Brexit: a temporary end to the charade

Thursday 27 April 2017  

It is a small event, but to have Peter "ten minute" Lilley stand down from Parliament at this election is good news. It removes a prominent "Ultra" from the ranks of the Conservative – and if it was Mrs May's intention to dilute their ranks, she has succeeded in that respect.

There is, of course, a personal issue, as the man's unwanted intervention has not made life any easier, especially as he is regarded as something as an intellectual amongst his peers. But with him now on his way, we can perhaps remember him as one of the five MPs (including the tellers) who voted against the Climate Change Act.

Nevertheless, in the very last PMQs of his 34-year career, Lilley was not content to leave things alone, asking Mrs May whether she agreed that, if we are to secure a reasonable deal, we must accept that no deal is indeed better than a bad deal. To deny this, he said, "signals that no price is too high, no concession too grovelling to accept - a recipe for the worst possible deal".

If this signifies an "intellectual" approach to politics, though, then it is no wonder we are in so much trouble. Since no possible outcome could be worse that "no deal", then to walk away from the talks is not a credible threat. To put it on the table merely invites the "colleagues" to call our bluff – for that it would be – leaving us with nowhere to go.

Fortunately, Mrs May didn't rise to the bait. Dead-batting Lilley's proposition, she merely remarked that the only way to ensure we had "a strong hand in negotiations" was to ensure that a Conservative Government was elected on 8 June.

Certainly, that is probably necessary, although I doubt very much whether it is sufficient – there is a lot more to do before we are even close to a tenable negotiating position.

But that left another departee, the former Ukip MP for Clacton, Douglas Carswell, to ask Mrs May what assurances she could give the 3.8 million Ukip voters at the least election that the "United Kingdom will become a sovereign country again, living under our own Parliament and making our own laws".

Mrs May easily fielded that one, giving an assurance to "all those people who voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union - and to all people across the country, regardless of how they voted" that "we want to see control of our borders, control of our laws and control of our money". And that, she said, "is what we will deliver" – even if she didn't commit herself to a timescale.

But, if these were the last ever questions that the Prime Minister will answer from this pair, it was also the last session of the Parliament before it prorogues, the MPs have to turn off the official websites, and those that wish to sit again have (briefly) to fight for their livings.

Jeremy Corbyn tried to make the most of the occasion, attempting to focus the campaign on Labour's comfort zone, turning this into an "NHS election". He failed, of course. There can be few in this country who see this as anything other than a "Mandate for May" to take with her to Brussels.

Even if Mrs May was on less sparkling form, I suspect it had nothing to do with Ukip's Brexit spokesman Gerard Batten declaring his intention to stand for Maidenhead, seeking to depose the Prime Minister.

At least Batten is standing – which is more than can be said for his leader, as the party slides down to four percent in one set of polls, while even YouGov has them on a mere seven percent.

What may have preoccupied Mrs May was then a coming meeting in No 10 with M. Barnier and Juncker, prior to the European Council meeting this weekend. But beyond knowing that the process of the UK's withdrawal from the EU was discussed, we are none the wiser. One hopes that Mrs May will be.

In another remarkable counterpoint, though, we can be absolutely assured that one person left completely untouched by wisdom is the sociopathic Mr Johnson who has been speaking at the Lord Mayor's banquet, telling his audience that Brexit could usher in a "new era of trade deals".

Amongst the happy little fantasies that Mr Johnson entertains is that that he can secure tariff reductions on Scotch whiskey, thereby increasing sales to India. Yet, since local and state discriminatory taxes are also applied, this would not have anything like the effect he might wish for.

Mr Johnson might also talk to existing importers who are finding that arcane labelling requirements are limiting export opportunities.

For instance, exporters were quite content to affix stickers to product packs, specifying country-specific details but then regulations changed to require details to be printed on packs before they are shipped to India. If any details are incorrect, importers are not allowed to correct them in order to secure customs clearance. The goods have to be returned to the originating country.

A similar problem currently affects the maximum retail prices which must be printed on packaging before the goods are submitted for customs clearance. However, since the price is affected by local taxes which cannot be known until is distributed for sale, the requirements are impossible to meet and become absolute barriers to the import of certain goods.

This is but a small taste of the non-tariff barriers that await us when we seek to do business in that brave, new post-Brexit world. Currently, these Indian labelling regulations are only the tip of the iceberg.

Another delight was the introduction of 100 percent sampling of containers, when earlier sampling had been limited to 5-10 percent. At one time, containers were hardly getting cleared, with disastrous effect on the sale of imported snacks and treats during the festival season.

The point here is that no sooner is one obstruction cleared then the inventive Indian authorities dream up something new to frustrate their importers. If Mr Johnson thinks that the Indian sub-continent is going to bail him out, he's sadly mistaken.

Needless to say though, adult discussion of such issues in on hold, while the idiots unite to prattle about tariff barriers which have long since ceased to have any relevance.

Softly, softly, though, banks and other businesses are preparing to move staff out of the UK, with thousands of jobs on notice to move. By no means are all these are being publicised, but high-level managers are speaking privately about plans which have moved from speculation to firm intention.

Yet, all the while, we get this pathetic little charade in Parliament, with politicians and their fellow travellers endlessly prattling about that which they know nothing. The one small mercy is that we are spared the weekly ritual of PMQs for a while, although the replacements are hardly likely to prove any better.

Richard North 27/04/2017 link

Brexit: waiting for reality

Wednesday 26 April 2017  

Rather as expected, the election has driven out most of the already dismal Brexit coverage, leaving us with thin pickings and very little to go on. For the moment, that's how it's going to be and there is no point in complaining.

The lack of focus, however, doesn't stop the Muppets coming out to play, led in this instance by Open Europe which is claiming that the UK doesn't need to rely on trade with the EU.

Their grasp of the issues is such that they are arguing that underdeveloped links with countries such as India, Canada and Israel can replace EU trade. The top 10 "underperforming" UK export markets have untapped potential of more than £41 billion by 2030, they claim.

So this is what London's "finest" have to offer: we can rely on £41 billion-worth of trade in 13 year's time to replace approximately £230 billion-worth of trade annually with the EU right now. With that level of genius at our disposal, we can' t possibly lose.

Not much more can be said of Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Brexit, Keir Starmer, who has set out his party's position for the duration.

Mr Starmer tells us that there will be a very clear choice on the ballot paper in June, a choice of two visions of Brexit. Labour's approach will be based on its supposed values: internationalist and outward looking, fortified by a belief that "we achieve more together than we do alone".

While accept that "outside the EU our relationship with Europe must change", Labour does not accept that Brexit has to mean whatever Theresa May says it means. They do not accept that there has to be "a reckless Tory Brexit" and then, in something of a no sequitur, Starmer adds that "we do not believe that if you're a citizen of the world, you're a citizen of nowhere".

The trouble is that, if you follow his speech and get past this passage, you still have 1,700 words to go before you discover that Starmer is saying not very much at all, and much of what he does say is contradictory.

For instance, he recognises that immigration rules will have to change as we exit the EU, but we do not believe that immigration should be the overarching priority – and he doesn't believe it should stop either. Existing EU immigrants, though, should be allowed to stay if they want to.

So, even though he will have us stopping freedom of movement, except where he doesn't, he still wants to retain the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union. He wants hard-fought workplace rights and the environment are protected and wants "a Brexit that brings the country together, radically devolves power and supports all regions and nations of the UK".

At least "no deal" is not a "viable option". Labour's approach to Brexit means ending this reckless approach and making it clear to our EU partners that "we will seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements as we leave the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy".

But, if this is all nice, cuddly, apple pie and motherhood stuff, as always we see no detail and no recognition of how to overcome the hurdles in trying to negotiate such a complex deal in such an insanely short period of time.

Rest assured, though, even if Labour doesn't really know what we want or, more particularly, how to get it, Parliament will at least have a "meaningful vote" whenever it is we get whatever is given to us by the "colleagues". How the vote then becomes meaningful is left up in the air, as Starmer doesn't say what will happen if the vote goes against the government.

That is not to say that the Conservatives are being any more specific about what they want, or how they intend to achieve it – but then they're not in the hot seat.

Somebody is most definitely in the hot seat is Ukip leader Paul Nuttall who, with every passing day, looks more like a parody of himself.

Currently refusing to commit himself to standing for a Westminster seat – unlike Farage and his crony Arron Banks, both of whom have definitely ducked the challenge, Nuttall will be the first party leader not to stand for a general election since the last one, which just happened to be Malcom Pearson, also a Ukip leader. Before that, apparently, you have to go back to Lord Salisbury.

In the meantime, as Ukip resolutely fails to offer a credible or even coherent template for Britain's exit, and allows itself to be cast as riding the Islamophobia wagon. Members are falling away and the poll rating is nose-diving - well into single figures which may not stop at five percent.

Whatever else, the party is over for Ukip as Tories soak up the votes, returning us to a semblance of the traditional two-party politics. Even the Lib-Dems don't seem to be getting much of a showing.

Meanwhile, the Telegraph has suddenly discovered that we will have to continue paying into the EU budget until the end of the MFF period in December 2020.

Even though we have reported this many times, in accordance with newspaper procedure, nothing exists until the fourth estate discovers it, when it takes the credit for its own brilliance. Hence the Mail is also on the case, setting out the demands that the "colleagues" will declare on Saturday's summit.

Speaking of old stories, The Times has reported on the Chinese customs fraud which we featured last month, although it has added some details about the way the fraud is carried out.

Potentially, this could coast us another €2 billion in compensation to Brussels, even if this is not being linked to the Brexit talks. Money, more than anything else, seems to be doing the talking during these negotiations.

And coming back to Mr Starmer, this is his most obvious lacuna. Time and time and time again, the "colleagues" have made it clear that there will be no progress on the Brexit talks until the money question is settled, even if it is just in principle. To be credible. Labour needed to spell out how they would handle the issue. But instead we get silence.

That silence will look all the more fragile come Saturday when the "colleagues" are due to agree their formal negotiating guidelines. Under normal circumstances, these should have kickstarted the negotiations, but everything on the British side is on hold until after the election.

With luck, the contestants will be forced to respond to Brussels, with even the possibility that some reality is injected into the debate. Failing that, we'll be looking for a bunker in which we can hide. I'm not sure I can take another six weeks of this.

Richard North 26/04/2017 link

Brexit: Macron – neither good nor bad

Tuesday 25 April 2017  

It says something of the general election campaign – still cranking into gear – that, briefly, the English media have found the French election marginally more interesting than our own.

But it should come as no great surprise that the English press is just as ill-informed about French politics as it is about everything else. Thus do we have the Daily Mail proclaiming a "New French Revolution", marking the success of Emmanuel Macron in the first round of the presidential contest, with Marine Le Pen taking second place.

Only an English paper, though, could describe a process which puts a Jesuit-trained enarque in pole position as a "revolution". As a former member of the Socialist Party, a senior member of President Hollande's staff and then Minister of Economy and Finance, Macron is nothing if not a political insider, from the very heart of the establishment.

Furthermore, although the English media is also making great play of the "wipe-out" of the traditional parties, political parties by no means have the same resonance in France as they do in the UK.

The centre-right, in particular, has been playing fast and loose with party names, from de Gaulle's Union for the New Republic (Union pour la nouvelle république or UNR) onwards. Having been started up as a platform for de Gaulle, it was replaced for the 1968 legislative election by the Union for the Defence of the Republic (Union pour la défense de la République or UDR).

In December 1976, the UDR was replaced by the Rally for the Republic (Rassemblement pour la République or RPR), a New Gaullist Party, devised as a machine of reconquest behind one man, Jacques Chirac (who, as presidential candidate later took on Le Pen senior).

Before the 2002 presidential election, RPR and non-RPR supporters of Chirac gathered in an association: the "Union on the move". It became the Union for the Presidential Majority (Union pour la majorité présidentielle or UMP), largely as a personal platform for Jacques Chirac.

Then in May 2015, with a Socialist government in power, the party was renamed and succeeded by the Republicans (Les Républicains). This party, formally less than two years old, provided the platform from which François Fillon mounted his challenge, gaining seven million votes and 19.94 percent of the poll, against Macron who took 23.7 percent, and Le Pen with 21.53 percent.

With parties of the right tailored to provide platforms for presidential candidates, it was entirely logical for Macron to set up his own party for the centre-left, to replace the hugely unpopular and discredited Socialist Party.

Although Macron now calls himself an "independent", his dependence on a tailor-made political platform is entirely in keeping with traditional French politics. The "wipe out" of traditional parties, therefore, is meaningless.

As to his stance on Brexit, he made this very clear before the referendum. France, he said, would not allow its British neighbour to be given any special status. "We are inside or outside, and the day after the departure, there will be no financial passport for the British establishments", he added, stating that the European Council must issue an ultimatum to the British about their intentions.

As far as the President of the Republic was concerned (and that most likely will be he), Macron had a very clear message: "If the United Kingdom wants a commercial treaty for access to the European market, the British will have to contribute to the European budget like the Norwegians or the Swiss. If London does not wish it, it must be a total exit".

Bizarrely, Norway does not contribute to the EU budget, but you would not expect French politicians to be any better informed about EU matters than their UK counterparts. The "invincible ignorance" we experience is not confined to this side of the Channel.

Looking at the "challenge" that would follow this referendum, in his view, the EU had two priorities. It had to: "avoid the contamination of the 'Brexit' and immediately relaunch the momentum of a positive project for Europe". 

Even if "Remain" prevails, Macron said at the time, France will take the initiative. "If we allow 'Brexit' to gnaw at the European adventure, you will have similar debates among the Danes, the Dutch, the Poles, the Hungarians, and this is already the case". Thus, he says, "we must return to the original promises of the European project: peace, prosperity and freedom". 

This, then, is a man from whom we cannot expect too much, although he will at least be predictable. And if the UK can offer a "European" solution to Brexit, then we could find in the new President a friend and an ally. It will be easier to deal with a "European" than a French nationalist from the de Gaulle mould.

However – assuming Macron gets the presidency – the real effect will not be felt until we see the outcome of the German federal election. And there, it seems more and more likely that Merkel will be re-elected chancellor.

Given that Macron has married a woman 24 years his senior (his one-time school teacher), one might be able to make tentative assumptions about his relationship with Merkel – positing that the Franco-German "motor" might be re-energised.

And it is this combination of two strongly Euro-centric leaders that will make the difference – even if it is not necessarily decisive. The one thing about which we can be certain is that the European Union performs best (in its own terms) when there is harmony between Berlin and Paris. And this, above all else, is what Macron may bring to the table.

As for Marine le Pen, it is doubtful whether she could ever overcome the electoral inertia that grips French politics and, while some voters are happy to have their fling on the first round, they invariably come into line in the run-offs. We have no reason to believe otherwise in this election.

The only real dampening effect on Macron's ambitions is likely to come in the legislative elections in June later this year. With the Socialists in disarray, the established party is unlikely to prevail. Macron's En Marche "movement", on the other hand, has not been around long enough to build up an effective party machine.

On that basis, one can speculate that Les Républicains will gain the majority of seats in the Assembly. And if that is the case, the newly-minted president may be forced into a period of cohabitation, limiting his freedom of action.

However, when it comes to Brexit, there is no discernible difference between Macron and Fillon, with the latter arguing for it to be "fast, hard and uncompromising". If that represents the position of Les Républicains, we will, if anything, be better off with Macron. But it also means that there will be few divisions that "Team Brexit" will be able to exploit.

All in all, from the election just past and the ones to come, we are probably no worse off, but no better off than we could expect. We are going to have to deal with Brexit, and if there was any expectation that the political calculus could change with either the French or German elections, that is fast evaporating.

Richard North 25/04/2017 link

Brexit: "invincible ignorance"

Monday 24 April 2017  

Tucked away in the Independent on Saturday and not repeated elsewhere was an article complaining of the "invincible ignorance" of "anti-EU ministers". The remark comes from former ECJ judge David Edward (pictured above) and even though it is confined to ministers' stances on the ECJ, it deserves wider coverage on that point alone.

But the complaint could to extended to cover the whole range of issues relevant to Brexit, where it can fairly be said that "invincible ignorance" is the dominant state in Westminster and Whitehall – and indeed what might also be termed "Fleet Street", the national media in its broadest sense.

The thing about government is that we are used to the narrative, fortified by the television series "Yes Minister", which has it that Departmental Secretaries of State and Prime Ministers sit at the peak of a hierarchy of diligent and gifted civil servants who wisely counsel their political masters on their options.

Thus informed – to an extent to which us mere mortals can only dream, politicians are able to weigh up the options and come to the best possible decisions, keeping the mechanisms of state functioning smoothly and efficiently.

The reality, though, is almost the reverse of expectations. The role of civil servants is not to keep their ministers informed. Rather, they are there to manage the flow of information, ensuring that ministers are told only that which they need to know (in the opinion of the civil servants) and then in such a matter as it will naturally lead to the desired decisions being made.

On that basis, far from being all-seeing and all-knowing, Ministers sitting in the gilded offices, are often the least informed people in the buildings they occupy, not uncommonly relying on Sky News or the BBC to give them a limited appreciation of what is happening, long after their civil servants have known the details.

That, however, describes the best of circumstances, where in each department there is some knowledge and institutional memory on which the "Mandarins" rely.

But the picture on Brexit is far worse. Here, we have "thirty somethings" who have never engaged in EU issues and who are profoundly ignorant of them and lack entirely any institutional memory. What little they know is often based on flawed and heavily biased information, used to cement and justify departmental policy.

On the other hand – and especially with the "three Brexiteers" – they are speaking to ideologically motivated ministers who rely on a simplistic and often fictional construct of the EU to guide them in their dealings with it, heedless of the fact that they are having to work with the most complex bureaucracy in the world.

Never more apt has been the phrase "blind leading the blind", except that this understates the problem. We are dealing in some instances with the wilfully blind who reject the idea that vision would be of any assistance and who spurn the advice of those who can see as being tainted.

From an external stance, it is very difficult trying to second-guess the actions of the ignorant. If one expects decisions to be based on logical conclusions which are reliant on weighing up all the facts and options, then predictions as to possible outcomes will most often be completely wrong.

Many decisions are in fact being taken in response to a flawed and limited appreciation of circumstances, heavily distorted by ideological preconceptions. This is very dangerous because it allows what otherwise might appear to stupid decisions to look quite sensible - and more rational decisions to look ill-founded and risky.

Turning specifically to the subject of the Independent article, we have David Edward warning that withdrawal from the court will not be simple and predicting that an anti-EU clique, who for years had lambasted the European Court, would turn its guns on British courts and judges. He thus slams the "invincible ignorance" of Brexit-backing ministers who believe they can free the UK from the court's influence.

Edward finds himself  "astonished" at what he called misleading promises of autonomy from the court, made by Brexiteer politicians. While the Prime Minister is expected to make distancing the UK from the ECJ an election pledge, he - alongside other academic and political experts – are underlining how difficult it will be for the Government to maintain its hard-line stance towards removing the court's role in British life.

Severing ties with Luxembourg, Edward says, will not be as simple as "leave means leave".  "You can escape the jurisdiction of the ECJ, but you have got to comply with EU standards if you are going to export into the EU", he adds, then pointing out that ECJ is the ultimate arbiter of what these standards mean if there is a problem.

The ECJ, he says, is not "stuffed with European judges who imposed their will on the unwilling British people". Rather, he adds, "a great number of cases we decided were brought by British people precisely in order to be able to trade freely".

As to maintaining "pure sovereign authority", Oxford law professor Paul Craig endorses the Edward view, stating that we will continue to have difficulties after Brexit. For sure. when we leave the EU, all rights and obligations cease, but the reality is that any UK business that wishes to do business in Europe will in effect have to comply with the relevant rules. "The idea we have some pure sovereign regulatory authority in the UK will simply not be true", he says.

Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at the University of Cambridge, thinks the Prime Minister will find herself in a political bind – forced to appease "hard Brexiteers" by being as uncompromising in her language as she can. "Politically, [Ms May] has got to say Britain will be free from the ECJ because that is what the hard Brexiteers in the Government want. But in reality, two years is just not enough time to replicate the EU institutions", Barnard says.

What will happen is there will be a divorce so she can say we have left, and then there will be transitional arrangements, which will mean from air safety to plant variety, it may well be that we will continue to use the EU bodies because we can't just set up those 50 or so bodies in that time. This means there may still be a role for the ECJ".

The interesting thing here, though, is that while the newspaper is keen to bask in the reflected prestige of law professors and an ex-judge, the thrust of the argument is tiresomely shallow.

As so many standards are formulated at global level and we are having to confront the realities of globalisation in international trade, the ECJ in many respects is the least of our problems. If we are to remain part of that global system, as Peter points out, we as a nation will never recover ultimate sovereignty.

Pure unadulterated sovereignty no longer exists and it hasn't for a long time. Nations, says Pete (who isn't a law professor) have been bound by their agreements for as long as there have been nations. By leaving the EU we, at the very least, retake the right to say no and the right to refuse and propose regulations. We are about to enter a completely different universe of governance.

And therein lies an entirely new and different level of "invincible ignorance" as the "little Europeans" pontificate about their narrow obsessions, oblivious to the broader issues which will dominate decision-making.

In a debate about Brexit where the same old issues are endlessly rehearsed to the point of utter tedium, we need to inject more information and to widen our scope. As long as "invincible ignorance" is the dominant feature of this debate – from all side – we are never going to get that essential element of democracy: informed consent.

But come what may, Brexit continues to show up the information "fault lines", where the traditional opinion-formers are showing themselves to be the least equipped to guide the debate. Ignorance may be bliss, as the saying holds, but we need something more than "invincible ignorance" to shape our future.

Richard North 24/04/2017 link

Booker: the great unmentionables

Sunday 23 April 2017  

As usual when another election comes along, Booker tries to point out some of those hugely important issues which won't be getting discussed, because all the parties agree not to notice them.

The irony, in my view, is that although this is supposed to be the "Brexit election", the one thing that won't be discussed in any detail is the way we should be leaving the EU. At best (or worst), I fear that all we're going to get is a half-hearted re-run of the referendum campaign to the counterpoint of ritual cries about the Single Market.

Anyhow, high on Booker's list in this week's column is the energy future we face under the Climate Change Act, where our politicians have all happily nodded through a "decarbonisation" policy whereby we shall before long be phasing out all those remaining fossil-fuel power stations which still provide more than half our electricity, to rely instead on grotesquely subsidised "renewables" and imaginary nuclear power stations which show little sign of getting built.

Scarcely any MP has yet shown any sign of recognising what a disaster this is heading us for. The only mentions it is likely to get in coming weeks will be virtue-signalling manifesto references to the need for yet more unreliable renewables.

That is fair enough but, because of the EU links, this is probably a downstream issue – for the next election rather than this one – and then only after we have has a serious public debate on energy. For the moment, we have to concentrate on Brexit.

Even less mentioned, says Booker, will be the scandalous state of our "child protection" system and the family courts, as almost every month the number of children being removed from their families continues to break records, far too many of them for wholly inadequate reasons.

The only MP who ever properly recognised the nature of this tragedy was the Lib Dem John Hemming, who lost his seat in 2015, and it is now lost to view in the one place, Parliament, with the power to try to bring this corrupted system back to its original laudable intentions.

This, though, demonstrates the inadequacy of the electoral system. It is never going to be the case that the nation chooses a government on such narrow issues – no matter how worthy they are.

We need separate mechanisms, outside the framework of a general election, to be able to address such failures. Here, there is an excellent opportunity for The Harrogate Agenda, which would permit a referendum on the Childrens' Act, with a view to seeking its abolition.

Next in Booker's line of fire is public spending. This makes for his third unmentionable: our still soaring national debt, due to rise again this year, from a mere £316 billion at the turn of the century, to £1,829 billion – the interest payable on which, £52 billion, is alone way ahead of our spending on national defence.

We may hear much about those damaging "cuts", on everything from the NHS and care of the elderly to our schools and police. But how often are we told that public spending rose last year from £761 billion to £784 billion, and is due this year to hit £797 billion.

These are the figures supplied to Parliament for every MP to study, but since not one of them has any idea what to do about it, it's all best pushed under the carpet. And, if you are standing for Labour or the Lib Dems, you can just stick to complaining about those dreadful "cuts".

Finally, of course, there is Brexit, where all the indications are, from an increasingly stern Brussels and from the implications of Theresa May's decision that we should shut ourselves out of the single market, that we may end up in a situation much worse than most people yet realise or than what we have now.

It is always a danger sign, Booker says, when all our politicians agree on taking some great leap in the dark, without giving any proper thought to where it may lead; as it was when 463 MPs voted in 2008 for the Climate Change Act, without any of them asking how in practice we could cut down our "carbon emissions" by four fifths within 40 years without shutting down virtually our entire economy.

We similarly saw 494 MPs voting to send Mrs May on her way to Brussels, without having any idea what this may lead to. They have no idea that, in just two years, she will be able not only to agree a unique deal which somehow allows us to carry on trading with our largest export market and the source of 30 per cent of our food much as we do now.

Still less do our MPs have any sensible suggestions on how to sort out the thousand and one other issues needing to be resolved, from foreign and security policies to agriculture and fisheries: even how airliners from Britain can continue to enjoy free access to the "single European sky".

But, Booker concludes, at least she will be able to enjoy her huge election victory before some very uncomfortable realities begin to break in, and she will avoid having to face the country again in 2020, when the results of her negotiations are evident for all to see.

And it is then, when she has sorted those details that the truth of Brexit will emerge. Far from being a solution to our problems, it is just an enabler. After Brexit, Mrs May will not be able to hide behind "Brussels".

It is then that she will have to work out what is to be done about our suicidal national energy policy and how to pay the interest on a national debt which by then could have topped £2 trillion.

Richard North 23/04/2017 link

Brexit: a historical curiosity

Saturday 22 April 2017  

One of the side-effects of this referendum, it would seem, will be the next step in the decline and fall of Ukip. The party is broke, short of willing candidates and bereft of leadership.

Even their most prominent member, Nigel Farage, has done a runner, claiming he is more useful in Strasbourg and Brussels where, unlike in "easy win" Clacton, his tax-funded expenses will keep flowing.

In a move that no real political party would contemplate, Ukip is also considering having its people stand down in some seats currently represented by strongly pro-Brexit Conservative MPs.

There is also "keenness" among some Ukip figures for the party to stand aside in seats where a pro-leave Conservative MP is facing a close challenge from the pro-remain Liberal Democrats, in order not to split the vote.

Ukip is said to be preparing to present such a move as a principled decision to best secure departure from the EU. However, it would also save the party cash, allowing it to focus its limited resources on as-yet undeclared target areas.

But unlike previous general elections, there is no sugar daddy waiting in the wings with his pockets full of cash, ready to bail out impoverished candidates. The most recent of the party's big donors, Arron Banks, has gone AWOL and may even stand as a rival candidate in Carswell's former seat, while fending off the Electoral Commssion which is investigating his spending during the referendum.

With Ukip entering the election campaign deprived of its one and only MPs, and facing the prospect losing its entire corps of revenue-generating MEPs, the party's influence is on the wane. And not even its best friends believe it will make up its losses by gaining even a single MPs.

Farage's aim while he plays on the "stage" offered by the European Parliament, is to promote a "hard Brexit", the pursuit of which has become the holy grail of the "kippers". This they cling onto as their "vision" of ideological purity, for want of any more creative or intelligent ideas on how to manage the UK's exit.

More than anything, it is this refusal to engage in the practical realities of Brexit that is dragging the party down into the well-deserved oblivion that awaits it. The real job of managing the process of extracting ourselves from the European Union is being left to the grown-ups, while Ukip members whinge ineffectually from the sidelines.

In the longer term, the nation is going to have to get used to a new style of national politics, where Ukip is no longer a credible electoral threat, where Labour is in what seems to be terminal decline, where the Lib-Dems are picking up the protest vote and the Tories, for the time being, are all-powerful and sweep everything before them.

Although we've been there before, in the Thatcher years, many of the new generation of political wonks cut their teeth in the Blair years, and have seen only weak Conservatives governments since, lacking any clear ideology or commitment to Conservative principles.

Yet here we are, on the brink of what looks as if it could become a one-party state, even if the future of the Tories is entirely bound up in how well it manages Brexit.

Perhaps it could have been different, had Ukip worked up a realistic exit plan and sought to set the agenda for the next decade but, despite Farage's protestations to the contrary, the party has nothing useful or interesting to say.

After this election, though, we're unlikely ever to see the likes of the scenes photographed during the 2015 election (pictured), leaving generations to come to ponder over their political history books and to learn about the historical curiosity that was once UKIP.

There again, out of the ashes, another party could rise – but the days of yellow and purple are numbered.

Richard North 22/04/2017 link

Brexit: hard nuts in Brussels

Friday 21 April 2017  

Even though the draft negotiating guidelines from the European Council were pretty unequivocal, the "colleagues", it seems, have been working on a new draft which makes them even tougher.

This is according to the Financial Times which has seen a "non-paper" commenting on the new guidelines. As such, "non-papers" are usually published to "facilitate and structure discussion" and do not amount to formal proposals.

The FT itself tells of "small but significant revisions" to the original draft guidelines. But, to be more accurate, these are discussion points and clarifications offered by the Commission. There is no new draft as such.

Nevertheless, the newspaper believes the "non-paper" shows that EU Member States are happy to take a harder line on some issues than its negotiators originally suggested. In actuality, this reflects a hard line being taken by the Commission, but more in the form of tentative kite-flying.

Most notably, the Commission is challenging a UK requirement that EU migrants complete an 85-page form to prove that they are permanently resident in the UK. Guarantees of migrant rights "must be comprehensive, effective, enforceable and non-discriminatory" the document states. "Citizens should be able to exercise their rights through smooth and simple administrative procedures".

From "several diplomats", we learn that this call for "simple administrative procedures" was a direct reference to what are unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles that will make it harder for EU citizens to exercise their rights in Britain. "We've all seen that 85-page form", one senior EU diplomat tells the FT.

Another significant suggestion for amendment confronts one of the UK's supposedly most important "red lines" by including a more explicit reference to the ECJ and its role during a transition.

Any transition phase extending EU law would require not just the continuance of regulatory, budgetary, supervisory and enforcement instruments and structures, but also the EU's judicial oversight. The new draft also seeks to preserve the "autonomy" of EU decision-making at all stages, as well as "the role" of European courts.

One wonders whether Mrs May knew about this before her surprise announcement on the election and whether it influenced her decision. This is, after all, a dagger at the heart of her Brexit policy, ostensibly keeping the UK locked into the ECJ's jurisdiction until any free trade agreement comes into force – which could be years down the line.

Unsurprisingly, there is little enthusiasm in the Commission for establishing special judicial arrangements for the UK, just to cover the transition period. The UK will have to fit into the EU mould, not the other way around.

And having stabbed deep, the "colleagues" are intent on twisting the knife, demanding that the UK not only addresses the reste à liquider issue but also agrees to a "single financial settlement" which includes issues related to the European Investment Bank, development spending and contributions to the capital of the European Central Bank.

Not content with that, the non paper notes that the withdrawal agreement will need to address "potential issues arising from the withdrawal in other areas of cooperation, including security".

But the real bombshell comes in what the FT terms a "subtle edit". This downplays the EU's view of how soon it is willing to engage in discussions on an "ambitious" post-Brexit trade deal with the UK.

The original draft noted the EU was willing to start work on this before 2019, but the suggested text merely notes a willingness to discuss "an agreement on trade". This, apparently, is a deliberate attempt to lower expectations, leading one to suppose that, if adopted, team Brexit is going to find it hard going extracting a substantial agreement from the "colleagues".

Even then, the bad news isn't done. On trade deals in general, the Commission is suggesting that any new arrangements should not "endanger financial stability in the union, which is interpreted as a demand that the UK financial sector stays in line with European standards and potentially accepts some EU oversight.

That regulatory oversight, however, does not stop with financial services. The reference to social and environmental "dumping" in the original is also suggested for modification, with a reference to the need to tackle "unfair competitive advantages" including "tax, social, environmental and regulatory measures and practices".

As a final touch, the non-paper demands that the relocation of the European Medicines Agency and the European Banking Authority, currently based in London, be settled "rapidly". Britain will have no say in where they go, but there is some suggestion that the UK should cover the relocation costs.

Small wonder than that Finnish Finance Minister Petteri Orpo ventures the opinion that Brexit is inevitably going to be so painful that no one will want to feel it for themselves. He adds: "I believe it's going to be a precedent no one will want to follow".

And for all that, we have yet to see the final version of the actual guidelines, which are set to be approved on 29 April at a European Council meeting. But anybody who thought that the general election might buy us a temporary truce could be prey to over-optimism. The Commission seems determined to close down as many of Mrs May's options as they can.

This could make the Council an event of electoral significance if the hardest of the suggestions are adopted and they feed back into the campaign over here. Any sign of a stiffening resolve in Brussels is going to need careful handling, otherwise we end up with a bunfight that nobody can win.

Just for once, Brussels needs to realise that concessions cannot just go one way. To get something, they are going to have to give something. Playing the hard nut doesn't always work. However tough the nut is, one can always find a bigger sledgehammer.

Richard North 21/04/2017 link

Brexit: delaying the inevitable

Thursday 20 April 2017  

Given that some of them were voting for their own redundancies, you would have thought that more than 13 would have voted against a general election. But such is the obsession of the political classes with elections that, offered the prospect of a contest, 522 MPs piled in to give Mrs May what she wanted.

The immediate effect of this, however, is malign. As election fever takes hold, the political noise level increases exponentially while the information quotient drops almost to zero. Equally, the "colleagues" won't make much of a showing, knowing full well that anything they say now will fall on deaf ears.

And then we have in Jeremy Corbyn a leader of the opposition who seems unable to discuss anything of substance, except in terms of mind-blowing clichés, delivering "ten pledges to rebuild and transform Britain" which makes no mention of the EU.

Thus we have the bizarre situation where the so-called "Brexit election" will be about everything other than Brexit. And since we were getting little enough before Mrs May's Tuesday announcement, those anxious to explore the deeper ramifications of Brexit are going to be disappointed. They might just as well pack up and go home for the duration.

The irony here is that, after the election, Mrs May will claim that the vote (assuming she wins it) will give her the mandate she needs to continue the Article 50 negotiations, when it will do no such thing. The exit options will have been no better aired by 8 June than they have been to date.

This, though, is the time for ironies – witness the Guardian which has Stewart Wood tell us that: "May wants a hard Brexit without scrutiny. It’s Labour's job to stop her getting it".

Even if it was actually true that Mrs May was hankering after this suicidal course of action, it would be hard to find anyone in the real world who could deal with the idea of Labour performing as an effective opposition without breaking up into uncontrolled giggles.

But them, as the Guardian points out elsewhere, even with the best will in the world, it would be difficult for any opposition to perform effectively.

The election, the paper says, is an invitation to voters to buy Mrs May's Brexit terms sight unseen. She has declared that she wants support "for the decisions I must take", but we do not know what those decisions will be. It goes on to say:
They depend on negotiations that have barely begun with some EU partners who face elections of their own, as well as on events. All this will involve give and take. Mrs May is seeking a mandate to do something of which not even she knows the main planks, the details and the trade-offs. She wants to get parliament off her back in making the Brexit terms. This election must ensure that this does not happen.
There goes someone, an anonymous scribe, who really isn't of this world. This election – if it is to perform any function – is to get the electorate off Mrs May's "back".

What very few of the pundits seem to be doing is asking what the consequences for the Prime Minister would be if she didn't call a referendum just now.

Picking up on the very words used by our earnest scribe, we have a politician confronting the unknown where, at some time shortly before what would have been the next election, was going to be forced into making unpopular concessions to the EU. She would then have to turn to the voters and ask them to elect her party, so that she could spend the next five years in office, putting into action a programme with which her natural constituency would most probably heartily disagree.

This was a situation where, as a result of a bodged Brexit, we hypothesised, could arise the only possible circumstances where Jeremy Corbyn could actually win an election.

Any sanguine analysis, therefore, must conclude that the primary purpose of this election is to buy the Prime Minister more time to conclude negotiations before having to face the nation in a make-or-break election.

Even with the extra time, though, it is going to be difficult for Mrs May to square the circle – maintaining full participation in the Single Market while also giving the impression that she has broken free of the EU and is able to decide on immigration policy and other matters for which we supposedly sought to leave the EU.

Thus we have a politician faced with an intractable problem and it should come as no surprise that her response is to kick the can down the road. That is what politicians tend do when confronted with intractable problems.

At best, the extra time strengthens Mrs May's hand in the negotiations, reducing the pressure that comes with an imminent election. But despite that, she has only gained two years and that seems hardly enough. She could still find herself facing an incomplete settlement, having to fudge a messy transitional period that leaves us half-in and half out of the EU.

That is no more likely to be popular in 2022 as it would have been in 2020, in which case the only gain could be delaying the inevitable, when the electorate wreaks vengeance for a bodged Brexit and votes the Conservatives out of office for a generation.

That is the other side of the coin. There are few commentators who believe that this election will be anything other than a disaster for Labour, the immediate consequence of which will be the removal of Jeremy Corbyn as leader.

In 2022, therefore, Mrs May could find herself up against a reformed and strengthened Labour Party under a new leader, better capable of pointing out the weaknesses of her Article 50 settlement, ready to provide a lightning rod for public dissatisfaction.

That being the case, winning this election could be just delaying the inevitable. To survive, she need to use the extra time wisely, crafting a solution that will ensure we are fully out of the EU by the time she again goes to the electorate, with a sustainable relationship which will ensure the continuation of trade and other cooperative ventures.

And there lies the final irony for, if this is to be a central part of Mrs May's plans, the very last thing she can do is reveal it at this stage. Her "Ultras" and former Ukip supporters, contemplating moving over to the Tories, must believe this is a hard lady heading for a hard Brexit. Not one of them could handle the truth which, in Churchillian terms, must be protected by a bodyguard of lies.

Modern politics, though, is more sophisticated. With the media adept at hunting down obvious lies, our leaders lie by omission rather than by commission. And that turns modern political speeches, as Sam Hooper points out, into "nothing but soulless, prefabricated word clouds designed to deliver vacuous soundbites to a cynical public".

We're going to get a lot of those in this campaign, and very little else.

Richard North 20/04/2017 link

Brexit: buying time

Wednesday 19 April 2017  

Within minutes of Mrs May's announcement of her intention to seek a general election on 8 June, people I'd never heard of were calling on voters to use the election to reverse the result of the referendum.

Yet Mrs May herself had already declared that she wanted contestants to put forward their plans for Brexit, making this about how we leave rather than whether – the debate we should have had before the referendum.

To be fair to Lib-Dem leader, Tim Farron, he sees the election in that light, arguing: "If you want to avoid a disastrous Hard Brexit. If you want to keep Britain in the Single Market. If you want a Britain that is open, tolerant and united, this is your chance".

With Corbyn, though, one is never quite sure what he's thinking. Even then, in his official response to Mrs May's announcement, he spoke of securing a "Brexit for everyone", which hardly suggests that he's going to be pitching for the remain vote.

On the face of it, therefore, it doesn't look as if the re-run idea is going to fly – purely on the basis that none of the main opposition parties are offering this as their position. Possibly the SNP might go with it, but who cares what the whining Sturgeon wants anyway?

As to conducting an open debate on how we leave, it is unlikely that the media could follow the arguments if they were properly made, and we have yet to see a politician who has a grasp of the issues sufficient to offer a coherent plan. Certainly, we're not going to be offered one by Mrs May this side of an election.

In her terms, the Government "has the right plan for negotiating our new relationship with Europe", which amounts to "a deep and special partnership between a strong and successful European Union and a United Kingdom that is free to chart its own way in the world".

In what can only become the battle of the mantras, she has it that, "we will regain control of our own money, our own laws and our own borders and we will be free to strike trade deals with old friends and new partners all around the world".

The thing is that this is not so much a plan as a series of loosely-drafted aspirations - not only lacking in ambition but also short on realism. Amongst other things, the obsession with making our own laws is as wearying as it is irrelevant.

That brings us to the real reason for this election. Mrs May is telling us that she cannot pursue her plan because of the opposition of other political parties. "At this moment of enormous national significance", she says, "there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division. The country is coming together, but Westminster is not".

Maybe that's a credible argument, but somehow it doesn't pass the smell test. There has to be something more. The Guardian's Patrick Wintour would have us believe that a Brexit mandate, delivering a large Conservative Commons majority, would sweep away the last hope that that the UK's "aberrant" referendum decision last June could be reversed.

Among parts of the EU leadership and the European public, Wintour writes, there remains a lingering belief that the British people can be helped to change their mind. Even though article 50 has been triggered, many EU lawyers believe a legal route is available for Britain to revoke Brexit, probably through a Commons vote in the winter of 2018.

In Wintour's mind, therefore, Mrs May is going to all this trouble and effort just to convince the "colleagues" that Brexit means Brexit, thereby forcing them to concentrate on the task at hand – crafting a workable exit package for the UK.

Yet, there is actually nothing in the official response from the European Council that would encourage such a belief. If anything, the "colleagues" are remarkably focused and have set out their stall with some clarity.

What is perhaps more convincing is the scenario buried in Mrs May's own address yesterday, when she reminded us that, "If we do not hold a general election now their political game-playing will continue, and the negotiations with the European Union will reach their most difficult stage in the run-up to the next scheduled election".

To give this more focus, we need to edit it slightly, so that it reads that, if we don't have a general election now, the negotiations with the European Union will reach their most difficult stage in the run-up to the next scheduled election.

And it is at that point that Mrs May will have to make some real concessions, not least on the financial issues. Then to paraphrase Mr Juncker' s 2007 comment: "We all know what to do, we just don' t know how to get re-elected after we've done it", Mrs May – with her feet held to the fire by the "colleagues" – will know exactly what she will need to do. But she will also know that it will substantially reduce her chances of winning the 2020 election.

Mrs May thus needs a general election now, to get it out of the way and clear the way for her to make unpalatable decisions immediately prior to an election. On the need for that election, she says, "I have only recently and reluctantly come to this conclusion", in which context we have to ask what it is that has changed so very recently.

And there is the clue. Mood music emanating from Brussels and London indicates that it has finally dawned on all parties that the negotiations are not going to be concluded in two years – or at all if the Government follows the line ordained by the "Ultras".

By having an election now, Mrs May buys herself two more years before she has to face a post-Brexit electorate. And this is time in which she can craft a more stable deal without the prospect of sudden electoral death.

On the back of a successful election, one can then expect to see the newly victorious Prime Minister go to Brussels and immediately ask for more time – rather than wait for the deadline. Although she has said she will not do this, we are dealing here with someone who said we would stay in the Single Market and we would not have a snap election. The lady is most definitely for turning. 

Then, having already realised she is between the rock of a "no deal" and the hard place of an unattainable free trade deal, she can devote her attention to crafting a "not the EEA" agreement that covers all the same bases but qualifies as something new and different.

Cleverly, in my view, Mrs May has exploited what she calls a "one-off chance" – a window when France and Germany are preoccupied with their elections and the European Union has yet to agree its negotiating position.

And if my analysis is anywhere near correct, we could be looking at a new realism pervading No 10, where they have miraculously bought time for an attainable solution. But we can kiss goodbye to Brexit on 29 March 2019.

Richard North 19/04/2017 link

Brexit: chemical complications

Tuesday 18 April 2017  

Such is the poverty of reporting on Brexit issues that yesterday we were able to see a report from Bloomberg on the potential effects of separation on the chemical industry with absolutely no mention of REACH.

Yet, unless REACH issues can be resolved before Brexit, it is almost certain that exports to EU Member States will be badly disrupted if not halted altogether.

Trade bodies have already been questioning whether Brexit will affect the 6,000 or so registrations attributed to UK companies, and have said that the UK will need to consider the status of existing REACH registrations during the negotiations and before exiting "to ensure that they do not become invalid".

That was in February, after we'd written our own evaluation on the issue but the subject has been barely raised since, and not at all in the legacy media – other than in some quarters where it is suggested that chemical safety regulation could be scrapped – a sure recipe for disaster.

However, at least the Environmental Audit Committee has set in train an inquiry on "The Future of Chemicals Regulation after the EU Referendum", which it announced on 21 December last year – and event which was completely ignored by the legacy media, then and since.

Even then, progress is slow, with the latest oral evidence session on 7 March. Then we heard from Andreas Herdina, Director of Co-operation, European Chemicals Agency (ECHA); Harvey Bradshaw, Executive Director for Environment and Business, Environment Agency, and Dave Bench, Director of Chemicals Regulation Division, Health and Safety Executive.

Not dissimilar from the experience with Jim Harra giving evidence to the Treasury Committee on customs issues, we see from the officials an extraordinary complacency, with no attempt made to stress to MPs the consequences of a failure to strike a deal with the EU over recognition of existing registrations.

The point that we sought to make back in January is that chemicals can only be registered under the REACH Regulation by a body established within the EU (or EEA). Post-Brexit, UK manufacturers will no longer comply and will be required to appoint "only representatives" to take over the registration process.

Without special concessions from the EU – making unique relaxations for UK companies – our manufacturers face the prospect of having to appoint representatives to re-register their products, at a potential cost of £250 million.

As important will be the time delay: the ECHA will not be able to process nearly 6,000 applications, and trading cannot recommence until new registrations have been granted.

Furthermore, as we learn from the latest oral evidence, the ECHA does not operate on a total cost-recovery basis and requires a subsidy from EU funds to make ends meet. It seems hardly likely that the EU will be rushing to subsidise the re-registration process, in which case the UK will be finding it necessary to offer financial inducements in order to expedite the process.

The political implications of this hardly need stating, but one can certainly see the "Ultras" putting pressure on Mrs May to block any payments for what many see as burdensome "red tape".

Yet to come, though, is trade body evidence to the select committee, although we are getting a taste of how complex regulatory conformity might be from the written evidence provided by Defra.

It makes the point that REACH is not by any means the sole regulatory requirement. In addition there is the EU's Classification, Labelling and Packaging (CLP) Regulation, implementing UN's Globally Harmonised System (GHS). Furthermore, the CLP Regulation has consequences for downstream legislation such as the Control of Major Accident Hazard Regulations and the hazardous waste regime, along with additional environmental legislation.

In addition, there are other regulatory regimes for chemicals – Biocidal Products Regulation (BPR) and Plant Protection Products (PPP) and Prior Informed Consent (PIC), which operate alongside REACH, some of these are dependent on the European Chemicals Agency to operate.

Without our own regulatory infrastructure with the resources and experience to implement these measures, the UK will probably have to strike a deal on retaining cooperative arrangement with the ECHA – and again there will be financial implications. The EU, at the very least, will be looking for full cost recovery, with a substantial contribution to its £100 million-plus annual budget.

Currently, responsibility is for regulating the chemical industry is split between the ECHA and Member States. The ECHA carries out completeness checks on submitted dossiers while in-depth checks are carried out by Member States depending upon national concerns.

On the ground, enforcement is carried out by the competent authorities of the individual Member States. Currently this is the Health and Safety Executive in the UK. Defra, however, reminds us that there is an appeal structure with the final authority lying with the European Commission. Therefore, after Brexit, the UK would need to set up a domestic appeal structure. Replication of this model in domestic bodies will require significant additional resource and potentially up-skilling of UK personnel.

As to the prospects for deregulation, even if we were not concerned to maintain the £25 billion in export value to the EU annually, the UK is also party in its own right to three United Nations multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs). These are the Stockholm, Rotterdam and Basel Conventions, which commit us to action on matters such as the regulation of Persistent Organic Pollutants. In addition, we are working towards ratifying the Minamata Convention on mercury.

As it stands, international agreements are implemented by EU law, which means that the EU law would either have to be re-enacted (via the Great Repeal Bill) or the UK would have to enact its own legislation.

Thus, by any measure, setting up a functional regulatory structure for the chemical industry is going to be a complex and expensive affair – to say nothing of time-consuming. To maintain current export levels, we are going to need the goodwill and active cooperation of the EU and, in the nature of things, those too will come at a price.

But the worst case scenario is that we lose up to £25 billion annually of high-value exports, with the added problem that exports sent to the continent are used as precursors for products which are then bought by UK enterprises. These inputs amount to about 15 percent of the value of the industry's total finished product exports, serving EU and global markets. Interruption of EU exports, therefore, would have a knock-on effect on our sales to the rest of the world.

On that basis, addressing the problems of the chemical industry merely in terms of difficulties with REACH vastly understate the problems. With the legacy media unable even to get that far – we have yet another situation where the public is being grossly misinformed about the complexities of Brexit.

Needless to say, if the UK elected to remain in the EEA, very few of these problems would arise, giving time for the UK to work with other nations on a global regulatory system to replace the EU measures.

Since so much environmental legislation is already agreed at global level, this should not be so very difficult to achieve, with the added advantage of providing a firm base on which to launch a genuine European Single Market, fully meshing with the global system.

When the Environmental Audit Committee gets round to completing its report, it will be interesting to see how much of this – if any – percolates the brains of one of the more dismal committees in the House of Commons. Likely, the MPs will compete with the fourth estate in the ignorance stakes, although we are always open to being pleasantly surprised.

Richard North 18/04/2017 link

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