-)sanitary border checks will be carried out systematically".

If that isn't a definition of non-tariff barriers, I don't know what is. As much to the point, the checks carried out by the EU stand up to challenge when measured against the WTO SPS agreement, so they cannot be considered to be "unjustified barriers".

At our most generous, we could say that the British government is seeking to play down the nature of the barriers to which UK exports will be exposed. A more cynical soul might call this a lie by omission.

From the same EU document, we also see a section warning that UK producers wishing to cater to both EU and UK markets "must meet both sets of standards and regulations" and "fulfil all applicable compliance checks by EU bodies (no equivalence of conformity assessment)".

If the first part of the section is bad news, the second is extremely bad. This is confirmation that the UK has failed to secure a mutual agreement on conformity assessment. This means that the customs officers of EU Member States will be entitled (and, in fact, required) to test most UK manufactured goods for conformity with relevant EU standards.

The frequency of checks will be determined on the basis of risk assessment, but the further UK domestic standards diverge from those set by the EU, the higher the risk rating. British goods could be subject to complex and expensive checks, giving rise to considerable delays at the borders – and creating uncertainty on delivery time guarantees.

On a related issue, we have Johnson in his speech boasting that, "We have taken back control of laws and our destiny", and that, "We have taken back control of every jot and tittle of our regulation".

But, when we look at the official summary we see that the Agreement contains an "Annex on motor vehicles and equipment and parts thereof", which has as its aim "to eliminate and prevent unnecessary barriers to trade in motor vehicles and parts". It thus confirms that the Parties "will mutually recognise approvals based on UN regulations".

And so we see that the UK, like the EU is relying on UNECE and WP.29 to formulate motor vehicle and equipment standards, rather than the UK creating its own and seeking EU recognition. Far from taking back control of "every jot and tittle of our regulation", we are in exactly the same position we were before we left the EU, working to international standards.

The same, incidentally, goes for chemicals, where there are "joint commitments to comprehensive implementation of international classification and labelling rules". This, of course, is the "Globally Harmonised System" (GHS), another common standards system administered by UNECE.

Now we've got hold of the treaty proper, though, we're back on our heads with a vengeance. But, even with what we already do know, it is painfully obvious that 1 January isn't going to be a happy event for many businesses. And this is only the start.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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