On 24 August, John Mills wrote to me complaining that he didn't seem to be able to get straight answers to some fairly simple questions. One of the points made was that, after the Norway referendum in 1972, it had taken "just under eight months for the Norwegians to negotiate a trade agreement with the EU".
What he didn't say was he had already raised a similar point in an unpublished draft of a pamphlet he was working on. Unknown to him, though, I'd already seen it. In it, Mills had written:
After Norway rejected EU membership in 1972, the Norwegians negotiated a trade deal with the EU in just under eight months. It might take rather longer than this but with the prospect of German car manufacturers and French wine producers losing market share in the UK, the pressure to get a deal concluded within the two-year period allowed by the Lisbon Treaty would be substantial.
From this and his later comment, it is pretty obvious that Mills believes that, if Norway and the EEC could finalise a treaty in "just under eight months", then it cannot be any great stretch for the UK to meet the two-year deadline on its Article 50 negotiations. However, my response was unequivocal:
The 1973 Norwegian trade agreement was 113 pages long, including schedules. The substantive treaty was six pages. It was a very basic treaty, dealing with a very limited range of products, concerning tariff reductions. The treaty was replaced in 1994 by the EEA Agreement. That took from 1984 to 1992 to agree. The way that treaty is structured is that each 'EEA relevant' EU law is added to the treaty as a treaty amendment. In approximate terms, that makes the Agreement, with Protocols and Annexes, about 50,000 pages.
No fair minded person could dispute these easily verifiable details, which effectively negates Mr Mills's argument. Yet, despite this, Mr Mills has exactly reproduced the passage in the draft, word for word, in the final version of his pamphlet which he has now published under the title "Healing The Wounds" – without, of course, any of the details furnished.
In his original draft, he had also asserted: "the EU does not have trade treaties in place with any of the major economies in the world such as China, Japan India, Australia or the USA".
Following my sight of the draft, I met Mr Mills over lunch in London, and explained to him that China and other countries such as Australia and the USA did have trade agreements with the EU, but structured in different ways from the conventional free trade agreements, notified to the WTO.
Previously, I had written about this in Monograph 2, which stated:
A similar exploration of China's status with the EU identifies multiple agreements - 65 over term, including 13 bilateral agreements, ranging from trade and economic co-operation to customs co-operation. None of these are of the simple, tariff reduction variety, but collectively they have enabled China to become the EU's second largest trading partner, with trade valued at over €1 billion a day.
I had added more detail in Monograph 7, sent to Mr Mills on 17 August, which he said he had read.
Despite that, on 23 August, Mills wrote to me saying, "I – and I think lots of other people - still do not really understand why it is possible for China, the USA, Australia, Japan, etc., all to be able to sell product to the EU on WTO terms [i.e., without trade agreements] but it would be impossible for us to do so".
Yet again I explained the situation, writing that there was: "more to trade than the traditional Free Trade Agreement". For many reasons, I said, some nations (China, USA, etc) prefer to order their trade relations using forms of agreement different to the traditional Free Trade Agreement.
When it comes to China and the USA, the networks of trade agreements are complex and extensive, relying on the interaction between the bilateral and the multilateral, with constructive and imaginative use of coordinated unilateralism as an overlay. I thus stated:
It is the case, therefore, that none of these nations rely on the WTO option. For us to enjoy the same trading relationships with the EU as are enjoyed by the US and China, we would have to see replicated exactly the same complex combinations of unilateralism, bilateralism and multilateralism. Complex, they are and poorly understood, but that does not mean these arrangements do not exist. They do.
Mr Mills appeared to acknowledge this by then asking: "if we are prepared to come right out of the Single Market, why would we need to have any more complicated agreement than whatever subsists between the EU and China and the USA?"
To my mind, this is a man who has at last acknowledged that China and the USA do have trade deals with the EU. Yet, in the published version of his pamphlet, he keeps his original phrase unchanged: "the EU does not have trade treaties in place with any of the major economies in the world such as China, Japan, India, Australia or the USA".
Over the years, I have taken much criticism from diverse pundits, and get much advice as to how I should convey information to people. Yet, on this, I have been totally open and helpful. At my expense, I travelled to London to brief Mr Mills, I have written explanatory notes for him and answered his questions. This is how he responds.
Mr Mills, for all the information given and time expended, has not changed his position one iota. He claims genuinely to be interested in learning, asks questions, gets answers – and then ignores them. Even yesterday, in Comment Central, we find him asking, rhetorically, how long it would take to negotiate a free trade deal with the EU. He then writes:
When Norway decided not to join the EU in 1972, it took less than eight months for the Norwegians to negotiate a free trade deal with the EU. We need to aim for the same fast progress, to get the necessary arrangements in place within the two-year period allowed for in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
All of this underpins a fundamental dishonesty in his corner of the Brexit debate. Mills and his friends argue that we must drop out of the Single Market and negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU. For this to work, they pretend – contrary to all evidence – that such a deal can be negotiated inside two years.
Then, in the event of a failure to conclude an agreement, they then rely on the fallback of the WTO option, which they pretend is a tenable scenario – again contrary to all available evidence.
This is the Mills trick, spread right though his e-mail circulation list and beyond. But it is not a fair way of conducting a debate. And, in its denial of evidence, it is ultimately sterile. If this debate is to progress, we need more honesty than we are currently seeing.