Brexit: a question of standards

Thursday 29 June 2017  

If one was to judge from the cacophony during PMQs in the Commons yesterday, one would not believe that the Prime Minister and the leader of the opposition were discussing an event in which over eighty people had recently died and where bodies as yet lie unclaimed and unburied.

When it comes to raw politics and the opportunity to score points, though, nothing is beneath these jeering, screeching denizens of the Westminster bubble. They neither know nor care what others might think. Theirs is the centre of the universe and nothing else matters.

And already, from their positions of profound ignorance, the blame game is starting, with Corbyn kicking off by blaming "austerity". Unable to resist joining in the tribal warfare, Mrs May then tried to pin some of the blame on the Blair era, leaving no-one any the wiser.

The one thing that won't find any room in the politicians' litany of blame is "Europe". I doubt this is because they are deliberately trying to conceal its role – rather they just don't "get" the European Union. None of them have ever understood the degree to which it has pervaded the fabric of our administration and, therefore, they would not even think to link Brussels to these events.

That is why they don't understand Brexit either. MPs are hardly going to acquire much of an understanding of what it takes to extract us from the EU if they scarcely have any appreciation of the degree to which the EU is embedded in UK administration.

But it isn't just a question of the EU. Most MPs have only the slenderest grasp of how a modern state works, and would not even begin to appreciate the depth and complexity of the building control system in the UK, much less the extent to which it has been hollowed out by EU law.

The idiot Corbyn puts it down to cutting local authority budgets, with us "all paying a price" as we see "fewer inspectors, fewer building control inspectors". Thus did he ,rail against the "terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners".

At least the Guardian managed to note that, while the number of building control surveyors in England and Wales has fallen by 1,000 to 3,000 during the past decade, "it doesn't seem to be relevant in the case of Grenfell Tower".

The building, it says, was inspected at least 16 times by Kensington and Chelsea council over two years while the £10m refurbishment project was under way, "but the checks failed to spot that the building was clad in material effectively banned by the government".

Here we confront the media showing the same inability to cope with the terminology of this disaster as it does Brexit. Journalists who are unable to distinguish between a customs union and customs cooperation show a similar inability to differentiate when confronted with the separate concepts of "cladding" and "insulation".

As far as I am concerned, the matter of the cladding is largely settled. The Reynobond PE as a cladding material was not in any sense "banned". It can be used legally, notwithstanding that the question remains open as to whether it was installed in Grenfell Tower in accordance with the conditions set by the Agrément Certificate.

However, the insulation used is an altogether different question. In yesterday's piece, I relied on a link made by the company between Celotex RS5000 and this specific Agrément Certificate referring to an apparently different product with the classification RS5000. On the strength of this, I concluded that the product was non-compliant. 

The website may now have changed, as I can no longer find it. But I think there may be an explanation for the apparent linkage, in that the two products are actually the same. Referring to 2014, Wayback Machine has the premier "rainscreen product" from the company (one used with external cladding) designated as FR5000.

In a comprehensive list of products from 2014 (all of which are claimed to have been third party tested) there is no reference to RS5000 as a product.

That notwithstanding, the company claims to have sold RS5000 for use in refurbishing the Grenfell Tower (as of 16 June), claiming that the product "has a fire rating classification of Class 0, in accordance with British Standards". But there is no Agrément Certificate referenced to it, seemingly indicating that the product is without certification – contrary to the assertion in my earlier piece.

The notwithstanding, while Class 0 fire rating is sufficient to indicate conformity with Building Regulations for cladding products, Approved Document B (volume 2) sets a more rigorous test for insulation. Section 12.7 makes a reference to a building with a storey 18m or more, where it recommends insulation materials to be of "of limited combustibility" – a separate fire category equivalent to the European Standard A2 – which Class 0 does not certify.

However, the Approved Document gives the option of either conformity with this standard, or meeting the criteria set out in BRE Report BR 135 "Fire performance of external thermal insulation for walls of multi storey buildings", using full test data from British Standard BS8414-2:2005 – to which I referred yesterday.

Here, we see an interesting development, in that the company actually relies on BRE 135/BS8414, claiming to be "the first PIR insulation suitable for rainscreen cladding applications above 18 metres in height".

Nonetheless, it takes a separate document to make it clear that the product survives the test, only when sheathed with non-combustible Magnesium Oxide Board with the cladding comprising Marley fibre cement board, both sheets of 12mm thickness (more then twice the thickness of the Reynobond cladding.

The BS classification, the manufacturer tells us, "applies only to the system as tested and detailed in the classification report". It goes on to tell us that: "The classification report can only cover the details of the system as tested. It cannot state what is not covered. When specifying or checking a system it is important to check that the classification documents cover the end-use application".

This "system" is so far different from the actual installation in Grenfell Tower that the product as used cannot in any way be considered comparable with the certified system. As such, it cannot be considered to be covered by the BS8414 test. And neither is there any conceivable way that the actual installation could have passed BS8414, had it been tested to that standard. The use of Celotex in these circumstances could not be said to have been compliant.

That very much begs the question as to what the building inspectors were doing when they approved the refurbishment works, and whether they were confused by the manufacturer's claims as to the suitability of the material for use above 18 metres. No doubt, this is something which the official inquiry will look into. The claims made seem to be couched in somewhat misleading terms.

In PMQs, we then see Jeremy Corbyn refer to the recommendations of a coroner’s report into the Lakanal House tower block fire in Southwark in 2009, in which it was recommended that building regulations should be overhauled – something which has not been done since 2005 in respect of fire precautions.

Mrs May, in response, wanted "to get to the bottom" of the reason why fire inspections and local authority inspections appear to have allowed non-compliant materials to have been installed. That is fair enough, but it should not obscure Corbyn's question as to why the Building Regulations were not overhauled – a need which had been clearly demonstrated.

It is my contention that the inflexibility in the EU system seems to have been at least in part responsible for the failure to update the regulations. They should have been put on a more modern footing of requiring the testing of actual structures for fire resistance, rather than looking at individual components - and it is very clear that the UK is not allowed to do that unilaterally.

Thus, there is a bigger question here than even Building Regulations, where the lessons learned will tell us a great deal about how the EU regulates, and in particular its use of "European standards" as a regulatory mechanism, and the failures of that system. It would be tragic here if multiple failures in fire prevention were not used to help us devise new, more effective regulatory systems for a post-Brexit UK.

After all, one of the reasons why we wanted to leave the EU was, supposedly, to take back control. The way we do that is by looking at the current systems and learning how to do it better.

Richard North 29/06/2017 link

Brexit: the Grenfell dimension (reprise)

Wednesday 28 June 2017  

In now what seems a classic over-reaction, we seem to be getting to the stage in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire of having  cladding being stripped off buildings for no good reason.

The immediate points to make are that the Grenfell fire is attributable to a number of factors. For start, it is now known that the tower had a "multicomponent rainscreen cladding system", comprising at its core, Celotex RS5000 polyisocyanurate (PIR) blocks. These were covered by decorative cladding, in this case Reynobond PE.

Of these two products, we have already reported on Reynobond PE and, according to its Agrément Certificate, it passes a Class 0 fire rating under BS 476. In accordance with Building Regulations guidelines Approved Document B1 (Volume 2), it is therefore suitable to use as an external cladding material at all heights – even on high-rise dwelling blocks (see Diagram 40, page 95) – provided it was used within the limits set out in the Agrément Certificate.

However, Celotex RS5000 is a totally different matter. According to the Agrément Certificate to which it links, the product is not classified as non-combustible or of limited combustibility. The Certificate holder has not declared a reaction to fire classification in accordance with BS EN 13501-1.

On this basis, the product is suitable for use without height restriction if installed in a cavity that is between two leaves of masonry at least 75 mm thick. Otherwise, the use of the product is restricted to below 18 metres.

This, as far as the regulations go, is a slam dunk. The product is effectively banned for use in high rise blocks. That, however, does not get Philip Hammond off the hook, or indeed the idiot Marr who put it to him that the "cladding" had been banned elsewhere in Europe. Although Hammond responded by saying that the "inflammable cladding" is also banned in the UK, he is not right.

We are talking here of two different things. The Celotex is insulation and useless without weather protection. The Reynobond is the cladding that provides the protection and the decorative finish. This is the difference between a woolly jumper and a raincoat. They are very different things. Adults should know one from the other – this is just such basic stuff.

Given this situation, though, it could be argued that the European Union is off the hook. Ostensibly, with what appears to be a clear breach of Building Regulations, that is the case. But there are issues here which could have been fatal and still need addressing.

The thing about building construction is that the combustibility of the structure depends not only on the individual performances of the components, but on their behaviour as a system. Cladding will be influenced, not only by the materials used, but by the insertion of insulation, by the extent and nature of any cavities, whether there were adequate fire-stops and whether there are any breaches in the compartmentalisation.

It was that which brought me back into the fray as I continue to explore potential EU involvement, having already published two posts here and here. Before I'd settled the issue on Celotex, I'd already accumulated enough evidence to suggest that the EU had introduced a potentially fatal weakness into our building control system.

To put it together, we have to go back to the year 2000, when the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee reported on the potential risk of fire spread in buildings via external cladding systems, after a fatal fire in a multi-storey block of flats in Irvine, Ayrshire on 11 June 1999.

Interestingly on the basis of evidence received, the Committee took the view that the majority of the external cladding systems currently in use in the UK did not pose a serious threat to life or property in the event of fire.

At the time (and currently), the standards for external cladding were set out – in the general Building Regulations, and in the Approved Documents. This latter document gave guidance on the interpretation of subjective requirements, such as the need for materials to "adequately resist" the spread of fire.

The ambiguity is removed by reference to official standards, in this case either the European Standard EN13501 or British Standard BS476 (Parts 6/7). The Building Regulation guidance requires the material to pass the BS fire test with a rating of Class 0.

In the 1999/2000 inquiry, though, Peter Field of the Buildings Research Establishment (BRE), complained that the existing guidance was "far from being totally adequate". But the problem was not the standard, per se. The weakness was that it relied on small-scale tests conducted in laboratory conditions. These did not properly evaluate the performance of large, complete, cladding systems in a "live" fire situation.

The Committee accepted that point and recommended a new "Test for assessing the fire performance of external cladding systems", which had been submitted to the British Standards Institution for adoption as a British Standard. This, the Committee said, should be "substituted in Approved Document B for previous requirements relating to the fire safety of external cladding systems".

In its response, the Government accepted the point about testing and promised that as soon as the test had been adopted as a British Standard, the Approved Document would be amended to reflect its status. It was as good as its word.

However, what the Government did not do was implement the specific recommendation of the Committee. It did not replace existing standards with what became BS 8414, introducing a more severe testing regime of a complete structure, set up on a test rig to represent the finished structure.

The reason for that was simple. Under the EU system, currently implemented by Regulation (EU) No 1025/2012 on European standardisation, when a European Standardisation Body (in this case CEN) issued a European Standard, the national bodies had to withdraw any of their standards which conflicted with them – or amend them to bring them into line.

This, the UK's BSI acknowledges, with the details set out in the CEN/CENELEC Internal Regulations, made under the authority of Regulation (EU) No 1025/2012 and Directive (EU) 2015/1535 (replacing Directive 98/34).

Under this system, there is what is known as the "standstill", where the National Standards Body cannot introduce new standards in the areas covered by the European body. This is, in fact, a codification of the "pre-emption" doctrine.

Where this strikes in respect of the cladding testing is that the Commission in 2000 issued Commission Decision 2000/147/EC, implementing Council Directive 89/106/EEC as regards the classification of the reaction to fire performance of construction products. This set out the test procedure in respect of EN13501, effectively locking it in stone.

Known as the Single Burning Item test, to EN13823 – this is a small scale test of exactly the nature Peter Field had complained. But, since the European Standard takes precedence, this means that it had to be allowed under UK law.

We end up with the absurd situation in the guidelines where builders are given the choice between using BS8414, illustrated at the top (right), the test blaze engulfing the test rig, or the very much more modest, material-specific test illustrated on the left.

The choice is very much up to the builder, as contracts of this size must be open to competitive bidding and thus come under the Public Procurement Directive. Bids must be invited, using the European Standards as the basis of the technical specifications. The builders could not be required to adopt the British Standard, which is completely undermined by the cheaper and less rigorous European alternative.

Much is made of the claim that other Member States can adopt their own standards, and they can do so on the same basis that we use BS8414. All other Member States have implemented Regulation (EU) No 1025/2012, and have adopted EN13501, together with EN13823. They may have banned PIR in high rise buildings, but then so have we.

But as of yesterday it was reported d that an 11-storey building in the German city of Wuppertal was being evacuated because it had similar cladding to Grenfell. The Germans, like us, are having to accept lower testing standards to conform with EU rules.

As for Reynobond PE, it was manufactured in France, but marketed globally – and to all countries in Europe. We could, as far as I am aware, strengthen the standard for cladding in the Building Regulations, and thereby exclude it (except that it has already been withdrawn from the market).

For any hike in standards, we would need to get the permission of the European Commission – as long we didn't fall foul of the mutual recognition provisions. But then, as we see, the standard isn't the problem. What we need to do is introduce a more rigorous testing regime, which we are not allowed to do. The only thing we can do is lobby Brussels to improve the EN.

In the particular instance of Grenfell Tower, though, we cannot say that the inferior European standard was a direct factor in this fire. But it can be said that if BS8414 had been a mandatory requirement, and enforced in the refurbishment contract, that particular construction would not have been approved and the fire could not have happened.

This stands as a reminder that in some areas we are still ahead of the game, and that there are good things to come out of Brexit. But the irony is that, on our withdrawal, we have the opportunity to tighten up our rules and make them stick. So much for the bonfire of regulation.

Richard North 28/06/2017 link

Brexit: the Brexit victims

Tuesday 27 June 2017  

The Prime Minister made a statement in the House. It was followed by a Government press release announcing formal proposal in the form of a White Paper on "Safeguarding the Position of EU Citizens Living in the UK and UK Nationals Living in the EU". For citizens of EU Member States, there is then an explanatory booklet.

Putting all this prodigious effort together, it seems the Government has really gone the extra mile in the communication stakes. Yet, it seems, more than a million foreign workers are preparing to leave the UK within five years, and the Independent thinks it's a "sinister deal".

As for me, I neither know nor care. When I look at the details, my eyes blur. But then, neither I nor anyone else in the UK matters. The test will be how the EU negotiators respond. If they buy into it, then we've made progress. If they make it a sticking point, we could be wasting many months while we attempt to reach a common position.

Whatever else, this is not precisely what the Commission wants. It was looking for the rights of all expats to be preserved in full – which isn't going to happen. And it wanted any deal to come under the jurisdiction of the ECJ. And that isn't going to happen. Thus, at a very early date, we're going to see the colour of the Commission's eyes. And either the "colleagues" are going to back down, or we are. I'll let you guess who.

As it stands, citizens from EU Member States are going to have to go through a shed-load of bureaucracy to get to keep their places in the rain, and there is plenty of scope for anomalies and any amount of bureaucratic cock-ups – enough to give the Guardian and its fellow travellers a prolific new source of copy. In fact, we could be in on the creation of a whole now genre of journalism: the "Brexit victims".

Already, this champion of everybody's rights (unless you're a white, Anglo-Saxon male who isn't called Jeremy Corbyn) is talking about a "sour taste", while Barnier is calling for "more ambition".

Meanwhile, Mrs May has bought off the mad Ulstermen (and women) with a £1 billion bribe – which, I suppose, is better than giving it to the "colleagues". Together with the growing number of high-rise blocks which have their cladding fail the fire test, this is keeping the legacy media busy. Citizens' wrongs look to be a slow burn.

But then, forest fires burn harder during the late summer which, perversely, may be just what we need. Over the water, in Ireland, RTÉ's flagship current affairs programmes are finding Brexit coverage a problem as it is considered boring and a "turn-off" for viewers.

This is according to David Nally, managing editor. News bulletins are ratings-sensitive and, while some of the state broadcaster's current affairs coverage competes well with football or entertainment shows on other channels, staff are finding that Brexit is an audience "turn-off".

Nally says: "You have to bear in mind that those programmes have 30 seconds at the top of the programme to persuade people to watch them. One answer as to why Brexit coverage comes over as "boring" because it is "complex and it lacks real people", but the better answer is that, over the year the issues haven't really changed.

"It is a difficulty", he adds, "to keep saying the same thing over and over to people, especially when you can't show them that it's affecting real people's lives, that it's changing, or that the big players, the big decision-makers are appearing on the programme".

Actually, I can understand the sentiment here, even if I don't agree with it. The problem with Brexit is that neither journalists nor politicians understand the underlying issues. They thus keep churning over the basics without bringing anything new or interesting to the table. There are only so many times one can listen to idiot politicians explaining how little they know about customs unions.

At least we seem to have a sort of an ally in Fionnán Sheahan, editor of the Irish Independent. He "disagrees strongly" with anybody who suggests that Brexit is a boring topic". "What happened 12 months ago was a game-changer across this country and if we're not going to cover a topic like that comprehensively and throw any and all available resources at it, then I don't know why we are in journalism", he said.

Paul O'Neill, the newly appointed editor of the Irish Times', said the paper had published around 1,000 articles on Brexit over the past year. He added: "There is interest, but it really is nothing extraordinary".

Sebastian Hamilton of the Irish Daily Mail says that journalists need to employ critical thinking around their coverage – something for which they are not exactly famous. But Ian Kehoe, editor of the Sunday Business Post said Brexit had impacted everything while affecting nothing. He said newspapers ran the risk of "Brexit fatigue" with their readers.

In a nutshell, though, Brexit isn't boring – it's the media coverage that makes it so. For most of my adult life, it has been a family ritual to have the evening meal early, while we watch the six o'clock evening news. But more and more, I find the coverage so superficial as to be irritating, while the way broadcast media these days report the news I find patronising and lightweight. Minutes in, I'm reaching for the programme changer.

This is exacerbated by the politicians who have nothing interesting to say on a subject of very great interest, driving people away through repetition of the same limited repertoire.

This issue of expat rights is a case in point. It seems to have been on the agenda forever, getting nowhere very slowly. All the substantive issues are waiting in the wings but virtually nothing is said of them, concealing a sombre truth that few politicians or journalists are capable of saying anything of any great interest about them.

As to the media attitude, there is a clue in the comment from Nally in his saying that the subject is "complex and it lacks real people". This reflects the inability of journalists to get to grips with the complexity, and their obsession with personalities.

On any one day collectively, the Discovery documentary programmes attract millions of viewers – I sometime find myself watching them instead of the news. Yet these are the very essence of issue-led broadcasting, which journalists can't seem to master. Unless their clips have "slebs" or "victims" which can be cobbled together to represent "human interest", they're all at sea.

With the expat issue now to the fore, I fear the worst. Potentially, it combines all the undesirable features of modern journalism under one cover. The media have got their "real people", who can take centre-stage as a never-ending procession of "Brexit victims". There will be no stopping them now.

Richard North 27/06/2017 link

Brexit: a year of learning

Monday 26 June 2017  

Briefly less concerned with immediate events, I've been upgrading the First Year of Brexit, adding a front cover to it, designed by a reader (pictured) and trimming forty pages from the length. If anyone who has already bought a copy and wants the upgrade, drop me an e-mail and I'll send you a copy. Otherwise, you can buy one for £4 from the link on the sidebar.

Going back through the year was extremely useful, reminding me of half-forgotten events and, in particular, illustrating how much I've learned over the year.

There is an interesting dynamic at play here, in that you tend to think you know about many things until you start to write about them. It's then that you discover how little you know, making the process of writing the blog one of the most educative processes I know. If readers have learned a great deal – and many tell me they have – I have learned a great deal as well.

Speaking with other bloggers, I find they share the learning experience which one gains from writing. In the case of, though, there is the volume effect, and the sheer relentlessness of the coverage. In the space of a year, writing over 440,000 words on one subject (before editing) with a post almost every day, linking to over 2,000 references (from newspaper cuttings to reports hundreds of pages long), covering over 1,000 A4 pages, cannot but help make its mark.

Of the previous coverage, one post I edited yesterday I had posted in early July last year, drawing attention to a paper by the Robert Schuman Foundation, which explored how the UK could stay in the Single Market.

What was particularly interesting were the observations on the EEA, where it was suggested that the UK could explore the opportunity to revise the EEA rules so that the non-EU members of the latter have a right to vote (like Norway, for example) on policies in which they participate, notably those involving the Single Market.

This, as we now know (as recorded in Monograph 9), was the original intention of Jacques Delors, which had been articulated as early as 1987 and had begun to take form as the European Economic Space (EES), with "houses" in a European "village", each with equal decision-making rights.

In this scenario, the Robert Schuman Foundation says, "the UK would continue to participate in the internal market and apply the corresponding rules", adding that it would have to contribute to the EU’s budget, "but only for certain policies" – presumably to cover things like the decentralised agencies in which we continued to participate.

Almost as a throw-away line, the Foundation also said that freedom of movement would continue to apply, "but the EEA Agreement provides safeguard mechanisms that can be activated unilaterally".

After all the pompous, self-opinionated rubbish that I've had to read, this is so refreshing. Of course the EEA Agreement provides for safeguard mechanisms, and of course they can be activated unilaterally (by Efta states). If the Robert Schuman Foundation knows this, you can bet that the Commission knows it – and has as few hang-ups as the Foundation. The measures are a treaty provision and there to be used.

But what is also especially encouraging is the thought that this type of scenario, "might eventually lead to the realignment of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) with the European Union". Thus, we see the "greater EU" splitting into two parts – the one as a fully-developed economic entity called the Eurozone, and the other the EEA, which would offer an institutional framework for the single market.

This is very much along the lines of Flexcit, where Brussels no longer has the exclusive right to manage the Single Market, the functioning of which becomes the shared responsibility of all its members. Says the Foundation, a modification of the EEA Agreement would therefore allow to settle several difficulties facing the EU at present, whilst providing welcome clarification for citizens, as well as economic and financial actors alike.

It adds that this type of arrangement might also offer an alternative to candidate countries, which could opt to enter the EEA rather than the EU, as was originally mooted for the former Soviet satellites. And there is no reason why we should see it limited to candidate countries. The EEA should also open its doors to the Russian Federation and to non-aligned states.

Specifically, the Foundation says that the EEA would be open to States which want to take advantage of the internal market above all, without taking part in all of the other aspects of integration. It is highly likely, it says, that the UK would be tempted to join the EEA.

With simple logic, it says that this kind of arrangement would be advantageous to the UK in that it would offer it a compromise, thereby avoiding a brutal break from the EU. Crucially, it adds, it would also provide a solution to the Scottish and Northern Irish questions.

The UK would continue to participate in the internal market and apply the corresponding rules, which it would continue to help define. Of course it would have to contribute to the EU budget but only in certain policy areas (the UK would no longer take part for example in the common agricultural policy).

Bringing us up-to-date, yesterday Brexit Secretary David Davis was on the Marr show – about the only Brexit news in an otherwise thin day. But about the only things of even marginal interest was his assertion that he was "pretty sure" there would be a deal, and that the transitional period would run from one to two years.

Neither statement is particularly encouraging. There are many levels of deal potentially on offer and there is nothing to say that Davis can bring home anything that will be needed by our businesses. And, as to the "one to two years", this is so unrealistic as to be laughable.

One must remember though that Davis has a recent history of making unrealistic statement and then altering his position later one – right up to the "summer row" that never was.

What we continue to see is a poverty of vision and a generally response-driven strategy coming out of Downing Street. But, the closer we get to the crunch, the closer we get to the reality that there is no way on God's earth we can conclude a trade agreement in the time - "impossible means impossible". We must focus on a transitional agreement.

Here, reality hits us between the eyes. Following on from the Robert Schuman Foundation, we can use the EEA acquis and seek a sensible "modification" which could overcome the worst feature of the Agreement and give us something we could live with.

Even though the end product might look very much like the EEA Agreement, there is no reason why it should keep its name. Something like a European Enterprise Zone (EEZ) might be sufficient to calm nerves, which red-white and blue "bespoke" additions could tailor it for the UK. In fact, the EEA Agreement is already a series of bespoke agreements stitched together under one treaty roof.

At a domestic level, unless she is to be bogged down in the aftermath of Grenfell Tower, Mrs May has got to take the initiative. She must storm the high ground, or be seen to be reacting to the EU's agenda. In other words, we need a plan. But it needs to be bigger than that. We need to engage the EU, and make them feel they have a dog in the fight.

Given that it has been floated by the Robert Schuman Foundation, I'm sure there would be political support in Europe for a "modified" EEA. Oddly enough, 2019 is the 25th anniversary of the EEA Agreement coming into force, so there is some logic in tying in Brexit with EEA enhancement and merging the agendas.

In a nutshell, we buy time by agreeing a transitional agreement - leading up to March 2019 when, with the "colleagues" we jointly announce (alongside Efta) the commencement of talks to build a 21st Century version of the EEA, with a target for completion (say) of 2025.

We might even call it, "Agenda 2025", and the EU could also take in reform and rationalisation of its Neighbourhood Policy, building a "positive, forward-looking" agenda. That way, we all own a slice of the action and it justifies the political investment. It is no longer just about Brexit. UK withdrawal has become a catalyst for something much bigger and better.

And isn't it just amazing what a year of learning can do.

Richard North 26/06/2017 link

Booker: Brexit shambles

Sunday 25 June 2017  

In a truncated piece (it was originally meant to be longer until the management intervened), Booker writes this week on the Brexit talks which "have proven to be a shambles from the off".

Exactly a year after the referendum, he says, our Brexit talks have finally groaned into action, prefaced at the insistence of the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier by discussion of the three issues which he had ruled must be resolved before there can be any talks on a trade deal.

On the first, the post-Brexit status of EU and UK citizens, despite our being told that this is going well, much still remains to be argued over, such as the role of the European Court of Justice. The second issue is the so-called "divorce bill" we have to pay for our share in all those ongoing financial commitments under the EU budget we have already signed up to as members.

This, Booker was estimating here last summer, is likely to end up at £30-40?billion. But the final figure cannot be calculated until the end of the EU’s current Multiannual Financial Framework period in 2020.

The third issue, the Northern Irish border, cannot be resolved until we have agreed the nature of our future trading arrangements with the EU. So by a Catch-22, we can't discuss trade until we've agreed about Northern Ireland, which we can't discuss until we've agreed about trade. What a shambles, he says, it is all already becoming.

That's all we get from Booker this week but it's a good topic hook on which to base a discussion on how we got to this parlous state. Anything of this nature is bound to be complex. There could never be a simple explanation of why the government has made such a mess. Incompetence alone could never be enough. There has to be more – much, much more.

What I don't think we can do is look at the current events in isolation. As much to do with why things have gone wrong (if you accept they have) is the way the Eurosceptic movement has developed and how it has influenced the Conservative Party.

Arguably, what has contributed to the shaping the current government's handling of Brexit are its perceptions (and the distortions) of what it believes the European Union to be. I don't for the life of me imagine the Mrs May and her ministers are negotiating with the EU as it exists. Rather, they are basing their actions on the cardboard cut-out pastiche of what they believe the European Union to be.

Another major contribution is the lack of preparedness, where neither this government nor its predecessor have been able to craft a credible Brexit plan, all in the context of the failure of the "information nexus" to come up with acceptable alternatives.

I remarked the other day on how, in the beginning, work on this had been relatively easy as there were generally only three recognised options. But now, barely a day goes by without some self-important luminary of body coming up with a new idea or variation of something that has already been floated – each less plausible (or more troublesome) than the last.

Those of a conspiratorial bent might even begin to suspect that this process on the part of the "remainers" is deliberate. As the complications multiply, ordinary people lose patience and, confronted with the perils of a "botched Brexit" will be willing to accept something that sounds as if it takes us out of the EU, but doesn't really.

Right up front, when we were warning that Brexit was going to be complicated, our purpose was not to suggest that it couldn't be done – of which some accused us – but to identify the problems early so that we could overcome them. I have long held that the first (and most important) step in problem-solving is to define clearly the nature of the problem. We look to raise problems in order to explore ways of dealing with them.

With that, I aver that, had the UK government held off its Article 50 notification until we had secured a commitment from the Efta states that it would accept our rejoining them, and then worked on a schedule of amendments to the EEA Agreement – to be presented to the EEA Joint Committee – we would be well on our way to securing a Brexit within the constraints of the two-year Article 50 process.

In that sense, while I've always been up-front in arguing that Brexit is difficult, I've never said it was impossible – unlike Mrs May's comprehensive free trade agreement, which resides in the land of the fayries.

As a result (and I'm not afraid to make the link), we are seeing an emboldened commentariat argue that Brexit should be reversed. With honeyed words coming out of Brussels suggesting that penalty-free reversal is possible, it may be only a matter of time before it lodges on the political agenda.

It is here that my loathing of Vote Leave cannot be suppressed. The arrogant fools who hijacked the long-standing campaign thought that they were just dealing with the mechanics of winning a referendum, seeing that as the objective rather than just a step in the right direction.

Winning, as is now becoming painfully evident, was necessary but not sufficient. Without a clear (and realistic) idea of what we wanted from Brexit, there was always a risk that we'd be all over the place in the event of a victory. There is now danger (and always has been) that we fall at the final hurdle and never actually get to leave the EU.

If there is a better word, then I'd like to see it. But it has always struck me as the ultimate in stupidity for the "Ultras" to reject the Efta/EEA option as not leaving the EU, when probably the only realistic way of ensuring that we make a clean break is to follow that path.

But where we go now is anybody's guess. With the May administration in turmoil and the prime minister's unerring clumsiness, we cannot rule out the prospect of an autumn general election and the emergence of Jeremy Corbyn as leader. It would then be difficult to argue that his Brexit team was any more incompetent than May's team, given that we have absolutely no confidence in the current team avoiding a Brexit disaster.

Much of this does has to stem from the initial incompetence of the official leave campaign, the cowardice of Arron Banks in not supporting an effective exit plan and, of course, the inept behaviour of Nigel Farage whose use-by date must have expired a decade ago.

The issue we now have to address is whether the situation is recoverable. And while I do believe that there are stratagems that we could adopt, which could deliver a favourable outcome, I do not believe there is either the competence or the political will within the May administration that could deliver.

Nor is there any confidence in a political system which is basically deaf to ordinary citizens and which consistently shows itself unable to respond to anything originating outside its own bubble. If it had had the ability to respond, then it might not be in the mess in which we find it.

The answer to the Booker conundrum, therefore – as to why Brexit talks are in such a shambles – may be simpler than we thought. It all boils down to a failure to communicate, the inability of the government and the political classes to listen and learn. But if the diagnosis is simple, the solutions are anything but.

Richard North 25/06/2017 link

Brexit: year of the blog

Saturday 24 June 2017  

It's been a year since we voted to leave the EU. And, on every day since, with just a tiny number of exceptions, we've published a blogpost on Brexit- related issues, including some guest posts from Pete.

Now, I've been working on an experiment, collating the whole output in the year since the referendum, all into one file. I've lightly edited the posts. Reformatted them and converted the html links into active footnotes. Altogether, the file runs to nearly 440,000 words in over 1,000 pages, with better than 2,200 footnotes. Altogether, topped and tailed, it becomes an e-book that's not very far short of half-a-million words.

I've converted this into a .pdf file using the latest software, which keeps the file-size to the minimum. From there, Pete has found a way of uploading the file onto a pay site, allowing us to sell copies for the modest price of £4. You can buy it here or by clicking the button on the sidebar.

This is the second part of the experiment. Since the dawn of time, bloggers (and indeed the legacy media) have been looking to monetise their product. If this works for us, then potentially it's another revenue stream that could keep the blog running – especially as we're trying to keep Pete employed, with limited sponsorship already supporting his blog.

At over 1,000 pages, the length of the e-book is exceptional. It's meant more for dipping into and reference than a straight read. And, using the ctrl F function, readers can do a word search on the whole year's in a matter of seconds. This is faster than can be done on-line.

And, although I say it myself, dipping into some of the old copy is a useful reminder of what went before. No single document can be a complete record, but we've covered a considerable amount of ground. Together with the 2,000-plus links, this is a major reference source.

Direct sales will help finance the next step in our development programme. That includes plans for a multi-author news site, possibly with folded into it. Additionally, the monograph series will continue and we are working on a number of new titles.

And, if all goes to plan, this time next year, we'll have another year of the blog for you. And you never know, we might even know where we're going by then. Miracles do occasionally happen.

Richard North 24/06/2017 link

Brexit: the first year

Friday 23 June 2017  

I didn't think we'd win – mainly because of the execrable campaign run by Vote Leave. The Cummings-Elliott nexus, backed by Johnson, Hannan and their "bus of lies" did their level best to lose it for us. We should have had more faith in the British people. They won the referendum for us.

But the big mistake (made by some) was thinking that this was the final victory. It wasn't. This was Churchill and el Alamein: not the end, not the beginning of the end but the end of the beginning.

An even bigger mistake had already been made, though – the craven, short-sighted refusal of the eurosceptic "movement" to get its act together and settle on a credible exit plan. This was compounded by the stupidity of the likes of Cummings and Arron Banks in walking away from the idea of a plan when one was offered to them on a plate.

A year on from the referendum, we still don't have a plan. We've lost a prime minister, gained another, gone through a general election and now a weakened government had started negotiations by surrendering to the "colleagues" … and we still don't have a plan. We don't even have a bus.

Instead, the entire politico-media nexus is thrashing around, the denizens parading their ignorance – hardly any of them, if any, able to tell the difference between a customs union and a customs agreement.

Just beginning to realise that they're not going to their fabled "comprehensive trade agreement" in time, they're climbing on board the "transitional" bandwagon without the first idea of what it entails or how to get there. For them, ignorance is bliss – to be cultivated and embraced.

In the beginning, it was so much easier. We had a choice between the unilateral, bilateral and multilateral – the WTO, Swiss and "Norway" options. Now, the options have grown exponentially, from the "no deal" at one extreme to carrying over the entire acquis on a long-term transitional agreement that is distinguishable from full membership only because we have lost any voting rights or influence in the system.

The irony of this is that the "Ultras" have spent so much time and energy thrashing around trying to avoid the obvious that they've failed to understand that, the longer a settlement is delayed, the less likely it is that they will get what they want. And if they keep muddying the waters, Brexit could go belly-up. It ain't in the bag yet and it ain't in the bag until it's in the bag.

Meanwhile, Theresa May has been in Brussels, giving away her leverage on expats. She has told the "colleagues" that no nationals of EU Member States living lawfully in the UK will be thrown out on Brexit day.

At the European Council, she said she wanted to offer "certainty" to the estimated three million expats living in the UK, making sure that families would not be split up. The deal, though, is that UK citizens living in EU Member State territory must be given the same rights.

However, there is still room for another cave-in. Mrs May has not yet agreed the cut-off date, when residency rights will end. And she has not yet conceded that the ECJ will retain jurisdiction in disputes over the finer details. But there is plenty of time for that.

As each concession is made, Mrs May's hand gets weaker, while the complexities mount. And breaking ranks from the consensus is JP Morgan which has its key economist declaring that the UK's expectations of Brexit talks are "unrealistic".

This is from Malcolm Barr, his company one of the world's largest banking institutions. And of the state of the UK , he said, "I'm not convinced that (the UK is) really very well prepared at all, to be perfectly blunt".

"I think that some of the expectations which this administration has encouraged people to have about what can be delivered through the Brexit process are a little bit unrealistic", he added, casting doubt on what the process can deliver.

Barr dismisses the idea "that we're going to be able to move directly [to control of migration, control of our regulatory and legal structures] as we leave at some point in probably March 2019, or perhaps a little after". He thinks "we need to be pretty realistic about realising that this is probably going to end up being a more phased and gradual process than much of the debate has suggested so far".

And there's the rub. Not in any conceivable way is this government or any other going to be ready for a full exit by March 2019. And yet, they've not even begun to think of how we're going to manage the transition.

The fact is that a transitional option is not a quick fix. It was simply the only way we had any hope of securing a stable exit within two years. And that pre-supposed that we were prepared, with all the ducks lined up, ready to hit the ground running. But weren't. We didn't have a plan.

The lack of clarity is reflected in the EU's position. The European Parliament's new president, Antonio Tajani, condemns the UK's negotiating position as "unclear". He raises the possibility of Britain staying in the Single Market after the Article 50 exit talks end, hinting at a longer-term transitional agreement.

Tajani raises the prospect of cooperation on the basis of the Swiss and Norwegian participation in the Single Market. But this, it is said, would "torpedo" Mrs May's exit strategy – such that it is.

The European Parliament President argues that the problem is what Mrs May and what the UK Government want to do. Do they want to leave Europe and nothing more, he asks, or do they want to have closer cooperation?

His own answer, rhetorical though it might be, speaks for us all: "Nobody knows", he says. And all because they didn't have a plan.

Richard North 23/06/2017 link

Brexit: known by its omissions

Thursday 22 June 2017  

Observing the more than usually lugubrious Prince Charles alongside his mother, yesterday, one could only marvel at the Queen's modernity in celebrating "bring your child to work" day.

Beyond that, two days short of the first anniversary of the EU referendum, there was precious little else to mark the day in a speech supposedly dominated by Brexit. This is what the Queen had to say:
My government's priority is to secure the best possible deal as the country leaves the European Union. My ministers are committed to working with Parliament, the devolved administrations, business and others to build the widest possible consensus on the country's future outside the European Union.

A bill will be introduced to repeal the European Communities Act and provide certainty for individuals and businesses. This will be complemented by legislation to ensure that the United Kingdom makes a success of Brexit, establishing new national policies on immigration, international sanctions, nuclear safeguards, agriculture, and fisheries.

My government will seek to maintain a deep and special partnership with European allies and to forge new trading relationships across the globe. New bills on trade and customs will help to implement an independent trade policy, and support will be given to help British businesses export to markets around the world.
One wonders if she actually listened to the words she had to say – whether there is some technology available which enables you to blank out the sound of one's own voice when speaking out loud. Only this – or perhaps long practice – would enable her to keep a straight face.

For all the vacuity, though, the words were oddly revealing, demonstrating a Government all at sea, locked in a bizarre "little Englander" paradigm that clearly shows that their priorities are dangerously skewed.

The issue, of course, is that if does not really matter that much whether the Queen's ministers "are committed to working with Parliament, the devolved administrations, business and others to build the widest possible consensus on the country's future outside the European Union".

What we actually need to know is whether ministers are committed to working with the European Union to that effect, because it is only by so doing that we are going to achieve anything at all which will stave off economic disaster. Bereft of any ideas of its own, the Government will find itself having to look to Brussels for its salvation.

As regards the legislative package, we are told that there will be 27 Brexit-related Bills in what the Prime Minister promises to be a busy legislative session.

The key measures will include the Repeal Bill – already flagged up innumerable times, which repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and convert EU law into UK law as we leave the EU. It will also create temporary powers for Parliament to make secondary legislation, enabling corrections to be made to the laws that do not operate appropriately once we have left the EU.

Additionally, there will be power to make changes to domestic law to reflect the content of any withdrawal agreement under Article 50 and to replicate the common UK frameworks created by EU law into UK law. This, apparently, will be a transitional arrangement to provide certainty after exit and to allow intensive discussion and consultation with the devolved administrations on where lasting common frameworks are needed.

Newly offered (to my recollection) is a Customs Bill. It is noted that the EU customs code currently applies directly in the UK and it now seems to have dawned on the few grown-ups left in Government that we will need our own code.

Thus, we are told, this Bill will ensure that the UK has a standalone UK customs regime on exit. It will give us the flexibility to accommodate future trade agreements with the EU and others, and it permits changes to be made to the UK's VAT and excise regimes to ensure that the UK has standalone regimes on EU-exit (assuming that we are keeping VAT).

One does worry more than a little here, though, because the customs regime will depend intrinsically on the agreements we are able to make with our trading partners, and in particular, the European Union.

Rather than ensuring that the UK has its own regime, therefore, one suspects that this will result in an enabling Act which permits ministers to promulgate the myriad of technical regulations that will allow the system to function. When we will see those regulations is another matter.

Following on from this is a Trade Bill which will (in the Government's words) "cement the United Kingdom's status as a leading trading nation, driving positive global change through trade, whilst ensuring UK businesses are protected from unfair trading practices".

That, for an Act of Parliament, is a pretty tall order. Some might even avow that this is not the function of an Act, and neither is the objective solely (or at all) within the Government.

Nevertheless, we are promised that the Bill will put in place the essential and necessary legislative framework to allow the UK to operate its own independent trade policy upon exit from the European Union. That seems more realistic, except that trade policy again will depend on the nature and scope of the agreement with the EU.

Next in line we have an Immigration Bill. With the repeal of the European Communities Act, we are told, it will be necessary to establish new powers concerning the immigration status of EEA nationals.

The Bill will allow the Government to control the number of people coming here from Europe "while still allowing us to attract the brightest and the best". It will allow for the repeal of EU law on immigration, primarily free movement, that will otherwise be saved and converted into UK law by the Repeal Bill, and make the migration of EU nationals and their family members subject to relevant UK law once the UK has left the EU.

Suspicious-minded people might note that the Act (when it comes into force) is not intended to end free movement, per se, but simply to "allow for the repeal of EU law". Whether we do, or not, is another matter.

Similar suspicions might be directed at the Fisheries Bill, which will enable the UK "to exercise responsibility for access to fisheries and management of its waters". One should note the ambiguous wording. There is no claim that the Government is to control access, or even manage the fisheries. Simply, we are to "exercise responsibility" – which is an altogether different thing. If not actually a sell-out, it paves the way for one.

Less ambiguous is the Agriculture Bill, which will ensure that after we leave the EU we have an effective system in place to support UK farmers and protect our natural environment. The key thing, as far as the farmers will be concerned, will be the amount of money in the kitty, and the terms of its distribution. And that we will not know until secondary legislation appears.

Nevertheless. The motherhood and apple pie words are there, with the Bill aiming to provide stability to farmers as we leave the EU and to "protect our precious natural environment for future generations".

Then a Nuclear Safeguards Bill will establish a UK nuclear safeguards regime as we leave the European Union and Euratom. This will take over from locally administered provisions of Euratom, giving the Office for Nuclear Regulation powers to take on the role and responsibilities "required to meet our international safeguards, and nuclear non-proliferation, obligations".

An International Sanctions Bill will support our role as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a "leading player on the world stage", by establishing a new sovereign UK framework to implement international sanctions on a multilateral or unilateral basis.

This Bill, we are told, will return decision-making powers on non-UN sanctions to the UK and enable the UK's continued compliance with international law after the UK's exit from the EU.

Here, the devil is in the detail, but the very presence of this Bill in the line-up indicates that there might be some grown-ups left in the deepest recesses of Whitehall. Where this takes us will need careful watching.

Of the other Bills, these have relevance in dealing with the consequences of Brexit, such as the Space Industry Bill. Bearing in mind that we could drop out of the EU's space programme (although this would be ill-advised), the Bill will create new powers to license a wide range of new commercial spaceflight, including vertically-launched rockets, spaceplanes, satellite operation, spaceports and other technologies. It also creates a regulatory framework to manage risk, ensuring that commercial spaceflight in the UK remains safe.

Intentional or not, this actually gives a strong signal that the UK is not looking for cooperative ventures with the EU, although we will have to wait to see where we go with Galileo and other projects.

Here, and elsewhere, though, there are strong elements of wishful thinking – and much missing on the Brexit front. We should be getting clear indications of how the UK intends to frame the negotiations, especially if there is to be a transition agreement. It is hard to see whether that could be achieved without new legislation.

However, asking for such detail is probably too much to ask, as the Government itself most likely does not know its own intentions. It has thus been said that this Queen's speech will be best known for what it left out. The omissions may well prove to be more important than what so far has been revealed.

Richard North 22/06/2017 link

Brexit: another phoney Brexit

Wednesday 21 June 2017  

Chancellor Philip Hammond made his much-delayed speech yesterday. This is the man who thought that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower had been banned in the UK, provoking a swift denial from a lead firm in the renovation project. 

And now he has been giving us the benefit of his wisdom on "what we want to achieve from those Brexit negotiations". The Prime Minister's Lancaster House speech in January, he said, "had set out clearly the arrangements that the UK would like to agree, built around a comprehensive trade agreement in the context of a deep and special partnership that goes much wider than trade".

But, said the Chancellor, "we recognise that this is a negotiation, and our negotiating counterparts, while broadly sharing our desire for a close ongoing relationship, will have their own priorities". As to our own priorities, we must be "clear" about them. When the British people voted last June, they did not vote to become poorer, or less secure, but they did vote to leave the EU. And we will leave the EU.

But, Hammond declared, "it must be done in a way that works for Britain. In a way that prioritises British jobs, and underpins Britain's prosperity". He added: "Anything less will be a failure to deliver on the instructions of the British people". This brought us to the moment we'd all been waiting for: how we were going to achieve what the Chancellor called "Brexit for Britain".

Firstly, he said, we would secure "a comprehensive agreement for trade in goods and services". Secondly, we would negotiate "mutually beneficial transitional arrangements". These would "avoid unnecessary disruption and dangerous cliff edges". 

Thirdly, said our miracle worker, we would agree "frictionless customs arrangements to facilitate trade across our borders – and crucially – to keep the land border on the island of Ireland open and free-flowing".

To achieve this last miracle, "in the context of our wider objectives" would, said Hammond, "be challenging". It will almost certainly involve, "the deployment of new technology". Therefore, he added, "we'd certainly need an implementation period, outside the Customs Union itself".

To allow this, current customs border arrangements would remain in place until new long-term arrangements were up and running. And then finally, Mr Hammond had one big trump card. He was going to take a "pragmatic approach" to one of our most important EU export sector – financial services.

This would need "a new process for establishing regulatory requirements for cross-border business between the UK and EU". This would have to be "evidence-based, symmetrical, and transparent" and "reflect international standards".

Cooperation arrangements had to be "reciprocal, reliable, and prioritise financial stability". Crucially these had to enable "timely and coordinated risk management on both sides". Third, these arrangements have to be permanent and reliable for the businesses regulated under these regimes.

As far as migration goes, Mr Hammond would have us seeking to manage it. We would not seek to shut it down. But, beyond that, no detail was offered. This, though, was the tenor of the entire speech. One could not say it was "wishy-washy" – just "wishy". The speech was long on aspiration but entirely lacking in execution.

Yet, despite this, the Chancellor was "confident" that we could do "a Brexit deal that puts jobs and prosperity first". This would be a deal that "reassures employers that they will still be able to access the talent they need", one that "keeps our markets for goods and services and capital open" and one that would achieve "early agreement on transitional arrangements".

And in this lovely, fluffy, cuddly Brexit that Mr Hammond has invented for us, "trade can carry on flowing smoothly, and businesses up and down the country can move on with investment decisions that they want to make, but that have been on hold since the Referendum".

I seem to recall writing earlier about my aspirations for gaining the exclusive franchise for Lunar Green Cheese, with a quota of 1000 tons a week, beamed down directly from the Sea of Tranquillity by a matter transporter. But, it appears, Mr Hammond has beaten me to it. In Brexit terms, he's cleaned out the pool.

There is no going back from this. Either we have a minister here with hidden depths, a man who all this time has been sitting on a brilliant plan, the like of which the world has never seen, or we're dealing with yet another Walter Mitty character, living in a parallel universe, and not even the same one as Mrs May.

Particularly interesting is that Hammond too has joined the ranks of the "transitionals". Having caught up with the rest of the world, in understanding that we cannot conclude Mrs May's "deep and special partnership" inside the period allocated, he has embraced the idea that everything can be solved by "mutually beneficial transitional arrangements".

What nobody is admitting, least of all Mr Hammond, is that a transitional agreement is not quick fix. He, like the others, should have appreciated that the complexity is such that the two-year Article 50 period is barely (if at all) sufficient to craft such an agreement.

Looking at the most recent member of the European Union, Croatia, we see that it applied for membership in 2003 and was in negotiations from 2005 until 2011. The 116-page accession treaty was signed on 9 December 2011.

The essence of accession treaty is that it is (to a very large part) a transitional agreement, easing the entry of a joining nation into the Union. That is takes six years is a good indication of how long these things can take and it is not at all untoward to imagine a transitional agreement with the UK taking those two years that Article 50 allows.

The very fact that so many are leaping on this transition bandwagon is in itself and indication that they are little idea of what is involved. Having already wasted so much time, it is questionable whether there is even time to complete a basic agreement.

Hammond, coming to the party late, is playing games. There is nothing anywhere to indicate that his "ideas" have any more substance than the words in his speech, which were pathetically thin. He has joined the ranks of politicians selling their phoney Brexits. That is all these people have to offer.

Richard North 21/06/2017 link

Brexit: anti-climax

Tuesday 20 June 2017  

In first-day talks that were described by EU officials as "window dressing", David Davis and his "Team Brexit" effectively caved in to Brussels, agreeing to phased negotiations on their three "divorce" points.

In what has been called a "major defeat", there was no commitment to run parallel talks on trade, that ambition having been abandoned within hours of the Brexit Secretary having arrived in the Council building.

Last month, Davis had boasted that he would provoke the "row of the summer" unless he got his way on immediate trade talks, predicting an early collapse if the EU refused concessions.

Instead, the Brussels agenda is going ahead, with three working groups set up, one on EU citizens' rights, one on the "financial settlement" and the other on border issues, in particular, the border with Northern Ireland.

At the press conference after the session, Davis had to admit that the trade issue would only be entertained when the EU had decided that "enough progress" had been made on the EU's negotiating priorities. Confronted with the "weakness" of his negotiating position, Davis could only put on a brave face, claiming: "It's not when it starts but how it finishes that matters".

That much we get from the media – a totally predictable outcome. Davis caved in because he had to cave in. It was that or walk away immediately. The "colleagues" were not in a mood for games.

Mr Davis's humiliation, though, is the least of our troubles. There is no evidence that Mrs May's weakened government has a coherent (or any) plan. Beyond phase one of the negotiations, there is a black hole, from which nothing escapes.

We are getting to the point where, as far as this blog goes, virtually everything that could be said has been said. We have reached the stage where we are simply repeating ourselves while the noise level continues to climb and nothing can be heard above the din.

It is not just a question of this blog being ignored. Even seasoned civil servants and former government advisors are being frozen out of the loop, while ever-vacuous academics fill space on nostrums which demonstrate how little they have thought about this complex subject.

Basically, we have one option – the one we've only ever had: a continuation of EEA membership, if the Efta states will agree to our joining them. Without that, there is an outside possibility of redefining the Efta institutions to permit UK participation without membership, but this will not be easy or quick to set up.

Even then, those who are belatedly, jumping on the EEA bandwagon display such a limited understanding of the EEA Agreement and the treaty structure – much less of the possibilities afforded – that we are scarcely in a position to take advantage of the option.

All that is theoretical anyway. The EEA is not currently on the table and Davis has retreated to cloud-cuckoo land. He insisting that there is much "common ground" with the EU and that the timetable for withdrawal, while "ambitious" is "eminently achievable". This is very much a case of fools rushing in where angels fear to tread, with nothing of substance to support it.

If ever there was a time for the slow-motion train crash analogies, this is it. There is actually little more we can do, other than watch and wait – and record the progress of that train on its final departure from the permanent way.

Richard North 20/06/2017 link

Brexit - the first year - New e-book by Richard North
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