EU Referendum

Brexit: low information individuals


It is interesting to see the Independent's Andrew Grice pick up on the chatter on the EEA, with an article headlined: "Now that the Chequers deal is off the table, even the Brexiteers are turning towards the single market and the EEA".

The headline (and the content) is a testament to bubble-speak, studiously sticking to the binary narrative and blanking out the moderate middle which has been in favour of the Efta/EEA option since forever.

With the vocal elements of the politico-media nexus having previously rejected this option, it must somehow be reinvented so that it can be once again "owned" by these bubble-dwellers, detached from its original band of advocates who remain just as invisible as they ever were.

Needless to say, the likes of Grice don't bother with detail. There is a sort of identikit version of the Efta/EEA option doing the rounds which repeats the standard errors and misunderstandings with such remarkable consistency that there must be a crib-sheet somewhere to keep the witless hacks on-message.

Nevertheless, that the option is suddenly finding limited favour in some circles speaks volumes for the dawning realisation that the Brexit talks, with the White Paper on the table, are going nowhere. It stands to reason, therefore, that some should be looking for another exit – even if none of those who are temporarily attaching themselves to the received version of Efta/EEA have the first idea of how the real thing works in practice.

In the absence of the necessary knowledge, it follows that they cannot know that their fictional alternative has not the faintest chance of working. Despite the latter-day enthusiasm of James Cartlidge MP, the Efta/EEA option cannot and will not provide a last-minute lifeboat to get us off the hook on which Mrs May's government has impaled us. It most certainly will not take the place of the transition period.

The point that would-be owners of the option need to realise is that, even if the government was suddenly overwhelmed with enthusiasm for it, there is neither the knowledge within the system, nor the time, to implement it.

In fact, there are only two realistic opportunities for implementation. The first would be for the government to seek a substantial Article 50 extension, to give time for the negotiations to be concluded. Politically, though – even if achievable – this could hardly be tenable. It would mean staying in the EU, probably for another two years.

The second could be even less politically tenable. The government would have to eat humble pie and give to the EU everything it demanded in order to secure a transitional period, during which the Efta/EEA negotiations could be concluded. Even then, we would probably have to ask for an extension to the period. Two years is likely to be the very minimum needed.

Given the response of Michel Barnier to the White Paper, however, it seems increasingly certain that the UK will reach the Article 50 deadline without having concluded a formal Withdrawal Agreement. And, since the EU has made it very clear that a transitional period is conditional on the Withdrawal Agreement, a crisis exit looks to be unavoidable.

Anyone who believes that the EU can be prevailed upon to "compromise" or be "pragmatic" could be described in the vernacular as "blowing goats". Similarly the tired and inept ploy, where the UK government tries to "divide and rule" by appealing over the head of the Commission to the leaders of the Member States, simply isn't going to work. Already, we learn, Member States are lining up to back the official EU position.

The Independent tells us that the Czech Republic, a traditional British ally, has been the latest to endorse the Brussels line. It did so yesterday, just hours after Barnier ruled out the agreeing to the White Paper.

French officials in Paris are said to be "puzzled" at why the EU would be expected to accept a British plan that was so complex, risky and burdensome for it and its businesses, to no benefit. Nathalie Loiseau, France's European affairs minister, said: "There should be no mistake. Michel Barnier does not represent only the Commission. He is the negotiator for the European Union.

She reminds us that: "He gets his mandate and his guidelines from the heads of state and government. And we have discussed it regularly at the level of ministers. We meet with Michel Barnier on a regular basis. So do the heads of state and government. So there is no difference between what Michel Barnier says and what we would say individually, each and every member state".

Then, it would appear that, even if the Member States support a deal, the European Parliament might step in and refuse to give its approval.

Rather than be chasing after the impossible, a more logical approach for the UK government, in the few months of talks remaining, might be to explore the possibility of coordinating contingency plans between the EU and the UK, to minimise the disruption confronting us.

Here, a certain amount of realism is needed. While the focus at the moment is on the "backstop", Mr Barnier's recent emphasis on the Common Commercial Policy (CCP) presents a hurdle which, even if all the other issues were resolved, would prove insurmountable.

To appreciate this one just needs to look at Article 207 of the Consolidated Treaties. This sets out the CCP's "uniform principles", with regard to "changes in tariff rates, the conclusion of tariff and trade agreements relating to trade in goods and services, and the commercial aspects of intellectual property, foreign direct investment".

It also includes the achievement of uniformity "in measures of liberalisation, export policy and measures to protect trade such as those to be taken in the event of dumping or subsidies".

The idea that Mrs May could agree to this is inconceivable, even if (or especially if) it just applied to Northern Ireland. The ability to conduct our own independent trade policy is writ though the Brexit mantra, and runs in the DNA of the red-blooded "Ultras".

That would suggest that, in the current circumstances, the absolute priority must be the short-term, keeping the show on the road after Brexit, stabilising the situation so as to avoid a meltdown. Longer-term considerations will need to take their turn.

Even now, though, while the pundits are beginning to be aware that a "no deal" Brexit does involve a certain amount of disruption, the collective remains lamentably inadequate when it comes to identifying the specifics.

One of the latest to blunder into a crowded field is Ian Dunt. Describing the fate of cross-border movement of foods of animal origin, after all this time he still hasn't got to grips with the details.

On the one hand, he tells us that "March 30th 2019 becomes Year Zero. Overnight, British meat products cannot be imported into the EU. To bring these types of goods in, they have to come from a country with an approved national body whose facilities have been certified by the EU. But there has been no deal, so there's no approval".

Then, on the other hand, he tells us that "a container full of pork loins" sent from Leeds to Amsterdam after Brexit day "will need to be signed off by a vet to say that the meat was slaughtered, stored, quality assured, sealed and despatched (sic) in a certain manner, with appropriate documentation proving compliance". Can meat be exported, or can't it?

Entertainingly, Dunt proudly announces that his piece "is based on conversations" with certain prestigious persons, rather than to reference to primary sources. This so typifies the "oral culture" approach of what passes for journalism, with not even a passing reference to the Commission's Notices to Stakeholders.

It is probably this superficial, prestige-driven approach which defines the popular Efta/EEA narrative. The average journalist would have a nose-bleed if they ever had to look at a copy of the EEA Agreement. In-depth "research" means looking up back copies of the Financial Times. As for the politicians, they seem to make it up as they go along.

Regardless of the "noise" from the politico-media nexus, therefore, the wisest course of action is to treat these people as low-information individuals. As a collective, their grasp of detail is so demonstrably poor that they must be regarded as wholly unreliable.

Short of a miracle, we are set to crash out of the EU without a deal. And any idea of adopting the Efta/EEA option this side of Brexit is a fantasy. Even then, for it ever to become a realistic option, a lot of people will have to break the habits of a lifetime and find out what they are talking about before expressing their opinions. For many, that could prove impossible.